Read Redeemers Online

Authors: Enrique Krauze

Redeemers (5 page)

 

On the one hand suspicion, resentment before that blind mechanism of ambition and power; on the other hand admiration in the face of “the peerless labor of the Capitol . . . soaked with constitutional law down to its least little cell . . . How can we not bow before it, us, poor nameless atoms, when history itself bows before it?”

Just as it did within the mind of Justo Sierra (who in 1894 had tried to persuade his friend “Pepe” Martí to remain in Mexico and dedicate himself to the work of education), everything changed in Latin America with the defeat of Spain in 1898 (“that splendid little war,” wrote Secretary of State John Hay, one of the first theoreticians of U.S. imperialism). The Mexican and Latin American liberals stopped “bowing their heads.” It was a moment of rupture in the history of Latin American thought. An alternative had to be created. No longer should we
be like them
, and even less
be them
. It wasn't enough to be
far from them
and it seemed useless to
move closer to them
. A general consensus among intellectuals was that they had to be radically
different from them
. As Martí had foreseen, many Latin Americans refused to recognize a liberty imposed by foreign arms and the independence granted to Cuba so that it might become a protectorate.

What had happened in Cuba clarified, to many minds, the meaning of various nineteenth-century episodes. It was the most recent chapter in an already lengthy history that included the annexation of Texas, the Mexican-American War, the “filibuster” actions of ambitious American mercenaries in Central America, and certain explicit intentions (like those of Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Sr.) to set the Stars and Stripes waving from the Rio Grande to Tierra del Fuego. After this collective change of consciousness, it was natural that the liberal admiration for United States democracy—though it never totally vanished—would cede the foreground to a fear of what the next blow of Teddy Roosevelt's “big stick” might precipitate in the Caribbean and Central America. Liberal circles began to agree (in relation to the United States) with their longtime conservative rivals. It was a sea change in the history of Latin American political ideas. A new Latin American nationalism began to take clear shape. And its contours were explicitly anti-American.
Ariel
would become its bible, the work of a writer who never set foot in the United States, born in a small and turbulent but educated and prosperous country that felt itself to be, like its neighbor Argentina, the Europe of Latin America, the only possible bulwark against the arrogant power far to its north.

 

THE SHOCK
of 1898 was more than just political. It sent a violent tremor through the whole terrain of Spanish self-confidence. It seemed to question the very meaning of Hispanic civilization. The world was moving at a febrile pace and Spain could not keep up. It was a year of trauma so severe that it activated a system of spiritual survival within the Spanish language itself. The Spanish philosopher and diplomat Ángel Ganivet wrote to Miguel de Unamuno, who would become the most important and influential writer in that group of Spaniards—the Generation of '98—who were in the process of awakening to a new reality:

 

The invention of the steamboat was a mortal blow to our power. Only recently have we learned how to build a warship, and until very recently our machinists were foreigners . . . Let us also admit the lack of adequate docks for our boats and, also something of the greatest importance, no money to pay for our squadrons, funds that had to be gained by exploiting those colonies we were trying to defend . . . It made more sense to let ourselves be defeated “heroically.”

 

Its imperial dream (and centuries-old reality) now vanished forever, Spain could take comfort (and it was no small thing) in the fact that Latin America, after almost a hundred years of cold relations, rushed to a reconciliation with the humiliated “Maternal Fatherland.” The two halves of the sphere of the Spanish language joined against the same adversary and the influence of its language. The extraordinary Generation of '98 shook Spanish culture awake from two centuries of intellectual somnolence. The defeat triggered an examination of consciousness that led these writers to renew “the genius of the race,” to “rediscover” their own country, to travel its roads and reflect on the past and destiny of Spain. Their names would resound along the troubled and often tragic years of the Spanish twentieth century: Ortega y Gasset, Ganivet, Unamuno, del Valle-Inclán, Machado, Baroja, Maeztu.

In practical terms, the problem seemed evident: we do not have adequate access to technology, we are left out of that competition, but we do have our “spirit.” Spain's “awakening of the soul” took on flesh in a renewed devotion to the work of Cervantes. Don Quixote, defeated by the technology of windmills, was immortal at the height of the human soul. In Latin America, the same kind of awakening had a different, surprising focus. It was more of a frontal assault and it made use of Shakespeare, or rather a few simplified characters from his last known play,
The Tempest
.

The new imperialists felt that the Hispanic peoples, some of whose lands they had just seized, were backward, barbarous, in need of guidance and supervision. The poet laureate of an older imperialism, Rudyard Kipling, wrote his famous (or infamous) poem “The White Man's Burden” explicitly as an encouragement and justification for the new American masters of the Philippines:

 

Take up the White Man's burden—

Send forth the best ye breed—

Go bind your sons to exile

To serve your captives' need;

To wait in heavy harness,

On fluttered folk and wild—

Your new-caught, sullen peoples,

Half-devil and half-child.

 

The last line recalls the way in which Prospero—sage, magician, and master of a tropical island—regards and treats his servant Caliban, who is a misshapen monster (at least according to the descriptions Shakespeare puts into the mouths of two of his minor characters), a creature of the island on which Prospero and his daughter Miranda and other scattered characters have been intentionally shipwrecked by Prospero for purposes of his own. Though Caliban is given a few moving speeches, he is presented essentially as a brute (and a dangerous one, since he has tried to rape Miranda). The play itself—and even the character of Caliban—has its complexities but it is easy to see in Caliban a version of what American (or English or European) racists might stereotype as a typical member of the darker-skinned, presumably “inferior” races that are the “white man's burden.”

But Latin American intellectuals at the turn of the century produced an inverse reading of the play, using Caliban on his native tropical island to represent not the victims of the new imperialism but the oppressors themselves and thus spin a kind of origin myth for their burgeoning anti-Americanism. The Nicaraguan Rubén Darío—in his day the greatest poet the Spanish language had produced since the seventeenth century—was the key figure in this conversion of Caliban. In a long diatribe against “the Yankees,” first published in the newspaper
El Tiempo
of Buenos Aires on May 20, 1898, and then widely reproduced in many newspapers throughout Latin America, Darío represents them as beasts:

 

No, no I cannot, I cannot support those buffaloes with their silver teeth. They are my enemies, they are those who hate Latin blood, they are the Barbarians . . . I have seen those Yankees in their oppressive cities of iron and stone and I have spent the hours I have lived among them with an indefinable sense of anguish. It seemed to me that a mountain was weighing upon me, I felt I was drawing my breath in a country of cyclopses, eaters of raw meat, bestial blacksmiths, inhabitants of houses of mastodons. Heavy people, with reddened faces, foul-mouthed, they move through their streets pushing and scraping against each other like animals, on their hunt for the dollar. The ideal of these Calibans is delimited by the stock exchange and the factory . . . No, I cannot be with them, I cannot be for the triumph of Caliban . . .

 

The identification of Caliban with capitalist democrats, lacking in spirit and elegance, was an old theme for Darío (he had already used it writing about Edgar Allan Poe in 1894). The usage may have originated with Ernest Renan and his play
Caliban
but it was salvaged and elaborated and given a distinctly antidemocratic form by the Franco-Argentine historian and librarian Paul Groussac. He used it in a one-act play, yet another product of the crucial year of 1898. For Groussac, too, the Americans are beasts and he throws the American Civil War and the very different issue of the country's westward expansion into one malformed mass: “since the War of Secession and the brutal invasion of the West, one can freely extrapolate the Yankee mind from its shapeless and ‘Calibanesque' body, and the old world has observed, with uneasiness and terror, this newest of civilizations which claims to supplant ours, deemed decrepit.”

Groussac equates barbarism with democracy and in his thinking there is a heavy dose of conservative aesthetic snobbery and a hatred of the inevitable process of change, for good or bad, that is the very nature of life. In his text titled “Mexico” he writes:

 

I fear at times that this ultra-modern democracy consists of every people erecting its dwellings according to the mode of the day and tearing down those of its predecessors, so that each human generation leaves no more traces on the earth than a wandering herd of cattle. This leveling democracy, that loves blank slates and is the great fabricator of
self-made men
[English in the original]—we now contemplate it in its acute form, in this breathless and febrile occupation of the Far West, in the midst of all these practical innovations, a moral regression to the ancient migrations, to Asiatic nomadism, the shepherd's tent lit up with electric light.

 

Aside from the fact that Martí knew America well, Groussac barely at all, the attitude here (Groussac was known as a mordant writer) has nothing of Martí about it. There is neither ambivalence nor any attempt at comprehension. It is the simple rejection of a culture. Excerpts from “Mexico” were published in Montevideo, where José Enrique Rodó surely read them.

It was not by chance that ideological anti-Americanism arose in the Southern Cone or, more specifically, in Argentina and Uruguay. In both countries, the influence of France was not only a question of literary taste. France came to them with a complex impact: a very powerful philosophical, literary, and political tradition and a confrontation from on high with the Americans, whom the French of the nineteenth century generally considered to be crude, even savage as a people.

The southerners had also received (especially Argentina) the idea of a socialism that fought to improve the economic, cultural, and educational level of the poor, while generating a nationalist state. It was an idea that barely existed in the United States, and where it did, it was very far from the halls of power. In this respect, the specific attraction of the writer Ernest Renan was central. His
What is a Nation?
outlined a conception of “race” and “spirit” and a body of ideas both literary and political. It is an idealism whose origins date back to German Romanticism, to those philosophers, especially Johann Fichte, who saw a particular “spirit” at the origin of every nation, specific to its culture and more profound than the accidents of time and the changes brought on by “progress.” German philosophical thought came to rely heavily on this idea of “the Spirit,” and its acceptance in Latin America would partially explain the later sympathy felt, especially in the Southern Cone, for the Germany of the Third Reich.

According to Renan, a nation is “a great solidarity” whose existence is endorsed by “a daily plebiscite,” and the spirit of a nation resides “in the erudite consciousness of its inhabitants,” located in a group who must provide guidance and illumination for the rest of the country's people. This shared ideal requires, of course, understanding and harmony among the people, and it includes the entire population. Which is to say that a single language is necessary and that a nation embraces all those who speak that language. For his Spanish-speaking readers (and certainly for Rodó), this linguistic requirement led to the same conviction asserted by Bolívar and Martí, though from a different point of origin: all Latin America was a fatherland.

To the “youth of Latin America [he says simply ‘America'],” Rodó, in the words of the Dominican writer Pedro Henríquez Ureña, “insisted on the need to protect the human personality as a whole against the abuses of specialization or any other form of impoverishment; on the lesson of Greece, with its comprehensive humanity, as opposed to Phoenicia and Carthage; on faith in the democratic way of life which, rightly interpreted, will work to safeguard spiritual freedom.” Rodó was calling attention to “the outbreak of Mania for the North (
nordomanía
)” in some areas of Latin American opinion. And Rodó would achieve and far surpass the objectives of his instruction.

These various influences (from Renan, Groussac, and Darío) all came together in Rodó's
Ariel,
the classic work that postulated a radical opposition between the collective essence of Spanish-American and Anglo-Saxon cultures. Although the image of American democracy in
Ariel
is nuanced, rich, and even (for the moment) positive, Rodó did create his own mythical reading: they are Caliban; we are Ariel (the sage Prospero's other servant, but an attractive one, light as the air); they, not us, have trouble understanding things, are insensitive and even deficient in “spirit.” It was not merely the portrait of North Americans as wild beasts projected by Darío (who would later write kinder poems on the fearsome northern colossus). The publication of
Ariel
in 1900 set the confrontation within a context of didactic elegance, the product of a measured and reflective philosopher. Though various proclamations of Latin American unity already existed (political, historical, linguistic, and racial), the idea of cultural distinction expounded in
Ariel
would become the most active, influential, and long-lasting argument for that unity, perhaps the only one still current.

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