Authors: Enrique Krauze
In 1915, when General Ãlvaro ObregÃ³n defeated the forces of Villa and Zapata (known collectively as the Convencionistas), Vasconcelos went into exile, with Elena, first to the United States and then Peru. In Lima he began to talk about himself as a new “Ulysses” and the metaphor (if it was that, rather than a solid conviction) would become the title of the first volume of his autobiography,
(The Creole Ulysses). The voluminous autobiography (after decades of a voluminous life) would eventually run to four volumes, all published in the 1930s. (The others, in translation, would be
. As literature, they are a collective masterpiece, unequaled in Mexican autobiographical writing.)
But now in Lima, nearer the beginning of his odyssey, he delivered a lecture titled “When the Eagle Destroys the Serpent,” an image on the flag of Mexico based on the Aztec legend of the founding of their capital city Tenochtitlan, supposedly built by the wandering Nahua tribesmen at the sight of an omen, an eagle with a serpent in its claws, near the lake that now lies under Mexico City. In the lecture, he summarizes the history of Mexico and gives his list of its dark ages and its villains: “The Colony, cruel, small-minded, distressing, gloomy”; Iturbide (the short-term emperor immediately after independence), the Porfirista dictatorship, Huerta, and in the last and most recent place, the thievery, the usurpation, the supposed underhand arrangements of Carranza with the United States. And beside this gallery of “serpents” Vasconcelos presents another list, his own, of “magnificent eagles.” They include “the founding heroes [of a sovereign, independent Mexico], Hidalgo, Morelos, Guerrero, Mina [a Spaniard who fought for the independence of Mexico] .Â .Â . The heroic dozen, with names like Ocampo, Lerdo, Prieto, RamÃrez, JuÃ¡rez [each one an especially dedicated, democratic and socially conscious Liberal], all unselfish, resolute, good and free men.” They were the historical expression of Vasconcelos's ideology in that period, when he was as impeccably liberal as Madero. “Give us”âhe said, invoking Godâ“another legion of heroes .Â .Â . and let them govern us.” He was sketching out the program of his future public life: the education of “heroes” (or at least those prepared for the role) and their democratic ascent to power.
When the moment came to return to Mexico and launch his own renewed flight of a “magnificent eagle,” his lover Elena Arizmendi had broken off their relationship. The passion between them is the central obsession of his second volume of autobiography,
(The Storm), a title that refers both to the “storm” of the Revolution and to Vasconcelos's intimate storm of love and desire. As described by Vasconcelos, the passion and tortured intensity of his long connection with “Adriana” (the name he gives her in his memoirs) is the most famous depiction of “mad love” in Mexican literature. For him, in the Mexico of the early twentieth century, a divorce had always been out of the question. From the beginning, he had felt that he would lose Adriana but the thought had never restrained his desire. “Only the infinite suits me,” he would often say, and in love, it seems to have meant that what he wanted should go on and never end. Elena was his companion, his intellectual friend, his lover, of course, and his
(the term for the women who followed their menâand sometimes fought beside themâon the roads of the Revolution). About her he wrote, “It was terrifying not to be able to give her all the protection, all the fervor that her extraordinary nature required.” Toward the end of 1916, in the city of Lima, she left him.
It was a devastating blow for Vasconcelos. He was thrown back upon his own inner resources and he grasped at an old idea for support, his belief in the “autonomy” and invulnerability of the deepest part of the human being, his “soul.” He would seek a higher truth, beyond the claims of the body. He had always been interested in philosophical pathways outside the main stream of the Western tradition. In Lima, he now returned to these interests, within the limits of the knowledge (and prejudices) of his time. His
(Hindustanic Studies), first published in 1920, consists of well-written, very short essays that are summaries from books by noted scholars, cognizant of the immensity of the Indian worldview and its resonances but without any living knowledge of India or the East in general, which he never visited. It is interesting that these summaries show the conventional disdain for those Hindu (and tantric Buddhist) practices that seek to value and use the body as a means to a higher goal, a dismissal imbibed from the Puritan values of English colonizers and other Western scholars and communicated to many more Westernized Indians (a dismissal combinedâduring the centuries of English dominationâwith similar, though not identical currents from their own ancient culture). A man with the physical vitality and overweening personality of JosÃ© Vasconcelos might have found a natural home in such ideas. Instead (at least mentally) he would flee from the body that still yearned for his “Adriana.” He would decide (in theory for a lifetime, in practice very briefly) that “he who serves the flesh becomes useless for the spirit.”
He turned his attention to the pre-Socratic philosopher Pythagoras, none of whose writings have survived but who is credited (a tradition continued and developed by his followers) with elevating the harmonies of mathematical relations, and their offshoot of musical composition, to the heights of cosmic importance. Pythagoras is also supposed to have traveled far to the Eastâprobably to Indiaâfrom which he brought back the indigenous belief in the transmigration of souls, which (along with other concepts associated with Pythagoras) strongly influenced Plato. Vasconcelos was to become, more than anything, an apostle of beauty and art, and drawing on Pythagoras, he understood the central importance of rhythm to all art and perhaps to all life: “rhythm is at the essence of all things.”
But at this moment of great anguish in his life, the search for beauty surely involved an attempt to replace “the flesh” of his lost Elena with an equal but abstract beauty of the spirit, something very close to a religion that could be his forever. He turned to Plotinus (205â270
), the founder of Neoplatonism, and his emanationist and mystic metaphysics. For Plotinus, ultimate reality is “the One,” an eternal monistic unity to which no qualities can be ascribed. Various emanations ultimately produce the world and its individuals, though the system is far less cumbersome than in later Neoplatonists who introduce a great complexity of mythological forces within the process that descends to the human. In the teachings of Plotinus, a human being may be able, through contemplation, to grasp the eternal residue within himself (though it is very hard to do) and rise through the various spheres of celestial being, to an experience of mystical union with “the One,” describedâin the magnificent phrase of his treatise the
âas “the flight of the alone to the Alone.” It is a process very similar to what is taught in the earliest Upanishads and later in the more abstract philosophies of Advaita Vedanta, less the emphasis on celestial geography. (It may even ultimately be derived from the same source, carried westward by Protagoras or some other wandering Greek thinker.)
With his reading of Plotinus, Vasconcelos thought he could retain what he most prized in Elena Arizmendi (or her semi-mythicized form of Adriana): her beauty. “Plotinus,” wrote Alfonso Reyes, “has left us imperishable pages about beauty .Â .Â . and it is explained as the victorious expression of the spirit in apparent objects of the senses .Â .Â . At the final hour of ecstasy and when the human soul returns to the highest heaven it appears that .Â .Â . the good itself has been surpassed by another qualification purer and higher, which is not the good but beauty, and [the soul] ends by conceiving of God in terms of beauty.” About Plotinus, his ultimate values and the nature of the Plotinian experience of mystical union, Reyes is utterly wrong. “The One” has no characteristics, beauty no more than any other (though beauty is to be deeply appreciated as a gateway toward ultimate being); it is certainly not “God”; and the ultimate rapture is one of the complete loss of individual identity in a union with the all-embracing essence of the universe. (According to his disciple Porphyryâwhose polishing may be largely responsible for the literary value of the
âPlotinus himself only attained this state four times, which Porphyry seems to regard with awe.) But in regard to Vasconcelos (who is unlikely to have ever set aside his insistent personal self), the attraction of Plotinus's “pages about beauty” must have been very strong because, despite his more spiritual aspirations toward transcending the physical, it was beauty, and eventually power, that truly enthralled JosÃ© Vasconcelos. Of course, the rapturous appreciation of the beautifulâand the intensity of sexual unionâmay be far closer to mystical union than more puritan sensibilities would care to admit.
In Lima he announced, “I follow the straight line of Plotinus.” It was the first time that his diffuse interest in mysticism seemed to have found a clear channel. The reading of Plotinus had converted him to a kind of “aesthetic monism” that also provided the title of one of his articles, proposing the experience of beauty as an alternative mystical path, preferable to Christian love. Everything should lead away from the body and aspire to the divine. His interpretation of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony is an example of this vertical model, from “anguish at desire” and “the painful passion of a specific love” to the sentiment of detachment that triumphs over every misfortune. In the choreographic interpretation of passages from the Seventh by the Isadora Duncan ballet troupe, Vasconcelos imagines that “the feet draw the substance from the earth and raise it .Â .Â . toward celestial adventures.” The final symphonic theme “advances proudly .Â .Â . wounds and rectifies, coordinates and adapts without squandering itself as life is squandered in so much useless exertion.”
But for Vasconcelos, Plotinus was much more than just a philosophical authority. He wanted to translate what he saw as the doctrine of Plotinus into practical behavior, rather than merely preach to an educated audience. He thought he might write a major philosophical work modeled after the
about “Good and Evil, Fortune, immortality, studied in successive treatises .Â .Â . according to the pattern of the Neo-Platonic master.”
And then he thought he should practice the ideas of contemplation he saw in Plotinus: for him, above all, the contemplation of nature. He left Lima, attempted a rapprochement (unsuccessfully) with Elena in New York, and then began to travel across the American West, with all its astounding natural beauty. (Elena soon married an American businessman and would later become a pioneer Mexican feminist.) Vasconcelos wrote his first lyrical sketches, readings of nature against the background music of his feelings about Plotinus. They foreshadow the great descriptions of nature that are scattered through his volumes of autobiography. Predictably, the landscapes tend to become no more than reflections of Vasconcelos's past experiences or present ideals: stones “that carry discord in their breasts, like worn-out human loves,” the sun imprisoned by its karma, “”trees that elevate their yearning,” panoramas in which nature, contrasted with man, “completes its mission without failures.”
He also imagines landscapes of the soul, more directly connected with Plotinian thought, as in his short story “El Fusilado” (The Executed Man), in which a military ambush and a lover's betrayalâinspired by the Revolution and Adrianaâmerely set the stage for the liberation of a man after death, the new life as the soul rises through the astral spheres. The
no longer suffers when he remembers his days on earth or his children now orphaned, because “the pure spirit only knows joy.”
In 1920, the rebellion of Agua Prieta, by generals from Sonora under the leadership of Ãlvaro ObregÃ³n, overthrew the government of Venustiano Carranza, who was hunted down and died in a surprise nocturnal attack. The leader that Vasconcelos had included in his list of “serpents” was dead and the way was open for Vasconcelos's return to Mexico. He became the rector of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (a position of considerable power and public prestige to which he would add much more of both), and later President ObregÃ³n appointed him Secretary of Education. In a letter to his friend Reyes, Vasconcelos says:
My body today can suffer as a slave and at times does suffer, but my soul is living a celebration. This, I tell you now, is the grace that I have found through the triple path of suffering, study and beauty. Suffering obliges me to meditate, thought reveals the inanity of the world and beauty shows me the path of the eternal. At those times when it is not possible to meditate or enjoy beauty, one must complete a work; a terrestrial work, a work that prepares the way for others and allows us to follow after ourselves.
He has accepted “a terrestrial work.” Just as Plotinus wanted to perpetuate his own interpretation of Plato, so Vasconcelos will “complete a work” based on his aestheticized version of Plotinus. It will be a work of spiritual creation but very concrete in its results and its influence, an educational
Vasconcelos designed a new emblem for the National University during his period as rector. It is a simply drawn map of all Latin America from the Rio Grande to Tierra del Fuego at the utmost southern tip of Patagonia. A phrase runs across the map, reflecting the obvious influence of RodÃ³'s
Ariel: Por mi raza hablarÃ¡ el espÃritu
(“The spirit will speak for my race”). The map is protected by two “magnificent eagles” and in the background rise the volcanoes of the Valley of Mexico. “I have not come,” he said, “to govern the University but to ask the University to work for the people.”