It’s been eight years since I translated the passages below from the classic (if too-little-read) book by Merideño philosopher/poet J.M. Briceño Guerrero, but I still sporadically go back to them for inspiration. The essays were written over 30 years ago now but, somehow, they only seem to gain in relevance with time.
I realize many newer readers will have missed the original translation – it was posted so long ago. And since Briceño Guerrero’s work touches on some topics we’ve been discussing in comments, I thought the time was ripe for a reprint.
A word to the wise: make sure you have a good 45 minutes of peace and quiet before you dive into what’s below – it’s…pretty hardcore. Trust me, though: it’ll repay the effort.
The Labyrinth of the Three Minotaurs
Three great, underlying discourses govern Latin American thinking. This can be seen in the history of ideas, the observation of political events, and the examination of artistic creativity.
First there is the European rationalist discourse, imported at the end of the eighteenth century, structured by instrumental reason and its outcomes in science and technology, driven by the possibility of deliberate and planned social change tending to realize universal human rights, expressed in the texts of constitutions as well the platforms of political parties and in the scientific conceptions of humanity and their consequent collective manipulation, and invigorated verbally by the theoretical boom of the various positivisms, technocracies, and of socialism, with its doctrinaire rousing of civil or military or paramilitary movements of revolutionary intent. Its key words in the nineteenth century were modernity and progress. Its key word in our time is development. This discourse acts as a screen onto which the aspirations of large sectors of the population, as well as the collective psyche, are projected – but also as an ideological vehicle for the intervention of the great foreign powers in the region and is, in part, a result of that intervention; only in part, however, because it is also, powerfully, a function of Latin American identification with rationalist Europe.
In parallel, there is the Christian-Hispanic Discourse, or Mantuano Discourse, inherited from imperial Spain, in its Latin American version, typical of the criollos (white elite) and the Spanish colonial system. This discourse affirms, in the spiritual dimension, the transcendence of man, his partial belonging to a world of metacosmic values, his communion with the divine through the Holy Mother Church, his ambiguous struggle between transient interests and eternal salvation, between his precarious terrestrial citadel and the firm palace of multiple celestial mansions. But, in material matters, it is linked to a social system of inherited nobility, hierarchy and privilege that found its theoretical justification in Latin America as paideia (the dissemination of western culture to the Americas) while, in practice, it left as the only route for socioeconomic improvement the remote and arduous path of race whitening and cultural westernization through miscegenation and education, exasperatingly slow twin paths, strewn with legal obstacles and incremental prejudices. But, while access to equality with the criollo class was in practice closed off to the majority, the discourse entrenched itself over centuries of colonialism and persists with silent strength in the republican period up and into our time, structuring aspirations and ambitions around the personal and familial (or clan-based) striving for privilege, noble idleness through kinship rather than merit, built on relationships of seigniorial loyalty and protection, grace rather than function and territory rather than official service, even on the fringes of power. The mantuano ethos survives in a thousand new forms and extends through the entire population.
Finally, there is the savage discourse, executor of the wound produced in the pre-European cultures of the Americas by their defeat at the hands of the conquerors, and in African cultures by their passive transfer to the Americas under slavery, executor also of the resentments produced in the pardos (mixed race people) by the indefinite postponement of their aspirations. It is a vehicle for the nostalgia for non-European, non-Western ways of life, a refuge for cultural horizons apparently closed off by the imposition of Europe on Latin America. To this discourse, both the rationalist European and the hispanic-colonial discourses are foreign and strange, strata of oppression, representatives of an alterity that cannot be assimilated and cannot rid itself of the savage’s apparent submission, occasional rebellion, permanent mischief and dark nostalgia.
These three great underlying discourses are present in every Latin American, though with an intensity that varies depending on social class, place, psychic level, age, and the time of day.
Much more after the jump…
The European Rationalist discourse predominantly governs official declarations, thoughts and words that express views on the universe and society, the governing projects of officials and parties, and the doctrines and programs of revolutionaries.
The Mantuano Discourse predominantly governs individual conduct and interpersonal relationships, as well as the sense of dignity, honor, grandeur and happiness.
The Savage Discourse is lodged in the most intimate corners of emotion and relativizes the other two, manifesting itself in humor, in drunkenness, and in a kind of secret loathing for all that is thought, said, and done, to the point that the most authentic friendships are not based on shared ideals or interests, but in a complicity of shame, felt as inherent to the condition of being Latin American.
It’s easy to see that these three discourses penetrate one another, feeding as parasites on each other, encumbering one another in a tragic combat where no victory is possible, and that they produce for Latin America two lamentable consequences.
The first is practical: no one single discourse manages to impose itself over public life to the point of tilting it towards coherent and successful forms of organization, but each is strong enough to frustrate the other two, and the three are mutually incompatible and irreconcilable. While international circumstances reinforce the European Rationalist Discourse and magnify the clamor for accelerated development towards a rational order based on science and technology, the Mantuano Discourse stalks it, negotiating its continuity with the interests of foreign powers that benefit from the status quo, while the Savage Discourse corrodes all projects as it moans contentedly.
The other consequence is theoretical: the three-way contradiction makes it impossible to create permanent spaces for thought, knowledge and reflection. The researchers and thinkers of Latin America either identify with European rationalism, turning their work into a subsidiary of powerful interests located outside the region, or they consume themselves in political activities governed by the Mantuano Discourse, or they yield to the verbalist political impulse of the Savage Discourse. The scientific efforts of universities collapse into mantuano intrigues, anachronistic mantuano scheming can find no contact with reality beyond what’s needed to survive, a kind of chaos-generating nihilism makes it impossible to bring continuity to effort, and the entire situation takes the Latin American ever farther from reaching a complete consciousness of himself, of his social reality, of his place in the world, let alone genuinely confronting the problems that the universe in general, the human condition in general, pose to the woken man.
Faced with this panorama of discourses at war, with no victory in sight, one is left only, from a current perspective, with the cathartic aesthetic frisson of contemplating a tragedy, and, facing the future, with technocratic genocide or the hope for a planetary catastrophe that may allows us to start the ancient game anew.
From this prologue, the book proceeds in three parts: the first two explore the European Rationalist and the Mantuano Discourses, their logic and history, and their role in shaping Latin American culture. Both are fascinating, but I will skip to the last section, what he calls The Savage Discourse.
The reason is simple – most of my readers have a pretty good handle on rationalist and mantuano values, behaviors, and ideas. We are western, after all. It’s the Savage Discourse that baffles us, mystifies us even as it penetrates us, it’s the non-western strand of our culture we tend to repress, and therefore can’t formulate explicitly or understand. So this is the section that struck me as most surprising, lucid, iconoclastic and valuable.
I can’t resist adding an interpretative note at this point: as in the other two sections of the book, the style morphs gradually as the essay progresses. What begins as an academic treatise on the nature of Latin American identity has dissolved, by the end, into a poetic, first person defense of the discourse. This gradual, initially barely-perceptible, but by the end complete, shift in the narrator’s standpoint is, I think, what makes the work so thrilling.
The Savage Discourse
Identity and Discontent
Before starting to observe ourselves, to recognize ourselves and know who we are, before we were old enough to be curious about our identity and the means of expressing it, before that interrogative longing, the answer was given to us: we are Western.
When we were a colony, we were a European colony, a geographical expansion of the European cultural orbit. When we constituted ourselves into republics, we did so for European reasons, with European methods, based on European values. Our liberators wielded swords made in Europe and spoke European words carrying European concepts, feelings, impulses, ideals and fires.
Currently, our countries are a part of the great Western family. Our language and dress, our schools and cemeteries are testimony to our lineage. Our political institutions, scientific activities and individual aspirations openly proclaim our heritage. Particularly our writing – that level of humanity where one’s degree of self-knowledge becomes verb – unequivocally points to our familial belonging.
Our dependence and backwardness do not cast doubt on our cultural kinship. A poor relative is still a relative. What’s more, we all decided long ago that the fundamental task of our generation is development and our plans and projects in this regard conform strictly to the Western style. The development gap will be bridged within the family.
Europe is our essence and our end.
And yet…no. No “and yets.” The answer, previous to any question about our identity, is not up for debate: we are Western.
It’s just that the answer – and this is not meant to cast doubt on it – comes hand in hand with a lament that rings like the disharmony of a musical note. A gripe, a discontent when it comes to “these people” (esta gente, este pueblo.)
So, you hear people say, for instance, “party, party, (bochinche, bochinche) all these people know how to do is party.” “You can’t get anything serious done here because these people don’t have any discipline.” “They’re scared of work and water: they’re lazy and dirty.” “Without a strong government, you get corruption, anarchy and chaos.” “We will have to change the entire socioeconomic and political structure and create a new man, because these people are corrupted.” “The crooks are the least stupid ones.” Etc.
The discontent about “these people” (“esta gente, este pueblo”) seems to point towards the absence of virtues that characterize Western culture. An absence only? Or could it be also the presence of non-Western factors, elements and powers?
Sometimes the blame contained in this complaint is externalized, projected on foreign countries, neocolonial powers, responsible for a certain – though unconfessed – diminished potency of Westernness; the externalization of blame is carried out either through manichean arguments or with an analysis borrowed from political economy.
Or else the gripe is explained by reference to our history, to ethnic superstitions, or through vestiges of geographical determinism.
When we note this disharmony in the affirmation “we are Western” we do not deny the statement. It could well be, quite honorably, that ours is a identity in combat. But then we would have to ask, “against what? against whom?”
So our early and agile answer about our identity is spared: we are Western. But it is still worth questioning the tacit subject: we. We are Western. Who says so? Who says “we”? “We” is a pronoun: what noun does it refer to?
It is the same voice that says “we are Western” that issues the complaint about “these people.” Yet it is those same people we are identifying as Western.
At the same time that they are identified as Western, they are reproached for not being Western.
It’s as though we were speaking rather in the imperative: “be Western” – layered over an unspoken “it would be unbearable not to be so”, all to conceal the strongly repressed sense that “horror, we aren’t!”, which only bolsters the imperative: “become Western right now!” which again becomes indicative, but is now rendered superstitious, magical: “we are Western.”
Is it that our consciousness of being Western is under siege by extraneous forces? Or is it that the will to be Western is countered by a barbarous resistance, unravelled by an actively different strain of human reality?
Tribulation of the European in America
A European visiting our America finds Western style republics, purveying Western culture – he also finds backward aspects and areas, but aspects and areas of Western backwardness, backward manifestations of his own Western culture; at worst, a sense of marginality or colonialism, not of exteriority. If the visitor stays to live in our America, he begins to see and feel something strange, unexpected, undefinable, incalculable in the behavior and the aims of these people, something foreign to his cultural horizon. His friends, whose thoughts, emotions and goals are clear in ordinary Western communication, friends who socialize with confidence and assuredness, even his closest friends can suddenly turn opaque, enigmatic, impenetrable, totally other – only to later recover their “normality.” There’s no easy explanation for those unpredictable changes. “What is that? Who is that?” asks the befuddled foreigner, staggered like someone who has just caught a peak, through the evanescent parting of a curtain, into an unsuspected landscape, faced with the friend who is now once again smiling, welcoming, inspiring his trust.
At the same time, the European of America, responsible for public order, for making political decisions, for implementing plans, for managing businesses, or the church, finds always a mischievous resistance from those delegated to carry out any task. They find, in these people, an undercover opposition to order, to discipline, to study, to work, to responsibility, to punctuality, to truth, to morality, to any commitment, an indefatigable, opportunist, stalking, treacherous opposition, as though they felt the effort needed to maintain civilization to be oppressive.
The European of America, whether he runs a guerrilla column or an army barrack, a whorehouse or a convent, a band of robbers or a business, parliament or the horse racing workers’ union, a cabinet meeting or a seminar on political economy, the noble European of America, buttress of the culture of these people, confronted incessantly with that deaf, cowardly, unnegotiable, hypocritical, surreptitious opposition, the virtuous European of America says to himself during his sleepless nights “we’ve got to hold this place together moment by moment, without a break…otherwise, it comes apart at the seams, it dissolves” and he wonders “what do these people want? It isn’t the end of civilization, because they never push quite hard enough to destroy it. Could it be that they want to hold it to a minimum, and no more? but why?” But he doesn’t question himself far beyond that, or not seriously. Ultimately, he doesn’t much care about the cause of that opposition, it’s enough for him to know how to crush it, it’s enough to know his duty and carry it out.
The situation seen from the other side.
Let us question farther.
We are Western, no doubt about it, but we have to accept the presence of a non-Western resistance in Latin America. The majestic sweep of Western discourses in the institutions and the history of Latin America has found interference, here and there, has at times been encumbered and even disfigured, though never truly interrupted, by what seem to be discourses of a barbarous nature.
What does this situation look like from the other side?
A great defeat, now sunk almost entirely out of memory, has left us with the oppression we now suffer. We know the whip of the victor, and continually we recognize his superiority, tried and tested every single day.
It’s not difficult to shake off this or that official, this or that policeman, but long ago we realized that they represent a larger power. When they die, others come to take their places, and in larger numbers, if need be. Behind them lie armies, headquarters, barracks, fortresses, the firepower of armored divisions, splendidly decked out halls where chiefs make decisions. The cop on the beat is only the farthest sensor of an acute nervous system, the last reach of a robust musculature. I bow my head when I see him, or I walk down a different street. Even if I’ve done nothing wrong, I carry an original fault that justifies any aggression at any time: the fault of having defeated ancestors.
That priest, those old nuns who watch over me tirelessly – I can’t say to them “I will do what I find good and just, I will do what gives me pleasure, what wells up in me spontaneously, I will do what the joy of life dictates.” No, they represent official morality based on a catechism I never quite learned, and they have the means to impose it. Plus, they have God on their side, the undisputed source of eternal punishment. All pleasure is banned, hidden, underground – its home is the night. I confess, repent, and even so I’m always dirty, blameworthy. When the priest dies, another priest will come, when the nuns die, other nuns will come. Behind them lie the bishops, the archbishops, the cardinals, the pope, the celestial throne, the hordes of angels and an invisible sword that secretly wounds the organs of my body to distribute the various forms of death. When I see the priest, I kneel, “bless me, father”, when I see the nuns, I bow my head, “yes, doña María, yes doñita.” Their benevolence can alleviate the disgrace of being who I am, it can make my condition less intolerable.
Penetrating in his domination more than all the others is the school teacher, because he oppresses from within, he reaches into the intimacy of my consciousness to sweep away and reconstruct according to the interests of the victor.
His most efficient weapon is the alphabet, when he teaches me to read and write he breaches my soul to allows the lords of logos, the subtlest spirits of conquest, to invade and conquer: science, literature, philosophy. Spirits that don’t live out in the open air of the spoken word, but in an artificial sphere constructed by writing, a monstrous expansion of memory. All that lives, all that has been lived, turns spectral through the alphabet. It accumulates, it builds up in layers over centuries and it interposes itself with growing density between man and life, between man and man, between man and his actions.
The rain comes and goes in cycles, the tides ebb and flow, the ardor of passions wanes like the full moon and is appeased, but the growth of the written word knows no limits, the avenue of what is registered has no end, the hypertrophy of mechanized memory will require, in time, city-sized libraries, country-sized libraries, planetary libraries.
From those registers flow norms, trials, technologies, progress and the words of wisdom and poetry that say beautifully, for me, everything I would want to say, even if I say it I can only say it badly, even if I can’t say it completely and it ends up half stammered.
From those files emanates an exhaustive array of possibilities concerning every problem, the end of all suspense, the solution to captivating enigmas, an ancient fount of millenarian experience that knows all ways and end-points; but I want to play the game of life without cheating, I want to lose my way and wander, I want to fight my struggles with no rear guard and no caution, I want to die my death rather than live another’s life, a life run by others.
Science, literature, philosophy: three unextinguishable intruders entering the soul through the breach opened by the school teacher, ripping us apart wantonly, with malicious intent, with his alphabet, exploiting the vulnerability of childhood. But it would do no good to kill him, the reproductive organ of the subtler spirits of the empire reproduces itself continually and has the ever-renewed backing of academic texts and testicles, of research, explorers, map-makers, computers.
The teacher is strong, his blow astute. He turns my world into a screen, he turns my life into string of concepts, my songs into notation systems, he trades my innocence for the possibility of survival. Those who have not suffered his violence barely manage to survive within the conditions created by the empire.
And I, when I see his abominable face, sheepishly say “yes, teacher. Yes, professor. Yes, master. Yes, doctor. Yes, poet!” as I stalk him. Sunk in the shame of my defeat, smeared by mental sperm, broken and bowed, I gaze at him, I stalk him over time, even if all I can do for the moment is put thumb-tacks on his chair and water in his ink bottle.
The hills, the forests, the fields, the animals and the plants have masters, they have owners. I walk on someone else’s land, where I am tolerated as a servant; and there is no place I can call my own. With my work I barely manage to pay for the things I consume and the rent of the ones I use. I use and consume the worst there is, and even so I barely survive. All things are exchanged for money; my work as well. But the amount of money I get isn’t enough to buy the things I need. I walk around in rags and I raise sickly children fated to sell their blood.
Sometimes the masters have the faces of landowners, or bosses. I say to them “yes, master, yes boss, whatever you say, chief, right away Don Ra-amón.” But more and more often they have no face and they’re called corporation, ministry, institute, central committee, transnational corporation – I deal only with foremen or officials. It does me no good to kill the masters because their heirs come to take possession; it does me no good to kill any foremen or officials because they immediately appoint others, who could be worse; to say nothing of the punishments and reprisals.
I know my presence is repugnant to them, that I disgust them, that if they could do without my work (replacing me with machines, for instance) they would eliminate me physically, they’d exterminate me like a rat.
I walk shrunken, with my head bowed, reverent, as though I must apologize for existing on the land where my ancestors walked proud and breathd in deep the air of their world in the comfort of their homeland; but there was a combat, and they were defeated. They fought and they lost; we inherited the shame of their defeat just as they, the others, the ones from on high, those at whose mercy we serve, inherited the privileges of victory. Can we set the stage for another combat, to get our own back, an open battle, horns and all, on a brilliant day of flags and shining metal, or shall we persevere in this sordid resentment, this sabotage, this duplicity, this repressed hatred, this envy, this charade?
What we are, what we were, what we can be is not found in the memory and the hands of God, but rather in files; there must be a file on God himself. IDs, contracts, property titles, diplomas, protocols, mortgages, appointments, wills, dismissals, permissions, receipts, bills, decrees, resolutions, authorizations, sentences, letters, safe-conducts, credentials, resumes, work records, court briefs, payment rolls, black lists, bank cards, credit cards, military cards, hanging folders, memos, forms, applications, notices, citations, agreements, bulletin boards, orders (of payment, arrest, eviction) certificates (of birth, marriage, death.)
Our destiny has a face of paper, a tint of registry, a smell of drawers, the voice of a bureaucrat; its threads are ink, it flies with pens, walks with printing press feet; its house is the bureaucratic labyrinth. Can I light a fire and burn it?
I want that fire now. Violent revolution. Spilled blood. The destruction of that entire order. Break down the chains. Victory or death.
But this ardent desire makes me the victim of a new form of oppression and exploitation which adds itself cruelly to the others as it promises to suppress them: the revolutionary struggle.
To understand the mechanism of the revolutionary trap, let’s take a bird’s eye view of our society. It’s made up, first of all, of the lords, the powerful, the ones on high, the masters; let us call them whites. Second, there are those who, even if they are not masters, have varying stakes in society’s well-being, they’re the foremen, managers, teachers and professors, small businessmen, policemen, professionals: let us call them pardos. They can rise within their category, and some can even leave it to reach the ranks of the whites. Third, there’s us, that is, “the indians and the blacks”, those below and outside.
Quite often, fights break out between whites – fights between lords. Then they use us, they organize us politically or militarilly with a revolutionary ideology, with revolutionary plans, with promises of radical changes. They make us fight and when they’ve achieved their goals, when they’ve settled their white men’s scores, they get rid of us little by little through delays, deferrals, intrigues, divisions, partial rewards and, sometimes, with the help of their now reconciled adversaries.
Also quite often, ambitious pardos want to quicken their ascent within their category, they want to reach the upper echelons through extraordinary means. Then they use us, they organize us politically or militarilly with a revolutionary ideology, with revolutionary plans, with promises of radical changes. They make us fight and, when they manage to reach important positions where they can be comfortable, they distance themselves from us or keep us organized in the lower levels of reformist political parties, as clients and shock troops.
In the effort I make on behalf of this struggle I commit myself more fully than in my work in the fields, domestic service, construction or the factories; I give myself over completely, I risk everything. My wages are the illusion of triumph, that fleeting exaltation, the catharsis of the momentary assaults and its cries. But I can’t realize my longing. On the contrary, my rebelliousness is co-opted by the dynamism of the system of oppression, it serves and strengthens it. The danger I embody is only diminished and retarded by that periodic masturbation.
But they, they manage to reach their goals; not only do they keep me under control, but they channel my torrent towards their mills, they use me like a stepladder.
Revolutionary leaders mint my fury to buy themselves power. They stuff their pockets with the surplus value from that business known as the revolutionary struggle, where I exhaust my combat strength, my capacity for sacrifice, my agony. Revolutionary surplus value.
Haven’t you noticed how the revolutionary leaders are always whites or pardos? Black and indian revolutionary caudillos have always been “antelopes working for alligators.”
I’ve also seen – and I wish I hadn’t – that the revolution, when it’s carried out seriously and succeeds, brings forms of injustice and oppression even more abominable than the current ones. I’ve seen those new forms of injustice and oppression in the eyes and the words of the most sincere, hardest working, most loyal revolutionary leaders. They feel themselves messianic saviors, avatars of history; they think they know my interests, my wishes, my needs, better than I do; they don’t consult me or listen to me; they’ve struck off on their own as my representatives, as vanguards in my struggle; they are paternalist tutors; they pre-configure today that future olympus where they will make all decisions for my well-being and my progress; they’ll make the decisions and they’ll impose them on me in my name, through fire and blood in my name. I bow my head saying “yes, comrade, yes, compañero, that’s what we must do, you’re right, viva.” I play along so they don’t strike me and so they don’t get discouraged: they can produce those moments of disorder, of chaos, when the vigilance of the gendarmes slackens, when the foundations of order shake, when I can unload my rancor, my repressed fury, my hatred without punishment; after all, that sporadic relief makes up the meager wages I get from the revolutionary tumult, as I await worse days – the days of revolutionary triumph.
Nostalgia for barbarism and catastrophe
The thing is that there’s a nostalgia for the pre-Western past, a nostalgia that allies itself with the nostalgia for childhood and for paradise lost, a nostalgia – I want to return, return, return – that grows as the difficulties of today and the uncertainties about tomorrow grow.
Together with that nostalgia for the pre-Western past, there is a longing for catastrophe formulated in the story that the west will end, whether through atomic war, or any other armageddon, or ecological chaos, or massive earthquakes or astronomical accidents; expressed in the expectation of total desertion, of the irresistible aversion of Westerners towards their own culture, and in the trivial observation that in the long term the west will end because everything comes to an end. Some with impatience, others with very much patience, the hopeful nostalgics sit by the door of their pained souls expecting to see the corpse of the west and to dream for a new beginning, for the game of history to start from scratch.
They are right, in part. Evolution and progress are high-risk pursuits. The west is not shielded from some exogenous catastrophe, nor can it guarantee that its momentum will not run out. Moreover, one can be sure it will continue to transform itself, it will change, its current form will perish just as pre-Western cultures have perished.
But today’s embittered rebels fantasize like unjustly grounded children. The hated father can be run over by a train, murdered by criminals, die in a fatal duel, commit suicide; it is also true that even if no such tragedy befalls him, one day he will die and we will remain alone with the mother. But in the meantime, it is he who holds the scepter of power, the keys to its origin, the mother’s bed, and it is grand and beautiful and intensely loved.
The apocalyptic fantasy secreted by nostalgia works as evasion and consolation, but it can’t change the real situation or diminish its horror: the real isolation of a culture is, today, impossible; the west has interlinked all the regions of the planet; the food depots of big business and the cargo of heavy industry have penetrated all cultures; all cultures want to consume Western products and allow themselves to be consumed by the west. The destiny of the earth dissolves into the destiny of the west; the destruction of the west would mean the destruction of humanity.
Western progress as domination
The development plans, projects, programs and policies are expressions of the will of the west, e pluribus unum, panta hen. We recognize them right away. They can’t understand why we won’t collaborate with them, seeing how they’re meant for our benefit, they pretend not to understand our resistance. They are their plans, projects, programs and policies. We are forced laborers; since we don’t like the enterprise, we don’t take care of it, instead we sabotage it, as much as our condition of domination allows.
Dominated. Faced with the superior strength of the west, our defeated ancestors had to choose between slavery and death. Many died fighting. Others accepted servitude, they bowed, knee to the ground, they lowered their gaze to survive. It is from they that we descend, it is from they that we inherited that disgraceful love of life, greater than our love of liberty and honor. We don’t understand heroic values, we can’t comprehend how anything can be more important than life. To live on your knees is still to live, and while there’s life there’s hope. We inherited the cowardly rejection of death, but also the mischievousness, the astuteness, the long term resistance masquerading as servitude, the careful aggressiveness always ready for a coup de grace or a retreat. Dominated, but existing. We conserve our identity. We are us. Other, different from them, the dominators; such that they haven’t truly dominated us, they haven’t assimilated us, they haven’t integrated us into their being. They oppress us, repress us, compress us, depress us and squeeze us, but ultimately they can’t impress themselves upon us or suppress us. And there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. We can dream of the splendorous day when the roofs of the greenhouses will cave in and the zoo cages will burst open; the plants and animals will escape their taxonomies; all machines will start their long, slow return to their home in mother earth and through the broken fragments of conceptual buildings we will see the growth of myth and song liberated.
The fourfold path (rebellion-submission-astuteness-return to the home country) and the way of walking
My rejection of the west has followed a fourfold path
First: open rebelion. As a “black”, “indian”, and “zambo” I’ve recurred, throughout the history of Latin America, to risings, to armed revolt, assault, confrontation on an open battlefield with no rear guard and no caution. I’ve been decimated and defeated. In some regions I’ve been physically exterminated. But this path is and will always be open. Those who propose our death and organize expeditions to destroy us act lucidly: so long as we exist there’ll be the threat of violent rising.
Second: submission. By accepting a lord and master one affirms one’s existence, one’s difference through servitude, guaranteeing one’s cultural identity and safeguarding the channels of creativity. Hegel missed this harmonic variant in his master/slave dialectic, even though history is strewn with examples of it.
The last two hundred years, marked by ideologies and wars of “liberation”, have obscured the fact that the master-slave relationship is not always and necessarily disgraceful. The good master and the good slave have been forgotten. The good slave accepts his lot without rancor and without any sense of sacrifice or injustice; he longs not for the advantages of the master, he wouldn’t know what to do with them, he has other tastes. The good master respects the slave’s culture, his idiosyncrasy, his creativity, he recognizes him as other, he doesn’t butt into his private life and he doesn’t mistreat him.
The master-slave relationship, and the consequent stratification of society, may be in the future – it already has been in the past at various times and places – the most adequate solution to the problem of coexistence in society. These days the clamor of the ideologists and propagandists of equality, the agitation for democracy, hides the virtues of slavery; but he who wants to truly know the reality of this world must dare to look beyond the prejudices of his century. In pre-columbine America, in Africa, Asia, in Europe itself there were successful and satisfactory forms of servitude, far superior as a form of coexistence to the gulag or the worker-owner relationship, whether the owner comes in the guise of a private business or a socialist state.
I must recognize, however, that our good slaves often have not found the good masters needed to build a successful system of servitude on a society-wide level. But they doggedly seek him and at times they find him, at least as an individual solution. There’s nothing exceptional about the loyal maid, who’s like part of the family; the noble farm-hand, who you can depend on always, onto death, even without if you don’t pay him; the devoted and efficient secretary, who remains a celibate spinster through love of her boss, willing to give him her savings and even help him with his erotic adventures; the volunteer body-guard, loyal and sleepless watch-dog, untouchable, undoubting. Isn’t there something profoundly human, moving, beautiful in all of this?
The good slave is anti-Western because he rejects the work-salary nexus. The good master is anti-Western because he prefers the loyalty-protection nexus, but these terms are poor, insufficient to sketch out the relationship. The good master is like a good shepherd, the good shepherd looks lovingly over his sheep; he will gives his life for them.
In our violent uprisings, one of the motivations is the longing, the painful nostalgia for the good master, the absence of that hard, soothing, paternal shelter, of that trusted destination that the Western world has only limpid and inefficient substitutes for, cancerous placebos called political leader, revolutionary leader, manager, commissary, dean, congressman…
We are not impressed by the mean-spirited Western slander against slavery; we understand that the path of submission to a good master is not sterile but bountiful for our survival and actualization, so we seek it with indefatigable tenacity.
It was necessary to write at length on this much-maligned path. These days anyone can understand rebelliousness, because it’s fashionable. Only a chosen few understand submission. Believing themselves free and rebellious, most assiduously serve unworthy masters.
Third: Rise within the ranks and false assimilation. A poor animist, lost in a strange society and subjected to its laws, its dynamics, its mechanisms, I’ve decided to appropriate it for myself, to take it from the inside.
As a pardo, accepting whitening and transculturation, in fact actively seeking it, I slowly penetrate the entire structure of that society, I rise little by little through all its strata.
And I’ve achieved noteworthy results. At the top, more than a few blond heads of hair have been curled by me. My hands, long and flexible, very flexible (I can bend my joints over backwards) sign decrees in the centers of power. From the depths of blue eyes I inspect (I inspect, note it carefully, I inspect) important public works. I’ve definitively imposed my very own hip and shoulder movements throughout the dance floors. I set the agenda for a thousand meetings, and I make sure they aren’t followed in nine hundred and eighty two. I set stains and double over figures in the works of painters. I enthusiastically embrace the ideas of the Europeans, I bring them so close to my heart, I make them so mine that they can’t recognize them when they see them again. In the poems the poets write you find my rhythms, my cadences. I inhabit the literary forms of the west as lord and master, I turn them into latrines. I sneak also into the labs – look at me in my white coat – and I make scientific discoveries, inventions, I the animist appropriating the society where I am lost, from the inside, all the while remaining myself, without allowing myself to be assimilated. I imprint a new sense on that culture, on that society, without destroying it. I imprint my sense on that enormous, alien machinery that imprisoned me in a trap and can now become a vehicle for my soul. I, son of the traitor, son of the slave, son of a whore, loosening the shackles, changing around the measures, redistributing the materials, until I manage to turn my straightjacket into a suit, a suit suitable to the freedom of my movement, to my natural elegance.
Brother of all or nothing, humble brother, pure brother, do not judge harshly that transitory contamination. It is a form of appropriation. The house I conquer is also for you.
Fourth: Return to the home country. I want to return to my origins. I want to return, return, return. I undertake my return riding on songs, scientific studies, on board secret magical rituals handed down to me by my ancestors, pushing forth political projects. In the house of the father, work and bread, even when bitter, are sweet because they are ours. Enough exile. Let us abandon that metallic womb to these foreign cities. Let us part.
Towards the east. The home country where the sun rises. Hence we were brought over by force. May we now complete, voluntarily, the return journey, enriched by several centuries worth of experience. Let us bring stories and exotic gifts to the elephants and gazelles. Let us bring weapons to the old gods. Crystal balls for the dawn.
Towards the west. The home country where the sun sets. Hence we came in multicolored canoes. Let us return with the sun, to scatter among the islands and the coral reefs until night brings us the rest of depth.
Downward. From every point in the compass, countering winds and currents our voyage is towards the earth, hence we came, from which we are made up. Village. Hamlet. Cattle. Field. Home country. The jungles, the prairies; the coasts, the mountains; the rivers big and small. Maize and yuca. Tapir and llama. The jaguar. Towards the clay and the place we were kneaded, towards the home and the hearth where the vessel of our soul was forever shaped.
Backwards. Towards the past. Let us sail against the current of time, or invert it. Each year, each generation, has taken us farther from the source. The home country is located back before the bayonet. Towards the islands of primordial reality that history has not dragged and corrupted, towards the unblemished relatives. I will say to them, “we have returned. We are your brothers. May the ties that bound us to illusions and lies burn. We return naked. Welcome us.”
Upwards. The home country shines beyond the clouds, in the Presence. Hence we fell. Hence came the instructors. Hence shall come our succor. Hence come the gods when we invoke them. Let us prepare our return: all that is not light is a burden. Let us concentrate our longing and our will so we do not backslide or lose our way among the clouds.
Forward. The home country lies in the future. We have no homeland, we are not yet born. The home country is a burning desire and a project, not a memory. We exist as potential, we seek our arrival. Radically foreign, foreign in all worlds, we must engender our world. What is the womb, when is the birth? Everything is foreign, nothing belongs to us. We are not heirs, but we are and we must give being. To future. Let us future the home country. Let us world. Let us ancestor.
The fourfold path is the sphere of my rejection and my assertion. Rebelliousness, submission, astuteness and nostalgia are its four dimensions and they guarantee its availability. And so, my way of walking is not pathetic except in extreme situations, and only for a short while; in general, it’s a joyful strut, a festive, humorous, playful walk. A profound seriousness based in the radical, mortal seriousness of my situation which makes everything else lose seriousness and then that radical, mortal seriousness itself becomes funny. I’m left only with symbolic objects. I can shuffle, switch, bewitch. I am the master of formlessness. My ultimate weapon, perhaps my only real weapon, is laughter, so boisterous at times that it can soften the ire of destiny, so understated at times that you see it only as a small thunder in the depths of my eyes.
Seismic doubt and its antidote
There is, however, a seismic doubt, a doubt that shakes me sometimes, that blunts my laughter, that darkens the depths of my eyes: the possibility that the west may be, if not the end-point of humanity, at least a necessary stage in human development, necessary if transitory; the possibility that the west may be the necessary stage of human development in our times, that we shall all have to Westernize to go forward, that today the choice given us is between Westernness and stagnation, or perhaps between Westernness and chaos.
But when I’m shaken by this doubt I pull myself together telling myself that, if that’s the case, I would choose stagnation and chaos. I feel myself whole again and sharpen my laughter again thinking of heterodox or banned currents and coherences. Then, once again, lightning zigzags through my eyes.
As far as residences go, I’m proud to have many. I live not only in the “indians” and the “blacks” and the pardos of every skin tone, but also the mantuanos and the rationalist whites and, most particularly, those who hate me and persecute me in others because they cannot extricate me from their own hearts.
I don’t want to exercise power continuously. I’m content to take it by storm, suddenly, paralyze some actions, introduce some perturbances, dazzle with flashing revelations, and then retreat to my stalking grounds, where I revel in my visceral existence, digest my venom and lick my wounds.
The non-Western in Latin America feels closer to the lizards and the rocks than to European rationalism. It is unstable, rough, omnipresent. It claims unjustifiable license with the language to make plays on words that are not just innecessary but ugly and incorrect. It happily contradicts itself. Are we facing another mask? Couldn’t all of this hide something more terrible and flammable than a defense of cultural identity, something deeper than cultural differences? Doesn’t it express with symbolic ambiguity something less respectable and more dangerous than the rebelliousness of the oppressed? May not those strings be pulled by some unnamed, frightful will?
But we would then enter, if not into the ineffable, at least into the unwritable.
There are secrets that can only be revealed in the integral communion of two friends during some form of drunkenness, but such experiences leave only imprecise memories. Or between two enemies in the lucidity of hand-to-hand combat onto death or orgasm.
Beyond that abyss, however, we can say without ambages: we are western, cómo no.
Caracas Chronicles is 100% reader-supported.
Support independent Venezuelan journalism by making a donation.Donate