The Philosopher-Fisticuffers

The Rough-and-Tumble World of Latin American Intellectuals in the 20th Century

In 1920, Jose Vasconcelos, the newly appointed rector of Mexico’s national university, started publishing the classics in translation at a feverish pace. He would call it the “first flood of books in the history of Mexico.”

“A campaign against illiteracy began and young intellectuals strode into the slums,” writes Enrique Krauze in his new book, Redeemers, a picaresque history of Latin American intellectuals. Krauze quotes Daniel Cosio Villegas, one of Vasconcelos’ disciples:

We began to teach them to read and it was a spectacle to see the poet Carlos Pellicer arrive, Sunday after Sunday, in some neighborhood of some poor barrio, plant himself in the middle of the main square and begin to loudly clap his hands, after shouting as loud as he could for the people to come out…one had faith in the book, and the book of lasting quality; and the books were printed in their thousands and they gave thousands away. To found a library in a small and remote village seemed to have as much meaning as building a church.

In a five-month span in 1922, 35 of Vasconcelos’ professors gave three thousand lectures to workers “at their work sites or union halls.” In 1920, Mexico had 70 libraries, of which 39 were public. In 1924, because of Vasconcelos, there were 1,916 libraries, Krauze tells us.

By 1929, Vasconcelos began to refer to himself as a prophet. In 1931, Antonieta Rivas Mercado, with whom he had founded a journal, La Antorcha, shot herself in the heart using Vasconcelos’ pistol in the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. Vasconcelos, praised for his efforts in expanding literacy, would become an apologist for dictators late in life. These are not, as Krauze underscores, one-dimensional people.

Krauze’s Redeemers is rich on violence: “It was October 31, 1925. Santos Chocano and Edwin Elmore stopped in their tracks and looked at each other in surprise. Suddenly Elmore grabbed Chocano’s lapel and slapped him in the face. Chocano reeled back for the moment, then drew his gun and shot Elmore in the abdomen. He was rushed to a hospital, where he died two days later.”

Krauze recounts a fistfight that the poet Octavio Paz (with whom Krauze had a long collaboration later in Paz’s life) got into decades later on his 25th birthday. Someone at a restaurant–this was March, 1939–had shouted, “Viva Franco!” Paz, his wife, and brother-in-law were taken to the police station and booked.

In 1978, Hugo Margain Charles, a contributor to the journal Vuelta (which Paz had founded, and which Krauze was an editor of) was kidnapped and shot. He bled to death with a bullet in his knee. A threatening letter arrived at the journal a few days later.

You get the picture. To have been a leading Latin intellectual was not all about being bookish. Redeemers, a survey of a dozen disparate figures, is not a focused book, but Krauze’s central aim is to unravel the connections between the personal and the political, between ideas and the physical. He quotes José Carlos Mariategui, one of his subjects, who said that “to do politics is to move from dreams to things, from the abstract to the concrete. Politics is the applied work of social thinking; politics is life.” Krauze writes of Mariategui: “He will live his life of thought and practice bounded by the texturing of his ideas and a will toward precise and effective political action.”

Among the contradictions that preoccupy Krauze is how to reconcile the prosperity of intellectuals who benefit from the status quo with their desire to change the world. He quotes (disapprovingly) Gabriel Garcia Marquez: “There is no contradiction between being rich and being revolutionary, as long as you are sincere about being a revolutionary and not sincere about being a rich man.” This, as Krauze points out, is smug.

Krauze’s tour of Latin intellects improbably includes the populist diva Evita Peron. At your next cocktail party, you can entertain folks with the fact that, upon her death, Mrs. Peron left  “1,200 gold and silver brooches, three ingots of platinum, 756 pieces of silver and gold work, 144 ivory brooches, a 48-karat emerald, 1,653 diamonds, 120 wristwatches, and a hundred clocks made of gold.” Another number: in 1951, she was the godmother at 804 weddings.

Greed and generosity are frequently intermingled. Krauze’s subjects disdain money and yet are reliant on it. Krauze quotes a young Paz: “Money has no end or object…it serves for nothing, since it aims toward nothing.” And then Krauze notes: “Now the brute presence of money had turned against him and was moving the strings of his own subsistence.”

Krauze’s secondary aims in the book are to figure out what path Latin America is on, and what path it should be on. Is the movement towards market democracies a lasting one? Is it a good one? Paz, Krauze writes, could not be satisfied by liberal democracy, viewing it “as too insipid and formal a concept.” Paz would write, “We must rethink our tradition, renew it, and seek the reconciliation of the two great political traditions of modernity: liberalism and socialism.”

Krauze does an excellent job of dismissing Hugo Chavez, who claims to be attempting such a synthesis. “The main key to Chavez’s enthronement lies not in his economic measures or even in the impact of his social programs, but in his handling, through the media, of his colossal persona,” says Krauze. This is entirely correct. Similarly, Krauze notes that Che’s blasé attitude towards economics had consequences. “I don’t know anything about it [economics] either and I’m the President [of Cuba’s central bank],” Che had told a friend. This attitude, Krauze observes, caused real suffering in Cuba: ignorance is not a joke.

Krauze quotes Garcia Marquez: Garcia Marquez has written that “life is not what one lived but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it.” This, one might say, is true also of history. There is a tone of hopeful elegy for a grandiose sort of intellectual existence that suffuses Krauze’s book. Krauze quotes Manuel Gomez Morin speaking of his student years in 1915: “With optimistic stupor we took account of unsuspected truths.” It’s that optimistic stupor that Krauze tries, and succeeds, in conveying in his revealing account.

Konstantin Kakaes is a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation and former Mexico City bureau chief for The Economist.

*Photo courtesy of Jose Carlos Mariategui Archives.


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