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In his cultural homily Rodó's inspiration was Renan but in his political ideas it was the Scottish rhetorician of inequality, Thomas Carlyle. The considerable prominence of Carlyle in the history of Latin American thought may seem surprising to those raised in the American (or even English) intellectual tradition. It is a predilection associated with Latin American authoritarianism and especially the cult of the leader. In Rodó's
El mirador de Próspero
(Prospero's Balcony), which he published in 1913, he offers literary portraits of various heroic figures of Spanish America, among them Garibaldi, that “visionary of action” (who took part in the Uruguayan Civil War); Juan Carlos Gómez, the Uruguayan journalist and representative of the classic republican tradition; and the legendary Ecuadorian journalist Juan Montalvo (whose liberal writings against the theocratic government of Gabriel García Moreno were so efficacious that they led to the assassination of the autocrat). But, from his tower, Prospero contemplates his primary hero: the Liberator Simón Bolívar.

In his essay on Bolívar, Rodó did not need to quote Carlyle. The inspiration is clear. Though the style of Rodó is nowhere near as torrential as that of the Scotsman, the shadow of Rodó's model drifts through his elegant modernist prose. In the style of Carlyle's
On Heroes and Hero Worship
, Rodó undertakes an exegetical journey through the major episodes of Bolívar's life. Few men other than Bolívar, he writes, “subjugate with such violent authority the sympathies of the heroic imagination.” Nothing better illustrates Rodó's view of Bolívar as a
chosen one
than the comparison he draws with other leaders of the wars for Latin American independence, especially with San Martín: “Bolívar is a
, San Martín is not a
. San Martín is a great man, a great soldier, a great captain, an illustrious and extremely beautiful figure. But he is not a
.” So deep were the aftereffects of Rodó's portrait of Bolívar that, almost a hundred years later, Julio María Sanguinetti, twice president of Uruguay, could recite a fragment of the essay by memory: “Great in thought, great in action, great in glory, great in his great misfortune that served to magnify the impure aspect latent in the soul of great men and great for taking upon himself, in his abandonment and his death, the tragic expiation of his greatness.”

A year before the publication of
El mirador de Próspero
, another Latin American devotee of Carlyle, the Peruvian Francisco García Calderón (whom the Chilean poetess Gabriela Mistral would later call “the effective heir of Rodó”), had published, in Paris,
Les démocraties latines d'Amerique
(The Latin Democracies of America), with a prologue by the future president of France, Raymond Poincaré. It was a treatise on the political history of Latin America based on a fusion of fashionable evolutionist theories and the complete reduction of history to biography, in emulation of Carlyle. Following the lead of Rodó, García Calderón moves away from the classic republican viewpoint and tries to present a way to better understand the politics of the continent. Dissenting from Sarmiento (who, in his
, the biography of a gaucho soldier and politician, had defined the fundamental dilemma of Latin America as the violent encounter “between civilization and barbarism”), García Calderón's variation of the new Latin American idealism would dissolve Sarmiento's antinomy through an equalizing vindication of the civilizers (like Sarmiento or his fellow Argentine Juan Bautista Alberdi) and the fierce backwoods
who seemed to have risen from the soil to ride at the forefront of their marauding armies. In Argentina, the classic republican Bernardino Rivadavia had been (here he quotes Groussac) “the ardent forger of utopias.” Opposing him had arisen the terrifying “caliph” Facundo with his “mystical barbarism.” And finally the dictator Rosas arrived. His “fecund despotism,” his “necessary terrorism” finished off “war and terror.” The formula was almost dialectical: Rivadavia the thesis, Facundo the antithesis, Rosas the synthesis. With the same simple measure, García Calderón judged all the strong and constructive presidents of Hispanic America, excluding those who were only tyrants and no more. The Peruvian Ramón Castilla was the “necessary dictator of an unstable republic.” Other dictatorial
to whom he accorded his respect were the Bolivian general Andrés Santa Cruz (“heir to the unifying ideal of Bolívar”), the Chilean Diego Portales, and the Mexican Porfirio Díaz. These were, for him, the representative men of the Latin democracies, superior democracies, democracies of the spirit, not produced through the vulgar process of free elections. The cult of heroes floated in the air of the age. So much so that a young Argentine writer would learn German to read some of the intellectual antecedents of Carlyle. And the youthful Jorge Luis Borges found a famous sentence of the Scottish author to be perfectly reasonable: “Democracy is chaos furnished with electoral urns.”


1904, Rodó had become famous and enormously respected throughout the entire continent. But his psychic life was still an unending struggle between desolation and confidence. In that year he would write to Miguel de Unamuno, “I do not regard the immediate future of these countries with the pessimistic criterion many adopt.” But the financial crisis that descended upon him in the “terrible year” of 1905 drove him to despair. A severe oscillation of feelings was his burden and he knew it: “Each one of my moments of hope is the upshot of a previous and intricate interior struggle with despair and pessimism. So that the ripened moments I offer of admonition and art are exceptional, not the ordinary moments which, in me as in everyone, involve doubt and sometimes desperation.”

Rodó disapproved of radical actions and movements, both new and old. He criticized the removal of crucifixes from hospitals in Uruguay as a Jacobin abuse, and he feared the rise of working-class socialism, this “great roar that is mounting.” His way was one of moderation: religious tolerance and social reforms. But not even politics calmed his inner torment. After he had been elected twice to Congress, his political future played out in a rivalry with the popular president Batlle, who would sometimes treat him with contempt. A portion of his profile, in
El Mirador de Próspero
, of the Ecuadorian Montalvo, reads like an unconscious personal complaint:


There remains isolation and spiritual abandonment, which is truly painful; there remains the common lack of understanding: from the moment that the thorns spring up of opposition to superiority, a passion of insignificant democracies, until shoulders are shrugged with an uncouth disdain toward all disinterested labor of style and investigation and, even within such work, there is deafness to the new and personal, a pretension of understanding where there is no understanding . . . ; there remain, finally, these lingering flavors of the village in relation to which, for lofty matters of the spirit, all of Latin America has been, on a greater scale, a solitary back-water hamlet . . .


With the outbreak of the First World War, Rodó resigned from the board of the newspaper
La Razón
because of the underlying pro-German sentiments of the newspaper. His personal anguish takes on a universal coloring. He feels the collapse of the western order as a personal assault, the destruction of a world for which he had projected a future that would include Latin America as an equal partner.

Some verbal portraits of the time describe him as more than ever austere and withdrawn: “his face was like a mask without emotion or intelligence.” An Argentine journalist described a meeting with Rodó: “we spoke in a small, unlit room; we said good-bye to each other without him crossing to the illuminated vestibule, and I only remember having seen, as if in a dream, among the shadows that blurred the edges of the furniture, a tall stooped figure and two hands moving in the mist.”

The final passage through life of this solitary scholar was, as always for him, tortuous. It would be a final image of “the volatile soul,” wandering in the world, nostalgic only for an era when Athens (or rather its leading minds) was a living force on the earth. He considers “laying down roots . . . having my own hut; forming a family; waiting in sanctified peace for the disappearance of this great illusion we call life.” In July 1916 he made the grand gesture of abandoning the Latin American “hamlet.” He traveled to Lisbon, Madrid, Barcelona. In 1917 he arrived in Italy, already feeling ill. He stayed for a month in Florence, where he composed a dialogue between two inanimate substances, “Bronze conversing with marble.” He spent time in Rome, where he went to see the statue of José Artigas, the founding father of his country, commissioned to an Italian sculptor by the Uruguayan government. In April he arrived in Palermo. There he died of meningitis on the first of May. One of his last, unrealized projects had been to write an essay on José Martí.




José Vasconcelos


The Mexican Revolution, which erupted in November 1910, would be remembered in Latin America as the first assault on the heritage of nineteenth-century liberalism. Eventually (though by a complicated route) it would become an early element of the “great roar that is mounting,” so feared by José Enrique Rodó and destined to grow ever louder across the twentieth century. It began as a liberal reproach, and then armed rebellion, against a dictator who had once been the military leader of the Liberal republican victory over the monarchy of Maximilian in 1867. Porfirio Díaz had retained much of the economic program of liberalism but completely jettisoned its commitment to electoral democracy. Francisco I. Madero, a rich businessman from the north of the country, educated in Europe and in California, had begun his campaign against Díaz's three decades of personal power with a book published in 1908 (
The Presidential Succession in 1910
) and passed reluctantly, step by step, toward revolution, after the aged dictator, who had finally promised to hold a genuinely free election, defrauded him of his presidential victory in 1910. Among his most ardent supporters was the young co-editor of the newspaper
El Antireeleccionista
(The Anti-Reelectionist), which spoke for the political party formed to support Madero in 1909. He was a lawyer and philosopher named José Vasconcelos.

Madero was not an intellectual at the level of Martí or Rodó, but he was imbued with a similar devotion to redemption. He was “the Apostle of Democracy” and the victory of his forces against the armies of Díaz came quickly. His difficult but dedicated term as the democratically elected president of Mexico was cut short by a military coup in February 1913, carried out by a coalition of conservative forces, encouraged and assisted by the American ambassador to Mexico, Henry Lane Wilson.

But the murder of Madero and his vice president, José María Pino Suárez, would unleash a far more complicated, violent, and confusedly social revolution than the idealistic Madero had ever imagined with his slogan geared to classic liberal premises: “Valid voting! No reelection! (
Sufragio efectivo
no reelección
).” When Madero had entered Mexico City in triumph after his victory, a tremor had shaken the unstable lake bottom on which Hernán Cortés had raised his colonial city. An earthquake of men at arms would now shake all of Mexico.

The renewed revolt, now directed against the military government of General Victoriano Huerta, involved a coalition of leaders and armies with different interests, antecedents, and ultimate objectives. And all through the country, there were also localized uprisings and confrontations of forces, some of them social, some of them personalist (centered around loyalty to a specific leader), some of them a mere settling of old grievances.

On the major stage of the Revolution (now entitled to the capital
it would retain for the rest of the century), Huerta was defeated and fled into exile in July 1914. But the anti-Huerta alliance dissolved into rival alliances and the fiercest battles of the Mexican Revolution were yet to be fought. The agrarian revolutionaries under Emiliano Zapata (from the state of Morelos, south of Mexico City) and the much more modern army (though heavily dependent on cavalry) of hardened frontiersmen from the north under the former bandit Pancho Villa faced off against forces whose leaders had more middle-class roots and values, first led by Venustiano Carranza and later by Álvaro Obregón and his subordinate generals from the border state of Sonora (like Obregón himself).

The various groupings were defined by the names of their leaders. Zapatistas, Villistas, Carrancistas, Obregonistas. The loyalties and origins of the common soldiers cannot be automatically and rigidly defined, but at this massive stage of confrontation within the Mexican Revolution, Zapata and Villa—both unlettered men of the people—represented (in their different modes) aspects of social revolution. (Intellectuals were drawn to side with and sometimes to advise the various leaders, those influenced by anarchist ideas often to Zapata, the more socialist to Villa.)

But with the ultimate victors still undecided, the new state of things was beginning to be defined and legitimized from an unexpected source—the cultural originality of the Mexican Revolution, the specific nature of the amalgam of old and new that was already coming into being. The civil war between the revolutionaries had already turned intense by 1915. When the new Mexican Constitution was drafted, in 1917, the faction headed by Venustiano Carranza was well on its way to victory. The constitution shows the effects and includes the perspectives of a broad gamut of ideological currents (agrarianism, labor unionism, nationalism, socialism, more extremist and anticlerical “Jacobinism,” and the embryonic corporate emphasis of the future Mexican state). All these trends were a modification—and often a correction—of the nineteenth-century liberal perspective. But in cultural terms, the Revolution was born and nourished, like the maguey plant, by the soil of Mexico. It sought its true face not outside and ahead, but within and facing toward its past. And the awakening first took shape precisely in that violent year of 1915.



The material isolation of Mexico during World War I and the constant pressure of its own raging civil war had, perhaps paradoxically, encouraged a process of concentration and introspection that many experienced as a “discovery of Mexico.” The intellectual Manuel Gómez Morin, who was a student at the time, remembers (with affection) the year 1915:


. . . with optimistic stupor we took account of unsuspected truths. Mexico existed. Mexico as a country, with capacities, with aspiration, with life, with its own problems . . . And the Indians, and the mestizos and the creoles, they were living realities, men with every human attribute. The Indian was no mere substance fit for war or work, nor was the creole, nor was the mestizo . . . Mexico existed and the Mexicans!


During the years of war, hundreds of thousands of people, men and women, old and young, abandoned their plots of land, the haciendas they worked on or the “tiny fatherlands” of their villages, willingly or against their will, and traveled by train through their country on a kind of revolutionary tourism, at once frightening and hallucinatory. Like a giant encampment or an endless pilgrimage, making the Revolution or fleeing from it, the Mexican people entered the foreground of history. Artists began to mingle with the people and absorb their passions and their conflicts. It was natural that this migration should be intensely reflected in their art.

At the ground level of humanity, artists would discover the true landscape of Mexican life. In the year 1915, the painter Saturnino Herrán began to paint the common people and their customs, especially Indians, when he saw them in the city streets or in the villages. The historian Manuel Toussaint began to publish a series of “Colonial Sketches” of the Mexico City Cathedral, the chapel of El Pocito in Guanajuato, the houses of the sixteenth century (in the aftermath of the Conquest). The musician Manuel M. Ponce harmonized the songs he heard from the blind beggars who sang and twanged their rhythms on the jaw harp or played their harmonicas. The poet Ramón López Velarde wrote deeply moving modernist poems on life in the provinces, voices and sentiments of “a Mexico we all have lived in and did not know.”

Years later, in 1921, in an essay titled “Fresh News of the Fatherland,” López Velarde would describe the Revolution in almost religious terms, the revelation of a fatherland very different from the
(age of Porfirio), a “new, intimate fatherland,” “Castilian and Moorish, streaked with the Aztec.” He went on more precisely: “The material repose of the country, through thirty years of peace, supported the idea of a pompous fatherland, a nation worth many millions, honorable in the present, epic in the past. These years of suffering were needed to conceive of a fatherland less external, more modest and probably more valuable.” López Velarde died that same year (he was only thirty-three years old) when the real significance of that “Fresh News of the Fatherland” was barely emerging. It would be the creation of the most powerful myth of redemption in the first half of the Latin American twentieth century, and it would resonate far beyond the Spanish-speaking world. It was the myth of the Mexican Revolution, and its fundamental creator would be that same young newspaper editor who had written fiery articles in favor of Francisco Madero's electoral campaign. José Vasconcelos would become the cultural
of the Revolution.



He was born in 1882 in Oaxaca, capital of the state with the same name, home to one of the largest and most varied Indian populations in Mexico, who had evolved an impressive pre-Columbian civilization. Both Benito Juárez and Porfirio Díaz had been born in Oaxaca: Juárez was a pure Zapotec Indian, Porfirio Díaz a Mixtec from his mother's side. Vasconcelos's mother was a very pious Catholic much beloved by the young José. Her relatively early death (in 1898) left a wound that never completely healed.

His father was a Mexican customs official and, as a child, Vasconcelos lived in the border town of Piedras Negras in Coahuila, where he would cross the border daily to a school in Eagle Pass, Texas, where he first began to acquire his excellent English. His later education would eventually lead him to the best high school in Mexico, the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria (National Preparatory School), and then to law school at the Escuela Nacional de Jurisprudencia. In 1905 he formally became a lawyer but his broader intellectual pursuits would always consume much of his energy. He was early known for his interest in philosophical speculation (and his arrogant temperament). He was a reader of Schopenhauer and was led, through him, to a serious interest in Hinduism. A circle of young intellectuals, soon to be very influential, welcomed his participation. The Ateneo de la Juventud (Athenaeum of Youth), with its affectedly classicist self-description, was led by the young Dominican Pedro Henríquez Ureña, that young “Socrates” who had become part of Mexican culture, who had praised Rodó's
in 1905, whose father would become president of the Dominican Republic in 1916 and to whose uncle Federico, José Martí had written his famous letter of farewell. For all the members of the Ateneo, the message of Rodó opened the way to new values in philosophy and literature. Henríquez Ureña would write of the fresh emphases:


Greek literature, the writers of the Spanish Golden Age, Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe, the modern artistic orientations of England . . . [and] relying on Schopenhauer and Nietzsche one already began to attack the ideas of Comte and Spencer.


As part of an influential sequence of lectures organized by the Ateneo, Henríquez Ureña discussed the meaning of Rodó's
. All these young men were
, not so much from the anti-Yankee perspective (more characteristic of the Southern Cone) but in the redemptive power they ascribed to books, art, education, and culture in general. In September 1910, during the grandiose celebrations for the hundredth anniversary of Mexican independence, Vasconcelos gave a speech in which he criticized the philosophy of positivism, which had reigned triumphant over the intellectual life of Porfirio's long reign. It immediately established his reputation as the most original and powerful thinker among young intellectuals. Two months later, the fireworks of the Centenary Celebrations metamorphosed into the fires of war, as the first shots of the Mexican Revolution resounded. They were no surprise to José Vasconcelos, who had been working toward them since the fraudulent electoral defeat of Madero.

Vasconcelos had been a Maderista from the first moment. After the triumph of Madero's revolution in 1911, he returned to his lucrative practice, where his major client was an American oil company. During Madero's fifteen months of democratic government, Vasconcelos spent little effort on the academic labors of the Ateneo (they were trying to create a People's University). According to the first volume of his memoirs, he devoted much of his time to making love, with the “flexible Venus” he had met during the Madero revolution. Though he was married with two children, Vasconcelos began a relationship that, with its ups and downs, would last for almost a decade. She was the first of many lovers in his life but certainly his most intense and madly beloved liaison. Her name was Elena Arizmendi and, during the first stage of the Revolution, she had been a nurse in the neutral White Cross.

The assassination of Madero and the long chain of conflicts that followed (especially the civil war that really began in 1914, pitting the Villista-Zapatista alliance against the Carrancistas) dispersed the members of the Ateneo. Many intellectuals went into exile, among them Henriquez Ureña himself and Alfonso Reyes, whose father had been a leader of the uprising against Madero and was killed on the first day of fighting. Others chose internal exile, remaining in Mexico and waiting for the fury of the wars to die down. One of these men, the philosopher Antonio Caso, tried to keep the small flame of culture alive, giving classes in philosophy and evoking Renan and the spirit of Christianity while the battles swirled across the country. Caso wrote to Reyes:


We live in an infernal derangement . . . higher academic studies have nothing to do with a country in which barbarism is spreading as perhaps it has never done before in our history . . . To be an educated Mexican is one of the most unquestionable maladjustments in the world. Nothing to be done!


And yet it was a time of cultural and artistic introspection, rather similar to what happened in Spain after the shock of Spanish defeat in 1898. Vasconcelos did not live through it passively. After the assassination of Madero, completely ignoring his wife Serafina Miranda (who adored him) and his infant children José Ignacio and Carmen, he set off with his beloved Elena and joined the insurrection against the new dictator, Victoriano Huerta. He was sent to the United States, as a representative of the Revolution. On his return to Mexico, he allied himself with the fragile coalition between Villa and Zapata. He appears, smiling broadly, in the famous photograph of Villa and Zapata and some of their followers seated at a banquet in the Palacio Nacional after their armies had entered Mexico City. The differing character of the two great
of the people could not have been better depicted. Zapata looks wary and distrustful, Villa festive and aggressive. And with them is the future cultural
of Mexico, who will be centrally responsible for how both men (later assassinated) will come to be remembered.

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