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Authors: Enrique Krauze

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To accomplish his goal, so that the institution “might pour out its treasures and work for the people,” one of his first ideas was to translate the classics and distribute them at no cost. Dazzled by Vasconcelos, the new generation hurried to his office and enrolled in his new educational crusade. The future editor, historian, and essayist Daniel Cosío Villegas was one of those young men. “Look, my friend,” Vasconcelos said to him, “I'm not thinking of governing the University with the University Council. That's of no importance to me. I'm going to govern the University in a direct and personal way. If you care to participate in this government, come here, starting tomorrow and right here we will settle the problems of the University.” The next day Cosío Villegas showed up on time and Vasconcelos gave him the job of translating the
Enneads
of Plotinus from French into Spanish.

In those years, Vasconcelos published dozens of authors under the imprint of the university. They were beautiful editions in green binding and they were given away in public places, like the Fountain of Quixote in Chapultepec Park, where ordinary Mexicans often spent Sundays relaxing with their families. President Obregón, a fearsome man of action but also well-known for his sense of humor, observed all this with ironic indulgence. What sense did it make to publish the dialogues of Plato for illiterate and poverty-stricken peasants? To Vasconcelos, it all made good sense. He was convinced that the uplift of the people had to begin with books. It was the old idea that José Martí had proposed, the salvation of Latin America through reading but now actually carried out by a revolutionary government. In October 1921, Obregón made Vasconcelos his Secretary of Education.

Setting aside the question of the actual value of Plato to the illiterate, Vasconcelos's program also jump-started, for the first time, a massive publishing industry in Mexico. He would later say that it had been “the first flood of books in the history of Mexico.” They were all published in translation and Vasconcelos favored and disfavored (in other words, did not publish) authors according to his personal preferences and partly according to a general criterion that reflected his own taste and temperament. He liked to distinguish between what he called “books that you read sitting down” and “books that you read standing,” by which he meant inspiring, “prophetic” books that could stir men's minds and emotions and theoretically change their lives. French rationalism or English and German Enlightenment literature interested him not in the least; nor did the more aphoristic sort of classical writer. Homer yes, Greek literary classics yes, Dante's
Divine Comedy
“because it was a confirmation of important celestial messages,” some of the classic Spaniards as well as Latin American and Mexican writers, the gospels because “they represented the greatest miracle in history and the supreme law among all those that regulate the spirit,” and only “as a condescension to current opinion” a few plays of Shakespeare.

“Truth is only expressed in prophetic form,” he would say, but the decision on what constituted prophecy, what might lead to human redemption, was entirely to be decided by Vasconcelos. He published volume after volume of his own personal selection of “mystics,” including Plotinus, who of course was one; Plato, who may have been; the somewhat odd choices of the novelists Romain Rolland and Benito Pérez Galdós (the great Spanish liberal novelist); and then Leo Tolstoy, because he represented the “genuine modern incarnation of the Christian spirit.”

In this profusion of the written word that included so many writers of the highest worth, excluded others equally great, and perhaps spent too much publishing ink on Vasconcelos's personal hobby horses, certain patterns can be seen, apparently innocuous in the midst of all this immense cultural contribution, but signs of the great man's limitations and even of the truly dark road he would choose to descend in his later middle years. Despite his interest in non-Western cultural trends, for instance, he remains squarely within the Christian (and specifically Catholic) tradition, with no doubts about its cultural and moral superiority. On Buddhism, he recommends incorporating in his project “a reference to Buddhist morality, which is like an annunciation of Christian morality,” an assumption that Vasconcelos, with his fluent English, could already have seen refuted in studies already available on southern (Theravada) Buddhism or even within the somewhat Westernized semi-religion of Theosophy. As for Shakespeare, the picture is a little more complicated. The notion of the absolute literary supremacy of Shakespeare has always been a position less acceptable to Latin cultures than to those strongly influenced by England (most Italian thought, for instance, ranks Dante Alighieri far above Shakespeare in literary skill and useful wisdom). Raised in a culture very committed to primary colors of feeling and morality (though capable of considerable rhetorical overkill), Spaniards and Latin Americans may often be daunted, even bewildered by Shakespeare's profusion of themes, characters, and language (his archaisms, of course, require a bit of study even for educated English-speakers). But in José Vasconcelos, this hesitation before Shakespeare suggests an instinctual rejection (which will become much stronger) of the Anglo-Saxon tradition and its affection for complexity and humor, its implicit democratic view of humanity, even in aristocratic England and of course much more clearly in post-revolutionary America.

And most important, the arrogance of his literary decisions (and the personal authoritarianism of his leadership, even as Rector of the University) reflects an enormously inflated sense of self that, despite his very great intellectual and artistic gifts, easily could lead him into errors of action and judgment. In the same way Plotinus distorts Plato, so Vasconcelos's Plotinus is a truncated Plotinus, with a magnification of the aesthetic—which most mattered to him and occupies only a portion of the
Enneads
—and lip service to the rest. And ultimately derived from Plotinus's revered Plato, a much more equivocal and in part sinister figure than the teacher Socrates begins to emerge as the daimon—Heraclitus's “presiding spirit” too easily translated as “fate”—ruling over Vasconcelos's character: the “philosopher king” of Plato's
Republic
.

Meanwhile, the massive educational adventure continued. He included in his project of publication many “books on the social question that help the oppressed, and that will be chosen by a technical committee along with books of practical application on the arts and industries.” Vasconcelos wanted education to be the job of “crusaders,” of “fervent apostles” filled with the “zeal for charity” and “evangelical ardor.” A campaign against illiteracy began and young intellectuals strode into the slums. Cosío Villegas was one of these “apostles”:

 

And 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, and when he had gotten all of them out of their hiding places, men, women and children, he would begin his litany: the dawn of the new Mexico is already in sight, which we all have to build, but more than anyone, them, the poor, the true support of every society . . . and then the alphabet, the reading of a good piece of prose, and in the end verses, an unequivocal demonstration of what could be done with a language that one knew and loved. Carlos never had an audience that was more attentive, more sensitive, and that came to venerate him.

 

The educational mission “to the people” also involved a huge expansion in public education. Between July and November 1922, for instance, the thirty-five professors of the Department of University Extension and Exchange within the National University (headed by Pedro Henríquez Ureña—the “Sócrates” of the Athenaeum of Youth who had returned from exile) gave three thousand lectures to workers, at their work sites or union halls, on the most varied themes, ranging from the narrowly utilitarian issues of health and hygiene to such subjects as history, patriotism, astronomy, and grammar.

Libraries were another Mexican void that Vasconcelos felt the need to fill. The Porfiriato had left an illiteracy rate of nearly 80 percent among the common people. In the Mexico of 1920, with its 15 million inhabitants, there were only 70 libraries and only 39 of those were public. In 1924, when Vasconcelos left the Ministry of Public Education, there were 1,916 libraries, and 297,103 books had been distributed among them. In the words once again of Cosío Villegas, nostalgically remembering his youth as a devoted participant in this mission of education:

 

Then 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 and decorating its dome with brilliant mosaics that, for the traveler, would announce that a place was nearby where he could rest and gather his senses.

 

Vasconcelos, who would be given the honorific of
Maestro de América
(Teacher of America), thought that “the schools are not creative institutions” and that the most important teachers were “the missionary teachers” who would travel through the country (like the Franciscans and Dominicans after the Conquest) carrying with them the good news of a government concerned with the most needy among its people and anxious to offer them the benefits of culture. The good news now was not a sermon but a collection of books. The teachers carried traveling libraries with them. Jaime Torres Bodet, Vasconcelos's private secretary, described how it was done: “Some fifty volumes were carried around in a wooden crate that could be loaded on the back of a mule, to reach places far from a railroad line.”

In the main quadrangle of the building that housed the Ministry of Public Education, Vasconcelos erected four statues, representing Greece, Spain, the Buddha—“as a suggestion of how, in . . . this Indo-Iberic race the East and the West, the North and the South have to unite . . . in a new amorous and synthesized culture”—and in the fourth corner, the figure of an Aztec warrior “to remember the refined art of the indigenes and the myth of Quetzalcoatl.”

Meanwhile, the highly selective disciple of Plotinus devoted much of his free time to the cultivation of beauty with a list of lovers. When Berta Singerman, the famous Argentine
declamadora
(public performer of poetry, a profession then much valued), came to visit Mexico, Vasconcelos seduced her and paid his homage to the “refined art of the indigenes” through an act of love somewhere within one of the pyramids of the ancient temple complex of Teotihuacan.

 

VI

The foundation myth of the Mexican Revolution was created most centrally through the visual arts under the patronage of José Vasconcelos and as another, highly important and original feature of his educational mission. He had spent much of his time in exile absorbing the masterpieces in American and European museums. His philosophical essays would interpret the world as a dance of the spirit, rising toward a musical, “Pythagorean” harmony. He saw himself as the restorer of a higher aesthetic. In architecture he argued for a return to the old colonial tradition, especially the Mexican eighteenth century. Aesthetics dominated his entire outlook, including his sometimes idiosyncratic but impressive assemblage of literary heroes. In those days he thought that opera was destined to disappear (though not Wagner), and that music and dance—like Isadora Duncan interpreting Beethoven—would be the unified art of the future.

For the good of his native Mexico, Vasconcelos took hold of the aesthetic ferment dating back to 1915 and helped to give it an unexpected dimension, above all in the new mural painting. He coordinated the work of the three great muralists—Orozco, Rivera, and Siqueiros—as well as lesser talents and he gave them the walls of public buildings so that they might present the cultural rebirth of the country to the widest possible audience. Around 1931, in his short essay on “Mexican Painting”—with its subtitle of “The Maecenas,” presumably comparing himself to Virgil's famous patron—he allows God Himself to speak in support of his project, as if to praise a cosmically sanctioned cultural
caudillo
in distinctly authoritarian terms:

 

In the breast of all this anarchic humanity there will periodically appear those men who make order: to impose my law, forgotten because of the dispersal of paradisiacal faculties. They will be unified men, born chiefs . . . Through them the rhythm of the spirit will be victorious! Sometimes illuminated Buddhas, sometimes coordinating philosophers, their mission will be to unite the dispersed faculties, to give complete expression to the epochs, the races and the worlds.

 

Like many patrons, he overstates his own purely artistic importance. Without his plan, his “religious” doctrine that he had transmitted to them—as an intermediary of God (rather like the Plotinian demiurge who is an intermediary for the featureless One without qualities)—he asserts that these great painters would have remained only “noisy mediocrities.”

What is true—above and beyond all that Vasconcelian noise—is that their patron gave them the support and venues that opened the gates to the golden age of Mexican muralism. To decorate the centuries-old walls of the National Preparatory School (the former College of the Jesuits) Vasconcelos contracted José Clemente Orozco, a powerful painter of anarchist predilections who participated in the Revolution. His murals would reflect the pain and striving and tragedy that Orozco had witnessed, including moments of redemption but with little propagandistic charge. For the corridor of his Ministry of Public Education, Vasconcelos wanted a festive, hopeful vision and so he invited “our great artist, Diego Rivera.” The role of the Maecenas, according to José Vasconcelos, necessarily involved a measure of interference: “ . . . the Maecenas not only gives . . . money but also the plan and the theme.”

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