In honor of the great Carlos Fuentes, who passed away last month, Dalkey Archive is pleased to present the text of his 1983 Harvard commencement lecture.
Lech Wałęsa--activist, co-founder of Solidarity (the first anti-Soviet trade union in a Warsaw Pact country), and later President of Poland--had been invited by Harvard to receive an honorary degree and deliver a speech of his own on this occasion, but Mr. Wałęsa finally declined to appear, as he feared he would not be allowed to return to Poland if he attended. Mr. Fuentes's remarks take this as a starting point to address U.S.-Latin American relations as they stood at the time, from the perspective of a Mexican author. His statements are no less relevant today.
A Harvard Commencement
Some time ago, I was traveling in the state of Morelos in central Mexico, looking for the birthplace of Emiliano Zapata, the village of Anenecuilco. I stopped and asked a campesino, a laborer of the fields, how far it was to that village. He answered: "If you had left at daybreak, you would be there now." This man had an internal clock which marked his own time and that of his culture. For the clocks of all men and women, of all civilizations, are not set at the same hour. One of the wonders of our menaced globe is the variety of its experiences, its memories, and its desire. Any attempt to impose a uniform politics on this diversity is like a prelude to death.
Lech Walesa is a man who started out at daybreak, at the hour when the history of Poland demanded that the people of Poland act to solve the problems that a repressive government and a hollow party no longer knew how to solve. We in Latin America who have practiced solidarity with Solidarity salute Lech Walesa today. The honor done to me by this great center of learning, Harvard University, is augmented by the circumstances in which I receive it. I accept this honor as a citizen of Mexico, and as a writer from Latin America.
Let me speak to you as such. As a Mexican first. The daybreak of a movement of social and political renewal cannot be set by calendars other than those of the people involved. Revolutions cannot be exported. With Walesa and Solidarity, it was the internal clock of the people of Poland that struck the morning hour. So it has always been: with the people of Massachusetts in 1776; with the people of my country during our revolutionary experience; with the people of Central America in the hour we are all living. The dawn of revolution reveals the total history of a community. This is a self-knowledge that a society cannot be deprived of without grave consequences.
The Experience of Mexico
The Mexican Revolution was the object of constant harassment, pressures, menaces, boycotts, and even a couple of armed interventions between 1910 and 1932. It was extremely difficult for the United States administrations of the time to deal with violent and rapid change on the southern border of your country. Calvin Coolidge convened both houses of Congress in 1927 and—talkative for once—denounced Mexico as the source of "Bolshevik" subversion in Central America. This set the scene for the third invasion of Nicaragua by U.S. Marines in this century. We were the first domino. But precisely because of our revolutionary policies (favoring agrarian reform, secular education, collective bargaining, and recovery of natural resources)—all of them opposed by the successive governments in Washington, from Taft to Hoover—Mexico became a modern, contradictory, self-knowing, and self-questioning nation. By the way, she also became the third-largest customer of the United States in the world—and your principal supplier of foreign oil.
The revolution did not make an instant democracy out of my country. But the first revolutionary government, that of Francisco I. Madero, was the most democratic regime we have ever had: Madero respected free elections, a free press, and an unfettered congress. Significantly, Madero was promptly overthrown by a conspiracy of the American ambassador, Henry Lane Wilson, and a group of reactionary generals.
So, before becoming a democracy, Mexico first had to become a nation. What the revolution gave us all was the totality of our history and the possibility of a culture. "The revolution," wrote my compatriot, the great poet Octavio Paz, "is a sudden immersion of Mexico in its own being. In the revolutionary explosion . . . each Mexican . . . finally recognizes, in a mortal embrace, the other Mexican." Paz himself, Diego Rivera and Carlos Chávez, Mariano Azuela and José Clemente Orozco, Juan Rulfo and Rufino Tamayo: we all exist and work because of the revolutionary experience of our country. How can we stand by as this experience is denied, through ignorance and arrogance, to other people, our brothers, in Central America and the Caribbean?
A great statesman is a pragmatic idealist. Franklin D. Roosevelt had the political imagination and the diplomatic will to respect Mexico when President Lázaro Cárdenas (in the culminating act of the Mexican Revolution) expropriated the nation's oil resources in 1938. Instead of menacing, sanctioning, or invading, Roosevelt negotiated. He did not try to beat history. He joined it. Will no one in this country imitate him today? The lessons applicable to the current situation in Latin America are inscribed in the history—the very difficult history—of Mexican-American relations. Why have they not been learned?
In today's world, intervention evokes a fearful symmetry. As the United States feels itself authorized to intervene in Central America to put out a fire in your front yard—I'm delighted that we have been promoted from the traditional status of back yard—then the Soviet Union also feels authorized to play the fireman in all of its front and back yards. Intervention damages the fabric of a nation, the chance of resurrecting its history, the wholeness of its cultural identity.
I have witnessed two such examples of wholesale corruption by intervention in my lifetime. One was in Czechoslovakia in the fall of 1968. I was there then to support my friends the writers, students, and statesmen of the Prague Spring. I heard them give thanks, at least, for their few months of freedom as night fell once more upon them: the night of Kafka, where nothing is remembered but nothing is forgiven.
The other time was in Guatemala in 1954, when the democratically elected government was overthrown by a mercenary invasion openly backed by the CIA. The political process of reform and self-recognition in Guatemala was brutally interrupted to no one's benefit. Guatemala was condemned to a vicious circle of repression that continues to this day. John Foster Dulles proclaimed this "a glorious victory for democracy." This is the high noon of Pollyanna: everything is forgiven because everything is forgotten.
Intervention is defined as the actions of the paramount regional power against a smaller state within its so called sphere of influence. Intervention is defined by its victims. But the difference between the actions of the Soviet Union and the United States in their respective spheres of influence is that the Soviet regime is a tyranny and you are a democracy. Yet more and more, over the past two years, I have heard North Americans in responsible positions speak of not caring whether the United States is loved, but whether it is feared; not whether the rights of others are respected, but whether its own strategic interests are defended. These are inclinations that we have come to associate with the brutal diplomacy of the Soviet Union.
But we, the true friends of your great nation in Latin America, we the admirers of your extraordinary achievements in literature, science, and the arts, and of your democratic institutions, of your Congress and your courts, your universities and publishing houses, and your free press—we, your true friends, because we are your friends, will not permit you to conduct yourselves in Latin American affairs as the Soviet Union conducts itself in East European and Central Asian affairs. You are not the Soviet Union. We shall be the custodian of your own true interests by helping you to avoid these mistakes. We have memory on our side. You suffer too much from historical amnesia. You seem to have forgotten that your own republic was born out of the barrel of a gun. We hope to have persuasion on our side, and the help of international and inter-American law.
We also have our own growing apprehension as to whether, under the guise of defending us from remote Soviet menaces and delirious domino effects, the United States would create one vast Latin American protectorate. Meeting at Cancún on April 29 (1983), the presidents of Mexico and Brazil, Miguel de la Madrid and João Figueiredo, agreed that "the Central American crisis has its origin in the economic and social structures prevalent in the region and [that] the efforts to overcome it must … avoid the tendency to define it as a chapter in East-West confrontation." And the prime minister of Spain, Felipe González, on the eve of his visit to Washington, defined U.S. involvements in Central America as "fundamentally harmful" to the nations of the region and damaging to the international standing of the United States.
Yes, your alliances will crumble and your security will be endangered if you do not demonstrate that you are an enlightened, responsible power in your dealings with Latin America. Yes, you must demonstrate your humanity and your intelligence here, in this hemisphere we share, or nowhere shall you be democratically credible. Where are the Franklin Roosevelts, the Sumner Welleses, the George Marshalls, and the Dean Achesons demanded by the times?
Friends and Satellites
The great weakness of the Soviet Union is that it is surrounded by satellites, not by friends. Sooner or later, the rebellion of the outlying nations in the Soviet sphere will eat, more and more deeply, into the innards of what Lord Carrington recently called "a decaying Byzantium." The United States has the great strength of having friends, not satellites, on its borders. Canada and Mexico are two independent nations that disagree on many issues with the United States.
We know that in public life, as in personal life, nothing is more destructive of the self than being surrounded by sycophants. But just as there are yes-men in this world, there are yes-nations. A yes-nation harms itself as much as it harms its powerful protector: it deprives both of dignity, foresight, and the sense of reality. Nevertheless, Mexico has been chosen as a target of "diplomatic isolation" by the National Security Council Document on Policy in Central America and Cuba through fiscal year '84.
We know in Latin America that “isolation” can be a euphemism for destabilization. Indeed, every time a prominent member of the administration in Washington refers to Mexico as the ultimate domino, a prominent member of the administration in Mexico City must stop in his tracks, offer a rebuttal, and consolidate the nationalist legitimization of the Mexican government: Mexico is capable of governing itself without outside interference.
But if Mexico is a domino, then it fears being pushed from the north rather than from the south; such has been our historical experience. This would be the ultimate accomplishment of Washington's penchant for the self fulfilling prophecy: a Mexico destabilized by American nightmares about Mexico. We should all be warned about this. Far from being "blind" or "complacent," Mexico is offering its friendly hand to the United States to help it avoid the repetition of costly historical mistakes that have deeply hurt us all, North and Latin Americans.
Public opinion in this country shall judge whether Mexico's obvious good faith in this matter is spurned as the United States is driven into a deepening involvement in the Central American swamp: a Vietnam all the more dangerous, indeed, because of its nearness to your national territory, but not for the reasons officially invoked. The turmoil of revolution, if permitted to run its course, promptly finds its institutional channels. But if thwarted by intervention it will plague the United States for decades to come. Central America and the Caribbean will become the Banquo of the United States: an endemic drain on your human and material resources.
The source of change in Latin America is not in Moscow or Havana: it is in history. So let me turn to ourselves, as Latin Americans.
Four Failures of Identification
The failure of your present hemispheric policies is due to a fourfold failure of identification. The first is the failure to identify change in Latin America in its cultural context. The second is the failure to identify nationalism as the historical bearer of change in Latin America. The third is the failure to identify the problems of in international redistribution of power as they affect Latin America. The fourth is the failure to identify the grounds for negotiations as these issues create conflict between the United States and Latin America.
The Cultural Context of Latin America
First, the cultural context of change in Latin America. Our societies are marked by cultural continuity and political discontinuity. We are a Balkanized polity, yet we are deeply united by a common cultural experience. We are and we are not of the West. We are Indian, black, and Mediterranean. We received the legacy of the West in an incomplete fashion, deformed by the Spanish monarchy's decision to outlaw unorthodox strains, to mutilate the Iberian tree of its Arab and Jewish branches, heavy with fruit, to defeat the democratic yearnings of its own middle class, and to superimpose the vertical structures of the medieval Imperium on the equally pyramidal configuration of power in the Indian civilizations of the Americas.
The United States is the only major power of the West that was born beyond the Middle Ages, modern at birth. As part of the fortress of the Counter-Reformation, Latin America has had to do constant battle with the past. We did not acquire freedom of speech, freedom of belief, freedom of enterprise as our birthrights, as you did. The complexity of the cultural struggles underlying our political and economic struggles has to do with unresolved tensions, sometimes as old as the conflict between pantheism and monotheism, or as recent as the conflict between tradition and modernity. This is our cultural baggage, both heavy and rich.
The issues we are dealing with, behind the headlines, are very old. They are finally being aired today, but they originated in colonial, sometimes in pre-Conquest, situations, and they are embedded in the culture of Iberian Catholicism and its emphasis on dogma and hierarchy—an intellectual inclination that sometimes drives us from one church to another in search of refuge and certitude. They are bedeviled by patrimonial confusions between private and public rights and forms of sanctified corruption that include nepotism, whim, and the irrational economic decisions made by the head of the clan, untrammeled by checks and balances. The issues have to do with the traditions of paternalistic surrender to the caudillo, the profound faith in ideas over facts, the strength of elitism and personalism, and the weakness of the civil societies—with the struggles between theocracy and political institutions, and between centralism and local government.
Since independence in the 1820s, we have been obsessed with catching up with the Joneses: the West. We created countries legal in appearance but which disguised the real countries abiding—or festering—behind the constitutional façades. Latin America has tried to find solutions to its old problems by exhausting the successive ideologies of the West: liberalism, positivism, and Marxism. Today we are on the verge of transcending this dilemma by recasting it as an opportunity, at last, to be ourselves—societies neither new nor old, but simply, authentically, Latin American, as we sort out, in the excessive glare of instant communications or in the eternal dusk of our isolated villages, the benefits and the disadvantages of a tradition that now seems richer and more acceptable than it did one hundred years of solitude ago.
But we are also forced to contemplate the benefits and disadvantages of a modernity that now seems less promising than it did before economic crisis, the tragic ambiguity of science, and the barbarism of nations and philosophies that were once supposed to represent "progress" all drove us to search for the time and space of culture in ourselves. We are true children of Spain and Portugal. We have compensated for the failures of history with the successes of art. We are now moving to what our best novels and poems and paintings and films and dances and thoughts have announced for so long: the compensation for the failures of history with the successes of politics.
The real struggle for Latin America is then, as always, a struggle with ourselves, within ourselves. We must solve it by ourselves. Nobody else can truly know it: we are living through our family quarrels. We must assimilate this conflicted past. Sometimes we must do it—as has occurred in Mexico, Cuba, El Salvador, and Nicaragua—through violent means. We need time and culture. We also need patience. Both ours and yours.
Nationalism in Latin America
Second, the identification of nationalism as the legitimate bearer of change in Latin America. The cultural conflict I have evoked includes the stubbornness of the minimal popular demands, after all these centuries, which equate freedom with bread, schools, hospitals, national independence, and a sense of dignity. If left to ourselves, we will try to solve these problems by creating national institutions to deal with them. All we ask from you is cooperation, trade, and normal diplomatic relations. Not your absence, but your civilized presence.
We must grow with our own mistakes. Are we to be considered your true friends only if we are ruled by right-wing, anti-communist despotisms? Instability in Latin America—or anywhere in the world, for that matter—comes when societies cannot see themselves reflected in their institutions.
Democracy in Latin America
Change in our societies shall be radical in two dimensions. Externally, it will be more radical the more the United States intervenes against it or helps to postpone it. Internally, it will of necessity be radical in that it must one day face up to the challenges we have so far been unable to meet squarely. We must face democracy along with reform; we must face cultural integrity along with change; we must all, Cubans, Salvadorans, Nicaraguans and Argentines, Mexicans and Colombians, finally face the question that awaits us on the threshold of our true history: Are we capable, with all the instruments of our civilization, of creating free societies, societies that take care of the basic needs of health, education, and labor, but without sacrificing the equally basic needs of debate, criticism, and political and cultural expression?
I know that all of us, without exception, have not truly fulfilled these needs in Latin America. I also know that the transformation of our national movements into pawns of the East-West conflict makes it impossible for us to answer this question: Are we capable of creating free national societies? This is perhaps our severest test.
Rightly or wrongly, many Latin Americans have come to identify the United States with opposition to our national independence. Some perceive in United States policies the proof that the real menace to a great power is not really the other great power but the independence of the national states. How else to understand U.S. actions that seem meaninglessly obsessed with discrediting the national revolutions in Latin America? Some are thankful that another great power exists, and appeal to it. All this also escalates and denaturalizes the issues at hand and avoids considering the third failure I want to deal with today: the failure to understand redistribution of power in the Western Hemisphere.
Latin America and the Redistribution of Power
It could be debated whether the explosiveness of many Latin American societies is due less to stagnation than to growth, the quickest growth of any region in the world since 1945. But this has been rapid growth without equally rapid distribution of the benefits of growth. And it has coincided, internationally, with rapidly expanding relations between Latin America and new European and Asian partners in trade, financing, technology, and political support.
Latin America is thus part and parcel of the universal trend away from bipolar to multipolar or pluralistic structures in international relations. Given this trend, the decline of one superpower mirrors the decline of the other superpower. This is bound to create numerous areas of conflict. As former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt eloquently expressed it from this same rostrum: “We are living in an economically interdependent world of more than 150 countries—without having enough experience in managing this interdependence.” Both superpowers increasingly face a perfectly logical movement toward national self-assertion accompanied by growing multilateral relationships beyond the decaying spheres of influence.
No change comes without tension, and in Latin America this tension arises as we strive for greater wealth and independence, but also as we immediately start losing both, because of internal economic injustice and external economic crisis. The middle classes we have spawned over the past fifty years are shaken by a revolution of diminishing expectations—of Balzacian “lost illusions.” Modernity and its values are coming under critical fire while the values of nationalism are discovered to be perfectly identifiable with traditionalist, even conservative, considerations.
The mistaken identification of change in Latin America as somehow manipulated by a Soviet conspiracy not only irritates the nationalism of the left. It also resurrects the nationalist fervors of the right—where, after all, Latin American nationalism was born in the early nineteenth century.
You have yet to feel the full force of this backlash—which reappeared in Argentina and the South Atlantic crisis last year—in places such as El Salvador and Panama, Peru and Chile, Mexico, and Brazil. A whole continent, in the name of cultural identity, nationalism and international independence, is capable of uniting against you. This should not happen. The chance of avoiding this continental confrontation is in the fourth and final issue I wish to deal with today, that of negotiations.
Negotiations Before It Is Too Late
Before the United States has to negotiate with extreme cultural, nationalistic, and internationalist pressures of both the left and the right in the remotest nations of this hemisphere (Chile and Argentina), in the largest nation (Brazil), and in the closest (Mexico), it should rapidly, in its own interest as well as ours, negotiate in Central America and the Caribbean. We consider in Mexico that each and every one of the points of conflict in the region can be solved diplomatically, through negotiations, before it is too late. There is no fatality in politics that says: Given a revolutionary movement in any country in the region, it will inevitably end up providing bases for the Soviet Union.
What happens between the daybreak of revolution in a marginal country and its imagined destiny as a Soviet base? If nothing happens but harassment, blockades, propaganda, pressures, and invasions against the revolutionary country, then that prophecy will become self fulfilling.
But if power with historical memory and diplomacy with historical imagination come into play, we, the United States and Latin America, might end up with something very different: a Latin America of independent states building institutions of stability, renewing the culture of national identity, diversifying our economic interdependence, and wearing down the dogmas of two musty nineteenth century philosophies. And a United States giving the example of a tone in relations that is present, active, cooperative, respectful, aware of cultural differences, and truly proper for a great power unafraid of ideological labels, capable of coexisting with diversity in Latin America as it has learned to coexist with diversity in black Africa.
Precisely twenty years ago, John F. Kennedy said at another commencement ceremony: "If we cannot now end our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity." This, I think, is the greatest legacy of the sacrificed statesman whose death we all mourned. Let us understand that legacy, by which death ceased to be an enigma and became, not a lament for what might have been, but a hope for what can be. This can be.
The longer the situation of war lasts in Central America and the Caribbean, the more difficult it will be to assure a political solution. The more difficult it will be for the Sandinistas to demonstrate good faith in their dealings with the issues of internal democracy, now brutally interrupted by a state of emergency imposed as a response to foreign pressures. The more difficult it will be for the civilian arm of the Salvadoran rebellion to maintain political initiative over the armed factions. The greater the irritation of Panama with its unchosen role as a springboard for a North American war. The greater the danger of a generalized conflict, dragging in Costa Rica and Honduras.
Everything can be negotiated in Central America and the Caribbean, before it is too late. Non aggression pacts between each and every state. Border patrols. The interdiction of the passage of arms, wherever they may come from, and the interdiction of foreign military advisers, wherever they may come from. The reduction of all the armies in the region. The interdiction, now or ever, of Soviet bases or Soviet offensive capabilities in the area.
What would be the quid pro quo? Simply this: the respect of the United States, respect for the integrity and autonomy of all the states in the region, including normalization of relations with all of them. The countries in the region should not be forced to seek solutions to their problems outside themselves.
The problems of Cuba are Cuban and shall be so once more when the United States understands that by refusing to talk to Cuba on Cuba, it not only weakens Cuba and the United States but strengthens the Soviet Union. The mistake of spurning Cuba's constant offers to negotiate whatever the United States wants to discuss frustrates the forces in Cuba desiring greater internal flexibility and international independence. Is Fidel Castro some sort of superior Machiavelli whom no gringo negotiator can meet at a bargaining table without being bamboozled? I don't believe it.
The problems of Nicaragua are Nicaraguan, but they will cease to be so if that country is deprived of all possibility for normal survival. Why is the United States so impatient with four years of Sandinismo, when it was so tolerant of forty five years of Somocismo? Why is it so worried about free elections in Nicaragua, but so indifferent to free elections in Chile? And why, if it respects democracy so much, did the United States not rush to the defense of the democratically elected President of Chile, Salvador Allende, when he was overthrown by the Latin American Jaruzelski, General Augusto Pinochet? How can we live and grow together on the basis of such hypocrisy?
Nicaragua is being attacked and invaded by forces sponsored by the United States. It is being invaded by counterrevolutionary bands led by former commanders of Somoza's national guard who are out to overthrow the revolutionary government and reinstate the old tyranny. Who will stop them from doing so if they win? These are not freedom fighters. They are Benedict Arnolds.
The problems of El Salvador, finally, are Salvadoran. The Salvadoran rebellion did not originate and is not manipulated from outside El Salvador. To believe this is akin to crediting Soviet accusations that the Solidarity movement in Poland is somehow the creature of the United States. The passage of arms from Nicaragua to El Salvador has not been proved; no arms have been intercepted.
The conflict in El Salvador is the indigenous result of a process of political corruption and democratic impossibility that began in 1931 with the overturn of the electoral results by the army and culminated in the electoral fraud of 1972, which deprived the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats of their victory and forced the sons of the middle class into armed insurrection. The army had exhausted the electoral solution. This army continues to outwit everyone in El Salvador—including the United States. It announces elections after assassinating the political leadership of the opposition, then asks the opposition to come back and participate in these same hastily organized elections—as dead souls, perhaps? This Gogolian scenario means that truly free elections cannot be held in El Salvador as long as the army and the death squads are unrestrained and fueled by U.S. dollars.
Nothing now assures Salvadorans that the army and the death squads can either defeat the rebels or be controlled by political institutions. It is precisely because of the nature of the army that a political settlement must be reached in El Salvador promptly, not only to stop the horrendous death count, not only to restrain both the army and the armed rebels, not only to assure your young people in the United States that they will not be doomed to repeat the horror and futility of Vietnam, but to reconstruct a political initiative of the center left majority that must now reflect, nevertheless, the need for a reconstructed army. El Salvador cannot be governed with such a heavy burden of crime.
The only other option is to transform the war in El Salvador into an American war. But why should a bad foreign policy be bipartisan? Without the rebels in El Salvador, the United States would never have worried about "democracy" in El Salvador. If the rebels are denied political participation in El Salvador, how long will it be before El Salvador is totally forgotten once more?
Friends, not Satellites
Let us remember, let us imagine, let us reflect. The United States can no longer go it alone in Central America and the Caribbean. It cannot, in today's world, practice the anachronistic policies of the "big stick." It will only achieve, if it does so, what it cannot truly want. Many of our countries are struggling to cease being banana republics. They do not want to become balalaika republics. Do not force them to choose between appealing to the Soviet Union or capitulating to the United States.
My plea is this: Do not practice negative overlordship in this hemisphere. Practice positive leadership. Join the forces of change and patience and identity in Latin America.
The United States should use the new realities of redistributed world power to its advantage. All the avenues I have been dealing with come together now to form a circle of possible harmony. The United States has true friends in this hemisphere. Friends, not satellites. These friends must negotiate the situations that the United States, while participating in them, cannot possibly negotiate for itself, and the negotiating parties—from Mexico and Venezuela, Panama and Colombia, tomorrow perhaps our great Portuguese-speaking sister, Brazil,* perhaps the new Spanish democracy, reestablishing the continuum of our Iberian heritage and expanding the Contadora group—these negotiating parties have the intimate knowledge of the underlying cultural problems. And they have the imagination for assuring the inevitable passage from the U.S. sphere of influence, not to the Soviet sphere, but to our own Latin American authenticity in a pluralistic world.
My friend Milan Kundera, the Czech novelist, makes a plea for "the small cultures" from the wounded heart of Central Europe. I have tried to echo it today from the convulsed heart of Latin America. Politicians will disappear. The United States and Latin America will remain. What sort of neighbors will you have? What sort of neighbors will we have? That will depend on the quality of our memory and also of our imagination.
"If we had started out at daybreak, we would he there now." Our times have not coincided. Your daybreak came quickly. Our night has been long. But we can overcome the distance between our times if we can both recognize that the true duration of the human heart is in the present, this present in which we remember and we desire; this present where our past and our future are one.
Reality is not the product of an ideological phantasm. It is the result of history. And history is something we have created ourselves. We are thus responsible for our history. No one was present in the past. But there is no living present with a dead past. No one has been present in the future. But there is no living present without the imagination of a better world. We both made the history of this hemisphere. We must both remember it. We must both imagine it.
We need your memory and your imagination or ours shall never be complete. You need our memory to redeem your past, and our imagination to complete your future. We may be here on this hemisphere for a long time. Let us remember one another. Let us respect one another. Let us walk together outside the night of repression and hunger and intervention, even if for you the sun is at high noon and for us at a quarter to twelve.
June 7, 1983
*In 1985, Brazil, Argentina, Peru, and Uruguay formed a support group to the original Contadora Four. These eight nations account for 80 percent of the resources, population, and territory of Latin America. Yet their efforts toward a concerted negotiation of peace in Central America have been constantly thwarted by the Reagan Administration's unique obsession with unseating the revolutionary government in Managua through a mercenary group totally dependent on U.S. support and direction. Contadora's diplomatic proposals have not been given a chance. Basically, they consist in reaching agreements on security of borders and the interdiction of passage of arms, foreign military bases and advisers, and support for guerrilla groups. In August 1987, the Central American nations took matters into their own hands: the Arias peace plan is a Central American declaration of independence. The ideal of a neutral, demilitarized Central America is a possibility; but you have to start somewhere. A policy of disregard for inter-American and international law (mining of Nicaraguan harbors, printing booklets with homicidal instructions for use by the contras, terrorism inside Nicaragua, deviation of funds to the contras from arms sales to Iran, etc.) means starting from nowhere and ending in a regional conflagration that can only spell destabilization for Third countries: exactly what U.S. security interests should try to avoid. The Reagan Administration prefers to manipulate its contras than to listen to the continental majority. This scornful attitude has added insult to injury: as the Reagan government went into decline, inter-American relations were in a shambles. We must start thinking of a new, constructive agenda for relations between the U.S. and Latin America, beyond 1988 and into the twenty-first century.—February 1987.
Opinions on International Literature, National Literature, Publishing Translations, and Creative Writing Programsby Martin Riker
Although Dalkey Archive Press is known in part for our interest in books from other countries, I have to say I'm not very interested personally in the concept of "foreign literature." I don't care about publishing "foreign books," even though we publish a lot of them. I prefer to think that we understand literature to be an international art form, and we decide what to publish based upon how much we like each book. I once heard Colum McCann say that readers are all "citizens of the nation of literature," which is more or less how I feel about it.
A friend of mine who runs an organization that promotes translation has a funny line: "We live in a country where the literature of the rest of the world is considered a niche market." She's right, of course, but accuracy is not ultimately the point of this statement. There's an expediency and a promotional value to talking about literature in the us-them way, turning translation into an "issue," and, moreover, there are plenty of legitimate reasons for doing so. Unfortunately, there's also a downside. It's no secret that a culture in which literature is valued primarily as a commodity (how much of the book market is X, how much is Y) tends to resist or even be hostile toward discussion of artistic value, since these two ways of thinking are so often at odds. Of course the market-focused portion of our book culture sneers at discussions of "art," since art is an unquantifiable value and therefore, in terms of the market, at best a vapid pretension, and at worst a distraction from what really matters (numbers of reader-consumers). This is the case even among the legitimately well-wishing, e.g.: "Reading itself is in jeopardy! People are getting dumber every day! This is no time to talk about art!" Fine, okay. The problem is that when those of us who do care about art start talking only about the market (in order to gain the support of those who think only in terms of the market) we find ourselves with no one left to talk, and ultimately to care, about art.
This situation has real-life implications. I'll give the following as an example, both because it happened not long ago, and because the mentality behind it is happening all the time.
The cultural agency from Foreign Nation assembles a group of Translation Publishers (publishers with at least some translated books) for a conference to discuss the “state of translation.” The Translation Publishers attend in part because Foreign Nation provides subsidies to help pay for the publication of books from their country, which is of course very helpful and necessary to publishers in Domestic Nation, where literature from the rest of the world is considered a niche market. At this conference, the cultural dignitaries of Foreign Nation announce their new plan to improve the “state of translation” in Domestic Nation by offering publishers financial support to publish books that are pre-selected by themselves, or by themselves in cooperation with a panel of experts.
There are two problems in this scenario. First, there is nothing more deadly to literature than a “panel of experts”; and second, that Foreign Nation, in placing value exclusively on improving the “state of translation” (and, in so doing, imposing their own editorial preferences, which are probably not even legitimate preferences so much as preconceptions about which books from their country will create the best impression abroad), is compromising the very thing that makes any worthwhile publishing house what it is: its artistic vision. Foreign Nation is failing to recognize that good literary publishing houses exist because they care about a particular kind of literary art, and have an aesthetic mission that is at least slightly different from every other good literary publisher. On the other hand, Foreign Nation cannot be assigned all the blame for thinking in this way, since to some extent they are legitimately responding to the us-them rhetoric Translation Publishers have themselves put forth, for sake of expediency and promotional value.
I can imagine that this example might seem esoteric to anyone outside the publishing world, but it isn't without consequence. Such words and actions have direct impact on which books get translated and published and read by English-language readers, and which don't.
Back when I taught undergraduates, I once designed a class the entire purpose of which was to discover whether or not there is such a thing as a uniquely American literature. My intended syllabus included, among others, Whitman, Twain, Dickinson, William Carlos Williams, Gertrude Stein, Stanley Elkin’s The Franchiser, something by DeLillo, and Jaimy Gordon’s wonderful novel Bogeywoman, even though it for some reason reminds me of Kafka’s Amerika, which latter I planned to argue was the opposite of an “American” book. The questions were to be: Do these writers have something in common that other writers do not? And if so (although the answer had to be yes or else it would have been a very short class) what are those things and how do they come about and to what end? I never actually got to teach this class, but it seems likely that if I had, we would have discussed such possibilities as shared cultural conditions, a shared sense of purpose, of history, as well as a more literary sort of inheritance: literary traditions, styles, forms, tropes. If I’d had my way, we would eventually have tried to define a quality that I might have called (and have since called) the “particular energy” of a text.
The Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky has given us what to me is the smartest and most interesting articulation we have about how writers develop their own art in response to life and to artistic traditions. His greatest book on this subject is Energy of Delusion, a book that is far too meandering to summarize, although you can read it if you’re interested because in 2007 Dalkey Archive had it translated and published it. If we hadn’t, you wouldn’t be able to read it, unless you know Russian. Perhaps that is all that needs to be said about the importance of publishing translations.
When writers feed off each others’ stylistic devices or tropes, these tropes start to seem repetitive, deadened. We get writers who “sound like” other writers. The resulting body of work reads like a mass familiarity, a single writer made up of many human beings—but this is not a “national literature.” When writers feed off each other’s energy, on the other hand, this is when we have literary community, and the possibility of talking unsheepishly about a “national literature.”
About this word “energy” I would say: It’s what causes a group of words or sentences or paragraphs to react to each other in a particular way. The key word here is particular. The generalized lacks energy; it is flat, predictable, whereas nothing that is particular is ever predictable, because everything that is particular exists in a specific and dynamic relationship to every other particular thing. I agree with William Carlos Williams when he tells us that “nothing is good save the new” not because I want to start a new revolution of modernist aesthetics but because newness is a quality of particularity (this is almost a truism: without some new element, particularity is impossible), the traditional literary term for which is style.
Style comes before syntax; it’s what creates syntax. Style is the patterning of experience that determines those qualities—linguistic, syntactical, structural, I would even add topical—that set one text apart from another, and a concentration upon (and valuing of) style is one of the key attributes we assign to those texts we call art. Style is the nature of a work’s individuality. It is the sum total of all the ways in which conventions of a language and a culture are appropriated and altered by the writer. Style borrows its material from the world around us but it is always a reinvention of this material. As Roland Barthes puts it: “Style . . . is the aberration of a current usage.”
Another possibility is that “national literature” is really just a market designation, denoting those books that are promoted within the mainstream media in the United States, as opposed to the enormously diverse range of books that are published here to small audiences, such as the many excellent books you find in the Small Press Distribution (SPD) catalog.
Creative Writing Programs
The popular criticism of Creative Writing programs in this country is that they turn out the same sort of writers over and over. This is presumably not because such programs aspire toward an assembly-line model of mass production, but because they are (or are accused of being) artistically self-centered, too narrow in their field of reference. We hear words like “insular” or “navel-gazing.” Of course this is the same criticism the Secretary of the Nobel committee recently waged against the entire American literary culture.
The fact that I have degrees in Creative Writing at the bachelors, masters, and doctoral level does not qualify me for much in this life, but it does qualify me to speak about Creative Writing programs. On this topic I am an indisputable expert, and my own sense of such programs is that they really can go either way. If they go badly, it is primarily for the reason mentioned above. If you stick a group of people in a room together for a few years talking about and criticizing each other and doing almost nothing else, they are inevitably going to move toward each other’s way of thinking. They may not see it this way; on the contrary, they may see themselves as increasingly at odds with one another, their debate as heated as ever, and fail to notice that the outlying terms of this debate have narrowed.
Years ago I saw a young writer, someone who is now well-known and teaches at one of our most prestigious MFA programs, say at a reading that her writing pushes the envelope of American prose fiction. How I wish I were making this up. Then she read from her work, leaving all to wonder at the apparent shrinkage of the American envelope.
Creative Writing Programs
Young writers want other people to like what they write. Stick them in a room together for a few years and they’re going to feel pressure to please each other, whether they like it or not, or whether they realize it or not, and you’re going to end up with a closing down of possibilities. But take the same situation and introduce some new standard into the conversation, some second or third or eleventh idea about what constitutes “good” and what counts as “interesting,” and suddenly instead of closing down possibilities you’ve opened them up. You’ve introduced the notion of permissiveness and called into question existing concepts of value. These new standards can of course come from within a “national literature,” but international literature offers them in endless supply.
Literature thrives on possibility. If a book is boring you are right not to read it (unless it is boring in an interesting way).
Good teachers bring new ideas into the classroom. A healthy literary community is one that is always changing. The worst thing you can do to literature is to try to make it aspire to consensus, to ask it to be relatable to everyone, which is what market pressure does in a culture, what peer pressure does in a Creative Writing workshop, and what a “panel of experts” is totally expert at.
Unlike science, there is no concept of “progress” in art, because art is forever changing its own terms of value, and is at once part of the present moment and existing in a dialectical relationship with that moment. When I read Chekhov it is a contemporary text for me, and this is why it is not “dated” the way theories about the earth being flat are dated. Moreover, Raymond Carver, though claiming Chekhov as a great influence, has not refined Chekhov’s work in any useful way; instead, he’s given us a new particularity—the Carver particularity—that seems meaningfully conversant (or not) with the Chekhov particularity. Literary art refuses to grow old because art is a never-ending process of appropriation and (re)invention; a great literary work is one that retains, by its particularity, all of the energy of the original inventive act.
The important role that literature from other languages plays in shaping the work we think of as American is both totally obvious and hardly talked about at all. Perhaps we need a giant list of great English-language writers and the many foreign-language writers they’ve read. I suppose it would need to be a database, and all the Creative Writing MFA students in the country would be given free access to it. You would type in Paul Auster and suddenly the entire history of French literature would be staring you in the face. Type in Annie Proulx and you’d learn about the incredible Irish writer Aidan Higgins. Type in William T. Vollmann and you’d find Danilo Kis, David Foster Wallace and you’d get Dostoyevski, and on down the line.
Or perhaps it’s enough just to remind ourselves that Goethe, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Lao Tsu, Aristotle, Thomas Mann, The Tale of Genji, Marguerite Duras, Dante, Boccaccio, Georges Perec, Colette, Rabelais, Frederico Garcia Lorca, Dostoyevski, Zola, Apuleius, Manuel Puig, Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Haruki Murakami, Can Xue, Thomas Bernhard, Clarice Lispector, Luisa Valenzuela, Robert Musil, Roberto Bolano, Jaroslav Hasek, Erasmus, One Thousand and One Nights, Pablo Neruda, Sappho, Robert Walser, Simone de Beauvoir, Violette Leduc, Carlos Fuentes, W. G. Sebald, Rainier Maria Rilke, Witold Gombrowicz, Euripides, Viktor Shklovsky, all the Formalists, Futurists, Dadaists, and Surrealists, Albert Camus, Bertolt Brecht, Julio Cortazar, Anna Akhmatova, Mati Unt, all the writers of the “Boom,” most of the writers in the Heinemann African Lit series, Voltaire, Diderot, Italo Calvino, Kenzuburo Oe, Raymond Queneau, Gunter Grass, Franz Kafka, Simone Weil, the Koran, the Talmud, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Bible, to name just a few, all come to us by way of translation.