Monday, April 18, 2011

Book 56, Uruguay: "Ariel" by José Enrique Rodó

This here's one of the iconic texts of Latin America, composed in the age of Modernismo as a manifesto for the emergent 20th century. There's an English translation in print out there but the Amazon Kindle download turns out to be in Spanish, which is why I'm this tardy in finishing my read of a mere 100ish-page essay.

And good lord, this is another of those weird texts - my Spanish is shaky, so I may be mistaken in many of my impressions - but first of all Rodó is characterising Latin America as Ariel, the blithe spirit of Shakespeare's Tempest, while the United States is Caliban - an idea that runs completely counter to postcolonial readings of Ariel as the neocolonial native whom Prospero uses to rule by proxy, with Caliban as the indigenous figure whose fate under either government is to be oppressed. We'd normally associate the rich, white and comparatively sophisticated USA with Ariel, surely?

But Rodó's all about the idea of Ariel as the spirit of youth and culture and moral philosophy, emblematic of the greatest achievements of Athens (yes, the guy is the ultimate Hellenomaniac). This is the path that he insists that turn-of-the-last-century Latin America has the choice to pursue.

North America, meanwhile, is corporate, corrupt, debased by that foulest of systems... DEMOCRACY. Yes, true enough, Rodó shows utter disdain for democracy, claiming that rule by the masses will lead to a decline in artistic and cultural standards, yadda yadda. He seeks instead a rule by the elite - not a hereditary elite, but a chosen elite, an aristocracy in the original sense of the word.

Democracy, he says, is only conscionable if it's democracy geared towards a spiritual uplifting of the population - awakening the populace to the higher things in life.

The net effect is that the text seems simultaneously stuck in the 5th century BCE and the late 20th/21st century: there's all this poetic invocation of the Golden Age of the Greeks with a similar disregard for their slave-owning atrocities, but the direct attacks on American politics and pop culture seem drawn directly from Theodor Adorno and Chomsky (although Rodó, the poor sap, thinks that the USA is foolish to believe it can really become a hegemonic political power without going through centuries of development as the nations of Europe have).

The thought occurs to me that Rodó would love Singapore, since our government does very much believe in a system of philosopher-king autocracy and elitism more than democracy by numbers. But then how would he look at the strained relationship between the state and the arts? Ah, he'd probably be okay with it. Moldy old bastard probably wouldn't give two hoots about freedom of speech and gay sex.

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Representative quote:
¿No la veréis vosotros la América que nosotros soñamos; hospitalaria para las cosas del espíritu, y no tan sólo para las muchedumbres que se amparen a ella; pensadora, sin menoscabo de su aptitud para la acción; serena y firme a pesar de sus entusiasmos generosos; resplandeciente con el encanto de una seriedad temprana y suave, como la que realza la expresión de un rostro infantil cuando en él se revela, al través de la gracia intacta que fulgura, el pensamiento inquieto que despierta?...—Pensad en ella a lo menos; el honor de vuestra historia futura depende de que tengáis constantemente ante los ojos del alma la visión de esa América regenerada, cerniéndose de lo alto sobre las realidades del presente, como en la nave gótica el vasto rosetón que arde en luz sobre lo austero de los muros sombríos.

Next book: Silvina Ocampo's La autobiografía de Irene, from Argentina.

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