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Contributors. Lois Parkinson Zamora, David T. Haberly, José David Saldívar, Antonio Benítez-Rojo, José Piedra, Doris Sommer, Enrico Mario Santí, Eduardo González, John Irwin, Wendy B. Faris, René Prieto, Jonathan Monroe, Gustavo Pérez Firmat
Lois Parkinson Zamora
The Usable Past: The Idea of History in Modern U.S. and Latin American Fiction
If Death and Liberty
Can be personified,
Why not History?
It's got to be a fat old man
In faded overalls
Outside a house trailer
On a muddy road to some place
called Pittsfield or Babylon.
He draws the magic circle
So the chickens can't get out,
Then he hobbles to the kitchen
For the knife and pail.
Today he's back carrying
a sack of yellow corn.
You can hear the hens cluck,
The young cocks strut their stuff.
–Charles Simic, "Severe Figures"
That fat old man in the faded overalls is well suited to introduce my essay on historical consciousness in modern U.S. and Latin American fiction. History has indeed been one of the most severe—and recurrent—figures of America's collective imagination. The barnyard fairly reeks of that familiar historical anxiety, the motivation and theme of so much of our fiction. There he goes now, clutching his instruments, terrorizing those dumb clucks whose collective fate he seals. Then again, he's fickle, so tomorrow we may get corn. But what's this? History hobbles? Or is he hobbled by the writers who write him? After all, they too travel along that apocalyptic road to Pittsfield or Babylon. We might easily mistake the old man for the eighth deadly sin in some medieval morality play, ready to take the stage with the likes of gluttony and lust and avarice. But no, he is in fact the first deadly sin of the novel.
So we begin by recalling that the rise of the novel coincided with the impact of the idea of history upon modern consciousness. The reading and writing of history were prominent features of the culture of eighteenth-century Europe. Voltaire's Charles XII and Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire were international best-sellers, as were the forged histories of Macpherson and Chatterton. About England, Hume would declare, "I believe this to be the historical age and this the historical nation," an assertion that might have been made about France and Germany as well. In London, the Society of Antiquaries was founded in 1718, but the startling innovation that was to become characteristic of all modern philosophies of history occurred later, not before the last third of the eighteenth century, and departed distinctly from the historical thinking of Voltaire and Gibbon and Hume. The idea that the meaning of history resides and reveals itself in the historical process, rather than in isolated events, has its roots in the historiographic thinking of Hobbes and Vico, but it found its culminating expression in Hegel's philosophy. Hannah Arendt asserts that the central concept in all of Hegel's metaphysics is history: "This alone places it in the sharpest possible opposition to all previous metaphysics, which since Plato had looked for truth and the revelation of eternal Being everywhere except in the realm of human affairs—of which Plato speaks with such contempt precisely because no permanence could be found in it and therefore it could not be expected to disclose truth." The revolutionary idea that the particular occurrence derives its intelligibility from the process of history as a whole strongly influenced the developing genre of the novel. In his classic exposition of the connection, The Historical Novel, Georg Lukács refers specifically to the Hegelian foundations of the late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century historical novel, and much of what he says can be related to the development of the genre in general.
Lukács is concerned with novelistic representation that is radically and uniquely historical; the development of this representational mode he associates directly with the first generalized—that is, modern—European war. If the idea of history had been revolutionized in the late-eighteenth century, the revolutionizing of the experience of history was soon to follow: Lukács describes the "mass experience of history" occasioned by the French Revolution and the subsequent Napoleonic wars, when for the first time the individual was confronted with the direct reality of world history The advent of mass conscriptions and unlimited geographical warfare made people think globally, and historically. They realized that similar upheavals were taking place everywhere, a realization which must have, Lukács posits, "enormously strengthen[ed] the feeling first that there is such a thing as history, second that it [was] an uninterrupted process of changes and finally that it [had] a direct effect upon the life of every individual." The generalized conflict also awakened national, and nationalistic, sensibilities in Europe: there were altogether new appeals to national character and national history, to past greatness and past dishonors—in short, to the particularities of ethnic and cultural heritage. Thus communities as well as individuals were being made aware of their relationship to world history, a relationship in which change was increasingly viewed qualitatively as well as quantitatively This nascent ideology of progress also found expression in Hegel's philosophy, in his vision of the "world spirit" which is embodied in the dialectics of historical development. Lukács directly links this Hegelian idea to the development of the novel: "According to the new interpretation, the reasonableness of human progress develops ever increasingly out of the inner conflict of social forces in history itself; according to this interpretation history itself is the bearer and realizer of human progress" (25). In a critical discussion too well known to need reiteration here, Lukács makes us aware of the ways in which the basic generic conditions and characteristics of the novel developed alongside the Hegelian concept of the historical character of existence.
If in the mid- to late-eighteenth century the development of modern historical consciousness and the development of the novel impinge and intersect, we would have to say that they parallel the emergence of independent national identities in the Americas. Lukács completely ignores the possible influences of the Americas on European historiography and historical fiction, and Hegel treats America as an exception to his theory of historical dialectics. In The Philosophy of History, Hegel refers generally to the New World, moves to a contrast of English and Spanish America, then returns to generalize about America's lack of a usable history: "It is for America to abandon the ground on which hitherto the History of the World has developed itself. What has taken place in the New World up to the present time is only an echo of the Old World—the expression of a foreign Life; and as the Land of the Future, it has no interest for us here, for ... our concern must be with that which has been and that which is." To participate in the dialectical movement of history, a nation must assimilate and preserve its past by negating it, a process which allows a nation to free itself of its past while at the same time making it an integral part of the present continuity of existence. For Hegel, America had no assimilated past, hence no possibility of historical continuity or national identity: does not the very term "New World" seem to contain and confirm this fact? Hegel concludes: "America is therefore the land of the future, where, in the ages that lie before us, the burden of the World's History shall reveal itself—perhaps in a contest between North and South America" (86).
We will overlook Hegel's depreciation and dismissal of America's indigenous cultural past and observe instead that he correctly foresaw what would become a principal theme of both North and South American literature, the question of America's historical identity. He also foresaw that this American anxiety of origins would be intimately related to the New World's uses of its Old World predecessors, that is, to the historical processes of colonialism and independence in this hemisphere. For though the European concepts of history and nationality to which I have referred evolved without substantial reference to America, the reverse is certainly not true. America's ideas about history and its own historical identity are, of course, profoundly rooted in European philosophy; though almost two hundred years have been added to our history since Hegel's assertion and the directions of domination and influence have changed considerably, the relation of American identity to European cultural models continues to be problematic. Indeed, Hegel himself has proved one of the most difficult of our European predecessors to negate and assimilate. I will refer in some detail to novels by Willa Cather and Carlos Fuentes which specifically address residual Hegelian suspicions that America does not really exist as an intellectual culture: both of these writers place European history and historiography in an indigenous American context in order to investigate the particular character of the American past. Cather and Fuentes will lead me to other writers who have recently written "metahistories" which shift the historical focus from the sources and substance of American history to the means of its narration. These works, like Cather's and Fuentes's, posit history not only as background and cause, but as the very condition of their existence. Because of the particular challenges of historical self-definition in the New World, such fiction is common in (and to) the Americas.
One more relevant idea evolves coincidentally with the historical developments that I have touched on here by way of introduction: the idea of comparative literature. The growing sense of the relation of historical process to national identity in Europe raised questions about how to define national culture and how to understand differences among cultures. During the last quarter of the eighteenth century (and again, primarily in Germany), Herder, the Schlegels, and others developed influential theories which conceived of literature as the voice of a nation or culture, or even as a power which shaped it, and they promoted the comparative discussion of literature by epoch and ethnicity in these terms. A growing appreciation of various folk literatures, and the comparative study of ancient, Eastern, and modern foreign literatures contributed to the idea of literature as an expression of the characteristics of culture. Although questions of national identity are now relatively rare in comparative studies of European literature, they are very current in areas where national identity is in more formative stages of development, as it is in Latin America, and where literary criticism is effectively redefining concepts of national literature, as it is in the U.S. We may, then, understand Hegel's questions about American identity not only in an eighteenth-century historiographic context, but also in a contemporary comparative one. The novelists whom I will discuss here are impelled by such comparative questions, as I am in this essay.
The title of this collection, and the intent of my own essay, obviously enlarge the territory of comparative literary inquiry from its original national parameters to hemispheric ones. It is a significant expansion, since "America" encompasses thirty-five countries and fifteen territories or protectorates, four principal Indo-European languages and countless indigenous languages, 676 million inhabitants, and more than sixteen million square miles of land. The extent of this territory, not to mention the radical diversity of its economic, governmental, and educational systems, may begin to suggest the difficulties of inter-American comparative studies, particularly if they are broadly generalizing in intent. The very inadequacies of the terms "North American" and "South American" suggest the problems facing the critic or reader who is interested in evolving a comprehensive American critical context. Though "American" does, after all, apply to the whole hemisphere, the term is rarely used in the U.S. to refer to anything beyond its own borders. To call Carlos Fuentes or Gabriel García Márquez or Jorge Luis Borges "American" writers, while correct, may be confusing. Nor will "North American" be a useful term in this study, because I do not deal with Canadian fiction at all, and the Mexican fiction which I discuss is not properly speaking either North or South American, but rather Central American. The term "inter-American" suggests my comparative context, but it too may be misleading, since it is sometimes applied to relations among countries within North or South America, as well as to relations between North and South America. I will use "Latin American" to refer to the fiction of both Central and South America, but at the risk of being too inclusive, because I do not deal with fiction from all the countries contained in that term. Even my use of the term "U.S. fiction" is ambiguous in this comparative context because Mexico is also a "United States"—"Los Estados Unidos de Mexico." This interweaving of names may serve to suggest the complexity of our comparative enterprise here, as well as the ways in which our American identities have historically overlapped, impinged, reflected, and modified each other, as often unconsciously as consciously. Perhaps Hegel foresaw even this, in his reference to the revelation of historical meaning in the potential dialectic between North and South America.
We are worried about redeeming the past.
They are accustomed to acclaiming the future.
Their past is assimilated; and, too often, it is simply forgotten.
Ours is still battling for our souls.
—Carlos Fuentes, Latin America: At War With the Past
In these schematic sentences, Carlos Fuentes places in opposition what he proposes as the current conceptions of history in the U.S. and Latin America. And in what after four decades is still the single most influential comparative treatment of the cultures of the Americas, El laberinto de la soledad (The Labyrinth of Solitude, 1950), Octavio Paz precedes Fuentes in contrasting the historical visions of the U.S. and Mexico. Paz too assigns to the U.S. the historical character which Hegel imputed to the entire hemisphere: a place without a past, with only a future. But if Latin America's view of the past is first presented as starkly opposed to that of the U.S., a second look reveals that the two views share a common characteristic: their lack of resolution. Fuentes follows Hegel strikingly in his assertion that the past is not yet usable anywhere in America: if the U.S. has too completely assimilated its past, rendering it inaccessible, Latin America has incompletely assimilated its history, to the same effect.
Fuentes elaborates history's "battle for our souls" in Latin America by asserting that no stage of Latin America's past has yet been fully assimilated.
Each new historical project not only replaces the foregoing, it annihilates, rejects, and obliges it to start again from the beginning. The Conquest tries to wholly deny the existence of the indigenous world, Independence denies the Colonial world, and the Revolution rejects nineteenth-century positivism. While yet claiming to be orphaned, each of Mexico's historical projects is open, nolens volens, to the secret contamination of the traditions thus denied.
Excerpted from Do the Americas Have a Common Literature? by Gustavo Pérez Firmat. Copyright © 1990 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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