“This is a highly unusual work, an allegory of violence and civil war through reflections on the tango by an unusually honest writer with an intimate knowledge, as insider and outsider, of Argentinian history and culture.”—Michael Taussig, Columbia University
Paper Tangosby Julie Taylor
The author’s experiences dancing the Tango in Argentina, and the relation of the violence of the dance to violences of the state and in the author’s past.
The author’s experiences dancing the Tango in Argentina, and the relation of the violence of the dance to violences of the state and in the author’s past.
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By Julie Taylor
Duke University PressCopyright © 1998 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
Tango: Ethos of Melancholy
What the tango says about Argentina, the nation that created it, illuminates aspects of Argentine behavior that have long puzzled outsiders. In many foreign minds, the Argentine tourist, the Argentine military, or Argentine politicians and their followers conjure up images that, at first glance, seem to convey arrogant aggressiveness often carried to extremes that outsiders find inconceivable. What foreigners do not realize is that both public posture and private introspection constantly confront Argentines with excruciating questions about their own identity.
Answers to these questions would not seem to be forthcoming from a dance defined, as the tango is, by the world outside of Latin America. In the popular image of the tango, Valentino or a counterpart, dressed dashingly in bolero, frilled shirt, and cummerbund, flings a partner backward over the ruffled train of her flamenco costume. One or the other holds a rose. Out of this Andalucian vignette of total surrender to music and passion emerges the idea that tango lyrics express similar exuberance. Even when the words tell of lost love, treacherous fate, or an unjust world, a romantic hero supposedly sings them, gesturing flamboyantly to broadcast his sensitivity.
In dramatic contrast, in the classic Argentine tango, men with closed faces practiced the dance with each other and then, fedoras pulled down like masks, gripped women against rigid torsos sheathed in sober double-breasted jackets. Their feet, though subject to the same grim control, executed intricate figures all but independent from the rest of their bodies. Far from flamenco ruffles and roses, Argentines invented the tango at the turn of the century in the brothels on the outskirts of Buenos Aires as it thrust its slums ever further into the pampas. The dancers demonstrated their skill by performing like somber automatons, and their dance provided them with the psychic space to contemplate a bitter destiny that had driven them into themselves.
Many memories add up to a bitter and insecure melancholy that Argentines recognize as a deep current in their culture: their lack of roots in a preconquest indigenous civilization, the post–1880 wave of immigration that left three foreign-born people for every native Argentine on the streets of Buenos Aires; the continually high proportion of men to women that contributed to Buenos Aires' position as a world-renowned depot of the white slave trade; the nostalgia and resentment of newcomers when dreams of owning land became impossible to realize and other forms of success remained elusive.
So Argentines have pondered definitions of themselves for a century, initially led by the wealth of its vast plains to see Argentina as unique in South America. This left them trapped—some by painfully defensive doubt, some by arrogance—between legacies: Would Latins claim them as peers? Would Europe recognize them as Europeans? The late twentieth century has shattered this different identity for most Argentines. Yet, still they wonder. Like other Latin Americans, but perhaps even more acutely and constantly, Argentines remember that tradition had phrased their dilemma in cruel terms: Civilized or barbarian? Respected nation or banana republic? Independent agent or pawn?
The tango reflects this Argentine ambivalence. Although a major symbol of national identity, the tango's themes emphasize a painful uncertainty as to the precise nature of that identity. For Argentines, this dance is profound, although at the same time profoundly enjoyable. In the tango, they often attempt to seek out and affirm self-definition—a self-definition at whose core is doubt. The dance, sometimes involving elaborately staged behavior, can be one way of confronting this result of their search. The lyrics proclaim this doubt and reveal the intensity and depth of Argentine feelings of insecurity; they also insist that an assertive facade should betray no hint that its aggressiveness could have arisen from an anguished sense of vulnerability.
Argentines who sing, dance, or listen to the tango use it to think—hence, its intimate, reflective quality. Argentine reflection is bleak. "We are a gray nation," they say, often wistfully. Why this should be the case, making them so different from the neighboring Brazilians with their happy samba, the contrast Argentines most often evoke, they do not understand. Their literature and conversation endlessly pose the problem of identity, and they examine the tango from all angles in search of a solution. Sociologists study it, popular essayists scrutinize it, the intelligentsia listen to it in concert and debate it in lecture. Major writers such as Ernesto Sabato and Martinez Estrada have analyzed it, and Jorge Luis Borges not only studied tango themes but wrote tangos himself.
Argentines think of themselves as reluctant to give in to exuberant emotion, much less to its display. Proudly in control, yet sometimes, for precisely this reason, trapped in themselves, Argentines channel their characteristic combination of inhibitions and introspection into a particular form of brooding that amounts to a national institution: el mu-farse. The mood relates closely to the tango. Mufarse involves bitter introspection, but Argentines add to this emotion a clear sense of self-indulgence when they give in to a mufa. It is a depression, but with a cynicism about the depression itself, an awareness that it can feel good to throw practicalities aside, have a vino tinto or one of the demitasse coffees over which many a tango was written, and contemplate one's bad luck and its universal implications.
Tango fans in particular traditionally passed time constructing complex personal philosophies of life, suffering, and love—philosophies that surprise outsiders who do not expect such elaborate abstractions as common themes of popular culture. The tango postulated both a worldview and a special person who held it in its purest form, the tanguero. This classic lore underlies all subsequent understandings of the tango. In the classical version, a man discusses philosophy or sings tangos about it with the understanding that he is an essentially sensitive and vulnerable being in a life that forces him to cover up these qualities with the fagade of the experienced, polished, suave, and clever man of the world. This tanguero is idealistic, but he is not gil—the lun-fardo, or argot, for the stupidly innocent. He tries to avoid revealing the naivete inherent in the male sex, but el qué dirán, the what-they-will-say, obsesses him and he sees the rest of the world as mocking observers. He devotes himself to constructing a front that will obviate a smothered laugh or a wink behind his back. By contrast, the gil foolishly acts upon ideas that, if he had learned anything at all from experience, should have been destroyed long ago and relegated to their place as useless though forever-cherished childhood dreams.
The city and the women who live there most often waken the man of the tango from his dreams to the real nature of the world. Women of the tango were themselves betrayed by the promise of better life in the city, and they often long to return to the innocent cotton dresses they had worn in the barrio of their past. But many such women could reach for material success and fame only in the cabaret, a world from which there is no turning back to decent society. The city center represents wealth, success, fame—a chance to climb the social ladder at the price of the human values left behind. But the emptiness of these goals provokes the tango's lament for the lost neighborhood or barrio on the edge of Buenos Aires, where the sophisticated but disillusioned tango singer spent his youth.
Through the first decades of the twentieth century, construction was the city's major industry. Time after time the burgeoning city center obliterated its old limits. Asphalt and concrete covered the barrios, the neighborhoods that were half city and half country, where local soccer teams played in empty fields on weekend afternoons while, under grape arbors, families passed around gourds of mate prepared with fresh cedrón leaves, and sweethearts arranged to meet in the evenings in entryways beneath the streetlamps. Tangos often sing of the man who comes back to his barrio with the hope that it might have escaped change.
Most of all, such a man returns to search for his mother and the values he deserted along with her when he was seduced by the city and its women. Ironically, the mother to whom entire tangos sing homage is in fact the first of the women to betray a man, by her very insistence on ideals that can never apply to reality outside her tiny home in the remembered barrio. So many tangos sing of betrayal by a woman that, according to the Argentines themselves, other Latin Americans call the tango "the lament of the cuckold." Man, the idealistic, dreaming innocent, is deceived and thus initiated in the ways of the world by Woman, the wily, unfeeling, vastly experienced traitor.
Inevitably, men put their faith in these sophisticated women, who became independent, powerful, and calculating creatures out for their own selfish ends. Inevitably, these beautiful but deadly women abandon the men they choose to exploit and move on to others who offer greater wealth and shallower spirits. The victims of the female sex find themselves helpless, destitute, and alone with no recourse but to sing the tangos that muse on their downfall.
... si un día por mi culpa
una lágrima vertiste
porque tanto me quisiste
sé que me perdonaras.
Sé que mucho me has querido,
tanto, tanto como yo.
Pero en cambio yo he sufrido
mucho, mucho más que vos.
No sé por qué te perdí,
tampoco sé cuándo fué
pero a tu lado dejé
toda mi vida.
Y hoy que estás lejos de mí
y has conseguido olvidar,
soy un pasaje de tu vida, nada mas.
... if one day it ever was my fault
that you shed a tear
because you loved me so
I know you will pardon me.
I know you have loved me deeply,
as much as I have you.
But I by contrast have suffered
much, much more than you.
I don't know why I lost you,
nor do I know when it was
but I left all my life
at your side.
And today, now that you are far away
and have managed to forget,
I am just a passage in your life, nothing more.
—from "Toda mi vida," by José María Contursi.
Music by Aníbal Troilo
The only man who could resist city women and hold on to barrio values while conquering the sophistication of Buenos Aires and other world capitals was Carlos Gardel, whom Argentines unanimously praise as the greatest tango singer of all time. Carlitos was killed in a plane crash in 1935, but his features are still as familiar as the Argentine national colors, which often surround the face that smiles down on passengers from decals in taxis and buses. That face was one of GardePs greatest achievements. The illegitimate son of an immigrant washer-woman had taken care to leave no trace of his humble background or foreign origins in the calculated combination of dazzling smile, tilted hat, and impeccably arranged tuxedo. He incarnated the ideal of the Argentine as quintessentially urban. But he never allowed his urbane elegance to undermine his values or his loyalties. The myths of Carlos Gardel further relate that from the pinnacle of his success in the city center, he remembered the neighborhood friends of his youth, and that he longed for Argentina while he triumphed in European capitals. Even more important, he resisted the glamour of the women surrounding him and remained faithful to his mother: Gar-del never married, and his mother's tomb adjoins his. Carli-tos took the tango as song to its apogee, yet he restates more than an aesthetic ideal each time an Argentine listens to his recorded voice and pronounces the familiar saying, "He sings better every year."
As both artist and man, Gardel commands special concentration on his rendering of tango lyrics. But tango enthusiasts pay careful attention to other singers' renditions as well, even though the lines are often already so well known that all Argentines quote them as proverbs relevant to daily situations. A traditional rule, no longer always followed or even known, dictates that Argentines not dance to a tango that is sung. Tangueros believed that while dancing they could not attend properly to the music and lyrics, or hear their own experience and identity revealed in the singer's and musicians' rendering of profoundly Argentine emotions. The singer of the tango shares his personal encounter with experiences common to all Argentines. He does not need bold pronouncement or flamboyant gesture; his audience knows what he means and his feelings are familiar ones. They listen for the nuances, emotional and philosophical subtleties that will tell them something new about their guarded interior worlds.
When they dance to tangos, Argentines traditionally contemplate themes akin to those of tango lyrics, evoking emotions that, despite an apparently contradictory choreography, are the same as those behind the songs. The choreography also reflects the world of the lyrics, but indirectly. The dance portrays an encounter between the powerful and completely dominant male and the passive, docile, completely submissive female. The passive woman and the rigidly controlled but physically aggressive man contrast poignantly with the roles of the sexes depicted in the tango lyrics. This contrast between two statements of relations between the sexes aptly mirrors the insecurities of life and identity.
An Argentine philosophy of bitterness, resentment, and pessimism traditionally has had the same goal as a danced statement of machismo, confidence, and sexual optimism. The traditional tanguero's schemes demonstrate that he is a man of the world—that he is neither stupid nor naive. In the dance, the dancer acts as though he has none of the fears he cannot show—again, proving that he is not gil. He refers to an experience of total control over the woman, the situation, the world—an experience that can allow him to vent his resentment and express his bitterness against a destiny that denied him this control. The tango can also give dancers a moment behind the protection of this façade to ponder the history and the land that have formed them, the hopes they have treasured and lost. Ernesto Sábato echoes widespread feeling in Argentina when he says, "Only a gringo would make a clown of himself by taking advantage of a tango for a chat or amusement" (1963: 16).
While thus dancing a statement of invulnerability, the somber tanguero sees himself—because of his sensitivity, his great capacity to love, and his fidelity to the true ideals of his childhood years—as basically vulnerable. As he protects himself with a façade of steps that demonstrates perfect control, he contemplates his absolute lack of control in the face of history and destiny. The nature of the world has doomed him to disillusionment, to a solitary existence in the face of the impossibility of perfect love and the intimacy it implies. If by chance the woman with whom he dances feels the same sadness, remembering similar disillusion, the partners do not dance sharing the sentiment. They dance together to relive their disillusion alone. Many years back, in one of the most traditional of Buenos Aires dance halls, a young man turned to me from the fiancée he had just relinquished to her chaperoning mother and explained, "In the tango, together with the girl—and it does not matter who she is—a man remembers the bitter moments of his life, and he, she, and all who are dancing contemplate a universal emotion. I do not like the woman to talk to me while I dance tango. And if she speaks I do not answer. Only when she says to me, 'Omar, I am speaking,' I answer, 'and I, I am dancing.'"
Excerpted from Paper Tangos by Julie Taylor. Copyright © 1998 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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