"In a sense, modern Latin American literary and cultural criticism has been in a dialogue with Ángel Rama's notion of 'narrative transculturation,' first advanced in these essays. It is good to have them available in a superb English translation."—John Beverley, author of Latinamericanism after 9/11
Writing across Cultures: Narrative Transculturation in Latin Americaby Angel Rama
Ángel Rama was one of twentieth-century Latin America's most distinguished men of letters. Writing across Cultures is his comprehensive analysis of the varied sources of Latin American literature. Originally published in 1982, the book links Rama's work on Spanish American modernism with his arguments about the innovative nature of regionalist literature, and it foregrounds his thinking about the close relationship between literary movements, such as modernism or regionalism, and global trends in social and economic development.
In Writing across Cultures, Rama extends the Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz's theory of transculturation far beyond Cuba, bringing it to bear on regional cultures across Latin America, where new cultural arrangements have been forming among indigenous, African, and European societies for the better part of five centuries. Rama applies this concept to the work of the Peruvian novelist, poet, and anthropologist José María Arguedas, whose writing drew on both Spanish and Quechua, Peru's two major languages and, by extension, cultures. Rama considered Arguedas's novel Los ríos profundos (Deep Rivers) to be the most accomplished example of narrative transculturation in Latin America. Writing across Cultures is the second of Rama's books to be translated into English.
“At long last, the English-reading world can lay its hands on the series of essays in which the influential Uruguayan literary critic Ángel Rama developed his idea of ‘narrative transculturation.’ Carefully transported to the realm of literary criticism, Rama's idea of transculturation, borrowed from Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortíz, still largely frames debates around regionalist and indigenista literature as well as broader cultural practices. English readers will be well served by David Frye's fluid translation, one that retains the rhythm and deep erudition that govern Rama's linguistic universe, and by an introduction to the thinker that specialists will want to revisit and newcomers will find necessary.”
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Writing across CulturesNarrative Transculturation in Latin America
By Ángel Rama
Duke University PressCopyright © 2012 Duke University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLiterature and Culture
Independence, Originality, Representation
A colonial society, violently imposed, gave birth to Latin American literature. In their blindness, the Spanish and Portuguese colonizers ignored the voices of their humanists who recognized and valued the "otherness" of the Americas, but their civilization was rich and diverse, encompassing the educated and the popular, and at its zenith it spanned the world. Theirs, too, were the splendid languages and sumptuous literatures of Spain and Portugal; these also gave birth to Latin American literature. Yet that literature has never been resigned to its colonial origins, nor has it ever reconciled itself with its Iberian past.
Latin American writers contributed enthusiastically to the Black Legend of Spanish cruelty—with reason enough—but they never seemed to realize that they were only spreading ideas created by thinkers from Spain itself, who were the first to indict Spanish cruelty. Almost from the beginning, Latin American writers avoided any hint of a direct connection with Spain and preferred to give themselves different cultural lineages: Italian and classical literature in colonial times; French and British after Independence (they never quite saw France and England as the new colonizing metropolitan centers that they really were); and most recently, North American letters, the current top dogs. Each and every time, Latin American writers were moved not only by a legitimate search for cultural enrichment but also by their desire to break free from their roots. Their slogan, from the late 1700s up to our days, might well have been: "Be independent!"
Latin American letters fanned the demagogic zeal of the criollos ["Creoles," or Latin Americans of European descent who considered themselves as representing the "national cultures" of the American republics], who repeatedly called on a pair of themes—the destitute Indian, the cruelly punished black slave—as pretexts to justify their own bill of grievances against the colonizers. From the eighteenth century on, many grandsons of Spaniards and Europeans waved their rhetorical support for indigenous peoples as a battle flag. Of course, what these criollos actually did after Independence, once the time for keeping promises had come, didn't exactly do credit to their noble pretensions.
This persistent drive for independence led them to develop a literature that was flagrantly autonomous of Iberian letters—this, on a continent whose deepest and most enduring cultural markers keep it closely tied to Spain and Portugal. This was not because Latin American literature was some sort of unique invention with no known roots but because it always sought to tie itself to foreign, Western literatures to a far greater degree than the literatures of its mother countries have ever done. (One reason why the "burden of the past" has not been much of a formative presence in the literatures of Spain and Portugal is that those literatures reflect their societies, which haven't yet produced a modernizing dynamic in the modern era.)
The originality of Latin American literature is driven by its restless and romantic yearning to be a part of international culture, but this masks another, more vigorous, more persistent source for Latin American writers: the distinctive cultural characteristics of the hinterlands of the Americas. In other words, the cultures that nourish Latin American literature are not the solitary work of a few literary elites but rather the massive efforts of vast societies to construct their symbolic languages.
The timing of Latin America's uneven independence bound its newly independent literatures to the bourgeois principles of Romanticism (rather than the Enlightenment, which had little influence on them). Romanticism stamped these literatures with the twin guiding lights from its dialectical axis of history: being original and being representative. Since these literatures arose in countries that had broken away from their mother lands and rebelled against their colonial past (which got the blame for everything), they had no choice but to be original in their sources. The theme of "European decadence" (to which the theme of "North American decadence" would be added a century later) came on stage and never exited. This became the underlying ethical principle of Latin American literatures and of the rejection of the foreign on which they were based; writers wasted little time reflecting on the fact that this ethical principle was itself foreign and already old, even outmoded, by European standards. Thus, Andrés Bello justified his "Alocución a la poesía" ["Address to Poetry," 1823] by asking the deified figure of Poetry to leave Europe:
that region of light and poverty,
in which your overweening
rival, Dame Philosophy,
who reckons virtue on a measured scale,
usurps your cult among the mortals;
where the crowned Hydra head does threaten
to return once more to slavish thought
the ancient night of barbarism and crime.
The only way to attain the desired originality of literature, according to the views of Bello and his Romantic followers, was through literature's ability to represent the region that gave rise to it. For they perceived America as glaringly different from its mother societies, given its distinctive physical environment, its diverse ethnic makeup, and its difference in terms of development when compared to the only model of progress—Europe. Simón Rodríguez's slogan "we shall create or we shall fail" developed into Ignacio Altamirano's "patriotic mission" of making literature the tool for forging the nation. Ethics and national feeling were joined as one, and local themes became "raw materials," aping the incipient economic model of the Latin American republics. For Altamirano, writers were like the farmers and industrialists of the emerging nation, linked in a chain of production: "Oh! If there is anything rich in elements for the man of letters, it is this country, just as it is for the farmer and for the industrialist."
Over the years that followed, despite the great changes that took place, Latin American literature did little to distance itself from the impulses that first molded it: independence, originality, representation. Inspired by the internationalism of the modernizing period (1870–1910), writers worked to transcend the restrictions of nineteenth-century nationalities and to reestablish the mythical common fatherland, which they called "Latin America," that had inspired Simón Bolívar during the war for independence (as in his "Amphictyonic Congress" of Panama, 1826). Rather than throwing out the representative principle, they translated it onto the same supranational level, demanding the representation of the entire Latin American region, beyond any localism. They restricted, though they did not discard, the Romantic view of what national affairs should cover (now limited to the country's events, characters, and landscapes), while they advocated for their right to set a story anywhere in the world—a thesis defended by Manuel Gutiérrez Nájera in terms that drew Altamirano's approval. Originality was defended even more fiercely now than it had been during the nineteenth-century Romantic-realist period, but it was viewed as confined to individual talent—what Rubén Darío called the writer's "personal treasurehouse." The cosmopolitan thematics that framed this view placed less emphasis on "nature" and placed more on "the men" of the region and what made them special. The individualistic model adopted when the continent was integrated into the Western economic world had won its first battle, yet the guiding principles of the independence era that gave birth to the national literatures of Latin America were not dismissed. Witness the growing hunger for originality and the urge for independence (reverent nods toward internationalism aside), which saw language as its best guarantor. Given the modernizing dynamic at work, writers turned freely to the great trove of Iberian tradition without feeling crushed under its weight; this explains the modernists' vibrant Hispanism and the turn to medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque Iberian literatures that lay not far beneath their alleged "mental Gallicisms." At this new international juncture, language was once more the tool of independence.
The criterion of representation was resurgent during the nationalist and social period (roughly 1910–40), pushed by the emerging middle classes, many of whom were people from the provinces who had recently moved to the booming cities. It was easier now than during the nineteenth-century Romantic era to visualize the place of literature in national or regional culture. Literature was now called upon to represent one social class—the middle class—at a moment when that class was fighting the top social strata for political dominance. Thus, writers again called for "local color," as the Romantics had once done, but now they were inwardly moved by the worldview (and especially by the interests) of a single social class. In keeping with the nature of their battle against the power of the old regime, middle-class writers adopted the demands of the lower strata as their own. Criollismo, nativism, regionalism, indigenismo, negrismo, not to mention urban vanguardismo, experimentalist modernization, and futurism: all the literary trends of this period emphasized the representative principle, which was once more theorized as a necessary condition for originality and independence. The thinking on this point now owed much to the newly developing field of sociology, however. Sociology had gradually displaced and absorbed the Romantic concept of the nation, as can be seen among the founders of the field in Latin America, from Domingo Faustino Sarmiento and José María Samper to Eugenio de Hostos. It established the regionalist constraints that now characterized writing all over Latin America, according to Alberto Zum Felde: "The entire genre of the essay on the continent is, to a greater or lesser extent, linked to its sociological reality. The same is analogically true in the novel, which is also largely sociological; the differences between the two genres is often only their form, for in their common substance they are identical."
It was now established as an implicit, though quite baseless, rule that the middle classes were the genuine interpreters of nationhood, and that they (and not the upper classes that held real power) drove the national spirit. This meant literature was now redefined according to the patriotic and social mission of the middle class, as legitimated by its representational status. This criterion was developed with great sophistication. Middle-class writers did not look for justifications of their representational status in the country's physical environment, in passing events, or even in national customs but rather in the "spirit" that inspired the nation, which they translated into forms of behavior that they could, in turn, record in writing. Here they went beyond the simplistic Romantic approach to the representative criterion, but the result was still more elementary or commonplace than the late nineteenth-century modernists' turn to language. In fact, in developing this point, they did not turn to the modernists but all the way back to the Romantics who shared their idealizing and ethical concept of literature. Middle-class writers, however, surpassed the Romantics in devising more finely tuned (though more instable) tools for defining nationality.
The "Mexican" reading that Pedro Henríquez Ureña (followed discreetly by Alfonso Reyes) gave to Juan Ruiz de Alarcón's works, which themselves contained no hints of a Mexican environment, was matched by the "Uruguayan" reading that the Guillet Muñoz brothers gave to Lautréamont's Les chants de Maldoror and by the "Peruvian" readings that José Carlos Mariátegui gave to the works of Ricardo Palma and that Ventura García Calderón gave to Alonso Carrió de la Vandera's book El lazarillo de ciegos caminantes. In their analyses, nationality was confined to procedures, concepts of life, and sometimes to the literary sources that recurred throughout the long development of a literature. No matter how finely tuned these analyses were, they could not avoid certain pitfalls. On one hand, they posited the survival, sometimes over the course of centuries, of presumably national traits in the works they studied, a move that forced them to detect traits based on the country's unvarying geography rather than on its shifting history. On the other hand, the concept of nationhood that they used was defined by a single class in a single historical period, so their criterion was in fact shifting and historically contingent. This contradiction eroded the foundations of their new view of representativeness, though literary originality (and therefore independence) remained at the heart of it. Between the individual artist (on whom the modernizers of the twentieth century placed their bets) and society and/or nature (favored by nineteenth-century Romantics and twentieth-century regionalists), the latter won the day. Society and nature were seen as having greater potential, deeper molding capacity, and a stronger genetic framing than sheer individual creativity; however, it was not so much the abundant fertility of nature (which so many critics, even Menéndez Pelayo, had called on to explain what set Spanish American letters apart from other Spanish-language literatures) that gave them this potential but rather society and its inherent traits, for which the incipient field of anthropology had not yet come up with its definitive name: culture.
The new perspective was taken up by the most perceptive literary critic of the period, Pedro Henríquez Ureña. Educated in the United States, where he first encountered Anglophone cultural anthropology, Henríquez Ureña aspired to incorporate the new field into a study of Latin American (or, to use his preferred term, Hispanic) characteristics, still in the service of the concept of the nation. The title of his 1928 book defines his project: Seis ensayos en busca de nuestra expresión, "Six Essays in Search of Our Means of Expression" (Buenos Aires: Babel, 1927). It was a well-documented, trailblazing investigation into the workings of a literature that had been born from the rejection of its roots, that had progressed due to the internationalism that gradually integrated it into the West, and that still sought autonomy in Latin America's cultural uniqueness. For the preceding two centuries, Latin American literature had swung like a pendulum between two poles—the foreign and the internal—not because writers deliberately resolved on swinging back and forth but because they were compelled first in one direction, then the other. These swings never paralyzed the persistent project of independence, originality, and representation, but they increased or decreased its intensity depending on changing circumstances, the productive forces at work, the trends moving society as a whole, the growing complexity of society itself, and the world period at the time. The result was that Latin American culture never moved in a straight line toward progress, for there were setbacks, holdups, and jarring accelerations; above all, once the various Latin American societies attained a certain high degree of evolution, there was a power struggle among their social classes for the right to be considered the bearers of cultural forms.
Around 1940, a vast rethinking of the continent began, in which its writers and thinkers would become active participants. This rethinking began earlier in some parts (Argentina) and later in others (Brazil, Mexico). It seems to have come in response to a slowdown in the rise of the middle classes to power, the ebbing of their success, the self-criticism of their leaders, and the growing presence of the working class (even the peasantry) on the national stage, independent of the middle classes. This long period could be analyzed historically, sociologically, or politically. It could also be given a literary analysis—not simply by analyzing its authors, their works, worldviews, and artistic forms but, even better, by analyzing the particularities in their works as they responded to the basic norms that have governed Latin American literature from the beginning.
Excerpted from Writing across Cultures by Ángel Rama Copyright © 2012 by 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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Meet the Author
Ángel Rama (1926–1983) was a noted literary critic, journalist, editor, publisher, and educator. He left his native Uruguay after the military takeover in 1973 and subsequently taught at the University of Venezuela and the University of Maryland. He is the author of many books, including The Lettered City, also published by Duke University Press. David Frye is a writer and translator who teaches Latin American studies courses at the University of Michigan. He is the translator of Guaman Poma’s First New Chronicle and Good Government (1615), José Joaquín Fernandez de Lizardi’s The Mangy Parrot (1816), and several Cuban and Spanish novels and poems.
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