Current Events
Austin Talk: Writers and Artists in the History of Mexico

Austin Talk: Writers and Artists in the History of Mexico

Charla de Austin. Escritores y artistas en la historia de México

Octavio Paz

The topic of writers and artists in the history of Mexico is too broad and difficult to tackle in a short talk. My aim is actually much more modest. I intend to describe several features of what we may call the intellectual class in Mexican history. As I say this, I realize that the term may give rise to confusion. If we use the Marxist definition, classes are defined by their relation to the means and instruments of production. In that sense, intellectuals are not a class. However, I believe that they constitute a definite social group with very precise characteristics. The mandarins of China were intellectuals, for example; as were the clergy of medieval Europe, the humanists of the Renaissance, and the philosophers of the eighteenth century in France, England, and Germany. So we may use the term intellectual “class,” perhaps with a touch of skepticism, to refer to a group with its own interests and attitudes.

Now then, I am not going to concern myself here with the works of the intellectuals, remarkable though they may be. If Mexico has distinguished itself in anything, it has been in its major poetic and artistic creations. This is something too infrequently recognized: Mexican poetry has a very ample and precise tradition, from the pre-Columbian epoch up to our own time. Nor will I dwell on the works of our philosophers, some of them equally noteworthy. Instead, I will refer to the historical action of both groups, namely, to the attitudes of Mexican intellectuals toward modernity, an era which begins toward the end of the eighteenth century. Their moral and intellectual temper is important in relation to a decisive preoccupation in Mexico, and I daresay to the history of all Hispanic nations. In effect, in [Hispanic] America as in Europe, the central concern is modernization: how we can become modern. In our countries, this question was and is identified as the problem of democracy. From the end of the eighteenth century onward, in Spain no less than in Mexico or Argentina, how to be democratic means how to be modern. In general, we have understood modernity as republican democracy: we find in it a form of historical legitimacy distinct from the one that ruled us during the monarchy. Naturally, modernity is characterized among us by this zeal, one might say, for political and social democracy. In turn, the theme of independence, essential to the modernization of Mexico and Latin America, is linked to the theme of nationalism, a concern shared by liberals and conservatives alike.

Modernization as an issue appeared in the Hispanic world at the moment in which the peninsular elites discovered Spain’s relative backwardness. Spain had been an enormous European power in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and in some respects it was also a great center of culture. Nevertheless, by the middle of the eighteenth century it notices that not only has it fallen behind, but it has become that picturesque land that Europeans see as a corner of Europe, a place of superstitions and unjust privileges. We are talking about the age of Enlightenment, that is to say, about the beginnings of modernity throughout the world. It is also the period that will see the appearance of a certain type of ruler who, in all its variants, will be repeated at the European periphery: the enlightened despot (Catherine of Russia, Frederick of Prussia). Spain, for its part, had Carlos III, a despot who was not very despotic and was very enlightened. Reform began under his rule, with a critique of the Church and by importing enlightened ideas into Spain. Now there are two characteristics that should be pointed out. In the first place, it was not an ideology born in Spain but one adopted from France—with English influences as well. In the second place, it was a model destined to operate from the top down, with the backing of the monarchy, his ministers and intellectuals. I do not claim to examine the history of Spain here; but it must be emphasized that the efforts toward Enlightenment scarcely came to fruition. In that period Spain did not succeed in modernizing itself, owing to various historical circumstances; among them were the change of monarchs and, afterwards, the Napoleonic invasion. The entire nineteenth century would thus be a struggle for modernization, and it is only now, in the second half of the twentieth century, that Spaniards have become the first modern Hispanic nation.

Now I would like to deal exclusively with the case of modernization in Mexico, starting with the intellectual class because—here as elsewhere—they were the first agents of modernization. If we think of this culture in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, we find that the majority of Mexican intellectuals at the time were clergymen. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, [Carlos] Sigüenza y Góngora, the Jesuits, and . Motolinia [Fray Toribio de Benavente] were all members of the Church. They are a clerical class embedded within a closed system of orthodoxy. A world in which the ultimate truth is Revelation justified by a philosophy—scholasticism—and a society in which philosophical, artistic, and political issues are integrated within a totality. There is no pure artist: the artist is also a religious person. Sor Juana writes secular plays, love poems, and also religious mystery plays [autos sacramentales]. And her example can be taken as illustrative of the entire intelligentsia of New Spain [Nueva España]. So during the eighteenth century there existed in New Spain a group of Latinists, most of whom belonged to the Company of Jesus. They were part of a Church identified with the monarchy, with an empire on the defensive in the face of the threats from modernity that were represented by rival powers Holland, France, etc. Among them [i.e., the Jesuits], the spirit of crusade was fundamental. They are combatants for and defenders of the truth, having the character of intellectual warriors. On the one hand, they constitute a massive, established bureaucracy; at the same time, they are a combative bureaucracy, albeit one on the defensive. In effect, the Church and its clerics in New Spain were an immense political and intellectual fortress against the assaults of modernity, showing enormous merits in the field of art and pure thought, but closed off to history.

The European continent was living through a phenomenon that barely touched Spain, that of the Protestant Reformation, a movement of religious emancipation and critique. In the same way, a grand intellectual revolution was taking place during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In Spain there was no Descartes, no Newton; on the other hand, there were great theologians and poets. This phenomenon is decisive because Europe was then undergoing the only truly modern cultural revolution—a rather silly expression which we will use for convenience—a revolution which changed not only ideas but the morality and customs of the people. We usually pay attention to the critique of institutions carried out by Voltaire or to the examination of philosophical certitudes by Hume, but this period also saw a critique of the passions [emotions]. Thus the eighteenth century has two keywords that define it: Reason (men are rational, the truths of reason are eternal) and Passion (the passions are particular, but also subversive and revolutionary). So along with Hume and the great philosophers of the Enlightenment, one must also speak of the novelists, those who uncover the human passions, and among them the most devastating one, eroticism, sexuality. One thinks of [Pierre Choderlos de] Laclos or of the Marquis de Sade, for instance. All of this signified a change in the sensibility and behavior of people, the plurality of passions over against the universality of Reason. The diversity of opinions produced in turn a unique phenomenon, namely a tolerant society. And if Enlightenment wasn’t born in Spain but was adopted from France, as we have seen, the same was true elsewhere: neither in Spain nor here among us did this revolution of sensibility take place.

Modernization in Mexico began with the Jesuits. They were the educators of the native-born aristocracy of European descent, and were also the first to give shape to what we know as Mexican nationalism. Their attitude toward Enlightenment was always ambiguous, and they immediately clashed with enlightened Spanish authorities, that is, with the ministers and intellectuals under Carlos III. The expulsion of the Jesuits [in 1767] is a decisive chapter of our intellectual history because it meant that the Mexican aristocracy, and with it the intellectual class, would no longer have teachers and would have to invent itself. However, the triumph of liberals in the peninsula was what precipitated the independence of Mexico. And the day after Independence, the adoption of a democratic republic in imitation of the United States is consummated, but above all, a struggle is initiated between two groups: the liberals (or rather, supporters of local American traditions) versus the conservatives (who favored European traditions). This dispute will last throughout the nineteenth century as a struggle over the dilemmas posed by modernity. Whereas the liberals push for quick action, the conservatives prefer gradual change; while the latter defend Spanish traditions, the former attack them in favor of a blank slate with regard to the past. Nevertheless, what unites the two sides is intolerance, the incapacity for dialogue, thus giving rise to civil war.

The contenders in this war turned to foreign support, especially the conservatives (recall the chapter of Maximilian [Maximilian I, of Austrian-Hapsburg lineage, Emperor of Mexico 1864-67]), but also the liberals, who sought the backing of the United States. However, nothing was resolved by democratic means, and victory was decided by the fortune of arms. Never was the expression “Fortuna,” used by classical Latin authors, more appropriate. In the case of this war—like all wars, hazardous and never rational—the liberals won. A victory which, from 1860 up to our own days, suppressed the conservative side. Among the great political gaps in Mexico is the absence of a party of this kind. A serious problem, because it amounts to a mutilation of one part of a country’s tradition. I can say that in all honesty because I am not a conservative.

The victory of the liberals was transformed into the triumph of what Freud would call the Reality Principle. Instead of a democracy, we arrive at the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz. This regime has been widely referred to as conservative, but the term is imprecise. It was rather a case of liberal enlightened despotism, a hybrid [mestiza] version of its European ancestor. The liberals were always federalists, in imitation of the United States. However, upon coming to power, they reaffirmed centralism and, instead of a rotation of power, Mexico experienced that dictatorship. As concerns the field of thought, Enlightenment liberalism—the official ideology of the regime—was replaced by pseudo-scientific positivism. We stopped worshipping Voltaire and Rousseau and turned to the effigies of [Auguste] Comte and Herbert Spencer. With Reason thus set aside, we venerated the telegraph and the microscope with a scientism tinged with a touch of absolutism. The Mexican intellectual class had changed ideas without renouncing its attitudes nor its deepest psychic structure.

Naturally, there were exceptions: Lucas Alamán among the conservatives, and among the liberals, Doctor [José María Luis] Mora. If positivism as an ideology wasn’t adequate to the national situation, it is also undeniable that [Francisco] Bulnes and Justo Sierra [Méndez] tried to adapt it in an effort to understand Mexican reality and history. But I repeat, they are isolated examples. The truth is that our intellectuals were heirs of an old theological class, enamored of generalizing explanations instead of observing our particularities. This disparity between modern ideas and pre-modern attitudes reveals a psychic split, a Latin American trait not yet studied. I imagine that the problem is to be found in the constitution of social forms. When these don’t change, it hardly matters that ideas mutate. The most profound social form is the family, insofar as the ideas of authority, property, morality, respect for and attitude toward others are all born in it. It is possible that there lies the cause of the disparity between the philosophy of the Mexican intellectual class and its attitudes: a pre-modern psyche embedded in a modern ideology. How can a nation modernize itself when those in charge of it are not entirely modern? That is the question that I have been asking myself for many years.

By the end of the Porfirio Díaz regime [1876-1911], the intellectual class found itself wholly integrated into the government, with a few exceptions among the younger generation. Nevertheless, the dictatorship was an immovable regime, and the Revolution broke out, an episode in which the majority of intellectuals did not take part. It was rather a spontaneous and popular uprising, that is, of peasants and ranchers with the participation of several workers’ groups organized by their leaders (one way or another, the working class was always mediated by politicians). The interesting thing is that one could count on the fingers of one hand the number of first-rank intellectuals who were revolutionaries: [José] Vasconcelos, Martín Luis Guzmán, and three or four others. The rest of the luminaries stayed on the sidelines. Chaos was unleashed by the Revolution, and in that great chaos, the country sought and found itself. One of the interesting things to be noticed at that moment was how the intellectuals of the old regime responded to the call of Revolution—excepting those who were either very committed to Huerta [José Victoriano Huerta Márquez] or involved in other conservative episodes. The majority of them returned to government and formed part, for example, of the higher echelons of diplomacy, the treasury, or education. It is worth recalling that in this last group, there was a minister of intellectual genius: Vasconcelos. It was he who initiated a grand cultural movement, creating a new Mexican intellectual class, one also profoundly integrated into the State.

This phenomenon of assimilation accelerated around the middle of the twentieth century, when the revolutionary regime passed from the rule of military strongmen to that of civilian presidents, thanks to a political creation that was useful at its origin but is at present harmful: the hegemonic party, PRI [Institutional Revolutionary Party, 1929-1990s]. The type of intellectual who has been integrated into the political bureaucracy holds modern cultural values, and is trained in such questionable fields as sociology or economics. For my part, I prefer the humanistic disciplines, those that are frankly non-scientific or that border on scientific only in certain aspects, like history; or disciplines with scientific intent but conscious of their limitations, like anthropology. The sciences that offer global explanations, like sociology, terrify me, especially when I see they were founded by the great Auguste Comte, who invented the religion of humanity and other dangerous chimeras. This class of intellectual, as I was saying, has been fundamental in the modernization of culture in Mexico, and we owe many positive things to it. Nonetheless, we must accept that it was never democratic: interested only in solving social problems, it always operated from a position of power. Somehow and for the most part, they thought that social problems could be solved by decree, from above or through education. They thus reproduced the enlightened despotism of Carlos III: an intellectual attitude distrustful of particularity and placing great hopes in philanthropic action directed from above.

In sum, the intellectuals not only became collaborators with the State but also advisors of a sort to the new rulers. A minority has been radical or revolutionary; influenced by Marxism, it believes in violent organized action. For example, an undemocratic group that collaborated with the government during the Lombardo Toledano period. In other cases, this type of intellectual has remained independent from the State, but not from its own international models. Almost all of these were profoundly Stalinists and, later, admirers of Fidel Castro and of the worst aspects of Castroism. A phenomenon mentioned earlier becomes even more pronounced around this time. There is no conservative ideology in Mexico, we said, although there are conservative interests. Let me emphasize that I am not referring to these, but to an ideology. On the other hand, referring to the opposing side, if there were liberal intellectuals around that time, they were always an exception. Here I mean liberals in the older sense, not in the modern one as used in the United States, because, I think, the liberals of this country are in reality social democrats. I refer to intellectuals like [Daniel] Cosío Villegas and others whom I won’t mention because they are close to me—and I am one of them.

Among the great modern problems of Mexico, an essential one is the demographic problem of excessive population growth. There has been no study of that by our intellectual class that emerged from the Revolution. Perhaps it seemed to them that the topic wasn’t modern: Marx had already described it. Then there is the backwardness of patrimonialism, which is to say, of corruption. This is not only a moral issue—there is corruption in all regimes, not only in Mexico—but it is one that has its roots in concrete social reality. Patrimonialism was studied by Machiavelli, and later by Max Weber, but it would be futile to look for a good study of this problem by our intellectuals. Or take the issue of political bureaucracy. Only a few of us dissident thinkers [heterodoxos] have insisted on pointing out how this problem—certainly a universal phenomenon—takes on special characteristics in Mexico, where the imbrication of bureaucracy and political power is more profound than elsewhere, to such a degree that one can speak of a political-bureaucratic class. One also doesn’t hear much about centralism, another fundamental issue. Mexico City is a monster, but why? It has not been so by a demographic accident, but by a political one. It has flourished because it is a mirror of Mexican centralism, going back to the pre-Columbian period. One would have to reformulate the need for a reexamination of centralism, similar to the one undertaken by liberals like [Benito] Juárez in their day. The fundamental thing would have been to do a critique of centralism by way of returning to federalism, but no one did this … the contribution of this [intellectual] class to such a criticism has been small. On the other hand, if we think of its constructive activities, as in education, in legislation, etc., its contributions have been immense. Its impact has been profoundly positive, though always part of the system, never critical of it. When they have tried to be critical, it hasn’t been in a concrete manner but rather by means of general ideas. The criticism was always ideological, never practical.

In recent years, the economic crisis in Mexico has shown the reality of our country. It is a financial, economic problem, but above all a political and moral one. It is clear that many of the errors committed in the past (to give examples: corruption, the taste for excessive planning, illusions about the petroleum bonanza) are owing to the lack of political controls. In this sense, it is undeniable that the Mexican state lacks the necessary division of powers: the influence of a more critical and less ideological press does not exist; there is no autonomous legislative body, and, finally, we lack an authentic democracy. The road to modernization—in this, the revolutionaries of the eighteenth century, the liberals of the nineteenth, and [Francisco Ignacio] Madero were not mistaken—must pass through political reform, and this must pass through democracy. Without it there can be no economic or social reform.

Of course, the government won’t accomplish this alone. And it won’t do so because no one in history has done so. To put it another way, the governing classes change when obliged to change by violence or circumstances. I am one who believes in gradual and peaceful changes. That’s why I speak: I believe in the power of language. Gradual and peaceful modifications are not achieved without the intellectual class. Not because this class possesses the power to change things, but because it exerts a power of persuasion that other classes do not have. That is why a change of consciousness is fundamental. If we observe the attitude of many radical groups in Mexico, it is only now that they accept the necessity of democracy. The Mexican intellectual class should carry out a self-criticism of its past and of its most recent attitudes, repudiating its ideological idolatries, and learning tolerance. Also indispensable is a critical examination of our idea of modernization, an organic criticism, one that takes its cues from the people.

Not long ago, Mexico experienced something that was at once atrocious and (if one may call it that) marvelous. When the earthquake struck [Mexico City, 1985], I was there and was impressed with how, in such catastrophes produced by chance, we become accomplices of the latter. The newer buildings fell down, not the older ones. In some basic way the earthquake was not only geological or natural but also moral, political, and historical. Along with that I observed the reaction of the people: they organized themselves and worked together in a way that provided a lesson in true democracy. Now the word democracy has been so over-used that it’s sometimes annoying. More ancient is the word fraternity, brotherhood among men. Everyone got together and reached agreement: they picked up their dead and rescued the living by means of spontaneous collective action. From its beginnings, to be sure, humanity has had to deal with nature, our mother and stepmother. But I would say that on this occasion, I witnessed an ancestral response of the people: I discovered the spirit of fraternity embedded in the Mexican tradition.

When I returned to Mexico in the 1960s, my friends and I founded Plural. A literary journal, because we are not politicians, we are writers who don’t believe that writing should be in the service of anything. However, we understand that those who write need to say what they think about the political reality. That is why we called it Plural: a pluralistic and particular vision, diversity versus a homogeneous vision of society. There are no universal truths, there are partial and particular truths. That publication disappeared, and we took refuge in Vuelta, an independent literary journal in which we also published articles by political thinkers. Vuelta sets the tone for what one would like to see in the Mexican intellectual class, pluralistic and tolerant of others; a second turn capable of going back and recovering the tradition. The road to modernity passes through the re-conquest of this tradition.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *