The Twilight of the Intellectual Poet

The Twilight of the Intellectual Poet

El ocaso de los poetas intelectuales

Malva Flores

Apparently, what happened to us was the same thing that
happens to those kids who really shine during adolescence,
in high school. They’re so active and brilliant at that age and
in that condition, they exhaust all their possibilities and never
amount to anything. It’s a generation of perpetual adolescents,
perpetual students, in a disenchanted juvenile limbo.

In mid-June, 1999, a singular match took place at the “Lightning Center” indoor soccer sports facility located in southern Mexico City: the staff of a fledgling cultural magazine—with their director, Enrique Krauze, looking on from the stands— challenged the staff of another magazine, Nexos, to a friendly soccer game. Left behind were the skirmishes produced by a battle between Nexos and Vuelta over the sticky affair of “The Experience of Freedom” Encounter held by Vuelta in 1990 and the subsequent “Winter Colloquium” organized in 1992 by the magazine Nexos, the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), the National Culture Council (CONACULTA) and independent organizers Carlos Fuentes and Jorge G. Castañeda.

Perhaps the anecdotes that would have made it impossible to play such a game a few years earlier were covered by the dust the players had raised, and the statements drafted by Krauze regarding Carlos Fuentes, one of Nexos’ most beloved authors, during his presentation of History Tells no longer mattered to anyone: the “game of man” had brought them together.

“Fuentes does not require a retraction, nor I the forgiveness that will never be asked of him (…) differences as profound as these cannot be resolved by an embrace of Acatempan,” Krauze had said at the time. Now, the hundreds of statements and pages that the press, cultural sections, and magazines had dedicated to this well-known confrontation seemed significantly far removed from the playing field. In retrospect, its origin, apparently, was rather distant from literature itself (with the exception of a conflict triggered by a text Krauze wrote, “Carlos Fuentes’ Mexican Comedy”) and whose backdrop—the relationship between intellectuals and the State—can be traced back in general terms to the discussion of President Echeverría’s “democratic openness,” Corpus Thursday** and Fuentes’ call for a “vote of confidence” supporting Echeverría. Gabriel Zaid responded to the latter by proposing that Echeverría be summoned after a certain deadline and made publicly accountable regarding the results or advances of investigations into these violent events.

Following a coup at the newspaper Excélsior in 1976, the confrontation proceeded through various polemics until 1992, when it reached subzero temperatures as a result of the controversy raised by the organization of a “Winter Colloquium,” the publication of free textbooks and the appointment of José María Pérez Gay as director of nascent cultural television channel 22. That same year, it was topped off by a brief literary squabble, the final “debate” in a fin de siècle that never quite managed to take on the proportions of other major Mexican literary polemics from the first half of the 20th century, featuring such outstanding examples as the one led by the group known as the Contemporaries, who opposed the notion of nationalist culture by establishing dialogues with other modern, Western cultures. However, as Guillermo Sheridan rightly observed:

[…] we cannot ignore the fact that certain topical variants of an ideological bent in the debate regarding nationalism that followed the Revolutions were visible among literary projects identifiable with the “social realist” project during the decade of the 1930’s […] and in recent discussions regarding “light” literature, or the renovated impetus of other literary sentimentalisms: neoindigenism, neocostumbrism, neohistoricism, generic (feminist and/or gay) literature.

“Light” versus “heavy” literature would become opposite poles in this new battle, a literary postscript to scuffles surrounding what Paz would call “A Confederacy of Literatti,” his label for a “Winter Colloquium” wherein the poet saw, beyond any ideological divergences, the playing pieces of a strategy whose goal appeared to be crystal clear: “beyond the immediate political significance of the Colloquium, I highlight what seems essential to me as a writer: this meeting was yet another episode in a campaign to take over the vital centers of Mexican culture. That is the true significance of the current polemic.”

In the midst of all the hubbub this bitter discussion caused within the literary republic, the magazine Macrópolis published a series of op-ed articles (by Rafael Pérez Gay, Jaime Aljure, Guadalupe Loaeza, and Margo Su, among others) under the column “In Favor of Easy Literature” in its third issue, dated March 26, 1992. The magazine Vuelta responded, indirectly at first, in issue 186 under the headline “The Legacy of the Contemporaries,” then openly in issue 188 in July that same year under “In Defense of Difficult Literature.” In his editorial, Aurelio Asiain affirmed:

In our country, a group of journalists dubbed as writers—who dedicate themselves, with good fortune, to the task of editing—has declared itself for years now in favor of a “democratic literature” that, plebiscitarianly defined, finds legitimacy in its political nature first and foremost, over any literary virtues. With the praiseworthy objective of supporting the development of a national literary market through the introduction of trinkets, these “democratic” works defend lightness as their greatest virtue and propagate a taste for the anecdotal. No wonder this marriage between market and ideology has received the blessing of our educators, whose pragmatic vision does not perceive literature to be anything but a didactic instrument, a historically useful document, a tool for the formation of national sentiment and an element of social cohesion among the masses. Between “light” literature and textbooks, there is but one step.

It comes as no surprise that it was a young poet who denounced the “marriage between market and ideology,” the same man who, upon Paz’s death, invited over 25 poets to the editorial and advisory boards of a new magazine—Paréntesis or Parenthesis—which, during only 17 issues of existence, relegated any political discussion to focus exclusively on the publication of literature. His catch-phrase formed part of a refutation—on the literary playing field this time—to the position taken by the board of editors at the magazine Nexos, which in the May 173 issue that same year had published its response to the “confederacy of literatti.” There, among many other arguments, they warned about the “success among the public and media” enjoyed by the Colloquium, a success that “those who pride themselves so much on writing only for readers, for society and under no circumstances for the Prince, must humbly accept.” According to the editors, the success they had garnered was irrefutable proof of the “country’s cultural vigor,” but also of “a growing cultural market.”

Of the eight authors published by Vuelta in defense of “difficult literature,” seven were poets (Octavio Paz, Joseph Brodsky, H. M. Enszensberger, Adonis, Shuichi Kato, Lars Forssell, Kjell Espmark and Michel Butor). In “The Advantages of a Minority Condition,” Hans Magnus Enzensberger recalled how Flaubert or Baudelaire strived “not to cater to the popular taste and [to] protect their work against the intrusion of commercial values,” values disdained by poetry which “is the only human product that has resisted all attempts at commercialization.”

Thus, beneath a polemic that at first glance was centered on the relationship between intellectuals and the State and had animated the discussion between these participants for over 25 years, there was perhaps another, not so evident phenomenon, that might lead us to couch their arguments in other terms. Behind the stance of the intellectual confronting authority, we find once again that age-old dispute regarding the autonomy of art and the artist’s relationship with “bourgeois” power, a Baudelairean equation analyzed—among other contemporary thinkers—by Pierre Bourdieu.

To define this dispute in the case of Mexico as a squabble between poets, narrators and “specialists”—a classification based on its most highly visible figures— would be missing the point. However, it isn’t entirely arbitrary to note the obvious connections and ask oneself what the poets’ position was, or how the historic and social circumstances contributed to this twilight, this decay, of the figure of the intellectual poet for whom, from the time of Independence, political participation and the discussion of national affairs were not at odds with the task of writing poetry.

To speak of a twilight of intellectual poets precisely during the second half of the 20th century would be paradoxical, considering that one of its major protagonists was Octavio Paz, considered by José Luis Martínez to be the last “cultural boss” of that period. To observe that 20th-century Mexican literature ended on “April 19, 1998, the day when [Paz] died,” is intended as a tribute, but moreover a compendium that encompasses an understanding not only of the literary act itself, but also of the historical moment in which it takes place and that, for the purposes of this essay, began during the 1970s.

As a result of the events of 1968 and 1971, the breakthrough in the intellectual field of academic “specialists” (whom Gabriel Zaid called “the universitarians,”) and the rise of narrators, I believe that the twilight of intellectual poets is due, among these and other circumstances, to the definitive closure of an essentially Romantic current that viewed poets as sustainers of moral truths, thanks to which they would become the “critical conscience” of their time. I am not, of course, referring to the conscience that intervenes in the construction of an official national identity. On the contrary, I speak of the intellectual who, thanks to public exposure of his or her thought, is raised up as an alternate and independent power; whose strength consists of the value of his or her ideas and the repercussions they may have on society as a whole, as represented by its intellectual and political elite. By this I mean the modern intellectual, so widely documented in bibliographies that any further explanation is unnecessary. That is to say, he who no longer participates as “counselor to the Prince” or ideologue of a regime, but rather lives the task of opposing public power—in any of its manifestations—through the free and, moreover, public exercise of ideas and writing.

In many ways, Paz would represent among us the last poet in this Romantic line, in such a way that the discussion of his intellectual affairs proves to be indispensable for an understanding of the cultural panorama of our country during the past century. However, despite his vast presence, the concept of the intellectual poet cannot be understood solely through an analysis and discussion of his work. A prominent position that perhaps Paz claimed, according to Héctor Aguilar Camín, as “his” place in the world, “which I think would all be very well and good, if not for the fact that it’s an enormous place and you simply can’t avoid running into him.”

Thus, when the young staff members of Letras Libres faced Nexos contributors in a friendly game, it seemed to symbolically conclude twenty-five years of confrontation. It was not, however, an act tantamount to the one that launched the newspaper El Renacimiento in 1869, when Mexican writers, forgetting their political differences and enveloped in the spirit of nationalism, came together in order to create an organ of literary expression. Yet the fact was that, 130 years later, another chapter of Mexican literary and cultural life seemed to come to a close on the soccer field.

“We have inherited an intellectual tradition,” Enrique Krauze claimed while launching the electronic version of the first issue of Letras Libres, “that for over two decades was incarnated through Octavio Paz’s Vuelta magazine. We believe in literary quality and intellectual clarity, in political freedom and democracy. […] But Letras Libres is not a return to Vuelta. Not only because that magazine was indistinguishable from the life and work of Octavio Paz, but because circumstances of every kind are quite different now.” Curiously enough, in its printed version, a nuance was made with regards to Paz’s “heritage.” As Krauze said in his presentation, “(a)lthough we will continue to publish eminent authors who concurred with his pages [those of Plural and Vuelta], in Letras Libres—a name coined by Paz himself—we do not feel we automatically inherit his legacy: we shall do whatever we can to earn it.” By the seventh issue (July 1999), this heritage had been conquered, given that Letras Libres appeared in a “periodical tree of Mexican literature,” prepared by the magazine’s board of editors and signed by Christopher Domínguez, as the indisputable direct heir not only of Vuelta but, parting from the Contemporaries, the tall and robust trunk of national periodical publications it crowned within the field of literature.

In effect, the times and circumstances had changed, yet the editors felt it necessary to publish a letter from the poet dated 1990 and addressed to Enrique Krauze, that somehow justified the appearance of this new magazine and gave “strong backing” to the man who would become its assistant director for six years, Fernando García Ramírez, former member of Vuelta and Krauze’s employee in the publishing house Clío, who had stopped writing in Paz’s magazine since 1993 (i.e., two years after the aforementioned letter), and whose final issue—which reunited former articles by those who might be considered “in house” authors—does not feature his own name. In said letter the poet warned that, in effect, there was a need to transform or create a new publication in order to avoid “the sad destiny of the Nouvelle Revue Française or that of Revista de Occidente.”

I add, Paz concluded, that it isn’t enough to have new ideas and purpose; a new director and group are also needed. Of course, the new publication (the new Vuelta, in its second stage) will have to be a cultural magazine. The members of its Board of Copy Editors (no more than five) should be chosen from among those who today form part of our group. I’m thinking, above all, of Adolfo Castañón, Aurelio Asiain and Fernando García Ramírez.

None of these three characters, all of whom are poets, attended the soccer match held on the “Lightning Center” field. Of the participants in the new project, there was only one poet: Julio Trujillo, future Secretary of Copy Editors at Letras Libres, who was asked by virtue of his participation in a Poetry Festival organized in 2003 by the Pablo Neruda Foundation about the poet’s role and labor: “In this personal labor,” he indicated, “a social temperature, a political pulse, may or may not be reflected… [but] that’s no longer necessary. It’s not something people pursue, it’s no longer a qualification.”

Thirty years earlier, with the events of Tlatelolco and Corpus Thursday fresh in our memories, the polemic described here was beginning in a section of Plural entitled “Mexico 1972: Writers and Power.” In his introduction, Octavio Paz wrote:

Politics were what filled Malraux’s brain with smoke, poisoned Cesar Vallejo’s insomnia, killed García Lorca, left old Machado abandoned in a town in the Pyrenees, locked Pound up in an insane asylum, dishonored both Neruda and Aragon, have made Sartre look ridiculous, and have proven Breton right, albeit too late… But we cannot shirk politics; that would be worse than spitting into the wind: it would be spitting on ourselves.

Three decades span Paz’s phrase and Julio Trujillo’s statement. During that same period, some of the poets whose work forms part of our tradition emerged: José Luis Rivas, Francisco Hernández, David Huerta, Elsa Cross, Antonio Deltoro, Coral Bracho, Fabio Morábito, etc.

While it is very likely that Julio Trujillo’s statement was made in reference to that variant of social poetry that devolved into pamphlets or militancy, I find it notable that on the same day Trujillo responded regarding the labor of poets, another poet, David Huerta, commented on the disinterest of current poets in anything other than “what’s theirs”, contrasting them with “true Romantics [who] were no longer confined to lyric expression but occupied themselves with historic, mythological, and religious affairs […] they were interested in everything and everyone […] Now we must conform ourselves with nothing more than what happens to the poet in his lifetime and the news he provides of this in his verse. Very little, indeed.” What happened during this period to make poets who currently possess a mature work willing to settle for only offering us data from their lives? Why, in their majority, and despite having Paz as a tutelary figure, did they abandon the intellectual role that was previously common currency in our republic of letters?

The generation of poets who experienced the events of 1968 and their replica in 1971, who believed in the ideals of rebellious youth, who mimeographed their first books, and who witnessed the decline of the oil boom underwent a whirlwind of historic and social change not wanting to redefine themselves (or not knowing how). Or perhaps neither of these two alternatives is true, but in today’s world the public no longer takes an interest in the reflections of a critical conscience backed by the “moral value” of poetry. Taking refuge in this as an activity on the margins of current events, the poets of this generation saw, on one hand, how the importance of “literary life”—at one time the axis of artistic and critical life in this country—gave way to the growing importance of public opinion, with its own professionals or opinion leaders. On the other, they witnessed the breakthrough and consolidation of specialists and academics who occupied, in the discussion of any issues outside strictly literary ones, the place once held by, among others, poets in their role as public intellectuals. Why should they have to be consulted on economic, political, or any other affairs if there were already specialists with degrees whose specialized opinion turned out to be more pertinent, more “serious” than that of poets? As Christopher Domínguez already pointed out not long ago, from a different angle: “the multiplication of Opinion returns aesthetic dominion to the literary (or art) critic.”

SONY DSCMalva Flores es poeta y ensayista. Su libro más reciente es La culpa es por cantar. Apuntes sobre poesía y poetas de hoy (Literal Publishing/ Conaculta, 2014). Es columnista de Literal. Síguela en Twitter: @malvafg.

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