My dear F.,
I know my response to your last message took some time to arrive, but my recent move was not uncomplicated. Getting familiar with the surroundings, opening boxes, sorting books, papers, and other things besides has claimed a couple of months that could have been more happily spent. Now that the tides have turned back to normality, I intend, for better or for worse, to get our correspondence up to date.
In one of those propitious coincidences that only happen when we find ourselves enjoying a new regimen, last night I came across another of your letters from decades ago (how time flies! Nowadays people scarcely even send each other emails, preferring to warble and tweet on social media; the time-honored perversion of the epistle sets you and me apart, and vindicates us). Your note was tucked away, due to its subject matter, between photocopied pages on literary criticism, which I once used to write on this topic: I believe I sent you the article. Looking back over your words, I understood this was a case more of synchronicity than coincidence, as days prior I had finished Robert Alter’s book, The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age—a gem that appeared, as you will recall, in 1989, the same year I came to the United States. You had sung me its praises, but my studies, my moves within this country, and life in general led me, again and again, to put off reading it. While I am late to Alter, I assure you I read him with no lesser enthusiasm: he has not lost currency. Since I doubt we will be able to speak in the coming weeks, and since I know you are passionately interested in the matter, I shall tack down a few comments based on the notes I left in the book’s margins. You will see for yourself how they intersect with the questions that have concerned you since the eighties about the true meaning of our craft.
I’ll begin with an old dichotomy, now vintage but still in circulation: the dichotomy between critical analysis and essayism. On the one hand, arduous methodology; on the other, subjectivity, pleasure, and irony. I suspect the limit between these terms of being forced, especially when we perceive that criticism does not require writing: on many occasions, in our conversations, you and I have practiced criticism, leaving behind not a single smudge of ink, only good memories. A literature professor in discussion with his students in the classroom or a café is participating in a critical activity, even with no pen or keyboard at hand. I could mention many more examples, but these two are enough for now: what matters is that the written page, when it comes to doing criticism, is as incidental or provisional as our after-dinner chats, the schedule of a semester, or the two or three days of a conference… The essay, on the other hand, is never oral, despite the fact that it can be read aloud. Nor does it lend itself to the genealogical ambiguities of poetry or fiction, both oral in the distant past, as the essay is a strikingly young genre—a strapping youth, with less than half a millennium under its belt—and, unlike its peers, was not born a out of wedlock. The essay is no bastard. Michel de Montaigne—the essay’s “father” has a name; he is a mortal human being, not a Greek deity—while he did not invent expository discourse, was the first to consciously practice one of its variants, whose form relied on apparently domestic and autobiographical verbal informality, or a pseudo version of it, with that subjectivity rooted in private property that is so innate to the beginnings of modernity (in Montaigne’s case) and to its consolidation (starting with Addison, Steele, and Hume). The Renaissance Rediscovery of Intimacy, a study by Kathy Eden published by the University of Chicago Press in 2012 (which I recommend if it hasn’t yet reached you) convincingly identifies the genesis of this form of writing with the reincorporation of the family letter of the ancients into the Western tradition, which took place shortly before Montaigne. Cicero’s epistles to Atticus and Seneca’s to Lucilius, having passed through the humanist filters of Petrarch and Erasmus, contributed greatly to the composition of this vigorous “I” whose home is the essay, at least as long as it follows the original pattern of an intimate letter written to no correspondent in particular, or rather to a correspondent who is himself the letter’s writer: a mirrored mode of thought into which the reader peeks, almost nosily. As if this were not enough, Montaigne sought to give a name to this update of principally Latin innovations, which, for posterity, made him its “creator.” As we glean from his notice “Au lecteur,” the Essais are further defined as a legacy for the author’s kin (a semi-fictitious will: my reader becomes my blood relation and heir): Montaigne thereby invokes an act of “enrollment,” of “registry,” a temporal modality of language that could only work in writing… I dwell on this fact because, despite its glaring obviousness, the inattentive majority has not taken it into account. Furthermore, an essay is literary due not its subject but to the way it is written; the essayist takes as his motto Nietzsche’s decree from Human, All Too Human: “Improving our style means improving our ideas.” Literature as a question of how, not of what; indeed, within this “what” fit infinite matters: art, politics, personal life, the everyday occurrences of a people and even gastronomy (just recall the Memorias de cocina y bodega of Alfonso Reyes). And of course, the essay can also leave a little room in which to comment on literature itself, just as other genres do—stricter, more exacting, unliterary genres, what we call the manual and the treatise (or study), along with their educational variants (the thesis, the dissertation, the research article, the talk).
I should pause over another aspect of the contrast between essay and criticism: their juxtaposition is fragile since, while the terms are not interchangeable, neither are they mutually exclusive. It is possible, as I have just insinuated, to write excellent “critical” essays in which the Montaignian subject conspires in the analysis of literary texts. Classic examples exist: limiting ourselves to the Hispanic sphere, besides the aforementioned Reyes, we have Borges, Martínez Estrada, Paz, José Bianco, Juan Goytisolo, Gabriel Zaid, Eugenio Montejo, and yourself, F. (I will never tire of saying it). Giving oneself over to “essayistic” criticism, though, would denote a severe lack of seriousness; the expression points toward a digressive, baseless, and capricious method. Why?, you’ll ask. I shall answer: because every critical operation approaches the ascetic task—the rigor demanded by the search for knowledge. Such an operation implies meditation on a work or a system of intertextual relationships that will become, thanks to this cautious inquiry, an “subject of study.” If the essayist finds himself in what he reads and examines (stimulating readers to do the same), the critic, on the other hand, seeks to find “something more”: the latter’s work is “transitive,” while the former’s is “reflexive”: utopian tasks, but the matter requires more time than I have. One of the greatest obstacles to the formation of a solid body of critical work in most Hispanic countries to date is not any excess of critical essays—good ones have been scarce, it seems to me—but rather the proliferation of “essayistic” critics, with vague, aleatory strategies and principles, always following fashion or at the service of friendships or enmities. The essay improvises artistically: it does this in the aim of enthroning healthy individualism in a world of rigid monologies and collective dogmas. “Essayistic” criticism, for its part, improvises as a consequence of incapacity, irresponsibility, of the frustrations of its writer when said writer is simultaneously “creative” and feels himself a failure. You have noticed just as I have, my dear, the plethora of books and articles that match this profile: theirs is the legion of alleged critics who get lyrical when they speak about a poet, as if they were in competition with him; or the other legion of those who spiral into talking about their travels, their family life, even their manias or disappointments, with the pretext that this might illuminate the text at hand. In actual fact, with the excuse of showing off “freshness” or a “personal” tone, perhaps in fear of “coldness,” we are offered an irritating incursion into narcissism, and we, who saw fit to consult the review or article on a given book or author, are left feeling a little cheated, having learned little about our subject of interest.
The other obstacle our critics must topple is what you call in your letter “byzantinism.” In the eighties and nineties, we were getting sick of what Rafael Gutiérrez Girardot depicted, in all fairness, as “the derri-dada and the lacan-can.” Although your pages precede Robert Alter’s, it is as if the two of you had grown attached to the subject after a shared conversation. Transforming critical work into a never-ending theoretical flirtation, growing further from the text by the second, is evidence of impotence or fear of direct engagement with the literary. Your skepticism and Alter’s—and, if you both permit it, mine—are founded on that distance that ends up serving as a cordon sanitaire, an aseptic barrier. The gap between literature and criticism is one of darkness. Byzantine criticism can easily be recognized when we come across a method that sees fit only to inquire into itself. The study’s author, rather than trying to get to the bottom of that “something more” we were talking about, focuses almost exclusively on corroborating its own procedures and points of view: the page under criticism exists, meagerly, as proof of the method’s aptitude and efficacy. Here we find criticism that itself becomes the “object” and that, therefore, comes dangerously close to the essay, even unintentionally. You mentioned “Lacan and company.” The list of Byzantium, to my mind, could be lengthened with many names accumulated from the mid-twentieth century to today. A complete roster of byzantinism would turn this friendly letter into some convoluted Bosch altarpiece. This is not my intention. The problem does not stem from our foucaultmania, or our butlerphilia, or our mignolocization; nor has one of Žižek’s pose-claims blocked up our gut (where did I leave the Laclau tablets?). It stems, rather, from the way these systems of ideas are adopted: as objects of consumption and application (as it sounds: you “apply a theory” like you apply a bandage… How many times have I heard that phrase?). As Alter suggests, we might think these critics are simply projecting the apparently lucid administrative logic of the institutions that hire and safeguard them in their intellectual work. Union criticism? Perhaps so, and I’d prefer to call it by its name from now on. In response to the undeniable superficiality and incoherence of those they call “impressionists,” the union critics, yuppies or neo-yuppies find themselves tied up in labor codes, jargon, and tics that sink them into problems that would not emerge if not for the novel method at hand. I understand, from Pierre Bourdieu, that this is how cultural capital behaves. There is quite a stretch from there to the breathless, caricaturesque acceleration of the past seventy years: a convulsive plunge into solipsism.
What I am pointing out is especially common in efficient, well funded university systems, like that of the United States, as it stimulates competition and creates “job markets” (it all comes down to this: no one writes literature anymore; another of our gods dies). Lewis A. Gordon, one of my top philosophers lately, has complained, and I translate:
North American universities, and consequently those of the world—given the former’s ability to attract the best international intellectuals—are guided ever less by the demands of intellect and ever more by those of the job market. And it is no accident that, in this period, “star” intellectuals are on the rise with greater frequency and intensity than “public” individuals. (“The Human Condition in an Age of Disciplinary Decadence: Thoughts on Knowing and Learning,” Philosophical Studies in Education, no. 34, 2003, pp. 105–123)
His reflections, my dear F., are kindred to yours in their entirety, so I leave you the reference to the article. The above is part of a greater problem, later grasped also by Gordon; I cite him again, as nothing he says will go to waste:
Where capital is deified, the answer is complete privatization […].. This amounts to a simple principle: everything is commodifiable. Or even simpler: everything and anyone could be bought. We are already witnessing this credo in the subversion of other institutions, including other markets, to the fetishized and deified notion of “the Market.” Thus, failing to think of markets other than the Market, this abstraction makes a market out of everything else: instead of knowledge of the market, there is the market of knowledge; instead of education markets, there is the market of education; instead of religious protection of the sacred from the market, there is the market of religion in which there is also commodification of the sacred; instead of political control of the market, there is the market of politics. (“Decolonizing Philosophy”, The Southern Journal of Philosophy, 2019, Vol. 57, S1, pp.16-36)
This absurdity stands out most in Latin America, which has adopted the critical paraphernalia of other regions that do not share its concerns and dilemmas. In his 1929 book Rubén Darío y el modernismo, Rufino Blanco Fombona said something horrifying about the autochthonous minds thirsty for the latest European fashion:
We have never learned to see, to enjoy, to understand our nature and our societies. We have never even learned to plumb the depths of our own soul. We do not know ourselves. We have often aped and parrotted. We have been imitators, repeaters of Europe. Our creole soul has resembled other peoples’ souls; the souls of the peoples whose books we read. Just as we import stud males to impart their masculine potency to our breeding females, we run around begging to crossbreed, passively welcoming copulation with boars, ponies, rams, and stallions.
The United States has replaced France in this context, while the master-slave dialectic remains unchanged. Less strident than Blanco Fombona, less chauvinistic, just as enlightened, and infinitely more suggestive, Simón Rodríguez stated before how to make the republics newly separated from colonial oppression truly independent: “Either we invent or we fail.” We have spent more time on the latter than the former; I hope I don’t sound pessimistic.
Here is an example of passivities and errors. I once heard a Hispano-American colleague, wandering like me through the meadows of New England, issue the following verdict in English: “Derrida is out, Foucault is in.” This was around 1996, when it was already a faux pas to call yourself a “deconstructionist.” These days, I have heard variations on this judgment involving the friction between postcolonial and “decolonial” studies—which, I might note, are “decolonial” rather than “descolonial” in Spanish too, having swallowed up the same “s” that is absent from “de(s)construcción” in an attempt to cover up their flagrant anglicism with specious sophistic arguments. The shame lies, in my past and present estimation, not in the fact that the grammatologist or the legionaries of Bhabha and Spivak were or are considered “out,” but rather in the fact that they were obviously once deemed “in.” With regard to the philosophers and theorists cited by my aforementioned colleague: I read and reread them, and sometimes I cite them myself. I simply deplore that they should be inserted into the same system of exchange and consumption as bell bottoms or skinny jeans, short sideburns or long, dancing the caderú or the lambada (you can see how current my references are: I got off the train a long time ago). I’m sure some would be happy to grace me with explanations in a postmodern key (even though that “post” is also out): the opposition between high culture and mass culture has been abolished and is done for. I trust in Fredric Jameson, Perry Anderson, and García Canclini. But the only ones who have noticed the fusion of elite culture and mass culture are the elite, so this all takes on the rather murky tinge of an eleatic tall tale.
Before I sign off, I’ll add a comment on jargon: in his well known 1959 essay on foreignisms and technicisms, “Wörter aus der Fremde,” Theodor Adorno was right to emphasize the value of specialized terminology, because such terminology reminds us we are speaking in codes within codes, a mise en abyme that “destroys the illusion of naturalness in language.” Many amateurs who approach the practice of criticism, riding their fancies and impressions bareback, tend to complain of the glut of terminology at centers of university research. I prefer to ignore these adamic and egocentric voices: they scarcely manage to veil their lazy resistance to learning the discursive tradition the discipline has produced, with which to honor and synthesize past debates. I therefore use technical vocabulary when I find it indispensable, and oftentimes it is. Adorno was not referring, though, to the stylistic awkwardness of the lexical fetish, the libidinal overloading of certain elocutory habits—a phenomenon covered in The Pleasures of Reading. See, for example, this quote that Alter takes from an article that must have made him laugh until he hiccupped, as I confess it did me:
What seems to me important are the correspondences between Borges and midrash in the idea of intertextuality, in the concept of reading not as lineality but as configuration of textual space, in the notion of the destructurization of the text as a condition for deciphering it, and in the arch principle, as I have said, of interpretative metatextuality as the basis of decentralization.
I would balk at having to translate such a tirade into Spanish; this would, of course, necessitate its prior translation into English. Its effect, in our language, would be like reading something by Mario Moreno or Lezama Lima rendered “scholars.” Not long ago, so as not to sidestep the new editorial releases of this third decade of the new millennium, I read the minutes of a symposium of “decolonial” studies whose affected gibberish made me dizzy; it was very instructive, in passing, to note how the discourse market erected in the imperial nuclei continues to colonize the minds of the intellectual rebels of the periphery. There are too many examples to name; I will leave it at that, though, because I have already gone on too long. Why get bogged down in digressions when the spaces in which to publish criticism have only shrunk at any rate?
I hope these paragraphs, written without calculation, in the lasting warmth of our old conversations, will not strike you as tedious. I know, at least, that they will do no one any harm: they concern only you and me, and we have been known to beat a dead horse.
With a warm greeting from your friend, who always rereads you,
Translated by Arthur Malcolm Dixon