Alejandro Rossi: Venezuela me es esencial / Eugenio Montejo, Fernando Rodríguez

Alejandro Rossi: Venezuela is Essential to Me

The noted Mexican—and Venezuelan—philosopher and fiction writer has been in Caracas recently to receive the Doctorado Honoris Causa from the Universidad Central de Venezuela, which honors and is honored by this generous gesture, reflecting one of the highest values of Latin American literature. The author of notable books of essays and short stories, he was recognized in 1999 with Mexico’s Premio Nacional de Literatura y Lingüistica. This is the record of an informal conversation, on a happy and sunny morning, which the philosopher Fernando Rodríguez and the poet Eugenio Montejo sustained with Rossi in Caracas.

Fernando Rodríguez: In an interview you say that your generation worked on small tasks, not on large challenges…and yet the XX century was a century of utopias and titanic endeavors. Who were you referring to and in what way did you mean it?

Alejandro Rossi: I believe I was most likely referring to Latin American philosophers and especially to the Mexican ones. Certainly the task fell upon us to more or less professionalize philosophy amid a precinct where a type of light, dispersed and inconsistent essay writing ruled.

We, in particular those of us who adopted analytical philosophy, concentrated ourselves in the university and there—somewhat like monks, to the margin of politics, journalism and other mundane temptations—we wanted to make philosophical work more technical, to make ourselves from this discipline’s millenarian tradition, to learn languages so that translations would not ensnare us, to travel to the most advanced centers so as to remain current, to gird ourselves to themes susceptible to rigorous treatments. In truth, it was a necessary task and I don’t think we did it all that badly. There you have the Instituto de Investigaciones Filosóficas or magazines such as Dianoia and Crítica, which are several decades old now. In all, we began to plant a philosophical tradition that has continued and should continue. Without going too far, I believe something similar was done in Venezuela.

FR: And yet, somewhere else in your writings it seems as if you were hoping for a grander philosophy, one that’s more ambitious and tied to our Latin American dramas.

AR: I wouldn’t call it a different philosophy. Much less an autochthonic one, something we always detest, those Latin American or Mexican identities. What I suggested during the continent’s dramatic moments is that we should face the political or ethical problems which seemed to be unavoidable and which perhaps did not appear often in the agendas of that foundational philosophy of the mid XX century. But, as you both know, this discipline has amplified its thematic field a great deal and I believe today we are taking up many of those urgent questions.

FR: Seen from the present, doesn’t that ideal of professionalizing the humanities, within the university, which excited us up to just recently, doesn’t it seem a bit disappointing? Specialization, the paper, good academic manners, the relative codification of knowledge… haven’t these isolated universities too much? Here, today, we complain a great deal about the absence of the university’s voice in these torturous years we've lived.

AR: I don’t agree with that underestimation of the university’s humanistic activities in general. This is and will continue to be a very important space for the development of our countries. What happens is that it has its time and its own ways of being efficient. Of course, it’s possible that in specific moments, such as the one you point out in Venezuela, massive and brutal occurrences can silence it or delay it.

FR: Curiously, after your period of a strict custody of meaning, you end up being a celebrated fiction writer…

Yes, and it would be very difficult for me to know exactly why. Of course, I've always had a great love for literature and that could be reason enough. Or language has been for me, for my vital journeys, something very attractive and enigmatic, both philosophically and literarily.

But perhaps there was also a certain weariness toward the philosophical discipline. Or those circumstances, always less gratuitous than one supposes, such as Octavio Paz inviting me to write the column El manual del distraído, which allowed me to play in both fields. The rest must be in the unconscious which, as we know, is very dark.

Eugenio Montejo: In Cartas credenciales you mention a Venezuelan great uncle of yours, the author of a novel which elicited the anger of the church and of his relatives. According to your comments, these relatives would pretend to be deaf when you asked them about that text.

AR: It’s true. I tried to investigate the author and the book with Diego Córdoba, the writer from Cumaná, an old fighter against Gómez who lived in Mexico for many years. I haven’t been able to learn very much nor have I been able to find a copy of this novel, whose title is, I believe, Los desarraigados or something like that. Córdoba described him as a young man who was interested in the literary salons of the time. He told me several anecdotes about him and he vaguely remembered having seen the book. He was my grandfather's, Félix Antonio Guerrero, brother. They were two brothers, one a violinist and the other this man of letters who died young.

The family legend tended to repeat there was a copy of the work in my grandfather’s safe, but after his death, it seems nothing was found there. It must have been an edition with minimal copies made, something easy to be disappeared, especially if the intention was to erase the anticlerical evidence of a family member.

EM: In one of his essays Octavio Paz refers to literary families, which can almost always be made up of people who might or might not belong to an author’s national borders.

AR: As we know, each writer tends to create his own genealogy. Octavio distinguished himself because of his eclecticism. Part of his originality consists of the literary family he knew how to create for himself. One of his early influences was Rafael Alberti, who personally gave him many indications.

In the collection Bajo tu clara sombra (1944), for example, he seems like a poet from the Generation of 1927, but later he opens up, he defines other readings and begins to create different predilections. What Octavio began to read from that point onwards is not the same as what the Spanish poets who were contemporaries of Alberti read. Each writer attempts to define the limits of his affinities and differences, both in works from the past as well as during the time in which his efforts unfold. Besides, the true attempt Paz defines in his maturity is the construction of a tradition, the construction of the tradition of modern poetry, which logically includes the poetry of our language.

EM: In the literary reception of the first Paz in Venezuela, the importance of works such as El arco y la lira and Cuadrivio were noted. I’m pleased by your reiterated predilection for the essay on Darío which is part of Cuadrivio.

AR: El arco y la lira tends to get mentioned less in Mexico, while El laberinto de la soledad, which had a repercussion somewhat after its original publication, has been attended to much more over time. I concur with the importance attributed to El arco y la lira, a work which is magnificently built and has a deep literary perception. Moreover, Paz’s prose is at once clear and tense, often combative, capable of going from general thesis to the intimate and moving detail in a single page. As for the essay on Rubén Darío, it seems like a moment of high flight for Octavio, among his best work. It’s an essay I would say illuminates the history of Spanish poetry in the XX century. That entire book contains undeniable discoveries: the essay on López Velarde, for example, or the one dedicated to Fernando Pessoa, at a time when references to his work were uncommon. This last detail reveals another one of Octavio’s facets: the great introducer he always was, the unsurpassable divulger of other literary universes.

FR: Speaking of Paz, I’d like to ask you a specific curiosity. What did those foundational philosophers see in El laberinto de la soledad, that very beautiful text, but one which seems closer to essay writing and those thoughts on national identity?

AR: I think El laberinto initially had repercussions in small sectors, mainly literary ones. Later, it has continued to grow, as I said already, until becoming a type of indispensable classic. It’s likely it does have connections to those themes but it’s a book full of very rich and current cultural references, a book that’s very valuable because it defies the Mexican nationalist pride and is marvelously well-written. I consider it a living text, full of important suggestions.

EM: José Bianco referred to your work with great enthusiasm. When did you meet him? Borges said he was “the least famous of our great writers.”

AR: Actually, I met him very late. I admired him greatly because of the work he had accomplished in the magazine Sur, because of his texts and because of his savvy editing of the magazine. In 1938 he began the top editing position for the memorable magazine created by Victoria Ocampo and he realized the value of Borges very early on. Soon after taking over the position of editor he gave him the first page. Borges, who was slightly unsure of himself, begins to have his great moment. Not much later, his Pierre Menard, which few people understood at the time, appears in the magazine. In that decade of the 1940s he publishes Ficciones (1943) and that same year he gathers his poetic work. I would say some of the writers from the group around the magazine Sur form part of my own literary family.

For a young writer, to find oneself with Pepe Bianco was a gift from God. He possessed an immense literary wisdom. And he was likewise a great fiction writer. His two short novels, Las ratas and Sombras suele vestir, are unsurpassed. It seemed unfair, then, that when the so called Latin American literary Boom occurred he was not given the place he deserved as a fiction writer and essayist. We saw each other many times in Mexico. Actually, he was with us when the magazine Vuelta was about to appear.

He lived in my house twice. On one occasion I went to dinner with Pepe and with Borges, and afterwards we went out for a walk in Buenos Aires. On another occasion Octavio called me on the phone to tell me he’d received a text from Pepe for the magazine: it was a page he’d sent commenting on El manual del distraído. I was filled with satisfaction that he would write about me.

EM: In your evocation of Juan Nuño you say you shared with him that which is so difficult to share, which is called the common voice.

AR: Juan was my friend for more than thirty years. As I say in that essay, he was “a friendship that deepened over time until becoming an unalterable brotherhood.” Juan began as a Hellenist: there are his books, El pensamiento de Platón and La dialéctica platónica. He was close to García Bacca. Later he went to France, but the classical philosophy always remains at the core. He was interested in Sartre, to whom he dedicated a book, and later in mathematical logic and positivist logic. His essays contain a great deal of thematic variety and are characterized by a prose that combines humor and acidity. But what was essential in him was the freedom and the pleasure of writing.

It’s a shame his books don’t circulate more today. I think, for example, La filosofía de Borges should be republished in Spain with the promotion that exceptional text deserves. I’m certain that new edition would be followed by not a few translations. Actually, two excellent books about Borges were written in Caracas: the other one is Borges, el poeta by Guillermo Sucre. I remember the appearance of that book which caught my attention because of its theme. In a certain way, Sucre noticed ahead of time the importance poetry would have within Borges’s work during his final years.

FR: Borges, Nuño…let me return to the philosophical character I see in your literature…

AR: It’s rarely explicitly that way. Perhaps it’s so in El manual del distraído, where I attempt to turn philosophical motives into vital riddles. But in other cases, more indirectly, I believe I attempt to disarm histories, take the air out of them, deconstruct them—but, please, not in the way Derrida does.

I believe a certain irony or a dose of humor or a distancing always accompanies me, which makes me always search for the cat’s fifth foot, which in the end is what philosophers tend to do. I like to pop balloons. In the end, language is an artifice and a labyrinth. I like to play in its crossroads. Maybe that’s what joins my passion for Borges and Wittgenstein.

FR: You don’t think analytical philosophy, which restricts what can be said a great deal, could open the wide world to a freer and more recreational treatment. One which is joyously skeptical, more colorful and multiform, once it has freed itself from the rigidity of the concept; like Montaigne’s journeys without itinerary or calendar.

AR: Well, I don’t think one can establish a type of causality between analytical philosophy and literature. But it could create the possibility of an opening such as the one you mention. One would have to think about it. Besides, analytical philosophy is not so restrictive or it has ended up not being so. In the text “Cartas credenciales” I try to find a link between my philosophical and literary activities and I think I’ve found it in that temperament, in that feeling of the world which rejects the dogmatic and the totalizing and which attempts to travel through the world searching, with a certain hedonism, for novelty, paradoxes, the unexpected, the opaque. A benevolent skepticism, more or less. Perhaps it relates to what you’re saying, we’ll keep talking about it.

EM: Speak to us about the Venezuela you’ve found on this trip.

AR: Both of you have the word in that respect and you’ve already told me a great deal. But I do want to reiterate that this trip has shown me once more how much this country means to me. I have genetic roots, permanent memories, family and friends in this country. To return to UCV to be honored so fraternally is very moving for me. Both of you, my living friends, were at that ceremony, but so were many ghosts from many seasons.

Regarding the country I see, it produces that happiness of meeting once again. But I also share the sorrow I feel in so many people, the sensation of defeat, of historical disillusion, of that modernizing project which began with such splendor almost half a century ago. But never mind that, we must continue. You can always count on me.

{ Eugenio Montejo, Fernando Rodríguez, Alejandro Rossi, Papel Literario, El Nacional, 7 May 2005 }

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