El centro y la periferia / Armando Rojas Guardia

The Center and the Periphery

There is a hidden, and sometimes very explicit, feeling among us Venezuelans. More than a conceptualization, it’s that, a type of sensation, a feeling: the sensation and feeling of failure. Something deep in our collective feeling is organically related to what has failed, what is truncated, aborted, torn, diverted, lost (like an arrow that misses the mark).

That sensation or feeling of failure has, in my judgment, two objective causes: first, the “capitis diminutio,” the decrease in our self-esteem when we always compare ourselves to the heroic gesture that’s at the base, at the beginning of the republican life of Venezuela. We all feel chronically diminished in front of such political, military and generally existential magnitude, that of our first historical hour. That feeling was already present in the 19th century: when Fermín Toro died, Juan Vicente González wrote: “The last Venezuelan has died.” We all feel diminished, because we don’t perceive ourselves as heroes. And the collective psychology within which we are educated is not a heroic psychology. The factual result of that learning is always that we feel ourselves to be below the heroic status of our founding fathers. From the canvas of Arturo Michelena, which we all contemplate as children, Francisco de Miranda looks at us inquisitively, from his prison in La Carraca: his eyes judge us, interpolate us, demand from us and we, in our meager lives of 20th century men and women, are never up to the exigencies of that judgment, that interpolation and that demand. The psychology of the hero contains a great deal of the adolescent epic: the hero seeks to affirm himself before the world (which is why, because of that self-affirming obsession, the heroic feat is so egotistical.) So, anchoring ourselves as a country in the psychology of the hero means being permanently sent back to our republican adolescence, refusing to leave it. But what is crucial is that this epic psychological background, as an axial referent for our collective life, does not avoid for us, but rather the opposite, it pushes us headlong toward the permanent contrast of our modest historical achievements with the magnitude of that heroic age, the first of our national transformation. This seems to be the theme, I don’t know if central or collateral, of the book by Ana Teresa Torres titled La herencia de la tribu. And I don’t know if it’s central or collateral because it is a work I still haven’t read. It would be magnificent if my focus on the matter were to coincide with that of Ana Teresa, whom I respect and admire. Regardless, I have been thinking and alerting about this topic for a long time now, as shown by a long article I published in the Opinion page of El Nacional, in March 2003, which I titled “El ocaso de los héroes.”

The second objective cause of our feeling of failure has been the enormous difficulty of Venezuela’s access to modernity. It’s as if we haven’t been able to keep up with the task of being an institutionally modern country. And this is felt by all of us; I repeat, more than a conceptual confirmation it’s a sensation, a feeling. A sensation and a feeling that can adopt aristocratic modalities, such as the “finis patriae” of some of our modernists (I think, above all, of Manuel Díaz Rodríguez) that establishes itself in a diagnosis of the national reality as existing just on the edge of being materially and symbolically dominated by barbarism, by a definitive historical regression. Or perhaps implicitly pessimistic modalities, that propose a type of agreement between the modernizing urge and the harsh and, for this modality, inescapable reality of our backwardness: the “Democratic Caesarism” of Laureano Vallenilla Lanz, that flagrant oxymoron, represents, along with the attitude of a few positivists facing the country’s situation, the most clamorous acceptance of our historical failure. Or perhaps more optimistic, though tragic, aesthetic-literary modalities: this is the case of Canaima, by Rómulo Gallegos: Marcos Vargas, as a character symbolizes in good measure the unfulfilled in our national destiny, the date with our unfinished collective identity we have always wasted and which never ends up coming to fruition (in that sense Canaima is a more complexly tragic aesthetic-literary proposal than Doña Bárbara; the latter ends up being more schematic and manichean and, because of that, more superficial). But the most frequented and most symbolically cogent modality adopted in Venezuelan literature by the feeling of failure for not finishing the entry of the country into the modern institutional orbit is the one we might call the “discourse of marginality.” It happens as though failure chose to speak to us, within many important texts of Venezuelan literary history, from the point of view of the periphery (precisely the marginal is peripheral): the characters from “La Lluvia,” Arturo Uslar Pietri’s best short story, Mateo Martán, the protagonist of Salvador Garmendia’s Los pequeños seres; the faceless prostitute in “La mano junto al muro,” by Guillermo Meneses, the two homosexuals in La revolución, by Isaac Chocrón, or the country for rent or for sale in Asia y el lejano Oriente, also by Chocrón; the characters in Caín Adolescente and El pez que fuma, by Román Chalbaud, Cosme and Pío Miranda, respectively in Acto Cultural and El día que me quieras, by José Ignacio Cabrujas; Andrés Barazarte, the protagonist of Adriano González León’s País portátil; the lyrical speaker in the two celebrated poems by Rafael Cadenas entitled “Derrota” [defeat] and “Fracaso” [failure], even the group of young men in Federico Vegas’s Falke fail in their dream of putting an end to the dictatorship of Juan Vicente Gómez: they are all marginal voices, they all bring into fruition our periphery, our difficulty in historically acceding to the center, our existential failure, collectively psychological, institutional. The majority of these voices are not heroic: many of these characters are even antiheroes and this also turns out to be significant.

The only way of reverting the negativity of our feeling of failure is to face it, not repressing it, nor disguising it, nor sweetening it with new epic postures that distance us from our truncated historical reality. With the psychology of the collective masses there occurs something analogous to what happens within an individual psychology: Rafael López Pedraza affirms there are three psychic factors that prevent the individual from delineating himself beyond the triumphalist optic and situating himself within a mature and profound “awareness of failure,” beyond psychic circumstances, within which the indiscriminate and overwhelming aspiration for success maintains the subject within the impossibility of reaching successively higher levels of awareness and freedom. Those factors are: the psychological trace of the “eternal adolescent,” with his aspirations dazzled by the heroic gleam; the superficiality of hysteria, whose intra-psychic suffocation makes the person remain in a daily frenzy where he cannot truly auscultate himself; and psychopathic behavior, whose existential void can only be filled by the compulsive imitation of gregarious models. Effectively, these three factors are also produced at a collective level and, in that manner, a social subject, such as the Venezuelan, cannot look at his own failure head on and transform it into “kairos,” that is, a creative opportunity. An opportunity to rethink himself, to choose his priorities in an unprecedented manner, to choose, for example, a modernity or a postmodernity that will truly be incumbent on him (because there is a triumphalist modernity, salve to the religion of success, likewise incapable of having an “awareness of failure”: the word loser encapsulates an entire abject mythology that predominates, in many aspects and with many cultural layers, in the equally adolescent, hysterical and psychopathic North American contemporaneity).

Ramón Escovar Salom used to repeat until right before his death, that instead of aspiring to be a world power, Venezuela should seek to emulate nations like Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland, small and medium-sized countries, without any historical and grandiloquent desires but where institutions and public services function in an optimal manner, along with democratic coexistence and a climate of utmost social tolerance. Adjusting our heroic paradigms to that model of civilization would reconcile us with ourselves.

Because an “awareness of failure,” as an individual or collective failure, also means following the path that is traced for us by Rafael Cadenas’s poem “Fracaso,” which I would make required reading in all Venezuelan schools, so it might serve as an antidote, a revulsive and warning from childhood onwards: the path is neither epic nor heroic, that will get us out of the chatter, the panoply, the frivolity, the immense mirage of petroleum, towards the willing savoring of our limits, our precariousness, our indigence, in order to transform them into spiritual creativity and redeeming maturity. Only then will marginality cease to be a curse, a sentence, and it will constitute itself in a true calling, a genuine vocation, in another manner, unusual, of accessing the center.

(Fragment from an unpublished book)

{ Armando Rojas Guardia, Tal Cual, 8 May 2011 }

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