In my dissertation, Poetics of Revelation: Communities of the Literary Oracular in Transatlantic Modernism, I asked why Cold War Latin America had a rebirth of “visionary” poetry. Why revelation in an age of revolution? With case studies on the Spanish diaspora (María Zambrano), Mexico (Octavio Paz), and Bolivia (Jaime Saenz), I drew on the work of Julio Ramos to develop a theory of the “literary oracular” which emerged from my study of intellectuals who radicalized politically in their youth only to retreat from politics after 1940, focusing my analysis on their internalization of revolutionary fatigue which led them to distrust any self-declared people’s party. Their new concern that “national energy” was so volatile it could turn assemblies into mobs convinced them that such a perilous force needed to be protected and transmitted for posterity, as is reflected in “Hacia un saber sobre el alma” by María Zambrano, “La poesía como soledad y como comunión” by Octavio Paz, and Muerte por el tacto by Jaime Saenz. They identified as part of a transhistorical society of kindred interpreters of history who defied western philosophy in praise of revelation, abandoning the systematic abstraction of truth for a philosophy of life based on discipleship. Since these authors were poets, to name their visions they imagined a new language that would remain impervious to the vociferous chants of the political rally. Their disillusionment with radical platforms that constructed mass culture as a people led them to step in as an oracular sage and to use the rhetoric of revelation to mediate between the extremes of a polarized political field and between elite literary production and a new literate class. I found that only by radicalizing politically in their youth could these authors experience sufficient revolutionary fatigue for revelation to appear as the only remaining viable form of community, as is reflected in El pensamiento vivo de Séneca, Los hijos del limo, and “En la abadía de San Florián” by the same authors, respectively.
As I finalize the book manuscript of Poetics of Revelation, I remain deeply engaged in the thought of that study’s showcased theoretician, María Zambrano, as I turn my attention to an author whose writings I translated for a decade before I entered my doctoral program. Prior to arriving at Duke in 2016, I established myself as a scholar of Peruvian poet César Vallejo through my participation in three consecutive international conferences in addition to publishing three volumes of his work in English translation. My current research project, entitled Hacedores de la historia: tragedia, sacrificio y convivencia en la poesía de César Vallejo, will be a monograph that draws on Zambrano’s most overtly socio-political intervention, Persona y democracia, to advance a new reading of Vallejo’s poetry, informed by his extensive work as a prose writer of cultural criticism. My contribution will situate Vallejo in a post-revolutionary crisis of historical disorientation and will scrutinize such critical commonplaces as “insufficiency,” “orphanhood,” and “rupture” to show that they represent a previously unacknowledged ethical critique of history as tragedy, when viewed through the poet’s negative order of perception as “hope,” “being-in-common,” and “vitality,” respectively. I thus will argue that the ethos of Vallejo’s poetry rehumanized the political by elevating the democratic person’s indivisible constitution as protagonist and author of history in an appeal to intellectuals that they pass through anagnorisis responsibly and wake from the nightmare of sacrificial history.
This new work on sacrificial history in the subfield of Vallejo studies builds on my dissertation’s themes of social movements and communitarian thought and forms part of a broader investigation into the historical appearance of populism in Latin America. I am studying the evolution of the political category of “people” in debates that unfolded over the second half of the 20th century, beginning in the 1950s–1960s with proposals of structuralist Marxism that explained populism as an outcome of market conditions and labor relations in developing societies. The next phase spans the 1970s–1980s, when critics of formal, non-participatory democracy grew dissatisfied with the economic explanations of their Marxist predecessors and asked why supporters follow populist leaders, that is, why the production and dissemination of charismatic public personae seemed more effective than Marxist dis-alienation at mobilizing a disenchanted people. The focus then turns to the1990s, when a new generation of scholars observed the phenomenon through a political lens to argue that populism is symptomatic of weak democratic incorporation and that supporters follow populist leaders when they have been excluded from political life. Guided by the frameworks of political philosophy, sociology, and intellectual history that informed my dissertation, this research asks how the “people” may serve a social function that is foundational and, paradoxically, destabilizing.
The debate over the political category of “people” has been renewed in recent times by the interventions of continental theorists, political philosophers, and cultural sociologists, who have taken interest in the mobilization of underclass Latin American populations which historically have been excluded from participation in democratic systems. Populist movements and their charismatic leaders have also appeared under the scrutiny of 20th-century Latin American novelists in the subgenre of the dictator novel as well as cultural critics whose utopian visions ranged from “pueblos enfermos” to the “raza cósmica”. In addition to offering a thorough genealogy of the theorization of populism in the context of Latin America’s long tradition of political and literary caudillaje, my contribution will situate the category of “people” in the history of sovereignty to explore the moral ambivalence of reformers who upend the rule of law in the name of social justice. If populism is to be conceived not as a regime but as a recurrent disruption in the development of any democratic system, then how are we to assess this phenomenon in places where participatory democracy has been an historical anomaly? Animated by the resurgence of populism today, this research also will examine how Latin American lettered elites and politicians received the ideas of influential European reactionaries who conflated to varying degrees the distinction between legality and legitimacy, positive law and a people’s natural constitution, at times challenging the 19th-century democratic priority of political liberalism [autoridad de la razón] over authoritarianism [razón de la autoridad].