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Monthly Archives: March 2008

THE VORTEX: Info and Resources

1. From the Encyclopedia of World Biography:

Born in the southern Colombian town of Neiva, José Eustacio Rivera came from a provincial family of modest means. After becoming one of the first graduates of the recently organized teachers’ college, he took a degree in law. For several years Rivera combined a law practice with modest literary activities and became a recognized member of Bogotá’s urban intelligentsia. Named legal adviser and member of the Venezuela-Colombia Boundary Commission, he traveled first to the plains and then to the Amazon region. Exposed to these less well-known regions of the country, he lived with the Indians, for a time was lost in the jungle, and eventually contracted beriberi. During a period of convalescence he wrote La vorágine (The Vortex), one of the greatest Latin American novels. Its publication in 1924 assured Rivera lasting fame throughout the hemisphere and beyond, and it was translated into English, French, German, and Russian.

The Vortex, a kind of romantic allegory, was also a novel of protest. It was the first realistic description by a Colombian of the cowherders of the plains and the jungle rubber workers. Rivera attempted to arouse humanitarian feelings concerning the exploitation of these people, and he reflected a cultured urban gentleman’s frightened vision of the barbarism foisted on them. The story is dominated by the magnificent yet savage setting, in which there is no law other than survival of the fittest.

Arturo Cova, the protagonist of the novel, is an urban man of letters who, forced to flee from Bogotá, encounters the brutal reality of life in the rural areas. Rivera’s experience in the Amazonian jungle permits him to describe the tragedy of rubber exploitation. In publicizing the condition of the workers and their degradation at the hands of Colombian and European adventurers, Rivera provides an impassioned image of decay, death, and violence. The Vortex, a work romantic in spirit and poetic in style, strongly suggests that the veneer of civilization is thin. For Rivera, civilization should not be taken for granted.

2. Some of Rivera’s poetry.

3. La novela de la selva hispanoamericana. Encyclopedia entry from the commercial site MONOGRAFIAS.COM. Discusses THE VORTEX as the prime example of this genre.

Note that the “novela de la selva” is also known as or overlaps with the novela de la tierra, regionalist writing, which preceded the literary “boom” of which Carpentier is a close precursor. Key in these subgenres is the idea that the exuberant Latin American nature produces, and yet is antagonistic to, Latin American culture. Note how familiar this contradiction is becoming, as we have seen versions of it in several other texts.

“Ni rastros de ellos, ¡Los devoró la selva!”, con esas palabras termina la novela La Vorágine de Eustasio Rivera. Valioso epílogo que condensa con gran vigor la característica principal del protagonista de la novela de la tierra: La selva inhumana y feroz.

La novela de la selva, o de la tierra, como la denominó Arturo Torres Rioseco, ha sido cultivada por los escritores hispanoamericanos desde Bolivia hasta el Brasil. La novela prototipo es precisamente La Vorágine del colombiano Eustasio Rivera. Escribe de la tierra con un apasionamiento propio que la conoce, porque ha vivido en ella, porque viajó a través de ella cuando fue miembro de la comisión de límites venezolano – colombianos. En ella contrajo el beri beri. Fué amenazado por el hambre, la sed, la fiebre y el tormento de los mosquitos.

Rivera presenta en ella el honor y la violencia, el desorden y la lucha titánica del hombre por la supervivencia. Nada de ruiseñores enamorados, nada de jardín versallesco nada de panoramas sentimentales. Aquí los responsos de sapos hidrópicos, aquí las malezas de cerros misantrópicos, los rebalses de caños podridos. Aquí la parásita afrodisíaca que llena el suelo de abejas muertas; la diversidad de flores inmundas que se contraen con sexuales palpitaciones y su olor pegajoso emborracha como una droga, la liana maligna cuya pelusa enceguese a los animales, la pringamosa que inflama la piel, la pepa del curujú que parece irisado globo y sólo contiene ceniza cáustica, la uva purgante, el corozo amargo.

La novela pinta la vida de los caucheros y la inicua explotación de los indios y mestizos que son esclavizados en el infierno verde.

En las descripciones de la selva, Rivera se muestra con pupila de poeta observador, y logra captar todos los detalles con extraordinario lirismo, y maravilla al lector, atónito ante la indómita naturaleza. Sigue en todo la teoría determinista, en esa lucha epopéyica del hombre contra la naturaleza. Lucha a muerte en selva y llano.

La novela, escrita en primera persona, le da un carácter autobiográfico. Arturo Cova, el hombre, el héroe, está admirablemente descrito en sus estados depresivos y de locura.

Rivera tuvo seguidores, entre ellos Rómulo Gallegos con su novela Canaíma y el brasileño Jorge de Lima con Calunga.

En Canaíma, Gallegos pinta, como lo hace el mismo Rivera, la violencia no es sólo objetiva; la de la selva y los llanos; sino la del hombre, Marcos Vargas, el personaje central se debate en una lucha contra las circunstancias que le obligan siempre a probar nuevos caminos. La naturaleza virgen se desborda en las descripciones y logra también salir victoriosa en su lucha contra el hombre. Solo que en Canaíma existe una esperanza. El hijo de Vargas será educado por Gabriel Ureña, quien lo hará un hombre de provecho y útil a la sociedad. La novela presenta una gran diversidad de tipos u caracteres, unos inadaptados, como Vargas, otros tratando de vivir lo mejor posible en el medio inhóspito en que se encuentran o asimilados a la naturaleza completamente, como Juan Solito. Rómulo Gallegos es uno de los más destacados novelistas de Hispanoamérica y sus novelas Canaíma, Canta Claro y Doña Bárbara forman m un grupo inimitable.

4. Detailed plot summary!

5. Elías Letelier, La vorágine – valor histórico y concepto estructural (Spanish – nonacademic but well informed site; does not view well in all browsers but is short, worth reading, and has good bibliography)

6. Doris Sommer, “Populism’s Revised Romance: La vorágine and Doña Bárbara,” in her Foundational Fictions: The National Romances of Latin America (English)

 
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Posted by on March 29, 2008 in Rivera

 

Slightly Revised Plans for April 1-3

1. This week, people who have not scheduled oral presentations should say when they want to do them – time is running short!

2. Spring Break reading was to a) Finish Los pasos perdidos and consider it in relationship to anything in Torgovnick, but especially chapters 4-6. That is the basis of our WRITING EXERCISE, due the TUESDAY WE COME BACK. b) Get hold of THE VORTEX – it’s our next reading (see the syllabus / reading list).

In class that Tuesday, we’ll talk about the writing and the end of Los pasos perdidos. Please take a look at the revised and constantly expanding Los pasos perdidos resources in this site.

THURSDAY I will discuss Torgovnick, chapter 9, and introduce THE VORTEX. Any time is a good time to start reading THE VORTEX, which is a short novel I am hoping we can finish discussing by April 10.

 
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Posted by on March 26, 2008 in Rivera

 

Books We Should Have Read, Or Could Also Read

Michael Taussig, Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man:

In what does the healing power of wildness lie? Taussig answers this question: “Wildness challenges the unity of the symbol, the transcendent totalization binding the image to that which it represents. Wildness pries open this unity and in its place creates slippage. . . . Wildness is the death space of signification” (219).

“So it has been through the sweep of colonial history where the colonizers provided the colonized with the left-handed gift of the image of the wild man–a gift whose powers the colonizers would be blind to, were it not for the reciprocation of the colonized, bringing together in the dialogical imagination of colonization an image that wrests from civilization its demonic power” (467).

*

The (quite good, in this case) Wikipedia article on the author, an anthropologist at Columbia University, also notes on this book:

His case of terror is that of the rubber trade in the Putumayo river area of Colombia of the late 19th and early 20th century. Much of these acts of terror stemmed from British rubber barons of the time trying to impose a capitalist mode of production on an indigenous, “wild”, population still living under an economy based upon a gift/exchange system. In the eyes of the British, who violently pressured the natives to extract rubber from the rubber trees of the area, the Indians, “would not work appropriately”. The barons’ reaction to indigenous resistance was to carry out horrific acts of terror on the minds and bodies of the local population, which Taussig thoroughly documents through providing firsthand accounts from the time. Within the “space of death” created in the Putumayo area came also the death of communal memory and objectivity. Terror resulted in a, “society shrouded in an order so orderly that its chaos was far more intense than anything that had preceded it–a death-space in the land of the living where torture’s certain uncertainty fed the great machinery of the arbitrariness of power” (4). Interestingly enough, the powerful force of healing develops from the same space created by the other powerful force of terror: “Shamanic healing . . . like the culture of terror, also develops its force from the colonially generated wildness of the epistemic murk of the space of death” (127).

 
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Posted by on March 25, 2008 in Bibliography

 

Carpentier III.ix y la 9a sinfonía de Beethoven

Aquí dirige Arturo Toscanini la 9a sinfonía de Beethoven, que escucha el narrador de Los pasos perdidos en la radio al principio del capítulo III y que le recuerda la vida su padre, que tocaba el corno. Por las vicisitudes de la primera guerra mundial no había podido el padre seguir tocando para la ópera y abrió una tienda de música en Cuba. A cada tanto imitaba, sin embargo, el conductor de una orquesta imaginaria que tocaba la 9a sinfonía (el padre cantaba mientras dirigía).

El narrador escucha la radio y se deja llevar. Recuerda la cultura de su infancia y su vida de joven. Murió la madre y el padre llevó a su hijo a los EEUU. Allí no le fue mejor que en Cuba, y empezó el padre a idealizar Europa con su gran historia cultural. El hijo, nuestro narrador, se ilusiona. Juntos idealizan a los obreros inspirados que habrían escuchado la 9a sinfonía. [NOTA BENE: ES LA IDEA DEL TRABAJADOR NOBLE Y CULTO, Y EL ARTE PARA EL PUEBLO.]

Cuando el padre muere, el narrador se va a Europa y no encuentra el paraíso cultural sino las preparaciones para la segunda guerra mundial. Todo le parece falso, inauténtico. Decide volver a América pero antes visita una vieja ciudad francesa, Blois, con una catedral famosa. En otra iglesia ve la pintura de una danza macabra y relaciona la antigua idea de la vanidad de la vida en la Tierra con el momento presente. Recuerda la sinfonía, que encuentra irritante, y ve la noticia del estallo de la guerra.

Sigue pensando en la sinfonía y en los recuerdos de la infancia, y ahora de la madre, que le trae. Recuerda a Ma. del Carmen y un encuentro erótico infantil con ella. Sigue recordando la sinfonía y las varias asociaciones personales que tiene con ella. Le parece que es una “sinfonía en ruinas.” La cultura está también en ruinas y la modernidad es un “horror.” [LATER HE WOULD END UP AS A MILITARY INTERPRETER AT THE END OF THE WAR, AND WILL INTERPRET TESTIMONY ABOUT TORTURE; NOW HE THINKS THIS SYMPHONY IN RUINS WOULD BE THE PERFECT BACKGROUND MUSIC FOR A DOCUMENTARY ABOUT THAT.]

Importante: se da cuenta que los torturadores en esta guerra escucharon en su vida privada esta sinfonía y otras. LA CULTURA ES INSUFICIENTE COMO REMEDIO AL MAL. Y ganar la 2a guerra mundial no fue suficiente: él, así como el sueño de la cultura, quedaron rotos. El narrador quiere ahora la verdadera autenticidad. Masca un chile. Mira la selva donde está y la ve con nuevos ojos.

 
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Posted by on March 25, 2008 in Carpentier

 

Los pasos perdidos – capítulo tercero

Hey! Don’t forget to read earlier entries on this novel – they are helpful, and contain instructions and plans – and links to additional study questions – those are good.

Notice the epigraph, from an ancient Mayan text. We went from Deuteronomy (on suffering, essentially) to Shelley (on “scenting life”), to this, about freeing oneself, getting on the road, and shedding unnecessary burdens.

viii. Argument with Mouche about going or not. She feigns illness. He ignores her. They are going backwards in time and everything has new proportions. Nature is greater than man (like in Sarmiento’s pampas). They get to a village which reminds him of El Toboso in the Quixote, i.e. in a book of early 17th century Spain, that was excerpted in one of his elementary school readers. It is the town where the hero’s lover lives. They then rescue from altitude sickness a beautiful, mixed race woman who resembles a figure in ancient Greek art (considered, in turn, to resemble a Parisian woman). She seems to communicate most immediately with him. He thinks that mixed race people may be superior. They establish themselves for the night in another village, very humble. He is feeling more and more natural, more and more as he did when he was a child. Mouche goes to bed. He runs into the beautiful woman again – Rosario. She has been on a mission of devotion – literally – on behalf of her father. She is beautiful and pure. He contemplates the fire (as ancient people did). He has not done this in a long time.

ix – xvii (brief summary – see specifics, just below). He is coming into more and more contact with himself. He thinks about life and Europe; from it, his father remembers civilization, but he remembers barbarism. Meantime they start traveling up the river. They get to where Rosario lives. Her father has died and there is an emotional funeral. But now she is, in a sense, free. The narrator is obsessed with her, and is happy that Mouche invites her to keep traveling with them. There are other interesting characters and allusions to the Odyssey – in which, as you know, Odysseus is on his tortuous way home. By the end of this section events have accumulated and he has rough sex that seals their bodies together in a sort of pact that may be “el comienzo de un nuevo modo de vivir” [sic]. The last page of section xvii reads almost like soft porn!!! Sex, we remember, hasn’t worked out too well with Mouche on this trip since she is always sick. Rosario, on the other hand, desires the narrator, and he caresses her “con mano de amo.” With this gesture he “cierra una gozosa confluencia de sangres que se encontraron.”

ix. He is still sitting by the fire, contemplating it like a primitive man, after a conversation with Rosario in which she seems like a magical prehistoric woman connected with a living Nature. He hears a band play the first movement of Beethoven’s 9th symphony.

xviii. They send Mouche back with the doctor. He gives the doctor almost all his money – money isn’t necessary in the jungle (where he has “become Tarzan?”). Rosario serves him as a true man deserves, and everyone sees it. She is his house, he is her dweller [sic]. The friar wants the narrator to get married; the narrator can’t say, of course, that he already is and in a “rito hereje” (not in the Catholic church). The Greek miner has a copy of the Odyssey with him and seems like a character in it – because, in part, of the ancient Mediterranean way he dresses the boar he has hunted. This section ends, once again, with a rather overdone passage on sex with Rosario. They are getting naturally better at it – they are inventing their own secret language – she calls him by his name (note that up until now he hasn’t had one, and we don’t know his name). They (and four others) are traveling now in two primitive canoes, navigating by the stars.

 
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Posted by on March 18, 2008 in Carpentier

 

Savage Minds, Lost Steps

NEWS

1. Today I ran across a blog called Savage Minds which also has a Facebook group. Its title refers to the famous French structural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss‘ classic book, which you should not leave this course without having at least heard of. It was written in the 1960s and it criticizes and counters the idea that the “savage mind” is essentially different from the “civilized” or modern one.

2. People who have not scheduled oral presentations should do so!

3. Spring Break reading: a) Finish Los pasos perdidos and consider it in relationship to anything in Torgovnick, but especially chapters 4-6. That is the basis of our WRITING EXERCISE, due the TUESDAY WE COME BACK. b) Get hold of THE VORTEX – it’s our next reading (see the syllabus / reading list).

In class that Tuesday, we’ll talk about the writing and I will discuss Torgovnick, chapter 9, and introduce THE VORTEX.

I will expand this post this evening/this week to include SOME NOTES on chapters 2-4 of THE LOST STEPS. Notes on chapters 5-6 will appear later in the week.

THE LOST STEPS – CHAPTER 2

We discussed this chapter (albeit briefly) in class Thursday. In it, note:

+ the  narrator’s reaction upon arriving in the tropical city. It is anarchical: the jungle keeps growing up through the buildings, which are themselves a sort of jungle. There are signs of architecture from the time of the conquest, the colony, the Independence era, and the present day. The roots of trees keep pushing the buildings out of place. There are many signs of modernity but there is a sort of “malignant pollen” in the air which breaks things down. People explain this by referring to a semi-mythical or metaphorical “Worm.”

+ as the plane started to land, the narrator regretted the voyage, but landing and hearing Spanish spoken makes him glad to be there. Among other things, the language lets him lord it over Mouche.  

+ he is at this point still hoping to buy the musical instruments in the city. Originally the plan was to buy fake ones, but now he hopes to find real ones in a flea market. Note: he is going to get increasingly disgusted with fake things in general, and go for the real ones. They don’t find anything, but Mouche buys a trinket she finds marvelous (it “is” Rimbaud’s black seahorse, i.e. the image of an image in a decadent French poem). He, on the other hand, smells a basil bush and is reminded of a little girl he had a crush on as a child in Latin America.

*

+ Awake in the middle of the night. Nature and culture both seem marvelous to him and bring back memories. Mouche is taking up too much room in the bed. She had a crisis (of happiness) the night before, so they couldn’t have sex (?) and he gave her a sleeping pill. He looks at the city and thinks of art. Everything seems very alive.

+ Earlier in the evening they went to the opera, and he felt nostalgic and open instead of laughing (he had expected to find this opera ridiculous). Mouche, on the other hand, thought the performance was bad, and although it wasn’t really great, he is insulted. Then they have a marvelous walk, but Mouche says she is tired and they have to go home. Now, watching her sleep, he laughs at her, but she doesn’t wake up, so he goes out in the dawn to look for the musical instruments.

+ The city continues to be marvelous and he keeps remembering a famous Baroque Spanish poem which was quoted in the grammar book he had as a child. Then there is a revolution (of course, they always have those in South America 😉 ), although Mouche sleeps through the first part of it.

+ He investigates the revolution, asks people about it, and they are fighting very old battles. Eventually he and Mouche actually see people get shot. Mouche meets a nice Canadian woman and he goes to get a drink, to get over the sight of the cadavers. Then he and Mouche get drunk together and have sex, correctly at last, and for the first time in a long time he sleeps well without a mask or sleeping pills.

*

+ The next day they can’t leave town, as it is under siege. People in the hotel start getting worried about running out of food and water, about epidemics. The servants left last night to join the revolution, and their absence is inconvenient and scary. The manager says it is all the fault of the Worm. And, in fact, the worms seem to appear, as well as ants.

+ The narrator goes with the manager to see about provisions, and everyone decides to drink…and the jungle seems to be taking over, indeed. Civilization is breaking down quickly. Drunk, the narrator decides to look for Mouche, whom he had left hanging out with the Canadian woman, and he gets lost in a labyrinth of corridors and rooms in the top stories of the hotel. It is all very strange and yet very familiar (like a house he’s already been in long ago) … and dimensions seem to be all mixed up; he loses his sense of reality for a while.

+ He goes back to his room and falls asleep. when he wakes up Mouche is there with the Canadian. The revolution is over, but there is still a curfew. There are no flights out with seats open, and the Canadian inivites them to spend time in her house in the hills.

+ He goes out to get cigarrettes since there are none in the hotel and shooting starts again; he takes refuge in a store. In the hotel they are having a party and he is afraid Mouche will sleep with someone else. There is still fighting, but a sargeant accompanies him back to the hotel. Everything seems to him to be a sort of prelude or prefiguring of coming events.

+  In the hotel the Kappelmeister has been shot. Civilization has definitely fallen apart and Mouche is having a nervous crisis. The Canadian woman says they will all definitely go to her house in the morning.

*

+ They get to the hills, and the house is in a beautiful old town (note: they are moving back in time, from the modern to the colonial era). He quickly identifies fifteen charming sights. However, he does not like the Canadian woman, because Mouche does. And he and Mouche are not getting along, they are not sintonizados. Mouche can’t see anything she hasn’t read about in books. She hangs out with the Canadian woman and talks. He is jealous but cannot catch her in anything.

+ They meet these musicians, a white, an Indian, and a Black one. Mouche speaks to them of Paris, but he asks them about their own country. They are not interested in the jungle – there is no culture there. They are more interested in the city and in European things. The narrator thinks this will end up emptying them, and will keep them from doing anything original. He is more interested in the voices of nature. And they play modern music.

+ He goes down to the bar for a taste of local firewater. There he hears an indigenous harpist play. The music seems very ancient and wonderful. The dances, rhythms, and scale system all seem new and different to the narrator. But the police come to enforce the curfew.

+ Because of the revolution hard currency is worth much more than it was. There is money to go to the jungle, and in the circumstances this is the best thing to do: get honest. The narrator buys bus tickets for the voyage, and feels great because now is the first time he has felt capable of imposing his will upon Mouche.

There is a whole lot more in this chapter on impressions and values, and the narrator’s change of attitude. Throughout, his foil is Mouche. Notice that he was a more like her in his orientation when they first set out – now he has gone through a process of transformation and has moved light years away from her (so to speak). 

 
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Posted by on March 17, 2008 in Carpentier

 

Los pasos perdidos: some more study questions for the first half

THE STUDY QUESTION WE WILL ALL WRITE ON: CHOOSE ONE PASSAGE FROM ANYWHERE IN THE FIRST HALF OF THE BOOK AND WRITE A CLOSE READING OF IT, TAKING INTO ACCOUNT EVENTS, REFERENCES, CHARACTERIZATION, ATTITUDE OF THE NARRATOR, TONE, VOCABULARY, DESCRIPTION, ETC. ETC.

BE READY TO EXPLAIN YOUR INTEREST IN THIS PASSAGE: WHY DOES IT SEEM IMPORTANT TO YOU, AND WHAT DOES A CLOSE READING OF IT REVEAL?

Some thoughts to get you/us going (see also earlier notes and study questions):

+ Epigraphs and quotations: from what texts? What do they suggest, where do they lead us?

+ References to works of art: which works of art (and literature)? (Why so many?) What do these references suggest, where do they lead us?

+ Women, sex, death … in the PRIMITIVE LAND and in the jungle … how are these things associated (if/when they are), how and why are they important to the protagonist, his discoveries, his apparent regeneration?

 
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Posted by on March 12, 2008 in Carpentier