I think of him as my contertulio but really he is one of my students. My interaction with him is somewhat different from interaction with other students, however, because usually the conversation is focused on what the student is doing, not on what I am. But with this student we end up talking more about whatever it is I am thinking about. I feel I exploit him by using him as a sounding board. He likes it, though, and few weeks later invites me to coffee again. This, it struck me today, must be what it is to have a disciple. You would not have come up with all of your theories if that person had not drawn you out on them.
On the biography of César Vallejo, he says that with that kind of childhood, every need anticipated and fulfilled by a doting mother and sisters, it is utterly traumatic not to have someone bring you your hot chocolate in the evening. You do not have the faintest idea how to get your own even if you do know in a technical sense. Every cena will of course be miserable once you leave that hearth. Of course you feel exiled and orphaned, and permanently desnorteado. There are other problems, too, since you have been raised to a certain entitlement but also a certain incompetence; you now need people to meet your needs, which is actually a great vulnerability, at the same time as you expect this, which can make you somewhat imperious. My student says this upbringing generates criminals.
Vallejo was raised with women and knew them, knew how to enamorarlas and expected them to take care of him, and he also knew how to choose the ones who would support him when he needed it (e.g. Henriette Maisse), provide resources (Georgette) and take on the project of making his work known (Georgette, however imperfectly). The predilection for 15-20 year olds and the willingness to abandon children (although if I remember right, Vallejo was actually against having them at all) are just Latin American traditions followed by many although not all. Then there are the cowboy acts of machista and melodramatic, outlaw stripe: the guns, the abandonment of Otilia II and their possible child, the riot; skipping bail; fleeing the country; the repurposing or illegitimate use of scholarship funds. Vallejo may be desperate but he is not an uncomprehending detenido and he is also more than a poor journalist waiting to get paid. He is doing what he can to remain in a position to work on his work.
We decided Vallejo had been raised as a “blanco” and this was important. Generally speaking it appears more realistic to see him as a man trying to get his feet on the ground so as to pursue his artistic career, using all the methods he can, than as uncomprehending cholo battered about by the wind. Things did not go very well for him in life, it is true, but we posited that he would have liked to have things go better, as they did for Neruda, for example. That is, he did not have to have such a precarious life in order to be Vallejo, in the same way we would still be the same people, with the same interests, at any university. Tenacious, he decided early on he would be a great poet and he did not desist; the rest of it is not essential.
In sum, we decided that the reason to cobble together alternate views of Vallejo’s life is not to illuminate his work but the opposite: it is necessary to study his life so as to call into question the interpretive shadow the reigning view of his personality casts over his texts. We can all talk about César Vallejo the person all we want, and we can quote from his writings as we do so, but we should construct him perhaps in the Cubist way he would have liked, with no single story, no one perspective, and also no ultimate symbolic meaning to hang over his writing like a cross, as has been done. With that painting in progress in one room of our minds, we free ourselves to read his texts as themselves in another.
Here is a post that compiles almost all the pictures I have ever seen of Vallejo, and some pictures of his houses. Notice how bad he looked in 1937, and how quickly he aged in Europe. In the 1926 picture, when he is 34, he still looks youthful and that is after his hungriest years are over. By the late 1920s he is middle aged, and in 1937 he is clearly sinking. The post reminds us that Vallejo died of malaria, or at least that this is one of the theories. If you read a description of malaria symptoms you can see that they fit his complaints quite well.
He does have a poem in which he mentions (in the second person, speaking to anyone) the mercury treatment for syphilis (that Schubert died of, while Napoleon Bonaparte died trying to treat it with arsenic). There has been speculation about whether Vallejo could have had syphilis but his symptoms fit malaria better and you also have to keep treating malaria with strange substances including a wormwood derivative. Other theories of Vallejo’s death (remember, nobody is entirely sure of either his birth date or his cause of death, because he is Mystery itself) are that it was from exhaustion, malnutrition, dissipation, stress and general neglect, and that he had channelled an important Nationalist victory in Spain that was taking place as he lay in the Parisian clinic, and died with the Republic and of grief.
After laughing at César Vallejo who was even more neurotic than we are and whose life was stranger than ours we moved on to our true obsession: race, identity and patriarchy in the nineteenth century. Everyone is looking for their invisible father and all roads no matter how sinuous lead to the Big House. From the Inca Garcilaso to Juan Preciado, everyone wants to find their origin and claim their inheritance. “Blanco, negro, mestizo, mezclado, gris, pardo; hijo, padre; heredero, negado; ser y no ser,” pronounced my student in declamatory style. We both started taking notes. Mine are bad, though, and I am not going to try here to articulate what we were trying to articulate, but just trace some of it. The issue is identity formation and fractured subjectivity, and how what gets formed, is formed with a fracture and that appears to be a conscious strategy, that is used to specific ends.
→Race becomes newly important after Independence than before and not only because slavery is changing (we must reread George Reid Andrews on this, but my student says more restrictions were placed on slaves while extermination campaigns against Native peoples were also stepped up) … but the key point is that now the question is, who is in control? and this is a very serious question that is addressed in part through an increased emphasis on white-and-mestizo supremacy.
→One of the many parallels between María and Cecilia Valdés are their sugar plantation settings, although the plantation is Heaven in the one novel and Hell in the other. (Perhaps I can collapse my two essays into one, putting O Mulato and Aves sin nido in its background. This is actually not a bad idea and it could function as my Doris Sommer response chapter. I will have to look at this question.)
→Bolívar had sugar plantations, and he died on one. I claim he does not want to be a dictator or create an oligarchy, but is concerned about the caudillos and the power of demagogues. Sugar is one of my favorite topics (Ortiz was interested in sugar and tobacco but I am from Louisiana and I am interested in sugar, oil and cotton as social actors) precisely because it is everywhere, and my student posits that the structure of Latin American politics was born on sugar plantations. As we know, Vallejo also worked on one (and became a revolutionary because of it, basically).
→Folklore and its performance was used in public when desired to create unity across class and racial lines. This is where the conversation gets really interesting and veers back to Vallejo, who as we have already established has a 1001 faces. There was the Paraguayan singer Agustín Pío Barboza who sometimes performed in a tuxedo and sometimes dressed as an Indian. You choose the identity you want to perform and when. To just point to things mestizo or transculturated or hybrid begs the question, and we know that the mestizo-criollos are the ruling class. It is that things are combined and uneven, heterogeneous in ways that go beyond the sense in which Cornejo uses that term, in contact but always unequal and shifting, and that is the terrain all these novels and essays and political programs map and track, and are trying to organize or reshape. And that is the terrain on which we, too, are doing our work.
→We have not read enough nineteenth century poetry lately, and we have to remember to do it with these questions in mind. My project is really about elite and hegemonic discourse but at the same time, as I have said before, I do not want to imply literature is just a tool of the ruling classes in the way even some people I like, such as Angel Rama, veer upon doing; I want to keep people like the all too unsung Richard Jackson at hand.