On Good Savages and Good Revolutionists
By Ibsen Martinez
It prompted the response of a group of Spanish novelists, poets, essayists, and philosophers that, up to that moment, had been at the fringes of their country’s intellectual mainstream.
This group of commentators of the disaster of 1898 came to be known as la generación del 98 (“the ’98 generation”), in implied reference to the moral, political, and social crisis ensued in early 20th century’s Spain by military humiliation and the loss of its last colonies. These men intently poured salt on the wounded soul of what they saw as a failed and self-deceiving society.
Considered separately, they were headstrong individualists, but together they found a way to keep “unity among diversity” as they ardently criticized moral values that, in their view, had squandered Spain’s importance among the rest of the Old World.
They all opposed the monarchy in Spain and furiously lashed its shortcomings. At the same time, they resented the extreme poverty of the Spanish people, especially when measured against the pettiness of the wealthy gentry. They thought Spain’s politics were as trite, weightless and inconsequential a fraud as its intellectual life.
Consequently, their political writings strived to establish some sort of “enlightened” republic, rather than a true liberal one, but this did not keep them from delving deeply in traditional and lost words, especially in long-forsaken Spanish literary myths that brought back memories of the 15th century’s great kingdom of Castilla.
Ironically, as its influence on world politics disappeared for ever, Spain regained significance in Europe’s literature thanks to the revival of various streaks of 15 century’s Spanish spiritualism that generación del 98 brought about.
A distinguished quality of their thinking was its rebuttal of American pragmatism. With more than jocular zest they were given to deride American high entrepreneurial spirit—and, for that matter, any practical, businesslike approach to reality—which they saw as the epitome of rude philistinism.
Commenting on Spain’s characteristic lack of scientific inventiveness and industrial innovations, Miguel de Unamuno (1864-1936), foremost thinker of generación del 98, wrote that technological acumen was not really Spain’s line. According to Unamuno, Spain’s “comparative advantage” was in quixotic self-denying and noble deeds. One of his punchlines was, ¡Que inventen ellos! (“Let them invent!”). “Que inventen ellos!” became something of the group’s arrogant watchword. ¡Que inventen ellos! Let them research and develop and make money; Don Quixote never wasted time reading a ticker tape!
This particular trait of generación del 98‘s thinking had a great influence in Latin American intellectuals at the turn of the 20th century, just when the United States began to flex its muscles as the great world power it was soon to be.
Even an ordinarily nonpolitical yet greatly influential poet as Nicaraguan Rubén Dario (1867, 1916), rightly dubbed Príncipe de las Letras Castellanas (“The Prince of Spanish Literature”), vented his anger at U.S. interventionism in a celebrated long, incensed poem he dedicated to Theodore Roosevelt.
I find this poem, written at the turn of the 20th century and learnt by heart by many a Latin American would-be writer ever since, a most relevant sample of the core of Latin America’s love-hate relationship with the United States. I will not spare my readers of a long excerpt:
It is with the voice of the Bible, or the verse of Walt Whitman,
that I should come to you, Hunter,
primitive and modern, simple and complicated,
with something of Washington and more of Nimrod.
You are the United States,
you are the future invader
of the naive America that has Indian blood,
that still prays to Jesus Christ and still speaks Spanish.
You are rich.
You join the cult of Hercules to the cult of Mammon,
and illuminating the road of easy conquest,
Liberty raises its torch in New York.
But our America, that has had poets
since the ancient times of Netzahualcoyotl,
that has walked in the footprints of great Bacchus
who learned Pan’s alphabet at once;
that consulted the stars, that knew Atlantis
whose resounding name comes to us from Plato,
that since the remote times of its life
has lived on light, on fire, on perfume, on love,
America of the great Montezuma, of the Inca,
the fragrant America of Christopher Columbus,
Catholic America, Spanish America,
the America in which noble Cuahtemoc said:
“I’m not in a bed of roses”; that America
that trembles in hurricanes and lives on love,
it lives, you men of Saxon eyes and barbarous soul.
And it dreams. And it loves, and it vibrates, and it is the daughter of the Sun.
Be careful. Viva Spanish America!
There are a thousand cubs loosed from the Spanish lion.
Roosevelt, one would have to be, through God himself,
the-fearful Rifleman and strong Hunter,
to manage to grab us in your iron claws.
And, although you count on everything, you lack one thing: God!
(Translated by Bonnie Frederick))
Long before the 1960s, when Marxist-inspired guerrillas populated our region’s political landscape, Latin American intellectuals assumed what Peruvian writer Alvaro Vargas Llosa describes as an “ontological distrust of the North in the name of supposedly ‘spiritual’ values against ‘material’ ones”. The perfect example is José Enrique Rodó (1872, 1917), an Uruguayan journalist and politician who in 1900 published Ariel, a long essay that criticizes the North’s utilitarianism while exalting Latin America’s ethical asn aesthetical values.
Ariel reads as a sermon entreating Latin America’s youth to adopt the cause of the classical western tradition. Drawn from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Ariel (‘an airy spirit’, according to the Elizabethan play’s dramatis personae) represents Latin America while Caliban (‘a savage deformed slave’) represents the US.
In the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution nationalism, anti-imperialism, socialism and agrarianism became the dominating ideas of Latin America’s political thought.
Mr. Vargas Llosa’s aptly summarizes our 20th century’s political tradition as one that, “joined with ideological confusion, and our institutional inheritance, amounted to a mixture of corporatism, mercantilism, socialism, and populism that exalted oligarchies and privileges while it isolated large alienated masses.
The public ended up attributing its own condition to capitalism despite the absence of that system in Latin America (emphasis mine) and putting its hope in the state, which had replaced the Catholic Church of the nineteenth century and the preceding colonial centuries.”1
The state was thought of as the sole champion of the downtrodden. Collectivism and an immoderate devotion to the state considered as a wonderful wealth-redistributing engine has been the hallmark of Latin American political during the last century.
Another book by Carlos Rangel is Third World Ideology and Western Reality: Manufacturing Political Myth, Transaction Books, 1986.
Not until de 1970s did Carlos Rangel—a noteworthy Venezuelan thinker—begin to wage a solitary intellectual war against the whole corpus of ideological confusion over the real causes of Latin American poverty and institutional backwardnes. He did this by writing a fascinating book, Del Buen Salvaje Al Buen Revolucionario: Mitos Y Realidades De América Latina (“From the Good Savage to the Good Revolutionist”), Monte Ávila Editores, Caracas, 1976). An English translation of this extraordinary work is available under another title: The Latin Americans: their love-hate relationship with the United States (Transaction Books, New Brunswick, N.J., 1987.)
Mr. Rangel also published in English a few other brilliant books dealing with the large family of subjects addressed in Del Buen Salvaje al Buen Revolucionario, but his untimely death, in 1988, prevented him of further developments. Still, Del Buen Salvaje al Buen Revolucionario, remains a comprehensive dissection of tercermundista (Third World) ways of thought.
Recognition by his fellow countrymen has not not come by easily. In fact, his book rapidly became anathema to his times’ Latin American academic circuits, most of them stultified by Marxist and Populist views. Appreciation had to come from abroad.
In a preface to the French edition of Mr. Rangel’s book, the late French philosopher Jean François Revel wrote, “this book is the first contemporaneous essay on Latin American civilization giving a truly new, and probably exact interpretation.”
For any interpretation of reality to be exact it must begin by dispensing with self-deceiving explanations and self-serving excuses. It is true that not everything that has been said about Latin America is false, but on the whole, it usually provides an utterly distorted view.
According to Mr. Rangel, Latin America’s 20 century’s history can be viewed as a protracted contradiction that stems from the origins of our nations back in the 19th century. Independence form Spain was not a movement “from the bottom up”. To the contrary, in almost all our nations, independence was only a rebellion of the privileged local gentry against the imperial rule.
Two hundred years later, still torn between false revolutions and anarchic autocracies, between corruption and poverty, our exacerbated nationalisms are nothing but an alibi for failure.
To Latin Americans, Mr. Rangel wrote, “the mere notion of a handful of Anglo-Saxons, arriving to this continent much later than the Conquistadores did […] and, in time, growing into the first power of the world is unbearably outrageous. Only by going deep into an unlikely collective psychoanalysis could our continent face the true causes of the unsettling contrast between the two Americas.” […] “Imperviously real as American imperialism could be, it was a consequence, not the cause, of our impotence. As morally loathsome as robbery can be, it still poses a question about the origins of the thief’s strength and its victim’s weakness.”
Alvaro Vargas Llosa, “Latin American Liberalism: A Mirage?”, The Independent Review, v.VI, n.3, Winter 2002. pp.325-343.
*Ibsen Martinez is a columnist, journalist, and award-winning playwright from Caracas, Venezuela. His writings have appeared in El Nuevo Herald, Miami, Letras Libres, Madrid, and El Pais in Madrid. Since 1995, he has written a weekly column for El Nacional.
For more articles by Ibsen Martinez, see the Archive.