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Critical Essay by Maarten Van Delden
SOURCE: "Carlos Fuentes' Agua Quemada: The Nation as Unimaginable Community," in Latin American Literary Review, Vol. XXI, No. 42, July-December, 1993, pp. 57-69.
In the following essay, Van Delden surveys Fuentes's handling of the identity of Mexico as a nation in his works, particularly in Agua Quemada.
George Orwell claimed that politics gave him the sense of purpose he needed to write good prose. What politics was for George Orwell, Mexico has been for Carlos Fuentes, with the difference that for Fuentes it is not so much good writing as writing tout court that appears to have been enabled by the possession of a literary polestar. Consider the fact that an autobiographical essay Fuentes first published in Granta as "The Discovery of Mexico" became "How I Started To Write" when it was later included in Myself with Others, a collection of Fuentes's essays. One can hardly imagine more vivid proof of the conflation, in Fuentes's conception of his own career, of two processes: the encounter with Mexico, where he did not go to live permanently until age sixteen, and the emergence of a literary vocation.
But while the idea of the nation has sustained Fuentes's literary imagination, he has not always returned the favor by sustaining the idea of the nation. Fuentes has regularly put forward a heroic vision of the Mexican nation as a unified, self-knowing whole, but he has been equally, if not to say more, inclined towards a view of Mexico as a violently conflicted, divided entity. A brief example from La muerte de Artemio Cruz (1962)—perhaps the most obviously "nationalist" text in Fuentes's corpus—will give a sense of how Fuentes swings between the celebratory and the deconstructive in his rendering of the Mexican nation. Eric Hobsbawm has noted how the "travelogue or geography lesson" is a common technique for inculcating a sense of the nation as "a coherent whole, deserving love and patriotic devotion." The school is obviously the preferred medium for the transmission of such lessons, but they are also to be found in literary texts. Near the end of Artemio Cruz there is a long, evocative section about Artemio's relationship to his country that includes a kind of tour of the nation's territory. At first, the sheer variety of the Mexican landscape is still reconciled within a nation of unity-in-diversity (a common strategy in definitions of national identity):
son mil países con un solo nombre … Traerás los desiertos rojos, las estepas de tuna y maguey, el mundo del nopal, el cinturón de lava y cráteres helados, las murallas de cúpulas doradas y troneras de piedra, las ciudades de cal y canto, las ciudades de tezontle, los pueblos de adobe, las aldeas de carrizo … los huesos delgados de Michoacán, la carne chaparra de Tlaxcala, los ojos claros de Sinaloa, los dientes blancos de Chiapas, los huipiles, las peinetas jarochas, las trenzas mixtecas, los cinturones tzotziles, los rebozos de Santa María, la marquetería poblana, el vidrio jaliscience, el jade oxaquefio … las traes amarradas al cuello … se le han metido al vientre …
It is above all the experience of the Mexican Revolution, conceived as an encuentro amoroso, the expression of an extraño amor comùn, that ensures that the multiple realities of Mexico can be reconciled within a higher unity. But a few pages later, the speaker imagines a profound and unbridgeable fault-line running right through the heart of the nation. "Habrá aquí una frontera, the voice declares, "una frontera que nadic derrotará." It is a frontier that separates a Mexico that is "seco, inmutable, triste," that belongs to the "claustro de piedra y polvo encerrado en el altiplano," a Mexico linked to the Aztec past, from the Mexico of "la media luna veracruzana," a Mexico tied to another history, a different world, the sensuous, voluptuous world of the Antilles, and, beyond, of the Mediterranean.
These kinds of discursive and descriptive passages in a work of fiction are one way of representing the large and somewhat nebulous entity that is a nation. But the novelistic representation of the nation may be lodged less in such isolated passages than in certain structural features of the text. Benedict Anderson identifies a structure of simultaneity in the novel that has allowed it to become one of the fundamental forms of imagining the nation. He evokes a standard novelistic plot in which a series of disparate events are described as occurring simultaneously, perhaps in order to interlock at some later point, perhaps in order to diverge. Anderson then wonders why the two characters in his imaginary plot who never meet, who "can even be described as passing each other on the street, without ever becoming acquainted," are nevertheless connected to each other. He offers two answers. On the one hand, he sees a modern notion of a uniform and measurable clock-time as providing a frame when within which to enclose a wide variety of events. On the other hand, he speaks of the embedding of these events in certain "sociological entities of … firm and stable reality." Anderson undercuts his own argument about the privileged relationship between the novel and the nation by offering entities (Wessex, Lübeck, Los Angeles) as example of such societies that are not nations. Even so, his suggestion that the nation offers a point of reference that ensures the unity of certain works of fiction provides a useful framework for an analysis of Carlos Fuentes' Agua quemada (1981).
Even though Anderson's discussion is concerned with the novel, his remarks can help us read Agua quemada because the four stories that make up this collection are all carefully interlinked, and so can be seen as constituting a single universe that is not so different from what we typically encounter in a novel. An examination of the nature of these links will give us an initial sense of Fuentes' conception of the community he is representing. It will also provide us with an insight into some flaws in Anderson's interpretation of his own model.
Each of the four stories in Agua quemada deals with a different set of characters, but each story intersects briefly with one or more of the other stories. Doña Manuela in "Estos fueron los palacios" was once a servant in the home of General Vicente Vergara, the main character in "El día de las madres." The General continues to pay Manuela's rent in a building owned by Federico Silva, the protagonist of "Las mañanitas." The Aparicios in "El hijo de Andrés Aparicio" also used to live in one of Silva's buildings. Moreover, Bernabé Aparacio's grandfather was an aide-decamp to General Vergara during the Revolution, and two of his uncles now work at a gas-station owned by the General's son Agustín.
Fuentes's picture of a single spatio-temporal continuum within which a series of life-stories cross each other's paths would appear to offer a fitting illustration of Benedict Anderson's idea about how a novel imagines a national community. Yet the existence of a common frame doesn't necessarily mean that what transpires within that frame constitutes a genuine community. Anderson appears insensitive to the uses of irony, and so does not see that a particular literary technique can be used to question as much as to imagine a community.
The links between the different stories in Agua quemada serve to turn a collection of disparate narratives into a general survey of an entire community. But the glancing nature of these connections creates a paradox: the connections, precisely because they are so tenuous, become an image of disconnectedness. This fragmentation of the social body is an all the more bitter reality since it is so often the result of deliberate refusals on the part of individual characters to preserve and respect the bonds that tie them to their fellow citizens. General Vergara fires Manuela after the death of his wife because she triggers too many memories in him. He discontinues the invitations to the Aparicios for breakfast on the anniversary of the Revolution, perhaps for the same reason. Federico Silva knows absolutely nothing about the people who live in this buildings, which he has never even visited. Later we learn that he raises the rent sin piedad on the Aparicio family when the rent freeze is lifted, forcing them to move to a different part of the city. It seems, then, that whenever two stories in the collection are linked to each other it is in order to depict an act of severance, to describe an erosion of the sense of community. This sense of erosion is also conveyed through the way in which space is mapped in the stories. Agua quemada attempts to cover different points on the map of Mexico City, as well as to trace the interrelations between these points. We move from the exclusive Pedregal neighborhood where the Vergaras live to the old colonial center with its semi-abandoned palaces, then to Federico Silva's house sandwiched between the Zona Rosa and the Colonia Roma, and finally out to a nameless squatters' community on the outskirts of the city. But the inclusive gesture only serves to uncover a general loss of cohesion in the urban fabric. Two motions stand out: on the one hand, the city, as it spreads, becomes shapeless, loses solidity, as we see in the description of the nameless district were Bernabé Aparicio grows up, "un lugar pasajero, como las chozas de cartón y lámina corrugada"; on the other hand, the city erects barricades against itself, as in the description of the attempt at castidad urbana in the fortress-like Pedregal neighborhood.
The description of the city as chaste evokes the image of the community as a body. Octavio Paz remarks in Corriente alterna that "la nación es proyección del individuo," a link that provides another basis for the imaginative representation of the nation. La muerte de Artemio Cruz offers an excellent example of this technique: the vicissitudes of the protagonist's life are emblems of different stages in the modern history of Mexico. The hero's psychological disintegration (captured in the tripartite structure of the novel) and his physical dismemberment (most vividly depicted in the concluding image of the surgeon's scalpel slicing open Artemio's stomach for the final, unsuccessful operation) point to the disintegration and mutilation of the nation as a whole. In Agua quemada the image of mutilation crops up again: Federico Silva's throat is slit in the course of a robbery in his house, an incident foreshadowed in Silva's own detailed and gloating description earlier in the story of the workings of a guillotine. Silva, we are told, resembles "el perdido perfume de la antigua laguna de México"; he belongs, on other words, to a vanished Mexico. Like the victims of the guillotine in France, he is an anachronism. The fact that the woman who participates in the fatal robbery in Silva's house is named Pocajonta gives a further, paradoxical twist to Silva's role: he belongs to an older Mexico, but he is also an intruder, an outsider, a colonialist in his own country. And in this story, of course, the native princess will not reach out to save the doomed foreigner.
The depiction of Silva as both a native and a foreigner, both insider and outsider, reveals the instability of the notion of national identity. But the most effective vehicle Fuentes chooses in order to demonstrate this instability is not the individual, but the family. One of the strands that ties together the different stories in Agua quemada is the motif of the missing relative. In "El día de las madres" the mothers themselves are dead. In "Estos fueron los palacios" Manuela's daughter Lupe Lupita has run away from home. In "Las mañanitas" the protagonist Federico Silva is a convinced bachelor who is led to think at the end of his life about the son he never had. In the final story of the collection "El hijo de Andrés Aparicio" it is precisely the father named in the title who never appears. The case of "El día de las madres" is particularly interesting, however, because here the theme of loss is given an especially bitter twist: the absence of the mothers turns out to be not a symptom of familial disintegration, but rather the sine qua non of domestic harmony. The men of the Vergara family can only continue to live together thanks to the violence they perpetrate on women. They bond over the bodies of the women. To the extent that the history of the Vergara family is meant to recapitulate the history of twentieth-century Mexico, the story reveals that national unity is entirely a function of violence and repression. The mourning of a loss masks the fact that the loss energizes the survivors.
On a more or less explicit level, "El día de las madres" offers two answers to the question of what it is that brings all Mexicans together into a single, unified community. Near the beginning of the story we see General Vicente Vergara thinking nostalgically "en los afíos de la revolución y en las batallas que forjaron at México moderno." Here it is a shared, and, significantly enough, violent, past that has created the nation. Later in the story, the General's grandson Plutarco, who is also the narrator of "El día de las madres," in the course of querying his grandfather about his somewhat contradictory stance with regard to the Church, says: "usted también dice que la Virgen nos une a los mexicanos." This time it is a shared symbol—and the fact that it is a feminine symbol is what needs to be underlined—that acts as the guarantor of the nation's unity. But what the story shows is how both these techniques for making the nation are fraught with terrible contradictions. The violent past makes the present but also cripples it, while the idealization of womanhood is merely the gentler way of excluding actual women from the national community.
The relationship to the past and the relationship to the feminine are the focus of the story's opening lines:
Todas las mafíanas el abuelo mezcla con fuerza su taza de café instantánco. Empufía la cuchara como en otros tiempos la difunta abuelita dofía Clotilde el molinete o como él mismo, el general Vicente Vergara, empufíó la cabeza de la silla de montar que cuelga de una pared de su recámara.
In just two sentences, Fuentes gives us a complex structure of comparisons and contrasts that prepares the way for the story's subsequent trajectory. The present brings forth the past; a simple domestic task evokes the period, violent days of the Revolution. But the resemblance between now and then, between the grandfather and the military hero, immediately collapses under the weight of a merciless irony. The similarity between the two actions, the grasping of the spoon and the grasping of the pommel of the saddle, is promptly stripped away to reveal an unbridgeable gulf separating the past from the present. The passage offers no more than an illusion of continuity. The unobtrusive shift from one name to another, the Grandfather of the first sentence becoming the General of the second, cannot conceal the fact that these two figures have very little in common, for only in the slightly hallucinatory world of an old man overcome with nostalgia can preparing coffee and fighting a military battle entertain a genuine resemblance with each other. Having established the link between past and present, the narrative proceeds subtly to draw attention to the distance that has been travelled between them through the detail of the saddle. Hanging on the General's bedroom wall, it has acquired a merely ornamental value in a thoroughly domestic setting.
Towards the end of the opening paragraph, the General himself, even while he has been busy recapturing the past in a cup of coffee, acknowledges that times are no longer the same. He remembers a time when "los hombres cran hombres," taking pleasure in getting drunk and going to war. The present, then, is characterized by the decline of machismo, a decline that affects the General himself, for the other link established in the opening lines of "El día de las madres," besides the one that connects Vicente Vergara's present self to his past self, is the one that connects him to his deceased wife, and, therefore, to the realm of the feminine. In the act of preparing himself a cup of coffee, Vicente Vergara takes the place of his wife, and so becomes a domesticated, feminized figure. But as was the case with the crossing over between past and present, the exchange between masculine and feminine qualities proves to be illusory. The story's opening image of the feminized grandfather gives way in the course of the narrative to the portrait of a man (a community of men, really) fundamentally cut off from womanhood.
The relationship between past and present is embodied in the relationship between General Vergara and his grandson Plutarco. Near the beginning of the story Plutarco speaks of the "angustia de ratón arrinconado" he feels every time he sees General Vergara "recorrer sin propósito las salas y vestíbulos y pasillos." But Plutarco feels this way less out of pity for the aimlessness of his grandfather's existence than because the old man constantly reminds him of the futility of his own life. Immediately after the above passage, Plutarco runs out of the house, as if to escape from his grandfather's oppressive presence. He hops into his Thunderbird (an obvious symbol of Americanization, and hence of the distance between Plutarco and the General) and heads for the ring road around the city, where he will finally feel free and at ease: "podía dar la vuelta, una, dos, cien veces, cuantas veces quisiera, a lo largo de miles de kilómetros, con la sensación de no movement, de estar siempre en el lugar de partida y al mismo tiempo en el lugar de arribo." But the structure of Pluarco's action is ambiguous: on the one hand, he flees from his grandfather, on the other hand, he ends up imitating him. After all, the aimlessness of Plutarco's highway drive simply replicates the purposelessness he had sensed in his grandfather's wanderings through his house.
It is this ambivalence that offers the key to the relationship between Plutarco and General Vicente Vergara. To the extent that the General, having fought in the battles that had forged modern Mexico, is a national hero, and as such a kind of embodiment of the nation, the complexities of his relationship with his grandson are symptomatic of the impasse that has struck the nationalist project. This impasse is captured most vividly in the following conversation between grandfather and grandson:
—Lo quiero mucho, abuelo.
—Está bien, chamaco. Lo mismo digo.
—Oiga, yo no quiero empezar la vida con la mesa puesta, como usted dice.
—Ni modo. Todo está a mi nombre. Tu papás nomás administra. Cuando me muera, todo te lo dejo a ti.
—No lo quiero, abuelo, abuelo, quisiera empezar de nuevo, como empezóusted….
—Ya no son los mismos tiempos, ¿qué ibas a hacer? Sonreí apenas:—Me hubiera gustado castrar a alguien, como usted …
It is worth examining this passage in some detail so as to unravel the structure of the relationship between Plutarco and his grandfather. The first two lines of the dialogue set up a dynamic of repetition and imitation: the grandfather's feelings for his grandson are the same as the grandson's feelings for his grandfather. Their emotions mirror each other. But Plutarco's desire to be like the General runs into insurmountable difficulties. Plutarco's wants to imitate his grandfather, but his grandfather prides himself precisely on never having imitated anybody. If Plutarco wants to begin anew, to create himself, like his grandfather, he must begin by freeing himself of his dependence on the old man. In other words, if Plutarco wants truly to imitate the General, he will have to reject him. The impossibility of reconciling these two imperatives causes Plutarco's paralysis. And it is the nature of time itself that is responsible for this situation, as the General acknowledges with serene simplicity when he says "Ya no son los mismos tiempos." In a sense, what he means is that times are never the same. One of the ways in which time becomes concrete is through the succession of the generations, and it is the fact of generation that places the children at a permanent disadvantage in the struggle for originality. Plutarco says that he would have liked to castrate somebody, as his grandfather did, but we are given to understand that in effect his grandfather, simply by virtue of his priority in time, has already castrated him.
The rivalry between the General and Plutarco points to the presence of an Oedipal paradigm in "El día de las madres." The pattern is confirmed when we learn that Plutarco's first experience of sexual arousal occurred at age thirteen when a friend showed him a picture of a girl in a bathing-suit. The girl turns out to be Plutarco's mother, who died when Plutarco was five. Both the incest wish and the wish to take the place of the father-figure express what Freud calls the child's "wish to be the father of himself." That this particular reading of the sources of the Ocdipus complex is most pertinent to Fuentes' story is clear from the fact that what is at stake in the struggle between Plutarco and his grandfather is, as I have tried to show, the desire of the younger man to be self-created. We have seen, however, that Plutarco's desire to engender himself is paradoxically intertwined with his desire to imitate his grandfather. The doubleness of this structure can be elucidated with the help of René Girard's reading of the Oedipus complex in Violence and the Sacred.
Girard looks at Freud's writings on the Ocdipus complex through the prism of his theory of triangular desire. Girard argues that desire is never the spontaneous movement of a subject towards an object. Instead, desire is always borrowed desire. The subject, according to Girard, does not "choose the objects of his own desire" (Deceit). Desire is instilled in the subject by a model or mediator, a third person to whom the subject attributes a desire for a certain object. The subject will begin to desire this same object only because of the "illusory value" (Deceit) conferred upon the object by the rival's desire. The subject's desire, in other words, is mimetic rather than autonomous. In Violence and the Sacred, Girard argues that the mimetic structure of desire can give us a better understanding of the Oedipus complex. Picking up on Freud's notion that the male child seeks identification with his father, Girard concludes that this must mean that the son will "desire what the father desires" (Violence). Principal among these objects of desire, of course, will be the child's mother.
In the scene in "El día de las madres" where Plutarco contemplates, in a state of sexual excitation, the photograph of his mother, there is no sense that Plutarco's desire is modelled on his father's desire. However, there is another passage where the structure of rivalry to which Girard grants so much importance is vividly present. Plutarco deplores the impoverished quality of his sex life, and compares it to his father's: "yo no pasaba de irme de putas los sábados, solo, sin cuates. Quería ligarme a una sefíora de a deveras, madura, como la amante de mi papá, no a niñas bien que conocía en fiestas de otros riquillos como nosotros." It is clear that Plutarco wants a mature woman only because of his father's prior desire for such a woman.
The more important father-figure in "El día de las madres," however, is the General. Girard points out that the child's relationship of his father results in a "mimetic double bind" (Violence). On the one hand, when the son conceives a desire for the mother he "is simply responding in all candor to a command issued by the culture in which he lives and by the model himself" (Violence), that is, the command to imitate his father. On the other hand, when the two desires, the father's and the son's, converge on the same object, the stage is set for a terrible conflict. This results in an injunction that contradicts the first one; now the command is not to imitate. This notion of the double bind is clearly applicable to the relationship between Plutarco and his grandfather. Here, too, the two commands, to imitate and not to imitate, are spoken simultaneously. Conversely, the two desires, to be like his grandfather, and not to be like his grandfather, surge up side by side in Plutarco. What remains to be seen is how the women in "El día de las madres" are drawn into this scenario. The story reaches its climax in the nighttime scene in which the General and Plutarco visit various nightspots in the city and end up in a brothel. In the midst of the drunken revelry, the General cannot stop talking about his military exploits. The entire scene becomes a mock replay of the battles of the Revolution. The General calls the mariachis he has hired for the night his troops, and when he gets into a fight in a nightclub he orders the piano's guts ripped out "como a los caballos de Celaya." But the General must finally face the unheroic nature of the present when he fails in bed with the prostitute Judith. When Plutarco takes over from his grandfather and has sex with Judith, we can see this as an act of revenge both on Judith (who is blamed for the General's grandson) and on the General (for having tried to figuratively castrate his grandson). The General watches sadly "como si mirara la vida renacer y ya no fuera la suya." Plutarco takes the place of his grandfather, and takes possession of his own life. In the next few pages of the story, Plutarco's suddenly more mature and reflective voice takes center stage. The General falls asleep as Plutarco drives him home; when they arrive Plutarco must carry his grandfather into the house, "como a un nifío." The order of the generations has been reversed. But if Plutarco feels sad in spite of what he feels is a victory over his grandfather, it is because the double bind described by Girard continues to haunt him. The son's appropriation of the father's desire entails the destruction of the latter, but this immediately leads to the cessation of the son's desire which cannot exist without the father's mediation. Plutarco wants to take the place of his grandfather, but he cannot do so without destroying his grandfather and thus nullifying his own project of imitation.
The women in this model are turned into a medium for the expression of inter-male rivalry. This is true for Judith, but even truer for Evangelina, Plutarco's mother. Plutarco's father and grandfather conspire to murder Evangelina. What did she do to deserve this? In essence, her sin was that she was not her mother-in-law. Clotilde, the General's wife, was war booty. Evangelina, by contrast, chose her husband. She actively desired him, where Clotilde passively accepted her fate. But as Becky Boling points out, Evangelina's challenge to "the patriarchy's exclusive right to power or desire" makes her a "pariah" for General Vergara. Her death reaffirms the patriarch's authority and restores the bond between the men of the Vergara family. René Girard speaks in Violence and the Sacred of a society's need to find a scapegoat onto whom to deflect intra-communal violence. The sacrificial process allows a community to establish the sense of unanimity it needs to sustain itself as a harmonious entity. This process is reflected in "El día de las madres."
The victimization of the women allows the men to fortify their sense of connectedness. But Girard believes that the sacrificial process is at the origin of human culture, that it is a way of finding a socially acceptable outlet for humanity's violent instincts. In Fuentes's story, on the other hand, there is nothing acceptable about the violence of the Vergara men. Instead of a community, Fuentes depicts a parody of a community. In this way, he questions the entire nationalist project in Mexico.
Perry Anderson has argued [in "Nation-States and National Identity," London Review of Books, May 9, 1991, pp. 3, 5-7] that the repudiation of the notion of national character in Europe in the early part of this century was a side-effect of the assault on the notion of individual character. Both literary Modernism with its "wide-spread rejection of any stable ego" and psychoanalysis with its weakening of "traditional assumptions of individual character as moral unity" contributed to this development. It is striking, in light of Perry Anderson's observations, to note the enduring link that exists in Mexico between psychoanalysis and the discourse on national character. Samuel Ramos based his analysis of the Mexican character in Pérfil del hombre y la cultura en México (1934) on Alfred Adler's notion of the inferiority complex. Octavio Paz rejected Ramos's interpretation in El laberinto de la soledad (1950), arguing that "más vasta y profunda que el sentimiento de inferioridad, yace la soledad." But Paz continued to rely on a psychoanalytic model for his reading of the national character, for in the key chapter of El laberinto, "Los hijos de la Malinche," where he finds the sources for the present-day Mexican's identify in the period of the Conquest, Paz offers what is essentially a rewriting of Freud's parricide-incest theme to fit Mexican history: "lo característico del mexicana reside … en la violenta, sarcística humillación de la Madre y en la no menos violenta afirmación del Padre."
The reliance on psychoanalysis implies that there is a pathological element in the national character. [In América Latina en busca de una identidad: modelos del ensayo ideológico hispanoamericano 1890–1960, Monte Avilar, 1969] Martin Stabb has drawn attention to the frequency with which the essayistic tradition in Latin America projects the image of the intellectual as a doctor whose task it is to cure the nation of its illnesses. There is a specifically psychoanalytic version of this motif in which the intellectual appears in the guise of the mental therapist. Again, Paz offers a good illustration of this motif: in Posdata (1970) he calls explicitly for "la crífica de México y de su historia—una crítica que se asemeja a la terapéutica de los psicoanalistas" (134). It is a call Paz answers in the very text in which he makes it, for the aim of Posdata is to trace Mexico's current pathologies—which have erupted most dramatically in the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre—to the nation's Aztec past, in a hermeneutic maneuver that is parallel in structure to psychoanalysis. In excavating the nation's history Paz performs the same operation as the therapist who brings to light the patient's unconscious. In Paz's model of the Mexican character, the Aztec period comes to occupy the same position as the unconscious in the psychoanalytic model. And his concept of criticism is analogous to the idea of the talking cure in psychoanalysis. In bringing the past to light, Paz hopes to dispel its noxious effects on the present. The only difficulty, perhaps, in making the translation between psychoanalysis and Paz's concept of the critic's task is the question of where the locate Paz himself, for Paz is both the doctor prescribing a cure, and, as the intellectual who engages in acts of criticism, the patient who does the talking.
Roger Bartra [in La jaula de la melancolía: Identidad y metamorfosis del mexicano, Grijalbo, 1987] describes Mexico as a "paraíso para las expediciones psicoanalíticas." But he believes these expeditions serve a very specific purpose: if the act of defining the nation in Mexico has generally meant trashing the nation, the point of the exercise according to Bartra has been to facilitate the ruling the nation. The producers of the discourse on the Mexican national character describe the masses only in order to dominate them all the more effectively. In an argument that is clearly indebted to Michel Foucault, Bartra claims that the essayistic tradition in Mexico identifies a "sujeto de la historia nacional" in order to make it easier to keep the Mexican "sujetado a una forma peculiar de dominación" (emphasis mine). The uncovering of specifically Mexican character traits serves to justify the existence of an authoritarian political system that is presumed to fit the peculiarities of the Mexican character.
To some extent, Fuentes follows in the footsteps of Ramos and Paz. "El día de las madres" is a good example of what Bartra calls a psychoanalytic expedition into Mexican society. But what conclusions should we draw from this? Does Fuentes denigrate the Mexican character so as to exalt himself? Does he fix the Mexican national identify in order to make it easier to subject the Mexican people to a project of political control? In the first place I would like to use Perry Anderson to refute Bartra: the psychoanalytic approach, as Anderson points out, destabilizes rather than stabilizes the notion of national character. The national character becomes both changeable, and in need of change. "El día de las madres" offers an even more radical vision: the entire nationalist myth is presented as a pathological fiction. My second point is that Agua quemada should not be viewed in isolation. It has to be set in the context of Fuentes' entire ocuvre. And as I pointed out earlier, there is a celebratory as a well as a deconstructive vision of Mexico in Fuentes' work. In The Buried Mirror, the text that accompanied the TV documentary Fuentes made to mark the quincentenary of Columbus's voyage to the New World, Fuentes describes the Mexican Revolution as an eroticized act of national self-recognition:
A country in which the geographical barriers of mountains, deserts, ravines, and sheer distances had separated one group of people from another now came together, as the tremendous cavalcades of Villa's men and women from the north rushed to meet Zapata's men and women from the south. In their revolutionary embrace, Mexicans finally learned how other Mexicans talked, sang, ate, and drank, dreamed and made love, cried and fought.
This kind of celebration of the nation's cultural distinctiveness breaks out of the confines of the model sketched by Bartra. Bartra sees only desprecio in Mexicanist discourse. Fuentes mixes denigration with boosterism. To account for these contradictions we must see that Fuentes is the inheritor of two separate traditions. On the one hand, he has nourished himself on the skeptical, subversive tradition of modern literature. On the other hand, he has absorbed the traditional Latin American intellectual's sense of responsibility towards the community. The collision of these two paradigms is responsible for the curiously fractured quality of much of Fuentes's work. And it is this quality that helps us see that Mexicanist discourse need not be as monolithic as it appears in Bartra's account. The same writer can imagine a community, and unimagine it as well.
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