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Sabers and Utopias: Visions of Latin America
By Mario Vargas Llosa
About a month ago, I saw this book on display while visiting a Barnes & Noble & knew I'd want to get back to it soon. I just started reading Mario Vargas Llosa's The Feast of the Goat, which is historical fiction based on 20th century Dominican Republic under the dictator Rafael Trujillo.
However, given the atrocious policy concerning immigrants at the U.S. border–possibly the worst crime this current administration has committed IMO–I put Feast on hold & decided to read this first. Often these days I feel my personal problems so frivolous in comparison to the suffering the U.S. has inflicted on innocent families and their children. It doesn't suffice to donate money or express my sadness/anger/frustration on social media. (Forget in person, few want to discuss.)
It's of little external impact, but the action I most wanted to take ASAP is educate myself.
Wow. Mario Vargas Llosa is a great writer. And wow. Am I ignorant. So little I know about Latin America, as a Latina American. So humbling.
"Rejecting reality, fixating on substituting it with fiction, denying what has actually been experienced in favor of something else that is invented, confirming the superiority of dreams over objective life, and behaving according to such a premise, is the oldest and most human of attitudes, that which has generated politicians, soldiers, scientists, artists, and the more attractive and admired saints and heroes, and, perhaps, the main engine of progress and civilization; literature and the arts were born of it and are its main nourishment, its best fuel. But at the same time, if the rejection of reality escapes the confines of the individual, the literary, the intellectual, and the artistic, and contaminates the collective and the political—the social—all idealism and generosity entailed in this position disappear, confusion replaces it, and the result is generally that catastrophe in which all attempts at utopia in the history of the world have ended.
Choosing the impossible—perfection, a masterwork, the absolute—has had extraordinary consequences in the creative sphere, from Don Quixote, to War and Peace, from the Sistine Chapel to Guernica, from Mozart's Don Giovanni to Mahler's Second Symphony, but wanting to model society without concern for limits, contradictions, and variations in humanity, as if men and women were docile and easily manipulated clay capable of being adjusted to an abstract prototype, designed by philosophical reason or religious dogma with total disregard for the concrete circumstances of the here and now, has contributed, more than any other factor, to increasing suffering and violence. The 20 million victims who, in the Soviet Union alone, paid for the experience of the Communist utopia are the best example of the risks run by those who, in the social sphere, bet against reality.
The nonconformism of living in a battle with what is possible and what is real has made Latin American life intense, adventurous, unpredictable, full of color of creativity. What a difference from bovine and calm Switzerland, where I pen these lines. In these atrociously placid days, I have recalled that ferocious declaration by Orson Welles to Joseph Cotton in The Third Man, the Carol Reed film written by Graham Greene: "In a thousand years of history, the civilized Swiss have only produced the cuckoo clock" (or something like that). In reality, they have also produced fondue, a dish lacking in imagination, but decorous and probably nutritious. With the exception of William Tell, who, was far as everything else goes, never existed and must have been made up, I doubt that there has ever been another Swiss person who perpetrated that systematic rejection of reality which is the most widespread Latin American habit.
A habit thanks to which we've had a Borges, a Garcia Marquez, a Neruda, a Vallejo, an Octavio Paz, a Lezama-Lima, a Lam, a Matta, a Tamayo, and we've invented tango, mambo, boleros, salsa, and so many rhythms and songs that the whole world sings and dances. Nonetheless, despite having long ago left behind underdevelopment in the matter of artistic creativity–in that field, we are rather more imperialistic—Latin America is, after Africa, the region in the world with the most hunger, backwardness, unemployment, dependency, economic inequality, and violence. And small, sleepy Switzerland is the richest country in the world, with the highest quality of life any country can offer to its citizens (all of them without exception) and to many thousands of immigrants. Although it is always bold to assume the existence of historic laws, I dare to propose that social and economic progress is in direct proportion to the vital boredom signified by complying with reality and inversely related to the spiritual effervescence that comes from rising up against it."
(pp. 62-3 from "Down with the Law of Gravity!"; Davos, January 2001)
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