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The Uses of Failure in Mexican Literature and Identity

The Uses of Failure in Mexican Literature and Identity

Studying the relationship between national identity and failure, John Ochoa revisits the foundational texts of Mexican intellectual and literary history, the “national monuments,” and offers a new vision of the pivotal events that echo throughout Mexican aesthetics and politics.

January 2005
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256 pages | 6 x 9 | 16 b&w illus. |

While the concept of defeat in the Mexican literary canon is frequently acknowledged, it has rarely been explored in the fullness of the psychological and religious contexts that define this aspect of "mexicanidad." Going beyond the simple narrative of self-defeat, The Uses of Failure in Mexican Literature and Identity presents a model of failure as a source of knowledge and renewed self-awareness.

Studying the relationship between national identity and failure, John Ochoa revisits the foundational texts of Mexican intellectual and literary history, the "national monuments," and offers a new vision of the pivotal events that echo throughout Mexican aesthetics and politics. The Uses of Failure in Mexican Literature and Identity encompasses five centuries of thought, including the works of the Conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo, whose sixteenth-century True History of the Conquest of New Spain formed Spanish-speaking Mexico's early self-perceptions; José Vasconcelos, the essayist and politician who helped rebuild the nation after the Revolution of 1910; and the contemporary novelist Carlos Fuentes.

A fascinating study of a nation's volatile journey towards a sense of self, The Uses of Failure elegantly weaves ethical issues, the philosophical implications of language, and a sociocritical examination of Latin American writing for a sparkling addition to the dialogue on global literature.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction. The Broken Monument, or Failure as a Source of Knowledge
  • Part 1. The Conquest: "The Paper Warrior" at the Source
  • Chapter 1. Education and Entropy in Bernal Díaz del Castillo's War to Stop Time
  • Part 2. Visions of a New Nation
  • Chapter 2. Compromised Free Markets in El Periquillo Sarniento: Teachers, Albureros, and Other Shouters
  • Chapter 3. Alexander von Humboldt's Work on Mexico, Cultural Allegory, and the Limits of Vision
  • Part 3. The Revolution of 1910
  • Chapter 4. José Vasconcelos and the Necessities of Failure
  • Part 4. At the Limits: The 1960s and the Border
  • Chapter 5. The Threats of Collapse in Cambio de piel (or Fuentes the Frail)
  • Chapter 6. Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Bordering on Madness and Performing Liminality
  • Conclusion. General Santa Anna's Leg and Other Failings
  • Notes
  • Works Cited
  • Index

John A. Ochoa is Assistant Professor of Hispanic Studies at the University of California, Riverside.


Desde la oficina, Robles veía los techos feos, las azoteas desgarbadas... —No es fácil cercenarse de este pueblo. Derrotados, todos derrotados para siempre. (192)


[From his office, Robles observed the ugly roofs, the uncouth flat thatches... "It's not easy to pare oneself from these people. Defeated, all defeated forever."]

—Carlos Fuentes, La región más transparente (1958)


En cierto sentido la historia de México, como la de cada Mexicano, consiste en una lucha entre las formas y las fórmulas en que se pretende encerrar a nuestro ser y las explosiones con que nuestra espontaneidad se venga... Palabras malditas... sólo pronunciamos en voz alta cuando no somos dueños de nosotros mismos... Chingar... implica la idea del fracaso. (29, 67, 69)


[In a certain sense the history of Mexico, like that of every Mexican, is a struggle between the forms and formulas that have been imposed on us and the explosions with which our individuality avenges itself... Evil word[s]... we utter only when we are not in control of ourselves... Chingar... implies the idea of failure.] (33, 74, 77)

—Octavio Paz, El laberinto de la soledad (1950)

Carlos Fuentes offers the following generalization about Mexican history: "The history of Mexico was a history of crushing defeats... Miguel Hidalgo, the father of Mexican independence, ended up with his head on exhibit on a lance at the city gates of Chihuahua. Imagine George and Martha beheaded at Mount Vernon" (Myself, 4, 5). None of the major historical events to which the Mexican historian Edmundo O'Gorman used to refer as "los pilares de nuestro estar" [the pillars of our being]—the Spanish Conquest, the War of Independence, the War of 1846, the Reforma and the French Invasion, and the Revolution of 1910—are clear-cut successes. At best, they were failures threaded with success; at worst they were outright disasters, Fuentes's "crushing defeats."

Each of the texts in this study is reconsidered within the context of these historical "pillars of our being." The subject of the first chapter, Bernal Díaz's Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España (1568, 1632), is not only the best-known account of the Conquest but also the foundational epic of both Mexico and Latin America. The second figure I examine, José Joaquín Fernández de Lizardi, was the author of the first Latin American novel, the picaresque El Periquillo Sarniento (1816), and survivor—barely—of the ravages of the Wars of Independence from Spain. Alexander von Humboldt's works of descriptive and travel literature, the subject of Chapter 3, appeared at the cusp of two significant and interrelated historical developments: Romanticism and Mexican Independence. A long-standing tradition credits Humboldt with promoting Independence by providing it with Enlightenment ideas, a charged proposition which we will reconsider. Chapter 4 concerns José Vasconcelos, a key figure during the Revolution of 1910-1920. The Revolution placed Mexico in dire need of reinvention and gave Vasconcelos the rare opportunity to influence that process—and to fail at it. Chapter 5 concerns Fuentes's 1967 novel Cambio de piel, which is engaged with a different revolution—the intellectual and political upheavals of the 1960s—with equally mixed results. The sixth chapter is on Guillermo Gómez-Peña, a contemporary performance artist who operates under the sign of the most recent trauma of Mexican history—the massive exodus of Mexicans into the United States—with border-crossing as a master trope in his brand of art.

To refer to the "Mexican nation" within such a long historical view means taking chronological and categorical liberties. In the strictest historical sense, Mexico as a nation is tied to modernity and is a political and administrative product of the late eighteenth century, as much the offspring of the French Revolution as it is of the postcolonial Spanish Empire. The historical moment of the creation of Mexico as a nation—roughly 1810-1820—is at the chronological center of this study, but there are glances both backward and forward in order to establish a more nuanced continuity.

With this moment of creation in sight, the theoretical stage is set by Benedict Anderson's observation that a sense of nationhood is a cultural product as deliberately composed—and as legible—as any text. This, of course, is a refinement of a point argued most convincingly by Michel Foucault and Fredric Jameson, who demonstrate that the power structures of literary form often reflect the structures of political and social power. To this I add that a sense of nationhood, the simultaneous "imagined community," occasionally meets with failure, as do all systems of signification and praxis. When we consider the imagined community of Mexico (the Mexico of the mind, to paraphrase Antonin Artaud) from Independence on, it is crucial to remember Octavio Paz's dictum in El laberinto de la soledad: "para nosotros un realista siempre es un pesimista" (20) [to us a realist is always a pessimist] (22).

Anderson, following Benjamin, argues that the rise of the modern nation-state was tied to a change in the perception of time: during the preindustrial age, time had been "messianic," imbued with the sense that it would someday end. With industrialization, literacy, and print capitalism, the notion of time became perpetual, "homogenous, [and] empty" and "marked not by prefiguring and fulfillment" but by a belief in endlessness, in a stream of coincidences "measured by clock and calendar" (24). Whatever changes in the sense of chronology may have occurred in European and some North American nations because of industrialization, Mexico seems to have stayed in the older, preindustrial model: its sense of itself is punctuated by moments of apocalyptic calamity, more reminiscent of tumultuous premodernity than of the steady modernity postulated by Anderson. Mexico's history is riddled with the knowledge, and expectation, of the "crushing defeats" that have plagued it regularly from the beginning. The horizons of the entire span of Mexican history and reality are clearly bounded by the presence of those conflicted "pillars of our being": the Conquest, Independence, the American War of 1848, the Revolution of 1910, and the massive immigration of the last few decades are the sources for Paz's realistic pessimism. These humbling historical events—but most importantly their complicated after-effects inscribed in the literature and the identity of a nation—are what we will explore here.

Of course the question of identity has been a constant and nervous obsession since the start of all Latin American thought—from Christopher Columbus's struggles with how to describe the new continent all the way to the "discurso americanista" [Americanist discourse] of the twentieth century, with many stops in between. "Remove the concept of... national identity from the language of Latin American literature," as Roberto González Echevarría notes, "and that literature becomes nearly silent" (Voice, 8). Deep within this preoccupation with ontology and with autochthonous culture lurks the dark specter of failure.

What is distinct about the case of Mexico is that—since failure is threaded throughout its national pillars—failure itself has achieved a monumental standing. Each of the texts, figures, and periods that I revisit here is a monument of sorts. They all hold a place of importance within the Mexican canon (except for Gómez-Peña—at least not yet). It is quite startling then to find within these metonymical objects of national pride, in these symbols culled from the pantheon, an intimate relationship to failure. In many cases these works themselves chronicle the moment of failure directly, by giving an account of the historical disasters of their periods; but each of them, I argue, is itself a resonant failure on some level: from Bernal Díaz's Oedipal war with what he perceives as the authorities both literary and bureaucratic; to Humboldt's attempts to understand absolutely everything about other cultures; to Lizardi's attempts to rein in the chaos of street life circa 1800; to Vasconcelos's Platonism meant for illiterate paisanos; and most recently to Fuentes's flirtation with monumental instability and Gómez-Peña's attempts to embody the traumatic essence of the border crossing.

Failure, as I characterize it here, is a form of knowledge. In this sense it resonates with recent critical thought, especially poststructuralist preoccupation with semantic fragmentation and the free-play of meaning associated with deterritorialization. Some theorists like Néstor García Canclini and Roger Bartra have considered the relationship of Latin America to postmodernism and have concentrated on the failure of categories of knowledge. Bartra, for instance, follows Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari's critique of the Western obsession with the Oedipal complex in his own unmasking of the search for "mexicanidad" (the hobby-horse of twentieth-century Mexican thought). Bartra claims that from Samuel Ramos onward the thinkers of "mexicanidad" have been obsessed with pessimism. He argues that their critical stances have been compromised by a need to see a paralyzing, "melancholic" schizophrenia.

Néstor García Canclini similarly questions the academic differentiation between high and low culture, finding this disciplinary distinction inadequate. In effect he accuses the intellectual establishment of epistemological failure in its attempt to explore Latin American modernity. According to García Canclini, simplistic distinctions between high and low fail to account for the shades of in-betweenness, for the fundamental hybridity of form and function that defines modern cultural production and modes of representation. He theorizes this failure as a useful incompleteness that renders impossible any sort of totalizing or even unifying vision. Unlike Bartra, who sees epistemological failures as an obstacle, García Canclini considers failure useful precisely because of its unsettling and potentially reformist possibilities: he proposes, by way of solution, a hybrid methodology. García Canclini's answer, an extension of late Marxist analysis via Pierre Bourdieu and Raymond Williams, calls for a breakdown of disciplinary and epistemological walls in the hope that the resulting eclectic analysis will conform to the shape of the fragmented object of study and that the subaltern will thus be able to speak through the cracks.

I sympathize with García Canclini's attempts to rescue failure and to recast it as a useful and destabilizing critical tool: failures are often more revealing than triumphs. Harold Bloom points out that John Milton's God is perfect, yet later poets who were influenced by Milton—William Blake, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley—were much more drawn to God's failed nemesis Satan, because he is an interesting failure, more interesting even than God (Ringers in the Tower, 19). In a structural or even geological sense, a failure is a fissure, a crack that at once defines and reveals weakness and threatens the larger structure. Failures are faults. They can indeed threaten, alarm, and be used to assign blame; but they can also be deeply useful. They afford the opportunity of laying bare the seams, the unseen continuities of form and of history. The collapse of an idea, a system, or even of a simple plan often forces a mode of self-examination and of explanation. This mode can often lead to renovation and on occasion even to novelty. To take a familiar example from conventional literary history, countless pages have been devoted to arguing that Don Quijote is a failed chivalric romance (or a stunted pastoral tale or a mannered Lucianic satire); and that because of these failures Don Quijote must be considered something entirely new: the first example of another form—the modern novel—that reflects a new sensibility and a new world vision. The downfall of old forms necessitates improvisation with the ruined parts.

Thus the reading I set forth here is of an epistemological event of failure as a "heuristic" event: a transitional, possibly destructive, moment that precipitates new knowledge. We should recall that "failure" is also etymologically related to a fall (the Latin cadere means both "to fail" and "to fall"), a homology rich with conflated meanings. The Fall in the biblical sense is a fall into knowledge. Paul de Man, interested in both falls into knowledge and the failures of systems of signification, notes that one laughs at oneself after stumbling because, to use Charles Baudelaire's term, there is a dédoublement, a sudden escape from one's conception of oneself. Dédoublement can result from tripping in public, from seeing oneself in a mirror, or from realizing that one's fencing strategy is being matched too well by an opponent: each of these unexpected situations forces a reconsideration of one's concept of oneself (Blindness, 211-215).

Yet, however optimistic a reading is assigned to failure, I recognize that exploring an entire nation's shortcomings promises to be a thorny proposition. I am well aware that dwelling upon failure raises the ugly possibility of falling into the same pessimistic trap exposed by Bartra. Worse yet, a sustained consideration of failure, especially if tied to national identity, runs the risk of political bad faith by producing an inadvertent apology for colonialism and neocolonialism. Instead, I wish to dwell upon the strengthening results of failure. I explore this phenomenon as a contingency, as a survival tactic, and most importantly (as my title suggests) as a useful tool: I see it as an unusual means toward self-knowledge.

The failures I observe in these varied texts, and by extension the historical moments to which they are connected, share a very specific trait. "Heuristic" failure contrasts to what I would call "systemic" failure. By the latter I mean the tragic realities of what sociologist Pablo González Casanova has called the "internal colonialism" of Latin America. This long—and warranted—cry of pain just in this century has generated a powerful discourse of disillusion and a concomitant literature. This "literatura del subdesarrollo" [literature of underdevelopment], whose main aim is to explain the shortcomings of an initial moment of promise, includes such notable examples as the pessimistic, searching essays by the Peruvian José Carlos Mariátegui and the Argentinean Ezequiel Martínez Estrada; the Mexican "novela de la Revolución" [novel of the Revolution], which chronicles the degradation of the ideals of the 1910 Revolution; and the more recent journalistic genre of testimonio, which bears witness to the horrors of atavistic social ills and abuses of power.

In contrast to the sense of fundamental disillusion driving what I am calling "systemic" failure, the type of "heuristic" failure I concentrate upon is neither systemic nor terminal: it is not post-traumatic testimony seeking to disinter the past in order to explain the ruination of the present. Rather, the texts I have gathered here contain the precise moment of failure, and not necessarily its long aftermath or its reconstruction in hindsight. These texts, as it were, are surprised by their own failure. In the language of phenomenology, they are caught in the singular event.

To be sure, the failures within them have proven to be momentous and far reaching and even offer a kind of testimonio themselves: Bernal Díaz witnesses (and participates in) the destruction of entire worlds, including his own; if nothing else, José Vasconcelos's Memorias is a Rousseauan survivor's confessional; Gómez-Peña seeks to speak for millions of undocumented immigrants in their traumatic journey north. But these texts, because of their proximity to the moment of collapse they witness as well as the textual failures within them, display a heightened moment of knowledge, a flash of insight much like de Man's dédoublement. This is a moment of epiphanic self-awareness as much about itself as about the world crashing down around the subject. This event, as de Man points out, is a fragile conversion, a momentary reckoning that is ephemeral and cannot last. Unlike, for instance, the long-lasting and long-suffering relationship between the promise of the Revolution of 1910 and the disillusioned literature (the "novela de la Revolución") that it spawned, the heuristic failure I explore here is both contained and unexpected; so it cannot easily generate (or form part of) a well-defined continuity or a tradition. These works, and their definitory moments, are sui generis. By definition epiphanic falls into knowledge are momentary and can never be repeated—at least not on purpose.

Yet, despite their evanescent uniqueness, these texts and historical figures have become paradoxically monumental. Even what I am calling heuristic failure does have a long-lasting and persistent weightiness: ruined monuments in spite of their ruination are monuments nonetheless, and even useful ones at that, because they offer a perspective on the development of a unique form of national identity.

Ernest Renan's classic essay on the subject, "What Is a Nation?" (1882), tried to answer the enormous question of his title in terms of memory: "Forgetting, I would even go so far as to say historical error, is a crucial factor in the creation of a nation" (Poetry, 11). Obscuring the facts, glossing over less-than-noble origins, and even inventing new ones are all a crucial part of constructing a seamless sense of nationhood. Although this observation is generally true, certain kinds of traumatic events and the history that accounts for those events offer a radical exception to Renan's formula: Fuentes's "crushing defeats." Some failures cannot be forgotten, for their weight and their aftermath are simply too great to sublimate. This kind of failure creates the kind of painful self-awareness that either cannot or will not be driven to the unconscious.

Some fifty years after Renan, Sigmund Freud proposed a similar idea in Moses and Monotheism (1939). According to Freud, the Israelites tried to suppress the fact that Moses, their founding father, was actually a failure who was murdered in the desert by his own disillusioned people. It was only much later that his memory was reclaimed and he was recast as a founding father. Freud points to the fact that some traumatic failures are so burdensome that they simply cannot be successfully driven underground and forgotten. When people gain identity by means of an incompletely suppressed trauma, their collective unconscious will naturally suffer from a damaging collective neurosis. As Cathy Caruth has noted, history—as it is akin to witnessing—becomes quite difficult in the aftermath of trauma ("Unclaimed Experience").

Being what it is, historical trauma virtually requires revisionism and glossing over. And Mexican history, like many others, has on occasion tried to reclaim its traumas or to reinvent them in a more positive light. But no attempt at semantic control over the national psyche has ever been strong enough to suppress the deeply ambivalent nature of the "pillars of our being" altogether. As Paz alerts us, Mexican reality is simply too massive, too crushing to hide. Even the most repressive and artificially optimistic periods, like the pax augusta of the dictator Porfirio Díaz (1876-1911), saw the flowering of a darkly subversive popular culture, like the joyfully macabre lithography of José Guadalupe Posada or the aggressively lewd humor found in populist opposition periodicals like El Ahuizote and La Avispa.

The invocation of Paz in order to understand this deeply ingrained dualism of the Mexican psyche is significant. I do not quite agree with Bartra's assessment that Paz falls prey to the same melancholic trap as the other thinkers on "mexicanidad." Instead I read Paz's El laberinto de la soledad as a manifesto on how to negotiate between the negative and positive aspects of failure: his influential essay is nearly weighed down with the threat of existentialist pessimism, but somehow it manages to escape it. True to its 1950s context, Paz's work is awash with a tragic sense of life quite French in flavor. It is both a belated study and a departure from the search for "mexicanidad." Paz's worldview is driven by a fundamental dualism—the notion that Mexicans are rent in two and that they are illegitimate products of a transgression, "hijos de la chingada." One implication of Paz's study is that the Mexican mind, trapped in a relentless oscillation between silence and effusion, is doomed to remain hermetic and alone:

El Mexicano no transciende su soledad. Al contrario, se encierra en ella. Habitamos nuestra soledad como Filoctetes su isla, no esperando, sino temiendo volver al mundo. No soportamos la presencia de nuestros compañeros. Encerrados en nosotros mismos, cuando no desgarrados y enajenados. (58)


[The Mexican does not transcend his solitude. On the contrary, he locks himself up in it. We live in our solitude like Philoctetes on his island, fearing rather than hoping to return to the world. We cannot bear the presence of our companions. We hide within ourselves, except when we rend ourselves open in our frenzy.] (64)

In his attempts to isolate Mexican character and to diagnose a national illness, Paz inherits an old line of inquiry with roots that extend at least as far back as the seventeenth century. This line uses technical concepts from science and natural history in order to analyze social ills but ultimately seems to account for America's "underdevelopment" by contrasting it to Europe. By the nineteenth century, this strain of thought applied positivist evolutionary models of progress and developed a form of conflicted, self-flagellating neo-colonialism. As Martin Stabb has shown, this scientistic impulse amounted to an insecure and pessimistic pathology with regard to native culture (In Quest, 12-33). Its proponents—like the Domingo Faustino Sarmiento of Conflicto y armonías de las razas en América (1883), Carlos Octavio Bunge in Nuestra América (1903), and Alcides Arguedas in Pueblo enfermo (1909), among many—blamed the "sickness" of America (in contrast to a healthy Europe) on everything from racial miscegenation to the unusual weather, the flora, the fauna, and the diet.

It is true that we can read Paz along these same lines, whereby he simply substitutes a newer kind of scientistic diagnosis for an older one. We could say that he simply replaces previous evolutionary positivism with French existentialist psychoanalysis: Paz's psychopathology of the national condition as more or less the direct inheritor of William Robertson's and Guillaume-Thomas Raynal's dismissals of the American continent during the eighteenth century and as quite close to Arguedas's evolutionist and racist Pueblo enfermo, since both Arguedas and Paz attempt to give a symptomatology behind the weakness and paralysis of their respective countries.

Yet however beholden to previous pathologizing agendas it might be, Paz's analysis somehow resists therapeutic prescriptiveness as well as the nihilistic resignation of the pathologists. His is a powerful commentary on the discomforts and contingencies and on the incompleteness of failure: failures of communication, of community, of transcendence. His analysis points to an epistemological feature of Mexican culture from its very beginning as a nation in the early nineteenth century and even earlier, as evidenced in the Historia verdadera. Whether or not they stoically accept defeat in fact, Mexicans see themselves as stoically accepting it; recall Paz's "para nosotros un realista siempre es un pesimista" (20) [to us a realist is always a pessimist] (22). Given Paz's careful treatment of the perception of failure, it is crucial to observe that his argument never states, either explicitly or implicitly, that Mexicans are failures or even that they regard themselves as failures. To the contrary Paz implies that the very knowledge of a depressed reality, the frank acceptance of a bad situation, is paradoxically liberating. Such a knowledge permits the riotous acts of celebration during saints' days and holidays that he describes so vividly. Paz reminds us that it is impossible to overestimate the socially galvanizing power of commiseration. The French would call this the "mémoire de la boue," remembrance of having wallowed in the mud: the bond created by mulling over bad times, by the mutual acknowledgment of having shared passage through dire straits, unites the Mexican imagined community.

The analysis offered by Paz is itself dualistic. It teeters between deeply paralyzing pessimism and euphoric action. He argues that the Mexican psyche is defined entirely by its traumatic history, its originary rape by the Spanish conquistador father. The extension of this traumatic model leads to one of two possible conclusions. On the one hand, the overwhelming knowledge of this rape can easily cause aporia, the paralysis that results from the discouraging sense that nothing can be done. Too much knowledge can translate into quietism; this is the same paralyzing tyranny of melancholia warned about by Bartra. But, on the other hand, knowledge of this traumatic history can spur the colonized mind into its only solution, which is to change itself. The only way out of the neurosis of a traumatic origin is for the colonized subject to become someone else altogether through a process of radical redefinition (a process, curiously enough, similar to the familiar Romantic fall into self-awareness and historically coetaneous with the birth of the modern nation).

This shocking realization can then spark a refashioning of identity on many levels, from the personal to the national, as it did for the Martiniquan writer Frantz Fanon (who wrote a text quite similar to El laberinto during the same period and who became an anticolonial resistance fighter in Algiers). This ambiguity between pessimistic aporia on the one hand and liberating action on the other is one of the intentional traps of Paz's and Fanon's dualistic faith: while most of the time the Mexican is bogged down by silence, during feast days he or she breaks loose to compensate for that oppressive silence. It is as if allowing two radically opposing outcomes to coexist in their analysis creates a space for free will and, ultimately, for self-knowledge. Paz's essay speaks to an embrace, and a useful employment, of failure. El laberinto de la soledad's attention to the tug-of-war between pessimism and euphoria, between Lent and Carnival, is played out in the language of religious ritual (Paz was an avid reader of Mircea Eliade's The Sacred and the Profane), a language that in turn rests on the concept of liminality.

Liminality has received particular theoretical attention, especially in light of recent thought on marginality and différance. In the original anthropological sense, "liminality" means the threshold, and it is used to describe the part of a rite of passage wherein the participants—initiates into adulthood, say—cross an imaginary border into a symbolic parallel society "betwixt and between" (Turner, Ritual Process, 95). Social rules, habits, and conventions are temporarily suspended in this parallel society. Examples of liminal rites include carnival, which Mikhail Bakhtin explores, the initiations of the young into adulthood, and celebrations of other life-transitions, like wakes and weddings: all of these are located within liminal space. Their celebrants are deliberately placed in a parallel and "upside-down" space, vaguely reminiscent of the world they left behind; but their merriment mocks the structures and conventions of that world. To be in liminality is to exist transitionally, neither here nor there.

Perhaps owing to the widespread influence of Bakhtin's notion of carnivalesque inversion or to Victor Turner's studies of the liminal in 1960s radicalism, virtually all recent theoretical interest in liminality tends to dwell on carnival as revolution: on the festive, chaotic, or destabilizing qualities often aligned with the radical Left. Most deployments of the term pay attention to the subversive and therapeutic quality of liminality, to what Turner might call "status reversal" and Gustavo Pérez Firmat describes as the "unstable, aggressive, treacherous liminality, one that consistently threatens to collapse the center-periphery distinction" (Literature, 16). This stresses liminality's function as an "anti-structure" to the "structure" of mainstream institutions and practices, casting it as a perspective-granting place of marginalization, a temporary "outside" vantage point from which to question the establishment. The belief is that reveling can be revealing.

While there is no doubt that liminality liberates and expands perspectives, there is another aspect to consider. Terry Eagleton ruminates that Bakhtinian carnival is a "licensed affair": only a temporary reversal of power structures and fully permitted by those powers (Walter Benjamin, 148). While it is true that the liminal can be life-affirming and creative, it can never live up to its revolutionary potential, despite the sincerest wishes of Bakhtinian utopianism: a precondition of its existence is that it lasts only a short period and then only by the grace of the authorities. Those most surprised at the end of the party are the partygoers themselves, because liminality, like all parties, must always come to an end. There is a clear connection between liminality and failure. Carnival is tinged with a kind of sadness, partly because it is a celebration of transition, both a new beginning and also an ending—of childhood, of life, of a season. But the sadness of carnival is an introspective mourning for its own imminent passing, what Frank Kermode would call its sense of an ending: carnival is celebrated under the shadow of its own fleeting impermanence. After the frenzied celebration outside of the "rule of law, custom, and convention," the celebrants always return to the fold (Turner, Ritual Process, 95). The very intensity of carnival is due in part to its brevity. In short, liminality is inscribed with its own failure. Awareness of this impending failure is the reason why liminality is so liberating, at least temporarily.

Recall de Man's notion of dédoublement: it involves some event which makes one terribly self-aware but immediately afterward forces a correction as one regains composure and returns to oneself, to the fold of self-possession. This process, which occurs at an individual level, is a miniature version of the liminality that occurs at the collective level. The first monumental (and foundational) text considered here, Bernal Díaz's Historia verdadera de la conquista (1568, 1632), represents a curious example of this dynamic. In it we see a desperate attempt to keep liminality, the euphoric state of "neither here nor there," alive perpetually. Toward the end of the Historia, Bernal tells how the first generation of conquistadores, now semifeudal landowners, find the tables turned on them. Now they have become the embattled defenders of the allotments of land and Indians they acquired after the Conquest. They fight a new horde of invaders, the Spanish colonial authorities who try to take everything away from them, including their stories. The old conquistadores in essence try to extend forever the free-for-all liminal space that was created upon vanquishing the Aztecs. Of course, this is impossible. We see the old soldiers' lose the battle to maintain a hold on their spoils, their independent place, and ultimately their story. It is a strange and sad carnival, brimming with the sense of an ending, at the heart of the very beginning. It is significant that at the heart of this foundational epic of Mexico (and of all Latin America, for that matter) we find an effort to negotiate its own failures.

This constitutive failure at the very source of Mexican national identity changes its shape and its resonance at the next historical crossroads upon which I concentrate, the birth of the nation at the beginning of the nineteenth century. But the tone and the rhetorical strategies for accounting for failure are well and deeply laid out by the Historia verdadera and reticulate through this "pillar of our being" and through all subsequent ones.

One final historical consideration: these pillars are in fundamental ways all moments of revolution, of change. And all revolutions are struggles to reject the father. The history of Mexico, and indeed of all Latin America, is in many ways the story of dictators. As many interpreters of Latin American reality have long noted, its culture is heavily dominated by strongmen and by the "voice of the Master," in González Echevarría's usage. These authoritative, teacherly, and paternal figures—caudillos, arbiters of culture, the tired stereotype of the macho—indeed possess loud, domineering, and magisterial voices that punctuate the ages, from the very first voice of Hernán Cortés the conqueror in his "Cartas de relación," through Simón Bolívar, Andrés Bello, and Domingo Sarmiento, through present-day caudillos almost too numerous to list. But these magisterial voices are not infallible; nor are they incapable of unintentional humility. They sometimes trip down the stairs of their dictator's balconies, falter in their pulpits, or find that their stifling place at the head of the table or bureaucrat's desk has been taken away.

Sometimes these occasional downfalls are brought about by the restless subjects who throw rocks and defy the master. But at other times the father simply trips over himself. These times are admittedly rare, but they are the ones that concern us here. The moment when the father falters, when the voice of the master cracks in its steady soliloquies, can, and on occasion does, lead to a moment of clarity, to a de Manian dédoublement for all involved. The tutelary voice when it finds itself humbled is not necessarily silenced, however. It must, though, reassess and in some cases reinvent itself and its mission (as was the case with José Vasconcelos, paternal master who tried to mold the future of his nation and a caudillo if there ever was one). At other times it simply reveals the master's voice for what it is to those who watched the slip-up (as in the case of Lizardi). And at other moments it makes the voice even stronger because it gives it unprecedented depth (as in the case of Fuentes).

A curious phenomenon comes to the foreground upon consideration of these instances of magisterial failure: the monumental figures, with high places in the collective memory, have become memorialized unapologetically and even proudly as failures. Recall Fuentes's observation about the priest Don Miguel Hidalgo, the father of Mexican Independence, who "ended up with his head on exhibit on a lance" (Myself, 5). This is a kind of negative triumphalism, where fallen fathers are fully recognized as fallible and because of this are the more admirable; the monuments dedicated to them show their cracks in all their glory. Finally, we turn again to Fuentes, himself a towering monument in the Mexican cultural landscape of the last fifty years, for a useful summation of the dynamic I am describing. The short story "Día de las madres," from the collection Agua quemada (1980), is somewhat of a departure from the direction in which Fuentes's work had been heading for the previous two decades (the grandiosely self-titled "La edad del tiempo" [age of time]). Instead of spanning the seven decades of Mexican history as does La muerte de Artemio Cruz (1962) the story spans one evening; and instead of claiming to speak for the wounded psyche of an entire country—or an entire hemisphere, as he does in Terra nostra (1975)—it speaks for the wounded psyche of a single family on a single night. In this humility of scale is a kind of retraction or self-correction, akin to the phenomenon I observe in all of the writers studied here, but perhaps closest to Alexander von Humboldt's humility after recognizing the limits of speaking for an entire people and its landscape.

In "Día de las madres," we find three male generations of the Vergara family living in an ostentatious mansion in an upper-crust neighborhood of Mexico City: there is the General, a revolutionary hero in his winter years; his son, the pompous, stylish, and distant Agustín, who grew up taking for granted the benefits his father fought for and disdaining the old man's tales of heroism; and Agustín's adolescent son Plutarco, who narrates the story many years later. It is a painfully silent house, full of the grandfather's memories of his glorious war and his departed wife, Clotilde, Agustín's ostentation, and an inexplicable silence about Evangelina, Plutarco's missing mother. Oppressed by this environment, Plutarco eventually chides his father "que me hayas dejado fuera de todo, hasta del dolor" [for leaving me out of everything, even the pain] (Agua, 38). Something is missing, but Plutarco cannot express what that is. The story recounts Plutarco's search for the object of his sorrow and for a way of expressing it.

In the watershed moment of the story, Agustín and the General have an angry confrontation when Agustín reveals that the family is bankrupt. Plutarco, who has been listening, hidden significantly behind a statue of the headless Winged Victory, emerges and thunders off with his grandfather for a night of raising hell and squandering what remains of their depleted savings. The boy and the old man, as Plutarco exclaims, seek to "empezar de nuevo" [start from scratch] (23). This night on the town becomes Plutarco's attempt to relive the General's revolutionary glory, a motif familiar to readers of Fuentes (recall the old revolutionary Artemio Cruz, whose son Lorenzo dies in the Spanish Civil War while trying to replicate his father's military heroics).

The two revelers, "seguros de la victoria" [sure of victory] (30), embark on their pathetic reenactment of the Revolution. In a chaotic scene, again familiar to readers of Fuentes, the language of the distant past becomes indistinguishable from that of the present. The music of revolutionary corridos comically blends with bad 1950s lounge singers; a ludicrous barfight becomes the bloody battle of Celaya. Images of horses tripping over their own entrails and of General Alvaro Obregón having his arm blown off mix with scenes of inebriated musicians and fat chorus girls. General Vergara marshals his son and the group of drunken mariachis they have collected as their new Revolutionary Army to a rousing victory. Yet much as the Revolution was to disappoint the generation that fought it, the night is bound to disappoint the young Plutarco, who fails to re-create the glorious past. The boy becomes brutally aware that the old man's history belongs only to him and can never be shared, at least not in a vital way. That Revolution is over; it exists only in the old man's stories and in the illegal fortunes made from it that sustain parasites like Agustín. Instead of proving himself worthy of entry into the General's glorious history, he sees his grandfather for what he really is now: old, dying, and surrounded by comical drunks.

This process of demystification bottoms out when the pair ends up in a whorehouse, where Plutarco watches numbly as the old man fails to perform with a prostitute. The pathos becomes obvious to Plutarco; the grandfather is only a shade of his own grandiose and monumental memories. Plutarco tries to rescue the General's dignity by jumping in himself and finishing for the old man. A much older and wiser Plutarco, as the narrator of the story, reflects on that moment of mixed victory:

Mi abuelo sentado en una silla, triste y silencioso, como si mirara la vida renacer y ya no fuese la suya ni pudiese serlo nunca más... sólo yo vencía, la victoria era sólo para mí y nadie más, por eso no me supo a nada, no era como esos actos de todos de los que hablaba el General, quizás por eso la tristeza de mi abuelo era tan grande y tan grande fue, para siempre, la melancolía de la libertad que entonces creí ganarme.


[My grandfather (was) sitting sad and quiet in a chair, as if he were watching life renew itself, but it is not his anymore, nor could it ever again be so... victory was mine and no one else's, which was why it didn't taste like anything, it wasn't like those collective efforts of which the General talked; perhaps this is why my grandfather's sadness was always so great, just as my own nostalgia was great, the nostalgia for the freedom which I then thought I was winning for myself.] (35)

The victory, like the statue of the Winged Victory, is headless. This reversal of the archetypical primal scene yields another irony: the progenitor watches his descendant copulate, instead of the other way around. In having sex with the prostitute (who resembles Plutarco's mother, the General remarks), Plutarco has taken command of the primal scene and overthrown the father. Yet this overthrow, this act of supposed triumph, rings hollow. The young man does not find the answers he seeks in this victory over the patriarch. It generates nothing lasting. Even the sex, as he notes, was unsatisfying. At the end of their journey that night, Plutarco realizes that his grandfather is impotent in more than just the physical sense. Like Bernal Díaz's soldiers who fruitlessly try to repeat the old war, the General is battling time and its inevitable end. Most importantly, Plutarco slowly learns that he cannot claim others' experiences, their vehicles of loss as his own. The old man's world, which was initially promising, is as dead to him as his father's ostentatious mansion.

Despite the title of the story, there is a significant absence of women in it.18 Plutarco has no vestiges, no memory, of them; he has no past to recall. As in the versatile Mexican insult, Plutarco no tiene ni madre [doesn't even have a mother], meaning "he has nothing," not even the memory of the loss. The first time he saw his own mother was when a jeering schoolmate showed him a faded picture of her as a bathing-suit beauty queen. Plutarco is at a double loss; the drunken jaunt in the city is a double search. Not only does he seek a common "mother tongue" with which to mourn: he needs something, someone, to remember. Plutarco wishes desperately to remember the women his elders remember and to mourn their loss with them, but he cannot. His dilemma is a unique complication of the Freudian notion of repetition compulsion, where an analysand is condemned to repeat the trauma: the swirling memories are not those of the analysand, who is caught in a repetition compulsion without anything to repeat. Plutarco's own moment of reckoning—his own personal moment of failure, distinct from the patriarchs'—comes only when he realizes that he has been attempting to remember using someone else's borrowed memory, trying to share in a history not truly his. Only when the drunken night of his "liberation" can be repeated on its own terms, when he can remember his own events and "start from scratch," will catharsis happen.

So does Plutarco heal? Does he find his language of mourning? Ultimately his language of mourning is precisely this narration, with which he breaks the many years of silence that oppressed him in the House of Vergara. The narrator is an older Plutarco, jogging his memory, finally exorcising his old ghosts. At the time of narration, he admits that he is "past thirtyish" and that the General is long since dead. Like the Greek historian Plutarch, author of the Parallel Lives, Plutarco is writing the story of great men by pairs, exploring the past in order to make sense of his own present. The night he recalls in this story is not a long-gone battle of the Revolution; nor is it the scene of a movie melodrama. It is his own past: his parallel life is his own, but as an older, wiser person. The chief regret in "El día de las madres" no longer concerns the missing women or the missed Revolution. Instead, Plutarco mourns what he can remember, what he has lost, from his narrative perspective far in the future: his long-dead grandfather, who agreed to get drunk with him that night; his impotent father, gesturing and acting; and the now-vanished 1950s Mexico City of his youth, full of lights, lounge acts, and whores.

Plutarco and his grandfather's nightlong jaunt, a failed carnival if there ever was one, must end. At the close of his night of revels and revelations, the three men end up at the cemetery, looking at the tombs of their women in silence, waiting for dawn to come and for the drinks to wear off. The community of motherless men in the story shares a familiar Mexican reality, as Paz understands it. The men are together in their solitudes, hermetically sharing a ground of loneliness. We are left, then, with a final irony. This is a Mother's Day that commemorates not departed women but departed men. Plutarco's memories of Mother's Day are not about mothers and grandmothers. They are not about even the Revolution. They are about the men who used to mourn these women and that war and about a certain night in the city. Even victories can sometimes belatedly turn out to be failures ("freedom which I then thought I was winning for myself"), but often enough these are failures that lead to knowledge. The end of the party, like the man laughing at himself after falling, produces a staggering sobriety, which leaves the reveler bankrupt, embarrassed, staring at a broken monument, but all the wiser.



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