On Workers and Writers: An Interview with Javier de Navascués on Literature and Argentine Peronism

by guest contributor Pablo Martínez Gramuglia

By Pablo Martínez Gramuglia

Javier de Navascués is full professor at the Universidad de Navarra, in Spain, where he serves as chair of the Philology Department since 2012. He has devoted most of his research to Latin American literature, especially Argentine literature, and he is the author of Adán Buenosayres: una novela total (1992), El esperpento controlado. La narrativa de Adolfo Bioy Casares (1995), and Los refugios de la memoria. Un análisis de la obra de Julio Ramón Ribeyro (2004), as well as editor of De Arcadia a Babel. Naturaleza y ciudad en la literatura hispanoamericana (2002) and La ciudad imaginaria (2007). He also wrote countless articles, introductions, and book chapters, as well as several critical editions of Latin American literary authors. His latest book, Alpargatas contra libros. El escritor y las masas en el peronismo clásico (“Working Shoes against Books. The Writer and the Masses during Classical Peronism”), published by Iberoamericana in 2017, explores the relationship between Peronism, the greatest mass movement in 20th century Latin America, and professional writers. Peronism takes its name from the populist leader Juan Domingo Perón, a key actor during the 1943-1946 military dictatorship in Argentina. A colonel of the Army, Perón was Undersecretary of Labor, Secretary of Defense, and Vice-President before falling in disgrace with the military leaders of the government in October, 1945. A massive protest forced his liberation and the next year, with the overwhelming support of unions, the Catholic Church, and, most importantly, urban and rural workers, he was elected president and started a profound transformation of the country. He set up a welfare system that granted rights to workers and people in general, while at the same time forging an authoritarian political regime that attempted to control public opinion.

The government both depended on and encouraged social mobilization, and in this book Navascués discusses the role of pro- and anti-government intellectuals who engaged with the phenomenon of active political masses. In this context, “intellectuals” mainly refers to literature writers who, in the Latin American tradition of public intellectuals, often intervened in the political arena. The title of the book recalls an originally derogatory expression (alpargatas sí, libros no), coined by writers and artists to criticize the social policies implemented by Juan Perón in his first two terms as president (1946-1955). Most intellectuals considered that these policies were a direct transfer of goods and services from the state to the lower classes -identified with alpargatas (cheap typical shoes)- and an attack on (high) culture -signified by libros (books).

Pablo Martínez Gramuglia talked to Javier de Navascués about his recent book and the relation between literary criticism and intellectual history.

Pablo Martínez Gramuglia: In this book, even though you go back to authors and topics that you have already explored, there seems to be a new emphasis on the role of intellectuals, their biographical experiences, and their political stances, without disregarding the analysis of literary resources. Would you agree that this book makes the leap from literary criticism to intellectual history? Was that a deliberate decision or a shift spurred by the very objects of study?

Javier de Navascués: I think it was a decision taken beforehand. Because of my research, I have been drifting away from structural analysis to other frameworks, more open to the dialogue with historico-political contexts and processes. This book in particular focuses on the two countries that I have always privileged: Argentina, of course, but also Spain, since I started thinking about it with the arrival of the first big populist movement in my country, Podemos, whose first expressions and actions resembled Argentine Peronism. Therefore, in an oblique way, trying to understand Peronism and its relationship with Argentine intellectual figures was also an attempt to think about the relationship between Podemos and Spanish intellectuals, which I find is key to the development of this party. Of course, I was interested in studying populism through the modern concept of the “intellectual”, as a figure charged with the task of changing the society in which he or she lives, and a conventional narrative analysis was just not enough for that.

PMG: The most interesting aspect of the book, I believe, is precisely how the concrete and nuanced analysis of literary texts allows you to come and go from history to literature. That also allows you to create dialogues between authors that would be in the antipode from an exclusively political point of view. The phenomenon of the “masses” seems to have been a concern both for pro- and anti-Peronist writers. How did pro-regime writers reconcile themselves with their rejection of the masses? And how did writers aligned with the opposition, such as Julio Cortázar or María Rosa Oliver, handle their sympathies for an idealized people that did not correspond to the real one?

JN: Coming and going from literature was a must, since populism -and I consider Peronism a form of populism, even if at the time it was not labelled as such- can be understood as a narrative, which sets its own space, time, characters, narrative flow, point of view, and causal connections. This narrative gives us a better understanding of Peronism than systematic doctrines do. That is why I focused mostly on the narrative genre, rather than on poetry or drama. I believe that narrative texts show the hidden drives of Peronism as a narrative by espousing emotional factors that are essential to its history. These emotional factors have been recently studied in very interesting ways, for instance in works analyzing Peronist banners and posters, graphic humor, and films.

Going back to your question, I think it was really difficult for Peronist writers to reconcile their views with “real” masses, or at least it was for the most important of them, Leopoldo Marechal. Like other authors of his generation, Marechal received a humanist education and became a modernist –avant-garde– writer. Since he had an ideological background based on Romanticism and Hispanic American Modernismo, he believed, like many others, that culture was a privileged activity reserved for a spiritual group. They were committed to spreading products of culture (books, discs, theater plays, etc.) among the masses, of course, but the point of departure was elitist. This idea was commonly accepted not only among conservative writers, but also in progressive circles -from anarchists to socialists-, as well as, of course, in the liberal group linked to the magazine Sur.

Marechal, and other Peronist writers, struggled to combine this concept of culture with his social and political views. As a matter of fact, he never supported governmental cultural policies; he was not an “organic intellectual” or an important officer. Moreover, his narrative work is relevant precisely because of its inner contradictions: his last novel, Megafón, o la Guerra, expresses the dramatic conflict between the main character, who wants to be the megaphone, the voice of the people (who has been double-crossed), and his own ideals as an intellectual. The novel narrates a series of humoristic and bloodless deeds, advanced by followers of the fictional leader Megafón, to reinstate the greatness and unity of the fatherland. Nonetheless, I insist, Marechal’s view, as presented in this novel, is that a group of selected followers, not the masses themselves, will save the fatherland. And, in the end, the main character sacrifices himself, which is perhaps a reference to the way in which Marechal saw himself as an intellectual who had been relegated to the margins of the cultural sphere by both Peronist and anti-Peronist supporters.

Regarding anti-Peronist writers, I focused mainly on the first works of Cortázar, where contradictions are apparent. In his last years, he re-evaluated the positions he held in his youth, saying that he was a-political. He was not, he had convictions, but, of course, they did not have the public dimension that his leftist ideas of the 60s and 70s would have. The younger Cortázar, who exiled himself from Peronist Argentina, had a very elitist anti-Peronist position, as it can be seen in some of his short stories, especially those included in Final del juego (End of the Game) or in the by-now classic interpretation of “Casa tomada” (“House Taken Over”, included in the same book in the English edition), and also in posthumous novels as Divertimento (not yet translated) or El examen (Final Exam). In these texts, he criticizes Peronism in terms that any member of Sur could have used. Since he rewrote his positions, he is rarely seen as a staunch anti-Peronist, but in his letters he clearly expressed support of General Aramburu, the second president of the anti-Peronist coup d’état.

Oliver is another fascinating case: a disabled woman, she was a convinced communist as well as a member of the upper classes. In my study, she appears as the representative of a “classical” left, which was appalled by Peronism. Her memoirs provide a good example of the reluctance of this classical left to accept Peronism, and even to understand it, not only from a doctrinal point of view, but mainly as a mass movement in the streets. In all cases, either from the left or from the right, Peronist and anti-Peronist writers experienced Peronism as an invasion of the public space.

PMG: You have somehow already answered this, so it might seem repetitive. The book privileges fiction writers, and among them narrative writers. You just said that you saw this type of writing as a fruitful entry into the grand narrative that Peronism may be. But, wouldn’t you say that this importance assigned to narratives has a specific Argentine form? Isn’t there a special feature that Argentine society demands from its most important fiction writers, such as Jorge Luis Borges, Ezequiel Martínez Estrada, or Ernesto Sábato, which urges authors to clearly and actively engage in politics? Were there authors that you excluded on account of their being “too theoretical” or “too political” and to keep the research strictly literary?

JN: During the 40s and 50s, there was an extraordinarily constellation of talented writers in Argentina, so I did not have trouble in enjoying reading them and choosing the ones that I liked. I believe now, since you mentioned it, that Sábato deserved more time; it is curious that no one pointed it out in the reviews of my book, probably because there is an expanding silence about his figure in today’s academia, mostly in Argentina but also elsewhere. However, Sábato was there, his opinions counted very much… And I still think Sobre héroes y tumbas (On Heroes and Tombs) is a good novel. Maybe I followed families, groups, and Sábato remained isolated. Why did he resist taking sides? Why does he exhibit some kind of sympathy for Marechal while the whole group Sur demonized him? I think that to some extent he just did it to mess with Borges, who was his personal obsession. However, besides that, he always enjoyed playing the role of the independent figure, in the style of French intellectuals. And then, yes, I think I excluded essay writers such as Juan José Hernández Arregui, or more “battlefield” narrators, so to speak (although Beatriz Guido, whom I studied in detail, could fall in that category).

PMG: Pierre Bourdieu, José Ortega y Gasset, and Gustave Lebon are some theoretical references that you discuss to think about the definition of an intellectual. Were there other important  points of reference? Authors like Carlos Altamirano, Andrés Avellaneda, and Beatriz Sarlo are quoted many times as well. Is this a consequence of textual analysis or is it perhaps due to the need for specific tools when analyzing Latin American literature?

JN: Some of those authors, such as Le Bon or Ortega, are classic references and I included them in the book because their ideas shaped how Argentine writers thought about the public sphere at the time. The splendid Crowds and Power, by Elias Canetti, was very important too. Regarding the other references that you mention, they are unavoidable when working with Latin American authors.

PMG: The presence of several female writers in the book may come as a surprise. Is this another decision you made as a historian, or does it reflect the Argentine cultural field at the time? Was Argentina an anomaly in this respect or was this typical in Latin America (or the Western World in general) and are we prejudiced in this sense?

JN: Maybe all of that. On the one hand, it is clear that we are in a much-needed shift regarding how we write history, which enriches history as a whole. History is becoming more accurate, more inclusive. In addition, in Argentina there is no need to dig too deep to find an important number of women writers already in the 1940s. This was not that unusual: right next to Argentina, Uruguay is a good example for the kind of access that women had to cultural circles. Maybe in the rest of Latin America or in Spain things were different.

PMG: You have already devoted major analyses to three writers studied in the book: Marechal, Borges, and Adolfo Bioy Casares. Did you find many new aspects; did your perception change much?

JN: The three of them have always accompanied me. I like to think that they, who could not stand each other (I mean, Borges and Bioy on the one side and Marechal on the other), can be read and enjoyed beside their broad political and philosophical differences. The reason why they are present in the book is that they keep having a place in my speculations. I do not think I know Bioy better than I did before; Borges and Marechal, on the contrary, showed me new aspects for this book.

PMG: As a Spanish scholar, do you think the dialogue flows well with Argentine or Latin American academia? What about other centers of studies on Latin Americanism, such as the United States, France, or Germany? Does your location in Spain affect your research?

JN: It is a very interesting question and forgive me for answering with an anecdote. When I started my doctorate in the late 80s, I found out that I liked Argentine literature far more than Spanish literature. At that time, my country was starting to invest more in research, and I was lucky enough to get a fellowship to travel abroad for up to three months. I was in Argentina for three winters, and they were decisive for my growth. I learned to know and love the country. Going back to the question, it should not be strange for a scholar to study a country other than his own. France and England, countries with which we had some differences over time, gave us great Hispanists (Elliott, Deyermond, Parker, Dadson, Bataillon, Chevalier, etc.). Culture forges bridges. Moreover, one learns immensely when seeing things from a different place. At least in my experience. Of course, my position in Spain conditions me to understand Argentine culture, but I do not see it as a limitation. Sometimes distance helps.

There are some historical prejudices. In Spain, we have the sin of “Spanish-centrism”, which is being left behind even though nationalism comes back in intellectual production, as some best-sellers show… And in Argentina, they mistrust Spanish scholars, maybe as an inheritance of old liberal projects. I see that there is not the same mistrust -since you mention it yourself- towards the United States, France, or Germany. However, of course, I have found excellent and open colleagues, in very different ideological positions, by the way. All of them represent to me everything that attracted me to Argentina in my youth: open-mindedness, humor, ingenuity, creativity, and a certain charm in the art of friendship.

PMG: In the same venue, and to sum up, besides your interest in recent political movements, did the study of Peronism help you to review your ideas about the role of intellectuals in other contexts, such as in fascist regimes, liberal democracies, or communist countries? Is the Argentine case as extraordinary as it might appear?

JN: What struck me as exceptional was the almost totally unanimous opposition that Peronism had, from left to right. European fascisms, to which it was compared at the time, had a lot of influence in cultural areas. Contrarily, classic Peronism tended to overlook the role of the “organic intellectual”, as it was conceptualized in fascist and communist regimes that were characterized by a similar urge to transform society. Thus, its cultural policies were often in the hands of public agents who were “foreign” to cultural activities. Besides, despite all of Perón’s efforts, all attempts to discipline intellectuals, to group them in a union or to include them in an institutional framework, failed. Peronism in its original configuration -because it later underwent all sorts of metamorphoses- can be seen as a forerunner of today’s populisms. In that sense, it is an unavoidable point of reference when trying to understand our present world.

Translated by Pablo Martínez Gramuglia.

Pablo Martínez Gramuglia teaches at the Universidad de Navarra and at the Universidad de Buenos Aires, where he received his doctorate. He specializes in Latin American Intellectual and Cultural History, mainly in the 19th century and the colonial period. He has published Lecturas del Martín Fierro. Del folleto al clásico nacional (2020) and La forja de una opinión pública. Leer y escribir en Buenos Aires. 1800-1810 (2021).

Featured Image: Book cover image. Courtesy of Iberoamericana Vervuert.

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