Intellectual history Think Piece

The Fragility of Ideas: Intellectual History viewed from the South

By Guest Contributor Jerónimo Rilla

By Jerónimo Rilla

Medea’s challenge

In his article “Dewey, between Hegel and Darwin,” Richard Rorty identifies tensions between John Dewey’s pragmatism and his idealism, asserting that his pragmatism has the more substantial legacy and is therefore more relevant to the modern reader. Rorty therefore develops an “anachronistic reading of Dewey” which sifts out “what is living” from “what… is dead in Dewey’s thought” (DHD, p. 292). In other words, this method emphasizes Dewey’s pragmatist, positivist, and historicist tendencies over his idealist, panpsychist, or vitalist affiliations. As a pragmatist, Rorty claims that this reading “works better by reference to our purposes, our particular situation in intellectual history” (DHD, p. 303). In Derek Parfit‘s terms, which distinguish between archaeologists, who worry about authorial intention, and grave-robbers, who are only interested in “whatever […] works to the argument,” Rorty operated as a grave-robber, scavenging for nuggets of value in the cemetery of ideas.

When I read Rorty as an undergraduate, I remember thinking “but what about the ‘dead’ remnant?”. Later I discovered contextualism, which would answer that the apparently outdated components of philosophical systems can also be seen as instruments with which we may reconstruct the big picture, revealing the historical meanings at stake, situated in the controversies of the time.

Figure 1. Medea Deceiving the Daughters of  King Pelias into Murdering their Father. NonCommercial license granted by Egisto Sani.

But is that all? What if the dead remnant can be the raw material for the concocting of something fresh? Perhaps Medea’s deception of Pelias’s daughters should warn us against this. Medea told the young women that she could turn an old ram into a lamb by boiling it, and demonstrated this with a magic trick, dismembering a ram and casting it into her cauldron, in which a living lamb indeed appeared. Eager to restore their ailing father to health, the girls likewise chopped their father to pieces and put his remains in the iron pot. Medea had deceived them, and no rejuvenation happened. But are we sure that intellectual rejuvenation is likewise an illusion?  

Two Carloses: Real de Azúa and Roxlo

Figure 2. Carlos Real de Azúa in 1962 via Wikimedia Commons

Carlos Real de Azúa (1916-1977), a Uruguayan intellectual historian, took up this challenge in his 1961 essay “Carlos Roxlo: A popular nationalism [Un nacionalismo popular].” The piece is a scrupulous analysis of the thought of his countryman Carlos Roxlo (1861-1926), the poet (or poetaster), literary critic, ideologue, and politician. Anticipating the accusation that he has devoted undue attention to someone who “falls with nearly his whole weight into the heap of forgettable authors” (CR, p. 42), Real de Azúa asks: Must ideas and authors necessarily be studied in light of their “present relevance [vigencia]” or “timeliness [actualidad]” (CR, p. 43)?

Anyone who has had to fill out a fellowship application will empathize with Real de Azúa’s annoyance at the unspoken injunction to highlight the present value of historical research.

Figure 3. Carlos Roxlo in 1892 via Wikimedia Commons.

[Beyond centenaries and other posthumous symposia] I believe that th[e] obsession with calibrating the current value of a name overlooks a more level-headed approach, which is also more fertile. It forgets that a personality can be valued  –  and valuable – […] because of the simple and modest fact of having become part – the person, their oeuvre, their labors –  of the history of the community to which they belonged (CR, p. 43).

Even “buried” by history, obsolete authors are worthy of consideration, because their ideas have become sediment in the collective past.

At first, we may believe that Real de Azúa is suggesting an exercise of memory conducted sympathetically, with the humane interest of the town chronicler. Pierre Michon attempts a similar kind of benevolent archaeology in Small Lives [Vies Minuscules], evoking local tales, family jewels, and “name[s that] can no longer call up living beings,” [Michon, p. 42] to resuscitate “the dead, the poor dead” [Michon, p. 136] of a little town in Nouvelle-Aquitaine.

But Real de Azúa goes a step further. He wishes to vindicate the exploration of ideas that are not only dead now but were already dead when articulated. “Roxlo represented − and he must have known that − the case of one who is born too late for his ways to have been undeniably current, but too soon to have adopted others” (CR, p. 59). Real de Azúa’s interest lies in the mismatch between thought and context, in the “constant offness, the permanent lack of focus that accompanies Roxlo” (CR, p. 54). Real de Azúa does not seek some past idea, discourse, or language, but the viewpoint of a failed intellectual effort and its “tragic” but inevitable “obsolescence” (CR, p. 37).

Real de Azúa emphasizes Roxlo’s eccentricity throughout. Eccentricity in the strictest sense, a displacement from the center of the timeline. Politically, Roxlo adhered to an “epilogistic romanticism,” “already nearly defeated” (CR, p. 51) in Uruguay at the beginning of the twentieth century. A “tense and deliberate” if “impassioned” nationalist, Roxlo had in fact been born in Spain, never dropping his stark European accent, forever doomed to “watch the collectivity from the outside” (CR, p. 51).

Moreover, “politics and intellectual work seemed to overlap in him in a particularly uneasy way,” the latter “infusing the former with a note sometimes naïve, sometimes pedantic, and almost always ineffectual” (CR, p. 58). Roxlo’s inability to influence in the way he desired was symptomatic of a broader historical phenomenon: the disappearance of “a human type with ever less circulation, an ever smaller audience,” the “politician-intellectual” (CR, p. 57).

An intellectual with no formal training, Roxlo resorted to “a strident prolificness to prove his cultural credentials and compensate for the stinging pits of inferiority” (CR, p. 41). As a poet, literary critic, and ideologue, Roxlo suffered from an “irrepressible vein of emotional display” that never managed to settle on an “irreplaceable, definitive, effective word” (CR, p. 38). He shared these traits with Jorge Luis Borges’ deuteragonist in “The Aleph”, Carlos Argentino Daneri. A clumsy writer, “whose mental activity was continuous, deeply felt, far-ranging, and – all in all – meaningless,” Daneri becomes the gateway to infinitude. He is despite everything the one who reveals the Aleph, “the point where all points meet,” the peephole into numberless universes, to Borges in the depressing basement of his house in Buenos Aires.

Where do the points meet?

Unlike Borges, however, Real de Azúa does not seek to ridicule his object of study. Instead, Roxlo’s outdatedness served as an opportunity to reflect about his own position in the intellectual field of his time.

Figure 4. Borges in 1963 via Wikimedia Commons

Real de Azúa was an eccentric himself, “hardly circumscribable [mal circuible]” (Bernardo Berro, a Puritan in the Storm [un puritan en la tormenta], p. 102) a solecism which he coined to describe the subject of another tragic biography. Real de Azúa was a devout Catholic and a Falangist, if eventually a disenchanted one, in a country that made secularism its trademark. After travelling to Spain and witnessing the Franco regime for himself he wrote a devastating review: Spain from Close Up and from Afar [España, de cerca y de lejos] (1943). “To look at the real,” he pondered, “you have to look at it from an outside perspective. And, when the real is a field of anguish, from an even higher vantage point” (España, p. 10).

As historian, Real de Azúa was continually drawn to characters with a “sorrowful awareness of their singularity” (Bernardo Berro, p. 103), probably because he identified with them. In his introduction to Visible History and Esoteric History [Historia visible e historia esotérica] (1975), Real de Azúa confessed the fear that his texts, “instead of approaches to the history of ideas, were themselves, in their humbleness, objects for the history of ideas, historicizable, dated and superseded without recourse” (Historia visible, p. 11). It is hard not to conclude that Real de Azúa saw himself in Roxlo.

Real de Azúa’s temporal unease had a geographic counterpart. His essay is also an exercise in self-deconstruction as a Latin American thinker. Real de Azúa doubtless experienced, as he says of Roxlo, the “insecurity of the South American intellectual in the face of the omnipresent European comparison” (CR, p. 41). Like Roxlo, Real de Azúa’s only safeguard was his “solid erudition”. He felt obliged to exercise an “omnivorous proficiency” in matters of culture (CR, p. 41). Nonetheless, his “spiritual life always needed orthopedic fittings” (p. 54), the “authorizing prestige” of Europe, to “dignify even the most insignificant acts” (CR, p. 55).

This sense of urgent dependency was a sort of tradition in the Southern Cone: Ricardo Piglia has noted that Domingo Sarmiento’s Facundo, the foundational text of Argentine political thought, begins with a “prophetic” gesture: a French epigraph, and, what is worse, a falsely cited one. “A clear sign… of a second-hand, ostentatious culture.”

Just as Daneri is Borges’s gateway to the Aleph, Roxlo is our gateway to the Latin American intelligentsia. He is synecdochic for a continent whose marginality cannot readily be identified either as an irredeemable “condition” or as a surmountable “situation” (Historia visible, p. 42). In Real de Azúa’s words, Latin “America, [a] wounded, incomplete reality; a radiant mud” (España, p. 293).

The fragility of ideas

Back to the initial question: why should we study the untimely, the out of place, the “inexpedient”? Shouldn’t we “make sure that old philosophical ideas do not block the road of inquiry” (DHD, p. 306), as Rorty puts it? Real de Azúa’s answer is not encouraging, but perhaps it is compelling. We explore obsolete ideas in order to unravel the fragility of our craft.

To be sure, Real de Azúa’s object of inquiry, Carlos Roxlo, was parochial, a Latin American ideologue interred in a “double periphery” (CR, p. 52): his own peripheral status and his country’s.

But there is universality. The sophistication and care with which Real de Azúa embarks on the reconstruction of this minor character bear witness to the potential misfortune to which any intellectual undertaking is liable. Real de Azúa’s endeavor points to how difficult it is ever to intervene in the “dialectic of palimpsests” (Historia visible, p. 11) that constitutes the history of ideas. As Real de Azúa has it, even in “geniuses” there is a mismatch between the “diamond core” of their inventiveness and the “set of fragilities” (CR, p. 35), of contingencies, that afflict their real lives and works.

This is also a Borgesian theme. Real de Azúa’s exploration of the tragedy of all intellectual endeavor resembles Rabbi Judah Loew’s exertions in the poem The Golem, culminating in the moment of regret in which he asks: “How could I […]give up my leisure, surely the wisest thing? What made me supplement the endless series of symbols with one more?”

What if all our creativity comes to nothing more than a “drowsy” “simulacrum,” a coarse sally at reproducing inherited ideas? This danger seems to loom especially over Latin American intellectual endeavors, but it is universal.

Real de Azúa’s essay finishes on a gloomy note, alluding to Roxlo’s suicide letter, “the first time in his life he wrote concisely” (CR, p. 60). Roxlo asked to be placed “in a pine coffin, carried in a poor man’s car, and interred in a common grave” (CR, p. 60). His final requests were as little heeded as his ideas had been.

In this way Roxlo’s thought (and Real de Azúa’s?), after a long series of failures, closes the door on itself. Victims of the temptation offered by Medea to the daughters of Pelias, we have accomplished nothing more than to consign Latin American intellectual activity to untimeliness and misplacement once again.

Be that as it may, I prefer a cheerier conclusion: a football analogy. Like Real de Azúa’s tragic heroes, provincial football players lack a suitable present and a fitting place. Their talent is always refracted: they are either exportable commodities, unproven, full of promise, or relics of past glory on a shameful return journey after going off-piste in Europe. And yet, for all that we know that the real game is always somewhere else, their dribbles and feints shine on under the stadium lights. In those fragile moments, no matter how deeply buried, they seem briefly to belong, as Brunetto Latini, to the victors, not to the losers.

Jerónimo Rilla is a postdoctoral fellow at the Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas, Argentina. He completed his PhD in 2018 at the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina. His research deals with Hobbes’ political philosophy and with contemporary theories of collective action.

Edited by Elsa Costa

Featured Image: Diego Maradona scoring for Argentinos Juniors against NY Cosmos, 1980, via Wikimedia Commons

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