Literature and Power

Neruda & Rulfo by Sara Facio

Pablo Neruda and Juan Rulfo photographed by Sara Facio

1981. A man and his most distinguished colleagues accept an invitation to meet the presidential candidate. At arrival, a “scrawny, balding man” in charge of organizing the gathering receives them and, impassive to our man’s protests, immediately dictates what to tell the candidate. Someone whispers him the name of the bossy fellow, but it doesn’t ring a bell yet. The most notorious guest, close friend of our man, sits overwhelmed with boredom and embarrassment beside the candidate. During dinner, someone suggests the candidate, in case of winning, to prevent those corrupting foreign novels from reaching the local youth; our man replies that reading American novels never corrupted the man sitting beside the candidate. Elegantly put: the man sitting beside the candidate is Juan Rulfo. At the end of the event, Rulfo admits privately: “I am tired of this, desperate.” He means the parading, the flirting with power. “Why do you even come, why do you let them do this to you?” “I can’t [not turn up], what do you want me to do?” The late philologist and professor Antonio Alatorre described this odd day in a 1996 interview for Los Universitarios, a magazine of the National University of Mexico. The candidate, Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado, eventually became the president and later passed the job to the unimpressive man mentioned above, Carlos Salinas de Gortari.

This ridiculous scene exemplifies the tensions between political power and literature in Mexico. There is not a complete dependence either way, and there is no clash, just this dance of sorts—now distant but not too distant, now close but not too close. The causes of this scenario are historical and complex, but the cultural policies of the country, framed under the timidly progressive theory that governed the country since the 1910 revolution until the year 2000, could suffice as a momentary explanation. During most of the XX Century, Mexican intellectuals could rely on bureaucratic jobs; now they obtain grants from the government through its many branches. The government penetrates into people’s minds as both an opportunity and a restraint, when more often than not fails at performing either role. This, I believe, is not a bad outcome for individual thought.

It is in this context that the recent piece “How Iowa Flattened Literature”, by Eric Bennett, and one of its replies by Patrick Iber, “How the CIA Bought Juan Rulfo Some Land In the Country”, has sparked quite a frenzy in Latin American and Mexican media during the last couple of weeks. If the Mexican government is perceived as a sort of Big Other—Jacques Lacan dixit—how else could the news of the CIA financing the high profiles of Mexican literature be received, but with outrage and fatalism? This new Big Other—always suspected[1] but here dramatically confirmed—is a golden opportunity to prove the game is rigged.


What game? It is the most relevant Mexican literature of the second half of the XX Century what seems to be compromised here. According to Eric Bennett, one significant trench for the American ideology during the Cold War was the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, designed to match soviet attempts to sponsor the education of foreign brains that otherwise would not have access to college—nor to soviet political indoctrination. Paul Engle, eventual director of the IWW, received money from the Rockefeller and the Farfield foundations—admittedly extensions of the CIA—to recruit young and promising writers who would theoretically become a front for American ideology. Bennett’s main concern is how the IWW influenced the US canon, ultimately favoring economy and clarity in fiction—and perhaps some patronizing exoticism if the prose comes from “a minority”—as opposed of a more challenging literature of ideas. Patrick Iber, on the other hand, expands the discussion with a comparison between the Centro Mexicano de Escritores—partially sponsored too by the Rockefeller and Farfield Foundations, but in the 50s and 60s—and the IWW. Iber explains that the often stated attempt to find an American-friendly writer who could equal the relevance of the Chilean Pablo Neruda motivated in part the flow of CIA money that offered grants to now well known names like Carlos Fuentes, Elena Poniatowska, Rosario Castellanos, Carlos Monsiváis and, exceptionally, Juan Rulfo, who not only received said grants but allegedly also a regular salary during two years, plus financial help to buy a country house in 1969; Rulfo had apparently pledged that, if he were to receive his piece of land, he would “write a book per week” in it. Of course, Rulfo never finished a single book in that house or anywhere else after the publication of his two masterpieces El llano en llamas (The Burning Plane, 1953) and Pedro Páramo (1955), and the lesser story El gallo de oro (The Golden Rooster, 1980).

It is important to stress that, though the Mexican grant holders knew very well[2] that the funds came from American foundations, they most likely never learned that at some extent the original source was the CIA; in no way any of these beneficiaries could be considered a CIA agent. This detail is perhaps even more vexing for the Mexican psyche, because it implies that the ideological breach was completely unnoticed. But I would argue that the same way Rulfo et al. remained unaware of the long tail of their money, the Big Other never fully got a grip on Mexican literature. During an interview with the Argentinean journalist Alejo Schapire, Patrick Iber reminds us that precisely during the years the CIA flew into the CME, some of the students were renowned leftists—and, more importantly, remained so afterwards; such are the cases of Carlos Monsiváis and the latest Cervantes Prize holder Elena Poniatowska. This information is relevant not only to the points made by Iber, but also to Eric Bennett’s: it seems as if the Big Other’s money did not meaningfully affect the styles in Mexico or in the United States, but rather they took a life of their own within a larger, vastly more complex frame. Perhaps America neglected in part its “literature of ideas” due to the hierarchical essence of this country,[3] apollonian in nature, and not due to the hidden hand of intelligence agencies. Perhaps the foreign intervention in Mexican literature didn’t come through cultural foundations but through the works of Whitman, Emerson, Melville, and above all thorough the works of Faulkner, as Antonio Alatorre sharply explained that evening of 1981 to the presidential candidate. These are just two of many other plausible hypotheses, but as such they should be enough to decrease the outrage and the fatalism one may feel after learning that the CIA funded in part our modern literatures.


These days, things happen online. Virtuality has taken over. Basic elements are substituted by a diversion: decaffeinated coffee, alcohol-free beer, sex without contact, money without money—known as credit—et caetera; there is an elemental dissatisfaction. With this in mind, Jean Baudrillard denounces a state of mind that we may call symptomatic of our unbalanced systems—in The Perfect Crime, 1996: “The New Victim Order”. Indeed phony victimhood appears to glorify its subject, bringing a new sense there where previously was only a lack. This dynamic is at play in the indignation about the CIA involvement in literary affairs, both in Mexico and in the US. And I do not mean to endorse such involvement: the mere attempt is already reprehensible. But I would not overestimate the power of an intelligence agency to meaningfully change literature at whim. In Welcome to the Desert of the Real (2002), Slavoj Žižek argues that, since the lacanian Big Other acts in its realm of events, its struggles are not ours; an example: “even if terrorism burns us all, the US ‘war on terrorism’ is not our struggle, but one internal to the capitalist universe” (p. 69). This does not mean—of course—that its endeavors do not have crushing consequences on the people it steps on, but literature rests even in a different plane of reality, one in which despite any changes imposed from outside the essence of the tradition remains unreachable. Examples like Ricardo Piglia in Argentina or Mikhail Bulgakov in Russia or Reinaldo Arenas in Cuba or Joseph Roth in Germany have shown that literature thrives despite a hostile environment—either from the State or from the masses—and sometimes even thanks to that hostility. Our traditions could not have been better—and the only proof one needs of it is that, in fact, they haven’t. There is no “better” or “worse” in literary tradition; there is only literary tradition. Literature will bloom—when it blooms—and it will explode—when it explodes—and it will decay and disintegrate into new literature. This reminds me of two lines of the famous poem “Ajedrez” (“Chess”, 1960), by Jorge Luis Borges: “Dios mueve al jugador y éste la pieza. / ¿Qué dios detrás de Dios la trama empieza?”[4] The revelation in this particular situation appears to be that there is another “god”, another Big Other, behind “God”, and this second demiurge is, regardless what one might think about true democracy in our North-American countries, literature. Not a totalitarian state, not a democratic state, not a church or any sort of government has been able to contain literature—and they have tried. Let it be said again: there is no clash between literature and power, just this balance, this dance of sorts.


One last thing about styles and trends. In the same interview I mentioned above, Antonio Alatorre wonders if Rulfo believed that admitting Faulkner’s influence—which he refused to do—would mean to decline his own value as an author: “He [Rulfo] deems the technique to be everything, and that the technique [in Pedro Páramo] is not his, but Faulkner’s,” said Alatorre. The lesson at the bottom of this opinion, given the fact that both Faulkner and Rulfo are examples of the highest possible literature, is that the technique is not everything, but a functioning mixture of styles and trends. The miracle lies behind that. And it also can be brought—and indeed is constantly being brought—despite what the CME or the IWW regard at any given point as good writing.


[1]Perhaps the true legacy of the Mexican president ousted by the revolution in 1910, Porfirio Díaz, is a saying of his invention: “Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States.”

[2]Time and again Patrick Iber argued that Jorge Ibargüengoitia’s short-story “La ley de Herodes” (“Herod’s Law”, 1967) satirizes this very relation between Mexican writers and American sponsorship. See interview with Geney Beltrán Félix [Spanish], and interview with Alejo Schapire [Spanish].

[3]As a guest in a graduate class of English in the US, I witnessed the perplexity of a—wealthy, white, male—professor wondering aloud if Toni Morrison’s Beloved was regarded above Phillip Roth’s American Pastoral due to “white guilt”, if “Fuck”, the novella within Percivall Everett’s Erasure was actually truer in its expression than the containing whole, and if Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping was too trivial—patriarchal code for “too feminine”; this is the hierarchical essence I am referring to. Another eloquent example of this context, which undoubtedly had to had been starker in the middle of the XX Century, is the recent article “MFA vs. POC” by Junot Díaz published in The New Yorker.

[4]Rough translation: “God controls the player and this one the piece. / What god behind God starts the plot?”