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  • Marrano Secrets; Or, Misunderstanding Literature
  • Erin Graff Zivin (bio)

Rancière, Jacques, Saer, Juan José, El entenado, marranismo, misunderstanding, disagreement

Literature I could, fundamentally do without, in fact, rather easily. … But if, without liking literature in general and for its own sake, I like something about it, which above all cannot be reduced to some aesthetic quality, to some source of formal pleasure [jouissance], this would be in place of the secret. In place of an absolute secret. There would be the passion. There is no passion without secret, this very secret, indeed no secret without this passion.

—Jacques Derrida1

I. Literary Misunderstanding

In his invitation to contribute to this special issue, David Johnson makes reference to John Beverley’s provocative new book Latinamericanism After 9/11; in particular, he cites the conclusion of the chapter that diagnoses a “neoconservative turn” in Latin American literary and cultural studies, in [End Page 75] which Beverley states that “Borges is literature, and literature is, finally, what those of us who work in the field of literary and cultural criticism do as intellectuals” (2011, 94). Like Johnson, I too felt a certain interpellation in Beverley’s words when I first read the book, even as I wondered about the relation of equivalence established between “Borges” and “literature,” and “literature” and “us.” Who, or what, is Borges? What is literature? Who are we? What, exactly, do we do? In what way are these productive questions, and to what extent do they reinforce the identitary logic that underscores Beverley’s argument (as well as, I might add, much of the work of Latin American literary and cultural studies)? What if, instead of trying to identify Borges, literature, and ourselves, or our work, we were to turn our attention elsewhere, upon the places where those identities (and projects) fail, or prove impossible? In that sense, I would rather read Beverley’s statement (which, like Louis Althusser’s allegorical example of ideological interpellation, is also an accusation, an indictment) as an interpellative statement that produces a failed subject, that mis-recognizes Borges, literature, us. The question then becomes, for me, can literature (or literary discourse) allow us to better articulate such failures or, if not, can literary discourse bear witness to the impossibility of such an articulation? Is “literature” misunderstood or, on the contrary, can literary discourse create the conditions of possibility for a theory of misunderstanding, indeed, of misunderstanding as the constitutive quality of literature itself? My argument, then, is not that Beverley is “wrong” about literature (although I think that he is), but that we are all “wrong” about literature—insofar as literature itself is wrong, albeit a wrong that is not defined by a relation to a “right”—and that it is precisely this “wrong” that should fuel our conversations as critics.

To take up the question of misunderstanding, I turn to a 2003 essay by Jacques Rancière, “Le malentendu littéraire,” in which the philosopher asks whether literature has a particular relationship with misunderstanding as a form.2 He opens the essay by engaging in a close reading of the Trésor de la langue française dictionary’s entry for “misunderstanding,” which gives two possible definitions: “a divergence of interpretation regarding the meaning of words or acts leading to disagreement” and “a disagreement brought about by such a divergence” (2011, 31), both of which imply an elusive yet proper interpretation of words, the deviation from or quarrel over which leads to problems.3 [End Page 76] Yet the very same entry betrays an internal contradiction when it turns to literary examples to illustrate the definition. “Inevitably,” he quotes Martin du Gard as having written, “at the bottom of all passionate love, there is a misunderstanding, a generous illusion, an error of judgment, a false idea each has of the other,” while in Zola we find the affirmation that “Their disharmony only grew, aggravated by one of those peculiar misunderstandings of the flesh that chill the most ardent heart: he adored his wife, she had all the sensuality of a sensuous blonde, yet already they were sleeping apart, ill at ease, easily hurt” (32). Rather than corroborating the...


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