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The Uses of Failure in Mexican Literature and Identity

By John A. Ochoa

Publication Year: 2004

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.

Published by: University of Texas Press


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

This book and I are both beholden to some impressive mentors, colleagues, and friends. Andrew Bush has been an ideal reader and a consistent guiding spirit since my undergraduate days; Vera Kutzinski’s honesty and thoroughness were both forbidding and necessary; Roberto González Echevarría provided deep guidance, especially through the example of his works (this project is a field-test of several...

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Introduction: The Broken Monument, or Failure as a Source of Knowledge

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pp. 1-18

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...

PART 1. The Conquest: "The Paper Warrior" at the Source

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pp. 19-46

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1. Education and Entropy in Bernal D

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pp. 21-46

Bernal Díaz’s Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España (1632) is a rather odd foundational epic. It contains charged scenes of war and bravery, but it also tells the tale of less momentous struggles for autonomy from the authorities, both textual and legal. At the time hewas composing the Historia verdadera, in the 1560s...

PART 2. Visions of a New Nation

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pp. 47-109

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2. Compromised Free Markets in El Periquillo Sarniento: Teachers, Albureros, and Other Shouters

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pp. 49-81

For many readers, El Periquillo Sarniento (1816) by José Joaquín Fernández de Lizardi (1776–1827) represents one of the first true ‘‘Americanizations’’ of a European mode—in this case, the picaresque. Benedict Anderson points out that the pícaro’s traditional social fluidity allows him or her to travel freely across social and class boundaries...

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3. Alexander von Humboldt’s Work on Mexico, Cultural Allegory, and the Limits of Vision

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pp. 81-109

Why Humboldt? Jokingly dismissing contemporary Freudian literary criticism, Harold Bloom compares it to the Holy Roman Empire: ‘‘not holy, not Roman, nor an Empire; not Freudian, or literary, or criticism’’ (Poetics, 228). One might offer the same litany about Humboldt’s place in this study of the failures of Mexican cultural figures. After all...

PART 3. The Revolution of 1910

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pp. 111-140

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4. Jos

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pp. 113-140

Vasconcelos is perhaps best known on two counts: for his theories on race, set forth in his influential essay La raza c

PART 4. At the Limits: The 1960s and the Border

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pp. 141-185

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5. The Threats of Collapse in Cambio de piel (or Fuentes the Frail)

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pp. 143-164

By all accounts Carlos Fuentes is a monument of Mexican letters, and indeed this grandiosity has become an integral and deliberate part of an aesthetic agenda ofmonumentality: his Balzacian ‘‘La edad del tiempo’’ [The Age of Time], which encompasses virtually his entire novelistic work, seeks to represent nothing less than...

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6. Guillermo G

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pp. 165-185

For our final consideration we come to the border, both literal and metaphorical. For this I invoke the story of one of the most memorable border figures in Hispanic literature, Miguel de Cervantes’s licenciado Vidriera. He is found in the Novelas ejemplares (1613), in an odd little short story about...

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CONCLUSION. General Santa Anna’s Leg and Other Failings

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pp. 186-193

We come to the end of our consideration of Mexico’s historical ‘‘pillars of our being,’’ a sweep of nearly five hundred years.We have focused on the figures who have come to represent those ‘‘pillars’’ and have seen a pattern emerge among these representatives: first they are surprised by failure, but then this surprise yields knowledge...


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pp. 195-218

Works Cited

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pp. 219-232


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pp. 233-244

E-ISBN-13: 9780292797192
E-ISBN-10: 0292797192
Print-ISBN-13: 9780292705739
Print-ISBN-10: 0292705735

Page Count: 256
Illustrations: 16 b&w illus.
Publication Year: 2004

OCLC Number: 60745525
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Uses of Failure in Mexican Literature and Identity

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Literature and history -- Mexico.
  • Mexico -- Historiography.
  • Failure (Psychology) in literature.
  • Mexican prose literature -- History and criticism.
  • National characteristics, Mexican, in literature.
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