- The Existential Juan Rulfo:Pedro Páramo, Mexicanness, and the Grupo Hiperión
In the first pages of Juan Rulfo’s oracular Pedro Páramo (1955), Juan Preciado meets his half-brother, Abundio Martínez, at a crossroads called “Los Encuentros.” Abundance, crossroads, encounters: all three come to characterize the novel itself, which burgeons into the meeting place of paths as diverse as myth, theology, history, and ideology and thus into a classic of the twentieth century. This article will argue that among the abundant paths converging in Pedro Páramo we may count existentialism, especially as deployed in constructions of mexicanidad, or Mexicanness, that were circulating in Rulfo’s milieu precisely when his novel was gestating, the 1940s and early 1950s.
From its very beginnings in Latin America, we should note, existentialism partnered with identity discourse. Eduardo Mallea’s prescient, Kierkegaardian Historia de una pasión argentina (1937), which contrasted the authenticity of the Argentine countryside with an inauthentic Buenos Aires, kindled the partnership. Latin American philosophers, essayists, and creative writers of the mid-twentieth century then seized with a vengeance on the enabling positives of existentialism for so-called Third World nations, such as the weight that existentialism places on existence over essence, as well as on authenticity, alienation versus commitment, freedom, and new ways of envisioning religion.1 [End Page 308] Martin Heidegger’s existential Dasein (being-in-the-world), above all, spoke to Latin American thinkers. Dasein equated to Spaniard José Ortega y Gasset’s celebrated “Yo soy yo y mi circunstancia” and offered Latin Americans both a mandate and modus operandi for inquiring into their own contexts. As European existentialism reached its peak in the 1940s and 1950s, Mexico arguably took the lead in marrying it to Latin American self-definition. Hence, not just Octavio Paz, in El laberinto de la soledad (1950), but also the essayists of the Grupo Hiperión (active between 1948 and 1952 in Mexico City) recruited existentialism for Mexican identity discourse. Novelists like Carlos Fuentes and José Revueltas, among many others, carried existentialism into Mexican literature.
Can we include Juan Rulfo in the existential ranks? The claim that we can, I suspect, may at first inspire skepticism. After all, Rulfo professed anti-intellectualism (e.g., “considero que el escritor debe ser el menos intelectual de todos los pensadores” [“Desafío” 385]), and, to my knowledge, neither the author’s own statements nor extant scholarship has associated him with the Grupo Hiperión.2 Yet, Rulfo’s self-mythmaking displays a penchant for fabulation and withholding (García Bonilla “Introducción”), and despite Rulfo’s professed anti-intellectualism Carlos Blanco Aguinaga deemed him one of the best-read men in Mexico (16). Walking into a slippery territory, this article will explore Rulfo’s connections with existentialism and intersections with the discourse of Mexicanness. The article does so with a key caveat: evidence of Rulfo’s involvement in various manifestations of existentialism, as we will see, is not lacking, but what follows does not purport always to unearth proof of the elusive author’s direct engagement with them, particularly in the case of Hiperión. It simply contends that Pedro Páramo resonates, sometimes quite closely, with the existential trends alive in Rulfo’s milieu and that they, in turn, illuminate the novel. Letting readers decide whether the kinships with Hiperión thinking constitute direct influences, in toto I wish to demonstrate—perhaps more interestingly—that aligning Rulfo with the philosophical and ideological concerns of his milieu opens up rich zones of Pedro Páramo (henceforth PP), zones that have a special bearing on the novel’s treatment of racial issues in Mexico. [End Page 309]
Whereas associating Rulfo with Hiperión may require some finesse, it takes little imagination to insert PP in the broad existential Weltanschauung that had captivated Western literary production of the time.3 Anguish, bad faith, and alienation, largely a result of Pedro Páramo’s iniquitous regime, suffuse the text. When Pedro says to his henchman, “¿Cuáles leyes, Fulgor? La ley de ahora en adelante la vamos a hacer nosotros” (107), he arrogates unto himself the godlike position that Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “if...