- Invaluable LiteratureEustasio Rivera’s La vorágine
Introduction: On Literature (Myth and Saying Everything), the World, and Secret
“Don Clemente … take good care of this manuscript and place it in the Consul’s hands. It holds our story, the desolate story of the rubber workers. How many blank pages, how many things that that haven’t been said!” These were some of the last words of Arturo Cova, the fictional author and protagonist of José Eustasio Rivera’s La vorágine (The Vortex), published in 1924 in Colombia (1935/1990, 319/383–84).1 Cova’s address articulates in a singular and exemplary manner literature, the world (i.e., history, the people, the rubber industry, and the state), and the secret (the blank page).2 Jacques Derrida has argued that literature is a “historical institution with its conventions, rules, etc. … which gives in principle the power to say everything, to break free of the [End Page 65] rules, to displace them, and thereby to institute, to invent and even to suspect the traditional” binary conception of the world and of that very same institution (1992, 37). This article studies this constitutive tension in La vorágine without canceling it, instead reading literature in a postfoundational mode, opening the work to the unworking of the institution.3 Derrida’s notion of literature poses the question of how literature can say everything without totalizing the field of the sayable. The secret that is told and kept by literature marks one of the ways by which literature says everything without totalizing the sayable. To think this, I relate Derrida’s conception with Jean-Luc Nancy’s notion of literature as myth that interrupts itself (1991, 47). According to Nancy, the staging of the mythical moment of reunion to read and comment on a story, to share a secret, the impossible moment in which a community is founded, is the moment of the institution and unveiling of the secret (43–45). Yet, at that very same moment, that myth of communion interrupts itself. This interruption is neither merely a demystification nor a revelation of the myth as fiction from the point of view of reason. Moreover, it is not the abolition of myth per se. The interruption is the collapse of communication—of the communal, of the logos and critical reason that sustained those readings and that community (48). In other words, in saying it all and unveiling the secret, literature interrupts the community that it grounded but also renews its secret.
Today, most Latin American literary critics have lost both the a priori trust of the cobelonging of literature and politics and the promise of a redemptive, auratic literature. Literature is no longer at the center of the foundation of an imagined Latin American community, and some critics even have dismissed this possibility almost completely. The state was also lost as a promised center that would gather the people, el pueblo, and their different demands. At the end of the twentieth and the beginning of the twenty-first century, a new cultural space was configured after the violence of clandestine political state repression, with the disarticulation of the popular/subaltern field, the expansion of mass media, and the reign of the neoliberal market (with the state acting in name of corporations and free market, conflating citizens’ rights with weak consumers’ rights). The recent “marea rosada” seemed to have heralded the return of the state (as [End Page 66] space of hegemony and of articulation of different demands) as a locus of politics. And while there have been some attempts to rebuild continental identity on a testimonial (literary) base, literature is now valued not because of its power to build hegemony (or counterhegemony) but for how it ungrounds community. If our horizon is marked by the “ruins of modern history’s foundational narratives,” as Gareth Williams has suggested, I read La vorágine as both building the identitarian foundation and bringing it to its ruins (2002, 3). La vorágine stages the myth of the foundational power of literature (founding a national, continental, and literary community), and at the same time...