- Reading Simón Bolívar's Delirium:Messianism and its Publics1
Dreamer, madman, poet, legislator, warrior, coward, visionary, titanic, romantic, despot, philosopher, predestined by God, a man from another world, the Incarnate Word of national redemption, miserable, bastard, prophet, iron-ass, a god sweeping over the future. These adjectives and terms about Simón Bolívar's life, work, and deeds were produced by figures as diverse as Hugo Chávez, Karl Marx, Miguel Ángel Asturias, José Enrique Rodó, José Martí, and Fernando González. The contrast between the exaltation and condemnation that haunts the aforementioned epithets tells us that national heroes, like cryptic texts, are often the subjects of passionate, even incompatible, readings. In the course of interpretation, these iconic figures and their writings are continuously fashioned and re-fashioned to fit emergent political agendas. Few historical figures have so consistently and intensely captivated the public imaginary as Bolívar, the mythical liberator of Spanish America. With 1,467 titles, Bolívar ranked twenty-six in The Guardian's 1999 survey ranking historical figures based on the number of books published about them (qtd. in Hart 335). Following [End Page 291] the 2010 celebration of two hundred years of Spanish American Independence, the corpus of published scholarship on Bolívar has increased exponentially, a fact that points to the political and cultural versatility of the Liberator.
While interpretations of Bolívar thrive in this kind of scholarly excess, the production of meaning related to the man and his image remains rooted in ideologies of reading. The 2016 MLA's presidential theme, "Literature and its Publics: Past, Present, and Future," offered me the opportunity to organize a panel to reconsider Bolívar as a historical figure while reflecting upon the multiplicity of readings that have constituted and solidified his status as a national hero. Even as cultural critics, biographers, historians, and propagandists have produced an abundance of work on his life and miracles, few have sufficiently accounted for Bolívar's protean nature as a legible text. The idea of the panel was to addresses this gap in the mountain of printed materials on the Liberator by highlighting the fact that all readings of Bolívar constitute public acts that carry with them public consequences. In this sense, the discussion was not about one Bolívar, but the many Bolívars that have been narrated in the form of "I, you, him, and us," and the way that these Bolívars are pronounced for and by the publics of the past, the present, and the ever-politically strategic future. The deictic, contextual quality of Bolívar's representations is particularly timely when considered in the context of the reception of "My Delirium on Chimborazo" (1822), a controversial text within Bolívar's production given its possible apocryphal nature.2 After perusing the references, allusions, and artistic depictions of his climb to Chimborazo as an allegorical rise to glory, I found that Bolivar's publics—the poets, historians, and politicians of his time and ours—have read this text as a kind of scripture, that is, the material revelation of the Liberator's messianic aura.
In what follows, I look at the numerous intertextual connections to the messianic that crowd Bolívar's delirio, which set the ground for the religiosity that shapes the development of his cult since the nineteenth century. I also show how textual and visual references to Bolívar's [End Page 292] climb to Chimborazo—which served as a crucial link between secular and religious traditions of the sublime—were privileged as tropes to signal the Liberator's grandiosity and visionary talents.3
In 1945, the Colombian writer Germán Arciniegas declared messianism to be "My Delirium's" main intertext, thus linking Bolívar's discourse to that of bygone kings who employed biblical language to signal their predestination (362–63). As such, Arciniegas situates Bolívar in the mythic-prophetic context of the visionary, which, according to a recent study by Isabel Soler (2015), is a tradition that, since the millenarianism of the Middle Ages, has paved the way to modernity. Read in this light, "My Delirium" acts as a prophetic...