- Simón Bolívar. Travels and Transformations of a Cultural Icon by Maureen G. Shanahan, and Ana María Reyes
A book like Maureen Shanahan and Ana María Reyes's wide-ranging collection of essays, Simón Bolívar. Travels and Transformations of a Cultural Icon, has been a long time coming. It was almost fifty years ago, in 1969, that the venerable Venezuelan historian Germán Carrera Damas published El culto a Bolívar: Esbozo para un estudio de la historia de las ideas en Venezuela (Universidad Central de Venezuela), a rigorous critique of the officially sanctioned nationalist narrative of Venezuela, in which he coined the phrase "the cult of Bolívar." Carrera's groundbreaking study is now in its seventh edition, and a long line of scholars have followed his lead in critically assessing the legacy of Bolívar and how it has been manipulated, including Elías Pino Iturrieta (El divino Bolívar. Ensayo sobre una religion republicana, Catarata, 2003) and Christopher Conway (The Cult of Bolívar in Latin American Literature, University Press of Florida 2003). Editors Shanahan and Reyes duly acknowledge the work of these and other scholars in their introduction (8, 10). They even invited Carrera himself to write the prologue to this book. The three-page document he produced explains his motivations for writing El culto a Bolívar and attests to his interest in the current volume, although he appears to not have had the opportunity to read the individual essays which, he assures the reader, "[promise] to deliver wide-ranging interpretations of the cult of Bolívar" (xiii). This reviewer attests to the veracity of Carrera's claim.
In their opening essay entitled "Bolívar Unhinged: An Introduction," Shanahan and Reyes not only place their book in the field of Bolívar scholarship, but they clearly explain their methodological approach, which they take from cultural [End Page 276] studies. Relying on Gramsci in defining cultural practice as "a field of debate, dissent, and contested meaning," they write that their goal is "to take a, if not the, symbol of authority (Bolívar) and see what happens when it runs through the cultural grinder" (3, 2). "At once a focused iconographic study and a broad investigation of representation itself," they assert, "our project engages history, literary criticism, art history, film studies, and musicology to examine cultural employments of Bolívar as a myth and sign" (3). This introductory essay also traces the book's genesis to Shanahan's study of the French avant-garde artist Fernand Léger and his plans to write an opera about Bolívar. This led Shanahan, who describes herself as "a nonspecialist in Latin American Studies," to study other operatic works starring the figure of Bolívar. Her contribution to the volume, entitled "Bolívar on the Operatic Stage: Enlightenment Hero and Tyrannical Failure," is a fascinating exploration of how the figure of Bolívar was appropriated in operas in France (by Darius Milhaud in 1943/1950) and the US (by Thea Musgrave in 1995) to "theatricalize societal investments in heroic or deified masculinities as well as material representations of 'freedom'" (116). This is just one example of the impressive variety of disciplinary perspectives offered by the essays of this volume.
The book is divided into three sections that cover cultural production involving Bolívar from the nineteenth (Part I), twentieth (Part II), and late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries (Part III). The first section, entitled "Emergence and Consolidation in the Nineteenth Century," contains essays that address the Bolivarian myth as it was constructed and negotiated in painting (Emily Engel), dance (Juan Francisco Sans), and music during the Venezuelan celebrations marking the centenary of Bolívar's birth (Juan de Dios López Maya). It also contains a particularly cogent essay by Tomás Straka about how Venezuelan Liberal Party, which represented itself as the heir of independence, enforced "one set of memory politics … in which the cult of Bolívar played a...