“All Forms of Passion Demand to Be Communicated”: A Conversation with Juan Villoro
Marcelo Rioseco: Welcome, Juan, to Latin American Literature Today. We’re here to talk about your last book of essays, La utilidad del deseo [The utility of desire], published by Anagrama in 2017. I always see that you get asked a lot of questions about the crónica, or chronicle in English, and this time I’d like us to discuss your essayistic writing. I’d like to start by asking, where does the essayistic tradition that influences you come from? I ask because something that called my attention in your book is the fact that Octavio Paz, although he’s mentioned, is not a very present character.
Juan Villoro: There are some writers who appear only transversally in the essays I have written, perhaps because they are very dominant figures, and up to the moment I haven’t written essays specifically about them, although I’ve given courses and conferences on their work; I’m thinking, for example, of Borges or Octavio Paz. One of the interesting things about books that have name indexes is that, in the end, you review the number of mentions of some author or another, and sometimes, even though they are not dedicated any particular essay, they eventually appear as actors in the cast of other essays. The case of Octavio Paz is particularly meaningful because, without a doubt, he was the most important Mexican essayist of the twentieth century. Of course, he worked on subjects related to poetry, sexuality, politics, and a good measure of literature, in our languages and those of other places, and the idea of the avant-garde, surrealism and so on… and visual arts… So Paz is a universal essayist, it’s difficult to escape his influence and it’s almost impossible not to argue with him. So I think he is one of the authors who is in my book, even though I don’t dedicate any one essay to him alone.
M.R.: Of course, something that’s interesting to note in some authors is the presence of Pazian syntax; those rhetorical constructions, in the best sense of the word, that are so hypnotic, so suggestive.
J.V.: Yes, the prose of Octavio Paz is so attractive that it produces a contagious effect. In many books that cite him, it’s interesting to see that the author, influenced by the rhythm of Octavio Paz, often continues writing his own text more or less with the melody of the quote he took from Octavio Paz.
M.R.: Something else that really called my attention in your book is the subject of morality. The word “moral” appears sixty-one times. But I think this isn’t a preoccupation with moral behavior, but rather with morality in literature. I recall expressions like “moral impulse,” “the morality of the witness,” etc. Why are you so concerned with this subject?
J.V.: Well, I’m very interested in the subject of ethics in general, and I believe literature is a form of morality, in the sense that it defends certain things and puts forward certain values. I think a writer like Azorín, for example, when he describes a Castilian landscape, is trying to save that landscape, he means for that literary act to also be an act of preservation, of resistance, and I believe literature has to do with the transmission of certain emotions and of certain concepts that deserve to be defended. Often, for example, since I also write journalism, some people have accused me of being a moralist; I accept this, clearly, because I think moral discussion is very important. That epithet has also been directed at Montaigne, the founder of the genre of the essay, and at Voltaire, Rousseau, etc. Without comparing myself to any of them, I believe literature is a discussion of values and, in that sense, morality plays an important role in it.
M.R.: And what do you think now, in the same context, of the other morality that began to emerge some time ago when certain works of literature began to be questioned, novels like Nabokov’s Lolita, Neruda’s erotic poems, authors like Javier Marías or Arturo Pérez Reverte, a wide range of challenges to a literature that was not questioned in the same way before. I mention this because Sergio Ramírez recently published a column in El País on the problem of politically correct literature. What do you make of that subject today?
J.V.: It seems to me that this effort belongs to the defense of values, the defense of freedom; and the only thing that should be impeded is that which puts freedom itself at risk, such as fascist discourses that seeks to deny the other, such as unitary thought. I believe those are the adversaries of freedom. But, within a scheme of literature that explores the human condition in all its possibilities, I believe the politically correct should have no place. That is to say, the exploration of the human being must take place, but trying to understand a perversion doesn’t mean propagating that perversion, right? If you put on Hamlet, you’re not suggesting to the audience members that they murder their family. I believe Nabokov’s Lolita—which I think is an extraordinary work, I wrote an essay about it—has to do with capturing the fundamental sense of understanding the immense contradictions that can be contained within one person willing to destroy another. That’s why I called my piece “La piedad del asesino” [The murderer’s pity], because the protagonist is deeply in love with his own victim, and he is still a criminal—in fact, he's locked up in jail as he tells his story—but, at the same time, he transmits (and this is disturbing but true) a great affection for the person he wanted to love, in a deeply wrong way. All of these contradictions are within any of us; any of us can harm the thing we love. The Oscar Wilde poem tells us “each man kills the thing he loves,” and I think depriving ourselves of these complexities means excessively simplifying the human condition from the point of view of its representation in literature, because this deprivation is not going to make the complexity of human experience cease to exist in reality. So I believe it is absurd to bind literature into a corset of moral ideology; I believe the defense of morality is achieved precisely through the defense of freedom.
M.R.: You’re talking about something I like a lot: the exceptional temperament a person needs in order to express ideas that disgust them…
J.V.: I believe one of the great lessons of an author like, for example, Dostoyevsky, is that he is able to put himself in the shoes of a person he doesn’t think highly of, and of expressing the ideas he repudiates with such sincerity and understanding that, sometimes, you as a reader think the character—and not the author behind the character—is in the right. This is the case of Raskolnikov, a convulsive man confronted with the dilemma of free will, who doesn’t know if he can commit a crime or not because he already lacks any external moral sanction: the sanction that could be given by religion. So he says, “If God does not exist, everything is permitted,” and he dares to commit a murder that he later regrets. This is all a reflection on ethics, which must be something introjected into the individual and not the product of an external judgment; so, Raskolnikov is the victim of poorly executed free will. That’s where the title comes in, from his crime and the punishment he receives as a consequence. But, of course, all these disquisitions, which for Dostoyevsky were an example of an error in life—because he wanted to criticize the anarchists and rebels of his time, who lacked a religious and ethical conception of the world—transformed Raskolnikov over time into a hero of individual choice who had to realize that he really did need to act ethically, without any external coercion. So, read from the twenty-first century, Dostoyevsky is less intelligent than his own character, and that’s fascinating because he knew how to delegate ideas that disgusted him to the other—ideas that, with time, ended up being truer than his own.
M.R.: We’ll have to send our present-day censors off to read Dostoyevsky. One thing I wanted to touch on, because it’s in the book, is the presence of Russian literature. What did Russian writers give you? Because your essay on trying to understand the character of Raskolnikov a tour de force.
J.V.: Well, I think it’s hard to be a young reader and not pass through a phase of fascination with Russian literature; and, like I say in the book, the Russian literature of the time of Chekhov, Lermontov, Dostoyevsky, Gogol, and Tolstoy somehow represents a sort of reserve of youth within literature itself, because the great disquisitions, the fundamental dilemmas that an adolescent or a young adult tends to face, are very much present in Russian literature. Those moments of definitive choice, of “I believe in God or I don’t believe in God,” “I need to have a life of action or a life of reflection,” “I need to be an intellectual or I need to be a pragmatist,” that is to say, the models of life that the three Brothers Karamazov could represent: the pragmatic Dimitri, the religious Alyosha, the rational Ivan; all these dilemmas are absolutely decisive in our youth. So, for me as a reader at eighteen, nineteen, twenty years old, Russian literature was a process of transformation, a true rite of passage. I’ve tried to recreate that fascination from a distance, trying to understand it as that reserve of the possible, of life wide open, of life ahead of us, which great literature gives you and which, I believe, is essential when you start to take shape as an individual. So that’s part of the attraction I feel toward that literature.
M.R.: If you had to return to that moment, looking back from today, what would be the book or the couple of books that would make you say, “I’m reading that one again”?
J.V.: Well, what I’ve said so far is quite generic, speaking of Russian literature as a whole, but of course there are certain specific aspects of it that captivate me; in Gogol, for example, the understanding of humor as a form of knowledge, the great comic novel and the great critique of mediocrity that we read in his literature. At the same time, in Chekhov, the mastery of writing stories where allusion is much more important than description, than that which is explicitly denoted; so the story he buries is much more important than the story he outlines on paper, and that seems surprising to me. In Tolstoy, the infinitesimal approach, as he himself called it, to the story; that is, how the capturing of meaning—which only literature can do—includes, within great historical processes, many events that are not historical but that belong to the flow of everyday life and that, although some public happening exists, allow private life to take place within that happening; the secret life within public events is what seems most extraordinary to me in Tolstoy. So, there are notable specificities in each of these writers, and it is difficult to choose just one. But, for me, a story like Chekhov’s “The Kiss” is a perfect story; from Dostoyevsky, I think the “Grand Inquisitor” speech, from Ivan Karamazov, is one of the great pieces of literature; and Tolstoy’s recreation of the Battle of Borodino. Those would be three fragments of these torrential works that I would hold on to forever.
M.R.: One author you mention in your book when you talk about humor—and you must be the first Spanish-speaking writer to mention him—is Álvaro Cunqueiro. He’s an author who calls my attention a great deal because he seems to be very much abandoned, to the point that when he was published by Tusquets, he appeared in their “Marginales” collection. Do you have some connection to Cunqueiro?
J.V.: He’s very much appreciated in Galicia as a regional writer, and there is a lot of pride in what he created; but, unlike Valle Inclán, who is also Galician, he has not had the same weight in the rest of Spain or in other countries. What I love about Cunqueiro is the possibility of mixing the resources of journalism with literature, and transforming the chronicle into an everlasting genre. When he writes something about a journey, or when he describes a real character, he imbues it with certain characteristics that are just as important as those of a novel. Perhaps, if he were publishing the countless chronicles he once published in the Spanish newspapers in the present day, he would have a more significant presence, because now a frame of understanding has been created in which journalistic chronicles can, with time, become great literature.
M.R.: I think he’s a writer who has yet to be read.
J.V.: Of course; and then there’s the complicated fact that writers are often required to have some definitive work that serves as the statue in the center of the plaza, so to speak, such that everything else is ordered around that statue. That is to say, your One Hundred Years of Solitude; that book that pulls everything else into its orbit. And in the case of Cunqueiro or of Alfonso Reyes, we find a sort of continuous writing, a narrative frame that has great quality, but that is never concentrated into one particular work that could be perceived as the fundamental one, and that allows for another type of appreciation, which is a little absurd, because every one of their texts has the condition of classic literature, at least for me.
M.R.: Absolutely. But that’s interesting because one sometimes thinks of Las crónicas del sochantre [The chronicles of the subcantor], but that’s not generally seen as a central book.
J.V.: Yes, at least it hasn’t been perceived as such, but then it’s also curious that García Márquez had already written masterpieces before One Hundred Years of Solitude, but nobody knew that, or at least very few people knew.
M.R.: To wrap up, there’s a section in your book called “El género Monsiváis” [The Monsiváis genre], and one of the things I liked most about it is the distance you use when you talk about Monsiváis. There’s a lot of affection in that text, a lot of respect, but there’s also a certain skepticism that runs throughout the essay.
J.V.: They invited me to speak at the inauguration of the professorship that bears his name in Mexico, and it seemed to me that the best homage to Monsiváis would be to put in practice something he always praised, which is the idea of criticism; he considered himself an arbiter of culture, an arbiter between the highbrow and the lowbrow, someone who put together anthologies, who wrote all sorts of prologues; he was also a very devoted auditor of moral considerations and a very keen observer of the political and social reality of Mexico. So, to talk about someone who always understood that criticism was decisive, and who made use of it so much towards others, I think it was worthwhile not only to praise his many merits, but also to understand that someone who shared his opinion on so many things was not necessarily right about all of them, at least from my perspective. That is to say, I think Monsiváis, all-terrain opinionist that he was, sometimes missed his shots, and I think that's worth saying. Above all, because he runs the risk of being seen more as a myth than as an author: as the man who always represented progressive causes and who was always one step ahead of the agenda of openness, tolerance, etc. And deifying him that way, creating a sanctimonious reading of Monsiváis, seems to me a negative, in that it prevents us from disagreeing with him. And, like those of so many people, his opinions are open to controversy. Even Monsiváis himself—like anyone who has a porous, flexible relationship with knowledge—changed his mind sometimes. And he didn’t always express it, sometimes he would say “I don’t think that anymore” and sometimes he wouldn't. He didn’t always express it in writing, I mean. But it’s interesting to see what he was able to put forward in the 1970s, since it doesn’t necessarily hold up today. So perhaps it’s not the case that he made a mistake, but from a distance we know that what he said wasn’t always right. For example, I was interested in debating him on a subject of great importance for Mexicans: the importance of the Mexican Revolution. The modern Mexican state emerged as a social and cultural project from the revolution of 1910, and the Mexican left supported the nationalist ideology and the ideology of integrating the different social classes in a project that was rhetorically progressive, although many people opposed it; and, curiously, Monsiváis argued against some of those who condemned this, like Mariano Azuela, author of The Underdogs, who lived through the Mexican Revolution himself as a field doctor, or Jorge Ibargüengoitia, who wrote the great satirical novel of the Mexican Revolution, which left nothing unscathed: The Lightning of August. For Monsiváis, it was wrong to talk in that way about the project of the revolution, because he believed there were many good things to take away from it. And I believe he was wrong there, I believe the Mexican Revolution, as he wrote himself in other articles, was simply the project of creating the Mexican bourgeoisie, and their ideology merely served as an excuse, just as it allowed them to cancel other intellectual projects in order to avoid a richer and fuller debate. So, looking back from the sixties, the Mexican Revolution, in the heat of the Cuban Revolution, seemed to represent the great Mexican moment that had been interrupted and that could still be reignited. Reclaiming a radical inheritance from the Mexican Revolution was a valid project, and I believe the way forward for Mexico, if it exists, will be reached by breaking away from the unitary scheme that was the ideology of the Mexican Revolution. There, for example, I believe there’s a contradiction in Monsiváis, just as there’s a contradiction in the criticism he directs towards the writers of the Mexican counterculture, the so-called “literatura de onda,” with José Agustín at its head, which he considers a byproduct of U.S. culture unworthy of greater prominence. He writes it off completely and suggests its members have strayed off course because they believe they can change reality through rock music, through drugs, through what in Mexico we call “el reventón,” when reality can only really be changed through class struggle: he applies a very marxist scheme to analyze the counterculture, and, in this way, I think he distorts it and fails to thoroughly understand it. This is a paradox, because he was the great analyst of Mexican pop culture, so he was called upon more than anyone to understand the counterculture. I don’t think distancing ourselves from these details in Monsiváis prevents us from recognizing that he was the most active and stimulating Mexican chronicler of the second half of the twentieth century.
M.R.: Of course, we should read Monsiváis the way Monsiváis read reality.
J.V.: Exactly, which I’m not sure he would have liked, since we’re all better at seeing things in other people than in ourselves.
M.R.: To finish, I’d like to ask a question that has to do with the end of the book, where you talk about reading and translation, and you say something I really like: “literature is not taught, it’s caught.” How is it caught, like an illness? Is it really possible to catch it on purpose, or is that something that just happens to you, like love?
J.V.: No, I believe all forms of passion demand to be communicated. Unless we’re talking about perverse passions that can only be exercised in solitude, passion requires communication with others. If you really like a film, you don’t keep it secret, you tell someone you just saw it and you recommend it. And I believe literature really does circulate as a sort of contagion, the best way to promote it is to bring it up in conversation with people. There’s nothing better than that. When someone you know recommends a book to you, you immediately think it might be right for you, and great readers, who are not necessarily those who read the most but rather those who read with the most fervor, have the ability to infect others with their passion. That’s why I believe the work of a teacher is so important: if a teacher doesn’t read for pleasure, it’s difficult for him to lead his students to read for pleasure. The same thing happens with parents who read to their children, or older siblings who read to their younger siblings before bedtime. I think that moment is very significant, because that’s when literature transforms into a form of affection. Often children don’t want to go to sleep and they ask you to keep reading, mostly because they want to stay in the company of the adult who’s keeping them awake, and that’s very interesting, because from that moment on, literature is associated not only with the images and words that come from it, but also with the voice that is speaking them to you. My sister Carmen—who is a poet and psychologist—wrote a text called Había una voz [Once upon a voice], which tells very eloquently about this process, because children’s stories tend to start with that formula, “once upon a time,” and that takes you back into the past, to a time when all your wishes could come true, etc. But also, in the origin of many of the stories we know, there has been a voice, the voice that read us the story for the first time; so, when we recover that first voice, the voice of the grandmother who told us stories, of the mother, of the father, of the older sibling, we are recovering that first moment when literary adventures were linked to affection. And I believe that’s the best way to create readers. There are many pedagogical studies to prove it.
M.R.: Not only is literature contagious, conversation is too.
J.V.: That is clear to me. That’s why I say they haven’t invented an advertising medium more effective than the conversation.
M.R.: Well, thank you again for this conversation, and welcome again to Norman, Oklahoma.
Translated by Arthur Dixon
Marcelo Rioseco is a poet, fiction writer, essayist, and Editor-in-Chief of Latin American Literature Today. Since August of 2009, Marcelo has worked as a professor of Latin American literature in the Department of Modern Languages, Literatures, and Linguistics of the University of Oklahoma.
Arthur Malcolm Dixon is co-founder, lead translator, and Managing Editor of Latin American Literature Today. He has translated the novels Immigration: The Contest by Carlos Gámez Pérez and There Are Not So Many Stars by Isaí Moreno (Katakana Editores), as well as the verse collection Intensive Care by Arturo Gutiérrez Plaza (Alliteratïon). He also works as a community interpreter in Tulsa, Oklahoma and is a 2020-2021 Tulsa Artist Fellow.
In our tenth issue, we question the values of literature and journalism in the post-truth age through the words of Mexican writer Juan Villoro and we explore new territories of digital literature in a dossier curated by Scott Weintraub. We also feature memories of the 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre told through graphic narrative, new perspectives on the translation of Shakespeare into Spanish with an essay from Braulio Fernández Biggs, and Wayuu literature from the Venezuelan side of the border than runs through their ancestral lands.