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June 24, 2017
Friday, November 4, 2011

‘Argentina is now at a turning point’

Nicolas Shumway.
Nicolas Shumway.
Nicolas Shumway.

Nicolas Shumway talks about his relationship with our country and his latest book

By Pablo Toledo

Herald staff

“Crisis is the rule here: I’ve never come to Argentina at a moment where there was not a crisis. It’s a way of viewing the world; in the book I say that it’s very exhausting to be Argentine, to live in this constant state of crisis. I have a very dear friend here that I’ve known for years, and every time he sees me he says ‘Nicolás, nunca estuvimos peor.’ It’s almost part of the discourse: Borges says that this is done ‘por sentirse interesantes,’ that if you feel sorry for yourself loudly others may feel sorry for you and find you interesting.” Rings a bell? Strikes a chord? That’s because these observations come from Nicolas Shumway, a frequent visitor to Argentina who started out coming to interview Borges in 1975 and, 36 years later, is still in the grips of our country as a specialist in Cultural History and Latin American Studies.

In his 1992 book The Invention of Argentina, he looked at the ideas and debates that have shaped and continue to shape the country. The book was warmly received (and hotly debated) in the country, but that only encouraged his passion and love of our land. In fact, he now follows up with Historia personal de una pasión argentina, a book which starts as a memoir of his history with the country and then goes on to analyze some aspects of its political history, viz. the nasty reputation of liberalism among us.

He also takes a cue from Borges and defines Menardism (from his character Pierre Menard). Menardists use patterns, ideas and interpretations born at one time to decode phenomena that happened at another – like reading the 21st century through the eyes of the 1930 crisis. Shumway traces it back to a poem written in memory of caudi-llo “Chacho” Peñaloza which was later reprinted with a new title that laid all the praise at the feet of his enemy Juan Lavalle – an Argentine moment indeed!

Shumway talked to the Herald about his “Argentine passion” and his insightful observations on the country.

Why Argentina?

Borges says that someone doesn’t choose his themes, that one finds himself chosen by his themes, and that’s very much the case here: my undergraduate degree is in Music, in grad school I started in Linguistics and drifted into Literature and now what I do mostly is Cultural History, but in 1975 I got a scholarship from the OAS to visit Argentina extensively and interview Borges, which was the subject of my dissertation. I stayed here for five months, which obviously had a great effect on my life because I found myself fascinated by the culture but also by the difficulties of really understanding Argentina, a country that is so contradictory in so many ways, that has a veneer of sophistication but is in so many other ways a third world country.

Another thing that was very difficult was my first encounter with Peronism and its mystical aspect the fact that Evita and Perón had a mystic, iconographic status. I remember a poster of them standing on a cloud, so they were Catholic saints looking downwards protecting their people. This doesn’t happen in other countries! It can be seen in some sense as an alternative religion, the mysticism in Peronism is in some sense a reflection of the mysticism of the Catholic Church. You can go to a demonstration and hear people shout “Se siente, Perón está presente,” or Evita, or now Néstor... Cárdenas in Mexico is extremely admired, but I cannot imagine a demonstration in Mexico shouting “Cárdenas está presente.”

I met this lovely woman, the mother-in-law of a friend in the US, and she was a true peronista. She told me once “you really cannot understand Argentina, you have to feel Argentina”. You hear things like el ser nacional – that’s almost impossible to say in English, “national being,” perhaps “national character,” but the sentiment is hard to translate into another political system.

You visited in Argentina at the right moments to see changes in progress. Was that part of the fascination?

1975 was a rather ideal time to come into contact with the contradiction of Argentina. The first thing that surprised me was the prosperity of the country. A lot of people may not remember this, but this was the very end of the State model, which perhaps was exhausted and not going anywhere but there was still a general prosperity that you don’t see now. The really prosperous moment of Argentina was truly the 1920s, but Argentina was really well-off until the 1960s. When that model started breaking down and it was finally broken entirely, the poverty became very visible: the level of indigence that you see in the 70s, 80s and 90s is very depressing. There were shanty towns when I first came here, but at the end of the 80s and the 90s you have them downtown at the railroad tracks. Obviously the dictatorship will always be known for its abuse of human rights, but another legacy of the military is that they screwed up the economy, and in some way the economy has been trying to recover ever since then. In economic terms, Argentina seems willing to try on any experiment: Menemism was not merely Thatcherism or Reaganism, it was more extreme.

How do you feel about the local reactions and repercussions of The Invention of Argentina?

The reception of the book is very odd because it’s been read approvingly by so many different factions. David Viñas liked the book, but I also had several ultra-nationalists who approached me because they somehow thought that because I criticized Sarmiento and Mitre I must be one of theirs. Some people in the academic world were very critical of the book, one of their reasons being that they didn’t like the idea that US brat comes here and writes a book that invades their turf without permission.

Why did you choose to focus on ideas rather than their material consequences or context?

I’ve grown very tired of Marxist interpretations, the idea that the material causes determine everything, that human agency is not important. But I also believe that ideas are many times not the products of contexts, but the producers of contexts. I have a very long chapter in the book about Liberalism, and I quote Chadwick when he says that “liberalism is not a description of what happens but what might be”. I believe that a lot of the reforms that we are still trying to realize are reforms with a liberal ideology behind them, the rights of the individual. The only thing I’m trying to say in the book is that it’s wrong to see liberalism as somehow a doctrine: it is a dynamic doctrine, it is still being developed. One of the things that I criticize in Latin America is that liberalism is often just associated with economic policy: you find people saying that somebody like Pinochet or Martínez de Hoz were liberals, and they were not liberals at all! They said they were liberals but it was a perversion of the word. You cannot say that you are a liberal government when you have the Congress closed.

You are critical of neoliberalism.

Everybody knows neoliberalism is big and bad, but nobody really knows what it is. I tried to give some precision to the term saying that it is a situation in which the State abdicates its responsibility for regulating the economy, a de-emphasis for the importance of that regulation. And the results are the banking crisis in the US, you take away the regulations put in place by Roosevelt and you have a crisis.

You describe how you met Carlos Menem in a seminar in Texas and remark his personal charisma.

He’s a very charming man, and quite courtly in his treatment of people. When he visited the University of Texas, some of the questions were rude, and he treated them with great respect. It’s very difficult to stand and scream at him because he had this courtly way of talking to people. He also gave me my cheat phrase for defining Peronism: “it’s a way of governing”. And if you look at this you find a coherent way of governing among different Peronist governments, even if their policies were different.

When you first came to Argentina, you write in the book that being gay was a gateway to the culture. How did it help?

I passed through my period of gay militance, but I really do not want to define myself as just a gay person. As I was writing that chapter I thought “how can readers know that I met all these people, that I had a conversation with a bricklayer or a bartender?” And to explain this I had to bring up that aspect of my life. Gay people firstly share the process of self-discovery. The second point is that you have a shared narrative with a lot of very different kinds of people. This narrative might be very different in different contexts, and now being gay is a lot less exotic than it used to be, but in those days it was a real definer of a community: you shared a narrative but you also shared enemies. I met a very large number of very different people very soon when I came to Argentina, and that was a gateway later on, of course, I had different kinds of contacts, and I wouldn’t say that the gay community is very important now for my relationship with Argentina. But I did feel sorry for my fellow becarios, because they had such a hard time making friends.

How do you see Argentina today?

One of the advantages of writing The Invention of Argentina is that I was working on old material – to put it bluntly, it’s a lot easier to write about dead people. But writing a book that ends in 2011 is very difficult. And I have no idea how things will turn out. I say in the last chapter that Argentina right now is at a very important turning point, and I compare this to the Urquiza experience or the 1930s. At this point we see several positive items. The first thing is that the world order is changing to such a degree that it is idiotic to talk about el imperialismo, you can’t really say that Europe and the US dominate the world when you have Asian markets which in many ways are more important for Latin America than European markets. I think it’s very interesting to look at the people who have been invited to be part of Cristina’s government, and the people who are not there are these old-school Peronists: that Peronist discourse is still alive in what she’s saying, but there are different actors. I’m not sure where this will go. The third thing that is very different is that Argentina right now has money – some say it’s the dumb luck of the price of soy, but it’s there. And one of the peculiarities of the Argentine government is the extraordinary control that the executive has over the budget. Whether or not this will turn into something more institutional, I don’t know. If I were hit by a truck tomorrow I’d really be angry, because I’d like to find out how the story turned out.

What icons would you use to introduce foreigners to Argentina?

Borges is without question a universal writer, but he’s also intensely Argentine – it’s difficult to understand Borges outside of an Argentine context. I think Sabato’s second novel, Sobre héroes y tumbas, is an excellent work that uncovers a lot of the contradictions of the country. Sabato also has this metaphysical current, as in Informe sobre ciegos, which is a sort of restatement of the Original Sin (that human beings have a tendency to evil) but without redemption. Another book that I admire a great deal and which has largely been forgotten is Marechal’s Adán Buenosayres. Marechal had everything against him: he was a Peronist and a devout Catholic, and that alone for many liberal intellectuals in Argentina disqualified him from being taken seriously.

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