MarPresentation of Claudio Lomnitz’s book
Claudio Lomnitz. The Return of Comrade Ricardo Flores Magón. New York: Zone Books. 2014. ISBN: 9781935408437.
This is the text of my introductory remarks last night (March 7th, 2014) in Book culture, during the presentation of Claudio Lomnitz’s new book. The presenters were Arcadio Díaz Quiñones and Renato Rosaldo. More than 60 people attended a presentation absolutely full of energy.
Thank you very much for joining us today for the return of our comrade Claudio Lomnitz to the forefront of the revolution.
For specialists of the Mexican Revolution, this books means an entire new perspective on political friendship outside the borders of the United States of Mexico. Claudio discovered a treasure chest in the form of a new archive, that he had to gather by reading letters, documents, images, and postcards, preserved in México, in the Huntington Library, and, more importantly, in the Bancroft Library, where two of the most unlikely Mexican revolutionaries, John Turner and Ethel Duffy, left not only their symbolic imprint, but also, in the case of Ethel Duffy, a recording for the oral history project. Part of the archive is a number of letters written from prison, and drafted on supports tattooed with the very practice of revolution: use anything you have at hand in order to turn things around.
Somewhere in his second volume of the *Fable Mystique*, and talking about archival research, Michel de Certeau says that the “historian is the last one to arrive to the cemeteries where the remnants left by preceding operations get piled up. The historian –de Certeau continues– only attends the end of one thousand singular stories… and silently plucks the leaves a fragmented landscape of social residues” (23). Then, De Certeau refers to these archives as “archives gisants”, “recumbent archives”, in the way one says a recumbent effigy. Claudio, however, discovered very soon that his archive was not recumbent, and that he was arriving not to the last sigh, but to the core of very loud conversations that are still well and alive in Mexican culture. It is because of that that his archive had been torn apart, and it did not really look like an archive. With the patience of a cultural surgeon, he had to identify its parts and put them together in order to relocate them in their own spaces.
Their own spaces. For a non specialist in Mexico like me, those spaces are here presented as an epic narrative. This epic does not mean that Claudio decided to align himself with Jules Michelet to talk about the Mexican revolution. And he certainly did not decide to align himselg with Tocqueville, either. This book is a book about how to write the history of revolution –a history, a historiography, that revolution itself is fighting against. Because the epic of this particular revolution is quite strange: if you expect to find Odysseus and Aeneas in these pages, you won’t be deceived, but only to coexist with two other slightly different kind of epic heroes –like don Quijote, or even Lázaro de Tormes. There heroes are not dictated a destiny, they, individuals like Blas Lara, the peasant who lived a nearly communist family life in Yucatán, as he remembers in his memories published in Berkeley, decided to write about their experiences knowing all too well that theirs was an anti-heroic life. They knew that their anti-heroism was very difficult to save as part of the mainstream narratives of heroism. For Claudio, a history of the revolution cannot be written outside of this experience of flashing in the moment of danger, when the line between heroism, anti-heroism, and betrayal, is barely visible. It is not a mere coincidence that one of the working titles of this book, one that kept coming back, and was finally rejected, was “The Evangile according to Judah.” If you find that the evangile of a traitor is an oxymoron is because you have not yet read Claudio’s book.
Claudio is sensitive to the sources he is working with, precisely because they are not mere sources to do some bricolage with them. Let me read for you one of my favorite passages from this book. Claudio is explaining Práxedis Guerrero’s *Puntos Rojos*. Puntos Rojos is a largely aphoristic column published by Práxedis –Claudio is always in a first-name basis with his characters– in *Regeneración*, a publication that had to be disseminated orally. Here, Claudio becomes involved in the aesthetics and the phenomenology of participatory reading, and although he makes important claims about degrees of literacy and letter-writing, he also wants to underscore the importance of the event itself, about what he calls the “multiplying effect of oral transmission”, that requires all our attention. “In part –Claudio continues–, the magnification of its effects was an illusion of those who wrote the magazine, but the image of a worker or a peasant reading out loud to a circle of listeners also became an emblem of the revolutionary community as seen by revolutionary vanguards for many years thereafter. And indeed it was true that the magnification of print culture by oral transmission was at the very heart of revolutionary popular culture…”
Claudio has condensed something here that generations of scholars of printed culture did not actually get. You have to move to the circle of readers to understand that what is going on in this moment is not dissemination, it is not transmission, it is “the magnification of print culture”.
As an epic, this is also a book of images, letters, and voices, oral reading and oral history; it is, as well, a songbook, an essay in locating poetic pieces sung during the war, or during a theatrical play in Berkeley, pieces of revolution, or anticlericalism, or of communal life, poems that have also been carefully translated by the historian, who became, as well, a poet.
I am not going to consume more of your time. To present the book, we have with us not only the author, but also two outstanding intellectuals. I will simply introduce them to you.
Renato Rosaldo: Professor at NYU, anthropologist, well known for his book Truth and Culture, but, most of all, the inventor of the Anthropoem, whose most moving chapter has just appeared in his recent book *The Day of Shelly’s Death*.
Arcadio Díaz Quiñones: Professor at Princeton, a specialist in literature, poetry, and the essay in Latin America, with special emphasis in caribbean intellectuals. I have a soft spot for his *El arte de bregar*, a collection of essays in which, as he says, he intends to understand the elusive place and time in which somebody begins to speak.
Please join me in welcoming our guests.