Carl Fischer has kindly translated this piece into English. It’s a critical reaction to a recent speech by Vargas Llosa. It gained a certain momentum in Brazil, where it circulated widely in blogs, while a short version was published in Folha de S.Paulo.
One of the many virtues of conservative thought is that it reminds those of us who declare ourselves immune to the siren call of “conservation” that our discourse is always guided by ghosts. In fact, no voice can be sustained without some sort of specter. So it is that when we speak, the often unconfessable power that drives us to do so is also one that works to materialize some sort of ghost, right before our own eyes and before the eyes of those who read what we write, or listen to what we say.
The day before yesterday in Princeton, Mario Vargas Llosa, who was recently awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, delivered a speech entitled “A Brief Discourse on Culture.” During this talk, he took unflinching aim at one target in particular: the “sophistic” figure of Michel Foucault.
It’s evidently upsetting to Vargas Llosa that the figure of Authority was profaned by the Generation of ’68, which according to him made a “tabula rasa” of culture (a term which he took care to use in the singular). Nothing too surprising there—the conservative positions of Vargas Llosa are widely known. What did surprise me, though, was the strain of conservative, anti-revolutionary thinking that reappeared, almost completely intact, before my very eyes—a strain I’ve had the opportunity to study closely in the past.
When writing about the Viscount of Cairu, an economist in early 19th-century Brazil, I came upon something in the midst of his hardened conservatism that was almost brilliant: his ability to be passionate when leveling his arguments against a target. This is not as simple as it appears, considering that conservatives are always obsessed with the need to react against unrestrained instincts and bodies. (This explains why conservatives often claim to be experts on what is “barbarous” and what isn’t.) For Cairu, this looseness of bodies fully manifested itself in the insane, ignorant masses (during the French Revolution), and the subsequent advances of the “Dragão Corso” (Napoleon Bonaparte, both as Dragon and Dragoon) through Europe. Herein lies the paradox: the author, who systematically criticizes individuals who get carried away by their own passions, gets carried away himself by the passion of discourse, making use of extremely far-fetched strokes of poetic effect. For instance, he compares the provincial revolts of imperial Brazil to an “explosion” of unsynchronized desires, which he considers more aimless and furious than the “atoms of Epicurus” scattered around space. A sullen old man (Friar Caneca used to call him a “grumpy bloodhound”), he ended up getting carried away by the very passions that he was trying to control; what brought about his best moments as a writer was the agility of his imagination—and of his demons. The problem is that Cairu was never a good writer.
Taking into account the difference in proportions (Vargas Llosa, of course, is a good writer), the Peruvian author has his own French Dragon. His barely contained anger vented against Foucault the day before yesterday included moments of incredible impudence, such as when he drew a parallel between Foucault’s “sophistic” spirit and his bodily corruption. After all, Foucault—the hero-intellectual, the very standard bearer of the mad adventure that was the Generation of ’68—got carried away by the impulses of the body and the soul. Still, I was astonished to hear Vargas Llosa evoke Foucault’s legendary excursions to San Francisco’s gay bars and saunas, to the point where his death from AIDS (also mentioned in the speech) lingered in the air, like some kind of accursed poetic justice that befell a man who tragically refused to acknowledge the dissolute aspects of his moral life.
I actually experienced several moments of shock during the speech, such as when Vargas Llosa extended his vitriol to an entire tradition of post-structuralist critical thinking. We were also subjected to particularly harsh words about De Man and Derrida. This anger climaxed in a strange coup de grâce, however, when Vargas Llosa concluded that such thinking rarely led to anything more than useless, ostentatious “masturbation” (sic).
I respect conservative thought, and I particularly respect those who, like Vargas Llosa, have the courage to publicly defend it while cultivating some sort of dialogue. He did, however, make at least one major error: he repeated the tired cliché that little or nothing can be understood from Derrida’s texts. That was where I practically jumped out of my seat, having seen one of my own specters materialize before my eyes: can it really be true, I thought, that he hasn’t understood what Derrida wrote?
And yet, there it was: his “brief discourse” made it quite clear that he hadn’t. However, he did understand—as all conservatives well understand—that the distrust of “meaning,” which lies at the heart of the deconstructionist project, is the most dangerous of all gestures, because it allows for the desire for, and the very possibility of, divergence. But: a divergence from what? From culture? Or are we all making the mistake of running away from culture? If so, whose culture? And for whom?
Vargas Llosa evidently does not believe that divergence can lead to culture. That is why his is a rhetoric of retention, containment, and repression of the unruly drives of the body, or of the Body. The “Brief Discourse on Culture” does have the merit of bringing one major issue to the table, though. As with almost all conservatives, the most important thing may not be so much what he puts forth, as it is what he is running from.