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The Question of Cynicism: A Reading of Horacio Castellanos Moya’s La diáspora (1989)

And this anarchist picture of people shedding their enforced tasks and dispersing into the freedom of the unexplored and the uncharted even today seems to offer relief from the oppressiveness of an omnipresent capitalism.1

didonai gar auta diken kai tisin allelois tes adikias kata then tou khronou taxin.2


In one of the few reference works we have on contemporary Central American literature Beatriz Cortez makes the argument that a culture of what she calls “failed cynicism,” fueled by what Baruch Spinoza would have addressed as “sad passions,” pervades the Central American literary space after the civil wars that devastated lands and societies in El Salvador and Guatemala and Nicaragua between the 1970s and the early 1990s.3 The argument is poignant and worth rehearsing, particularly as, one would think, there would be no need to confine it to Central America. In her reading, failed cynicism is a sort of dispositif that may have come to occupy the site previously occupied by true political commitment, by faith and hope in radical political change of an emancipatory kind.

One of the authors Cortez refers to often is the Honduran-born Horacio Castellanos Moya, more generally considered a Salvadoran writer. Cortez’ Estética del cinismo. Pasión y desencanto en la literatura centroamericana de posguerra was published in 2010, but it is the result of work done in the mid-2000s, with the consequence that her corpus for Castellanos Moya only considers the following works: the novels Baile con serpientes (1996), El asco: Thomas Bernhard en San Salvador (1997), and El arma en el hombre (2001); one collection of short stories, namely, Indolencia (2004); and the collection of essays entitled Recuento de incertidumbres (1993). She therefore leaves out of consideration not only Castellanos Moya´s fascinating tetralogy composed of Donde no estén ustedes (2003), Desmoronamiento (2006), Tirana memoria (2008), and La sirvienta y el luchador (2011), but also books such as Castellanos Moya´s most critically successful novel, Insensatez (2004),4 of course the most recent El sueño del retorno (2013), and also, among other short stories and essay collections, the older novels La diabla en el espejo (2000), and La diáspora (1989), which was Castellanos Moya´s first novel, never reprinted, and the one I would like to concentrate my reading on.5

It would not be fair to Cortez to confront her argument by referring to books she does not study because they were published after she more or less had concluded her own book, but one needs to wonder why La diáspora in particular was left out of consideration, as it seems particularly germane to her critical theme. There could be, however, any number of perfectly legitimate reasons for it.6 I just want to mark the fact that I will be contesting Cortez´ notion of failed cynicism from my analysis of a work that she could have explored but chose not to. My contention, however, does not engage with the totality of her argument. I like her book, and I have learned much from it, which is the reason I take it to heart, and I suppose there is enough recent literature in Central America, as elsewhere, written on the back of sad passions to fill a bookshelf or several. My claim is not only that La diáspora has nothing to do with failed cynicism or even with cynicism as such but that it gives us, even if in an imperfect, inconclusive way, as it happens frequently with first novels, the beginnings of a literary endeavor that I would consider the very opposite of a cynical enterprise for contemporary times. And, beyond that, it also gives us a new figure of the Central American writer—one that, by running frontally against all kinds of prejudices held by so-called first-world intellectuals and their clients, may have something important to teach us regarding the function of literary narrative today. Or at least the function of Castellanos Moya´s literary narrative.

Now with Cortez. In her opening pages she refers to a “disenchanted sensibility” that conforms an “aesthetics of cynicism” (23), which is a direct rebuke to the “utopian aesthetics of hope” linked to Central American revolutionary processes (24). The latter were powerfully influential throughout the region long before the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua, caused by an endemic political discontent and strong anti-imperialism dating, in their modern configuration, from the 1920s and 1930s and exacerbated by the CIA-staged coup against Jacobo Arbenz´ government in Guatemala in the 1950s. The rise of guerrilla movements in Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua and elsewhere, supported by the Cuban post-revolutionary state, formed entire generations of artists and intellectuals whose horizon was premised on the values of political militancy associated with communist liberation in one way or another (there never was any particular ideological agreement, and of course there were many political and intellectual tendencies). Cortez´ position is therefore that the new sensibility of ideological disenchantment, which was a consequence of the different political fiascos in Central America that nevertheless managed to bring the ostensible wars to an end, is a relative historical novelty for the region, and, from the perspective of an evaluation of cultural production, marks a true change at the level of tonality and what we could call social spirit. But Cortez is not happy. It is not necessarily that she misses the old sentiment of revolutionary conformity and liberationist communion. It is rather that she finds the new spirit catastrophically lacking and eminently destructive: “this aesthetics of cynicism brought about the formation of a precarious subjectivity . . . , a subjectivity constituted as a priori subaltern, a subjectivity that depends on the recognition of others, a subjectivity that is only enabled by the slavery of that subaltern a priori subject, and by its destruction, its dismemberment, its suicide, literally speaking” (25).

So this is why cynicism fails: because, according to Cortez, it leads to the destruction of the cynical subject through some paroxysm of self-contempt or self-hatred. Leaving aside the perpetual possibility that the definition of cynicism can never be totally fixed and is therefore susceptible of producing interpretive disagreement, Cortez’ position seems at first sight counterintuitive. Isn’t cynicism, to start with, already a defense mechanism that is adamant about its own epistemic privilege and sets itself up in advance against any desire for reciprocal recognition? If so, its defensive strategies seem to fail in Central America. Why would the Central American cynical subject expose herself to recognition as a subaltern subject? Isn’t the cynical subject always already a superior subject, a subject that knows better, a subject whose privileged understanding of the real is constitutively meant to ward off any possible subalternization? But Cortez says that cynicism fails because, in the particular case of Central American cynicism, it becomes a trap that destroys subjectivity at the same time it constitutes it.

The argument becomes a bit more complex when we add a second strain to it. Within the Central American historical context, artistic production in general, and fiction writing in particular, were traditionally stigmatized as “treason” by culturally hegemonic “insurgency circles” (26). If everything had to be geared towards aiding the “struggle of the people,” or later towards the construction of the new revolutionary State, then fiction was more often than not perceived as mere escapism, evasion, and alienation from what really mattered. The rise of testimonio, in its different strands, and of “political” poetry, was a direct consequence of the secondarization of a cultural production whose reinvention after the wars would have been anything but politically innocent. Fiction writing after the wars was already an abandonment of old pieties and implicitly a rejection of everything that had once been considered not just valid, but the very definition of the valid. One wonders whether Cortez’ allegation of cynicism does not start right here, in the structural or formal denunciation of old pieties, in the rejection of an epochal Central American partisan culture that, as everybody knows, did not accomplish much, in spite of the efforts, of the suffering, and of the deaths. After so much terrible turmoil, Central American societies today are still rife with and torn by social injustice, but now also crushed by the weight that the thoroughly irresolutive dialectical turn of the screw of the revolutionary movements, the wars, and the peace accords has brought with it. Perhaps admitting it is already cynical.

So, if I move in such a way that my moves reveal my deep displeasure, my abandonment of the values and forms of behavior of my friends, relatives, teachers, and neighbors, then I become a cynic. Do I become a cynic, or do I set myself up to be called a cynic, because I think their understanding of life has proved to be nothing but a disaster, or almost nothing but a disaster, and, whatever I want, I do not want a return of their world? It is possible—such is the way things happen, particularly given the vicious dogmatism of unleashed political passion. Treason, however, is a strong word, an important word, and we should not allow it to be defined exclusively by the gatekeepers of a failed historical project (Cortez is clearly not one of them), or indeed by its clients. I will return to Cortez, but first I must add different pieces to my own argument.


Horacio Castellanos Moya is a man of the left. His literature cannot be confused with any attempt to guarantee or strengthen a statu quo favoring the corruption, incompetence, gangsterism, violence, and deep social injustice in his country, which indeed his literature has never stopped exposing. It is not my interest or intention here to proceed to a biographical analysis of his itinerary, but he has said enough in his published writings for us to understand sufficiently that he was himself committed to revolutionary goals as a young man, at the time of the insurgency and the guerrilla war. Something happened to him in the 1980s, and that is only for him to know, as he chooses not to make himself perfectly clear.7 Whatever the case, he decided not to go under, as so many members of his generation did, and to embark on a different path that has produced one of the most interesting and remarkable oeuvres in contemporary Latin American writing, still in full development. La diáspora is the story, or the beginning of the story, of just such a refusal to go under, but it is of course fictionalized and we would have no particular right to think it is meant autobiographically.

It is not a finished book, in a sense: too many strands in the story are simply left ungathered. Like in most of his other novels, Castellanos Moya initiates with La diáspora a narrative sequence that he may or may not choose to bring to completion at some later time. To my knowledge, he has never returned to the characters he started to sketch in La diáspora, and his novel has never been reprinted. But it is an important novel precisely because it indicates a process of breaking away that you may want to call disenchantment or even liberation, albeit not in the traditional postcolonial sense. In this particular text, the liberation needs to be understood as a particular liberation from the obsessions of a form of life that, by 1984, or perhaps by 1989, had come to seen unlivable, but not because of the risks and dangers of clandestine, insurgent life. Something else was at stake.

In early 1984 the character Juan Carlos, a young fellow who has been a militant in the strongest of the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN)’s five organizations for several years (he had been working in the Finance Division of the Fuerzas Populares de Liberación Farabundo Martí [FPL] from Managua), breaks with “the Party,” and initiates his exile in Mexico. His further goal is to make it to Canada or Australia, finish up his studies, make a little money, perhaps become a writer. In Mexico he visits old comrades like Carmen, herself also an ex-member of the Party; Antonio, Carmen´s husband, a Mexican sympathizer through the Solidarity Committee; Gabriel, also a former comrade, a professor at the Jesuit university in San Salvador now working away on a dissertation on the Salvadoran writer Roque Dalton, (“te van a colgar de los huevos” [they will hang you from your balls], warns Juan Carlos);8 and Gabriel’s wife Teresa. He also attempts to come into contact with el Turco, another former comrade, a musician, and el Negro, a former jesuit who is still an apparatchik and runs the Mexican Office of Information for the Salvadoran guerrillas.

Through Gabriel he is received by an Argentinian refugee, the beautiful Rita, a montonera whose husband had disappeared in Argentina, and who now runs ACNUR, the refugee agency whose cooperation Juan Carlos needs to make it to Canada (or Australia), and to survive in Mexico until the visa comes through. Juan Carlos spends the time chatting with his friends, waiting, desiring Rita, dreaming of writing, reading a bit (he starts to read a Milan Kundera novel, “prejudiced at first, as he feared encountering some cheap anti-Communist tirade” [41]), and dealing with his own demons. A few other characters cross the fringes of the page, like Chele Carlos, whom Juan Carlos sees from afar several times, and he is told that he was “a military cadre . . . , a commando in charge of kidnappings, bank robberies, executions, intelligence and counterintelligence activities; one of those implacable war machines that would not think twice before stabbing Commander Ana María eighty-two times with an icepick” (57). He has been helping Negro prepare for a party and is returning home to Carmen and Antonio’s when he is kidnapped by Mexican intelligence, beat up, interrogated, and threatened. The First Part finishes here.

Nothing much has happened. A number of characters have been introduced who form part of what the novel’s title calls “the diaspora”—people in various degrees of political disillusionment and personal crisis. On what grounds? Revolution has been raging in El Salvador for many years, and the revolutionary organizations are well entrenched. But in 1983, the previous year, a fatal event happened that seems to center the allegorical import of the novel: the assassination of Commander Ana María (eighty-two stabs with an icepick), a 56-year old former teacher, and, at the time of her death, second in command of the FPL guerrilla force whose chief was Commander Marcial, that is, Salvador Cayetano Carpio. Carpio, known as the Latin American Ho-Chi-Min, was a 64-year-old former syndicalist leader and secretary general of the Communist Party of El Salvador in the 1960s who became the uncontested leader of the Frente Popular de Liberación since its beginnings in 1970. As it transpired, the Sandinista police, through their own investigations, had determined the culpability in Ana María´s assassination of people under the apparently direct orders of Commander Marcial, who then chose to commit suicide. These are all historical events with one problem: all we know is the official story, more often than not a straightforward lie. The novel of course hints at the fact that the official story may not be truthful—in a variety of ways.

It is the murder of Ana María and the suicide of Marcial that changes things, or perhaps those events are only a confirmation that things have already changed, or that things were not what they were supposed to be. The death of the two leaders, in a situation structurally charged by the cult of personality, was a serious psychological blow, as well as a blow to morale, for the rank-and-file militancy. As the novel tells it, “both of them were a myth, the revolutionary masters, the link with a whole tradition of struggle and conspiracy, the ancient wise ones, the symbol of the popular and proletarian essence of the Salvadoran revolution. Together they had forged . . . an organization that until April 1983 was considered the genuine expression of revolutionary morality, heir to the principles of Marxism-Leninism, destined to liberate the Salvadoran people, the true manifestation of the worker-peasant alliance, the only one with a worker and a teacher (no petit-bourgeois students) as maximum leaders” (124). For Juan Carlos, as he tells it, the shock of the events was bad enough, but he chose to continue in the Party, unlike other members who preferred to break away. Things deteriorated, however, as the developing atmosphere of perpetual suspicion, surveillance, and relentless imposition of the party line became unbreathable: “Things were no longer the same: something had broken inside Juan Carlos. And it was not just a question—as he would later claim—that a situation of intolerable mistrust had developed in the Party” (125). All Juan Carlos knows now is that “there is no return” (14) from the step he has taken, that is, abandoning the Party, abandoning the fight, and that eight years of his life have just vanished into thin air.

But Carmen is another former militant for whom the events of April 1983 had been nefarious. Antonio, her husband, comments that the refusal of the Party to discuss things in the open, to close ranks into an intensified militarization of life for everyone is “alarming . . . since a political response is demanded by the current internal crisis” (17). The ghost of Roque Dalton, the most illustrious Salvadoran writer who was murdered by his own party comrades in 1975 under obscure-as-usual circumstances, constantly returns.9 For Gabriel Dalton is an obsession. But the Party requires only unconditional submission. Juan Carlos feels himself prey to “inexplicable anxiety,” paranoia, and fear (25). In the meantime, el Turco has become the most radical of the bunch in his vocal denunciation of the betrayal of the revolution and the sinister character of the revolutionary leadership. He cheers Juan Carlos: “Salú, since you finally left that shit. I knew you would have the balls” (37). And, as Juan Carlos makes his way into the Kundera novel he is reading, he thinks “of the possibility that his personal story could serve to write a novel of that reach. It seemed to him, however, that his was too insipid, uneventful, without tragedy. What was really worthwhile was the form in which the two maximum revolutionary commanders had annihilated each other; but that would require a pen of genius” (41).

I do not get the feeling that the shock of the Commanders’ deaths tells the whole story—they are a metonymy, that much seems clear from the subdued and unaggressive narrative whose authorial and narrative voices are both pained and perplexed, crossed by doubts and misgivings, by questions without resolution. Instead, a projection of a dissatisfying state of affairs hangs over the characters like a cloud of flies. But the stories of naked power, conspiracies at the top, use and abuse of the lives and energies of the combatants, inefficiency and incompetence covered up by police tactics and the intimidation and silencing of all dissent: those are all familiar enough. The author-narrator is not so much identified with Juan Carlos as dispersed among all former comrades. If the guerrilla offensive in El Paraíso that has just taken place could have been successfully conducted through the final takeover of power, it is now the time to evaluate whether the world these forces could offer is a world that warrants the immense sacrifice of the people. It is not an easy question: Juan Carlos has eight years of his young life invested in it. And it is particularly not easy because the mere alternative, the statu quo ante, is at least equally unpalatable. One is not an anticommunist, would not want to be, Castellanos Moya seems to be telling us, but one wonders whether one wants to be a communist looking at the panorama, that is all, and it seems simple enough. In the meantime, does one become a cynic?

There is perhaps one rather cynical character in the novel, who shows up in Part Two, which is mostly devoted to the story of Quique, a militant of peasant extraction, not an intellectual but a soldier whose interest is in the fight as such. The other man, the perhaps cynical one, is at first referred to as “the Argentinian:” the press office, run by el Negro, commissions from Quique “a copy of the December 9 Party’s communiqué where Commander Marcial is accused of having ordered the assassination of Commander Ana María, as well as copies of all wire messages on it. They are for the Argentinian” (86). But it is not until Part Three that the Argentinian is identified as Jorge Kraus, a well-known journalist based in Mexico. This is a fellow who was a militant in one of the leftist organizations in his motherland in the early 1970s and had to flee the country, soon to become the star reporter of a prestigious venue. Kraus is described as a man “always willing to collaborate with whatever the revolutionary process demanded” (119), in a sense, therefore, a revolutionary hack, a mercenary of the revolution whose essential opportunism is in perpetual search of the opportunity.

He finds it first in Angola, “after the success of the movement for national liberation” (119). He writes a first book on the Angolan revolution that transforms him into a “first-level journalist in the Third-World power circles” (120). And his second triumph was a book on the Ethiopian process, which gets him “new requests for articles, travel money, copyrights and even university lectures” (120). Nicaragua comes later, through another great book on the Sandinista entry into Managua. And then of course the Salvadoran revolutionary forces become famous in the international scene, and our friend Kraus does not hesitate to set his target on the “small country” (121).

But things turn out to be a bit more difficult than expected. First, Kraus is booted from his job in the Mexican newspaper, where he has managed to make some enemies, and loses status and cover. Second, the Salvadoran revolution is not triumphant yet, which means he cannot quite work under the safe conditions he has come to consider a given. So he tries his hand at something else for a while, but everything fails. He lucks out by becoming the boyfriend of a dashing French photographer with credentials and resources, and the news strikes: Commander Ana María has been assassinated, and Marcial seems to be somehow involved. “As a good journalist, he immediately knew there was something fishy there, and if the compas had opted to keep silent it would be better to forget about it” (128). In the meantime—this is October 1983—Juan Carlos hears from his liaison that the FPL’s sixty supreme leaders have met secretly for a month and have concluded on the need to blame Commander Marcial for the April assassination: “Juan Carlos listened without questions, without looking for alibis with which to defend something of what was being destroyed for him, as if all that version were true, truth as such, and he harbored no doubts” (132). The December communiqué comes as no surprise to either Juan Carlos or Kraus, but it gives Kraus an idea. Yes, he knows the story is not as told, but it is the retelling that offers the chance for him, of course provided he can secure the green light and the support of the FPL and the Sandinistas. So he proposes a book meant to assuage the militancy: “the facts were too cruel and complex for compas to be content with a general explanation, so that a fictionalized account would be a formidable way to disseminate and make the official version comprehensible” (137). In true hack fashion, “he had no intention of looking for new revelations: he would depart from what could be considered ‘the truth’ and his work would precisely consist of demonstrating that this truth was absolute down to the smallest details” (139). And Kraus decides to work on his story.

La diáspora is a political novel, and we are trying to evaluate its cynicism. That Kraus is a cynic leaves little doubt—he is the outsider, a sort of representative for the committed first-world intellectual, even though he is from Argentina, whose mission in life is the promotion of revolutionary causes everywhere. The novel does not overly condemn him. The lines quoted are as far as the denunciation of the character goes. But, in political novels, sometimes politics takes over, and literary quality must take a step back (which, one may add, does not speak for any particular cynicism). That is precisely what happens at this particular point in Castellanos Moya’s novel. Section seven of Part Three includes a thoroughly editorial addition that has no function in the showing, but only in the telling of what happened. It is not, it is no longer about Kraus—Kraus is left aside at this point, becoming simply the one who confirms, not out of stupidity but out of cynicism, the general falsity of history as told by the masters of words. Instead, it is about the revolutionary process. The editorial section tells the story of Roque Dalton, arguably the most significant Salvadoran writer of the century, who was executed by the leadership of his group, the Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo (ERP), in May of 1975 after having been initally accused of being a traitor at the service of the CIA, and, secondarily, a traitor and “a clown” infiltrated into the ERP by the Cubans. The Dalton execution was never prosecuted, and those responsible remain publicly unknown, at the same time that Dalton’s burial site remains a secret. The text does not say it, but it is clear that the FPL could not afford another Dalton scandal—a culprit needed to be established: Marcial. If Marcial had actually killed Ana María, then Marcial would be in a position parallel to that of the Dalton murderers. It would then come as a surprise that Dalton’s widow would show up at Marcial’s burial, as she did, and as was documented in a picture published by the Sandinista newspaper Barricada on April 21, 1983. The novel makes a strong statement that Marcial did not kill, and was not responsible for the assassination of Ana María: he was driven to suicide by a false accusation.

Could we not object to Beatriz Cortez’ general argument on the failed cynicism of so much Central American writing that there is a critical difference between depicting cynicism in one novel and assuming it as the novel’s perspective? At one level, La diáspora may appear cynical, to the extent that it expresses a strong distaste for the tactics of the FPL (and, before them, of the ERP), although it is my contention that the particular events displayed by the novel are themselves metonymic of a wider range of affairs. So the question needs to be asked in a straightforward way: are the critique and the denunciation of guerrilla organizations in a revolutionary or postrevolutionary situation always necessarily cynical? If the answer is yes, to the extent where we would not want to conclude that all critiques and all denunciations are cynical, we would have to accept that the very accusation of cynicism is no more than a guerrilla-inspired accusation of being a traitor to the guerrilla´s goals. But of course the so-called cynic can then retort that the guerrilla’s ostensible goals are the ones betrayed by the guerrilla’s actions, or the actions of its leadership. Treason, in other words, is not to be defined by the likes of Kraus, or even by the 60 characters that get together in the mountains of Chalatenango to plot how best to extricate themselves from the consequences of the assassination of Ana María by blaming Marcial. Perhaps the question of cynicism, in the particular Central American configuration, presupposes and even disavows, all too cynically, the question of the historical betrayal of the people by the self-appointed masters of revolutionary truth.

It is clear, I suppose, that there is a primary or more fundamental level in La diáspora that should not be silenced, and that has nothing to do with any cynical resignation to the way things are. Even less is the novel committed to any presentation of “a precarious subjectivity . . . , a subjectivity constituted as a priori subaltern, a subjectivity that depends on the recognition of others, a subjectivity that is only enabled by the slavery of that subaltern a priori subject, and by its destruction, its dismemberment, its suicide, literally speaking” (25). Yes, there is precarious subjectivity in the novel, but it is the precarious subjectivity assigned to the collection of characters who are struggling with the ongoing betrayal of the goals of justice and truth, of freedom and respect, that has left their lives void of meaning and orientation. The novel itself, however, can only be understood as an attempt to enable such a precariousness to emerge out of itself, to escape destruction, dismemberment, and suicide: free to pursue Spinozist joyful passions.


But why is this so important? What is at stake here, beyond the concern for a number of broken life stories that cannot nearly match in quantity or suffered violence the many thousands of innocent lives taken by the civil war, the repression, the Salvadoran State and its death squadrons? Surely whining about how tough things are in a situation of civil war is not enough to make a political case. La diáspora was published in 1989, and it depicts events from 1983-84. Right between those two dates Fredric Jameson, a man who was then attentive to the political process in Latin America, published his controversial, but at the time rightly hailed, essay on “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism.”10 Today, almost thirty years later, it is easy to claim that Jameson´s essay is outdated, obsolete, but it is not so easy to understand, or say, why. I will give it a shot.

The most irritating and, at the time and through the early 1990s, stubbornly resilient claim in that essay was of course that “all third-world texts are necessarily, I want to argue, allegorical, and in a very specific way: they are to be read as what I will call national allegories, even when, or perhaps I should say, particularly when their forms develop out of predominantly western machineries of representation, such as the novel” (69). The claim is sweeping in its generality and forceful truth-claim: all of the texts are necessarily national allegories. It is slightly unpacked in the following words: “Third-world texts, even those which are seemingly private and invested with a properly libidinal dynamic—necessarily project a political dimension in the form of national allegory: the story of the private individual destiny is always an allegory of the embattled situation of the public third-world culture and society” (69). Jameson´s essay sent a sizeable number of area-studies literary scholars into a desperate frenzy to look for exceptions to the claim, to no avail. The claim could, after all, meet no exceptions because a universal reach is in the nature of the allegorical machine. Jameson himself conceded as much when he said that “allegorical structures are not so much absent from first-world cultural texts as they are unconscious, and therefore they must be deciphered by interpretative mechanisms that necessarily entail a whole social and historical critique of our current first-world situation” (79).

Well then, if the difference between first- and third-world production has to do with the fact that third-world production makes manifest what remains latent in the first, what is so radically different? It is only by a certain forcing of the argument that the difference between the latent and the manifest may be presented, to literary critics whose job it is, after all, to turn the latent into the manifest, as “alien to us at first approach, and consequently, resistant to our conventional western habits of reading” (69). “In distinction to the unconscious allegories of our own cultural texts, third-world national allegories are conscious and overt: they imply a radically different and objective relationship of politics to libidinal dynamics” (79-80): Jameson establishes a direct correlation between objectivity and manifestation (equaling politics) and subjectivity and the unconscious (equaling libidinal life) that leaves of course much to be desired, and is probably unsustainable (but it would take too long to show it). And yet that is the basis of his claim for a radical difference, and the basis of his claim for the development of world-literature studies.

It was not so routinely understood that Jameson´s main claim was in fact dependent on a deeper claim that was relegated to the final pages of his essay. The time has come to examine and reject the deeper claim explicitly as so much condescension—a feature that is clearly visible almost in every page of the essay, and whose patent visibility should probably not surprise us retrospectively. There is an assumed superiority of the first-world intellectual that is in fact denied by the ostensible argumentation of the deeper claim, which tries to argue for the epistemological privilege of the third-world intellectual. Jameson prefaces it by saying: “I want to conclude with a few thoughts on why all this should be so and on the origins and status of what I have identified as the primacy of national allegory in third-world culture” (84). The thoughts turn out to be a rehearsal of the old Kojévian and Lukácsian obsession: Hegel´s dialectic of the Master and the Slave.

Within the terms of the dialectic, as conventionally understood, “only the slave knows what reality and the resistance of matter really are; only the slave can attain some true materialistic consciousness of his situation, since it is precisely to that that he is condemned. The Master, however, is condemned to idealism—to the luxury of a placeless freedom in which any consciousness of his own concrete situation flees like a dream, like a word unremembered on the tip of the tongue, a nagging doubt which the puzzled mind is unable to formulate” (85). It is a moving account, it has always been, but it forgets itself: there is and has never been an epistemic privilege of the slave, because a situational consciousness of oppression does not, and can never, amount to epistemic privilege. It is in fact the Master who, by projecting a notion of privilege on the slave, entertains his own misery and seeks to ensure the possibility that recognition by the slave, now endowed with a certain borrowed aura, might finally amount to something, to the possibility of a new libidinal cathexis. In the previous situation, as Jameson admits, “‘recognition’ by this henceforth sub-human form of life which is the slave evaporates at the moment of its attainment and offers no genuine satisfaction” (85).

So the third-world slave is forced to confront not just his slavery, but that of her own people, whereas, and this is the dissymetry not recognized as such in Jameson’s argument, the first-world intellectual, particularly the one concerned with “world literature” or cosmopolitanism, need only confront the slavery of the other. The active collectivity, as it were, for the first-world intellectual, is the collectivity of the third-world slave. It is of course a measure of Jameson’s intelligence that, at the very end of his essay, he makes the conditions of the master’s libidinal investment in the fate of the slaves dependent upon a horizon that remains beyond dialectics, and thus remote enough. As they are, those slaves are not interesting: “there was nothing at all attractive about it in fact.” But a supplement can be added that will set things right, that is, if a master could believe that the true projection of the slave is not really to become masterful, but rather to return to the originary pre-dialectical moment. Jameson posits it through his reading of Ousmane Sembene´s Xala, in a quotation that all of a sudden appears as a mantra, endowed with a magic aura: “Its life [should be] based on the principles of community interdependence” (86). But why would a master seek or promote community interdependence? Or is it that it is only wanted for the other, and demanding it is simply another act of mastery? It is an old tradition of a certain segment of western intellectuality, after all. What if the active notion for western intellectuals trying to pontificate on events elsewhere were to move away from masters and slaves into a denunciation of all their mimetic appearances at any level of the social, the political, or the intellectual?

The very young Castellanos Moya decided then that he would want nothing to do with the idea of assuming slavery for himself or, indeed, his people, not even on comparative terms; that he would prefer a path where the very structuration of the world in terms of slavery and mastery would be preempted. Please note that the definition of failed cynicism in Cortez implies a basic acceptance of the master/slave division through the very notion that the failed cynic has succumbed to recognition troubles. In fact, Cortez appeals to a “subaltern subjectivity” that craves recognition and that the master can then easily destroy by withholding the latter. Also Jameson makes subalternity depend on underlying psychological slavery: “‘cultural revolution’ . . . turns on the phenomenon of what Gramsci called ‘subalternity,’ namely the feelings of mental inferiority and habits of subservience and obedience which necessarily and structurally develop in situations of domination—most dramatically in the experience of colonized peoples” (76). In Castellanos Moya’s literature—I feel comfortable enough with the generalization, although I have only discussed his early novel—there is neither an assumption of structural subaltern inferiority nor an acceptance of recognition as a means for the accomplishment of any “cultural revolution.” What is allegorized in his novels is not therefore the national situation in terms of any presumed difference between a present state of affairs and some end of history based on communal interdependence. The fact is, without a utopian horizon premised on the abolition of the difference between slaves and masters and the restitution of communal interdependence, no third-world literature, and no first-world literature, could ever be described as exhaustively comprehensible in national-allegorical terms.

Which makes La diáspora neither a cynical nor a rightist or liberal novel. Its Fourth Part is devoted to the narration of the party at el Negro’s—where all the characters of the novel get together—seen through el Turco´s eyes. But el Turco was the more radical abjurer of his prior pieties. Is he, then, the one who has become a cynic, because he has opted for a subalternized subjectivity on a black mirror of non-recognition? I do not think so. His story is familiar enough, as something similar will have happened to all of us at some point in our lives. It is not a story of catastrophic subjectivity given a failure of recognition, but rather a story of being pissed off by a biographical drama one is trying to leave behind: exactly the kind of thing Spinoza offered his theory of the passions to help out with.11

El Turco quits his job playing the piano at the bar because his boss has decided he would no longer get credit for drinks. He is desperate enough—his financial prospects were never good and just became so much worse. He remembers that el Negro had invited him to his party, and he shows up. All the characters we have in the novel are present at the gathering. El Turco reviews them with a cold look. At this point he is only interested in finding a sexual mate for the night. In the meantime he terrifies everyone else with the crudity of his sincere opinions, conventionally cynical (“they get scared about the divisions and the crimes in the revolutionary ranks, but all revolutions have been infested with shit” [164]), conventionally self-destructive (“With those comments, Turquito, you are going to lose this lady” [162]). But he asks for and obtains no recognition from the rest. He couldn’t care less. He is drinking too much to care. And, finally, he gets Carmen.

Narrated in a free indirect style monologue, the novel’s end depicts el Turco waking up in the middle of the night to a deserted house with a bad hangover, sick, cold, and alone. With nothing but his broken life to look at, he is forced to reminisce on his life: his participation in the political struggle, his fear and trauma, his small adventures as an itinerant musician at the service of the revolution once he was sent abroad by the party leadership, his final separation on censorship disagreements and dissidence. It is all anticlimactic. No revelations come to enlighten the reader, who must only witness the guilt and failure and loneliness of a life. Is this the final cynical message of La diáspora? Is cynicism merely regret on grounds of existential failure? Is this the message the novel, and with it, if Cortez is right, all, or almost all, of Central American post-war writing finally wish to convey?


Cortez says: “the cynical project fills the individual with passions that do not take him to experience joy but give him pain . . . The aesthetic of cynicism shows the symptoms of an absence . . . : the experience of joy, the struggle to defend the right of the body to act, the predominance of life over death, the immanence of power” (38). One could rightfully say that el Turco’s bad hangover is nothing but the consequence of his very attempt to ward off pain and death—his will to joy. But, in any case, is Cortez not confusing the plane of writing with the plane of the written? They are not the same thing, and they are not immanent to each other: showing is not the shown, and saying is not the said. Writing about slavery is no proof of being a slave, in the same way that the impersonation of mastery makes one no master.

What about cynicism? In a recent book, Representing Capital: A Reading of Volume One, Jameson notes, glossing Marx, that, in previous historical epochs and modes of production, the ideological dominant remained distinct from the productive determinant. Religion was the ideological dominant in feudalism, for instance, but religion remained unidentifiable with the mode of production as such: “Only capitalism constitutes a social formation—that is, an organized multiplicity of people—united by the absence of community, by separation and by individuality. . . . the identity of dominant and determinant in capitalism in principle constitutes it as the first transparent society, that is to say, the first social formation in which ‘the secret of production’ is revealed.”12 In a recent article in Fronterad Jorge Alvarez Yagüez addresses the implication of this Marxian insight in terms of the overwhelming presence of cynicism as an ideological dominant in our society. It is an ideological dominant with a peculiar particularity: it is hard to define it as ideology, as it is in fact the naked recognition that ideology will not do, that there is a state of affairs no ideology can contain. Cynicism is, in Alvarez Yagüez´ determination, precisely the result of the recognition of the fact that we must assume, under full-blown capitalist conditions, a “brutal simplification, . . . a reduction of the density of motivations that could rule over the psyche and behavior toward the only one that can rule, ‘cold interest,’ ‘mere exchange value.’“13 Alvarez Yagüez assumes that only cynicism can grasp the real of the situation in a context with no alternatives. It is indeed a form of radical realism. He says: “the cynic is the ‘great realist,’ the one who is always in favor of the real.”14 If so, what makes the cynical position false? Alvarez Yagüez only hints at the answer by suggesting that the cynic lives in false conciousness through a willed oblivion that remains “unattentive to the potencies that negate existing reality.”15

The inattention of the cynic, if cynicism truly is the ideology of the end of ideologies, is not inadvertent inattention, and cannot be compensated by the old recipe: ideology critique. The cynic could not care less that his ideology could be subjected to critique, to the very extent that he has assumed in advance all forms of critique, and has dismissed them. The cynic, an absolute historicist who always already knows very well what he is doing, always in every case chooses to continue to do it: he knows that personal advantage is the only position tolerated by the absolute dominance of the law of value in a capitalist society, and finds no limits and no determinations that might constrain his push for personal advantage. The cynic is no master—his life is indeed nothing but a constant pull for mastery, which means he lacks it—but he is no slave either: there can be no slaves, because there are no masters. There are only bearers of a subjective position. They live within a system characterized by a thoroughly seamless objectivity, and they can mimic slavery or mastery without for that reason ever reaching the systemic structure, which in every case determines them from the outside. The cynical position mimics mastery without ever acquiring it. Is the cynic not therefore the perfect contemporary representative of the bearer of Spinozist joyful passion? Or could we suggest the difficult thought that cynicism as such always necessarily fails through its very inattention to what is only mimicry in the mimicry? I think the latter is what Alvarez Yagüez, or Marx himself, meant through the idea that the cynic, for all his attunement to present reality, and through it, forfeits the possibility of an alternative temporality, a futurity that eludes him, if only because it eludes everyone else as well.

If Castellanos Moya could be understood to offer what I earlier called a novel figure of the writer in Central America—I have only undertaken the analysis of La diáspora in this essay, but I would propose my thesis for all of his oeuvre—, it is because his writing leaves behind the parameters presented by Beatriz Cortez in her book, which actually offer an axis for the age-old discussion regarding the function of intellectuality in Latin America. Castellanos Moya is neither a writer of insurgency, committed to postcolonial liberation in the name of a slavish identity that seeks redemption, nor a conservative writer that favors the political dominance of a particular social group through the artistic projection of class ideology.

Whatever is insurgent in his writing, and perhaps even whatever is conservative in it, go deeper. Castellanos Moya is a writer, clearly a political writer, whose focus is on the inconspicuous inattention to things and affects that might harbor the seed of historical potencies that remain unseen and unimaginable. To that extent he follows a path of thought, a path of writing, that must reject in advance all kinds of historical pieties. This was not so for, for instance, his admired Roque Dalton, who knew, as a militant intellectual, exactly what it was he was after. But today the question of a possible future remains clouded. As Moishe Postone has recently put it, “the older understanding of socialism (and of capitalism) has been called into question in various ways, including by the character and failure of ‘actually existing socialism’. . . Yet, . . . a more adequate vision of socialism as the negation of capitalism has not emerged.”16 Castellanos Moya’s literature, like that of his friends Roberto Bolaño or Rodrigo Rey Rosa, to provide two examples, dwells in the crisis of a past that no longer offers a future, and that is constantly interrogated as to its very silence and opacity.

La diáspora projects the presence of a writer, Juan Carlos, whose writing will be produced in the ruins of a youth and from the ashes of a country devastated by an inconclusive civil war. Juan Carlos is indeed at least part of Castellanos Moya´s literary persona. Like him, Castellanos Moya left El Salvador for a hesitant life elsewhere, to finish his studies, to make a little money, to become a writer, not to write “cheap anticommunist tirades,” but rather to project a novelistic work that could feed on the remains of the past for the sake of an improbable future. That Castellanos Moya´s literature registers a monumental crisis in the political, which La diáspora only in a sense prefaces, is obvious for any reader. But what kind of an understanding of the political is finally rendered, or could be offered from the hypothetical standpoint of an overall consideration of a work in progress that is, at this point, very much unfinished? I will come back to it some day. For now, in conclusion, let me try to explain my Anaximander epigraph.

The epigraph is conventionally translated as “for they pay penalty and retribution to each other for their injustice according to their assessment of time.”17 Martin Heidegger offers a famously revisionist translation of the fragment in his essay “The Fragment of Anaximander,” which says: “along the lines of usage; for they let order and thereby also reck belong to one another (in the surmounting) of disorder.”18 Heidegger’s essay is at the core of a dispute between Jameson and Derrida in the mid-1990s on the issue of a reinterpretation of Marxism. Jameson claims that for Derrida “the past and history, along with historiography and narrative itself (grand or not), have for whatever reason been eclipsed.”19 Such a situation “calls for a revision of the past . . . but does so by way of a thoroughgoing reinvention of our sense of the past altogether, in a situation in which only mourning, and its peculiar failures and dissatisfactions . . . [open] a vulnerable space and entry-point through which ghosts might make their appearance.”20 This is the way in which one of the great representatives of Marxism attempts to conjure away the Derridean welcome of Marxian spirits in The Specters of Marx, but, leaving aside its critical edge, it could equally well serve to characterize the ostensible relation with the Salvadoran past that Castellanos Moya’s literature offers: his ghosts must be handled through mourning, but then mourning always looks for its own end. It is not the failures and dissatisfactions of the haunting that prevail, but the reinvention of the real through dealing with them.

If “The Fragment of Anaximander” is significant for Derrida, however, it is because it proceeds through a peculiarly political language, since it talks about justice and restitution, about order and disorder, about usage, about the dislocation of time dispensed and time withheld, and about surmounting. If “standing in disjunction would be the essence of all that is present”21, then the action of politics might introduce a corrective, in the form of “reck,” which is the ancient English word used to translate the Greek tisin, and comes to figure as the essential word of what Derrida would call a democracy-to-come, as letting-belong and letting-be. Heidegger says: “The experience of beings in their Being which here comes to language is neither pessimistic nor nihilistic; nor is it optimistic. It is tragic.”22 Perhaps Castellanos Moya’s writing is also a writing of reck. I would venture the statement that the experience of the political that Castellanos Moya’s literature offers us is also a tragic one, which makes it unique in the Central American context, and comparable only to the rendering of some of the most august Latin American writers: José María Arguedas, for instance, or Roberto Bolaño. Cynicism does not quite measure up to it.


1.Fredric Jameson, Representing Capital: A Reading of Volume One (London: Verso, 2011), 91.
2.Anaximander cited in G.S Kirk and M. Schofield, The Presocratic Philosophers, second ed., (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 107.
3.Beatriz Cortez, Estética del cinismo. Pasión y desencanto en la literatura centroamericana de posguerra (Guatemala: F&G editores, 2010). “My interest is to explore the aesthetics of cynicism as a failed project” (26).  All translations that follow in the text are mine. Further references are cited parenthetically in the text.
4.Horacio Castellanos Moya, Insensatez (Barcelona: Tusquets, 2004). Cf. the essays by Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado “La ficción y el momento de peligro: Insensatez de Horacio Castellanos Moya,”  Cuaderno Internacional de Estudios Humanísticos y Literatura (CIEHL) 14 (2010): 79-86, and Sam Steinberg’s “Cowardice—An Alibi: On Prudence and Senselessness,New Centennial Review 14.1 (Spring 2014): 175-194, on this novel. Sánchez Prado presents the core of the novel as indicating or referring to the collapse of the modern intellectual subject, whose epitome, in Central America, was the committed intellectual. This novel seeks no rescue of the committed intellectual and looks for no reconfiguration of it: it aims at no reconstruction of a subject of the political.  Steinberg interestingly links Castellanos Moya’s production with the notion of infrapolitics.  I depart from Steinberg at the point of his understanding of a militant infrapolitics at the metacritical level, as I think the infrapolitical dimension in Castellanos precludes any and every possibility of militancy. I would rather use the term “belligerence.”  Castellanos is a belligerant writer of restricted action against every writing of infinite militancy.
5.But I could have chosen Baile con serpientes, second ed. (Barcelona: Tusquets, 2012), if it were merely a matter of discounting Castellanos Moya´s cynicism.  The snakes that wreak havoc and produce general confusion in the population in that book—they are nice snakes, albeit murderous, poisonous snakes with an undetermined capacity for attack—are a good symptom of the aggressivity that underlies Castellanos Moya’s narrative, so much of the time subdued, but here, like in El asco: Thomas Bernhard en San Salvador (Barcelona: Tusquets, 2007), given free rein.  This is neither a narrative of redemption nor is it a cynic narrative.  Cynic aggression has an altogether different tonality.  But in this novel we find the aggressiveness of a desperate man, a writer whose internal tensions waver between dark nihilism and rage against a world that allows stupidity, pettiness, and corruption to gain the upper hand every time.  Castellanos Moya sees truthlessness and mendacity everywhere, and understands the symbolic as so much smoke and mirrors used to cover up petty power struggles and manipulative fantasies of various kinds.  There is no need to control him by claiming he is merely giving expression to the social mood of post-civil war Central American societies, and even less need to condescend to him by claiming his somber depictions of some imaginary facticity hide a real commitment to social change.  If the writer feels at times closer to his own characters—Eduardo Sosa in El asco, Robocop in La diabla en el espejo (Madrid: Linteo, 2000) or El arma en el hombre (Barcelona: Tusquets, 2001), or the hapless waiter in “Con la congoja de la pasada tormenta,” in Con la congoja de la pasada tormenta. (Casi todos los cuentos) (Barcelona: Tusquets, 2009), 139-74, it is probably because that is the way it is.  But the snakes are not just aggressive.  They are also loving creatures, as we see in the last section of the novel, which contains one of the most savage erotic scenes in Latin American literature.
6.From the fact that Cortez did not like the novel to the possibility that she did not have access to it.  I am not suggesting that anything was done wrong here.  Simply, the analysis did not happen.
7.See the essays collected under the heading “Breves palabras impúdicas” in La metamorfosis del sabueso: Ensayos personales y otros textos (Santiago de Chile: Ediciones Universidad Diego Portales, 2011), 11-54.
8.Horacio Castellanos Moya, La diaspora (San Salvador: UCA editores, 1989), 23. Further references are cited parenthetically in the text.
9.Roque Dalton, mentioned already in El asco (86), is something like a recurring obsession for Castellanos Moya.  See for instance his astounding short story “Variaciones sobre el asesinato de Francisco Olmedo,” in Con la congoja de la pasada tormenta, 73-111 and his equally astounding essay “La tragedia del hereje,” in La metamorfosis del sabueso. Ensayos personales y otros textos (Santiago de Chile: Ediciones Universidad Diego Portales, 2011), 100-15.
10.Fredric Jameson, “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism,” Social Text 15 (Autumn 1986): 65-88. Further references are cited parenthetically in the text.
11.This is a topic that I can only mark.  Spinoza’s theory of the affects, which includes his disquisitions on sad and joyful passions, occupies a good deal of his work, in particular sections three to five of the Ethics in Spinoza: Complete Works, trans. Samuel Shirley, ed. Michael L. Morgan  (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2002), 213-382, with important sections on the Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect in Spinoza: Complete Works, 1-30, and the Short Treatise on God, Man, and His Well-Being in Spinoza: Complete Works, 31-107. It was crucial for Spinoza to theorize freedom against every possibility of bondage for deep personal and biographical reasons.   Let me just say that the attempt to disengage Castellanos Moya’s writing from the notion of sad passion in Spinoza is what motivated the writing of this essay.
12.Jameson, Representing Capital, 91.
13.Jorge Alvarez Yagüez,  “Cinismo, nihilismo, capitalism,” Fronterad, December 5, 2013, .
14.“Cinismo,” 4.
15.“Cinismo,” 4.
16.Moishe Postone,  “Thinking the Global Crisis,” South Atlantic Quarterly 111.2 (Spring 2012), 233.
17.The Presocratic Philosophers, 108.
18.Martin Heidegger, “The Anaximander Fragment,” Early Greek Thinking: The Dawn of Western Philosophy, trans. David Farrell Krell and Frank A. Capuzzi  (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984), 57.
19.Fredric Jameson, “Marx’s Purloined Letter,” Ghostly Demarcations. A Symposium on Jacques Derrida’s Specters of Marx, intro. Michael Sprinker (New York: Verso, 1995), 43.
20.“Marx’s Purloined Letter,” 43.
21.“The Anaximander Fragment,” 42.
22.“The Anaximander Fragment,” 44.