La barbarie en la sangre: Determinismo y significaci\'on en el ``Facundo''

Date of Completion

January 1988


Literature, Comparative|Literature, Latin American




Sarmiento aspires to a "scientific" historiography. He maintains that direct observation, free from the distortions of rhetoric, would make possible to discern hidden, unsconscious principles behind individual people and actions. He realizes, however, that those very transcendental principles make rhetoric unavoidable. "Meaning" acquires thus a new dimension. Earlier historians were concerned with the meaning of history, with the finality of human actions that made history comprehensible. Sarmiento, on the contrary, is preoccupied with meaning in history, with the hermeneutics of historiography. He contends that because there is a transcendental sense, our knowledge is conditioned and subjective.^ Meaning is, then, at once a condition of and a threat to the rationality and predictability of time. Sarmiento implies that the history of his country is incomprehensible on the surface because it is determined, at a deep level, by the conflict between civilization and barbarism, a conflict which is not directly observable. Paradoxically, Sarmiento avoids defining the two principles. Therefore, criticism has reproached him for being nebulous and unsystematic. I argue, however, that the logic of eschatological determinism prevents him from giving univocal definitions. It he were to conclude, for example, "barbarism is oppression, civilization is democracy," he would imply that ultimate determination comes from freedom and oppression, not from civilization and barbarism. The system, because it is transcendental, must be relativistic.^ History reveals itself through signs, but signs are inadequate. Indeed, they are exactly the opposite of their referent. Seeking to write an unrhetorical history, Sarmiento published Facundo in a system of simplified spelling, believing that, if each letter corresponded to a sound, everyone could easily read and write. Universal literacy would almost automatically bring about democracy. In a literal sense, then, phonetic spelling represented educated consensus, civilization. In another sense, it represented a new cognitive disposition, a system of signs which were arbitrary but also decodable, since they exist in discrete, phonetic opposition to reality. Writing would then dispell meaninglessness by making it predictable. If Sarmiento could explain barbarism, it would vanish. ^