César Vallejo on the Death of the Word
The Duel Between Two Literatures by César Vallejo. Lima, October 1, 1931. Year 1, No. 2, p. 13.
the duel between two literatures
The capitalist literary process does not succeed — no matter how much its pontiffs and chiefs may wish it — in eluding the germs of decadence that have been marinating, for many years, inside the low social body on which it rests.
With this, I mean that the inherent, growing and deadly contradictions in the capitalist economy also circulate this bourgeois act, engendering its demise.
At the same time, the resistance of those intellectual caciques — refusing to let this literature die — is vain and useless. We are as a fact determined, on a rigorously objective plane, by nothing less than by the forces and forms of economic production. These are very distant and really foreign to the sectarian, professional and individual interests of the writer.
Capitalist literature does nothing, then, but reflect — without being able to elude, I repeat — the slow and hard agony of the society from which it emerges. What are the most salient signs of decadence in bourgeois literature? These signs have already been made clear enough to insist on them.
They are united by a common trait: the exhaustion of the social content of words. The verb is empty. It suffers from an acute, incurable state of social wasteland. Nobody says anything to anybody. The articulated relationship of human-with-human is interrupted. The word of the individual for the collectivity has been truncated and crushed from the individual mouth. We are mute, in the midst of our incomprehensible verbiage. This is the confusion of languages, arriving from the extreme individualism at the base of bourgeois economy and bourgeois politics. Unbridled individual interest — to be the richest, the happiest, the dictator of a country, or the king of oil — has filled everything with selfishness, even words. The word is suffocated by individualism. The word, a form of social relationship, the most human of all, has thus lost all its essence. The word lost its collective attributes.
Tacitly, in our daily interactions, we sense and then realize this social theatricality through a general sense of confusion. No one understands anyone. The interest of one speaks a language that the interest of the other ignores, and does not understand. How can the buyer and the seller, the governed and the ruler, the poor and the rich understand each other? All of us see that this confusion of tongues is not, cannot be, a permanent thing. It must end as soon as possible. We know that to put an end to this infertile field of vacant words we need only a common key: justice in common, the great clarifier, the great coordinator of interests.
In the meantime, the bourgeois writer continues to construct works with the interests and egoisms particular to the social class from which he comes and for which he writes. What is in these works? What do they express? What do they even say in them? What is the social content of those words?
There is nothing but self-centeredness in the themes and tendencies of bourgeois literature, and, of course, only the self-centered take pleasure in producing and reading these works.
The work of bourgeois character, or written by a bourgeois, pleases only the bourgeois readership. When another class of person — let’s say a worker, a peasant and even a bourgeois emancipated from this class vertebrae — casts a glance at bourgeois literature, it is with immediate coldness or repugnance. The interplay of interests from which such literature is nourished speaks, certainly, a different language. A language foreign to the common and general interests of humanity. The words spoken are incomprehensible, they are inexpressive. Take the words faith, love, freedom, good, passion, truth, pain, effort, harmony, work, happiness, justice. They lie empty, filled with ideas and even sentiments contrary to those which those words enunciate. Even the words life, god and history are vague or hollow. Variety and deceit dominate the theme, the context and the meaning of this type of work. The reader then either flees, or avoids, or boycotts literature. Such is the case, notably, of proletarian readers when it comes to the most bourgeois authors and works.
What happens then?
As soon as the proletarian takes the lead in the organization, direction and entire process of social reproduction, will she also create a universal recognition of class consciousness and, with it, at last her sensibility. This sensibility will bring the ability to create, and also absorbe her own literature, i.e., proletarian writing. This new literature evolves in correlated proportion, corresponding to a degree of class consciousness. And since this population now comprises nine-tenths of humanity and, on the other hand, class consciousness is said to be gaining almost half of the workers globally2, it follows that proletarian literature will hold complete sway over the world's intellectual production.
What are the most striking signs of an emerging proletarian literature? The most important sign is that it restores a universal social content to words. It fills them with a new, more exuberant, sensual and purer collective substratum while endowing them with a more crystalline expression of human eloquence. It is the word made transparent.
The working class, unlike the capitalist, aspires to the social understanding of all. The worker aspires to one day understand beings and their interests. Therefore, working-class writing shall speak a language that wants to be common to all people. To the confusion of languages of the capitalist world, the worker wishes to substitute in its place the Esperanto of social cooperation and fairness, the language of languages. Will proletarian literature achieve this rebirth, this final cleansing of the verb, the supreme and most fruitful form of solidarity?
Yes, it will succeed. It is already succeeding. Perhaps we are not exaggerating when we affirm that today's working-class literary production already contains artistic values that are superior, in many respects, to those of bourgeois production. I say working-class production is capable of including in this denomination all the artworks where the spirit and interests of the proletariat are present by theme, by its psychological context, or by the sensibility. Thus we find that authors of diverse class origins, such as Upton Sinclair, Gladkov, Selvinsky, Kirchen, Pasternak, O'Flaherty, and others, nevertheless, in their works they have sealed a sincere interpretation of the world of the non-capitalists, thus conforming too as proletarian literature.
In sum, all these considerations warrant the attention and regard that proletarian literature awakens in even the top bourgeois writers. This attention and reverence evidenced by the frequency with which they deal, albeit only episodically, but through their latest work with the life, struggles and revolutionary paths of the working masses. This attitude reveals two things: sometimes snobbery, typical of Byzantine intelligence, cannot be blind to the instability and vacillation characteristic of a moribund ideology.
In sum, all these considerations attest, on the one hand, to the advent and the overwhelming advance of proletarian literature and, on the other hand, the defeat of capitalist literature and its disbandment.
The crossroad of history is, as we can see, settled in this field.
THE DUEL BETWEEN TWO LITERATURES
Article extracted from the magazine Universidad.
Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos.
Lima, October 1, 1931. Year 1, No. 2, p. 13.
Translated by taller ahuehuete.