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Feeling the Spirits of San Agustín: On the Belatedness of Latin America

We too find ourselves in a modernidad tardía. That is what my audience reported to me at the Universidad del Rosario in Bogota where I had come to present a series of seminars on Greek culture through the support of the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation.

It was no surprise to hear this.Maybe I was listening to my heart terrorized at having to present my work in Spanish. At that moment I could only remember Mark Twain’s desire to decline three German beers for one German adjective. In my case, it was the subjunctive that caused me pain, especially in irregular verbs.

It was fascinating to learn from a group of cultural critics that Latin America has had always to catch up with developments in metropolitan centers of Europe and North America. I felt I was making links with my own work.

João Cezar de Castro Rocha has argued recently that since Romanticism Latin American history has been defined through the foreigner’s gaze.The authority of the foreigner comes from his capacity to offer models for others to imitate.

The problem goes beyond literature, however, to a structural condition of modernity. As I have shown elsewhere, since the seventeenth century, the world has been divided into nations that are developed (England and Holland first and then western Europe) and those that try to match the success of the early comers to modernity (the rest of the world). A new concept of time, based on the idea of progress, determines that social life move inescapably forward, a process that distinguishes the early comers to modernity from the late ones. I have called this situation a belated modernity.

Needless to say this idea of seeing time as a race with winners and losers is new. I was reminded of this in Bogota again, when touring an awesome cathedral constructed in a salt mine. The guide cited a line from the Christian Bible (Matthew 20: 16), namely “the last will be first and the first will be last.” That is to say, those coming late to the feast will get just as much food as those lucky to arrive early.

This sentiment, as we discussed in the seminar at Rosario, no longer applies. The last will be last no matter how many models and concepts they import to improve their position. Places like Colombia and Greece will be judged by their failures to conform to the modernization thesis.

The artificiality of this thesis was made clear by a journey I took a couple of days later to San Agustín. I wanted to see the ruins of an enigmatic society about which we know little since it had no writing system. Because of security concerns, very few foreigners had visited the area until recently. So I was very eager to go.

What a mystical experience it was to witness the remains of pre-Hispanic cultures that had settled the area as early as 3,000 BCE. Scattered outside the modern town of San Agustín are tombs guarded by statues, some life-size, some smaller, and others close to 20 feet, with a depth of 20 in. Rectangular or spherical, these structures had been carved out of volcanic rock, bearing huge eyes, often with features of animals, and always painted, though little of the color remains now. They show anthropomorphic or zoomorphic features and often both at the same time. Each must weigh tons.

It is a place like no other, an inland Easter Island, a site people say is destined to become the next Machu Picchu. As you walk around, you behold a landscape of figures all facing east, silently, guarding not only the crypts but also a secret about themselves, of what they are and what they mean, and what they have done.

Here I experienced a different concept of time. My guide, an indígena, spoke always about “my” and “our” ancestors. She told me that her grandparents could see the statues peering from the ground before they were excavated by archaeologists and laid out in the Parque Arqueológico or in museums. Her grandfather’s house, in fact, used stones from the gravesites in the foundations.

This picture shows a statue used as a pillar of a private house.

There is a continuity here with the past, as I have witnessed in Greece where a church to the Virgin Mary is often constructed over and using the materials of a temple to the Virgin Athena. Life goes on and only the names change. Compare the photo from the house in San Agustín with that of the Byzantine Monastery of Kaisariani, outside Athens.

An old man, Eleutherio (who was unimpressed when I told him that his name meant freedom in Greek), spoke of seeing statues throughout the countryside and about the espiritus that roamed the region.

It was the guard at the highest part of the Archaeological Park of San Agustín, the Alto de Lavapatas, who described these spirits most vividly. He said that at night, alone, on what archaeologists believe was an observatory of the stars, he encounters the spirits. At the flash of the breeze, the touch of the breath, or the rustle of footsteps his two dogs suddenly spring up, rush out into the darkness, howling. But the guard is never afraid.

I descended with this story to the most spectacular complex, known as Mesita B, which has a sprawling network of statues and tombs. Here, unlike the other statues, which have threatening and aggressive faces, the expressions are pacific, sometimes composed of male and female features, as if standing on one another in totem-pole fashion. Interestingly, these are called “doble yo” or double self. All around I saw figures, sometime of pregnant women, others holding children in their hands.

There was an interchange here between life and death, between the animal and the human, between male and female, a sense of fertility, and of passing into another world.

You could not help but feel this continuity especially in the final walk through the Bosque de las Estatuas along a path marked by 37 statues. Maybe this is why I did not get the feeling of nostalgic pain that I do when visiting ancient places, the awe at the passing of greatness. In the mistiness of the forest, the otherworldly solitude of San Agustín, I too sensed the spirits the moment the hem of my hiking pants grazed the volcanic rock of a statue.

Was this a violation of museum convention or a contact with my guide’s ancestors?

Dear suspicious reader, something did touch me. Call me an affected Gringo or a romantic Griego, a teacher crazy about making connections between “eleutheria” and "Eleutherio,” or one who wishes to transcend his own belatedness, of someone who, having been born into a house with no running water, has had to prove he is worthy of living in a developed country. Or maybe, you think, it was the hallucination brought on by coca leaves. (Sometimes the statues had cheeks disarmingly bulging with coca leaves, like chipmunks in the summer.)

Think what you will. But for a second, I stood outside of modern time, in a place where life is not a race for the finish. (This is the place of magical thinking, after all.) The past was not inevitably slipping away and I was not rushing towards an inevitable future. Time surrounded me.

And now weeks later, finding myself in the heartless sweep of the here and there, I ask: Will there ever be a time when there will be time?

Gregory Jusdanis's picture
Gregory Jusdanis teaches Modern Greek literature and culture at The Ohio State University. He is the author of The Poetics of Cavafy: Eroticism, Textuality, History (1987), Belated Modernity and Aesthetic Culture: Inventing National Literature (1991), The Necessary Nation (2001), and Fiction Agonistes: In Defense of Literature (2010), A Tremendous Thing. Friendship from the Iliad to the Internet (2014). He is currently working on a biography of C. P. Cavafy.