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Politics, Aesthetics, and the Question of Meaning in Vallejo

Leslie Bary

Louisiana State University

The almost notoriously difficult poetry of César Vallejo (Peru, 1892-Paras, 1938) is often defined as political for what are in fact largely biographical reasons -the poet’s humble background and well-known militancy on the Left- which his writing refracts in themes such as the defense of the poor and solidarity with the Republican cause in Spain. A thematic understanding of the «political» in this poetry ascribes static, (classically) representational qualities to the work that tend to iron out Vallejo’s originality along with his difficulty -thus ignoring the depth of his own thought on the relationship between politics and aesthetics.

Literary histories commonly pair Vallejo with his contemporary Pablo Neruda because both are highly acclaimed, Left-oriented writers who first arose in the heyday of the avant-garde period. Yet the simple style and clear message of socially conscious poetry such as Neruda’s in Canto general, intended to make the poem available to an ill-educated public and unrecoverable to a bourgeois literary tradition, typify an esthetic very different from Vallejo’s, whose most politically committed poetry is, in a seeming paradox, also nearly unreadable by traditional standards. Vallejo, in his critical writings, which question both the human value of the avant-garde style in poetry and the poetic force of Maiakovski’s political verse, constantly ponders the question of how to restore the social content of words without creating a propagandistic literature. This question parallels a central problem in the contemporary critical debate: how can literature generate meaning without falling into the trap of representation or logocentric discourse? An examination of the political bases and implications of Vallejo’s stylistic difficulty is crucial, then, to any reading of his work not based on paraphrase or on the study of isolated images. In what follows, I want to suggest that Vallejo is difficult because meaning (and hence the «political») in his work is neither constituted, as it is for the more traditional «social» poets, as a task primarily of representation; nor is it conceived as a question of the «interruption» of representation, that indeterminacy of meaning which according to much post-structuralist theory is in itself politically subversive. Rather, Vallejo’s difficulty is that of a poetry which disturbs accepted configurations of thought, but also pushes us to participate in the creation of a new cognitive mode. Ever aware of the opacity of words, Vallejo stretches their ideological boundaries. Rather than claim to redeem language or lead us to a clear space beyond its turbulent surface, Vallejo strives within it to set in motion what he calls in one of his notebooks «el rigor dialéctico del mundo objetivo y subjetivo» (Vallejo 1977: 90).


The discovery of language as mediation is central to both modern poetry and contemporary literary theory. After the Romantics’ voyage towards the limits of language, summed up by Rubén Darío at the end of the nineteenth century in the lines «Yo persigo una forma / que no encuentra mi estilo» (622); after the avant-garde’s emphasis on linguistic productivity at the level of the signifier over the referential function of art; and especially after the description of the world as text in so much recent literary and cultural theory, it has become commonplace to conclude that the apprehension of heterogeneous impulses and self-ironic stances in our literary and cultural texts are the last possible horizon of their reading, as well as the only possible «non-repressive» critical attitude. The self-positioning of this critical development specifically at the end of interpretation

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claims not to presuppose a former harmony among language, perception and «truth», but it does seem to depend on a general belief in such a harmony -a belief which deconstruction, as it is most commonly practiced, undertakes to dispel.

Recent work by critics such as Djelal Kadir, Mary Layoun, and Kum Kum Sangari has shown that the current crisis of representation in Western literature and theory, along with its attendant demise of the subject and also the «recognition» of the links between literature and politics, are constitutive rather than culminating characteristics of «Third World» (or, perhaps more specifically, post-colonial) literatures. As the Inca Garcilaso, himself the product of a hybrid culture, suggested early in the seventeenth century, the duplicity of language is primordially evident in the colonial situation -a situation in which different languages correspond to radically different cultures, and the dominant language is an imported one25. Postcolonial discourse inherits the consciousness of this duplicity: the status of language (as well as that of «meaning» and «truth») is always already in question.

Vallejo’s poetry dramatizes this situation. His disarticulation of «language» and «world» in all of his poetic production, and his declarations in his first collection of poems, Los heraldos negros (1919), that he doesn’t know the source of the «golpes en la vida» and that he was born «un día / que Dios estuvo enfermo», even as they echo generalized modern sentiments like the death of God and the loss of connections with an origin, place these notions at the base of his poetics rather than as final realizations. Los heraldos negros does not merely register the decline of modernista «correspondences» and a supposed naturalness of linguistic representation. In fact, in this collection Vallejo does something quite different: situating himself, as Julio Ortega says, on the margins of these traditions (108), he shows the unities they presuppose to have been originally insubstantial. As it systematically empties images of plenitude or solace (such as «home», «origin», and «God»), Vallejo’s writing also devalues the terms in which they have been constructed. What elsewhere are organizing images and allusions appear here (in Ortega’s words) as discursive residue (109).

The Los heraldos negros sonnet «Unidad» (1988: 105) can, for example, be read as a rather simple allegory of Christian hope for resurrection after death, if we focus on the final tercet as a resolution or redemption of the crisis evoked in the first three sections of the poem. Here the metaphorical «mano que limita, que amenaza / tras de todas las puertas» of the first tercet, which folds into itself the images of time and death presented in in the quatrains, is superseded by «otra gran Mano hecha de luz». Above the web of human structures and human doubt («Sobre la araña gris de tu armazón»), the light-infused hand holds up a bit of lead. This is the same lead that in the quatrains was a bloody bullet, now made divine «en forma azul de corazón». Thus the problematic images of the first half of the poem are apparently transmuted; the «hand that limits» seems to be supplanted by the Hand that comforts, that resolves, that leads us beyond limits.

Yet the leap of faith this ending asks us to make also works to intensify the gap between its discourse and that of the first three stanzas, and the resolution asserted rings false at least as much as it rings true. Because the apparent resolution comes so close to the traditional «mysteries» of resurrection/redemption, it is hard to be sure that the blue heart and «great Hand» of the final tercet are not further forms of the «hostile idea» and reddened bullet that two stanzas earlier gave form to the «great Mystery» («se acuña el gran Misterio en una idea / hóstil y ovóidea, en un bermejo plomo»). In fact, the instability of the terms that structure the poem -among them the leaden (bullet-like) quality of the blue heart, the transformation in the second quatrain of the moon, traditionally an emblem of poetic inspiration and authority, into a gun-barrel («La luna blanca, inmóvil, lagrimea, / y es un ojo que apunta»), and the questionable power of the admonition «cede y pasa» in the first tercet to banish the frightening images of the quatrains -seems to suggest that there is actually no secret behind the symbols and structures we use to interpret our experience, which could be revealed so as to unity and explain them.

The reading of «Unidad» I propose, then, is that in counterpoint to its title, the poem is more about disjunctions than about unity; or, to put it another way, that it is not about the sort of Symbolist or theological unity that its final images seem, at one level, to imply. The putative resolution of the poem’s paradoxes in the final tercet is actually only a kind of overlay. So the discourse of unity is not treated by the poem as a natural, organic thing but as an artificial construct, an imposed form.

Another Los heraldos negros poem,

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«Absoluta» (80), very directly presents the idea of «unity» as an alien and alienating discourse. The «unidad excelsa» called for in the fourth stanza stands in sharp contrast to the failure of its attempted embodiment in the first three, and is invalidated, even as a principle, in the fifth and final one, where the «linderos», the spatial and temporal boundaries that «God» and «Love» ought to be able to conquer, are themselves the «irreducibly disdainful» victors, and the «doncella plenitud del 1» is metaphorically host to serpents, wrinkled so that part of its surface is hidden, and crossed by a shadow:

Y al encogerse de hombros
los linderos en un bronco desdén irreductible
hay un riego de sierpes
en la doncella plenitud del 1.
¡Una arruga, una sombra!

As is even more clearly the case in the poem entitled «Comunión» (23), the tenuously balanced thematics of love and religion used to evoke physical and spiritual plenitude here are actually seen from the perspective of the great distance between the speaker and the language he uses. In both poems, what attempt to be unifying (and comforting) metaphors are made to expose their own inadequacy. (In «Comunión» this gesture becomes painfully comical, when the speaker tries, and fails, to assuage his sexual guilt by comparing the body of his beloved to the river Jordan, and her open arms to a redemptory cross). At the close of «Comunión», furthermore, Vallejo’s speaker tells us he was born on Palm Sunday and not in Bethlehem: his origin does not coincide with that of the episteme that has given him his metaphors. He enters, so to speak, in the middle of an already-written story, and at the beginning of its crisis.

I am arguing that the gap in these poems between the speaker and his language is not the same as the gap between present fragmentation and ideal unity we can see in poets like Baudelaire and in part of the Spanish American modernista tradition. Although Vallejo here uses the readily available vocabulary of fragmentation and unity, or even spleen and ideal, he seems to do so precisely because this is the only available vocabulary in the place and time he is writing. He is, in other words, attempting to insert himself into a patently problematic discourse because he has as yet found no other. His simultaneous appropriation by and problematization of pre-existing literary and cultural discourses grows, in his later work, into a will to speak from their ruins.


Vallejo’s poetry, then, locates us inside a language whose previous texts we cannot shed, and whose mediation we cannot hope to supersede. And yet, as his posthumously published poem «Y si después de tantas palabras» (352) suggests, we must still find a form of expression that can lead us through the web of texts that have «written» us and through the alienation the symbolic order bears, towards a more dialectical relationship among language, experience, and the speaker who inhabits them both.

«Y si después de tantas palabras» is composed of a series of exclamations on the seeming emptiness of language and absurdity of life. We are told repeatedly that if «the word itself does not survive» («no sobrevive la palabra») and if we are living «por el peine y las manchas del pañuelo», then we might as well give up on everything («Más valdría... / que se lo coman todo»). The final stanza,

Se dirá que tenemos
en uno de los ojos mucha pena
y también en el otro, mucha pena
y en los dos, cuando miran, mucha pena...
¡Entonces!... ¡Claro!... Entonces ...¡ni palabra!

can perhaps most easily be read as a capitulation to the triple menace of a banal quotidian, a death that merely caps a spectral life («apagar con su sombra su tiniebla») and a language which, since it cannot compensate for sorrow, does not deserve to survive. Yet the most striking aspect of the poem is the speaker’s will not to succumb to these threats, in spite of (or even because of) his strong awareness of them. Speaking and living are here inextricably, and dialectically, intertwined. It is as if language were only unredeemable if we accepted our history and our life to be incomprehensible. The work the poem projects recalls William Carlos Williams’s fortunate expression «rolling/ up the sum, by defective means» (3). This for Vallejo means neither eliding nor succumbing to «sorrow» and the possible or partial futility of speech, but wrenching from these a new kind of self-consciousness and a new configuration of knowledge.

So while the recognition of language as repression drives some modernist French writing towards a rather negatively-oriented refusal of representation and/or «meaning», in Vallejo (and other Latin American writers) it tends to produce positive resistance within discourse and a will to speak realities that conventional models of representation

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elide. In this context, we can understand Vallejo’s difficulty not as hermeticism but as an effort to take on this project without restoring the mechanisms of an oppressive or hegemonic discourse.

In «Espergesia» (114-15), the final poem of Los heraldos negros whose famous refrain is «Yo nací un día / que Dios estuvo enfermo», a modernista or late Symbolist vocabulary is turned towards a non-modernista meaning. In a move Vallejo rewrites a literary tradition, not simply contesting it but layering it with new strata of context and sense. Words like «Sphinx», «Mystery», and «synthesize» do not point merely to death, nor to the Unknown that is the Romantic and Symbolist absolute. Rather, they invite us to look beyond the «boundaries» («lindes») of such comforting abysses. This idea is taken further in poem XXXVI (212) of Trilce (1922), which ironizes the Venus of Milo as emblem of the organic and «divine» work of art. Here the speaker does not lament but actually embraces his, and the world’s, exclusion from the old ideal of «harmony»; and takes this exclusion up as a new standard.26

As Vallejo emphatically rejects the possibility of escaping mediation of language and the metaphysics such an escape would imply, he also makes it possible to build «meaning» precisely by taking hold of mediation. The meaning that can be constructed in this new cognitive space (the space of Trilce XXXVI’s speaker, who is «orphaned» by transcendence) is neither whole nor eternal. It is, rather, at each moment of its successive construction, as incomplete and inorganic as the now irrevocably fragmented Venus and the asymmetrical «uneven number» that appears in the final lines of Trilce XXXVI: «¡Ceded al nuevo impar/ potente de orfandad!» Meaning in Vallejo’s language is built dialectically and over time.

Trilce II (171), which addresses the problem of naming, provides an almost programmatic model of the construction of meaning in Vallejo. As this poem ironizes the possibility of finding the true name of «cuanto heriza nos» it redefines the problem of naming as a temporal one. It does so by approaching the question of naming through a meditation on the difficulty of apprehending temporality and, importantly, of naming time. The strategy for confronting temporality that is implied here is then extended to the problem of naming, so that the problematics of each are imbricated with those of the other.

Time, the poem’s principal theme in its first three stanzas, is oppressively uniform and stagnant because there is no interaction, and hence no difference, among «Time», «present», «noon», «was» and «tomorrow». We are engulfed in a (paradoxically) inaccessible present moment which, like the enclosed space of the barracks in the first stanza, the barnyard or patio suggested in the second, and the cocoon-like locus of the third, seems to lead nowhere outside itself. Because these three stanzas are configured so as to collapse Time in the abstract and the particular moment into one, it is implied that to represent time as a movement or progression by dividing it into successive (and named) periods would be a mere repression of Time’s actual uniformity, immobility and stagnation.

   Tiempo Tiempo.
Mediodía estanca entre relentes.
Bomba aburrida del cuartel achica
tiempo tiempo tiempo tiempo.

   Era Era.
gallos cancionan escarbando en vano.
Boca del claro día que conjuga
era era era era.

   Mañana Mañana.
El reposo caliente aún de ser.
Piensa el presente guárdame para
mañana mañana mañana mañana.

The names given time do not change is monotone quality, and instead all revert back to the progression-without-progress «tiempo tiempo tiempo tiempo».

This problematic is transferred in the fourth stanza to the search for an absolute «Name» which produces only «Lomismo» -a sameness that is both Name and namelessness:

   Nombre Nombre.
¿Qué se llama cuanto heriza nos?
Se llama Lomismo que padece
nombre nombre nombre nombre.

The immediate question here, the need to identify «cuanto heriza nos», is refused a satisfactory answer, and «Name» (or «Lomismo») remains as abstract and inaccessible, and as oppressive, as «Time» was shown to be earlier into the poem.

Yet through the intricacy of its discourse on time, the poem suggests that the way out of both of the apparent dead ends it presents lies in leaving off the search to identify an (organic) whole in favor of construction an (unabashedly artificial and always provisional) interrelation of parts. I am suggesting that it is because of the lack of interaction between «Tiempo», «Era» and

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«Mañana» that their division makes no sense, so that they flow back together in an undifferentiated mass; but that this problem, by the way it is set out, gives us the materials for its solution. That is that if the divisions of past, present and future could be separated but also actively interrelated, their division would no longer make the larger concept of Time as a whole alienating. Each moment would be related to it, because of their separation from and interrelation with each other. Similarly, rather than search for an eternally valid name or absolute truth -a final identification of «cuanto heriza nos»- we are to look instead for admittedly partial, admittedly successive, but interconnected and intercommunicating names. In this way the tension between the necessity and the impossibility of naming could be made productive, so that the insufficiency of each were no longer a limitation.

In this context the production of «meaning» for Vallejo becomes liberating rather than oppressive. It is so because it is not constituted as a final answer, but created through a dialectic between varying levels of language and, as we can see in the posthumous poetry, through the dialectics of language and experience, and language and action.27


The late poem «Hoy me gusta la vida mucho menos» (346) is a particularly clear example of the activation of this dialectic. Here the conflict and confluence between part and whole, limitation and infinity, make it possible for the fragmented, marginalized subject to take hold of itself, to be in life. This poem has been read as embodying the opposition between an unredeemably hellish daily life and its own impossible transcendence. I propose instead that it does not lead us into this dilemma, but out of it: that it takes us indirectly, through language, to the larger vision of life whose direct accessibility it denies.

The question of happiness or «liking to live» that the poem thematizes is linked to the question it enacts, on the possibility of speaking about life. This text approaches both of these questions with a strategy that embraces their highly problematic nature, so that the affirmation the poem finally makes is the stronger because it is not unexamined or uncontested. Most programmatically explicit in its first stanza -

   Hoy me gusta la vida mucho menos,
pero siempre me gusta vivir: ya lo decía.
Casi toqué la parte de mi todo y me contuve
con un tiro en la lengua detrás de mi palabra.

- the poem, at the same time as it situates us irrevocably inside language, interdicts the possibility of gaining, through the language that necessarily mediates experience, any direct access to any understanding of life or any happiness that goes beyond the trivial. In this first stanza the speaker (who is so scrupulously self-conscious that he already has, at this point, three temporal projections) tells us he has shot his tongue, apparently about to re-place «part» and «whole» in their accepted, static hierarchy, before it could finish pronouncing the words that would do so. He then begins to reexamine his own placement as subject in language and in the world, the connections between the pairs of logical opposites (such as part/whole, never/always) that we expect or allow to organize our understanding, and the relation between the details of daily life, a resonant personal history and any more generalizing movement of thought. That is, he pulls apart what we take to be foundations of knowledge and cardinal points of consciousness, and reorganizes them in a way which, without eliding suffering, leads us beyond the sadness that is its obvious circumstance.

It is not (as one reader has argued) that this speaker gives statements like «es un ojo, éste» and objects like «estos momentáneos pantalones» more importance than they deserve, to console himself for being kept from seeing beyond these details of his fragmented existence. Rather, the piling-up of seemingly chaotic experience and fragmentary thoughts does not imply a prison made of limiting and unresolvable contradictions, but the establishment of dialectical relations between categories which are revealed to have been falsely divided. Just as the framing declaration «Hoy me gusta la vida mucho menos» is eventually shown to imply its apparent contradiction «me gustará vivir siempre», positive relationships are also set up between the part and the whole and between sadness and hope. The temporal abstraction of «tantos años» and the concrete moment of living alluded to with «mis semanas» are related so as to make possible progression and change. Most importantly, the small, physical detail («chaleco»), allusions to personal history («mis padres enterrados»), and generalizing thoughts («¡Tantos años y jamás me falla la tonada!») are connected so that meaning is found in their interrelation -not as a final synthesis, but as movement among these various levels of thinking

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and experience. We are not limited to one of these levels, but rather required to think all of them at once. «Meaning» lies in the constant rethinking of their interrelation. The possibility of «liking life» is thus redefined here as the possibility of engaging with life. And to engage with life means, first of all, learning to speak about it in new terms.

Like much of Vallejo’s poetry, «Hoy me gusta la vida mucho menos...» is constituted not as a representation but as an act. By this I mean that the poem does not «paint a picture» of modern man or even «make a statement» on modem life. Through its use of language, the poem situates us in the world by first examining the speaker and the world as language. Yet this does not convert all experience into a purely linguistic construct. The act of speaking in the poem («decía», «me digo», «diciendo», «repito») is foregrounded in such a way as to emphasize language as mediation rather than as neutral ground; yet the poem as speech is an effort to create mediation which is not also alienation. Thus, going beyond the mere creation of a self-critical discourse, the poem seizes power inside the prison-house of language. It becomes a space of transformation in which «me gusta la vida mucho menos» does not contradict, but makes possible the affirmation «[m]e gustará vivir siempre».28

From this perspective, the sadness and pain Vallejo so often seems both to lament and to embrace can be understood as the pain of what is often a patently dialectical transformation. Fredric Jameson has described «dialectical shock» as

an assault on our conventionalized life patterns, whole battery of shocks administered to our routine vision of things, an implicit critique and restructuration of our habitual consciousness.


This is the pain of wrenching the self out of received assumptions and received divisions of reality, and of forming new connections among and within the categories of self, language and world. «Hoy me gusta la vida mucho menos» dramatizes the discovery of this project; and it is because of this discovery that its speaker can say «me gustará vivir siempre» at last.

Vallejo’s poetry, as it dissects the world’s foundations and then reconnects its fragments in a mobile configuration, makes this connecting act a figure of hope, of futurity. Thus Pedro Rojas’s spoon in the third poem (460-61) of España, aparta de mí este cáliz (1938) becomes an emblem of Spain’s victory -which this collection figures even as it witnesses the present of her destruction. (It is worth noting that Pedro Rojas is represented in this poem as writing in the air with his finger to communicate with his companions: writing here is an act of the flesh and corresponds to a community). Thus also, in «Hoy me gusta la vida mucho menos», it is the suffering of regarding one’s own being «from below up» («haber mirado/de abajo para arriba mi organismo») that makes it possible to live.


Although Vallejo’s themes are often either directly or indirectly political, the deepest sense of the «political» in his poetry is not thematic but constitutive. «Meaning» in his poetry is forged as he strives to rediscover the social, collective and performative attributes of language. To do so, he bends an oppressive langue into a liberating parole. This direction of attention to the situational, to the particular speech instance, does not, as Vallejo writes in the brief piece «Regla gramatical», restrict what he calls in one place the «alcance socialista y universal de la poesía», but in fact expands it. Vallejo here goes on to say that

sabido es que cuanto más personal (repito, no digo individual) es la sensibilidad del artista, su obra es más universal y colectiva.

(1978: 73)                

This statement does not mean simply that the individual stands for the totality. What it does is highlight the multiple, particular loci of resistance in their dialectic with a more general movement towards radical transformation.

While the crisis of representation in the «First World» context seems to signal epistemological despair, for «Third World» writers it often points to a reconstitution of meaning that has already begun. Such a reconstitution does not, as should be clear by now, mean a re-installation of the old categories of «experience», «meaning», and the «human», complete with the connotations that contemporary post-structuralist, Marxist and feminist theory have, from their different perspectives, so rightly unmasked and criticized. In the case of Vallejo, and in spite of the Marxist vocabulary evident in (especially) the critical writings of El arte y la revolución and the Utopian tenor of España, aparta de mí este cáliz, the recovery of meaning does not imply the simple substitution of an (also romantic) Marxist mythology for the older Romantic myths and humanist «truths» his poetry dismantles.

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In Vallejo’s writing, where the «political» is neither an «unconscious» nor a final horizon of interpretation but rather an essential building-block of any cognitive construct, meaning is generated as we struggle, like Vallejo’s soldier Pedro Rojas, with our cells, our nos, our yets, our hungers, and our pieces («luchó con sus células, sus nos, sus todavías, sus hambres, sus pedazos», 461), to finally «assume successfully» what Vallejo calls in another poem our «wept» or «mourned» immensity («asumo con éxito mi inmensidad llorada», 335). Such, in Vallejo, is the size of our human task.


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Franco, Jean. César Vallejo: The Dialectics of Poetry and Silente. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976.

Garcilaso de la Vega, El Inca. Royal Commentaries of the Incas and General History of Peru. Trans. Livermore. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1966.

Jameson, Fredric. Marxism and Form. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Kadir, Djelal. Questing Fictions: Latin America’s Family Romance. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.

Layoun, Mary. «Fictional Formations and Deformations of National Culture». South Atlantic Quarterly 87.1 (1988): 53-73.

Ortega, Julio. La teoría poética de César Vallejo. Del Sol Editores, 1986.

Sangari, Kum Kum. «The Politics of the Possible». Cultural Critique 7 (1987): 155-86.

Vallejo, César. Contra el secreto profesional. Vol. 3 of Obras completas. Barcelona: Laia, 1977.

_____. El arte y la revolución. Vol. 4 of Obras completas. Barcelona: Laja, 1978.

_____. Obra poética. Madrid: Archivos (UNESCO), 1988.

von Buelow, Christiane. «Vallejo’s Venus de Milo and the Ruins of Language». PMLA 104:1 (1989): 41-42.

Williams, William Carlos. Paterson. New York: New Directions, 1963.