Zarathustra criollo vasconcelos on race Chapter uri icon


  • In trying to explain why Brazilians should be thought of as part of the "Latin" world, Vasconcelos tells of a vignette that he thinks some may find superficial but which for him carries much substance. The story is found in his short essay "El problema del Brasil" (The Brazil Problem). He tells us of his visit to Lima, where one evening he attends a dance performance by a female Brazilian artist. Recalling Nietzsche's fascination with Bizet's Carmen, Vasconcelos recounts that the sight of the dancer holds a deep meaning: The spontaneous and intense art of the dancer produced in us a certain joy, like that experienced by someone returning to something of their own but which had been ignored or distant; or as if, from the depths of our ethnic conscience, new emotions were born which held a happiness never felt before. It was strange but not discordant.1 Vasconcelos writes in the same essay that he believes Kant would agree with him that aesthetic reason would show us that this experience has a philosophical meaning.2 In fact, it is not Kant who can support Vasconcelos's claim. Underneath this particular claim, and infusing his entire approach to the problem of race, we find an important affinity with the ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche. Exploring this affinity can elucidate the philosophical bases of Vasconcelos's account of race writ large.3 Moreover, while there are important differences between the two thinkers on some key principles, relating them to each other yields a fruitful area of study for the purpose of seeing how race and racialization are part and parcel of modernity. Race is a major issue in contemporary societies, yet philosophy, especially in the canonical European tradition, has yet to provide a cogent account of what it is and why it persists as a problem. Latin American philosophy, however, has grappled with the issue since its inception. Within this tradition, Vasconcelos is a central figure.4 His writings on race are of paramount importance, yet some remain unclear. Within them, we find various influences, from Aquinas to Bergson; yet some appear to resonate with Nietzschean themes if not direct influences.5 It is this resonance that I explore here to see what exactly undergirds Vasconcelos's thoughts on race. In particular, I would like to explore the ways in which Vasconcelos's key work on race, La raza csmica-as well as other, lesser known writings-can be read as Nietzschean-inflected texts. My claim is not that Vasconcelos followed Nietzsche al pie de la letra, nor that he agreed with him on most philosophical principles. To be sure, Vasconcelos is a (perhaps the) leading light in Latin American modernism's confrontation with race on the philosophical plane. However, it is still unclear what undergirds his vast architectonic, and further philosophical analysis is needed.6 Both Vasconcelos and Nietzsche saw the aesthetic as the underlying metaphysics of life.7 In effect, there is clear evidence of a direct line of influence from Nietzsche to Vasconcelos, and we can aver that both ground their philosophical projects on aesthetic bases.8 Vasconcelos makes some references to Nietzsche that are critical. For example, in Indologa he expresses his belief that the race of the future will be worthy not because it will create a few "Nietzschean" bermenschen but rather a "Totinem" (from totus and hominem, Latin for "all" and "man") of a universal, synthetic humanity.9 Yet beyond these disagreements, there is a basic metaphysical agreement between Nietzsche and Vasconcelos on the value of the aesthetic experience not just in providing a link to the workings of the universe, but also ethical value to man's existence. Even more to the point, it is the notions of harmony, rhythm, and music that the two share in their worldviews. As Martha Robles tells us, "As soon as [Vasconcelos] began his autobiographical symphony, he gave himself the task of trying to convince following the highest operatic German style: The music of Wagner, mythical invocations . . . and the historical voluntarism that from Schopenhauer and Nietzsche abutted in the paragon of Mexican mestizaje."10 In one of his key works, Monismo esttico (Aesthetic Monism), where Vasconcelos explains the unity of his cosmology and his theory of art and music, we see an explicit indebtedness to Nietzsche. Vasconcelos tells us that his essay on auditive mysticism, integral to this work, came from "an idea from a certain paragraph, in that fount of books, which is called The Birth of Tragedy, written by Nietzsche."11 Vasconcelos goes on to say that his theory of dance, also of great important to his aesthetics, comes from reading Nietzsche's first book.12 While much has been made of Nietzsche's lack of a system, the opposite must be said of Vasconcelos: perhaps under the influence of Augustine and Aquinas, Vasconcelos aimed to construct a vast philosophical edifice where all elements fit together. It is in this light that we can make sense of the two movements in Vasconcelos's racial harmony. The first can be found in some of his short essays, the second in his well-known work La raza csmica. From apparent discord to harmony: This is Vasconcelos's project in his dealing with all phenomena, including racial ideas. 2011 by The University of Notre Dame Press. All rights reserved.

author list (cited authors)

  • Von Vacano, D.

Book Title

  • Forging People: Race, Ethnicity, and Nationality in Hispanic American and Latino/a Thought

publication date

  • January 2011