In the eyes of others. An interdisciplinary research project – El Sol de México

By Fernando A. Morales Orozco / The College of Saint Louis

When starting the study group In the eyes of others, coordinated by Antonio Saborit and who writes this, we start from a premise by Marcel Schwob: “The ideas of great men are the common heritage of humanity, but each of them only possessed their extravagances. The book that described a man with all his anomalies would be a work of art similar to a Japanese print in which the image of a small caterpillar is seen eternally, perceived only once at a particular time of day. If a biography is not capable of showing a character in all his or her splendor, what is the point of writing them? Then, we decided to ask ourselves: when and how did this type of biographical sketch begin to be written in lands that we now call Mexican?

We began our studies in the year of the pandemic, and we began by exploring newspapers, increasingly weaker due to the empire of the image, which have been displacing other genres; one of them is the obituary that examines the biography of those who are no longer with us. Every day we see minimal obituaries announcing the death of a person, but the obituary has disappeared from our newspapers. Why were we interested in starting with this reflection? Because this is one of the first genres we found to narrate the lives of others. Recording the lives of those who have abandoned us is a gesture of civilization, a gesture older than we thought. The end of a life is what gives meaning to existence and that meaning is given by whoever writes about it. In the words of Robert Gittings “Every biography, even the most material in its methods, is in fact a commentary on the human spirit itself.”

Writing an anecdote, portraying, even succinctly, one of these characters gives meaning to the life of the person being biographed, however, it also gives meaning to the person who is portraying them. Through the portrait we know the ideological profile, the friendly relations, the conformation of the cultural field of the biographer, but it is also possible to perceive those of the writer. We have tried to analyze this biographical genre, which is traditionally located in historical and sociological studies, through philological tools. Beyond reconstructing a life through the specific facts that the biographer obtains first-hand, or through consulting archives, what interests us is exploring the artifice of reconstructing a life in literary terms. We suspect that only through the literary work can a biographical portrait of a person be constructed. We form this suspicion from the desire to build something solid—a portrait, a snapshot, a memory or an image—that stands on its own. Here comes the will of the author-portrait painter. The biography, the obituary, the anecdote, any of these will then combine the specific fact and the idea that the biographer has of his portrayed character.

For those who portray portraits, it is necessary to be clear about who the character their biography will be about, even if the point of view changes along the way of writing, either because the research takes the biographer down unexpected paths, or because the process writing causes other twists in the project. Whoever constructs the image of another produces a continuous allegory supported by data and archives, but it acquires an artistic meaning through the words of the person who narrates it. The same person would have different portraits to the extent that different writers approach his life and give it different meanings. To this we can add the fact that a biography is an unfinished work, to the extent that the character being talked about may be present in literary history, or may fall into oblivion. And every time a figure appears or disappears from the canon, the biographer revisits the essential facts of that existence, finds out what the character’s peculiarities are and finds a way to return the appropriate density to each life decision made by the biographer. If we add to all this in our reflection, the fact that a text, in this case the literary portrait, appears published in a specific printed medium (a prologue, a fragment in the analysis of the work, a tribute from the Academy, for example) cite examples), we then have that the meaning-the allegory-the soul of the portrait is nourished by three different spheres. The writing of the portrait painter, the profile of the sitter and the place, the format, the oral support or material in which said writing will appear are important.

In the eyes of others is a site of literary portraits written by Mexicans between the 16th and 20th centuries, edited and annotated by collaborators from different institutions whose purpose is to rescue little-known texts and disseminate them freely. Over the last four years, in which researchers from different institutions, students and scholarship holders have worked, we have built a gallery of portraits that currently contains 706 compiled, edited and annotated entries, in which we can approach 223 Mexican writers of the 16th to 20th centuries. The portraits that appear here are part of much larger texts: prologues, studies, memoirs, magazine notes, reports. All entries contain a link that leads to reviewing the text in its original format.

More than telling us about specific data about a writer, in these portraits we can peer into the lives of authors that we have been taught to appreciate as artistic monuments; However, when reading these notes, we find that they are people of flesh and blood, with emotions, feelings; men and women with good and bad, like mine and like yours, dear reader. Thus, this rear window breaks the mythologized image of the great creators of Mexican literature. With this, we hope, it would be more accessible to read his works.

The portal of In the eyes of others It is available to the public on the page Also, the book will be on sale very soon. In the eyes of others. Studies on literary portraiture from the 16th to 20th centuriespublished by El Colegio de San Luis – INAH and Cenidiap Inbal.

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