José Manuel Briceño Guerrero, 1929-2014

JMBGJosé Manuel Briceño Guerrero, the llanero philosopher and author whose dazzling prose did more to illuminate the Venezuelan condition to me than that of any of his contemporaries, died in his beloved Mérida last Friday. He was 85.

Obituary writers have hurried to pronounce his legacy “influential”, but in fact Briceño Guerrero was much more often celebrated than read, let alone understood.

That’s not surprising: he refused to simplify an argument for the sake of wider dissemination. His writing tended to a certain obscurity, with some of his fiction on the far outer edges of intelligibility. At its worst, it could be maddening; at its best, absolutely thrilling. To those willing to put in the time, the effort and the soulshare required, Briceño Guerrero offered depths of meaning and nuance unmatched in Venezuelan letters.

My own attempt to translate bits of his seminal Discurso Salvaje is here. My starstruck essay about the one time I met him is here.

A recent documentary about him follows:

29 thoughts on “José Manuel Briceño Guerrero, 1929-2014

      • I am baffled by the sausage making process that happens when you input that video through your eyes and ears and then arrives at that comment. Even more baffled to think that the same is not uncommon in so many Venezuelans.

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        • There isn’t really any surprise there. What you get out of JMBG is proportional with what you put in.

          Put in a couple of weeks of solid study and reflection on Laberinto de los Tres Minotauros and you get a grasp of depth and nuance in the Latin American condition you’d never arrive at any other way.

          Put in 10 minutes on YouTube and you get…this.

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          • Sigh, its not only the lack of effort made on understanding his particular philosophy its the line of reasoning that finds anything done by the current government unequivocally wrong. It stops us from identifying the problems with Chavismo and its opposition and methodically constructing a viable alternative.

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            • JMBG’s Laberinto de los Tres MInotauros cannot be read as for or against Chavez but as an attempt at understanding on a conceptual level a part of the Venezuelan ethos of which Chavismo is an expression , (the Discurso Salvaje) . It has an explanatory intent , it does not purport to condem or praise . He creates a framework for understanding where some baffling or irrational postures and behaviour of the Chavez supporters comes from . Personally JMBG probably liked some things in Chavismo and deeply disliked others , but his personal opinions dont matter as much as the theoretical constructs he creates to find meaning in some aspects of the Venezuelan ethos .

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  1. He sounds like something of a cross between Northrop Frye and Ezra Pound, but uniquely Venezuelan. In fact, given his penchant for the classics and Chinese, I bet Pound is not so far off. Not bad for a kid from Apure.

    I look forward some day to being able to read him in the original. For now, I will have to wait for further of your translations.

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  2. Sad to hear about another notable Venezuelan leaving the fight!

    I understand you Francisco were a big fan of the guy, understandably so! I share your admiration for JMBG after putting serious effort at reading and going over some of his work.

    Kudos to you for translating and making it pre palatable for wider consumption.
    QEPD

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  3. Thank you for the post! Its nice to see this type of recognition to him, Francisco. As a former ULA student I have a huge respect and admiration for Briceño Guerrero. La ULA está de luto. I had the privilege to edit a TV short bio of him and listen to hours of interviews to cut… It was rewarding to say the least.

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  4. I know a number of people in an earlier thread were yearning to see a copy of <>, and I have been too, ever since I first read Quico’s translation on here in 2006.

    I’ve followed this blog more or less weekly ever since.

    Anyhoo, I found his book, whole, entire, scanned, online — http://noticierointernacional.files.wordpress.com/2013/04/el-laberinto-de-los-tres-minotauros.pdf

    I hesitated about posting it, because it is indeed a violation of intellectual property, but the poor man is dead, and I personally know that when I pass away, I really hope that people read what I’ve written, paid for or not. Salud, Don José.

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  5. Annnnnnd apparently Spanish quotation marks are not HTML-friendly. The missing title above is “El Laberinto de los Tres Minotauros.” :-)

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  6. In the Facebook video Briceño Guerrero shows a strong pro-Chavez bias. He talks about the marvelous meetings with Africans organized by Chavez in Venezuela, but he doesn’t say that these Africans, who received Bolivar’s sword, were bloody tyrants. He even says that whoever denies this positive initiative is “mezquino” y “resentido”. He could be looking at himself in a mirror.
    His political side is not pretty. But, of course, this does not detract from his value as a translator or philosopher. I can not comment on this side of his personality because I don’t know his work. I will try to read more of his work to be able to comment.

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  7. Thanks to Francisco for posting this piece on a truly remarkable man , he was a true authentic intellectual and writer , a rare thing for our country, and personally very honest and charming in a very natural and humble way .

    I think that he was sometimes close to unintelligible in what he wrote because he loved language and much as he loved working with thoughts he was sometimes carried away by his passion for words ,for the well turned phrase , as the quest for beautiful expression often fudges the precise expression of ideas . The documentarly shows this quite well , as a poet he took note of the exquisite musicality of language in a way that most people ignore.

    I read several books by him , was dazzled many years ago by an early book on the origins of language , which I reread recently and discovered wasnt that interesting any more , more scientific works made his ideas on language a bit dated and obsolete but the writing was so superb that the outdated ideas didnt matter.

    He had brilliant insights and a poetic imagination which sometimes made him overshoot his intellectual visions . El laberinto de la soledad , his most well known book is worthy of careful study . Also of some objective critical review . His brilliant writing can make you into a fan but then you give up on a more rigorous examination of some of the ideas expounded in the book.

    Loved it when in his talk with Francisco he dwelled on Guzman Blancos fathers phrase ( si ellos hubieran gritado Federacion nosotros hubieramos gritado Centralismo) for it represents the too often ignored notion that the agonal spirit which allows us an enhanced and proud sense of our own identity is one of the key drivers of human behaviour . Nietszche said the same when he wrote “how well do bad speeches and bad music sound when you march against an enemy”

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    • Correction : the reference to El laberinto de la Soledad ( Octavio Paz great essay) is really to El Laberinto de los Tres Minotauros.

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  8. Quaint.

    Nostalgia for quiet , and more gentle times

    To a certain extent English can be taught phonetically, but the tendency to use ‘Spelling Bees’ to reinforce spelling, emphasizes the visual component of learning the language.

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    • I think English is very difficult to teach phonetically. The vowels, for example, do not have a constant values. How long do we learn about short and long “a” and “i” ? What about through, thorough, trough, slough? ” I thought the wind would unwind the bandage around the wound, while the Polish count asked the maid, who had made the bed, to polish the furniture.” I am sure people could come up with others. I have taught English and Spanish, and phonetically, Spanish is so much easier.:-)

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      • Let alone the ones that confound my often English-perplexed wife such as bear, bare, beer, boar, bore, born, bar, barn, burn, burr, bird. Decidedly not helped by regional variations in gringo accent that de-emphasize the last consonant resulting in a soft or omitted pronunciation.

        Add in the admixture of hybrid letter sounds represented by a single letter such as s-c (from latin) or c-k (from old English/German influences) and its a slussterfusc.

        I giggle uncontrollably whenever I hear someone say “knight” phonetically. “Kanigett”.

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  9. Actually, the essay by Quico reproduced in Veneconomia, 2005: “Salvajes, mantuanos y racionalistas:
    Hacia una teoría crítica del chavismo”, extremely well-written, posits that Briceño Guerrero, much before Chavez appeared in scene, had the key to the success of Chavismo in his book “El laberinto de los tres minotaurios”, the key being the use by Chavez of the savage language, one of the three languages that compete for the soul of Latin Americas. Extraordinary essay by Quico. with which I fully I agree.
    I would add that in the Facebook video shown to us by HOBBIT, B.G. shows that he has also fell under the spell of this language.

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  10. JMBG was a guy with a deep eccentric/iconoclastic streak and basically zero interest in politics as normally conceived. Trying to place him on any kind of conventional political spectrum makes for a spectacular piece of point-missing: like calling Michelangelo’s David pornographic.

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    • So: Briceño Guerrero is a God and Quico is his prophet!
      He, says Quico,. should not be judged in the same way we judge all other human beings.
      Well, I don’t know about that. Why should he be exempted from normal political classification?
      I guess I will keep missing the point, Quico.
      By the way, the prologue to the Minotauros book is beautifully written, wonderful insights, a magic prose,

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      • Burn the heretics! Throw him in the river! If he floats, he is a chavista de mierda. If he drowns, he is one of us.

        PEEQECE

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  11. As an economist I will only say that cultural explanations of underdevelopment are at best lazy and at worst self-serving… Add to that the fear or perception of cultural oppression from any aspiration of progress, and you have marxism/chavismo…

    RIP

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    • Yes, it’s truly impossible for an economist to believe that you can single out ‘culture’ and use it to explain the development (or lack of) of a country. I can’t wait to see Chile becoming a developed country just to see people stop repeating that Latin America can never become developed because of our culture or racial composition.

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        • Yes, Rory. But Cuba is the best evidence we have that one country can go from being a ‘prosperous middle-income economy’ to a full slum in no more than a decade due solely to government mismanagement. Is culture a factor? Certainly is. But we can’t forget that even the countries with the ‘best culture’ in the world wouldn’t survive a Fidel Castro, a Chavez or a Maduro ‘managing’ the land.

          On Cuba:
          “On the eve of the revolution, we find that incomes were
          fifty to sixty percent of European levels.”
          http://econweb.umd.edu/~davis/eventpapers/CUBA.pdf

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  12. One culture can know many versions and variations , to lump together all the living cultures of latin america into a single over arching culture may be possible in a broad sense , but there can exist big differences between closely related cultures , enough so that they make people in each living culture have different ways of seeing things or responding to them despite the shared features allowing for a common tag being put on them .

    By way of example in Colombia and Venezuela the differences between the life culture of the andean Highlands and of the Coastal Caribbean Regions , they both may be part of a larger Latin American Uber Culture but offer many contrasts that have a big influence on what kind of people they tend to produce.

    While cultural factors by themselves dont always account for how peoples historical experiences turn out , they can exert a bit influence on peoples character and life.

    The life culture of Chile is very different from the life culture of the spanish speaking Caribbean . Maybe it can make the shift to a more developed modern lifestyle easier than is the case for latin americans harbouring a different life culture .

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