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Toward an Aesthetics of the Abject: Reimagining the Sensory Body in Arguedas's "Los ríos

Author(s): KAREN SPIRA
Source: Revista Hispánica Moderna, Año 67, No. 1 (June 2014), pp. 73-89
Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press
Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/43285261
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Toward an Aesthetics of the Abject:
Reimagining the Sensory Body in Arguedas's
Los ríos profundos



Abject brated
This in novel.1 in This
itself should notLos in ríosreaders
surprise itselffamiliar
withshould (1958), not surprise José María readers Arguedas's familiar cele- with
indigenista literature. Like other indigenista authors, Arguedas hoped to galvanize
readers' support for dismantling the hacienda system by way of visceral descrip-
tion of the human exploitation on which it was predicated. But in Los ríos
profundos , Arguedas uses abject images toward a drastically different - even
contradictory - end. Through the voice of his narrator, fourteen-year-old
Ernesto, Arguedas elaborates an aesthetics of the abject, exploring the sensory
rewards offered by contact with dirt, excrement, and rot. In the novel, the dirty,
the fly-infested, the redolent, and the excrement-stained become sites of sensory
interest and even beauty. Perhaps most compelling of all, Ernesto's appreciation
of this alternate aesthetic canon - what I will refer to as "sensory complexity" -
emerges from his identification with Andean indigenous culture and constitutes
a surprising yet important way in which Arguedas makes indigenous values mani-
fest within the novel-form.

Analysis of this bold employment of the abject is scarce in the critical litera-
ture. Priscilla Archibald has recently noted that the related category of the gro-
tesque, and particularly representations of sexual abjection, occupy a "central
place in Arguedas's work" yet are curiously absent from critical studies (129).
This lacuna might be traced back to the emphasis critics, following Arguedas's
lead, have put on his unprecedented experiments with language. In his 1939
essay "Entre el kechwa y el castellano, la angustia del mestizo," Arguedas
describes the Quechua speaker compelled to write in Spanish in order to be
read as in "anguish" over the conflict between the need for self-expression and
the inadequacy of the expressive medium at his disposal: "el castellano apren-

1 1 would like to thank Estelle Tarica, Dorothy J. Hale, Karina Palau, Allen Young, and Tara
Daly for their incisive comments and questions throughout the development of this piece. I
am grateful for the feedback and questions of those who responded to earlier versions of this
piece at the Comparative Literature Dissertation Colloquium at the University of California,
Berkeley as well as during the American Comparative Literature Association "Diasporic
Poetics" panel in 2012.

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74 Revista Hispánica Moderna 67 . 1 (2014)

dido a viva fuerza, [en] escuela, colegio o universidad, no le sirve bien para decir
en forma plena y profunda su alma o el paisaje del mundo donde creció" (37).
This anguish is prominent throughout Arguedas's writings; we can read it in
Ernesto's perpetual and always frustrated search for interlocutors in Los ríos pro-
fundos . The singularity of Arguedas's Quechua-Spanish bilingualism and the
essential role it plays in his novelistic project have led key critical figures -
William Rowe, Antonio Cornejo Polar, and Alberto Escobar, among others - to
develop a robust critical literature on the politics of language and voice in his
oeuvre.2 This is a crucial approach to Arguedas's work that highlights his unique
impact on the twentieth-century Latin American novel but seems to have had
the unintended consequence of overshadowing his also groundbreaking literary
reconfiguration of the sensory body.
Critics who do analyze the abject in Arguedas's work emphasize its ambiguous
presence. In her extensive study of the topic, Amy Fass Emery describes Ernesto
as "attracted to and repulsed by the chichería " (60) - a kind of Peruvian bar that
features a cave-like, dirty interior - a formulation that echoes Julia Kristeva's the-
orization of the abject as a "vortex of summons and repulsion" (1). Emery's
analysis is revealing, but in some instances forced. She treats Arguedas's repre-
sentations of dirt monolithically, grouping together the colonos* "squalid, filthy,
and stinking" living spaces, the grimy chicherías , and a dirty indigenous musician
who "smelled of filth" (59). 3 It is true that Ernesto is overcome with disgust and
despair when contemplating the hacienda Indians' huts, but he experiences the
chichería, s' and Indian musician's dirtiness differently altogether. Throughout Los
ríos profundos , dirt frequently signals membership in a privileged set of places,
objects, and people, which facilitate authentic connection and interaction
unavailable in Abancay's "clean" spaces. If for Kristeva (whose work informs
Emery's analysis) the abject is "opposed to /' and "loathsome," for Ernesto it
holds meaning and even pleasure for a different "I," a subject who identifies
with indigenous culture (1, 2). In this way, Arguedas's novel troubles the uni-
versal subject assumed by Kristeva, an intervention perhaps most visible in
Ernesto's tender treatment of la opa Marcelina's corpse - Kristeva posits the
corpse as the paragon of the abject.
Informing this indigenous perspective on the world is, among other things, an
ecological sensibility, according to which all elements of material reality - not
just the rose in full bloom, but also the dirt that nurtures its growth and the
insect and bacterial life that aid in its decomposition - carry meaning and value.

2 Antonio Cornejo Polar, for example, characterizes Arguedas's novels as "un sostenido y
ejemplar esfuerzo por inventar un lenguaje que no disfrace la insólita realidad que pretende
representar" (12). For rich discussions of Arguedas's artistic innovations on the level of
language, see also Alberto Escobar's Arguedas, o la utopía de la lengua , especially the second
chapter, "Lengua, discurso y escritura," and William Rowe's "El lenguaje literario de
Arguedas" in Mito e ideología en la obra de fosé María Arguedas.
3 Emery relies here and throughout her analysis on Frances Horning Barraclough's 1978
translation of Los ríos profundos. In this case, Barraclough's translation does not reflect the
more open-ended phrasing of the original: "El cantor olia a sudor, a suciedad de telas de
lana" (382). In this key passage, which I will analyze in my conclusion, Ernesto describes his
attraction to the Indian's smell, a detail that Barraclough's translation and Emery's interpre-
tation elide.

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spira, Toward an Aesthetics of the Abject 75

This sensibility has a radical charge in a cultural milieu in which dirt is con-
structed as a marker of Indian ignorance and, as Marisol de la Cadena has dem-
onstrated, connected to a lack of (sexual) morality (69). 4 By valuing dirt,
excrement, rot, and other manifestations of the abject, Arguedas explores how
the colonial and republican fixation on extirpating "the dirty" results in sensory
education that creates subjects insensitive - even hostile - to the rich native cul-
ture of highlands Peru, such as that embodied by the chichería. He additionally
associates this repudiation of processes of digestion, decomposition, and death
with a pathological relationship to the natural world, rife with its own kind of
scientific ignorance and spiritual vacuity.
In Yawar Fiesta (1941), his first novel, Arguedas makes this point in a slightly
different way. The puquios , members of Puquio's indigenous communities or
ayllus , exhibit a deeply sensory relationship to all aspects of the Andean high-
lands' natural environment, from the water they rely on for sustenance to the
less obviously useful song of local birds. The mistis (or non-indigenous inhabi-
tants) are aware only of the profit they might yield from the natural environ-

en las cascadas, el agua blanca grita, pero los mistis no oyen. En las
lomadas . . . flores amarillas bailan, pero los mistis casi no ven. En el
amanecer ... las tuyas y las torcazas cantan, sacudiendo sus alitas; las
ovejas y los potros corretean en el pasto, mientras los mistis duermen,
o miran, calculando la carne de sus novillos. Al atardecer, el taita Inti
dora el cielo, dora la tierra, pero ellos estornudan, espuelan a los
caballos en los caminos, o toman café, toman pisco caliente.
Pero en el corazón de los puquios está llorando y riendo la que-
brada, en sus ojos el cielo y el sol están viviendo; en su adentro está
cantando la quebrada, con su voz de la mañana, del mediodía, de la
tarde, del oscurecer. (15)

The mistis consume the elements of nature that bring them pleasure (
coffee) and profit (cattle), while the puquios experience interpénétration
the rhythms of the natural world, reveling in nature prior to its transform
into commodity.5 While this passage emphasizes the puquios ' sensitivi
nature's exquisite vitality, Los ríos profundos brings into focus the ayllus ' r
ship to life in decline, that is, their sensory and epistemological receptivity
meaning and value of digestion, excretion, decomposition, and death. Li
dance of flowers in the wind or morning birdsong, these aspects of natu

4 De la Cadena makes a powerful case for how, in the wake of a "scientific po

ascendant in Cuzco in the early twentieth century, racist attitudes characterizing
gente del pueblo as both unclean and lacking in morals cloaked themselves in the "ob
discourse of modern science and medicine (61). See pp. 68-72 of Indigenous Mestizos
account of how racist discourses, including those crafted by influential indigenistas
sanitary campaigns in early twentieth-century Cuzco.
5 This claim is present in Yawar Fiesta in a subtle way when the narrator comments
on the mistis ' essential role as consumers: "Los vecinos [los mistis] engordamos n
(62). Their "engordamiento" might be read as an ironic representation of a relation
consumption that denies any association with excretion.

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76 Revista Hispánica Moderna 67 .1 (2014)

harder to commoditize, which explains part of their appeal to Arguedas, whom

Mario Vargas Llosa describes as characterizing "[el] proceso de conversion de
lo orgánico en producto manufacturado como aberrante" (19).b I say "harder
to commoditize" rather than "impossible" because, as I will explore below,
guano, an important fertilizer in Peru beginning in pre-Columbian times,
became Peru's most profitable internationally traded commodity in the middle
of the nineteenth century. Excrement's polysemy - its ambiguous meaning in
the context of Peruvian social and economic history, as well as its threshold iden-
tity, representing both endpoint (as waste) and origin (as fertilizer) of life -
makes it a crucial participant in Arguedas's elaboration of sensory complexity as
an alternate aesthetic in Los ríos profundos .
Ricardo Melgar Bao has emphasized the "polyvalent" nature of Arguedas's
use of excrement as symbol (120). Melgar describes Arguedas's references to
excrement in El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo (1971) as signifying, in turn, "la
alienación, el Mal, la identidad y la esperanza" (120). He bases his interpretation
partly on an analysis of the various meanings of "mierda" in Peruvian urban
parlance. Peruvians use the word to refer to "la abundancia de bienes" at the
same time that it expresses national dysfunction in the popular phrase "El Perú
es una mierda" (119, 121). Melgar relates the image of "mierda" in Peru to that
of "la chingada" in Mexico, which communicates a conflicted mix of feelings
ranging from shame to pride, judgment to identity, and violence to tenderness
(121). In this way, excrement - together with other manifestations of the
abject- can be seen to embody the vibrant dialogism that Bakhtin identifies as
fundamental to the novel: language as "an intense interaction and struggle"
between different meanings, each reflective of a distinct worldview (354).
Through my analysis of Los ríos profundos , I seek to draw attention to the unex-
pected, provocative way in which Arguedas values an indigenous worldview
through the abject.

Dirt and the Indigenista Tradition

Most indigenista novelists avoid treating the fraught issues of cleanliness and
hygiene altogether. In El mundo es ancho y ajeno (1941), Ciro Alegría rebuts the
image of the "dirty Indian" by displacing the stigma of dirtiness onto other
social groups. For example, Alegría depicts indigenous protagonist Rosendo

6 In the same 1980 essay, Vargas Llosa characterizes Arguedas' s vision of nature as simplistic
("la naturaleza es buena y bella, el hombre es malvado y feo") and idealistic (he refers to
his vision of nature as "utopie") (19, 20). This critique chimes with Vargas Llosa's belief,
expressed in this piece and elsewhere, that indigenous culture represents an archaic cultural
remnant, useless within modern society with its dependence on processes of urbanization
and industrialization. History has proved that it is Vargas Llosa who has underestimated the
relevance, and even scientific viability of indigenous Peruvian cultures. See, for example, the
May 2012 issue of the PMLA for Karl Zimmerer's essay on how the Quechua concept of
kawsay, which Zimmerer defines as a mode of human life based on "quotidian customs of
reciprocity with nature" - what the West terms sustainability - , has become a crucial concept
in indigenous groups' contemporary political discourse (603, 602). Zimmerer writes, "the
rights to kawsay have been enshrined in the constitutions of Ecuador and Bolivia" (602).

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spira, Toward an Aesthetics of the Abject ■+ 77

Maqui's corrupt lawyer Bismarck as physically repugnant because of the effects

of his overindulgence in alcohol. When Bismarck invites Maqui and his compan-
ions to join him in a beer, the Indians decline, quietly commenting that the
beverage "[p]arece orines de caballo" (75). Through this aside, Alegría links
the lawyer to base bodily functions, turning the tables on colonial ideology, thus
responding to the type of the "dirty Indian" with a counter-type, the "dirty
lawyer" or "tinterillo," a perfect foil for his indigenous characters' physical
wholesomeness and moral purity (73). The indigenous soras in César Vallejo's El
tungsteno (1931) are similarly physically vigorous and ethically unimpeachable.
In Jorge Icaza's Huasipungo (1934), the indigenista sentiment takes a different
shape. The Ecuadorian classic is best known for its visceral rendering of the filth
in which hacienda Indians, or colonos , live - a point hammered home through
descriptions that largely consist of synonyms for "sucio." The interior spaces of
protagonist Andrés Chiliquinga's hut are "miserables, sucias, prietas, sórdidas"
(126) and the men who occupy such homes are "sucios, humildes, desampa-
rados" (131). Icaza renders the image of the "dirty Indian" in vivid detail, but
characterizes the filth and disease as products of the hacienda system itself.
José Uriel Garcia's El nuevo indio (1930), a book-length essay on Peruvian iden-
tity, offers a contrasting approach to dirt, reframing it as a crucial - and uniquely
Peruvian - fertilizer for creativity. While critics have noted the influence of Uriel
Garcia's thinking about identity and creativity on Arguedas,7 equally striking is
the Peruvian authors' shared investment in an aesthetics of dirt, manifest in their
mutual celebration of the chichería. For Uriel Garcia, the chichería , in all its
gloomy, grimy sordidness, is the space where creativity, the defining character-
istic of his eponymous "nuevo indio," is best nurtured and cultivated. It is both
"matriz" and "invernadero" of Peruvian culture (168, 169). The chichería! s life-
nourishing powers inhere precisely in its dark dirtiness. Though he refers to the
chichería as a " conservatorio de la música nativa" (169) and describes it as a site at
which verbal wit flourishes (167), thus constructing it as a legitimate cultural
institution, Uriel Garcia likens the chichería to the dwelling places of primitive
humans and animals. Resembling a "vivienda prehistórica" and a "cueva" (166),
the bar invites visitors to leave behind "la vida regulada por la civilidad" in order
to access and express the more genuine, creative selves at their core (167). In
this way, Uriel Garcia relies on primi tivism to redeem the abject, reinscribing the
association between dirt and barbarism even as he attempts to characterize it

In Los ríos profundos , the chichería also constitutes a singu

the only place in Abancay where Ernesto experiences a se
whereas Uriel Garcia's reframing of the abject is mired in
discourse of temporality, Arguedas approaches dirt spatially,
body's experience of material reality. Through his novel, A
dirty is an inexact, even meaningless label, obscuring the
ences offered by the chichería and related spaces, objects
the ekphrastic attention Ernesto brings to dirt, Arguedas
to assign value to sensory experiences she might otherwise di

7 See Tarica (112) and Archibald (39).

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78 +• Revista Hispánica Moderna 67 .1 (2014)

The Politics of Describing a Mulberry Tree

Sensory complexity makes its initial appearance in Los ríos profundos in a scene in
which Ernesto writes a love letter on behalf of a classmate. In the novel, Ernesto's
father enrolls him at a Catholic boarding school in Abancay, a town rigidly
divided along race and class lines. Ernesto experiences the school as a painful
exile from the ayllu he considers his proper home, and he struggles to relate to
the other students. A first moment of connection comes when Antero (nick-
named "Markask'a"), a classmate, asks Ernesto to compose a love letter on his
behalf for Salvinia, his love interest, because he has heard the newcomer writes
"como poeta" (246) . Ernesto's first attempt draws heavily on the romantic idiom
of the Western poetic tradition: "Usted es la dueña de mi alma, adorada niña.
Está usted en el sol, en la brisa, en el arco iris que brilla bajo los puentes, en mis
sueños" (249) . The letter is a stilted blend of the language of romanticism and
modernismo , as many critics have noted.8 Struck by "una especie de aguda ver-
güenza" after composing the letter, Ernesto hides his face in his arms and listens
to a voice within (250). A question takes shape in his consciousness: how would
he approach the task were he to direct the missive to a young indigenous girl?
He writes a second letter in Quechua despite his realization that his chosen
medium - the written word - would be useless to woo his hypothetical addressee,
who would probably be unable to read it.
Whereas the Spanish letter features the cold prettiness of stylized imagery, the
Quechua letter strikes tones of heated melodrama. It depicts Ernesto's desperate
attempt to be heard by an insouciant love interest, whom he implores to cease
her movement so that a hummingbird, his intermediary, can deliver his message
of teary desperation: "oye su llanto; es sólo el mensajero de mi joven corazón"
(251). The letter's romance inheres not in the evocation of the loved one's per-
fection - the Spanish letter's main theme - but rather in the intensity of the
admirer's feelings. The Quechua letter thus presents a radically different model
of courtship from the Spanish letter, which, as Margot Beyersdorff has shown,
originates in Quechua culture itself. Beyersdorff cites the letter's tone of "suppli-
cation," its "repeated use of the imperative," its meter, and its "use of a medi-
ator" to convey the message of love as key indications that Ernesto's letter might
in fact be a real huayno , translated by Arguedas into Spanish and converted to
prose (43).
Critics have read the Quechua letter as not just marking an important moment
of identity formation - for Antonio Cornejo Polar, here Ernesto "reafirm[a] su
pertenencia al mundo indio" - but as a moment of fulfillment for the Peruvian,
and even the Latin American, novel, representing a powerful intermixing of
indigenous language and poetics with the Western novel-form (132). The Que-
chua letter's pedigree as traced by Beyersdorff incites Anne Lambright to charac-
terize it as modeling a new mode of literary expression, which she describes as a
"mestizo literary discourse," more capable of representing "the indigenous ele-
ment of Peruvian culture" (140). Lambright regards the letter as a kind of sty-
listic mise en abyme , displaying in a single paragraph Arguedas's cultural-linguistic

8 See Elmore (345) and Lambright (139).

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spira, Toward an Aesthetics of the Abject 79

aspirations for the novel as a whole. In this way, the Quechua letter has anchored
interpretations of the novel as a transculturated text, blending criollo and indige-
nous cultural forms in a fashion that is enlivening of both, as well as serving as a
site of cultural preservation for elements of regional culture - the huayno - as
Angel Rama proposes the twentieth-century Latin American novel has and

This celebration of the Quechua letter as a paragon of a more inclusive mode

of Latin American writing has been elaborated, however, based on an incom-
plete interpretation of the scene. By isolating the two letters from the narrative
prelude that leads up to Ernesto's act of composition, I argue, critics have
overlooked how Arguedas posits the Quechua letter as a representational
problem - not as a solution. The narrative prelude guides us to read the letters
not only with respect to Ernesto's relationship to language and literary tradition,
but also to his sensory experience of the world. A record of Ernesto's train of
thought as he thinks over Antero's request, the prelude presents an unedited
version of his original artistic vision - a strikingly excremental picture of
romance. In light of this surprising passage, both the Spanish and the Quechua
letter can be interpreted as a moment of silencing or censorship of Ernesto's
true self.

In order to arrive at this more complete appraisal of the scene, we must travel
back to its very beginning: the moment when Ernesto, seated alone in a class-
room, asks himself, "¿Cómo empezaría la carta?" (247). Ernesto summons to
mind an image of the Avenida Condebamba, Salvinia's street. Ostensibly a his-
tory of the avenue, the passage introduces Ernesto's attraction to sensory com-

La Avenida Condebamba era ancha, sin aceras. La llamaban avenida

por los árboles de mora que crecían a sus orillas. Decían que fue el
camino de entrada de una gran quinta. Cuando llegué a Abancay,
unía el pueblo con el campo de fútbol. . . . Los árboles crecían junto a
los muros de piedra. Las hojas grandes, nervudas, daban una sombra
tupida sobre el camino. En los pueblos andinos no hay moreras. A
Abancay las trajo un sericicultor que fracasó porque los hacendados
consiguieron hacer dictar un impuesto contra él. Pero las moreras se
multiplicaron en las huertas de la ciudad; crecieron con una lozanía
sin igual; se convirtieron en grandes y coposos árboles, mansos y
nobles. Los pájaros y los niños disfrutaban de sus frutos. Los muros
de piedra conservaban las manchas rosadas del fruto. Durante el
tiempo de la cosecha, los pájaros fruteros se reunían en las huertas
del pueblo para hartarse de moras; el excremento de todos ellos era
rojo y caía sobre la cal de las paredes, sobre la calamina de los techos,
a veces sobre el sombrero de paja de los transeúntes.
¿En qué casa, a qué distancia del término de la avenida viviría la

9 Rama describes the transculturated novel as achieving "la continuidad histórica de

formas culturales profundamente elaboradas por la masa social, ajustándola con la menor
pérdida de identidad, a las nuevas condiciones fijadas por el marco internacional de la hora"

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80 *• Revista Hispánica Moderna 67.1 (2014)

reina del "Markask'a"? Era un camino hermoso para esperar a la

niña amada. (247-48)

The passage begins with a description of a street lined with towering mulberry
trees, a street that has preserved some of the grandeur it once enjoyed as the
entry to a large plantation. The narrator reveals, however, that these large, old
trees, whose "nobleza" appears to tell the story of the power once wielded by
the estate's owner, actually illustrate a successful challenge to that power. The
trees are trespassers, belonging to a non-native species imported to the Andes by
a silk cultivator who was treated as an interloper and run out of town by local
hacendados , threatened by his designs on the land. The passage takes an unex-
pected turn halfway through, when the narrator describes the red stains covering
the avenue and its stone walls, a palimpsest of berry juice and red bird excrement
from the most recent harvest season, layered over juice and excrement from
years past. Far from elegant, the street is in a state of sticky disarray. A still more
unexpected turn comes at the end, when the narrator describes the excrement-
stained avenue as an ideal setting for courtship. It is beautiful, according to
him - 4 4 hermoso . ' '

There is much in the mulberry tree passage that asks for an allegorical
reading, but when we try to tease out such an interpretation, nothing fits. The
mulberry trees are recent arrivals from foreign shores, which crowd out Aban-
cay's native species by reproducing widely. But far from representing the Spanish
colonizers, they are the rebellious heroes of this microhistory. They evade the
efforts of the hacendados - the unambiguous villains of Los ríos profundos - to
expel them from the town, and the narrator celebrates their defiance. Likewise,
the red stains with which the birds coat the town's surfaces and mark the town's
residents ask, in the context of the novelistic tradition within which Arguedas is
writing, to be read as a materialization of the violence perpetrated against the
colonos. They are the blood of hundreds of years of exploitation, written by the
birds onto the straw hats of passersby. But in the context of this scene, the red
stains also represent love, fertility, and the vitality of youth. The passage both
encourages us to interpret it according to the conventional Peruvian dialectic of
foreigner and native, colonizer and colonized, oppressor and victim, and com-
pels us to move beyond these dialectics to a broader representational horizon
where alternate symbolisms are possible. The narrator's closing words - "Era un
camino hermoso para esperar a la niña amada" - seal this idea of a representa-
tional and interpretative "movement beyond." Arguedas mobilizes many con-
ventions of Peruvian novelistic representation, but scrambles them to produce a
new kind of writing.
The novelty of the representational system is perhaps most visible in
Arguedas's construction of bird excrement as romantic adornment. Excrement
plays an important role in completing the lifecycle motif that runs through the
passage, present in the thriving mulberry trees, the coming and going of harvest
seasons, and Ernesto's imagination of the street as a pretty setting for courtship,
prefiguring the creation of new life. Excrement stands in for what we might call
the shadow side of life. We eat, and we excrete. We grow and thrive as living
beings; we age, die, and ultimately become waste. In regions with highly stratified

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spira, Toward an Aesthetics of the Abject 81

class systems, however, and especially in those that have suffered the ravages of
colonialism, this natural byproduct of bodily life is charged with socio-political
meaning. As Emery puts it in her analysis of Los ríos profundos, "the Imaginary of
the controlling elite has constructed an image of the oppressed Indian popula-
tion as filthy, reeking, and diseased" (61). Emery's analysis builds on anthropolo-
gist Mary Douglas's theorization of "dirt, excrement, and impurity" as "symbols
of disorder" (Emery 61). In Purity and Danger , Douglas defines dirt as "matter
out of place," the "by-product" that does not fit within a culture's "systematic
ordering and classification of matter" (36). As Emery indicates, Douglas's defi-
nition helps further unpack the symbolism of dirt in the colonial milieu: the
discursive production of the Indian body and Indian culture as "dirty" flags
indigenous groups as "inappropriate elements" within the modern nation-state,
and thus as potential threats to its coherence (Douglas 36). Arguedas responds
to this discourse of dirtiness by creating space in the novel-form for indigenous
bodies and culture.

While the stereotype of the "dirty Indian" is prevalent throughout Latin

America, particularly salient in Peru according to Melgar is "enmierdamiento"
as a form of "violencia simbólica" (121). The mulberry tree passage participates
in the "polyvalent" use of excrement that Melgar traces across Arguedas's
oeuvre, evoking at once colonial meanings (filth, disease) and positive values
such as resistance and beauty (120). The mulberry trees themselves constitute a
poignant illustration of this duality. In sericulture, mulberry trees are grown for
their leaves, which are fed to silkworms, which in turn secrete the thread used to
fabricate silk. Through populating the Avenida Condebamba with mulberry
trees, Arguedas draws attention to how even silk, the most elegant and delicate
of fabrics, originates from such "abject" biological processes as digestion and
Secretion differs from excretion in that an organism can use a secreted sub-
stance for another biological process. As part of their natural lifecycle, for
example, silk worms use the thread they secrete to spin cocoons in order to
metamorphose into moths. As I will go on to explore, however, excreted mate-
rials (waste) are ultimately "useful" as well, though to other organisms. In this
way, the binary useful/ waste is far from stable, as is illustrated by the case of
guano, or bird excrement, in Peru. The English word "guano" comes to us
through Spanish from the original Quechua, "huanu." Used locally from pre-
Columbian times as a fertilizer, guano harvested from islands off the coast of
Peru was transformed in the nineteenth century into an internationally traded
commodity. "In 1841," Eduardo Cadava writes, "Peru's president, Manuel Me-
néndez, formally nationalized the country's guano resources and, for the next
thirty-five years, the Peruvian government would earn most of its foreign reve-
nues from selling guano to other countries" (117). Guano became a source of
wealth for Peru, but also a symbol of human exploitation as poor Peruvians and
imported Chinese laborers were forcibly recruited to harvest guano under intol-
erable conditions. Up to 30 percent of the Chinese contract laborers, or "coo-
lies," who traveled to Peru perished during the ocean passage (120). Those who
made it to Peru faced not just insufficient rations and oppressive heat, but phys-
ical abuse from those who managed the guano fields. These conditions drove

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82 **• Revista Hispánica Moderna 67 . 1 (2014)

workers to participate in "frequent" mass suicides, "sometimes involving up to

fifty coolies at a time" (121).
Arguedas's work asks us to look at excrement/guano through the multiple
lenses briefly surveyed here: biology, anthropology, history, philosophy, and aes-
thetics. In this way, he constructs excremento and guano as vivid cases of Bakh tin's
"dialogized" language, tense with conflicting meanings (352). This hetero-
glossic richness is powerfully present in the short story "El sueño del pongo
(cuento quechua)" (1965). In the story a pongo, or hacienda servant, recounts a
dream he claims to have had the night before about the cruel hacendado at whose
hands he suffers daily humiliation. In the dream, the hacendado and pongo both
die and appear together at the entrance to heaven, where San Francisco orders
that a first angel cover the hacendado with a thick layer of honey and that a
second smear the pongo' s body with human excrement. These actions please the
hacendado , who interprets them as saintly confirmation of his elevated status as
compared to the pongo' s humility. The pongo - who turns out to be a masterful
storyteller, suggesting he is an avatar for Arguedas himself - reveals in the last
words of the story that things are not what they at first seem: the two figures' fate
is in fact to lick one another, "[d] espacio, por mucho tiempo" (257).
A subversive reversal-of-fortune story that is also a parable of the folly of
ascribing divine intention to the human-made social world, "El sueño del
pongo" brings into focus Arguedas's project of turning "enmierdamiento"
against its original perpetrators, a move Emery observes as key to interpreting
the symbolism of Los ríos profundos^ social actors: "Excrement becomes a weapon
on both sides: the rebels smear and block a bridge with a mule's intestines to
provoke the status quo . . . and the authorities retaliate by putting excrement in
the women's mouths" (61). The contrast with other indigenista novels -
Huasipungo comes to mind - is stark. In Icaza's novel, the Indians are powerless
because the hacienda system has turned them into filth; in "El sueño del
pongo," the Indian protagonist's cunning allows him to imagine this same con-
dition as a means of exercising power. It is through the pongo' s identification
with excrement - rhetorically smearing himself with it from head to toe - that
he is able to open up a space of resistance in an oppressive, humiliating relation-
ship. "El sueño del pongo" is not Arguedas's original creation; in an introduc-
tory note published with the story, Arguedas relates how he came to hear the
Quechua story from an Indian in Lima. This detail suggests that Arguedas's
investment in excrement as a decolonizing trope might originate in Quechua
culture itself.10

In the mulberry tree passage, however, Arguedas takes this reclamation of

excrement a step further by aestheticizing it - effectively assigning it a new
meaning altogether as a source of sensory pleasure. The passage serves as an
initiatory moment of an appeal to an embodied reader, running throughout Los

10 Excrement plays a pointedly different role in Arguedas's 1961 novel El sexto , depicting
prison life in the institution where Arguedas himself was incarcerated for eight months from
1937 to 1938. While discussion of these differences is beyond the scope of this paper, we
might attribute the absence of positive excremental representations in El sexto to the singular
pressures of the prison environment, where conditions of extreme privation heighten and
transform the stakes of such simple human activities as eating and defecating.

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spira, Toward an Aesthetics of the Abject 83

ríos profundos, in which Arguedas reconstructs her sensory body after the example
of Ernesto's, rendering it sensitive to the presence of visual, tactile, olfactory,
aural, and gustatory richness in previously disregarded corners of the material
world. In seeking out a new form for the Latin American novel, reflecting an
indigenous experience of the world, it is not enough for Arguedas to acquaint
readers with a new kind of voice, one resonant with Quechua cadences and oral
tradition - he must give us a new body with a new set of sensory preferences.
Of course, it is possible to identify many instances in the novel in which dirt
neither offers unexpected sensory rewards nor acts as an agent of life-
perpetuating processes. In addition to the wretched living conditions suffered
by the colonos, we might cite the latrines behind the boarding school, where the
older boys take sexual advantage of la opa Marcelina, a mute woman with an
intellectual disability who has been taken in by the boarding school, ostensibly
in order to shelter her from abuse. The latrines' material filth underscores the
moral degradation of the acts carried out in their shadows. The most dramatic
representations of the abject come with the typhus epidemic that runs rampant
among the colonos toward the novel's end. Amidst these dark representations of
sexual violence and disease, however, Arguedas embeds nuance and complexity.
Marcelina, as Priscilla Archibald points out, is not a passive but a "sexually
aggressive victim" of the adolescent boys' advances (129). We might connect this
behavior to her complete social isolation and subsequent recourse to the
shadows of the schoolyard in order to experience human contact, however
degrading and even violent in nature. Read this way, the latrines, filthy though
they might be, might be judged "cleaner" than the school's more official spaces,
where authorities who cannot hide behind the immaturity of adolescence create
the conditions that enable Marcelina's mistreatment. Likewise, in an ironic plot
twist, it is the typhus epidemic that finally galvanizes the colonos to rise up against
their exploiters. When they realize they will likely die from typhus, they break
through a military barricade in order to reach Abancay's cathedral, where they
demand that Padre Linares hold mass for them. Through these complex render-
ings of the abject, Arguedas prompts readers to turn a critical eye to reductive
labels - "clean" and "official," as well as "dirty" - in order to detect what else
might be found there.

From Filth to Fertilizer: Paying Attention in Huanupata

Arguedas is not the first modernist writer, nor the first Peruvian one, to look to
the abject - and excrement specifically - as a generative site at which to construct
a new aesthetic, which is in fact an anti-aesthetic. European modernism finds its
way to the abject not just through primi tivism but also by way of a new preoccupa-
tion with the everyday, a tendency perhaps most famously realized in Joyce's
Ulysses (1922). Erich Auerbach explains the modernist emphasis on the quo-
tidian as "a transfer of confidence." Instead of relying on dramatic events to
constitute the gravitational center of literary works, modernist authors trust in
the synecdochic power of the everyday: "there is confidence that in any random
fragment plucked from the course of a life at any time the totality of its fate is

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84 *• Revista Hispánica Moderna 67 .1 (2014)

contained and can be portrayed" (547). Joyce pushes this concept to its limit
when we listen to Leopold Bloom's inner chatter as he sits in the "jakes," news-
paper in hand, interweaving reflections on the literary value of his reading mate-
rial with those on the base biological act in which he is engaged. Bodily
excretions play a key role in Joyce's vertiginous romp between high and low.11
But we need not travel across the Atlantic to find literary precursors to
Arguedas's preoccupation with excrement. César Vallejo's groundbreaking
Trilce, also published in 1922, opens with a poem in which guano figures promi-
nently. Amidst the intimidating lyric heights of Trilce I, "guano" constitutes a
welcome interpretative foothold - a recognizable noun - from which place the
reader might scale the poem's imposing neologisms. In her recent book-length
study of Vallejo, Michelle Clayton characterizes the Peruvian poet's project in
terms that resonate with sensory complexity: 4 4 Trilce takes those elements that are
produced by man as detritus and overturns their value, rewriting beauty in terms
of what is conventionally proscribed" (119). Excrement, in particular, "is lov-
ingly tended, guarded, evaluated, a 'peso bruto' (brute weight) that asks to be
handled gently so that its true value, its usefulness, might be revealed" (123).
According to Clayton, Vallejo's "foraging in muck and manure" has been "side-
stepped" by critics who focus on his dazzling linguistic play - a pattern we recog-
nize from Arguedas's critical reception (122, 121).
In the case of Los ríos profundos , this pattern might be partially explained by
Arguedas's tendency to "hide" excrement in the text. For example, it is not in
the Quechua letter that we find Ernesto's excremental aesthetic - the scene's
climax - but in the narrative prelude that appears to merely be setting the scene
for the letter itself. Likewise, as Estelle Tarica points out in "Mestizaje/Créolité,"
when Ernesto introduces the neighborhood of Huanupata to the reader - the
only neighborhood in Abancay where he feels a sense of belonging - he mis-
translates the Quechua place-name as "morro del basural" (Arguedas 207),
obscuring the neighborhood's relationship to huanu/ guano and connecting it
to another kind of waste: trash (Tarica 154). While Clayton characterizes Vallejo
as "reveal [ing] the repressed of poetry," which she identifies as the body "evacu-
ating, ejecting, excreting, and enjoying," Arguedas at once reveals and conceals
(122, 123). His engagement with the abject is understated yet rich, as further
analysis of Ernesto's presentation of Huanupata reveals.
Though not literal, Ernesto's translation of "Huanupata" is apt. The Spanish
reflects the view of Abancay's elite: the neighborhood is a trash heap, a place
where you dump that which has no value. To mestizo and Indian populations,
however, it is Huanupata , a site of cultural fertility. Arguedas explores these two
perspectives on the neighborhood by contrasting Ernesto's perceptions with
those of a visiting Colonel:

Del Coronel me dijeron que una sola vez fue a Huanupata. . . . Me

contaron que cuando fue al barrio de las picanterías pasó por las

11 For insighďul readings of excrement's relationship to modernity, literary modernism,

and colonialism, see Sellars and Clayton (especially pages 115-33). Clayton's text is of
particular interest as it focuses on Peru.

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spira, Toward an Aesthetics of the Abject 85

calles muy rápido. Lo escoltaban varios oficiales y caballeros. Con-

cluyó la visita lamentando la repugnancia que le causó el olor que
emanaba de las chicherías y chozas.
La gente criaba muchos cerdos en ese barrio. Las moscas hervían
felices, persiguiéndose, zumbando sobre la cabeza de los transeúntes.
Los charcos de agua se pudrían con el calor, iban tomando colores
diferentes aunque siempre densos. Pero sobre algunas tapias muy
altas, allí, bordeando Huanupata, colgaban sus ramas algunos árboles
de limón real. . . . (407)

The juxtaposed descriptions illustrate how the first step in rendering an object
or scene in language is, in fact, recognizing it as worthy of detailed attention.
This act of recognition, in turn, relies on the seeing subject's cultural and class
backgrounds. The Colonel walks quickly through Huanupata, finding nothing
to look at. He makes note only of sensory information registered involuntarily:
an odor wafting by. Even then, he does not bother to assign any specificity to the
odor, merely describing it as "repugnant." The narrator, on the other hand,
finds much in the neighborhood that is worthy of attention. He makes two
attempts at capturing the flies' liveliness in language, first likening their move-
ment to the ebullience of water brought to a boil, then to the darting to and fro
proper to a game of chase. His use of the verb "zumbar" - a word related to
Ernesto's prized possession, the zumbayllu , a spinning top made of natural mate-
rials - suggests that the flies belong to the realm of objects and beings in the
novel Ernesto singles out as special. The narrator's description of the puddles
underscores the role time plays in the apprehension of beauty: the puddle
reveals its visual richness to those who slow down sufficiently to watch its colors
shift in the light. In short, the passage suggests that Huanupata offers pleasure
to those attuned to sensory complexity.12
Arguedas stages here the politics of perception, drawing attention to how the
elite's sensory judgments are universalized. Jacques Rancière makes a similar
point in The Politics of Aesthetics : "Politics revolves around what is seen and what
can be said about it, around who has the ability to see and the talent to speak"
(13). In recent decades, scholarship has taken a particular interest in the ques-
tion of who can speak (consider the lasting impact of Gayatri Spivak's 1988 essay,
"Can the Subaltern Speak?"). Rancière theorizes politics as starting prior to
speech with something so basic as "what is seen," that is, with the aspects of
material reality our consciousness registers and our senses perceive as materially
present - or rather, as worthy of possessing something so lofty as presence. This
is what Rancière terms the "distribution of the sensible" (12), elsewhere glossed
as "the parcelling out of the visible and the invisible" (19). For Rancière, art's
agency inheres in its ability to "create new modes of sense perception" capable

12 Critics seem not to have known what to make of Huanupata's muck, pointing to the
novelty of what Arguedas attempts in his representation of the neighborhood. Julio Ortega,
for example, focuses on the social interaction across lines of class and race special to
Huanupata, but without treating the neighborhood's physical characteristics: "Espacio anti-
oficial, en él se conjugan indios, cholos y mestizos: barrio 'alegre', lugar de intermediación
étnica y social, es un espacio de activa comunicación" (64).

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86 *• Revista Hispánica Moderna 67 . 1 (2014)

of bringing the formerly invisible into the realm of the visible, in turn "in-
ducting] novel forms of political subjectivity" (9). Put in the terms of Arguedas's
novel, Rancière' s theory of aesthetic agency suggests that if the Colonel could
"revisit" Huanupata through Ernesto's ekphrastic rendering, he would be
invited into a different relationship with the neighborhood's human, animal,
and plant life. He would learn how to experience Huanupata as a significant
cultural presence.
Ernesto's valuing of Huanupata's muck in the passage above has an ecological
as well as an aesthetic component. The aspects of the neighborhood he isolates
for contemplation in this passage - buzzing flies, a rotting puddle - both partici-
pate in the process of decomposition. In his description, Ernesto moves immedi-
ately from flies and soured water to a stand of lemon trees marking Huanupata's
border: "Pero sobre algunas tapias muy altas, allí, bordeando Huanupata, col-
gaban sus ramas algunos árboles de limón real." He thus reminds the reader
that flies and other decomposers are vital components of a healthy ecosystem,
enabling trees, flowers, and fruit - forms of plant life associated with sensory
delight - to thrive. He refers to the trees by their lengthier Spanish name -
"árboles de limón real" - underscoring their link to the royal, and describes
their juice, when mixed with sugar, as "el manjar más delicado y poderoso del
mundo," tasting "como si se bebiera la luz del sol" (408). In this way, Arguedas
constructs the muck that repulses the Colonel as a literal as well as figurative
fertilizer, nourishing the growth of almost otherworldly lemons as well as pro-
viding the unofficial setting that fosters artistic creation in Huanupata's chi-

Throughout the novel, Ernesto presents this attentiveness to and acceptance

of the entire lifecycle as fundamental to indigenous culture itself. When, for
example, he sits beside la opa Marcelina as she succumbs to typhus fever, her
body crawling with lice, he is overcome by the (highly sensory) memory of how
typhus victims were mourned in his own ayllu : "Como a la luz de un gran sol que
iluminara mi aldea nativa, vi claramente la cascada de agua cristalina donde los
deudos de los muertos por la fiebre lavaban la ropa de los difuntos; y el eucalipto
ante cuya sombra lloraban en la plaza, mientras hacían descansar a los féretros"
(429). Through metonymy, Ernesto associates the opa! s corpse with warming
sunlight, purity, nature, and rest. Though he imagines the lice on Marcelina's
body transferring the infection to his own, his initial hesitation to accompany
her dissolves as, "decidido," he provides Marcelina with the care he believes she
deserves in her final moments (428). Far from what Kristeva describes as the
"most sickening of wastes," Marcelina's body evokes tenderness in Ernesto. He
notes the approach of a chiririnka , a fly attracted to corpses, and describes its
buzzing as a "tétrica musiquita," ennobling its role in the scene of Marcelina's
death (430). He asks the fly to sit on his head and then spit "en la oreja o la
nariz de la muerta," mixing a drop of his living essence with Marcelina's. This
transfer of bodily fluids constitutes a strangely poignant counterpoint to Marce-
lina's sexual abuse by the older boys at the school. In a manner consonant with
the turning upside-down of bodily functions throughout the novel, the act of
expelling saliva, normally signifying contempt, here represents a moment of
caring communion.

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spira, Toward an Aesthetics of the Abject 87


In a scene toward the end of Los ríos profundos , Ernesto sits in a chichería , talking
in Quechua with a musician. About halfway through the conversation Ernesto
breaks the flow of dialogue to offer the following: "El cantor olia a sudor, a
suciedad de telas de lana; pero yo estaba acostumbrado a ese tipo de emana-
ciones humanas; no sólo no me molestaban, sino que despertaban en mí
recuerdos amados de mi niñez. Era un indio como los de mi pueblo. No de
hacienda" (382). Throughout the novel, Arguedas articulates the preferences
and reactions of Ernesto's sensory body in a universalizing fashion: his savoring
of the view of the Avenida Condebamba is ours to share. Here, however, the
positive representation of dirt constitutes an exclusionary gesture. Ernesto
explains his attraction to the Indian's smell through reference to childhood
memories, private experiences that are not transferrable to the reader. With this
passage, we are thus placed back into our own bodies from which place we can
learn about and respect Ernesto's enjoyment of the Indian's smell, but are
barred by difference in background from sharing in it.
Arguedas's treatment of natural bodily odors here, however, resembles the
representation of the abject throughout the novel in other key respects. Ernesto
first describes the musician as smelling "a sudor, a suciedad de telas de lana,"
but quickly dispenses with the vocabulary of dirtiness and replaces it with a more
suggestive, precise construction. "Emanaciones humanas" emphasizes that the
smell of sweat and well-worn clothing is a natural human smell, one we mask
with soaps and perfumes. Ernesto's powerful reframing of bodily odors as
"emanaciones humanas" - both his action in doing so and the phrase itself -
encapsulates the values and practices implied by sensory complexity as an
approach to bodily life. These include remaining open to the value of a wide
range of sensory experience; looking beneath the label of "dirty" to investigate
the true nature or substance of a person, object or place, and especially the role
it might play in life-sustaining biological processes; and using language as a tool
for reorienting our relationship to the physical world, particularly toward that
which has been deemed "matter out of place."
The olfactory experience narrated in this scene appears to have held partic-
ular importance for Arguedas. He features it not just in Los ríos profundos , but
also in the "Primer diario" of El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo in which he
recounts his return, once established as a respected professional, to the ayllu
where he spent the spans of his childhood that came to determine his identifica-
tion with indigenous culture. Largely spoiled for him by the exaggerated adula-
tion of the townspeople, the visit is redeemed by his re-encounter with don
Felipe Maywa, the leader of the community, whom Arguedas had looked up to
as a child "como a un sabio, como a una montaña condescendiente" (11). The
sweetest moment of their meeting comes when, walking arm in arm with don
Felipe, Arguedas smells "su olor de indio, ese hálito amado de la bayeta sucia
de sudor." Like the musician's scent in Los ríos profundos , the smell of the
"bayeta" is "amado," or beloved, to Arguedas because of its connection to child-
hood memories; it allows him to momentarily inhabit a world that no longer

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88 Revista Hispánica Moderna 67. 1 (2014)

It is of a piece with the aesthetic and political projects of Los ríos profundos that
Arguedas should transform Proust's madeleine into a sweat-stained cloth. The
juxtaposition of the two objects brings into relief the sensory delight embodied
by the madeleine itself: its elegantly sculpted surface and scalloped edges, its
delicacy as it dissolves on the tongue. Despite modernism's involvement with the
anti-aesthetic, its emblematic cake is an aesthetic object par excellence . The dirty
wool that mediates Ernesto's connection with treasured childhood memories is
almost incomparably humble. And yet, in Los ríos profundos Arguedas creates a
narrative context in which the replacement of the madeleine with the bayeta is

In fact, we might describe the rich frame of reference Arguedas gives the
reader for approaching the musician's "olor de indio" as a welcome, comforting
scent, summoning the richness of ayllu culture, as fundamentally expressive of
Arguedas's political intervention in Los ríos profundos. Even though Ernesto's evo-
cation of the musician's scent does not make any claim or demand on the
reader - as we have seen, it does the opposite, excusing the reader from any
responsibility for mirroring the protagonist's pleasure - we feel poised to
approach the scent with openness and curiosity in any case, because of the per-
suasive representation of sensory complexity throughout the novel. Los ríos pro-
fundos is about many things, as the thick literature on the novel attests, but that
it is also about this renewed experience of embodied life should not be over-


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