Campus & Community

Pendulating ‘between euphoria and despair’

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Scholar probes the intersection of culture and experience in Latin America

Diana Sorensen: ‘I tend to look more closely at questions of form. I look at language as a subject of central importance.’ (Staff photo by Rose Lincoln)

Imagining a nation is part of its construction.

In his landmark 1845 essay, “Facundo, Civilización y Barbarie,” Argentinean author and statesman Domingo F. Sarmiento, the nation’s second president, sharply contrasted the forces at work on his young nation. He advocated for civilization, represented by European modernity, and railed against barbarism, typified by the rural, uneducated masses and the populist leaders (caudillos) they embraced.

The polarization that resulted helped to create an enduring either-or state that precludes political compromise, says Professor Diana Sorensen; the tension has informed the history, culture, and literature of Argentina, from Sarmiento’s far-reaching political and educational reforms to the regime of Juan Perón to the nation’s current fiscal crisis.

It has also informed the work – and the life – of Sorensen, who joined Harvard’s Department of Romance Languages and Literatures in July.

Sorensen, a literary scholar and a native of Argentina, interpreted the reception of “Facundo” and its lasting impact on a nation in her prize-winning book “Facundo and the Construction of Argentine Culture” (1996).

In the late 19th and early 20th century, Sarmiento’s essay “was read and interpreted in ways that I think have marked Argentina’s inability to reach cultural or political consensus,” Sorensen says. “To this day, you can see people subscribing to Sarmiento’s ideas or saying that he is the architect of our disasters.”

Sorensen hopes that her upcoming book, “Sarmiento: Obras,” to be published in Spain this year, will cast the writer’s ideas in a fresh light. The annotated one-volume selection of his fifty-two-volume edition of complete works will help readers understand his thinking beyond the dueling poles of civilization and barbarism.

“I’m trying to open up other voices of this great writer,” Sorensen says. The reader will discover that “his opinions were more fractured, less monolithic than has been assumed.”

Where experience meets culture

While Sorensen’s study may seem historical or political in nature, she insists her primary interest is literary.

“My aim is to look at the intersections between culture and experience, particularly at moments that are particularly powerful, even conflict-laden, and then to see how culture … charts this vibrant experience,” she says. And while she acknowledges that her work could be taught – indeed, has been taught – in other departments, it is a study of literature, first and foremost, albeit located within an interdisciplinary frame.

“I tend to look more closely at questions of form,” she says. “I look at language as a subject of central importance.”

Sorensen is currently working on a book – “Latin American Culture and Society in the Nineteen-Sixties – The Last Utopia?” – that turns a literary gaze on another charged era in the region’s history, the 1960s. The same subject was the focus of an undergraduate course she taught this past semester.

The decade provides rich cultural material, she says. It began with the heady forces of post-World War II modernization, which ushered in enhanced communication, urban growth, consumerism, and travel, and expanded the geography of many Latin Americans’ worlds, paired with the 1959 Cuban Revolution, which many hoped would signal the end to neocolonialism.

At its close, the decade brought despair and disillusionment: the 1968 massacre of students in Tlateloco, Mexico; the persecution of Cuban poet and Castro critic Heberto Padilla; and the fall of democratic governments in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil.

“It’s this pendular movement between euphoria and despair that frames the decade,” Sorensen says.

Such cultural forces were interpreted by bold literary voices, she says, from the poets, novelists, essayists, and journalists who wrote about the massacre in Tlateloco when “official” accounts in Mexico were silenced to the new novelistic forms explored by Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez in “One Hundred Years of Solitude” and Argentinean Julio Cortázar in “Rayuela,” among others.

The modernizing forces that shaped Latin America in the 1960s profoundly shaped literature, as what Sorensen calls the “regional novel” of earlier decades stepped aside for a farther-flung, transnational view of Latin America. Writing in the 1960s took a modern view of time, too, fracturing traditional narrative form.

Civilization and barbarism

Growing up bicultural in Buenos Aires – her father was Danish, her mother a third-generation Argentine – Sorensen lived in a place rift by the tensions between “civilized” and “barbarian” that Sarmiento wrote about.

“I grew up in two worlds,” she says.

She attended an English school, but by the time she was in high school, “they let the ‘barbarians’ in the back door,” she joked, allowing students to pursue studies in Spanish to complement their English schooling. At lunchtime, said Sorensen, after a morning of learning about the wonders of British imperialism, she would cross the street to study an often-contradictory course in Spanish, learning, for instance, about the heroic resistance to the British invasion of Buenos Aires in 1806-07.

“I was always puzzled by these different ways of construing my nation and my culture,” she said.

After receiving a B.A. from the Universidad de Buenos Aires, Sorensen followed her thesis adviser to Columbia University, from which she received the Ph.D. She has made her career in the United States, most recently at Columbia and before that, at Wesleyan University for 19 years, but she returns to Argentina regularly for work.

“I feel very Argentinean,” she says.

With a semester of her new Harvard position almost behind her, Sorensen reflects on the riches of her new academic home: her colleagues, her department, the resources of David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, the “legendary Harvard students,” the libraries.

“I have confirmed all my hopes and expectations about the riches of Widener. It’s a wonderful, wonderful library that makes your teaching come to life, not to mention your research,” she says, noting that students in her course on the 1960s could read magazines, from the ’60s and in Spanish, from Mexico, Uruguay, Paris, and Argentina. The cultural context, as well as the literary and linguistic riches of the sources, proved valuable to her students.

“I’m centrally interested in literature, in the ruses of writing,” she adds. “But I think that the literary scholar should be in constant interdisciplinary dialogue with history, anthropology, cultural theory and, most certainly, linguistics.”