Uruguayan classic sheds light on current US-Latin American ties

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Ariel, by Jos'e Enrique Rod'o, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden. Foreword by James W. Symington; prologue by Carlos Fuentes. Austin: University of Texas Press. 149 pp. $16.95 hard-cover, $7.95 paper. During my high school days in Santiago de Chile, Jos'e Enrique Rod'o was required reading for classes in several disciplines, including history, literature, and philosophy. In Latin America ``Ariel'' is a classical text still very much in vogue today.

Poet, essayist, and above all philosopher, Rod'o was born in Montevideo in 1871 - and lived there his whole life. His career flourished with the publication of ``Ariel'' in 1900 during the so-called ``Modernista'' movement in Latin America - a period of intense artistic activity committed to cosmopolitan values and to the concept of art-for-art's sake.

``Ariel'' must be read within this historical framework. But it deserves praise for its foreshadowing of the eventual relationship between the United States and Latin America. Employing as a central metaphor the conflict between Ariel, the lover of beauty, and Caliban, the pragmatist and positivist, Rod'o sheds light on the relationship between the US, represented allegorically by Caliban, and Latin America, or Ariel. Generally this book consists of discussions of cultural differences and critiques of the two cultures. North American democracy is praised for the power of the work ethic. Yet Rod'o is quick to condemn the expansionist and colonialist attitudes exhibited by the United States toward its Latin American neighbors. He writes most clearly when he is speaking of the cultural values of the Southern Hemisphere.

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In Latin America, Rod'o is often criticized for not considering as part of Latin America's search for identity its indigenous past and for what is seen as his encouragement of Western ideals and sensibilities. Yet once again, ``Ariel'' must be read from the point of view of an Uruguayan intellectual at the beginning of the century searching for a Latin American perspective within the framework of a pluralistic and global society. Rod'o was weary of passively accepting models of European and North American democracy imposed from outside. ``I see nothing to be gained from the ingenuous belief that identity can somehow be achieved through artificial and impoverished imitation,'' he wrote.

A few years away from the 500th anniversary of the discovery of America, it is crucial that ``Ariel'' be read again. First published in English in 1922, this reissue of the book will benefit all those interested in Latin American culture and political development. Many of the issues raised by Rod'o are still relevant, for example, the crisis of the urban poor in Latin America and the conflicts between a homogenous US population and a heterogeneous population of immigrants. Moral issues such as the crisis of a materialistic society and the mediocrity of the systems of education in both North and South America are of extreme relevance for today's readers.

In her flawless translation, Sayers Peden has managed to eliminate much of the verbosity found in the Spanish version. ``Ariel'' can be tiring because of its anachronistic style, yet generations of Latin Americans have been enlightened by it. Now North Americans will have an opportunity to read a major and influential work of this distinguished philosopher and to realize that, indeed, all Americans share a common destiny.

Marjorie Agos'in teaches Spanish at Wellesley College.

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