Sarmiento's Travels: an emancipated gaze

Nacho Oliden

Paris, September 4th, 1846.

Mr. don Antonino Aberastain,

I jumped with pleasure when reading your letter from Copiapó! To receive a letter from America for the first time in Paris is quite an event, a happiness that can be savoured for two hours, which means a break from European life, taking us back to our predilections, to our sympathies d'autrefois. I see you, I feel you, growing in corpulence and in bonhomie, fainéant minister, lawyer on permanent holiday, bored, wanting to do without being able to get excited because of the body ailments, and, I add, because of the spirit of your boss.

Read carefully what I write to you about this enchanted Paris.

The Spanish person does not have a word to indicate that farniente of the Italians, the flâneur of the French, because both are the normal state. In Paris, this existence, this bliss of the soul is called flâneur. Flâneur, it is not like flairer, occupation of the usher who persecutes a debtor. The flâneur also pursues something, which he himself does not know what it is, seeks, looks, examines, passes by, goes gently, makes detours, marches, and arrives at the end... sometimes to the banks of the Seine, other times to the boulevard, to the Palais more often. It is an art that only Parisians possess in all its details; however, the foreigner begins the rude apprenticeship of the enchanted life of Paris by rehearsing his clumsy fingers on this instrument from which only those distinguished artists draw inexhaustible harmonies. The poor newcomer, accustomed to the quiet of the streets of his American cities, walks here the first days with the JESUS! in the mouth, running at every step the risk of being crushed by one of the thousand carriages that pass by like exhalations, in front, behind, to the sides. He hears a noise behind him, and starts to run, sure of smashing himself on a bus that comes to meet him; he escapes from it and crashes into a fiacre if the coachman were to hardly manage to stop his plague-stricken horses for fear of paying two thousand francs, which is the cost of each blown up individual in Paris. The Parisian walks impassively in the midst of this hive of carriages that make the noise of a waterfall; he measures the distances with his ear, and his aim is so accurate that he stops instantly an inch from the neck of the wheel that is going to pass, and continues on his way without ever looking sideways, without wasting a second of time. For the first time in my life I have enjoyed that ineffable happiness, of which one can only see signs in the radiant and frank physiognomy of children. Je flâne, I walk like a spirit, like an element, like a body without a soul in this solitude of Paris. A little bit dumb; It seems to me that I don't walk, that I don't go, but that I let myself go, that I float on the asphalt of the sidewalks of the boulevards. Only here can an ingenuous man stop and open an inch of his mouth contemplating the Golden Palace, the Chinese Baths, or the Le Petit Cardinal. Only here can I feel at ease upon the lithographs, engravings, books and cute things exposed to the street in a warehouse; go through them one by one, get to know them from afar, leave, return the next day to greet the other stamp that has just appeared. I already know all the artists' workshops on the boulevard; Aubert's house in the park of the Bourse, where there is a permanent exhibition of caricatures; all the passages where those petits riens that make the glory of the Parisian arts are sold. And then the statues of Susse and the bronzes everywhere, and the nouveautés stores, including one that has just opened on the Rue Vivienne with two hundred clerks for the office, and 2,000 gas nozzles for lighting.

On the other hand, the flâner is such a holy and respectable thing in Paris, it is such a privileged function, that no one dares to interrupt  eachother. The flâner has the right to stick his nose everywhere. The owner of a building recognises him in his partially stupid gaze, in the smile in which he mocks him, and apologizes for his own recklessness at the same time. If you stand in front of a crack in the wall and look at it carefully, there is always someone who stops to see what you are looking at; a third comes, and if there are eight gathered, everyone present stops, the street is obstructed, people are ran over. Is this, in fact, the town that made the revolutions of 1789 and 1830? Impossible! And yet, it is real; I gather two, three successive groups every afternoon to make sure that this is constant, invariable, characteristic, mechanical in the Parisian.

Paris was stage of other events too. When saying goodbye to my friend Mr. Montt, I told him with that modesty that characterizes me ‘I carry the keys of two doors to enter Paris; the official recommendation of the government of Chile and Facundo; I have faith in this book’. So, I arrive to Paris and try the second key. Nothing! Neither backwards nor forwards. Disgrace had wanted that some copies shipped from Valparaíso be lost. I had one; but, how could I get rid of it? How could I give it to every newspaper, every magazine at the same time? I wanted to say to every writer that I found IO ANCO! But my book was in bad Spanish, and Spanish is an unknown tongue in Paris, where the wise believe that it was just spoken in times of Lope de Vega or Calderón; then it has degenerated into a dialect unmanageable for the expression of the ideas. I have, then, to spend a hundred francs for some orientalist to translate a part for me. He translates it and I give it to a friend that must recommend it for the magazines. Four months have passed already between translating and reading, and nobody tells me anything. ‘What about my book?’ ‘I’m reading it’. This gives me a bad feeling. I come back later, I ask for my manuscript and they tell me: ‘I find it… a little diffuse… there’s novelty and interest, but…’ The truth was that he hadn’t read a single word. Who reads what has been written by someone whom we judge inferior to ourselves? The author has a holy horror to another’s manuscript. I know it by experience: a certain friend in America had given me a manuscript too, I told him I was reading it (like my friend told me in Paris) and the moment came for him to ask me for his text. ‘What do you think of the idea?’ he says; and as I didn’t know what the manuscript was about: ‘Regarding the idea, it is excellent’, I answer; ‘but, how could it be carried out between us?’ ‘I tell you now; looking for two people in each province’. This is not Chile, I think to myself, it must be the other side; ‘well! But, where are those people; how do we communicate with them?’ ‘Why, through the indicated means, through the agreed signs’. ‘(Ah, now I get it, it is something about lodges!) Man, I’ll tell you frankly, in our time, the lodges, the things like a lodge, although they aren’t precisely lodges, are powerless; the carbonarism has fallen, it isn’t possible to count with the religiousness of those times of faith, like in the Lautaro Lodge’. ‘That is why I propose the modifications that you have read’. ‘To those I mean, and it is the only thing that can be done in times like this’; ‘but…!’ The project is unanimously rejected and the not read manuscript returned. Well, I’m paying for that now.

I want to get along with an editor of the Revue de Deux Mondes, and another friend tells me: ‘don't do that; editors earn in proportion to the articles they enter per role rotation; a stranger's article will delay yours. Get along with Mr. Buloz, director of the Revue’. Mr. Buloz is a respectable one-eyed man, director of the Comic Opera and the Revue, well versed in the accounting of both establishments. I'm introduced to him, and my manuscript is left in the office of the Revue, so as to pass then to a committee that will judge its importance, and me being summoned for the next Thursday at the same time. Here begins that eternal story of the authors who begin in Paris, and who launch their flight from a fifth-floor attic. 'From here came Thiers, Mignet, Michelet, and so many others', I tell myself for encouragement; everyone has waited at the door of some newsroom. The heart, hardened with humiliation, once left, had now returned. I come back on Thursday, I knock the door timidly, and the terrible Cyclops of the Revue sticks out his eye, goes around, searches, sees me, and throws me out, shutting the door: ‘It hasn't been read yet, see you next Thursday’.

From Thursday to Thursday. A day, a day forever memorable in the biography of every paper scribbler: now the doors of the newsroom open wide for me. What a transformation! Mr. Buloz has two eyes this time, one that looks sweetly and respectfully, and the other that doesn't look, but blinks and charms, like a puppy wagging its tail. He speaks effusively, he introduces me, presents me to four editors who are waiting to solemnize the reception. ‘I am the author of the manuscript (a bow), the American (a bow), the statesman, the historian...’ They greet me, they bow to me. They talk about the book. There is an editor in charge of the compte-rendu of Spanish books, who wants to see the entire work so as to study the matter. Mr. Buloz humbly begs me to take care of writing the articles on America. The Revue has failed to its Both Worlds title due to a lack of competent men; we will find a way. Unfortunately the article about my book may not appear for another two months. The columns are taken; but an alteration will be made.

This satisfies me; and it's already been four weeks on the go as I write.

Good bye, my dear Doctor.


Sarmiento (San Juan, Argentina, 1811-Asunción, Paraguay, 1888) observes and writes down; he used to exhaust the pages and start over; now he annotated over the old text, crosswise, so as not to get mixed up later. He saw everything, and about what he saw, he thought more. On his way through the United States he said:

Nadie habrá visto más que yo, aunque muchos habrán viajado más que yo. Véolo en la muchedumbre que me acompaña: conversan, leen, duermen, solo yo estoi pegado al vidrio de la ventanilla del tren desde que amanece hasta que anochece, con los ojos fijos siempre, viendo desfilar bosques, maíces, papas, casitas, fabricas, villas, cascadas i siempre viendo, mirando, alegre, silencioso, contemplativo. Todos los arboles nuevos para mi me llaman la atención, i si una yerbita es de mi país, yo la saludo al paso, como una amiga.

[Nobody will have seen more than me, although many will have traveled more than me. I see it in the crowd that accompanies me: they talk, read, sleep, only I am glued to the glass of the train window from dawn to dusk, with my eyes always fixed, watching forests, corn, potatoes, small houses, factories, villages, waterfalls and always seeing, watching, happy, silent, contemplative. All the new trees catch my attention, and if a weed is from my country, I greet her as I pass by, like a friend]

He had a powerful brain and radiographed every object that appeared to him, examining whether it could be taken to America, or to South America. His trips can be imagined as the true emancipatory act of America. Emerson had already lectured at Cambridge, and had spoken of American ideas formulated by Americans, but Sarmiento completed the movement. He says in Paris;

Al despedirme de mi amigo el señor Montt, le decía yo con aquella modestia que me caracteriza; las llaves de dos puertas llevo para penetrar en París; la recomendación oficial del gobierno de Chile i el Facundo; tengo fe en este libro.

[When saying goodbye to my friend Mr. Montt, I told him with that modesty that characterizes me 'I carry the keys of two doors to enter Paris; the official recommendation of the government of Chile (1) and Facundo'; I have faith in this book]

Under his arm he carried what he believed to be the first American book. He saw in the European studies that spoke of America a weak reflection of European history, as if humanity were cyclical and lost vitality at every turn. For example, he said in the introduction to that book (Life of Juan Facundo Quiroga, 1845):

En la Enciclopedia Nueva he leído un brillante trabajo sobre el general Bolívar, en que se hace a aquel caudillo americano toda la justicia que merece por sus talentos, por su genio; pero en esta biografía, como en todas las otras que de él se han escrito, he visto al general europeo, los mariscales del Imperio, un Napoleón menos colosal; pero no he visto el caudillo americano, el jefe de un levantamiento de las masas; veo el remedo de la Europa y nada que me revele la América.

[In the New Encyclopedia I have read a brilliant work on General Bolívar, in which all the justice deserved for his talents and his genius is given to that American leader; but in this biography, as in all the others that have been written about him, I have seen the European general, the marshals of the Empire, a less colossal Napoleon; but I have not seen the American caudillo, the leader of an uprising of the masses; I see the imitation of Europe and nothing that reveals the America to me]

This made Sarmiento furious. How was it possible that we have as a teaching the studies of the Europeans, in whose incompetence it is not possible to separate one of the first American leaders and the last Caesar? The fact was: they did not know what was down here; the world had been travelled, there had been chatter of barbarians and civilizers (Diderot, Lamartine...), but not of barbarians and civilizers as the same thing that swirls like a typhoon in the middle of a South American plain, presented for the first time in the poem "La Cautiva", by Echeverría; the plains seen not from the eye of a European traveller, but of a South American who suffers from its terrors, who knows it from within.

Until then, history was covered by Europe. But they did not understand that history in America did not repeat European events with delay, but extended it, and that new events were added. Sarmiento wanted to defend, right or wrong, our point of view, our conceptual creations, our interpretations of the world. Not only America according to the Americans, but also Europe, Africa, the eternal Mediterranean, thought by an American mind. That is why Sarmiento travels, and that is why he publishes his Travels: as a decolonizing task. And he gives his opinion about what he pleases.

And he wasn't wrong; other notes in Paris give an account of all this, when he refers to the conversation in the ministry with M. Dessage, head of the political department, 'the eye with which Guizot sees the matters of La Plata':

M. Dessage me interroga. Quiero yo establecer los verdaderos principios de la cuestion. Hai dos partidos, los hombres civilizados, y las masas semibárbaras. –El partido moderado, me corrige el Jefe del departamento político, esto es, el partido moderado que apoya a Luis Felipe, el mismo que apoya a Rosas. –No señor, son campesinos que llamamos gauchos. -¡Ah! Los propietarios, la petite propiété, la bourgeoise. –Los hombres que aman las instituciones... La oposición, me rectifica el ojo i el oido de M. Guizot, la oposicion francesa y la oposicion a Rosas compuesta de esos que pretenden instituciones... Me esfuerzo en hacerle comprender algo; pero ¡imposible! Es griego para él todo lo que hablo. Hai un gobierno tomado, i un gobierno no se deja persuadir a dos tirones aunque Deffaudis i Saint Georges, que están en el teatro de los sucesos, acrediten la competencia de la persona. En resúmen:

Rosas = Luis Felipe
La mazorca = el partido moderado
Los gauchos = La petite propiété
Los unitarios = la oposición del National
Paz, Varela, etc = Thiers, Rollin, Barrot.

[M. Dessage questions me. I want to establish the true principles of the matter. 'There are two parties, the civilized men, and the semi-barbarous masses'. 'The moderate party,' he corrects me, 'that is, the moderate party that supports Louis Philippe, the same that supports Rosas'. 'No sir, they are peasants we call gauchos'. 'Oh! The owners, the petite propieté, the bourgeoise'. 'The men who love institutions...' 'The opposition', the eye and ear of M. Guizot corrects me again, 'the French opposition and the opposition to Rosas made up by those who seek institutions...'
I make an effort to make him understand something; but impossible! Everything I speak is Greek to him. In summary:

Rosas = Louis Philippe
The mazorca (the secret pólice) = the moderate party
The gauchos = La petite propiété
The unitarians = the opposition to the National
Paz, Varela, etc = Thiers, Rollin, Barrot]

And then Sarmiento adds:

I como no es propio a un recién llegado echar a pasear a un funcionario, doile respuestas sin sentido a todo lo que sobre los hechos me continúa preguntando.

[And since it is not proper for a newcomer to take an officer out for a walk, I give meaningless answers to everything]


The ways of Sarmiento, who tries to write precisely as someone who is not Spanish, but Argentine instead, will not have gone unnoticed by the reader of Spanish. For instance, he used to surpress the <z>  and <v>  (because they are not pronounced on this continent), he did not use the <c>  before the <e>  or <i>  (because they sound se and si), and sweeped out the silent <u>  of que and qui and, also, that of gue and gui. He also displayed a complete disdain for grammar, punctuation, and tense.

A new American language had emerged, and it was necessary to exercise in order it to finally separate itself from old influences. In Spain, he had his clashes with academics, and he defended the language that was born in America, which meant for him the living blood of a people. There he writes:

A propósito, una noche hablábamos de poesía con Ventura de la Vega i otros, y la sonrisa del desden andaba de boca en boca rizando las extremidades de los labios. Pobres diablos de criollos, parecian disimular, ¡quién los mete a ellos en cosas tan académicas! I como yo pusiese en juego baterías de grueso calibre para defender nuestras posiciones universitarias, alguien me hizo observar que, dado caso que tuviésemos razón, aquella desviación de la ortografía usual establecia una separación embarazosa entre la España y sus colonias. Este no es un grave inconveniente, repuse yo con la mayor compostura y suavidad; como allá no leemos libros españoles; como Uds. no tienen autores, ni escritores, ni sabios ni economistas, ni políticos, ni historiadores, ni cosa que lo valga; como ustedes aquí i nostros allá traducimos, nos es absolutamente indiferente que Uds. escriban de un modo lo traducido y nosotros de otro.

[By the way, one night, we were talking about poetry with Ventura de la Vega and others, and the smile of disdain went from mouth to mouth, curling the ends of their lips. 'Poor Creole devils', they seemed to hide, 'who gets them into such academic things!' And as I put into play large-caliber batteries to defend our universitary positions, someone made me observe that, if we were right, the deviation from the usual spelling (2) established an embarrassing separation between Spain and its colonies. 'This is not a serious inconvenience', I replied with the greatest composure and smoothness; 'since we don't read Spanish books down there; as you have no authors, no writers, no scholars, no economists, no politicians, no historians, nothing worth it; as you here, we translate there: it is absolutely indifferent to us that you write what is translated in one way and we in another']

Language! Translation! Idiom! Everything depended on the impossibility of living with a language that sprouted from other suns, in other circumstances, in the mouths of hearts oblivious to the vicissitudes that the American suffers: 'another blood, another lineage, another language', he said in Barcelona, 'I'm finally here, outside of Spain'. And so it was, that with Facundo under his arm he pretended to be independent: he would go to Paris, the Paris of Hugo, of Lamartine, of Voltaire, of Thiers, of Dumas, of Mérimée.

Arriving in France he remembers:

Saltábame el corazón al acercarnos a Tierra, i mis manos recorrían sin meditación los botones del vestido, estirando el fraque, palpando el nudo de la corbata, enderezando los cuellos de la camisa, como cuando el enamorado novel va a presentarse ante las dama. La Rose entra en los docks o bassins (no conozco las palabras castellanas que suplan estos nombres), atraca al borde de madera de los canales, i una innoble turba de criados elegantemente vestidos nos asalta, nos grita, escala el buque por las maromas, nos rodea como moscas, nos apesta con su aliento, se insinúa en nuestras manos i en nuestros bolsillos para depositar una tarjeta con el nombre del hotel que los envía.

[My heart skipped a beat as we approached Earth, and my hands ran thoughtlessly over the buttons, stretching the tailcoat, feeling the knot of the tie, straightening the collars of the shirt, as when the new lover is going to present himself to the lady. The Rose enters the docks or bassins (I don't know the Spanish words that replace these names), docks at the wooden edge of the canals, and an ignoble mob of elegantly dressed servants assaults us, shouts at us, climbs the ship through the ropes; surrounds us like flies, with their stinky breath,  it gets itself into our hands and into our pockets to deposit a card with the name of the hotel that sends it.]

It is the landing on the old continent of an American, dressed up, nervous, with a book under his arm and a continent on his shoulders, assaulted by European flies. He is ready for the counter-conquest. And the book? It's in Spanish, Argentine Spanish. He is going to take it to the Revue des Deux Mondes; they will read it as they can, and if not, let them translate it! Thus the emancipation will be completed.

(1) Sarmiento was exiled in Chile, and worked for the Chilean government.
(2) Sarmiento was promoting in the universities of Chile a spelling reform for the Spanish-speaking countries of America.

Nacho Oliden

Ignacio Oliden (Buenos Aires, 1997) is a poet, translator and literary critic. He is Co-Editor in Chief of the literary magazine La Piccioletta Barca, and is a member of the editorial comittee of Buenos Aires Poetry (magazine and publishing house). He also writes poetry criticism in the Culture Supplement of the newspaper Perfil (Argentina). His work has appeared in print in newspapers, anthologies, and literary magazines in various countries, and his poetry has been translated into English, Italian and Greek. He has published Poetas del Renacimiento de Harlem (2023, in collaboration with Juan Arabia), and Mester de Juglaría (2024).

Back to Issue
Also in this thread
This thread has no other posts

More from

No items found.

More from

No items found.