Juan Domingo Sarmiento, on the Argentine gaucho:
Without instruction, without need of it either, without a means of subsistence and without needs, he is happy in the midst of his poverty and privations, which are not many for one who has never known greater pleasures or set his desires any higher. So, although this dissolution of society deeply implants barbarism because of the impossibility and uselessness of moral and intellectual education, in another way it is not without its attractions (Facundo 58; emphasis added)
It’s hardly news that Sarmiento is ambivalent about the figure–the gaucho, the caudillo–that his great work ostensibly excoriates. No doubt it is precisely this ambivalence that makes the book, still, great: it resonates not only with the thunder of Sarmiento’s denunciations, but also with his own fascination towards what he was denouncing.
Sarmiento introduces his biography of the legendary caudillo Juan Facundo Quiroga by means of a brief story: one day a gaucho was travelling the vast desert of the pampa when he found a ravening, man-eating tiger on his track. He ran to a small tree nearby, climbed to the top, and from there “sway[ing] continuously, half-hidden among the branches [. . .] he could observe the scene taking place on the road” (92). Down below, the tiger had caught up with him and soon tore apart the saddle he had been carrying “with a slap of the paw.” Turning to the tree in which the gaucho had sought refuge, the bloodthirsty beast,
eyes reddened, [. . .] roaring with rage, lay down on the ground, ceaselessly switching its tail, eyes fixed on its prey, mouth partly open and parched. This horrible scene had now lasted two deadly hours; the strained pose of the gaucho and the terrifying fascination exerted over him by the bloody, immobile gaze of the tiger–from which, owing to an invincible force of attraction, he could not avert his eyes–had begun to weaken his strength, and he could feel the moment coming in which his exhausted body would fall into the tiger’s wide mouth, when the far-off sound of galloping horses gave him hope for salvation. (92-93; emphasis added)
We learn shortly that the gaucho protagonist of the story was in fact the young Facundo. But it might equally be Sarmiento himself, almost overcome by his fascination for the caudillo nicknamed “Tiger of the Plains.”
Sarmiento is looking to fashion a gaze appropriate for the American landscape and people. His complaint is that Europeans, with their “classical, European prejudices” only see in the Americas a mirror of their own civilization, “the imitation of Europe, and nothing that reveals America to me” (39, 38). But to look with American eyes also, inexorably, means looking at least in part through the eyes of the gaucho Facundo, and so sympathizing with the very forces that have proved an obstacle to civilization in Argentina.
No wonder that Sarmiento should discuss “the enigma of the political organization of the Republic” in terms of an “Argentine Sphinx, half cowardly woman, half bloodthirsty tiger” (32). Like Oedipus, he sees his task as confronting but also claiming his savage paternity, and claiming but also confronting the weaknesses of a maternal European colonial heritage.
Ironically, of course, Sarmiento’s arch-enemy, the dictator Rosas, has already effected a fusion of the barbarous and the civilized, has already subjugated the forces of gaucho nature to the ends of social organization. Whereas Facundo is noble (if fearful) in his un-tamed, natural savagery, “what in him was only instinct, impulse, and a tendency, in Rosas became a system, means, and end. Rural nature, colonial and barbarous, was changed through this metamorphosis into art, into a system, and into regular policy” (31). Rosas has rationalized violence, “organiz[ing] despotism with all the intelligence of a Machiavelli” (32).
Facundo is centrally concerned with this paradox without ever fully finding a resolution. In the end, there will be no galloping hooves heralding rescue from Sarmiento’s plight: he will remain transfixed by the gaze of the barbarous other that is also his barbarous self. Argentina is insufficiently civilized; but it is also (already) too civilized, too instrumental in its cold-hearted recuperation of its prodigious natural power in the name of governance.
But there is perhaps another possibility: the option of nomadism, of piracy. Indeed, the pampa in its featureless expanse provides “an image of the sea on land” (46); the Montonero warrior band that Facundo joins is described as “those filibusters of the Pampas” (98); but Sarmiento sometimes laments that “on the Argentine plains, the nomad tribe does not exist” (54).
For in nomadism at least “a society exists, although it may not be permanently set in a certain place on earth; religious beliefs, traditions immemorial, the invariability of customs, respect for elders, together form a code of law, of customary ways and practices of government, that maintains order, morality as they understand it, and association within the tribe” (53-54). Perhaps nomadism offers another model of organization for that “nameless, subaltern volcano” (32) that is the region’s immense constituent power.