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Greek Andes: Briceño Guerrero and the Latin America Tragedy

Jacobo Myerston

University of California, San Diego

In this talk I investigate the motivations for learning ancient Greek of a group of Venezuelan intellectuals during a period of continuous economic instability and civil unrest that has lasted more than 30 years. The group was composed of philosophers, scientists, and historians, as well as poets and artists. The leader of the group was J.M. Briceño Guerrero, a prolific Venezuelan philosopher and classical philologist. Briceño died in 2014 and the group finally disbanded, with many members emigrating to other countries for different reasons. Although the group mainly consisted of academics, the learning of Greek took place in non-academic settings and at non-conventional times, such as in private homes during strikes and civil protests that lasted many months and forced universities to close.

To investigate the motivations of this group of scholars and artists to learn ancient Greek in a context that seems to be far removed from First World academic experience, I analyze two different types of sources. The first relates to the philosophical work of Briceño in which he explains his vision of a new Latin American society based on knowledge, a utopia clearly influenced by Plato’s Republic. I explore the role he assigned to ancient Greek literature in his onto-epistemological and political investigations and examine his notion of anagnorisis that occurs within the larger frame of the ‘Latin American tragedy’.  This anagnorisis consists in the recognition of conflicting ideologies that have led Latin American societies to cultural aporia and political stagnation. He considered all these ideologies to be Western and traced their roots back to antiquity. He classified them as follows: a) discourses that maintain the cultural and racial superiority of the West; b) anti-Western discourses of cultural resistance —indigenism; c) enlightened Western rationalism.  Briceño’s anagnorisis involves, then, acknowledging the tension between contradicting ideologies and overcoming them (Briceño 1966, 1994). In this framework, the learning of Greek plays a major role in understanding the origins of the discursive conflicting forces that have arguably destabilized Latin America for more than a century.

The second set of sources is related to one of the most important public interventions of the group. In 1986, Briceño and his students launched a subversive action, graffitiing the walls of a university town in the Venezuelan Andes. One morning, the locals woke up to find graffiti in what they considered to be a mysterious language.  Short after this intervention, the local newspapers informed that the archbishop had identified the enigmatic writing as Aramaic and its content as Satanic.  The town panicked and, once the culprit was found, Briceño’s house was attacked with stones.  Others, more educated and with some knowledge of Greek, recognized in the graffiti the fragments of the Pre-Socratics, but denounced Briceño as Eurocentric and reproached the group for not having covered the city with Mayan hieroglyphs.  In this talk I document this event through a series of interviews with group members. In those interviews, participants were asked about their motivations to learn Greek and the meaning they attributed to the graffiti event.  I interpret this action as an experiment in which Briceño’s notion of anagnorisis was experienced and tested by his students. 

This case study is of special importance for the current discussion in classics about the study of ancient Greek and the reception of classical literature in postcolonial settings (Goff 2005, 2013; Bocchetti 2010; Greenwood 2010). As the concept of cultural anagnorisis and the graffiti intervention reveal, Briceño and his group conceived the learning of Greek not as a medium to produce positivist knowledge about antiquity, but as a source of cognitive and social transformation.  However, this transformative aspect of classics is nothing similar to what conservative movements in the West attribute to classical education. Briceño’s approach to Greek was neither moral nor normative, but symbolic and transformative. For him and his followers, the ancient past was a repertoire of symbols that could be conjured for the awakening of a historical and cultural consciousness and the transformation of society. 

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Reception and National Traditions

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