The Cosmic Race: Vasconcelos, Paz, Tamayo

Mexican philosopher Jose Vasconcelos wrote La Raza Cósmica in 1925. It was a speculative and lofty essay that attempted an apologia for the post-revolutionary 

— By | September 20, 2010

(Notes upon reading José Vasconcelos’ La Raza Cósmica)

The idea of race, a precarious institution, began firstly as an idealism. Man was a Toltec– (let us be clear, men were gods) before he ever fell into the “original sin” of pluralism. The sin had not been the consumption of a forbidden good but the acquirement of a prismatic formalism: that knowledge was insinuated in the decay of everything, that all things made were unmade — and remade diabolically in the plural fictions of the tongue. Knowledge was a copious shape, it was a woman’s shadow in sunlight and dew-moistness and earth-tremors; the panicked surge of the tides, the emollient hush of streams; knowledge was the buried seed and the corn husk, the drifting worm-eaten leaf and the ant tribe on its path toward obscure constructions. When the oldest of their kind fell dead by natural disintegration one resplendent morning, the tribe which had descended from a kaleidoscopic heaven staggered back, in awe at the pure and godawful shape of the naked, age-diseased human: the first sculpture the titans ever erected was a corpse. Shape thence gave way to form, and form to formality: of gestures and inflections, of body motions, hunger pangs, dessication, bowel movements. The blind sages declared that paradise was lost and all that was left was the geography and separation of our bodies to contend with. A language was erected in the pit of man’s stomach: he would perish if he did not heed the centrality of his generation-giving loins and the death-atom that spun wildly in the singing chains of his innards.

Torn asunder, the human was either a god or a permanent corpse: she would learn later that she could be both, via a speculative morbidity, a remembrance of black heralds. In any case, the ideology of decay gave voice to race, and race gave birth to more race: to human variations, to geographies, to nomadic tribes, to a cornucopia of tongues, to civilizations. No longer concerned with godliness, man became obsessed with the image of himself, of his decay and her plurality. The abstracted emphasis on his distinction (from the fowls and beasts, and from his creator, the cosmos) led to dissent, disapora, diffusion, and eventually dialogue: with others who like him were lost in the wilderness of man’s design. In times of peace, tribal enemies would share foods, ceremonies, wine, conversation, in desperate need of a ritual that could contain even the slimmest communication, on the universal principles of society and pleasure. Otherwise, the symbols and relics which had been buried by the prophets in the earthen books were disinterred by descendants who no longer knew their origin or meaning — what pleasure or security could be derived from illegible scripts? (The titan Xelhua had built the Great Pyramid of Cholula to bring down the sky, but the children of Xelhua, when they visit the great edifice and gaze at its ponderous structure, do not know this.)

A scholarship of the discriminatory sciences had been initially prescribed to deal with man’s inner duality (in the exploration of her divided self), but this form of scholasticism was corrupted and exploited on a grander scale, to cope with and fend off the fragmented dualisms of other races who stammered bar-bar-bar! and supped on unclean flesh and worshiped strange gods; but the foreign gods of those unintelligible tribes were the same gods we know now, their rituals were passed on to us by clandestine methods, and we preserve their edicts in secret translations. The 20th century “Other” had already long existed, and it was man; if not in foreign lands, then in the distances, in the cosmos itself, it was humankind gaping back at itself in a horror of planets and sorcerers. In a terror of humankind spreading like a viscous plague in a mestizaje of oil, water, and blood. The mortal races slumbered in a subconscious fear of each other.

Race — the dispersion of humankind into men, women, children, peoples, tribes, cities, empires — led to a tragic segregation and Babelism that were subsequently perceived as traffic stops for a cruel evolutionary ambuscade. Darwinism, for the non-darwinists, came to signal a recurrent predominance of one race over the others, of a superior over an inferior, an adept over a maladroit, and so forth until extinction. Vulgarly, the colors which the Mesoamericans had worshipped and valued in their spiritual ceremonies degenerated into a shrill schema that enforced crude characterizations on the skins and characters of a multitudinous people: Black for the Lemurians, Red for the Atlanteans, Yellow for the Asiatics, White for the Europeans. This vapid and pernicious enslavement of color (which in its inner properties flowered the aspect of liberation) fundamentally systematized a mechanistic culture that assigned class roles to the kaleidoscopic races without the slightest interest in plastic relationships or synthetic values. Production and consumption replaced the organic verisimilitude of human endeavors. A revolution in color, in race and race politics, had to intervene in the name of universal truths and the sanctifying ends of art.

The Hegelian age that prophesied systems and movements on a path to cumulative synthesis demarcated various revolutions in history, namely in Russia, Europe, and Latin America. Prior to the Bolshevik outbreak, Kandinsky was already preparing an aesthetic revolution in reassessing the color spectrum and the climactic return of the spiritual in modern art. More than 40 years before, Rimbaud had made similar investigations into word-alchemy, mining the colors submerged in the shafts of human utterance, in the very grain of the vowels, a reformation of the senses that ruptured the limits of human knowledge and envisioned “republics without histories, religious wars stamped out, revolutions in morals, movements of races and continents.”

Color had to be brought back to the originary Mesoamerican apprehension, to a universalist pan-spirit that did not distinguish between the corn-stalk and the machine, nor between the root-word and the scientific treatise, and certainly not between the warring races or the colors that were derived from an ancient covenant with the world. An orchestral language of color which made a symphony of racial and cultural fragmentation, a vision bordering on Scriabin’s Mysterium, the unfinished synesthetic magnum opus that would announce the imminent dissolution of the divided, corrupted world and the cosmic arrival of a new paradise at the prehistoric foot of the Himalayas. Most importantly, a preventive measure had to be mobilised to combat the prevailing attitude of pessimism — especially in protection of the civil rights of the reborn Latinamerican — embodied in the works of José Ortega y Gasset, the aristocratic Spanish philosopher who did not speak for “the revolt of the masses” but incurred wrath against the vulgarized “mass-man,” and who did not depreciate “the dehumanization of art” but in fact championed it and favored the end result of a secret modernist agenda: to remove the human organism from the extreme abstract of art.

The embarrassment of the races caused a tension in the general attitude toward the pathos of the human figure. The human body was either vulgar and filthy, or a coarse reminder of the failure of racial synthesis and universal culture; or it was the source of christian torment, guilt, and suspicion. The glyphs and symbols of yesteryear were cleansed of the indigenous visage that characterized the ancient scripts and languages; the glib philosophers had forgotten that the godliness inherent in mankind, that the Toltecs, were not abstractions or a nothingness of materials and paint-gruel but real men, real women, in amorous conjunct with the cosmos and the revolving earth. (A unison of human energies splendid in motion and sacrament!) That under the sun, all races are one, all colors spread and interconnected on a single plane of radiation. Kandinsky in Moscow, possessed by the centrifuge of human traffic in the spectacle of the sun, described it thus (appropriately echoing the vision of his countryman, Scriabin’s vision of an absolute symphony of colors):

The sun melts all of Moscow down to a single spot that, like a mad tuba, starts all of the heart and all of the soul vibrating. But no, this uniformity of red is not the most beautiful hour. It is only the final chord of a symphony that takes every colour to the zenith of life that, like the fortissimo of a great orchestra, is both compelled and allowed by Moscow to ring out.

The myth of the cosmic race had finally reentered the lexicon of the modernists. The Sun had to be returned to its people: surprisingly, the Copernican Revolution hadn’t yet reached the vicinities of even the most “civilized” and presumptuous of advanced societies. In opposition to Ortega y Gasset’s eurocentrism (which failed to account for the advent of a “fifth race” in the human parade of histories — the indigenous-modern race, the mestizo race), Mexican statesman, philosopher, and Secretary of Education, José Vasconcelos, published his most famous work, The Cosmic Race, in 1925. It was a speculative and lofty essay (though faulty as well in the ineluctable prejudices of its time) that attempted an apologia for the post-revolutionary and indigenous citizens of Latin America, an independence which was furtively propelled by the lambasting of european cultural decadence in the contemporaneous work of Oswald Spengler and the paradigmatic literary renovations framed in José Enrique Rodó‘s Ariel. After the Spanish-American War had concluded in the abolishment of one empire (the Spanish/European complex) in favor of another that turned out no better (the North American-Monroe Doctrine), the Latinamerican was confronted with the lure of his own liberation, a political, social, and aesthetic independence from the pettiness of militaristic, dissenting races. The Latinamerican race, in Vasconcelos’ eyes, was the authentically future race, a mestizaje that joined the Old and the New Worlds, and fused the indigenous to the modern, but also promised a paradigmatic shift in racial theory that would lift the varieties of human experience into an erstwhile allegiance with the cosmic order that its forefathers — the Mesoamericans, the Toltecs — had so long ago enjoyed.

Vasconcelos conceived (in the essay, “The Symphony as a Form of Literature”) of an originary art made transcendent by the mixture of heterogeneous elements, harmonizing them, beyond the ordinary capacities of science and logic, through the apriori laws of musical (color-toned) harmonics. If the answer to the Sphinx’s riddle was man himself, than the answer to the question of race was also race: more and more race, until the four fingers had joined to the fifth and formed the one hand of humankind which could build castles and bridges and shape circles in the lotus pond with a geometric throw of the stone. Vasconcelos previewed a hybridity going past the ugly and obtuse arguments of the 20th, into a 21st century symphony of peoples, ceremonies, and cultures linked in a delirious web of knowing. It would begin with the renewal of the Sun’s preeminence in our philosophies and sacraments. As the sun moves, so too does the earth; and as the earth motions, so also must man and the generations of men motion — toward conjunction, toward the proclivities of metaphor. Octavio Paz, a child of the educational heritage Vasconcelos established in the new republic of Mexico, wrote of the “labyrinth of solitude” that caged the mind of the Latinamerican, and certainly, masked the countenance of the post-revolutionary Mexican, at war with his postcolonial fucked-ness (¡Somos hijos de la chingada!) and at peace in his inheritance of Toltec epistemology. Over and above the maze of racial thought and the chasms of non-identity, Paz mimicked the word-alchemy and voyelles of Rimbaud on a broader Mesoamerican plane of insight:

If you are the amber mare
I am the road of blood
If you are the first snow
I am he who lights the hearth of dawn
If you are the tower of night
I am the spike burning in your mind
If you are the morning tide
I am the first bird’s cry
If you are the basket of oranges
I am the knife of the sun
If you are the stone altar
I am the sacrilegious hand
If you are the sleeping land
I am the green cane
If you are the wind’s leap
I am the buried fire
If you are the water’s mouth
I am the mouth of moss
If you are the forest of the clouds
I am the axe that parts it
If you are the profaned city
I am the rain of consecration
If you are the yellow mountain
I am the red arms of lichen
If you are the rising sun
I am the road of blood
(“Motion” by Octavio Paz)
Rather than fight against difference or strangeness, the Mesoamerican assimilates and absorbs differentiation, shape-shifts into a “road of blood” paving the way for the “rising sun” or assumes the “red arms of lichen” that lie snugly in the breasts of the “yellow mountain.” Color calls out to color; race calls forth to race. Rufino Tamayo, the great contemporary and friend of Paz, was a oaxaqueño like Vasconcelos, and like Paz, was deeply affected by the astral lineage that was traced in reds and blacks, yellows and whites, by Vasconcelos. The cosmic race was Tamayo’s to illustrate, to retouch, to evoke in a series of works that restored the human figure to modern art (a veritable humanization of art) and which gave back the mystery and wonder of the cosmos to man. Motion is the soul of the cosmic order, as it was the central fount of the prehistoric nomads and the Mesoamerican astronomers, who through geomancy and prophecy founded entire civilizations on the basis of the Sun’s movements, the Equinoxes, and the concomitant properties of color and light.
Paz, who wrote the finest criticism on Tamayo’s art, was able to see the Sun in all the works of the Zapotec artist, a man on whom the mysteries of the cosmic-decreed organism were never lost: “If I could express with a single word what it is that distinguishes Tamayo from other painters, I would say without a moment’s hesitation: Sun. For the sun is in all his pictures, whether we see it or not.”

A man studying the firmament scans its constellations to see his own image staring back at him. It isn’t alienation from the cosmos that cultivates an appreciation for other men, other women, other races, but a mystic guarantee that under the sun all things are one, shone on from the perspective of an all-consuming, all-channeling light. In this, Tamayo, ever-modest, relates the principle of the cosmic race in his art practice:

What is fundamental is that I am a man equal to all other men, endowed equally as they are, with the same ambitions and preoccupations… Art is also, more so than natural talent or inspiration, a permanent will to work, to work in liberty. Without liberty, work is nothing more than labor, would have no creative value nor any possibility at poetry.



2 Responses to The Cosmic Race: Vasconcelos, Paz, Tamayo

  1. Conor Millard on November 5, 2010 at 8:09 pm

    Dear Mr. Moctezuma/The Hydra,

    I have been creating a multimedia report on synesthesia for an online class via Virtual High School. I found an image on your website that I think would greatly enhance my project and help me to more clearly communicate the concept of synesthesia. May I please use this image,, for my report? This image would be used solely for educational purposes, and would not be released to the general public, nor would I profit. I respect and appreciate your work in this field of psychology and I would be happy to cite your website as my source. Thank you for considering my request.


    Conor Millard

  2. Jose-Luis Moctezuma on November 9, 2010 at 9:09 pm

    Dear Mr. Millard,

    Yes, you absolutely can use the Kandinsky image because it is in the public domain (at least in the USA). So you won’t have to cite our website in using the image because we’re not the owners: I actually came upon it through the wikipedia article on Kandinsky; here’s the link (where you may apprise yourself of the image’s terms and conditions):

    I hope this helps.

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