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José María Vargas Vila

José María Vargas Vila José María Vargas Vila[1†]

José María de la Concepción Apolinar Vargas Vila Bonilla, commonly referred to as José María Vargas Vila, was a Colombian writer and public intellectual[1†]. Born on June 23, 1860, in Bogotá, Colombia[1†], he was the son of General José María Vargas Vila and Elvira Bonilla Matiz[1†][2†].

Early Years and Education

José María Vargas Vila was born on June 23, 1860, in Bogotá, Colombia[1†]. He was the son of General José María Vargas Vila and Elvira Bonilla Matiz[1†][2†]. His father, a soldier for the cause of liberal radicalism, was almost always absent and died in combat when Vargas Vila was still a boy[1†][2†]. After the death of his father, the family moved to Bogotá, where Vargas Vila completed grade school and high school[1†][2†].

With no money to pay for a university education, he enlisted as a soldier in the army of General Santos Acosta[1†][2†]. In 1876, he participated in the campaign against clerical conservatives in the Cauca region[1†][2†]. Beginning in 1878, he held various positions as a teacher, first in Ibagué, then in Guasca and in Anolaima[1†][2†].

The year 1883 marks the prelude to the legend of Vargas Vila. At this time, he began his work as a teacher in the Liceo de la infancia, a school for Bogotá’s young aristocracy, run by the Jesuit priest Tomás Escobar[1†][2†]. This was the same school that renowned modernista poet José Asunción Silva attended[1†][2†].

However, Vargas Vila’s time at the Liceo de la infancia ended in scandal. After being expelled from the school for reasons that remain unclear, Vargas Vila accused Father Escobar, in print, of corrupting and sexually abusing the students[1†][2†]. Rather than face the powerful priest in court, he abandoned the city forever[1†][2†].

Career Development and Achievements

José María Vargas Vila was a prolific writer and public intellectual who, from an early age, participated in political struggles as a journalist, political agitator, and orator[1†]. His radically liberal ideas and criticism of the Catholic clergy, conservatism, and the imperialist policies of the United States distinguished him[1†]. Many of his ideas approached those of existentialism and were claimed to be libertarian, although they were so close to anarchism that at one time even Vargas Vila declared himself an anarchist[1†].

Vargas Vila’s output was prodigious. In addition to articles in Némesis, his own journal, he wrote over eighty books[1†][3†]. Despite being largely shunned by polite circles, Vargas Vila was one of the few writers who lived off of his trade[1†][3†]. Some of his works include "Aura o las violetas" (1887), "Pasionarias, álbum para mi madre muerta" (1887), "Emma, Maracaibo" (1888), "Lo irreparable" (1889), "Los Providenciales" (1892), "Flor de fango" (1895), "Ibis" (1900), "A la hora del crepúsculo" (1900?), "Alba roja, París" (1901), "Las rosas de la tarde" (1901), "Ante los bárbaros: el Yanki. He ahí el enemigo" (1902), "Copos de espuma" (1902), “Eleonora (novela de la vida artística)” (1917), “Los discípulos de Emaüs (novela de la vida intelectual)” (1917), and “María Magdalena; novela lírica” (1917)[1†].

First Publication of His Main Works

José María Vargas Vila was a prolific writer, and his works spanned a variety of genres. Here are some of his main works, along with the year of their first publication:

Analysis and Evaluation

José María Vargas Vila was a literary iconoclast, with his overarching aim in writing being to subvert those elements of society assumed to be sacred but believed by him to be hindering progress and equality in Latin America[3†]. His works targeted Roman Catholicism and its representatives, traditional concepts about family and society, “respectable” writing, and what he deemed to be false morality that kept society from moving forward[3†].

The major themes in his work include the criticism of close-minded societies, a constant attack on dictatorial regimes, an exploration of proscribed sexual topics, a bitter defense of individualism, and the scrutiny of the political developments of his time[3†]. His intent was to épater le bourgeois, that is, to shock those who profited from positions of power[3†].

Vargas Vila’s prose style was intended to complement and serve as an expression of his philosophy and subject matter[3†]. The dominant technique in his texts is fragmented writing, which includes short paragraphs, aphoristic affirmations, infringement of the traditional rules of punctuation, incorporation of foreign words and phrases, word play, insults, Latinate grammatical constructions, and unexpected typography[3†]. All these elements were designed to rouse the reader from the comfortable state of merely being entertained instead of actively shaping and reshaping society[3†].

There appears to be unanimity among critics that there is something that can be called the Vargavilesquian style[3†]. His output was prodigious, and in addition to articles in Némesis, his own journal, he wrote over eighty books[3†].

Personal Life

José María Vargas Vila led a life that was as controversial and unconventional as his writings. He was known for his strong criticism of the Catholic Church, and this was reflected in his personal life as well[1†]. He was born into a Catholic family, but he later rejected the faith and even dropped his baptismal names that connected him to the Catholic tradition[1†][2†].

Vargas Vila’s father, General José María Vargas Vila, was a soldier for the cause of liberal radicalism and died in combat when Vargas Vila was still a boy[1†][2†]. After the death of his father, the family moved to Bogotá, where Vargas Vila completed grade school and high school[1†][2†].

His personal life was marked by controversy and scandal. In 1884, he was expelled from the school he was teaching at for reasons that remain unclear—with speculation ranging from political to economic reasons[1†][2†]. He accused the school’s priest, Father Escobar, of corrupting and sexually abusing the students[1†][2†]. This accusation scandalized Bogotá, and Vargas Vila was charged with theft, transvestism, and sodomy in retaliation for his accusations against Escobar[1†][2†]. Rather than face the powerful priest in court, he abandoned the city forever[1†][2†].

In 1885, civil war broke out in Colombia, and Vargas Vila enlisted as a soldier in the army of General Santos Acosta[1†][2†]. After the conservative victory, he fled and began composing invective political texts[1†][2†].

Despite the controversies and challenges, Vargas Vila remained committed to his beliefs and continued to write and publish his works. His personal life, like his professional life, was marked by a strong commitment to liberal ideals and a rejection of traditional norms[1†][2†].

Conclusion and Legacy

José María Vargas Vila, a literary iconoclast, was possibly the most widely read Colombian author of the early twentieth century[3†]. His writings aimed to subvert those elements of society assumed to be sacred but believed by him to be hindering progress and equality in Latin America[3†]. He defended all causes and individuals who fought for their peoples’ liberty and justice, especially in Latin America[3†][1†].

In the early 1920s, Vargas Vila’s physical and mental health began to deteriorate, and he eventually became more distant and solitary[3†][5†]. Nonetheless, he undertook a last journey through Latin America in 1924, visiting Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, and Cuba[3†][5†].

Vargas Vila passed away on May 23, 1933, in Barcelona, Spain[3†][1†]. His legacy continues to influence Latin American literature and thought. His works, filled with radically liberal ideas and criticism of the Catholic clergy, conservatism, and the imperialist policies of the United States, remain relevant and continue to inspire discussions on liberty, justice, and progress[3†][1†].

Key Information

References and Citations:

  1. Wikipedia (English) - José María Vargas Vila [website] - link
  2. UNC Libraries - Exhibits - BIOGRAPHY · Vargas Vila [website] - link
  3. UNC Libraries - Exhibits - INTRODUCTION · Vargas Vila [website] - link
  4. Goodreads - Author: Books by José María Vargas Vila (Author of Aura o las violetas) [website] - link
  5. UNC Libraries - Finding Aids - Jose Maria Vargas Vila Papers, 1919-1937 and undated [website] - link
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