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March 09, 2006


Brian, there's something to be said both for and against your mythical "Argentina."

I went looking for that mythical landscape in South America and I guess I could claim I found it in some small way, along with a lot of other stuff. There's a beauty in places where people live closer to the imperatives of life—something more true of, say, Ecuador or Colombia than Argentina, as it happens. But there's a balancing ugliness and menace too. Threats such as injury, starvation and humiliation are always closer in such spontaneous places. In Latin America there is a certain liberation of spirit which often facilitates romance and drama. But one must remember that drama is more inclined to the tragic, and life in Latin America most certainly is. At its best, it's magical; at its worst, it's stygian. Leaving aside the qualifier "rigid," a place where societal rules and mores don’t limit people’s natural inclinations is pretty much what Hobbes described in Leviathan. And no doubt plenty of Latin American lives are poor, brutish, nasty and short, if not solitary.

When I read this I thought about my experience of the mythical Argentina (including in the real Argentina) and got to thinking. Where would be the best place to live? In such a utopia, if it were made real? No, give me a place that affords a maximum of both liberty and order, resulting in general peace and prosperity—maybe Britain around 1900, or perhaps later in the 20th century.

The British (especially the English) are often criticized for their repressed style and the prosaic quality of their society. But the Britain I have in mind compares favorably to the emotional exoticism of Latin America precisely because it was a society that had conquered its passions. Hobbes lived through the Civil War and saw what the unbound passions of factional and personal enmity could wreak. He once said his ruling emotion was fear. As a consequence, he favored an authoritarian scheme of government. Happily, his countrymen, loving liberty, found a better way.

Individuals and whole societies can be pathologically inhibited, but the capacity for repressing one's impulses is what makes people free and civilized. An uninhibited life is a struggle with one's neighbors in which the strongest or most cunning and ruthless wins. It is, perhaps paradoxically, also a life without any internal moral drama. The indulgence of appetite is the exercise of our lower capabilities at the expense of higher achievement. The most civilized places are those whose inhabitants have achieved a high-degree of self-inhibition. Places where the inhabitants are less self-controlled are chaotic, hazardous and unprosperous, and they are likely to be made manageable by external forces of repression or not at all.

If the mythical Argentina is a place where you can unbutton your collar, leave behind your forced courtesies and circumscribed views, fantastic. In the real Argentina you get blithe corruption, assassinated journalists who took their freedom a little too seriously and someone like Perón or Galtieri in charge.

Idler, that's a terrific comment. It's so much more profound than my original post, I feel like the post and the comment should shift places.

You make some great points. I don't want an "Argentina" where anything goes. Like you said, that's chaotic anarchy. I'm more attracted to how you put it: "a place where you can unbutton your collar, leave behind your forced courtesies and circumscribed views."

In the movie, John J. apparently never "gets it on" with Manuela. The invitation is there, but not accepted or acted upon. Balanced. An opening up to possibility without the necessity of making it reality.

That's tango, from the admittedly very limited perspective of my four lessons so far.

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