The Trouble with Our Founders

A decade ago, I gave a talk on the Quiché-Mayan epic at the Popol Vuh Museum at Universidad Francisco Marroquín in Guatemala. It was flattering at first. The smallish auditorium was full. About 100 people. A lot for a topic in the humanities at a school devoted to law, business, economics, and dentistry. I spoke for twelve or thirteen minutes, reviewing the topic of twins in biblical and classical literature, Algonquin mythology, and modern movies. I had ten slides ranging from Romulus and Remus to Jacob and Esau to the Shobijin in Mothra (1961). Finally, I pointed to the enigmatic moment in the Popol Vuh when Xbalanqué tries to distract—all at once—the gods, the readers, and himself from the fact that he has just killed his twin brother Hunahpú in the Cave of Bats. I reported that I had been teaching the Quiché-Mayan founding for twenty years, and not once had a student noticed the murder. Like everyone else in the story, they get distracted by a ballgame and a rabbit that goes flying off among the oak trees.

In the end, I confessed to my audience that I hadn’t really grasped the meaning of Xbalanqué’s guilt and panic until after I’d read the work of French anthropologist and sociologist René Girard.

Girard’s book Violence and the Sacred (1972) explains why and how the archetypal yet illusive foundations of tribes and nations are always reproduced and echoed in their sacrificial rituals. All cultural singularities and the subsequent rites that mimic them relate to the strangeness of twins because they seek to hide an original act of violence that takes place between equal parties. These are the founders, that first pair of enemies who mysteriously come together as comrades in order to create a new social system.

I ended my talk by noting that the Popol Vuh ranks among the great works of world literature and that any Guatemalan who familiarizes himself with that text is uniquely positioned to understand both the Poema de mio Cid and The Federalist Papers as artful renderings of the foundational sacrifices of Spain and the United States.

At that point, I offered to take questions from the audience.

Thirty seconds of silence followed. Thirty seconds of silence feels like a long time when a speaker has stated his willingness to answer questions. It’s like thirty seconds of downtime on the radio or between songs at a concert, except, when you’re speaking to foreigners about their own experience, the silence is worse. In 1984, I was among the first Americans on a national radio program in Argentina after the Malvinas War. A caller asked us what we thought about Thatcher. The silence was tough on all of us.

Back at the Popol Vuh Museum in Guatemala, an elderly man on the front row raised his hand and sprang to his feet. Relieved, I took a deep breath. I was at a stage in my career when I could turn any comment or query into a fruitful dialogue. But the man didn’t have a question. Instead, he turned his back on me and faced the auditorium. He announced the publication of his latest book on the Popol Vuh, which he held aloft for all to see. He offered a dozen copies for sale at a discount to what the bookstores were charging, and he indicated that after my talk he’d be available in the lobby to sign them.

I was vexed, not surprised.

I’d just given a talk on a nation’s founding text to members of that nation. Years earlier, I had a parallel experience reading a paper on Cervantes’s epic La Numancia to a group of Spanish Renaissance specialists gathered in Florence. During my talk, a scholar from the University of Zaragoza carried on an animated conversation with her girlfriend while seated directly in front of me. By the same token, I’ve never met a specialist in American History or Law who grasps the sacrificial meaning of Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia or The Federalist Papers by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay. And if I ever give talks on the Book of Genesis to Israelis, Beowulf to Brits, or Martín Fierro to Argentines, I wager I’ll get similar reactions. Either silence or outright rejection.

Epics are all the same.

One team sacrifices the other, and everybody lies about what happened. For this reason, it’s wired into the very nature of a nation that its citizens cannot understand its founding. They can’t see the killing for what it is. Something hides it or refashions it as a mistake, a game, or the fault of a third party. That third party is usually a sinister monster, king, or deity, like Godzilla or Minos, or a giant bat called Camazotz.

There’s a reason for this.

If you demystify the sacrificial sleight of hand involved in a founding, it loses its appeal and its power. Its mystical aura evaporates. Most people don’t enjoy that since it leaves them without a sense of belonging to something greater than themselves. Thus, if you properly analyze a nation’s epic in front of a group of its people, you’re bound to experience waves of negative sentiment because you’re going up against the willful ignorance of the crowd.

Such shared stupor also explains how legal and literary scholars at the University of Zaragoza, University of Virginia, Yale University, Tel Aviv University, or Universidad de San Carlos manage to get themselves paid large sums of money to persist in their silos of arrogance and ignorance. It’s pitiful if you think about it. This not only means that no nation understands its founding; it means that all nations will exert energy, time, and money in order to distract themselves from the significance of their own founding.

The U.S. is not exceptional in this regard. For example, the proper frames for understanding Notes on the State of Virginia, and hence The Federalist Papers, are the epic novels of Ariosto, Cervantes, and Voltaire, the programs for which are also visible at Fontainebleau. But no legal expert or political theorist—like, Yale’s Akhil Reed Amar or Harvard’s José Guilherme Merquior—could accept the U.S. Constitution’s literary origins. He’d be a fool to reveal himself to have been such a fool. It’s easier for such scholars to mock Jefferson and then justify their status as having something to do with intellectual merit rather than the dictates of Yankee socialism.

I’ve said all epics are the same, and I’ve claimed The Federalist Papers are an epic. The reader might justifiably inquire about the whereabouts of the Cave of Bats episode in the collection of essays by the trio of American founders. Look again at Federalist 45. It’s not a little dangerous. And what’s sacrificed gets magically “unsacrificed.” That’s a strange word if you think about it. The Oxford English Dictionary still states that the earliest evidence of the adjective unsacrificed dates from 1849, in the writing of Daniel Rock, a Roman Catholic priest and ecclesiologist. Yet, last time I checked, The Federalist Papers were written in English and over half a century earlier.

At least Yale and Harvard are not alone in their obliviousness.

Photo by Toho — Wikimedia Commons 


  • Eric-Clifford Graf

    Eric-Clifford Graf (PhD, Virginia, 1997) teaches and writes about the liberal tradition as authored by men like Alexander Hamilton, Frederick Douglass, and Jorge Luis Borges. His latest book is ANATOMY OF LIBERTY IN DON QUIJOTE DE LA MANCHA (Lexington, 2021). All of his work can be found here:

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4 thoughts on “The Trouble with Our Founders

  1. This is a delightfully sophisticated essay. Much could be said about the rich themes in it. As for the concept of twins, Jung’s archetypes of opposites, the symbol of the double, as “the ineradicable and indispensible preconditions of all psychic life (including the ‘hero’ archetype) may say something about the intellectual origins of a founding social-political event, or a new political standard–which is clearly an act of great creativity traceable to a twin dynamic. One statement by the author especially caught my attention: “…the proper frames for understanding Notes on the State of Virginia, and hence The Federalist Papers, are the epic novels of Ariosto, Cervantes, and Voltaire.” I recently attended an event by Becquer Seguin, a professor of Iberian Studies at Johns Hopkins. His latest, book, “The Op-Ed Novel: A Literary History of Post-Franco Spain,” discusses Spanish authors including Javier Cercas, Antonio Munoz, and Javier Marias, and the “osmotic links between political journalism and literary fiction,” and subsequent political formation, from their writings in El Pais (rather progressive center-left, at least originally). While perhaps somewhat oblique to this essay, I do think it points to both the dynamic of literature, journalism and political economy (regardless of ideology) which the author indeed notes–including his observation of the fundamental error, meagerness, and conceptual instability of left legal academics such as Yale Law’s Amar. Otherwise as the author of “Quixote: The Novel and the World,” Ilan Stavans said, “there are two types of intellectuals: the brave and everyone else.” Thank you and Regards.

    1. Jung is way underrated. He’s akin to natural law. He gets abstract so fast that it’s easy to overlook the evidence for an evolutionary or genetic reason for what he is saying. Your take on Spanish novelists is not oblique at all. I believe Hispanic novelists in general are different in sociopolitical terms. They come from a younger culture more in tune with the function of religion. This explains, I believe, why great novelists in the Hispanic world are more often political and theological agents, running for office or advising in the wings. Weak constitutions and strong novelists go together. Not sure which is the chicken or the egg. DQ 2.51 shows the novel as a kind of “greater organic constitution,” the function of which is to speculate about life and grease the wheels of cooperation. In other words, the realm of the novel is everything outside of a constitution, and in that sense, it cannibalizes constitutions as it does every other written form (see Bakhtin). That, at least, was my understanding of Cercas’s point in his book on the blind spot. Jefferson was an artist. I have never met anyone who claims authority in American History or Law who understands exactly what that means. They acknowledge it and jump over it. Listening to Amar savage the founder was enough for me. Artist for him seems only to mean someone aesthetically inclined, maybe a person who knows which tie looks better on him or who can appreciate a nice couch that goes with the wallpaper. As for Stavans, well, ahem. In my world, there are two types of intellectuals: those with tenure at posh institutions, and those without. I will not recall which of those are brave. However, I will note that Stavans is one of the very few Cervantes scholars in the U.S. who actually attempts to write fiction. That counts for a lot, I think. Cheers.

  2. Always have a friend in the audience to ask a friendly question — either for this situation or more often to break up a chain of hostile questioners.

    Sometimes you’ll see someone called who didn’t even have his hand up.

    1. That is probably good advice, Dr. Edmundson. But that requires having friends. The only reason I was invited to Guatemala was because I had burned all my bridges in the U.S. Hence the point of my essay: when you tell people that they do not understand the text with which they think they are most intimate, they tend not to like you. Nobody in the audience knew me, and not even the people who invited me had any idea what I was going to talk about. They were left blinking in disbelief just as much as the Quiche-Maya in the crowd.

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