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Christina Karageorgou-Bastea

Director of Graduate Studies
Associate Professor of Spanish

My research focuses on modern poetry of the Spanish-speaking world. A few years ago, I read Iris Murdoch’s The Sovereignty of Good Over Other Concepts. Turning a page, I bumped into the following paragraph:

If I am learning, for instance, Russian, I am confronted by an authoritative structure which commands my respect. The task is difficult and the goal is distant and perhaps never entirely attainable. My work is a progressive revelation of something which exists independently of me. Attention is rewarded by a knowledge of reality. Love of Russian leads me away from myself towards something alien of me, something which my consciousness cannot take over, swallow up, deny or make real. The honesty and humility required of the student—not to pretend to know what one does not know—is the preparation for the honesty and humility of the scholar…

I rejoiced over the fact that someone had put in words how I felt when I was learning Spanish. It saddened me not to be the author of such transparency.

1984, Athens. It all started with music: the song was in Spanish. I started learning the language while majoring in Byzantine and Modern Greek Philology, at the Athens National and Kapodistrian University. Five years later, I left home with a ten-month scholarship to Mexico, and stayed for nine years. I studied Mexican Literature, in the Universidad Veracruzana in Xalapa, and Hispanic Literatures, at El Colegio de México, in Mexico City (when was still called in endearment DeFectuoso). I did not intend to become a scholar of poetry. What attracted me to poetry was the challenge of texts that pushed my knowledge and perception of this language into which I was not born, but in which I have felt at home. Poetry materializes the deepest end of my love for Spanish, one that is never exhausted.

My research in poetry goes against a fundamental feature attributed to the genre by all major trends of literary interpretation and theory: its monological nature, its introspective pitch. The poets I deal with, very different in style and aesthetic orientation, write always in relation with the other, they weave words into acoustic fabrics made of rich dissonances, noise, harmonies, contrapunto. One might say that Xavier Villaurrutia, Abigael Bohórquez, Gloria Gervitz, Myriam Moscona, Federico García Lorca, Luis Cernuda, Cristina Peri-Rossi, and Pablo Neruda have little in common, and that the commitment to political causes of some lies far from the intimate musings of others. I’ve read their poetic texts within the vibrant social and discursive environments that give words great depth of symbolic and pragmatic meaning, as tokens of a relentless utopian desire for a better world, where beauty and justice are possible because they are inseparable.

Two concepts structure my interpretive attitude towards literature, although I very seldom speak of them in voz alta. The first is the “ethical deed,” Mikhail M. Bakhtin’s idea that the word—and therefore literature as a whole—is an act always carried out within the space between self and the other, and thus is, first and foremost, a moral praxis. The second is “promiscuity,” a concept by which Maurice Merleau-Ponty refers to a mode of perception and cognition that is bodily and that embraces reality and otherness in a tumultuous way. We perceive a world that is heterogeneous, hybrid, multifaceted, and we take it in not in dissecting attentiveness, but rather in hasty gulps. As I think of the poets that I teach in class at Vanderbilt and write about in my research, I hear words that emerge agonistically amidst the roar of social rumor. These fragments of thought that struggle to become audible are a world in effervescence, whose organizational reality is rooted in polemic encounters among embodied entities.

Remaining within poetry’s space in the world and in the Humanities is a commitment that I have in common with a few brave people, not all of them literary scholars. I share my passion for words with my friends who speak all kinds of languages, with my colleagues who have devoted their lives to languages, and most deeply with my daughter. As we switch codes depending on the mood and urgency of our communication, I recognize in her openness to the magnificence of language learning—same that Murdoch describes as she confesses her love for Russian—this leap of faith that must have been also mine, when I started learning Spanish. I could have never known what it entails to be-ser and be-estar, or how it feels to wake up in desamor and in this being unable to ask something of somebody that comes as a result of haberse despedido de alguien; much less did I know about the richness and the miseries of demanding, needing, begging, ordering, wanting the bond with the other that the subjunctive patently revealed to me. Different poets, César Vallejo is the first who always comes to my mind, have taken this beauty of and in itself, and have multiplied it exponentially for me. What fuels my commitment to the study of poetry is this primal love for Spanish, now heightened by the gratitude I feel for the amazing horizons its literatures, cultures, and people have opened before my eyes. It is a sign of the ethical quality of today’s world, including our academic world, that we, teachers of languages—it is redundant to say languages, literatures, and cultures; they go together epistemologically—need convince others of the pertinence of delving deep, deeper and deepest, into words and their meaning. And I know for sure that we never delve deep enough in a language than cuando la queremos because of its magnificence, boundlessness, and independence of one’s own self