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Alfredo Jocelyn-Holt, historian

«What we had was a successful dictatorship»

Juan Manuel Vial
Journalist and literary critic Photographs: Pablo Izquierdo A Santiago, Chile Entrevista Á - N.1

What follows is a long and extended interview with the author of so many books that are key to our understanding of the past and our current reality. With his usual gradient of intensities —that go from an emphasised irony to an exasperated snort— Jocelyn-Holt reviews unknown aspects of his life while clarifying his intellectual lineage and of course, taking a critical look at contingency.

In the late 1990s I casually bumped into Alfredo Jocelyn-Holt on the platform of Los Leones metro station. I said hello, because we knew each other, and before starting a conversation he suggested with unease that we step away from the rails. Noticing my surprise at his petition, he explained himself: I have too many enemies these days, he said, and for some of them it would be too easy to give me a little fatal push if they saw I was distracted talking to you. My surprise became bewilderment, but I was soon recomposed: I concluded that it was a joke and I attempted a smile. Nevertheless, I calculated wrong: his face did not hint the slightest complicity, on the contrary it hardened, betrayed at my frivolous and inconsiderate smile. At this moment and in others later, I reckoned that he was exaggerating.
Time passed and now I think Alfredo had reason to protect himself in this way. There are so many enemies that the liberal, 63-year-old historian has cultivated in the last decades, that for some of the people close to him it’s miraculous that he’s still standing, professionally active and with a press tribune on the written press and radio. Others, the ones not close to him, take him for conflictive, demented and paranoid. The classic attributes, they say of a sniper. What’s certain whatever the case, is that in his published work there is an abundance of invectives directed towards the post powerful subjects in this country, which, of course, has meant paying the corresponding costs.


People say that as an enemy you are implacable. I think you’re also a bit suicidal. What are the consequences of fighting the powerful of this country?

-Well, they’ve fired me from four or five universities.


-And they’ve vetoed you in the media?

-Of course. In El Mercurio, for example Cristián Zegers vetoed me, saying that I was one of the authors of El libro blanco of the dictatorship and that he has never forgiven me. In the late 90’s some people were vetoed on television, people like Armando Uribe, Manuel Antonio Garretón, Gabriel Salazar, Tomás Moulián and I, who at the time were reflecting on a rather critical history of transition. That’s been proved.


What’s the highest cost you’ve paid?

-When there are vetoes they mark you. In the past when I was marked by the right, I was loved by the people of the left, because I was sort of high class, a kind of conservative that criticised the dictatorship and transition. But once they mark you, you can be marked forever by whoever. And that’s nasty, because there is an idea that you’re a difficult, marginal person, a sniper. They’ve classified me thousands of times as a sniper but the ones who do it don’t even know how to use the term with assertion. When I left the Universidad Diego Portales —they let me go but I made them let me go— there surged the possibility of going to work at another private university. Someone had been managing the situation behind my back. Of course, when it didn’t work out they told me how everything had happened: in the university they thought very well of me, they had no doubts about my competence, but anything that could happen with me would be on the press. That was the downside. Curious, no? With that I realized that I couldn’t be anywhere but the Universidad de Chile. But being marked you can enjoy little mobility. And the university I’m talking about was very right-wing, so imagine: the veto of the right still stands.

«In the 90’s I always said I was right-wing but people didn’t believe me. Strangely now no one doubts that I’m right-wing. And I haven’t changed»

-In this country intellectuals aren’t seen as subjects to be trusted. Does this have to do with you?

-Effectively. Intellectuals are marked as people not to be trusted. I remember once I asked Hernán Errázuriz Talavera may he rest in peace because we had the politicians that we had. Hernán was a very funny character, ambassador in London, lawyer of Dodi Al-Fayed, also apparently, he defended the Man of the Skies, well, I asked him at the time when Frei Ruiz-Tagle was president. And he answered: “Well he’s trustworthy”. Hernán wasn’t only speaking on his behalf, he had been the president of the Liberal Party’s son, which is to say his was an acquired knowledge. There was a number of not trustworthy people, but we have not been convincing in proving that we are necessary (laughs). We have been clumsy with that: we have not been able to assure that, conforming, we are not trustworthy, but we can be useful in other ways. Now, that intellectuals aren’t trustworthy seems to me to be very reasonable. Political groups like intellectuals with a salary.


-Do you agree that you aren’t a common type within the order or professional relationships, as, if you aren’t a sniper at least you are threatening. And here what tends to take precedence is the component over the attack.

-It’s just that I wasn’t educated in the playgrounds of the traditional Chilean schools.


-But you had the same advantages as the people who were educated in the traditional schools

-Of course. My advantages are not natural, they’re social. When they dismiss me from a university I always say that I must be the first generation of my family in almost four hundred years, to be unemployed, with one hand in front and the other behind. And that’s not really acceptable, not only for me but also for others. And they help me, they save me. Each time something big has happened to me, perspectives are opened simultaneously.


-You were awarded the President of the Republic’s scholarship that Pinochet used to give.

-When he explained why the military dictatorship had supported me with a scholarship for a Doctorate at Oxford, being against the regiment, I always conclude that this country isn’t stupid and that even the people of the military dictatorship weren’t stupid: if people with some preparation exist, you simply can’t go without them. It’s not that I’m glorifying myself, but the truth is that at that time there were very few people with my education. I did a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in four years in the Unites States, which is quite important. Normally people take six years. I had also studied law, in which I did very well. So, applicants like this weren’t found easily. I spent 16 years at a university, being a student, which is more or less the same time an aspiring Jesuit. I didn’t like what some of my students thought at all, neither their political stances, but I must recognize that if they are talented, you commit a grave error if you go after them. The first times I had difficulties in my university, I said that if they vetted me, I could become Abimael Guzman. And I think the country doesn’t want that, you have to be very careful.


-Are you right-wing?

-Yes, I’m right wing, but there’s something curious: in the 90’s I always said I was right-wing but people didn’t believe me. Strangely now no one doubts that I’m right-wing. And I haven’t changed (laughs).


Internal exile

The interview is undertaken in the home of the historian, a brick construction in the commune of Providencia. He receives me, painted in an elegant pale light blue, a placid place in which the main decoration, as well as some old paintings whose origins I can’t identify, are the books and a bust of José Manuel Balmaceda. Jocelyn-Holt is great grandson of the suicide president, but that’s not why he defends the party. In fact, he declares himself parliamentarian, in opposition to one of the principal legacies of his ancestor, the presidential system.


-How many books do you have?

-I don’t really know, I’ve calculated and I think between 12 and 14 thousand. But Carmona said the other day that he had 7 thousand books worth 250 million pesos. He has them valued! His books are worth more than a property of which he spoke, worth 80 million pesos. Mine, I must admit, are cheaper.


-Do you mean Carlos Carmona, ex-president of the Tribunal Constitucional and scholar of the Universidad de Chile, that generated the feminist taking over of the Facultad de Derecho, that which originated the entire feminist movement of our time?

-That’s the one, the sexual one (laughs). He said he had 7 thousand books and, I don’t know he must have incunabula or very special volumes. My experience with books is that they’re very expensive and once you leave the book shop they’re worth a third of the price. I’m not a book collector, my library is strictly for use. So, I buy books that are written all over, sometimes because they’re the only ones I find. There are readers who underline, even in pen, that are amazing, I mean, they underline exactly what one should underline, they do the work for you.


-I imagine that in your library there are also very selective books, ones which you always go back to.

-Yes, there are groups of lectures. I specialized in the Italian Renaissance at the John Hopkins University, so the humanist subject is very important for me. Hans Baron’s book on civic humanism, for example, is crucial. I remember when I was a student of Mario Góngora’s I lent it to him. And when he returned it we spoke at length about him. But the great author, the one who introduced me to everything, was Jacob Burckhardt. La cultura del Renacimiento en Italia is fundamental.


-You quote Burckhardt in your Historia general de Chile.

-There are some authors that I quote in all my books.


-Did your parents read?

-My mother is a great reader, although curiously she really likes romantic novels. My father who was an architect, read a lot and had a little library dedicated to architecture, which is in turn the base of all the architecture books that I have. So, there is something of Oedipus there.


-Does your passion for architecture come from him?

-Yes, from him. And for drawing too. I got to draw quite well.


-Do you still draw?

-No. But books were always present. My great grandfather Letelier had many books, many books on law. In my grandmother’s house Balmaceda’s books still existed, from the library that was sacked in ’91, they came from there, they had the stamps. And in my grandmothers’ houses there were many paintings. In my great grandmother’s Velasco’s house, for example there was a Dufy, two Sorollas, and a Roussea, the Aduanero, but it was totally realistic, it must have been one of the only ones. There was quite a good Venus de Milo, a Voltaire bust (authentic Houdon), a gift from the French embassador. And my grandmother Balmaceda’s house was full of statues, full. Many bronzes. Some of them apparently belonged to the president. And pianos that weren’t played. At that point no one played the piano. They are quite strong worlds for generating artistic sensibilities. It came from all sides.


-What other reading groups impressed you?

-There was a time when I was entirely dedicated to intellectual history, and the Bloomsbury group was very important to me. I wanted to understand the collective environment, not only a figure. Of course, I was very interested by Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf. But everything produced around them in the ‘70s and ‘80s of the twentieth century, the collective biographies that came from this group, Leon Edel for example, or when Richard Ellmann terminated Oscar Wilde, this material was very relevant for me, because it was about a generation, a group.


-Would you have liked to participate in an intellectual collective?

-I always had the desire for a kind of collective to exist, but I’ve never seen a collective in real life.


-That’s a bit sad isn’t it?

-Yes, it is sad. In consequence I work in a kind of internal exile.


-Would your condition as professor allow you to form groups?

-Before it might have, as at another time the academic world was stimulating. Today I’m surprised when someone suggests a book I don’t know, and believe me, I write it down. But I used to like being a professor because the students would give me a lot of knowledge, it wasn’t only me who taught. Today, it isn’t like that. And the conversations with other professors are nothing. I don’t think I’m the only one.


History and writing

-What is your Historia general de Chile about?

-It’s on stand-by for now. Writing, as I do all my classes according to the Historia general. There are three volumes to go, another three have already been published. I’m in the period of the Independence and the French Revolution. The next volume takes me to the generation of the ’42, the fifth goes from 1842 to the 20’s, and finally I get to last century.


-Is there a historian that inspires you to write your history of Chile?

-To write a “general history” is to do what many others have done before. Again it has to do with the Renaissance: the painters of the Renaissance had to demonstrate certain advances to become masters. So, they painted predellas that are in the minor altars, in which they are very innovative. And then they rise and paint saints until finally they graduate, with a crucifixion for example, or an ascension of the Virgin, or a mural series. In Chile there is the same sequence with historians: everyone writes a book on the Independence, one on Portales, one on contemporary history, and they all end up writing a “general history”. I’ve followed this line. At first, I didn’t realize what I was doing but then I noticed that I was doing the same as Encina, Barros Arana, Vicuña Mackenna. They all did it in some way or another. At one point I suggested a critique to Gabriel Salazar, whom I greatly admire: if he kept writing on nothing but the low society, of Mrs Peta and the grinding, he wouldn’t be able to enter into this kind of canon. And apparently, he thought I was right because he then wrote a book on Portales and another on the Independence. He’s been following the guidelines.


-Your Historia general de Chile has some imaginative and acute components that have not been understood by everyone. Have you been criticised by your peers for that?

-According to some, I’m an essayist and not a historian. The judgement is ridiculous because both are not mutually exclusive. Also, in Chile the gender of history that has gained most impact is the essay. In any case, the nice thing about my profession is to tell a story that everybody knows in a different way, so that you can appreciate and see things you hadn’t seen before. That’s why I enjoy writing my Historia general de Chile.


-Do you read your peers?

-The truth is that, interestingly I don’t like reading historians. Also, academic historians are a mess and they don’t know how to cook up a story. We have fundamental historians like Simon Schama, Alexis de Tocqueville, Jacob Burckhardt, Mario Góngora, but the median historian is very precarious, to be avoided. Historians can be acute, they have all the tools to be so. When writing you have to understand that you’re talking to a professional and cultivated public, but not only historians. That’s the tricky part.


-Do you also detest academia?

-No, I have nothing to do with them. Even so, they make me feel their rejection. This explains on the one hand why I moved to the world of journalism, in sight of the fact that they closed the doors to me. But I don’t miss them at all. Our academia produces ever more indexed magazines that no one writes. And its members don’t write books. Some few write and publish. And they generate animosities. I’m vetted from the Facultad de Historia of the Universidad Católica, and I’m not at all interested in teaching there. I’m vetted from the Universidad de Chile, in the same faculty where I’m professor: I don’t form part of the History Department because I’m vetted. But there are so many there that are accused of sexual harassment that the truth is I don’t want to be part of that (laughs). Also, people could think by association that one is sexier than what one really is. In short, I have no formal link with the historiographic world. They invite me to speeches, conferences, seminars, but I don’t go.


-Do Chilean historians read contemporaries from other countries?

-To be frank, I read a lot of history, but I insist, I don’t like reading history. However, I like historians with a craft. Lately I’m surprised reading historians from the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s of the past century, general historians, very competent. I’m talking about these large collections of complete periods of French, North American or English history that last for almost decades. This is a craft that attracts me a lot. But what most stimulates me is essayists and not historians. Although evidently, I have to read a lot of history.

Salazar, Góngora, Marx, Zizek

-People are surprised by your friendship with Gabriel Salazar, as both represent opposite sides of the same profession, he on the Marxist side and you on the right-wing liberal side.

-Gabriel is a generous person, who’s tolerant with other opinions and to me he’s an admirable historian. It’s necessary to have people you admire, otherwise you become an onanism. It’s fundamental. With Gabriel, we’re historicists, we were formed on the same line, and with a common nexus, that’s Mario Góngora, to whom Gabriel was an assistant. I was not his assistant but he greatly influenced me. Gabriel and I appreciate history from a privileged subject in his case it’s the low society, and in mine it’s the elites, and we try to observe the phenomenon from within its own context, not from today’s perspective. In that was I understand historicism. What’s curious is that Gabriel gets on better with people from the opposite side of his thought. Let’s remember that he had to leave the Humanities in the Universidad de Chile, startled by the feminists: they insulted him, even some of his former students. And then he left. In my opinion the left is too much of a sect.



-Are there still good Marxist historians in Chile? I’m thinking about people like the late Armando de Ramón for example.

-Here we’ve always had good Marxist historians. Today apart from Gabriel we have Julio Pinto, he’s also very exceptional. Armando de Ramón and Gabriel Salazar —they were best friends— loved this subject of social history, that was very important until not long ago. But today it is scattered. One would think that right wing postures are more likely to become scattered, but it’s fascinating how progression goes beyond previous progressive advances. It’s worth observing a process based on the anxiety for fame, in the desire to be part of the cake, to take up space. Here it’s not only liberals who are marginalized, the moderated, those of the right, call them as you like. Today it’s everyone against everyone.


-Did you read Capital?

-I’m afraid not. But I’ve read The Communist Manifesto many times.


-How is Karl Marx judged today?

-Just like any important intellectual authority, we have to permanently go back to him, it’s inevitable. However, we must be careful of their promotors, of their disciples of their acolytes. I come from a generation in which different sides of Marx were discovered, aspects which had not been considered by the orthodox, I’m talking about “the young Marx”, of the Marx who brought out Erich Fromm. And that was quite nice. I have a good opinion of Marx. Whoever severely attacks Marx never properly understood him. Each time I read him I find him new. Of course, I don’t accept the dialectic as it seems to me an oversimplification of history.

-What do you think about the work of Slavoj Zizek, the Marxist historian of the moment?


-The parts that I manage to understand I find admirable.

-Of course, he recurs to Lacan too much, and Lacan is quite incomprehensible, no?

-Lacan definitely surpasses me. I find it very hard to follow Zizek. There are things I have not managed to understand, and I quote them because it’s like finding a pearl, a unique diamond. He has very lucid phrases but he’s frankly exhausting.

Liberalism: misunderstandings

-What is it to be liberal today in Chile? I ask because here they consider Mario Vargas Llosa as the icon of contemporary liberalism, and to me he is someone anchored in the 20th century. He is not a contemporary figure.

-Well, anachronisms seem to last long (laughs). Imagine that Vargas Llosa lasts longer than the Nobel Prize: perhaps the Nobel Prize in Literature will become extinct, but we’ll have Vargas Llosa talking of cave rights next year (laughs). The best of the famous last encounter was when he said that he supported a military coup in Venezuela, but that it should be short (laughs). Well, Eduardo Frei said the same thing in 1973, he thought the military would call for elections in 90 days. Not to defend Axel Kaiser, but it seems to me that Vargas Llosa couldn’t publicly confess that there are good but short dictatorships. Let’s return to your question: liberals in Chile? I remember that in the 90’s there appeared polls that up to 50% of the consulted, in magazines such as Qué Pasa and others, affirmed that they were liberal, which seemed to me to be very suspicious, because in the 60’s and 70’s no one wanted to be liberal. How could this aggiornamento have happened so fast then? It was quite strange. In Chile they confuse liberalism with progressiveness. It’s very surprising from the 60’s onwards there was no progressivist that was not from the left. In consequence, to be liberal today means to adhere to a progressive line in a series of subjects, to adhere to an agenda. For example: if you are in favour of abortion, you’re liberal; if you’re for not getting married and living together, you’re a liberal; if you publicly assume a gender identity or a sexual minority, not heterodox, you’re a liberal. But that has nothing to do with what had traditionally been liberalism.

«In Chile there are no liberals today because the fascination with power prevents us noticing that what matters to true liberalism is the limit of power, the suspicion of power»

-Do you see any public person in our day that you can define as a liberal through and through?

-No, I don’t see anyone like that around. In Chile there are no liberals today because the fascination with power prevents us noticing that what matters to true liberalism is the limit of power, the suspicion of power.


-Not even a camouflaged liberal in the sphere of the press column, on the radio, on television?

-No one. Imagine that a liberal, to really be a liberal, you have to be quite illustrious, and what is at stake today is the questioning of illustration, so if you question this, how will you not be questioning liberalism? Liberalism should be proposed in terms of a political order, because it’s strictly political.

«I used to like being a professor because the students would give me a lot of knowledge. Today, it isn’t like that. And the conversations with other professors are nothing. I don’t think I’m the only one»

-And if liberalism is over, what destroyed it?

-What undid liberalism in Chile was positivism, towards the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th. This positivism engendered sectors of the left such as Marxism, without going any further. It has been signalled many times that Marxism had such a following in Latin America because we had such a strong positivist past. Positivism was also a technical line, technocratic, that enters into the developmentalist logics of the 60’s. In our case, the social democratic left, the Democracia Cristiana and then neoliberalism. We therefore speak about commercial engineers, of a positivism with logics close to Saint-Simon, according to whom engineers should govern us. In Chile a unique species of engineers was invented. I’m a professor at Beauchef, the Facultad de Ciencias Físicas y Matemáticas of the Universidad de Chile, and my students always laugh when I ask them how they see commercial engineers. They are a bit strange but without a doubt saintsimonian in this constructive, leader logic and that everything is measured according to facts and concrete utilities. They are a type of factism. But we can’t forget that they killed liberalism, romanticism, that, well, they’ve made their mistakes, as every ideology, but they were more noble than positivism.


-Who was the great Chilean liberal of the 19th Century?

-They all were. Absolutely everybody. Even conservatives. Bilbao, Lastarria, Bello himself who is sometimes more conservative and other times liberal, Sarmiento, Alberdi, all the Argentines. That’s where it starts. That’s really where liberalism starts. But it’s everyone because the liberal hegemony in the 19th Century is total. Even conservatives can be more liberal than the liberals, for example in economic matters.


-Neoliberalism would then come to be a nomenclature, as classic liberalism doesn’t seem to have much.

-Neoliberalism is a bastard child of liberalism and is a stenographic liberalism (ironic snort), because it abbreviates more than fifty years in the subject. It’s very economic, in its vision of liberalism. Very economic. It kind of eliminates the fundamental. Look: neoliberalism in Chile sustained that really economic development was enough to obviate the political problem. And that’s when the social protests of 2011 break out. This was already evident in the dictatorship, and it was very evident under the consensualism of the 90’s. What a story!


-In one of your columns you proposed that a vital step for the improvement of Chilean universities is a national consensus. It is possible today to reach that consensus?

-Unthinkable, unthinkable in a context in which people believe that you have to re think everything. The damned habit of founding everything. If the right today is not on that line, it’s only because during the dictatorship it did precisely that, re found everything. The right was the first to show that this modus operandi was successful: one could re think the country from nothing, starting from the bombing of La Moneda, to then leave nothing but the walls, as everything else is erased. There’s a model that also triumphed. And please let’s stop talking about good or bad dictatorships, let’s speak about successful or failed dictatorships, because what we had, and this is real whether we liked it or not, and I honestly don’t like it, what we had was a successful dictatorship, which explains a lot of things. And so, the left that today is a great reader of the Nazi Carl Schmitt, says “this is good for Micifuz”: if it was good for them, why shouldn’t it be good for us? All under a brutal sectarianism. And I return to my case, as it is illustrative: if today there are 20 scholarships to go to Oxford with Becas Chile, someone like me doesn’t win it.


-And what can you say about the current neofeminism?

-The other day I received mail informing about a seminar of feminist historians. After reading it I was under the impression that no man could assist. I understand in the assemblies of the feminists that took over the Law School of the Universidad de Chile they put vetoes as conditioning who could assist or not. We’re facing a very hard Stalisism and Maoism. And on this front, there’s nothing we can do.

  1. Alfredo JocelynHolt, historiador, nació en Santiago de Chile en 1955. Hizo sus primeros estudios en la Johns Hopkins University, donde obtuvo una licenciatura en Historia del Arte y un máster en Estudios Humanísticos. Se licenció también en Derecho por la Universidad de Chile. Posteriormente se doctoró en la Universidad de Oxford. Es autor de varios libros, ensayos y, recientemente, publicó el libro La Casa del Museo, que estudia la historia de la casa Yarur Bascuñán, hito de la arquitectura moderna chilena y actual Museo de la Moda.
Juan Manuel Vial