In memoriam: Mario J. Valdés, 1934–2020

‘La enseñanza es mi pasión. Todo lo que he publicado ha salido de las aulas, todo’

‘there is no survival as meaningful as the re-created word’ (Mario J. Valdés)

Professor emeritus Mario J. Valdés, a world authority in Miguel de Unamuno, literary hermeneutics, and comparative literary history, died on April 26, 2020. He taught at the University of Toronto for around three decades.

Mario was a Mexican born in Chicago. After completing a BA in history, he started graduate studies in law, but soon decided to change to romance philology, with a minor in philosophy, and obtained in 1963 his PhD at the University of Illinois, Chicago, with a dissertation on the representation of death in Unamuno’s work. One year later, his dissertation was published and became immediately a key contribution to scholarship on Unamuno, besides being praised for its scientific rigour and clear presentation of concepts of criticism. He took a professor assistantship at the University of Toronto in 1963, where he got tenure in 1967 and two years later became a full professor. In 1969 he founded with Northrop Frye a graduate programme in comparative literature, which turned in 1978 into a research centre, which Mario directed until 1983.

Mario was president of the AILC/ICLA Coordinating Committee for Comparative Literary History in European Languages (henceforth chlel) between 1992 and 2000. In his own words, ‘Writing a comparative literary history by way of international teamwork is a revolutionary procedure in literary historiography’. It was during his office when a paradigm shift was introduced, namely, space-oriented comparative literary history. Mario himself contributed to this paradigm shift both as theoretician and practitioner.

As a theoretician, Mario conceived literary history as a hypertextual network based upon what he called the ‘Ricoeur/Braudel model’, whose aim is to capture the thickness of history. ‘The Ricoeur/Braudel model [...] gives us procedures for approaching complex historical conglomerates of comparative literary history. Latin American literatures, the literatures of Central European cultural centres, the literatures of East Asia, etc. are such areas of study’, claimed Mario. The mention of Latin American and Central European literatures was not unwarranted, for between 1996 and 2001 Mario co-directed with Linda Hutcheon the Comparative Literary History Project, which was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (henceforth sshrc) and administered by the University of Toronto. Initially, the project comprised three separate comparative literary histories, of which only the ones devoted to Latin America (under the auspices of sshrc) and East-Central Europe (under the auspices of chlel) materialised.

As a practitioner, Mario co-edited with Djelal Kadir Literary Cultures of Latin America: A Comparative History, a three-volume set which involved over 200 collaborators from twenty-two countries. In none of the three sections of this comparative history a traditional sequence of literary periods is used. Instead, alternative temporal frameworks are explored concerning what Mario called ‘frame’ (human geography, economics and sociology as material conditions for literary cultures), ‘synopsis’ (the network of routes for literary circulation) and ‘narrative’ (writers and works as milestones of literary culture). Frame, synopsis and narrative find their equivalences in Fernand Braudel’s social temporalities (longue, moyenne and courte durée) so that Literary Cultures of Latin America is enunciated three times as opposed to the mythical time-space of omniscient literary histories. It was through this procedure that Mario materialised one of his central theoretical tenets, namely, ‘a comparative literary history would have to acknowledge the epistemological limitations that its hermeneutic situation creates: each historian will be situated as a real person living in a linguistic and cultural community, and it is from that specific position that he/she can engage what phenomenologists call the horizon of the past’.

Though Mario retired in 1999, he went on creating a productive atmosphere for new projects and mentoring students and younger colleagues. One such project under his intellectual influence was A Comparative History of Literatures in the Iberian Peninsula. Mario made an immense mark on comparative literary history. His impact will live on for many years.