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February 2004

Gastón Soublette:
The tribe's wise man

Professor, Art historian; an expert in aesthetics, Western philosophy and mapuche culture; a musicologist and a composer educated in France, he is one of the great introducers of Chilean popular music to the academic circle (thanks to his friendship with Violeta Parra). Gastón Soublette is a compendium of multiple knowledges, which he transmits to his students looking for a cosmovision that is capable of recomposig "life's transcendent sense".

He is a master that has never abandoned his crusade for the rescue of roots and cultural values. He can't hide his grief over the materialism and spiritual poverty that now reigns in Chile. He says that our greatest problem is that we lack of "somebody like Vicuña Mackenna, with a clear vision of what culture is: to form people with discern, something that, of course, is of no interest to any form of power"..

By Rosario Mena

The first time I saw Gastón Soublette was during an evening, in the 80s. He, with his long dark hair, was wearing a mapuche shawl and playing the trutruca (typical wind instrument) in one of the old patios of Universidad Católica's Campus Oriente. Two decades later I find him at the same place. His shape is long and narrow, jeans and jacket, his hair and beard completely white, they all project the professor's Shamanic aura. It's not just about his image. Soublette really is one of the tribu's wisemen in these modern times.

—How do you articulate all those diverse areas in which you work?
—It's a question that has taken me a very long time to answer. I believe that the main conductor is Faith. In everything I've ever done, I've looked for a transcendent meaning. For instance, if I study cinema's symbology I look in it for a topic that has to do with men's spirituality. I just finished a paper about Mahler's symphonies, and in there I also looked for its mystic and its relation with the Bible tradition.

—Western philosophy presents what we call dialectic, in the form of the ying and the yang. Can we find something similar in Chilean history?
—It's probably easier to start from Universal history. Early Middle Age, the Carolingia times, was horribly sexist. There was an abuse of the yang, and culture corrupted for the excessive dominance of men over women. Women were nothing. So, the Church did a wonderful thing. They raised the Virgin Mary, introduced the femenine and the maternal to religion, and that produced an unbelievable social change. Then there came the Knight times, 12th and 13th Centuries, were women were the queens of society. There comes a kind of spring, all gothic cathedrals are devote to Maria, Our Lady. So the balance of the ying and the yang is finally achieved. There's another example in Napoleón, during the 19th Century: he domains Europe for 25 years, imposing a war ideal and suffocating cultural development, he eliminates Philosophy classes at the Paris University to end with the critical sense, and exiles all writers. And when he dies comes Romanticism, all full of ying: what's sweet and dreamy. There comes Chopin, Lizt, all that world of the salons.

In Chile, the Pinochet times were overly male: strength, yang. But with democracy's arrival, one can see the romantic complement.

Culture: a double-edge sword

—Could one interpretate as a re-location of the ying our government's intent for re-valuing culture?
—Till now, culture has been like an obligation, like it was a luxury you can live without. It is "well seen" that a government would take care of this. But there's no real love of culture, or conscience about its importance: to create people with discern. It wouldn't be convenient to any kind of power.

—What's your opinión about the National Council of Culture, which in a way makes culture part of the establishment?
—I haven't seen it working yet, one can not measure its achievements. But there are a lot of people who feel it's just another bureaucratic thing, which gives the government some kind of prestige for having created it. I mean, it's better to have it than not. But I don't see real commitment.

—Does it lack mysticism?
—Spiritually, our country is in very bad shape. It does not have the openness to enter culture as it should. With true love for literature, art, thinking and beauty. Nobody seems to be clear about culture's value and social function, like Vicuña Mackenna or Pablo Neruda used to be.

—No. After our Napoleon, there were not —as in France— great figures from Literature, Philosophy, Art, nor a love of people for them. I don't feel it. The media and its vulgarity seem to raze with everyting. There's a great responsibility in the Church for the spiritual poverty we now live in. They haven't been able to give an answer. Church has to stop being the manager of religion and start guiding people. Not just in pastoral open letters, but in getting close to people. That's why people are now looking for Western spirituality.

—How did you get to Western philosophy?
—Because of the same. Chilean spirituality, that of the catholic Church, presents a huge emptiness in terms of personal development. To me it is of no use a religion that just teaches dogmas and precepts, and doesn't teach me how to evolve. There are now some renewal movements within Church taking care of that.

Popular culture: to break with hierarchy

—How's your connection to Chilean popular culture?
—Through Violeta Parra. She came to radio Chilena when I was the programming director, and we became friends. She taught me the value of popular poetic and musical tradition; I found it all very attractive. I did not know about the song to the divine, to the human. She opened me to that world.

—And what is it that motivates you to take this popular music to the so-called "classical" world?
—Just the breaking of hierarchy, the idea that bourgeois culture is superior to that of the people. There are many composers, such as Beethoven, that did it before me. Mahler incorporated popular music from Vienna to symphony. This people did this work because they knew the value of popular culture.

—Do you feel popular culture has been looked down in Chile?
—Absolutely. The most cultivated group at the beginning of the 20th Century thought that what was popular had no value. There are very few people that got interested in it. Vicuña Mackenna, Julio Vicuña Cifuentes. A critic in El Mercurio [newspaper] said that he was loosing his time by getting into popular culture. And what he did was a wonderful approach.

—Are things any better now?
—There are some people that have done a lot, like Fidel Sepúlveda. He organizes the "Weeks of folklore" during January, where he allows people to see the value of what's ours.

Identity: Masonry and mapuche tradition

—What's your biggest concern now that we face the Bicentennial?
—That it is the big opportunity for Chilenas to re-think this country. For us to leave this awful materialism that now dominates us and that has us thinking all problems are just economical. We are becoming one of the world's poorest cultures. Culture is not just about knowing. It is a concept of the world, and a traditional way of life, rooted on the past. We must re—build that culture.

—The flag over which Bernardo O'Higgins swore our Independence as an eight-point star. Why is that?
—He said the star was that of Arauco. And that star is, really, the Pitágoras pentagon. What O'higgins did was sinthetize the mapuche and the European Masonry traditions (which has a five-point star). He incarnates this same synthesis. O'higgins was raised in a mapuche school, where all the children of the "caciques" (indian chiefs) went, and he learnt mapadungun before learning Spanish.

—How do you see the influence of the Masonry in Latin America?
—The Masonic are on the base of the French revolution, which is the model for all American revolutions. What's positive is the libertarian concept of men, the invention of democracy. The founders of Chile follow partially this tradition —Masonic, hermetical, laic— but also the strategic school of Napoleón. These men that did not agree with catholic tradition were the ones to conceive a libertarian society.

—You've studied thoroughly mapuche symbolism. Is it true one can find a swastika in the drawings of the kultrún (typical percussion instrument)?
—Yes. It is a universal symbol. The vascos have it, as well as the Indians, the Germans, the Celts. It is a cross with curved blades that rotate, sometimes to the right, sometimes to the left. Hitler did them to the left, because he used the left—hand path: the demon path, a path opposite to virtue. To the nazis, the Holocaust is a work of art. But the mapuche swastica fairly has any curves, and they go to the right, representing the sun, the moon and Venus.

Native cultures: far from integration

—Do you feel we are understanding more about native cultures and their integration, or is it all just a politically correct speech?
—In Chile, some still think that the native condition is a lack of something else. We are far from valuing ethnic minorities cultures, like they do in France, for instance.

—Will we ever get to value native medicine, for example, or their religiosity or echological concepts?
—There is an on-going change and the young are very sensible to it. When one says that mapuche medicine and rituals could be more effective than offical medicine, the students don't show any opposition, they're open to the fact that this may be true. To transfer that to the official world seems hard to me. But it has to come, slowly, with a lot of effort and suffering, but it will come.

—What would you say are the biggest myths about the mapuches?
—That they are underdeveloped, that one has to civilize them, that their language is poor, that they don't know how to write, that they don't know any Math. People believe to be an undervelopment sign the lack of writing, not recognizing the importance of oral cultures. Europe is clear on that. Mapudungun has four thousand words; Spanish, three thousand. Those who deeply studied the mapuche language, like Félix de Augusta and father Havestaat, found it to be one of the conceptually richest languages in the world. For example, when they talk about a "virgin girl" —the way we translate it—, what they really say is "she that has to be tinted by a man". It is notable. "Wen tru" means "man", but also "that who was thrown to heaven", someone with a spiritual mission. The mapuche language is very much spiritual.

—And what about the origin?
—It has an Asian origin, like the rest of American population. There are some traces. Divinity consists of a cosmic mather (the "cusbe") and a father-creator ("fücha"). The same as in Chinese. I'm not saying it comes from Chinese, but that both languages have a pre-historical common root, the same as Sanskrit with the white race.

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