Carlos Monsiváis wasn't a "pundit," although he spoke and wrote with biting irony and insight about politics. He wasn't a "talking head" either, although he regularly appeared on TV shows in his native Mexico to offer erudite yet unstuffy thoughts about pop music divas, movies, gay rights, globalization and, of course, to skewer the follies of the nation's ruling elites.
Technically, the famously rumpled and feline-loving man of letters, who died June 19 at age 72, was an "intellectual," a vocation that in Mexico isn't merely descriptive. It's an occupational category as formally circumscribed as doctor, lawyer, priest or bricklayer, in part because that way, many (although not all) intellectuals were easier for the Mexican government to control, and dissent could be more swiftly punished.
Historically, Mexican intellectuals received government stipends, which meant they were allowed to take occasional potshots at the system as long as they didn't fundamentally challenge the status quo that kept the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in power for 71 years.
One of the many ways in which Monsiváis stood apart from the intellectual pack was in his unassailable independence of mind. Along with a handful of courageous peers, such as author-journalist Elena Poniatowska and poet-activist Homero Aridjis, he refused to be cowed by those who wielded power and wealth while threatening violence against those who confronted them.
Among Monsiváis' most radical acts of bravery was helping to expose the massacre of student protesters by government agents in Mexico City's Tlatelolco Plaza on the eve of the 1968 Olympic Games, the baptismal font (or fire) of modern Mexican politics.
The man known as "Monsi" once described himself as a cross between Albert Camus and Ringo Starr. In political terms, it may be more accurate to think of him as a sort of distant Latin American cousin of George Orwell or Irving Howe, "slashing away at the cant of both right and left" (as Howe once described Orwell).
It was characteristic of the left-leaning Monsiváis to support the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas in 1994 on behalf of indigenous people's rights. It was equally characteristic of him to criticize the movement's most famous leader, the mysterious, pipe-smoking Subcomandante Marcos, after he expressed support for a Basque separatist group in Spain that had been linked to terrorist activity.
"I, for one, don't associate the struggle of the Indians in Chiapas with support for indefensible causes, intolerant language, cheap jokes, and radical vanity," Monsiváis observed.
Although he openly supported the leftist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador's failed presidential bid in 2006, he also hammered away at the Mexican left's support for the international "Leninist project" at the cost of achieving more practical goals closer to home, such as free speech and human rights.
His closest U.S. equivalent might be the novelist, essayist and social critic Gore Vidal. But unlike Vidal, Monsiváis was practically as recognizable to Mexico City's cab drivers and taco vendors as he was to presidents and belletrists.
A connoisseur of the capital's vida cotidiana, or daily life, he was attuned to the strivings and sufferings of ordinary Mexicans, on whose behalf he wrote, talked and advocated tirelessly. He accepted pragmatically his role as a mass-media personality, albeit with a typical touch of sardonic humor. "They don't tell me, 'You are a writer, I have read you,' they tell me, 'You are a writer, I have seen you on television,'" he told one interviewer.
Raised as a Protestant in an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country, he maintained an outsider's perspective on his native culture. His writing was difficult to fathom, even for native Spanish speakers, and he has long been regarded as virtually untranslatable into English.
Shifting rhetorical styles and narrative points of view, sometimes within the same paragraph, Monsiváis strove to keep his readers fully engaged. He would adopt the voices of his own counterarguments, a very Latin type of baroque rhetorical strategy that reaches back to "Don Quixote." His book titles, such as "Scenes of Modesty and Frivolity" (1981) and "The Rituals of Chaos" (1995), hint at his protean literary persona and high-low sensibility.
As the writer and critic Cuauhtémoc Medina put it in a 2001 interview, "In Monsiváis' texts Roland Barthes and Bertolt Brecht meet Cantinflas, and the Beats, Warhol and McLuhan frame his readings of Bolero songs and the 1968 Mexican student movement." He cast such a long shadow over Latin American culture and intellectual life that he even makes a cameo in the Chilean author Roberto Bolaño's novel "The Savage Detectives."
But in ordinary speech, he was direct, funny, always epigrammatic, even when being telephoned at any hour of the day or night for a quote about the latest political fallout, a witty critique of a public utility meltdown or to deliver a remark about a colleague who'd passed away.
I remember calling him a couple of years ago while working on an obituary for Andrés Henestrosa Morales, a poet and essayist who'd traveled across Mexico in the pre- World War II era, collecting stories about the country's indigenous people. "It was a great time for travel," Monsiváis remarked, "before tourism."
That's a pretty nifty aperçu for 8 a.m. on a Saturday.
Toward the end of his life, Monsiváis recognized that the role of Latin American intellectuals such as him was becoming passé and that movie stars, soccer players and other celebrities were becoming the culture's new quote-dispensers. It was possible to foresee that the values of "the spectacle" could come to dominate Mexican political discourse, as they have in the United States, he said.
It's a lot harder to foresee where the next Monsiváis will come from.
Johnson is a Times staff writer.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times