Violence and Melancholia in the Eighties and Nineties
As we saw in chapter 1, melancholia and violence were the affective and ideological legacies of the sixties’ revolutionary rhetoric. In the first part of this chapter, I show how I understand the melancholic poetics of the eighties by analyzing the work of different authors, including Pedro Marques de Armas, Antonio Jose Ponte (especially his short story “Un arte de hacer ruinas”), Emilio Garcia Montiel, and Juan Carlos Flores. In the second part, I introduce the Diaspora(s) iconoclast group and its samizdat Diaspora(s), and demonstrate their relationship to the recurrent theme of violence. I argue that violence is one of Diaspora(s)’s main themes, and that it offers a critique of sixties rhetoric.
This chapter explores Ernesto Guevara’s understanding of how revolutionary ideology can create the New Man as intellectual and soldier. The two cultural symptoms that I analyze in this chapter (melancholia and violence) are a result of this legacy and its impact on the first generation of intellectuals formed by the revolution. It is important to remember that these writers had been intellectually formed during the years of the Rectification Process, during which Guevarian ethical principles were advocated as a means to overcome economic challenges. Hence, they were the heirs of his ideas, and as the first generation free of bourgeois ideology, they also incarnated the “New Men.” The intellectuals of this period were influenced by both this legacy and the end of the socialist utopia.
On February 25, 1986, during the Twenty-Seventh Congress of the Soviet Communist Party, Mikhail Gorbachev proposed a radical reform of his country’s economic and political life. Thus began a long process that
7i culminated in the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Although the Cuban government did not welcome warmly the Soviet reform plans, this did not keep Cubans’ political imaginary from doing so. In a now classic essay on the revolution’s cultural and ideological politics, Desiderio Navarro underscored, like Gerardo Mosquera before him, the emergence of new critical voices among the plastic artists and writers from the youngest generation born under the revolution (Navarro 2002, 192). For a few years, the island experienced a collective euphoria directly related to the hopes created by Gorbachev’s Soviet reforms and the change that these might bring to Cuba. These hopes for change also explain why the late eighties were dominated by social protest in the visual arts. Thus, for example, in 1994 at the Fifth Havana Biennial a group of artists showcased a Jose Marti whose ears had been transformed into the national flag. Another group had showcased a 1953 Cadillac with the motto, “Nobody gives up here.” In popular music, the lyrics of new hip hop artists such as Obsesion and Papa Humbertico contested the revolution’s status quo. In the social sciences and humanities, scholars expressed a growing interest in other forms of Marxism. They discussed widely the significance for Cuba of Antonio Gramsci’s notion of civil society, and the Paideia Project was conceived of as a Gramscian initiative for cultural reform. Like-minded cultural forums appeared in spaces such as the Fundacion Alejo Carpentier and Reina Maria Rodrigueze’s azotea.
Simultaneously, some other works whose emotional economy was not articulated by euphoria and revolt began to emerge. Other works were tainted instead by nostalgia and even melancholia. Thus, in the Fifth Havana Biennial, Kcho’s installation Regata, showcased in the Tres Reyes del Morro Castle, was made out of old shoes, tires, skiffs, planks, corks, chocolate boxes for tourists, and candles, a myriad of objects evoking the new desire to belong to a market economy. At the same time, they also suggested the desire frustrated by disenfranchisement from this economy. This frustration was symbolized by the diaspora rafts that Regata invoked spectrally. In a similar manner, Fernando Perez’s Madagascar, one of the most interesting films of the period, pointed to a different ethos. Through metaphors of deafness and muteness, the film ominously suggested that familiarity was haunted by horror, and that the trauma affecting the fathers of the Cuban Revolution was also leaving its sons and daughters without speech. The affective economy of the country appears to be much more complex than Mosquera and Navarro have shown, and cultural critics must take into account the prevalence of nostalgia and melancholia.
This melancholic crisis also targeted the first generation of artists formed by the revolution. Since this generation had the mission to incarnate the revolutionary New Man, its works were marked by the Guevarian tropology. This generation had been educated to bear the brunt of sacrifice and to imagine new paths to utopia; an endeavor symbolically truncated by the fall of socialism. For ’80s and ’90s young intellectuals, the utopia that their elders had imagined was not theirs, however. Their object of desire was a very different one. But, symptomatically speaking, their generation was also a victim of the loss of the object of desire. The response to this loss was a return to the Grupo Origenes,1 which is what earned them the label of “postorigenistas.” As I explain in chapter 3, official cultural policies also revived critical interest in Origenista poets. The official discourse on Origenismo, however, followed a very different approach. As a state practice it can be read as one of the cultural strategies of biopolitical rule, whereas in the works of young poets the return to the Grupo Origenes typified the decade’s melancholic cultural turn.2 The young poets no longer identified with revolutionary conversationalism and were in search of a different language. Their Origenismo was part of the resistance against conversational- ism, but it also had a melancholic imprint. It was a gesture to rescue a buried past, which was irretrievable by definition. This repressed history of an era became an object of desire in which contemporary poetry perceived its own reflection. For the young poets, the loss became the melancholic loss of their own being. Thus, their thought begins with an imaginary that they inherited from the Grupo Origenes, and Jose Lezama Lima in particular. These intellectuals were the leading figures of the postmodern, cosmopolitan, and nonconformist turn of culture. I explain in the second part of this chapter that their works, and especially the samizdat Diaspora(s), retake the notion of heroic violence and transform it into antiheroic power.
One of the works that captures this melancholic reaction most accurately is Enrique Alvarez’s film La ola (The Wave, 1995). The most unsettling characteristic of this decade’s cultural production is that the object of desire is never specified, and the film offers an interesting take on this. Although the film’s characters and poetic voices cannot define their desire, their anxieties are always related to their lost sense of space and time. The film depicts the idle wanderings of two nameless lovers as they go through a process of self-recognition in order to deal with the void in their lives symbolically produced by the end of socialism. This very lyrical recounting of the lack of time and space symbolizes the spirit of the nineties, as an era that, Jose Quiroga argues in Cuban Palimpsests, seems to recoil from history. The film, which, according to Alvarez, was inspired by the 1994 Cuban raft exodus (“crisis de los balseros”), focuses mostly on the experience of exile, but the inquiry is more inward and psychological, rather than historical (Alvarez 2005, n.p.). Exile is represented as an experience of split desire for the outside world and a desire for permanence. The film thus thematizes the split subjectivity that results from all processes of transition.3 In this case, this fracture is symbolized by the Platonic concept of subjects as incomplete beings who have to find their other half to recover their primal nature. The film begins and ends with two variations on this idea: “Si, yo es otro, porque es el otro quien no puede completar [Yes, je est un autre, because it is the other that cannot complete itself].”4 The fissure is ontological but fundamentally existential. That is, while the male lover in the film says he wants to stay, the female lover wants to leave. Like Lezama Lima, he travels vicariously through literature, whereas she desires a real escape. While he represents the “insilio,” she represents exile. But her desire to leave is only existential, and like the waves it goes back and forth, between the future and the past. The narration of these events is interrupted by footage with a nondiegetic voiceover reciting a poem at three different moments in the film. The three poems by Origenista poets appear in the following order: first, “Oda a la joven luz” (“Ode to the Young Light”) by Eliseo Diego, then “Noche insular: jardines invisibles” (“Insular Night: Invisible Gardens”) by Lezama Lima, and finally Gaston Baquero’s “Testamento del pez” (“The Fish’s Testament”). Lezama Lima recites a fragment of his own poem in a voiceover, while simultaneously the camera shows a scene of popular dance and music taken out from fifties footage. Oddly enough, this scene and the previous one thematize light, like the poem, despite the dance’s taking place
La ola (Enrique Alvarez, 1995). Woman peeking oculus.
La ola (Enrique Alvarez, 1995). Couple walking.
at night. In the previous scene the couple strolls around the ruins of the unfinished original project of the Instituto Superior de Artes (ISA) at the Universidad de las Artes de Cuba. When the woman admiring the light coming from an oculus says: “Look how lovely the light is down there,” there is a cut to a scene showing the couple strolling down through the space from where the light comes.
The following cut takes us to the fifties footage as we hear Lezama Lima’s “Noche insular: jardines invisibles,” a poem whose verse coincidentally mentions the dancing light: “dance la luz ocultando su rostro.”5 The poem’s mythological scene announces the crepuscule and the awakening of the natural and animal world that culminates in the union between gods and human beings. Following the same idea, the couple’s stroll through ISA’s arcades and into the light invokes the utopian possibilities of art.
La ola’s recurring theme of light, a topic also present in Diego’s poem, evokes the light and heat of Cuba, the eternal presence that never disappears. While Diego recites his poem, the film introduces footage of the masses as they celebrate and chant to the revolution in a scene of beaming light, which represents revolutionary fervor and utopia. According to the young man, the light that gives Cuba its identity also disturbs Cubans, not allowing them to think. But the light is also the ontological light of truth, and its incessant but unproductive search. In Diego’s poem, the light also represents the Cuban nation, a reality whose permanence transcends history and time.
In Baquero’s “Testamento del pez,” a poem presumably inspired by the vision of a fish jumping off the water, as the author and Lezama Lima were strolling around the Malecon, the poet adopts the voice of a fish that contemplates the city (Zamora Cespedes 2002 n.p.). Baquero recites the poem in a voiceover, during a scene of a stormy sea. The footage thus progresses in a non-chronological sequence that goes from the revolutionary decades of massive revolutionary support, back to the Havana of the fifties, and finally to the city’s decay during the nineties. These three events involve people and nature: light, darkness, dance, revolution, and natural destruction. They also punctuate the rhythm of the film with a tempo marked by the cycle of both, a doomed revolution and a failed Republican era, which lead to the historical catastrophe of the nation.
Breaking this cycle to introduce a notion of permanence, however, is the continued reference to light. In both poems, Lezama Lima’s and Diego’s, light is the force that can restore order and combat evil. As such, light symbolizes national unity and its teleological goal to reach the absolute: “Dance la luz reconciliando / al hombre con sus demonios desdenosos. / Ambos sonrientes, diciendo / los vencimientos de la muerte universal / y la calidad tranquila de la luz”6 (Lezama Lima 1975, 742). Light is purity; it represents lightness, truth, revelation. “En mi pais la luz / . . . / La luz / en mi pais resiste a la memoria . . . Y es que ciega la luz en mi pais deslumbra / su propio corazon inviolable / sin saber de ganancias ni de perdidas”7 (Diego 1973, 351). Instead, in works from the sixties such as Humberto Arenal’s El sol a plomo, light is associated with the burning and unbearable Cuban heat that, as the film’s male protagonist complains, makes it hard to think.8 In this regard the Grupo Origenes represents some order, brilliance, and depth. The Origenes’s poems are about the nation’s unity and grandeur, just as it is about to crumble. Likewise, in the film light is the shining object of desire that may be able to fill the empty page of young writers like the protagonist: “I know, the blank page is to blame for everything. The problem is that if you can’t express yourself, you have to hide it, because nothingness is something shouldn’t be seen. . . . But a blank page, it confesses this to you; it remains a mystery, an uncertainty. Desire, impossibility.” This lack as well as the unachievable nature of desire must be disavowed. And yet, the light’s strong presence as a discourse gives a name to that desire and a theme whose narration may save the nation. As a natural force, the light clashes with the wave, going back and forth, creating an imaginary of disarray as the couple becomes the island: “The island is ourselves.”
Alvarez’s intellectual generation shares a common and historical experience determined by the political and economic consequences of the collapse of Soviet socialism. While the more tangible consequences of the fall of the Eastern Bloc were economic, there is no doubt that as Odette Casamayor-Cisneros argues: “la crisis socialista, acaecida tras el derribo del Muro de Berlin en 1989, asest[o] un duro golpe—^mortal?—al ideal revolu- cionario [the socialist crisis provoked after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 (was) a—mortal?—hard hit for revolutionary ideals]” (Casamayor-Cisneros 2013, 59). Yet, this historical event also symbolized the end of an impending and long awaited demise, because in Cuba, the loss of socialism as a libidinal object was not a phenomenon exclusive to the nineties. The Cuban critic Jorge Fornet claims that the emergence of postrevolutionary disenchantment among Cuban intellectuals dates back to 1968, after the death of Ernesto Guevara. Fornet, however, also differentiates between two generations: the “disenchanted” (desencantados) and the “newest” (novisimos). The disenchanted were disillusioned with the revolutionary project, yet remained loyal to utopia. The newest, instead, had lost their trust in utopia (Fornet 2001, 20-25). In a response to Fornet’s article, Ambrosio Fornet contradicted his son by arguing that the last generation of writers had not lost faith in utopia (Fornet 2002, 20). Interestingly enough, in spite of their disagreements, both critics concurred that the term disenchantment did not refer to an emotional state, but rather to a rational understanding of history. This coincidence between the two critics speaks more than their disagreements, since it actually points to the limits of a critique whose stumbling block is the emotional aspect of ideology. That is, it is important to note the refusal to address the emotional consequences of ideological transformations, and to ask what is at stake in this refusal. Especially, because in a different context, Quiroga makes a similar denial. While referring to nineties Cuban cultural production in Cuban Palimpsests, he argues that “melancholia may be the most crucial element in terms of the disenchantment that haunts the survivors of a nation,” but then he refuses to look at this phenomenon from a psychoanalytical perspective (Quiroga 2005, 22).
Thus, while it has become commonplace to claim that the nineties was an era of disenchantment and melancholia, there has been a reluctance to substantiate that claim with a psychoanalytical argument. Yet, I think that only by looking at this problem from a psychoanalytical perspective can we understand why scholars are talking about melancholia in the first place. Indeed, the complexity of this matter resides in the object of melancholia itself. That is, what is complicated, especially from an ideological perspective, is to be able to name the object that has provoked the emotional attachment and consecutive loss. Is that object imaginary or real? Is it historical or abstract? As I’ve already argued elsewhere, the main difficulty we face is that we are actually dealing with the object of desire, which is, as we know, as elusive as what produces it. Indeed, this is why this object should be studied both at historical and abstract levels. Since the triumph of the revolution in 1959, the excess of the revolution (as an object of desire) was suspended by the operations of bureaucratization and repression as immanent operations of the state. To be more precise, this excess was suspended because of the melancholic character of the revolutionary project since its inception, as I have shown in my analysis of Ernesto Guevara’s “El socialismo.” Thus, melancholia about the revolutionary object of desire doesn’t appear in the nineties, it is, rather, ingrained in the nature of the revolutionary project itself.