Monday, December 7, 2009

Roberto Bolaño: the enfant terrible of Chilean letters

Recently while on holiday I had the good fortune to stumble across two novels by the Chilean-born writer Roberto Bolaño after I was forced to take shelter from one of Auckland's sudden cloudbursts in Unity Bookshop. I had never previously encountered Bolaño's work, but the darkly humourous and marvellously absurd premise of his Nazi Literature in the Americas captivated me at once and I left the shop shortly afterwards having purchased it along with its "companion" piece, Distant Star.

Bolaño seems in many ways the bastard Chilean literary son that Jorge Luis Borges never had - his politics, to be sure, are somewhat different (Bolaño was imprisoned by the Pinochet regime for his revolutionary socialist acitivities and after being rescued from a detention centre went off to join the FMLN in El Salvador) - but the overarching themes and motifs are startlingly similar. In Bolaño you find the same delight in deliberately blurring the lines between fiction and reality, between literature and life. Bolaño is simulataneously fascinated and troubled by the idea that amidst events of world-historical importance (such as the dictatorships of Hitler and Pinochet), certain individuals can busy themselves in the pursuit of avant-garde poetics and literary utopias and relate to political movements such as fascism as purely aesthetic phenomena. This forms the essential background to the two novels (if "novels" is really the right term) in question here: the first an encyclopedia of imaginary fascist poets and writers who in the age of capitalist mass culture and commodity fetishism find solace in the reactionary idyll of Nazism, the second (Distant Star) seemingly an extension of one of the characters whose fictional biographies is recounted in Nazi Literature in the Americas, the aviator "poet of the skies" Carlos Ramírez Hoffman (renamed here to Alberto Ruiz-Tagle aka Carlos Wieder).

Ramírez Hoffman and Ruiz-Tagle are both essentially amoral, Nietzschean supermen who take advantage of the military coup in Chile to further their own macabre artistic project that involves sky writing, murder, photography and verse. Their careers become so fantastical that doubt is cast on whether they are in fact real, while (in a characteristically Borgesian twist) they are themselves pursued by a private detective (who appears to be conflated with the author himself). Although there is plenty of violence and cruelty, the real subject here is not human morality or politics but rather the subversion of reality through art.

Bolaño, despite his radical marxist background, is distinctly unenthusiastic about those who insist that art must be made to serve some higher political or ethical purpose - as he remarked in the very last interview he gave shortly before his untimely death of liver failure at the age of 50 in 2003 (in response to a question about what he would say to Salvador Allende now if he had the chance):

Los que tienen el poder (aunque sea por poco tiempo) no saben nada de literatura, sólo les interesa el poder.

In the same interview he depricates Pablo Neruda and the "empty rhetoric" of the modern-day left which bores him, equally as much as that of the right. More surprisingly perhaps (given his fondness for the great Chilean "antipoet" Nicanor Parra) he is also unmoved by Vicente Huidobro, whose literary career - especially the preoccupations with futurist/fascist imagery - in many ways resembled so closely his own (Bolaño always thought of himself as a poet and only turned to writing fiction in middle age in order to support his family economically). Like Huidobro though his essential nature it seems (though of course he denies it!) is to be contrarian, to rebel against everything that exists.

Thanks to the recent translation of many of Bolaño's works into English he is now achieving a certain measure of posthumous recognition in the Anglophone world - his novel 2666 (which I have yet to read!) has made a number of critics' short lists for the best book of 2008/9 and won the 2008 US National Book Critics' Circle Award.

As one perceptive critic noted, Bolaño's fiction "...can be described as a chronicle of Latin America's dashed utopias" and perhaps for this reason it seems more 'real' and faithful to the lived experience of our own generation than the 'magical realist' style of the earlier, more hopeful generation of writers like Gabriel García Márquez.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Ferrater Mora on Unamuno's Philosophy of Tragedy

A brilliant summation of the pessimistic yet infinitely humanist and courageous outlook of Spain's greatest philosopher:

Because he manifests a revolt of naturalism against the idealism of reason, and of the idealism of reason against pragmatical materialism, all attempts to pigeonhole Unamuno in one definite philosophical system are bound to fail. Unamuno does not advocate the union—which would entail a reconciliation, and eventually, a truce—of life and reason within the framework of a system where the idea of harmony would forever preclude any discord. There can be no harmony in that war which each human being wages against himself and his antagonists, but only perpetual strife, interminable contradiction, and continual—and fruitful incivility. This is the only "formal principle," if that is the proper name for it, which permeates Unamuno's thinking. It may be stated as follows: To be, is to be against one's self.

Unamuno's emphasis on opposition, tension, and contradiction is obviously related to that type of thinking which since Hegel has been customarily called "dialectical." Nevertheless, there are two important differences between the conventional dialectical systems and Unamuno's.

On the one hand, dialectical systems attempt to describe and explain the attributes of the Cosmos as an impersonal being. In such systems, human reality follows the pattern of the cosmic reality. Sometimes "the Reality" is identified with "God," but even then the impersonal traits prevail over the personal ones. Unamuno's dialectic, however, is of an entirely personal nature. Unamuno refers mainly, if not exclusively, to human existence. And when the ideas of God and world are introduced, they are endowed with human characteristics. Even when he uses such abstract terms as 'reason' and 'the irrational', they are to be understood as embodied in unique, concrete human beings.

On the other hand, all the philosophers who have tried to describe reality as a dialectical process of some sort—Nicholas of Cusa and Giordano Bruno no less than Hegel—have built conceptual systems in which the opposites end in a reunification in the bosom of some ultimate and all-embracing principle. The war between particulars finds peace in the absolute generality of the essential One, so that the principle of identity overcomes, in the end, all contradictions. The dialectical method is one in which as in Hegel—the total, "superior" truth (philosophical truth) reconciles the partial, "inferior" truths (mathematical and historical truth), one which purports to "save" all within the frame of the Absolute—the only realm in which peace is to be found. But in Unamuno's world, animated by the principle of perpetual civil war and unending strife, there is no place for any final harmony and still less, any identity—which would be, in his opinion, the equivalent of death. Among those thinkers who defended the dialectical approach, there was something akin to a headlong rush toward the very identity they denounced, their attempts to dissemble their own longing for an ultimate unity by calling it an "identity of opposites" notwithstanding. In Unamuno there is not the slightest eagerness to be absorbed in this identity, nor the least desire to pour the past into the future; there is just an everlasting will to abide, "to prolong this sweet moment, to sleep in it, and in it become eternal (etemizarse)." Unamuno wishes to prolong his "eternal past" because only the moment most perfectly expresses what he seeks: a sense of being a man of flesh and blood among other men of flesh and blood, yet still longing to be all that one can long to be, to be "all in all and forever," a finite individual and an infinite reality at the same time.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The two souls of Trotskyism?

The art of this epoch will be entirely under the influence of revolution. This art needs a new self-consciousness. It is, above all, incompatible with mysticism, whether it be frank, or whether it masquerades as romanticism, because the Revolution starts from the central idea that collective man must become sole master, and that the limits of his power are determined by his knowledge of natural forces and by his capacity to use them. This new art is incompatible with pessimism, with scepticism, and with all other forms of spiritual collapse. It is realistic, active, vitally collectivist, and filled with a limitless creative faith in the Future.

- Leon Trotsky, Literature and Revolution, 1924

The communist revolution is not afraid of art. It realizes that the role of the artist in a decadent capitalist society is determined by the conflict between the individual and various social forms which are hostile to him. This fact alone, insofar as he is conscious of it, makes the artist the natural ally of revolution. The process of sublimation, which here comes into play, and which psychoanalysis has analyzed, tries to restore the broken equilibrium between the integral “ego” and the outside elements it rejects. This restoration works to the advantage of the “ideal of self,” which marshals against the unbearable present reality all those powers of the interior world, of the “self,” which are common to all men and which are constantly flowering and developing. The need for emancipation felt by the individual spirit has only to follow its natural course to be led to mingle its stream with this primeval necessity: the need for the emancipation of man.

The conception of the writer’s function which the young Marx worked out is worth recalling. “The writer,” he declared, “naturally must take money in order to live and write, but he should not under any circumstances live and write in order to make money. The writer by no means looks at his work as a means. It is an end in itself and so little a means in the eyes of himself and of others that if necessary he sacrifices his existence to the existence of his work....The first condition of the freedom of the press is that it is not a business activity.” It is more than ever fitting to use this statement against those who would regiment intellectual activity in the direction of end foreign to itself, and prescribe, in the guise of so-called “reasons of State,” the themes of art. The free choice of these themes and the absence of all restrictions on the range of his explorations--these are possessions which the artist has a right to claim as inalienable. In the realm of artistic creation, the imagination must escape from all constraint and must, under no pretext, allow itself to be placed under bonds. To those who would urge us, whether for today or for tomorrow, to consent that art should submit to a discipline which we hold to be radically incompatible with its nature, we give a flat refusal, and we repeat our deliberate intention of standing by the formula: complete freedom for art.

- Leon Trotsky and André Breton, Manifesto: Towards a Free Revolutionary Art, 1938

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Trotskyism and the aesthetic of rebellion

A Brazilian friend told me recently of a proverb that is apparently widely known in his home country, about a Spanish sailor who being shipwrecked on a foreign shore came up the beach to inquire of the locals "is there a government here?" and upon being answered in the affirmative declared automatically "then I am against it!"

I was thinking about this story recently while reading the debate over on British journalist Dave Osler's blog about the links between Trotskyism and the American neo-conservative right, one of whose intellectual godfathers - Irving Kristol - died just over a week ago.

Kristol was not the only Trotskyist to make the transition from one extreme of the political spectrum to the other - others include literary commentator Stephen Schwartz (formerly a member of the dissident current associated with ex-Spanish Trotskyist leader Grandizo Munis) and of course the inimitable Christopher Hitchens.

As a former Trotskyist (who still retains a great deal of sympathy for Trotsky himself, if not necessarily for his followers) I am skeptical of claims regarding the existence of some kind of causal link between anti-Stalinism and neo-conservatism.

However, I do think that Trotskyism because of its marginalised, heterodox status has throughout its history always appealed to people of a certain psychological predisposition, namely those who (like myself) instinctively rebel against the cultural and political consensus in society at any given point in time, those who like our proverbial Spanish sailor feel the need to be siempre en contra.

Michael Weiss, a New York blogger who appears to be part of the same milieu as Schwartz and Hitchens makes a similar point in a recent article entitled "Pilgrim of Doubt" on the life of American Trotskyist Irving Howe (originally drawn to my attention by Poumista), whose greatest influences were the seemingly unlikely pairing of Karl Marx and the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Weiss' point is that what attracted Howe to these two authors (and presumably to Trotsky as well) was their status as rebels and outcasts - the message while important was initially at least secondary to the aesthetic imperative of rebellion (what Weiss refers to as "their fondness for the Promethean").

The same contrarian spirit is alive and well in a 2004 article by Stephen Schwartz that appeared in the Weekly Standard (prop. the late Irving Kristol) entitled "Bad Poet, Bad Man", in which Schwartz takes issue with the literary eulogising/mythologising of the Chilean Pablo Neruda at the expense of some of his contemporaries such as Gabriela Mistral and Vicente Huidobro. Schwartz writes:

In 1938, two singular men sat down to compose a statement about the situation of the global intellect as they then saw it. They wrote, among other things, "The totalitarian regime of the U.S.S.R., working through the so-called 'cultural' organizations it controls in other countries, has spread over the entire world a deep twilight hostile to every sort of spiritual value. A twilight of filth and blood in which, disguised as intellectuals and artists, those men steep themselves who have made servility a career, of lying for pay a custom, and of excuses for crime a source of pleasure." Nobody more embodied the phenomenon described in these lines than Pablo Neruda. The description was written by the surrealist André Breton and the exiled Leon Trotsky.

While I think Schwartz "bends the stick" too far in his blanket condemnation of Neruda, he hits on an essential truth which is that from the 1930s onwards many avant-garde poets like Neruda (along with Rafael Alberti, César Vallejo, Louis Aragon and others) renounced their revolutionary if fragmented and often contradictory vanguard aesthetics under the baleful influence of the Stalinist Comintern and Lukaçs' "dialectical realism", which was grouned on Hegelian assumptions about the need for reconciliation and unity. Thus in Neruda's case the experimental poetics of Tentativa del hombre infinito and the first two cycles of Residencia en la tierra were followed up by crudely didactic works such as España en el corazón and Canto general.

Those few avant-garde writers who continued to defend the possibility of autonomous art within the context of anti-capitalist politics became for a time (André Breton, Octavio Paz) sympathetic to Trotskyism - or else broke with Marxism altogether (Huidobro).

However the same compulsion to question and to doubt everything, while it provided a steady stream of recruits to Trotskyism over the years, proved less valuable as a stable basis for building a coherent, united political movement. This can be seen clearly in Isaac Deutscher's portrayal of Trotsky as an essentially Romantic figure in his classic 3-volume biography of the Russian revolutionary leader - (The Prophet Armed, The Prophet Unarmed, The Prophet Outcast). This was at once the source of Trotsky's appeal and his downfall, since critical heterodox figures tend to attract similarly independent-minded and critical followers.

However, perhaps we should be grateful that Stalin ousted Trotsky from the leadership of the Bolshevik Party - in the same way that we should be grateful Che Guevara died at the hands of the CIA in Bolivia instead of living on to become a career bureaucrat like Castro.

Recalling Genet's remarks on the justness of the Palestinian national struggle, we could perhaps say that the only revolutionary movement worth supporting is one that has almost no chance of actually conquering state power...

Monday, August 31, 2009

Adorno on the impossibility of political praxis

From the Prologue and Introduction to Negative Dialectics (1966):

The formulation “negative dialectics” transgresses against tradition. Already in Plato dialectics intended to establish something positive through the thought-means of the negation; the figure of a negation of the negation named this precisely. This book would like to emancipate dialectics from these types of affirmative essence, without relinquishing anything in terms of determinacy. The development of its paradoxical title is one of its intentions...

...Philosophy, which once seemed outmoded, remains alive because the moment of its realization was missed. The summary judgement that it had merely interpreted the world is itself crippled by resignation before reality, and becomes a defeatism of reason after the transformation of the world failed. It guarantees no place from which theory as such could be concretely convicted of the anachronism, which then as now it is suspected of. Perhaps the interpretation which promised the transition did not suffice. The moment on which the critique of theory depended is not to be prolonged theoretically. Praxis, delayed for the foreseeable future, is no longer the court of appeals against self-satisfied speculation, but for the most part the pretext under which executives strangulate that critical thought as idle which a transforming praxis most needs. After philosophy broke with the promise that it would be one with reality or at least struck just before the hour of its production, it has been compelled to ruthlessly criticize itself.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Interrogating the myth of the Popular Front

Reading Mark Derby's book Kiwi Compañeros (which compiles a wealth of primary source material detailing the involvement of New Zealanders in the Spanish Civil War) recently I was struck by the disjunction between the confused and often demoralising experiences of the some of the participants whose stories were reproduced in that volume and the traditional leftist narrative according to which the Spanish Civil War was the most glorious hour of the Popular Front and the struggle against Fascism.

This disjunction between heroic narrative or myth and tragic reality has also been explored in depth in another book which I also happened to pick up recently, Sebastian Faber's Exile and Cultural Hegemony: Spanish Intellectuals in Mexico 1939-1975 and which I strongly recommend to anyone interested in this subject area.

Faber locates the leftist mythologising of the Popular Front in Spain squarely within the context of the struggle between the Spanish Republicans and the Franco regime over who were the genuine inheritors of Spanish national culture and identity, pointing out the striking similarities in the kinds of patriotic rhetoric and appeals to a glorious national past which characterised the propaganda of both sides during and after the Civil War.

These similarities account for the political disorientation felt by intellectuals who flocked to support the Republican cause during the Civil War, most notably the English writer George Orwell whose book Homage to Catalonia describes how the initial euphoria following the electoral victory of the Popular Front coalition of Republicans, Catalan nationalists and the PSOE in February 1936 which saw peasants and workers spontaneously expropriating latifundia and factories and forming their own armed militias was abruptly curtailed and repressed by none other than the Popular Front government later that same year in the name of maintaining "unity" in the struggle against Franco's Nationalist insurgency.

For many Spanish Republican intellectuals this process of disillusionment began even earlier, with the failure of their misiones pedagógicas or educational missions to the countryside which were couched in terms of elitist Krausist ideology to inspire the hoped-for spark of enlightenment among the oppressed pueblo (who naturally were preoccupied with more pressing, material concerns!).

Some of these Spanish intellectuals (such as Unamuno and Ortega y Gasset) were sufficiently disillusioned with the masses as to cross over to sympathising with Franco's Nationalists. However the majority continued to live in a state of denial about the true nature of their relationship with the muchedumbre (multitude).

As Faber points out, this delusion was only intensified during the long exile of the Republican intellectuals in Latin America after 1939, where they founded numerous magazines and reviews dedicated to the task of preserving the flame of "authentic" Spanish culture and identity. Faber cites the journal España Peregrina founded by the Creationist poet Juan Larrea as a typical example of this reinterpretation of the Civil War as a process of national spiritual purification, noting that

...this particular brand of "poetic" historiography, which combined Hegelian teleology with an exceptionalist reading of Spanish history, allowed Larrea to represent the Spanish Civil War ' which had been experienced by most exiles as a great and unnecessary injustice - as a positive event of enormous historical significance.


Juan Larrea (right) with Vicente Huidobro

In the end though, Faber argues, the struggle of the Republican exiles for cultural hegemony was doomed from the beginning due to several key factors.

The first of these was the concentration of their efforts in the area of literary or "high" culture, which in countries such as Mexico with repressive authoritarian governments was the only avenue open to the intellectuals as it commanded no mass audience and therefore posed no threat.

The second was their need as financial and material beneficiaries of these same regimes to remain silent about the very real injustices and inequalities that existed in their new home countries (Faber returns again and again to the fact that Mexican PRI following the retirement of Cárdenas in 1940 certainly had little reason to be deserving of the appellation "progressive").

Finally, there was the arrogant supposition that with the departure of the Republican exiles the Spanish nation had been deprived of any literary or cultural means of expressing itself. Yet during the 1950s a new generation of writers - such as novelist Juan Goytisolo and the poet Carlos Barral - who unlike the exiles were actually read by the general public yet had no dynastic ties to the Republic.

The failure of the Republican exiles' crusade for cultural hegemony is highly significant, Faber contends, in that superiority in the sphere of cultural and literary production had always been crucial to the Popular Front's claims of political legitimacy - especially from 1937 onwards as it began to repress (now with the enthusiastic support of the Stalinist PCE) left oppositionist forces such as the marxist POUM and the anarchist CNT. It is hardly coincidental that in that same year - 1937 - the Spanish Republican government co-sponsored the "International Congress of Writers for the Defence of Culture" in Valencia, whose list of participants (Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, Vicente Huidobro, Louis Aragon, Tristan Tzara, Bertolt Brecht, WH Auden - to name only a few!) reads like a who's who list of the international literary world at the time.

However, while the Republic may have failed to secure cultural hegemony among the ordinary Spanish masses it did succeed in convincing the international leftist intelligentsia, many of whom to this day do not question the heroic iconography associated with the Spanish Popular Front such as the International Brigades, La Pasionaria and the "Defence of Madrid".

In this respect, it was undoubtedly helped by the Nationalist atrocities which converted figures such as Federico García Lorca and Antonio Machado into martyrs or secular saints.

Faber's book is an important antidote to this powerful and pervasive myth of the Popular Front which enables us to look at the events of recent Spanish history in a clear-eyed, non-sentimental way, without for a moment trivialising the magnitude of the suffering which many of the Popular Front's supporters endured.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Pío Baroja on Don Quixote

From the dialogue between Andrés and Iturrioz in Part Four of El árbol de la ciencia (1911):

The more one understands the less one desires. This is logical, and furthermore can be proved in reality. The appetite to know is awoken in those individuals who are at the end of a process of evolution, when the desire to live becomes languid. Man, whose necessity is to know, is like the butterfly that breaks out of the chrysalis in order to die. The healthy individual, the individual who is strong and truly alive, does not see things as they are because it is not agreeable to him. He is inside a hallucination.

Don Quixote, whom Cervantes wished to appear foolish, is a symbol of the affirmation of life. Don Quixote lives more than all the sane people around him, and with more intensity than the others. The individual or nation who wish to live envelop themselves in clouds like the ancient gods when they appeared to mortals. The vital instinct needs to invent fictions in order to sustain itself. So then knowledge, the critical instinct, the instinct of inquiry must confront an essential truth: that lies are necessary for us in order to go on living.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Politics as a paint-by-numbers exercise

While I don't often share the same political conclusions as Chris Trotter, his analysis is nevertheless often acute and thought-provoking.

Chris's latest blog post over at Bowalley Road is a case in point: while the idea that Obama's condemnation of the recent golpe de estado in Honduras somehow proves that the U.S. Democrats are now part of a new left-wing foreign policy axis in Latin America is difficult to swallow, Chris does make the telling observation that many on the left seem either unable or unwilling to come to terms with the fact that since the end of the Cold War the US is actually quite reluctant to support military dictators in the region.

Thus, whenever local reactionaries try to topple a democratically-elected leftist leader (as has just happened to President Manuel Zelaya in Honduras) the pre-programmed response of some activists is not to try to analyse the situation on its own merits but rather to immediately stage a protest outside the nearest US consulate or embassy - a kind of political "paint-by-numbers" exercise if you will.

To a certain extent, these people have become victims of the Latin American oligarchy's own propaganda machine - which insists that Zelaya is "another Chávez" and some kind of revolutionary. In fact he is nothing more than the scion of the establishment Partido Liberal who since coming to office in 2006 has alienated a few of his wealthy backers by enacting some mild social democratic reforms and seeking greater economic cooperation with countries such as Venezuela and Bolivia.

Efforts to gain a clear picture of the situation are admittedly not helped by over-excited journalists such as those of the Spanish liberal daily El País running stories with headlines like "Golpe contra el chavismo" - which just shows I guess that the Latin American oligarchy know how to pander to the anti-Chávez prejudices of the PSOE.

Then we have Joaquín Villalobos, a former FMLN guerilla turned El Salvadorean Gerry Adams wannabe writing in the same newspaper on Monday that

...Sin duda hay que rechazar el golpe, pero la comunidad internacional debe tener en cuenta que las políticas autoritarias en Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua y Venezuela se han convertido en una seria provocación para las fuerzas conservadoras y centristas de toda la región. Las expropiaciones de empresas, los cierres de medios de comunicación, la intimidación callejera, las arbitrariedades judiciales, las reelecciones perpetuas y los fraudes son como golpes de Estado graduales. La polarización ideológica chavista está debilitando sociedades amenazadas por miles de pandilleros y poderosos carteles. Centroamérica puede convertirse en un bastión del crimen organizado que dé refugio a mafiosos y terroristas en medio de un caos y una inseguridad endémica que genere millones de emigrantes.

So now apparently it's all the fault of the Chávez, Morales and Correa whose hugely popular policies of economic nationalisation and wealth redistribution have enabled them to be (shock horror!) repeatedly re-elected and thus provoked the poor oppressed oligarchs into mounting coups...

To come back to the original point though, it is never wise to believe the enemy's propaganda - and still less to assume that because a group of army coup plotters received training in the US that they therefore have the active support of that country's government.

It is also important not to place a + sign over certain political figures or movements simply because your opponents place a - symbol. This is the same mistake made by progressive leaders like Chávez who in their well-intentioned desire to oppose US imperialism bestow upon decidedly less progressive regimes (such as those of Iran and Belarus) the epithet of "anti-imperialist" simply because they oppose Washington.

Finally, at the practical local level while running around staging protests outside the US consulate or some other convenient target may help to boost morale among left-wing activists it serves little logical purpose beyond that.

I say this as one who once belonged to an organisation whose standard practice every May Day was to stage a picket outside the local McDonalds restaurant (it was a small provincial city and as such lacked any more tangible symbols of global capitalism). While it made us all feel terribly important at the time, looking back now it must have presented the most ludicrous and baffling spectacle to those working class punters who had their lunch hour interrupted by a bunch of mangy-looking students waving placards and banging kettle drums on the street outside.

The moral of the story? Simply that mindless activism and breathless articles cobbled-together from the bourgeois press is no substitute for careful and considered analysis.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Spanish Muslims of Timbuktu

In a comment on my previous post about the expulsion of the moriscos from Spain in the 16th and 17th centuries, Joaquim Pisa (who besides being the author of numerous fictional, travel and poetical works also maintains an excellent Spanish-language blog out of Barcelona entitled Aventura en la tierra) brought to my attention the remarkable story of the Spanish Muslims of Timbuktu.

Joaquim pointed me to the website of the Fundación Mahmud Kati, set up following the "rediscovery" in 1999 in the ancient city of Timbuktu (in Mali, West Africa) of a library of over 3 000 manuscripts literally "splashed" (as the one report put it) with words written in the Aljamiado script. The significance of this find was simply that the Aljamiado script was the same script used by the mudejar inhabitants of Spain to transcribe words in the Romance dialect of Mozarabic, and moreover that the manuscripts found in Timbuktu contained frequent references to the Spanish peninsular.

The collection of manuscripts in question had spent nearly two centuries scattered among various descendants of the great 16th century Timbuktu chronicler Mahmud Kati (himself descended from Spanish Muslims) before being reunited by one of these descendants of Kati - Ismael Diadiè Haïdara.

In the text of a conference paper delivered in Bamako in 2005 entitled "Andalusians in the curve of the Niger" Antonio Llaguno Rojas (vice president of the Fundación Mahmud Kati) recounts the story of how these Spanish mudejares and moriscos - in all but their religion identical to their Christian compatriots - came to reside in such a far-flung, exotic location.

From this account it appears that the first wave of Spanish Muslims who emigrated to the region of the Niger left Spain either before or just after the fall of Granada, thus escaping the vicious religious persecution suffered by their morisco brethren during the Catholic Counter-Reformation.

The reasons for the emigration of these mudejares can be traced back to the period of the Mali Empire and the reign of Musa I, who flourished in the first half of the fourteenth century. Musa was a devout Muslim, and for this reason went to great lengths to persuade the great poets, philosophers and architects of the Muslim cities of Al-Andalus (i.e. Spain) to come and reside at his court. The Sankoré mosque in Timbuktu - constructed by the Andalusian poet and architect Abu Ishaq Es-Saheli as part of a wider complex that also included a library and a university - dates from around this time.

The Sankoré Mosque in Timbuktu

The remarkable thing about the Spanish Muslim presence in the Niger is that it seems to have been largely unaffected by changes in dynastic politics. Thus in 1468 when the Mali Empire was eclipsed by the neighbouring Songhai kingdom, the new ruler of Timbuktu continued to employ scribes and clerics from Al-Andalus as high-ranking civil servants, notably among them the Kati family.

Mahmud Kati, who was a member of the second or third generation of of this family of mudejar emigrants (depending on which sources you believe), compiled not only the fabled library but also the most important historical account of the Songhai Empire and its predecessors - the Tarikh el-Fettach.

Ironically, in 1591 an army of invasion sent by the Sultan of Morocco and led by a morisco general, Yuder Pachá, conquered Timbuktu and overthrew Mahmud Kati's Songhai patrons.

This Yuder Pachá was born into a family of Spanish Muslims in Morocco, banished by the Spanish Crown following the failed Alpujarras uprising of 1568-71. He fought with distinction on the Moroccan side in the Battle of Alcazaquivir in 1578 when a Portuguese-Spanish army of invasion was defeated and the King of Portugal killed (much to the relief of the local Jewish community, who Don Sebastián had promised to put to the knife if they did not convert to Christianity!).

His conquest of Timbuktu for the Sultan, while only temporary, led to the settlement of a second wave of Spanish Muslims (this time moriscos as opposed to mudejares) who subsequently founded their own "empire" (el Imperio de los Armas) which, according to the scant sources I have been able to find on the subject, survived until being overwhelmed by the invasions of Tuareg nomads and French colonialists in the 18th century.

Friday, June 12, 2009

The history that europe would prefer to forget

Given the tide of anti-immigrant fervour sweeping Europe at the moment - as evidenced by the victory of Meisseurs Berlusconi, Sarkozy, Rajoy and their lesser brethren (Griffin, Wilders et al.) at last weekend's European elections - it seems like an opportune moment to repost the following article by Juan Goytisolo, originally published in El País back in March. Apologies to the reader for the roughness of my translation.

The inconvenient history of the Moriscos

Official and academic Spain is trying to forget the fourth centenary of one of the most ominous deeds in our history: the expulsion in 1609 of hundreds of thousands of our fellow countrymen and women of Muslim descent.

- Juan Goytisolo El País 15/03/2009

To Francisco Márquez Villanueva

The past of all countries contains alternating moments of embarrassment and patriotic pride. The fourth centenary of the expulsion of the Moriscos in the reign of Philip III obviously belongs among the former. Outside of the Andalusí Legacy[2] foundation and the conference of historians it is organising this May, official and academic Spain has maintained a defensive position of diplomatic silence on this issue, revealing its obvious discomfort.

What happened from 1609 to 1614 was an inglorious episode that provided the first European precedent for the bloody ethnic cleansings (of various magnitudes) that we have witnessed over the past century. The “preventive” measures ordered by the Duke of Lerma[3] with the strong support of the ecclesiastical hierarchy and Patriarch Ribera[4] were the subject of a long, uncertain and controversial political-religious debate. It is useful to remind ourselves, albeit only briefly, of its various stages:

1499: forced conversion of the people of Granada by Cardinal Cisneros; 1501-02: Muslims in the Kingdom of Castile given a choice between exile and conversion: the mediaeval Mudéjares[5] became Moriscos pure and simple; 1516: forced to abandon their dress and customs, although the measure was not enforced for 10 years; 1525-26: conversion by edict of the Moriscos in Aragón and Valencia; 1562: a council of ecclesiastics, jurists and members of the Inquisition prohibits the people of Granada from using the Arabic language; 1569-70: rebellion of Alpujarra and the wars of Granada… from the crushing of the Moriscos to the execution of Aben Humeya, the political strategy of Philip II consisted of dispersing the people of Granada and resettling them in Castile, Murcia and Extremadura, far from the southern coasts and possible Turkish invasions.

So many vacillations and changes of direction reflect the contradictions that existed between an ecclesiastical hierarchy with scant respect for the universal Christian ethic on the one hand and on the other the interests of the peninsular nobility, for whom the expulsion of those who worked their lands would spell agricultural ruin. As we now know thanks to historiographical work carried out since the end of the 19th century, the political-religious crusade was the subject of a furious behind-the-scenes controversy.

While some opposed the expulsion and preached baptism and gradual assimilation, the hard-line elements of the episcopacy were strongly inclined towards more forceful proposals: slavery, collective extermination or castration of all the males and the deportation to the Island of Bacalao,[6] in other words to Newfoundland.

Banishment to the much closer African coast, favoured by the majority of the members of the Council of State, was opposed by a venerable bishop with an argument of impeccable logic: after arrival in Algeria or Morocco the Moriscos would renounce their Christian faith, the most charitable thing would therefore be to put them in leaking ships so that they would be shipwrecked during the voyage and their immortal souls be saved.

In the debate that for decades pitted doves against hawks, the hawks relied upon the eloquent pens of propagandists such as Brother Jaime de Bleda, González de Cellorigo, Brother Marcos de Guadalajara and, most importantly of all, Pedro Aznar de Cardona. – for whom the expulsion marked the closing of a long and ignoble historical digression opened by the invasion of 711: thanks to the work of Lerma and Philip III Spain would be Catholic without exception.

Along with their religious arguments, they put forward other ridiculous claims concerning demographics: the supposed danger of a giant increase in the Morisco population in abrupt contrast with a static or declining Christian one due to ecclesiastical celibacy, the cloistering of women in convents, the wars in Flanders and emigration to America. Such arguments, which are being revived today by the European nationalist ultras, were ironically summed up by the dog Berganza in Cervantes’ Symposium of the Dogs.[7]

The Morisco problem and the radical solution applied to it have been the subject of numerous well-documented studies in the last fifty years by historians as diverse as América Castro, Domínguez Ortiz, Julio Caro Baroja, Mercedes García-Arenal, Bernard Vincent, Louis Cardaillac, Márquez Villanueva, among many others. Thanks to these people we now know of the opposition of those whom today we would call courageous citizens to the edict of expulsion four hundred years ago. Very significantly, the majority of these people were recently converted Christians of Jewish origin – no less visible despite having altered their names and outward appearance. Their advocacy in favour of assimilation of the Moriscos was as much a plea on their own behalf and both contradicted and challenged the very recently introduced Christian statutes regarding limpieza de sangre.[8]

The reassertion of commerce, labour and merit against the “black honour” of the Old Christians offered some hope of arresting the already perceptible Spanish decline and the long “holiday from history” which was prolonged for another two centuries until the Cortes de Cádiz[9], despite the eminently sensible policies of Olivares[10] and the enlightened ministers of the 18th century.

Example of this reassertion include González de Cellorigo’s memorial addressed to the monarch Of the Necessary Policies and Useful Restoration of the Republic of Spain –its regenerationist spirit obvious from is title – and Luis de Mármol y Carvajal’s excellent History of the Rebellion and Punishment of the Moriscos – evocative of a human tragedy that could have been avoided with a more pragmatic approach. Both of these books helped to alter the current of Erasmean thought[11] to which the would-be modernisers of self-absorbed Spanish society subscribed.

In a soon-to-be-published work that I have just had the opportunity to read thanks to the kindness of the author – Moors, Moriscos and Turks in the Work of Cervantes – Francisco Márquez Villanueva analyses with his usual aplomb the writings – mostly unedited – of the humanist Pedro de Valencia, disciple and executor of the Hebrew scholar Benito Arias Montano. His Treatise Concerning the Moriscos in Spain, unknown until its publication in 1979 and which only came into my hands very recently, could be perhaps – seen from the perspective of its own time – the most reasoned defence of the cause of those who were expelled.

A convert from Judaism like Arias Montano and an enemy of the Church scholastics and the doctrines propounded by the Council of Trent,[12] de Valencia energetically denounced “the insult that is done (to the Moriscos) in depriving them of their lands and in not treating them with the same equal honour and esteem as all other natural-born citizens.” Like Brother Luis de León (he who is remembered for his famous description of the statute of limpieza de sangre as “an affront to generations that will never cease”), Pedro de Valencia opposed the statute of Cardinal Siliceo[13] and advocated a policy of mixed marriages between Moriscos and Old Christians in order to “persuade the country’s citizens that all of them are brothers of one lineage and one blood.”

Morisco refugees set sail from the Spanish port of Viñaroz, Valencia

The spectacle of tens of thousands of baptised men separated from their children while begging for mercy from God and the King and proclaiming in vain their desire to stay in the country of their birth was difficult for many sincere Christians to tolerate. The brutal nature of the expulsion and the massacres carried out on those who tried to avoid it were received with sadness and compassion by an intelligent minority, but with cries of hatred and spontaneous cheers by those like Gaspar de Aguilar who turned them into songs of heroic deeds.

The majority of the Moriscos took refuge – with varying success – in the Maghreb. The natives of Hornachos[14] set up the so-called republic of Salé in Morocco,[15] with the illusory hope of ingratiating themselves with the King and some day returning to Spain.

During a four-year relaxation those in the Ricote Valley[16] were allowed to voluntarily emigrate across the French frontier and travel on to other European countries. Although they had been completely assimilated, the Duke of Lerma signed without qualm their order of collective banishment in 1614. The episode of the Morisco of Ricote who in the second part of Don Quixote meets with Sancho Panza allowed Cervantes, a master in the art of cunning, to reclaim a voice for those who were victims of such a savage violation.

“I left our town – said the Morisco – entered France and although I was well-received there, I wanted to see it all. I went to Italy and Germany and there it seemed to me that one could live with more freedom, the inhabitants being a good-natured people: each one living as they wished, because for the most part there is freedom of conscience.”

Freedom of conscience! Almost casually and as if not even wanting to, the author of Don Quixote puts his finger on the problem. The agents of the Inquisition did their job well but to a good reader sometimes words are not needed.


[1] A term that has no direct equivalent in English, but refers to the Muslims living in Spain after the reconquista who converted to Christianity.

[2] Andalusí – person coming from al-Andalus/Spanish Muslim

[3] Don Francisco Gómez de Sandoval y Rojas, Duke of Lerma (1552/1553-1625), courtier and favourite of Philip III

[4] Saint Juan de Ribera (1532-1611), Archbishop of Valencia and Patriarch of Antioch.
[5] Mudéjares: the name given to those Muslims living in Spain after the reconquista who did not or had not yet converted to Christianity.

[6] Mystery island in the Atlantic depicted on many 16th Century maps as lying just off the coast of Newfoundland.

[7] Reference to one of the Novelas Ejemplares or “exemplary novellas” by Miguel de Cervantes (published 1613) in which two dogs share their bemused observations on the contradictions and nonsensical elements in human society.

[8] “purity of blood” i.e. favouring of those of pure Christian descent.

[9] The Cortes of Cádez met in 1810 during the Napoleonic occupation of Spain and the detention of King Ferdinand VII in France. It promulgated Spain’s first liberal constitution, which provided for a limited constitutional monarchy ruling through parliament and universal male suffrage. It was repealed by Ferdinand after his restoration in 1813.

[10] Gaspar de Guzmán y Pimentel, Count of Olivares (1587-1645) was prime minister for 22 years under Philip IV.

[11] Desiderius Erasmus (1466/69-1536) Dutch Renaissance humanist and Catholic theologian.

[12] Ecumenical council of the Catholic Church which took place in the middle of the 16th century, at the height of the Counter-Reformation drive against Protestantism and other “heresies” in the Church.

[13] Juan Martínez Guijarro (1477-1557), Archbishop of Toledo and intellectual author of the statute of limpieza de sangre.

[14] A town in Extremadura near Badajoz.

[15] A small maritime republic that existed for a brief period during the 16th century encompassing the cities of Salé and Rabat.

[16] In Murcia, south-east Spain

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Jean Genet: the writer as a perpetual exile

The second volume of Juan Goytisolo's autobiography, Realms of Strife (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990 - trans. Peter Bush) contains a very moving tribute to the French poet, novelist and playwright Jean Genet (1910-1986) - whose life in many ways parallels that of the Spanish writer.

Genet was the orphaned son of a prostitute who grew up to become a vagrant, military deserter and petty thief and was only saved from a life sentence of imprisonment in 1948 (after over 10 convictions) by the intervention of André Gide and Jean-Paul Sartre (among others) who recognised the extent of his creative talents.

His works reveal a powerful fascination and empathy with people existing at the margins of society such as criminals, homosexuals and immigrants.

Goytisolo was introduced to Genet soon after his arrival in Paris in 1956 by Monique Lange of the publishing house Gallimard, and from there began a relationship that was to have a powerful influence over Goytisolo's own subsequent political and literary evolution.

Like Goytisolo, Genet was a homosexual who was initially attracted to the Arab countries of the Maghreb because of the relatively more uninhibited notions of masculinity in North African society (despite the dominance of Islam).

From this initial point of attraction Genet became more deeply involved both personally and politically in the Arab world - defending Algerian migrant workers against police brutality in France and traveling to meet with Palestinian freedom fighters in Lebanon.

He was then an exile in every sense of the word.

In his memoirs Goytisolo recounts the time he lent Genet a copy of the poems of Antonio Machado, a writer with whom Genet was not then acquainted but who had the status of a kind of secular saint among the Spanish Republican exiles abroad:

He returned the books to me after a few days and rattled off a string of criticisms: he thought the writer's human and literary horizons narrow and limited; his obsession with Castile was a way of narcisistically contemplating his own navel and resurrecting the retrograde values of the countryside. Machado not only wrote in Spanish - as Genet wrote in French - but wanted to be Spanish, a cultural identification that Genet could not understand and labeled as chauvinist. He was left totally indifferent by the moral landscape of France: neither the gardens of Versailles nor the cathedral of Rheims stirred any emotions in him. So why, then, that love of Soria, Castile, the trees on the riverbank, the slow procession of poplars? The fatherland, he would say much later, could only be an ideal for those who didn’t have one, like the Palestinian fedayeen.

Goytisolo concludes his tribute with the following account of his friend's death some 30-odd years later:

He met his end on one of those short trips to the France he so hated, when he wished to correct the proofs of his last book, Un Captif amoureux. His wish to be buried in Morocco, to leave no trace of himself in his country apart from his beautiful, repellent, and poisoned prose, apparently complicated the formalities of the funeral. As with Abdallah twenty years before, his body remained several days in the morgue; and as Abdallah blackened by poison had returned to his African origins, Genet would in turn be reintegrated symbolically in his adoptive land: as I later learned from his Palestinian friends, the customs official asked those accompanying the coffin whether it was the body of a Moroccan worker. They proudly proclaimed it was.

Finally, Goytisolo notes that

Genet taught me to cast off my early vanity, political opportunism, my desire to cut a figure in the life of literary society…Without him, without his example, I would perhaps not have had the strength to break from the hierarchy of values accepted on the right and the left by my compatriots, to accept proudly my predictable rejection and isolation, to write all I have written from the time of Conde Julián.

Friday, May 29, 2009

St Paul and the imperative of group orthodoxy/infallibility

Tying together rather neatly two themes canvassed on this blog recently - intra-left sectarianism and the Spanish writer Juan Goytisolo - I came across this passage in Goytisolo's memoirs recently which I found quite thought-provoking:

The obsession of Communist parties and revolutionary groups with labelling those who differ from them as "lackeys of imperialism" or "agents of the Pentagon" does not date back, as I thought for a time, to the particular historical conditions in which the Marxist and non-Marxist working class movements were shaped and structured before the victory of the Bolshevik revolution: it is a response to a series of social and psychological factors that, as I would be shown by a reading of Blanco White, have their roots through the centuries in notions of orthodoxy, absolutism and infallibility - the fruits of Saint Paul rather than Marx - firmly anchored in human nature. "Individuals organized professionally in an orthodox body will resist and sanction with every means any attempt to dissolve the vital principle behind their union. And as a consistent political body, an orthodox Church will easily realize that nothing binds groups of humans together better than their opposition to the rest...Hence the fact that condemnation of the latter is the real essence of orthodoxy."* A rigidly hierarchical party will thus have recourse, as Blanco prophesies, to the simple expedient of marking out those who are not in communion with them with some vile or sectarian label...

The future designation as "intellectual bourgeois agents," "shameless pseudoleftists," and "minor agents of capitalism" bestowed by the great Cuban leader in 1971 on Sartre and a group of writers politically aligned with him would again confirm the deep-rootedness of the old custom, but I was not then surprised or upset. My involvement in the political world in my first years of hardened self-exile had revealed the abuses of such a mechanism ad nauseam and I was, you might say, inoculated against such terror.

*See Obra inglesa de Blanco White (Buenos Aires, 1972), 256-263

- Forbidden Territory: the Memoirs of Juan Goytisolo 1931-1956 (trans. Peter Bush) pp. 203-4

While not necessarily subscribing to the idea that there exists such a thing as abstract "human nature", I think that Goytisolo's observations do contain a real kernel of insight in terms of the way in which inner and intra-group dynamics play out on the political left (as well as in society generally).

While the labels may vary (the Maoists' favorite pejorative being "revisionist" or "objectively counter-revolutionary", the Trotskyists - my own tradition - preferring instead "bourgeois intellectual" or "cliquist") the underlying phenomenon is the same - the need to believe that the project we are all engaged in is objectively vital and representing more than just our own subjective hopes or desires, hence no questioning of its validity can be countenanced.

I remember being puzzled some months ago when reading in the New York Review of Books about a recent work by the French neo-marxist philosopher Alain Badiou entitled "St Paul: the Foundation of Universalism". At the time I wondered why on earth the doyenne of the French New Left would be interested in such an esoteric subject, however upon reflection Badiou's characterisation of St Paul as the Christian equivalent to Lenin does make a great deal of sense.

While I admit I haven't read more than the introduction to Badiou's book (such is the impenetrable nature of his prose - like that of French academics in general), his basic contention appears to be that St Paul's role in the history of the Christian church was to place it upon a "universalist" foundation overcoming the various frontiers of language and legal jurisdiction and in so doing creating a new community that transcended the pre-existing multitude of fractured identities (perhaps analogous to the state of the world under global capitalism today).

However quite clearly St Paul's "universalism" is primarily a vehicle to further the propagation of an idea that in its origins and epistemological status is purely subjective i.e. Christianity.

What we can see therefore is that the impulse to "universalise" ideologies or belief-systems often stems from the need to compensate for their tenuous hold on empirical reality (perhaps that is why the Healyites and their latter-day successors the World Socialist Website make such a big deal about the "science" of dialectics - a concept towards which I have always felt fairly dubious)!

This is not necessarily to say that the political ideology of Marxism is only a subjective whim or has no objective basis (although Goytisolo would probably beg to differ) - rather it suggests to me that those political groups within the Marxist left which are the least secure in their foundations are often the most shrill in their denunciations of others (the obvious religious corollary of the WSWS would be the Christian fundamentalists).

In this way I think it is possible to conclude that those groups which feel the need to rationalise the departure of members from their ranks as proving that they have succumbed to defeatism/alien class forces/the devil etc reveal no more than their own intrinsic weakness and insecurity.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Mario Benedetti: la soledad también puede ser una llama

Mario Benedetti, one of the most important (and universally loved) Latin American poets of the 20th century, died in Monetevideo on Sunday aged 88.

Besides his literary output, Benedetti was heavily involved in promoting leftist causes and was an historic leader of the 28th March Movement (the electoral wing of the revolutionary Tupamaros) - as a result of which he was forced into exile after the Uruguayan military took power in 1973.

Below is a clip from the 1992 Argentine film El lado oscuro del corazón (which I already discussed on this blog a few weeks ago), containing two poems by Benedetti - No te salves (Don't save yourself) and Corazón coraza (Armour-plated heart) - the latter read (in German) by Benedetti himself.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The truly remarkable capacity of the left for self-destruction

The trainwreck involving my former comrades in the Victoria University branch of the Workers Party that is currently playing out on indymedia and in the pages of the student newspaper Salient is certainly a depressing spectacle - except of course for the denizens of the right wing political blogosphere who predictably enough are taking enormous pleasure from the whole debacle.

I don't propose to comment on any of the specific concrete issues here, as if I wanted that kind of pointless aggravation I wouldn't have needed to resign from active membership of the Workers Party back at the start of the year. All I can really say about the cycle of charges and counter-charges following on from the decision to expel VUWSA president Jasmine Freemantle from the WP is that neither side comes out looking particularly good.

However, I would like to venture some observations about what I see as the underlying causes driving this kind of self-destructive behavior on the left, which is by no means unique to the WP.

Firstly, as I've previously noted on this blog, for a variety of reasons New Zealand society at the moment is characterised by levels of class consciousness and struggle so low as to be almost non-existent. As such, any political organisation (whether revolutionary or reformist) that seeks to appeal to notions of collective solidarity or common interest and build mass support is likely to come up against the fairly solid and impassable barrier of public indifference and apathy.

This phenomenon of protracted political downturn has been responded to by left-wing organisations in this country during the past decade or two in a number of ways -

1. Hyper-activism - trying to galvanise the masses through sheer subjective willpower. Often accompanied by a watering down of political programs in order to boost the chances of generating "broad" appeal.

2. Sectarianism - a conservative strategy based on maintaining the apparatus of a political party or propaganda group with its own distinctive confessional statement of ideas and principles, which supposedly embodies the true interests of workers or "the residual memory of the class" despite the current absence of any working class political constituency.

3. Colonising the student- and trade-union bureaucracy - moving in to fill the void left by the political and organisational collapse of social democracy, in the hope that this will facilitate access to a wider political audience.

During my 10+ years of involvement in left politics, all of the organisations I have belonged to have incorporated at various times one or more of these strategic approaches.

On the face of things, all of these strategies have a certain logic to them. However, I would argue that the very phenomenon of political and social isolation which they seek to overcome in the end dooms all of these projects to failure.

The isolation of the left means that all of these groups are lacking in human resources and especially politically-experienced cadre, with the result that when (for instance) the left succeeds in capturing positions in trade unions or students' associations often their representatives are not equipped to competently discharge their responsibilities. In addition, simply by taking these positions the left do not overcome their isolation since for the most part the various collective "mass organisations" are in reality only paper tigers with very little participation from the rank-and-file.

Meanwhile, those who take the alternative route of hyper-activism soon burn-out and disillusion their members when the various "grassroots" campaigns fail to capture the popular imagination, while the proponents of the sectarian approach also lose members for simple lack of a compelling reason for anyone to stay (and hardly inspire many new members to join!).

Common to all of these strategies in my experience is the frustration that members inevitably feel at their continual political isolation. Often this leads individuals to increasingly rely on the organisation as a kind of social network and refuge. Unfortunately when some of these social networks or relationships break down, this can cause the organisation itself to become dysfunctional and for personal differences to be converted into political ones.

Thus we have petty personal squabbles blown-up into full-blown polemics, with the lines of battle determined by the ever-shifting bond of personal loyalties rather than any rational criteria.

Ultimately, there comes a point for most members (as there did for me) when these negative consequences flowing from trying to maintain a political organisation (with all the implicit additional requirements of a common program, publications etc) in a period of protracted political downturn simply outweigh all of the benefits (real or hypothetical).

At this point I think it is necessary to stand back and assess whether in fact it is worth it to dive back immediately into the political maelstrom, or whether it is better instead to await the coming in of a more propitious tide (i.e. a significant shift in the relation of social forces) before doing so.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Count Julian's revenge

Count Julian by Juan Goytisolo (trans. Helen Lane)

(continued from previous post)

While each nation has had its legendary betrayers in history - the Athenians had Alcibiades, the Romans Coriolanus - arguably none was as spectacularly successful as the Spanish Count Julian.

Count Julian the novel consists of a series of interwoven experiences, childhood memories, dreams and drug-fueled hallucinations of a Spanish exile living in Tangiers who looking across the Straits of Gibraltar that separate him from his homeland is filled with an overwhelming sense of loathing, such that he imagines himself as the great betrayer - Count Julian himself - leading the Arab army of invasion to the sack of Christian Spain.

Goytisolo prefaces the novel with the following quotation from Luis García de Valdeavellano's Historia de Espana:

In their struggle against the Byzantines and the Berbers, the Arab chieftains had greatly extended their African dominions, and as early as the year 682 Uqba had reached the shores of the Atlantic, but he was unable to occupy Tangier, for he was forced to turn back toward the Atlas Mountains by a mysterious person whom the Moslem historians almost always refer to as Ulyan, although his real name was probably Julian, or perhaps Urban or Ulbán or Bulian. Soon thereafter he became a legendary figure known as "Count Julian". We are not certain whether he was a Berber, a Visigoth, or a Byzantine; as a "count" he may have been the ruler of the fortress of Septem, once part of the Visigoth kingdom; or he may have been an exarch or a governor ruling in the name of the Byzantine Empire: or as appears more likely, he may have been a Berber who was the lord and master of the Catholic tribe of Gomera...

Goytisolo's style takes some getting used to - he avoids the use of full stops and paragraph breaks so that the text appears as one neverending stream-of-consciousness, a kind of Latin Ulysses. The task of the translator Helen Lane in handling this work is therefore one that cannot be underestimated.

Many of Goytisolo's own personal experiences are blended into the narrative - mainly scenes of human cruelty from his childhood spent in 1940s Francoist Spain which also resurface in his memoirs. However despite sharing many aspects of his personality and background (up to and including his self-imposed exile in Morocco) with Goytisolo, the nameless protagonist represents an extension beyond Goytisolo the writer. For example as our exiled Spaniard delights in fantasies of sexual violence perpetrated by the Arab armies he imagines overrunning Spain, it is clear that he is channeling the Marquis de Sade, while at other points in the narrative he seems in equal parts José de Espronceda and Miguel de Cervantes.

The protagonist desires the complete destruction of Spain - physical, political, linguistic and literary. He imagines a variety of ways in which this destructive intent can be encompassed - ranging from the fanciful (ordering the removal from the Spanish language of all words of Arabic etymology) to the truly bizarre (contracting rabies and donating his blood to be used in Spanish hospitals).

He fulminates not only against the Francoist dictatorship but the entire Spanish weltanschauung, symbolised for him by the Roman stoic philosopher Seneca (who we are reminded Nietzsche called "the torreador of virtue) and who our protagonist imagines was not born in Corduba as the historical accounts maintain (which would open him up to the suspicion that he was not of "pura sangre") but rather in the very heart of Castille, in the village of Madrigal de las Altas Torres - the birthplace of Queen Isabella "the Catholic" located in the Sierra de Gredos mountains.

The weary fatalism that he perceives in the Spanish collective psyche is further underlined by the frequent jibes at the figure of Platero, the donkey in the poem by Juan Ramón Jiménez who exhibited an enormous capacity for blind, trusting faith (a positive quality for Jiménez, obviously not so for the protagonist who imagines meeting the inoffensive creature and slitting its throat with a knife).

Elsewhere in the novel the Spanish obsession with racial purity is represented by the continuous praising of the Castillian ibex or capra hispanica by Don Álvaro Peranzules (an obvious caricature of General Franco). Yet the protagonist also feels nothing but contempt for the erstwhile progressive Spanish intellectuals, the partisans of racio-vitalismo and heirs of Unamuno and Ortega y Gasset who claim to oppose Franco:

at literary gatherings and cocktail parties, in arty cafés and elegant salons, men of letters are carefully tending the flame of the brightly glowing Torch of Generations: sons, grandsons, great-grandsons of the giants of '98, bards celebrating the immutable flora of the steppes, the Hispanic essence that has stood the test of centuries: statues who do not yet have a pedestal, but are already masters of the art of tauromachic pedestal...

Of course, these same intellectuals during the Spanish Civil War delighted in stoking the fires of patriotic nationalism against the colonial Moroccan troops used by General Franco and the Nationalists - demonising the alien other instead of seeing them as a people oppressed by Spanish imperialism who could potentially won to the Republican cause.

However in the final analysis Count Julian is not just a Spanish story but a universal one - as the protagonist tells us:

one's homeland is the mother of all vices: in order to be cured of it as rapidly and completely as possible, the best remedy is selling it, betraying it: selling it?: for a mess of potage or for all of Peru, for a great deal or for almost nothing: to whom?: to the highest bidder: or giving it, as a gift filled with poison, to someone who knows nothing about it and does not care to know anything: a rich man or a poor one, a man who is indifferent or one hopelessly in love: for one simple but sufficient reason: the pleasure of betraying...what homeland?: all of them: those of the past, the present, and the future...selling one's homeland into bondage, an endless chain of unending crime, permanent and active betrayal...

It is this fundamentally irrational yet somehow heroic (or anti-heroic?) sentiment which I think makes Count Julian such a powerful work - worthy of comparison with Christopher Marlowe's Tamburlaine the Great or Milton's Paradise Lost.

Together these works could form the basis perhaps for a course to be taken in conjunction with all the papers on nationalism and "nation-building" that currently infest our institutions of higher learning, to be entitled "Anti-Patriotism 101".

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Juan Goytisolo: the journey into exile

...Castillian in Catalonia, Frenchified in Spain, Spanish in France, a Latin in North America, nesrani in Morocco, and a Moor everywhere, as a result of my wanderings, I would become a writer not claimed by anybody, alien and opposed to groupings and categories...outside the bounds of abstract ideologies, systems, or entities always characterised by their self-sufficiency and circularity.

- Coto Vedado/Forbidden Territory: The Memoirs of Juan Goytisolo 1931-1956
(trans. Peter Bush)

In the course of my literary perambulations (see previous post) I recently discovered the work of the Catalan-Spanish writer Juan Goytisolo, a writer whose name it seems is hardly known in the Anglophone world despite the existence of several excellent English-language translations of his novels.

Goytisolo is a fascinating figure, in that while he has chosen to spend almost his entire adult life living outside of Spain much of his literary work is characterised by a near-total obsession with the land of his birth. Despite living in Morocco, he also still manages to write a regular column for the newspaper El País (for whom he worked as a war correspondent during the 1990s in Bosnia and Chechnya).

Goytisolo is a man of contradictions - he grew up in Barcelona during the 1930s and 40s in an impoverished bourgeois household whose forebears had been the owners of vast sugar plantations (and hundreds of slaves!) in Cuba. Goytisolo's father was a strong Catholic and ardent supporter of General Francisco Franco, however the revelation that his mother's death in 1938 had been due to a Nationalist bombing raid alienated Goytisolo from his father (who had suppressed the truth and always blamed his wife's death on "the Reds").

An additional factor impelling Goytisolo's journey towards exile was his alienation from Spanish culture and the Spanish language, a reaction provoked as Goytisolo says in his memoirs by "the ignorant, small-minded priests" (the Jesuits) who educated him. As a result, he did not even read Cervantes until he was in his late 20s.

In 1956 Goytisolo went into voluntary exile in Paris, France and was soon associated with the leading cultural and literary figures of the French Communist Party. He also became an enthusiastic supporter of the Cuban Revolution, but after a number of visits there he became disillusioned with the Castro regime. In his memoirs he tells of giving a speech at a secondary school in Havana as the invited guest of the Cuban poet Navarro Luna, arriving just as some girls were being publicly censured in front of the entire assembly for being lesbians. Goytisolo describes the overwhelming feeling of hypocrisy he felt as he went onto the platform to give his address

...I, that juan goytisolo suddenly ashamed of his role, of the unbridgeable abyss opened at a stroke between reality and words, overwhelmed by the tumultuous applause for the imposter who has usurped his name...

Goytisolo was discovering at around the same time that he himself was a homosexual, although despite finally confessing as much to his partner Monique Lange in 1965 they maintained an "open relationship" and even later married.

Goytisolo published a number of novels throughout the 1950s and 60s to a modest level of critical acclaim, while at the same time working for the French publishing house Gallimard (in the course of which he came to befriend writers such as the Mexican Carlos Fuentes and the Cuban Cabrera Infante). However, it was with his Álvaro Mendiola trilogy (published between 1966-1975) that he really made his name. The second book of that trilogy in particular - Reivindicación del Conde don Julián (published in English as "Count Julian") - stands (albeit a little ironically as we shall see!) as a masterpiece of Spanish literature and the ultimate condensation of Goytisolo's personal, philosophical and political thought.

To be continued...

Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Other Count Julian

Tariq the conqueror of al-Andalus laying his conquests at the feet of the Umayyad viceroy

It is funny how sometimes a line or fragment of a poem can lead you off on the most circuitous yet interesting of intellectual tangents.

I had this experience a couple of years ago when I was reading the through some of the Civil War poetry of Antonio Machado - the Spanish modernist writer and contemporary of Unamuno and Azorín - and came across a sonnet entitled "A Otro Conde Don Julian" ("to the other Count Julian").

The poem itself, which is far inferior to Machado's earlier works such as those found in his collection Campos de Castilla (Lands of Castile) and of primarily propagandistic rather than literary significance, held little interest to me - but the title, which casts the nationalist leader General Franco in the role of the arch-betrayer of Spanish history Count Julian of Ceuta held a strange fascination.

My knowledge of the half legendary, half historical figure of Count Julian was derived from my early-adolescent reading of Walter Scott's "The Vision of Don Roderick" which with Scott's customary poetic licence recounts the story of the last Visigothic King of Spain and his defeat at the hands of the Moorish invaders (Sir Walter Scott, along with the Romances of King Arthur and Charlemagne, informed most of my 12-year-old world view).

In the poetic account of the fall of Visigothic Spain, King Roderic is betrayed by Count Julian, the governor of the Christian outpost of Ceuta which lies on the North African coastline at the closest point to the Spanish shore (the Romans knew it as the city of Septem). The reasons suggested for Julian's betrayal are many and varied - some say it was because Roderic raped one of Julian's daughters who was a hostage at the Visigothic Court in Toledo, others that Julian was the protector of the sons of the previous Visigothic King Wittiza, whom Roderic was suspected of assassinating.

More recently, historians have suggested that Julian may have been a Byzantine Greek official who had only entered into a temporary alliance with the Visigoths after the fall of Carthage to the Umayyads in 695-698 and the departure of the last Roman troops. Given the fact that the Umayyads proved to be considerably more tolerant towards other religions and denominations than the formerly Arian Visigothic rulers (who with the zeal of recent converts to the one true faith were continually trying to prove their Catholic bona fides to the Pope by violently persecuting Jews and heretics) it is not inconceivable that Julian's decision to enter into an alliance with Musa ibn-Nusair, the Umayyad governor of the newly conquered Maghreb provinces was motivated simply by enlightened self-interest.

Whichever of these scenarios is correct, what is uncontested is that in the year 711 Julian provided the fleet which transported the Berber Umayyad general Tariq ibn-Ziyad and his troops across the narrow straits to the landing place which now bears Tariq's name - the Rock of Gibraltrar (from the Arabic "Jabal Tariq"), echoing the invasion of Republican Spain by General Franco at the head of the Army of Morocco in August 1936, some 1200 years later.

After the defeat of Roderic at the Battle of Gaudalete and the establishment of Umayyad rule in Spain, Julian was rewarded for his "act of treachery" with extensive lands and titles.

These then were some of the literary and historical associations that Antonio Machado's piece of Civil War propaganda rekindled in my head, leading me to look up again the story of the Fall of Visigothic Spain and in the course of this process to discover the work of a remarkable man - also an exile estranged from the political and religious order of Christian Spain, a modern day Count Julian living in Morocco - the novelist Juan Goytisolo.

To be continued...