Monday, April 19, 2010

Vázquez Montalbán and the case against rationalism in philosophy and art

In Madrid earlier this year I had the good fortune to pick up a second-hand copy of Manuel Vázquez Montalbán's 1970 philosophical essay-play-poetry collection-novella Manifiesto subnormal, sadly long since out of print and as far as I know never translated into English. Vázquez Montalbán is of course best known for his Pepe Carvalho detective series, about the eponymous Catalán gastronome and ex-communist/ex-CIA (yes, such things are apparently possible!) private investigator.

However Vázquez Montalban was also an astute cultural critic with many fascinating insights into Spain during the epoch of 'tardefranquismo' ('late Francoism') and subsequent 'transition' to liberal democracy as well as the world of Spanish far left politics, in which he was an active participant - beginning with his involvement with the Guevarist FLP in the 1960s and continuing with his lengthy career as a perennial dissident in the Unifed Socialist Party of Cataluña during the 70s and 80s (Vázquez Montalbán sided with the Eurocommunists during the PSUC's interminable faction fights but at the same time liked to satirise leading Euros such as Santiago Carillo - the 'born again' former hardline Stalinist - mercilessly). Vázquez Montalbán's collection of essays Crónica sentimental de la transición and his 1985 novel El pianista - charting the hopes, tragicomic failures and disillusionment of a generation of Spanish leftists - are essential reading for any serious student of the period.

Manifiesto is, as its publisher's blurb proudly proclaims, a book that is impossible to categorise in terms of genre. Nor is it easy to take away from it a neat didactic message, since the author characteristically satirises even those philosophical positions which he himself would be most inclined to defend. At the heart of it though is a call for leftists to overturn the time-honoured equation of Reason and rational philosophy with revolutionary politics and art and to celebrate instead what Vázquez Montalbán refers to as "la subnormalidad" and "la consciencia subnormal" - terms which I am not quite sure how to translate because nowhere does the author actually explicitly define them, but is perhaps closest to the standpoint of the Surrealist school in its delight in the irrational and absurd.

As Vázquez Montalbán writes "the prestige of Reason has been one of the cultural institutions most firmly established by the bourgeoisie" - and with good reason, since it encourages artists and philosophers to abstract themselves from reality - a reality that will now be mediated through the obfuscticating lens of ideology and false unity. Capitalism has also devised a system - humanist liberal democracy - which is capable of embracing and co-opting its own Hegelian artisitc antithesis, the aesthetic of desencanto or disillusionment, so long as it agrees to play by capitalism's own house rules. Vázquez Montalbán's message is that artists and would-be revolutionaries should try to resist this process of co-option or "recuperación" from "subnormalidad" into the capitalist cultural industry, although he is quite frankly pessimistic about the chances of success.

In the theatrical farce which forms the central section of the book, a dialogue plays out between a number of characters including Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Theodor Adorno, Leonid Brezhnev, the Marx brothers as well as an anonymous narrator (whose views seem more akin to the Stalinist cultural operative Lukács than to Vázquez Montalbán himself - as evidenced by the condemnation of surrealism as "a false cultural terrorism that distracted the attention of philistines from the new literature of social protest influenced by Naturalism"!!).

In what follows, it is Theodor Adorno who emerges in the most sympathetic light. In response to Cohn-Bendit's simplistic revolutionary street-theatre and the narrator's defence of the doctrine of Third Period Stalinist "social-fascism" Adorno declares that he has broken with all such "grand rationalisations" because he wants above all to survive and sees little chance of the socialist revolution succeeding. As he says "without doubt the old dame [capitalism] will pass away, but she will have lived long enough to corrupt both her children and her antagonists."

Summing up, Adorno seems to echo Vázquez Montalbán's exhortations in favour of "subnormalidad" as he proclaims "Reason has prostituted itself - long live Feeling!"