Monthly Archives: May 2016

Homage to Catalonia

Having read a few of Orwell’s other books (Animal Farm, Down and Out in Paris and London, and Burmese Days) I’m quite familiar with his writing style, which has a very matter-of-fact way of explaining and analyzing situations.  There seems to be a deep sense of pessimism and disappointment with human nature throughout his works, from his account of the conditions in the trenches along the Aragon front, his experience in poverty recounted in Down and Out, or his chilling depiction of colonialism in Burmese Days.  Disillusionment seems to be a common theme; the loss of one’s ideals in the face of a reality to which they don’t conform.

After being swept up by the revolutionary fervor that had overtaken Barcelona and joining a Marxist militia, he sees the egalitarian principles by which the war was conducted on the Republican side slowly eroded away by sectarian in-fighting and propaganda.  The experience seems to have dispelled any romantic notions he may have held about communism (or at least the “official” communism promoted by the Soviets) and hardened his resolve as an opponent of totalitarianism (a role he would continue when writing Animal Farm and 1984).

Perhaps the pessimism expressed throughout Orwell’s work results from the era in which he lived, one in which war and economic hardship were prevalent for decades in a row. One can trace the formation of his political and social views throughout his books, and Homage to Catalonia could possibly be seen as a turning point in his political education. The point where rosy ideals about social equality are brought face-to-face with the tangible threat posed by fascism and Stalinism.  Indeed, his account of the conflict provides us a glance into the ideological divisions and partisan conflicts that engulfed not just Spain but all of Europe at the time.

In response to the question of what type of book this is, I think it combines elements of a historical novel with those of an autobiography.  Personable, anecdotal accounts of events as they happened to him, as well as an informative overview as to the larger political developments surrounding those events, combine to create a work of literature that not only draws the reader into a story of wartime struggle but is a critical account of the political climate of the time.  Perhaps its difficulty in being neatly categorized reflects its strengths in providing both an entertaining account of the war while also maintaining a journalistic duty to report the facts as they were witnessed.

Reflecting on our discussion . . .

Our discussion last week centered around two broad questions: What are they fighting for? and why did Malraux choose to write this book?  There are certainly many answers to these questions and our discussion covered many related topics.  The passage on pg. 263-267, in which Manuel had to keep the men from taking a train to Madrid with no one to operate it, provided considerable material to help ponder these questions: the Republicans’ clear technological disadvantage, their lack of organization or unity, and the shortage of necessary supplies all paint a dim picture.  Yet the revolutionary fervor that animates everyone against the common foe of fascism gives them a somewhat misplaced sense of hope that persists throughout the novel.

We also touched upon the great diversity of the men fighting the fascists: Italians, Germans, Algerians, Poles, etc. What exactly was it that motivated them to leave their homelands and fight in another country’s civil war?  Were they so committed to their ideologies that they jumped at the chance to fight for their cause alongside their comrades? Perhaps the sense of duty that brought them there in the first place was what kept them going even when their prospects were clearly grim.

Homage to Catalonia I

Homage to Catalonia cover

George Orwell is probably the most famous English political writer of the twentieth century. As such, it is surprising, in Homage to Catalonia, to read him telling us that, at the front of the Spanish Civil War, “the political side of the war bored” him (208). He says of his initial impressions of Catalonia that

the revolutionary atmosphere of Barcelona had attracted me deeply, but I had made no attempt to understand it. As for the kaleidoscope of political parties and trade unions, with their tiresome names–PSUC, POUM, FAI, CNT, UGT, JCI, JSU, AIT–they merely exasperated me. It looked at first sight as though Spain were suffering from a plague of initials. (197)

This book, then, part memoir and part political analysis, documents a change in Orwell’s perspective, a form of politicization. For, in his words, “everyone, however unwillingly, took sides sooner or later” (198). Homage to Catalonia is, as much as anything, an account of how and why Orwell took side, and began to view the array of political acronyms as more than just some alphabet soup. For it turns out that the war had everything to do with politics–“it was above all things a political war” (197)–and so boredom or disinterest are no longer viable options. It is in the name of politics that a certain–largely fictitious–narrative of the conflict had been propagated, and it is likely that it is in the name of politics that the Republic would be lost.

Yet, if this is the message of the book, Orwell remains strangely ambivalent about it. He tells us, at the start of his first extended disquisition on the internal struggles between Anarchists and Communists, that “if you are not interested in the horrors of party politics, please skip.” As he notes, he separates out the analysis from the memoir “to keep the political parts of this narrative in separate chapters” precisely so that the disinterested reader can pass over them and continue following Orwell’s personal journey unperturbed. In other words, in this conflict in which “everyone” has to take sides, the reader is carefully shielded from this responsibility. In fact, in later editions of the book the “political” chapters are relegated to appendices, pushed even more to the margins of the main narrative. But does this not allow precisely the depolititicization, or refusal to engage in politics, against which Orwell’s book is otherwise written? Orwell wants both to protect us against the “horrors of party politics” and (if we are curious to read through the appendices that contain them) to tell us that they are essential to any understanding of the situation in Spain–and indeed, Europe as a whole. At one and the same time, the book both directs us to the centrality of political disagreement and aspires to shield us from it.

It may then be better to think of this as an infrapolitical book, in the sense that it is about what is simultaneously a necessary link and an absolute breach between war and politics. The Spanish Civil War is at the same time a thoroughly political war and absolutely non-political at the same time. The “horrors” of politics are both inevitable and to be avoided if at all possible. Orwell has both to show the connections between the “common decency” for which he came to fight (197) and the political machinations that make it both possible and impossible, and at the same point to keep them utterly separate. This is, of course, an impossible task, which is why in some sense this is an impossible book, fractured and somewhat absurd. But it is in that fracture that we see the struggle between politicization (taking sides) and commonality (common decency) played out, which are the stakes of the war itself, which ultimately can only be understood in these infrapolitical terms.

Crossposted to Infrapolitical Deconstruction Collective.

See also: Homage to Catalonia II; Spanish Civil War novels.

Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia

The attempted fairness in Orwell’s narration is what originally struck me in this narrative. It’s not common for authors to point out their own allegiances and limited scope when writing to illustrate to their reader how their writing may not be a precise account of the actual events.

Unfortunately (for Orwell) I believe he did not do enough to accomplish a fully fair narrative. I think he creates an ambiance of chaos and distrust of other sources, which coupled with his sporadic admissions of bias creates an artificial trust in his narrative over all other sources. His repeated cherry picking from other journalists in order to discredit them maybe does paint a picture of how badly this war was being told internationally, but ultimately just discredits all journalists from that time period as a whole (at least to the simple eyes of a reader) and Orwell fills the vacuum for information (even if unintentionally) with his own narrative exclusively.

I mention this may be unintentional because he does a fairly good job physically separating (by chapters) discussing historical events and his own experience. The problem I’m alluding to is, in terms of perceived accuracy of the story as a whole, I believe Orwell could easily trick readers.

Orwell does an effective job as described above in singling out his narrative as accurate. For the chapters in which he isn’t (exclusively) dealing with his own experiences like his time in the trenches and on guard, but talking about party politics and historical events that may be the case. For the other chapters, which occupy the vast majority of the book, I don’t believe there is the same fairness in recognizing bias and warning the reader of this fact.

Once the reader is convinced that all other sources are a lie trying to further their own agenda, and Orwell is being absolutely fair, nothing stops them from extrapolating from his experience to the entire war. Orwell, as objective as he may have tried to remain for the entire book, voluntarily signed up to fight in a foreign war. He was being shot at by another faction. He endured hunger and lack of every day amenities. He was restricted to a very specific geographical area. Just as foreign journalists had their reasons to misrepresent this war, I believe it’s quite evident so did Orwell.

I may be letting my cynicism get to me again, but I don’t believe these are the traits and experiences that lead to an unbiased account of an event as polarizing and agonizing as is a war. For an author personally involved in the conflict he probably did an extremely good job at being unbiased, but I claim he could not avoid it altogether and misleads the reader into thinking he has.

“The Ghosts of the Civil War”

This is an interesting article, just published on The Guardian. It includes an overview of the war, and the difficulty of coming to terms with its trauma. It mentions the importance of foreigners, even now, in keeping memories alive. And it notes the role of novels (such as Soldados de Salamina, which I write about here) in stoking a renewed conversation about the events and their impact.


Agamben, Stasis

Giorgio Agamben’s short book Stasis: Civil War as a Political Paradigm comprises two brief essays, one on the Athenian concept of “stasis” or civil war, the other on the role of the multitude in Hobbes’s Leviathan. What links them, he tells us, is the notion that “the constitutive element of the modern State” is “ademia [. . .] that is, [. . .] the absence of a people” (vi). Obviously enough, this will come as something of a surprise to “the Western political tradition” for which, as Agamben notes, the “concept of people” is “arguably the fundamental concept” (39). Think after all of the opening of the United States constitution, for which “we the people” are presented as that country’s basic political bedrock.

Agamben proposes instead the multitude as the core concept of political theory. So far, so good, and no doubt also so Italian. But what Agamben adds to the work of (say) Toni Negri and Paolo Virno is the observation that “the multitude is the subject of civil war” (40) and, further, that it is thus through civil war that the political realm is established. Or, as he puts it in his discussion of the Greeks:

it constitutes a zone of indifference between the unpolitical space of the family [oikos] and the political space of the city [polis]. [. . .] In the system of Greek politics civil war functions as a threshold of politicization and depoliticization, through which the house is exceeded in the city and the city is depoliticized in the family. (12)

For, as Agamben points out, Solon’s law explicitly punishes those who do not take part in civil war: such people forfeit their rights to citizenship; “not taking part in the civil war amounts to being expelled from the polis and confined in the oikos” (13). Civil war is, therefore, not (as we tend to see it) simply the point at which the political dissolves, as the state fractures and society is reduced to warring factions. It is also constituent, “the unforgettable that must always remain possible in the city,” however much today, by contrast, we regard it as “something that one must seek to make impossible at every cost” (16).

To put this another way (in terms that Agamben himself does not use), it is civil war that is the threshold or hinge between infrapolitics and politics per se. He offers here a theory of the ways in which the political emerges and is dissolved. Moreover, in his study of Hobbes, Agamben further offers civil war as the process by which what he calls the “dissolved multitude” (the multitude subject to biopolitical power) is transformed into the “disunited multitude” that makes itself known by turning on the absent people (absorbed into the figure of sovereign power, the Leviathan). And though it is not entirely obvious how these two conceptions mesh with each other, in both cases civil war has to remain an intimate possibility in the heart of any and every political order. For sovereignty, at least until the coming of the end times, can only remain an (optical) illusion, a trick of representation. In the meantime, “no real unity, no political body is actually possible: the body political can only dissolve itself into a multitude” (49). Agamben thus reverses the eschatological tendencies inherent (as I have argued elsewhere) in Negri’s vision of the multitude: here it is only the state that dreams of a substantial presence and unity to come. The multitude, by contrast, is located on a perennial threshold, figured as civil war, between house and city, infrapolitics and the political.

The sting in the tail of Agamben’s analysis, however, is given only sotto voce, in a digression or coda to the first essay that’s presented in smaller font than the rest. This is the observation that “the form that civil war has acquired today in world history is terrorism. [. . .] Global terrorism is the form that civil war acquires when life as such becomes the stake of politics” (18). This only goes to show once again that (whatever Negri thinks) nobody should look to the multitude for their salvation. But instead of denying the possibility of civil war, trying to exclude it from the political order, we need to recognize that order’s indebtedness to it, and pick one of the many sides (who says there should be just two?) that any such conflict opens up. For this is the very paradigm of the political, of the perpetual emergence and dissolution of political activity as such.

Crossposted to Infrapolitical Deconstruction Collective.

Sobre la discusión sobre San Camilo (II)


No es sorprendente que planear y guiar una discusión sobre San Camilo, 1936 por Camilo José Cela (un libro sumamente difícil de leer y entender, tanto por los hispanohablantes como aquellos para quien el castellano es su segundo idioma) será una tarea bastante difícil y complicado, y aún más dado que a ninguno de los dos facilitadores les gustó al libro.

Pero a pesar de las dificultades inherentes, creemos que hicimos un esfuerzo admirable generar varios temas y citas de discusión, intentando cubrir la mayoría de lo que sucede en la segunda mitad del libro. Si hubiéramos podido hacer algo más para mejorar la presentación, habríamos preparado más preguntas específicas de discusión para incluir en el PPT para así estimular más discusión. Al planear cómo íbamos a guiar la discusión, nos pareció que tuvimos demasiado que decir entre nosotros dos y por eso, decidimos cortar las preguntas de discusión del PPT. Otra motivación por esta decisión fue nuestra creencia que las citas, las cuales habíamos seleccionado el libro para estimular la discusión, eran bastante reveladoras y así estimularían discusión sin la necesidad de articular una pregunta específica. Pero al fin, debido a los pocos comentarios y preguntas que estas mismas citas generaron (a pesar de nuestros intentos de guiar la clase un poco hacia estas respuestas), nos dimos cuenta que hubiera sido útil incluir preguntas específicas.

Obviamente, otro factor para nuestra discusión guiada en particular era el hecho de que pocos habían leído el libro, y por eso sólo pocos podían participar y contribuir a la discusión. Pero, otra vez, si hubiéramos incluido más preguntas, tal vez habríamos podido estimular más participación. Al fin y al cabo, el libro de Cela fue muy difícil y confuso, justo como fue la tarea de intentar descifrarlo y determinar qué se podía decir sobre ello, con fin de llegar a algunas conclusiones sobre ello y entender cómo cabe este texto no sólo en nuestra clase, sino también en nuestro entendimiento sobre cómo se representa la guerra civil española por través de la literatura.

*Aquí puedes ver los apuntes y el PPT que hicimos para preparar para esta discusión.*




El desaparecido Hotel Colón de Plaça Catalunya, en el centro de Barcelona (convertido hoy en un Apple Store), donde transcurren las primeras páginas de l’Espoir, acá retratado durante los últimos años de la República, antes de ser tomado por los falangistas. Más fotos acá.

Uno de los elementos que más me llamó la atención del L’espoir (1937) fue la fascinación del narrador por la tecnología bélica. Por un lado, me hizo pensar en el potencial destructor de la tecnología, me recordó las ideas que enarbolaron Adorno y Horkheimer al pensar Auschwitz en Dialéctica de la ilustración. Aquellas que nos hablan sobre cómo la producción sistemática de muerte a escala industrial, por parte del nacional socialismo alemán durante la primera mitad de los cuarenta, más que una muestra de barbarie irracional es la culminación lógica del proyecto racional ilustrado y el triunfo de una dimensión particular de la razón: la instrumental. Aquella que emplea la capacidad racional del hombre para controlarse y dominarse en lugar de emanciparse a sí mismo, utilizándolo como un medio más que como un fin en sí, fundamentalmente, a través de la implementación de rigurosas herramientas técnicas, fruto de la evolución científica. En este sentido, las batallas representadas en L’espoir del verano español de 1936 pertenecen ya a ese mundo. Esta fascinación del narrador (que es tecnófila y tecnófoba al mismo tiempo) agota todas las posibilidades, como podemos observar en las múltiples elecciones léxicas que escoge para enumerar un sinfín de armas: metralletas, arietes, subfusiles, mosquetes, escopetas, carabinas, dinamitas, aviones bombarderos de combate, algunos de ellos elementos inéditos, nunca utilizados en guerras anteriores, desfilan por las páginas de la novela a la par que los múltiples personajes, dándonos una idea de paralelismo entre la técnica y hombres atrofiados, que terminan mecanizándose y convirtiéndose en un arma más.

No en vano, por otra parte, comienza el narrador la novela poniendo en el centro de la escena un artefacto técnico: la centralita telefónica, una herramienta que mediatiza la relación de milicianos y rebeldes, al mismo tiempo que despliega Madrid hacia el resto de la Península. El teléfono, dicen Horkheimer y Adorno, es el último estadio en el desarrollo técnico en el que la tecnología aún no uniformaba ni paralizaba al sujeto. El teléfono, «dejaba aún jugar al participante el papel de sujeto. La radio, democrática, convierte a todos en oyentes para entregarlos autoritariamente a los programas, entre sí iguales, de las diversas emisoras». Este atributo de los avances tecnológicos para conferir paulatinamente cada vez más pasividad a los sujetos, homogeneizándolos, puede palparse también en la dependencia por las armas que experimentan los milicianos republicanos en la novela: es la asimetría en relación al desarrollo técnico que ostenta cada uno de los dos bandos, en otras palabras, es la capacidad de poseer tecnología lo que parece condicionar el devenir del conflicto, una idea que reside en las palabras de García y Vargas, cuando discuten con Monsieur Magnin: «Los zaristas no tenían tanques ni aviones; los revolucionarios usaban barricadas. ¿Cuál era la idea detrás de estas barricadas? Resistir al Calvario Imperial […] Hoy España está repleta de barricadas para resistir a los aviones de combate de Franco».

Por otro lado, el imaginario relativo a la tecnología bélica no participa solamente de la estrategia descriptiva que sigue el narrador para brindarnos una atmósfera vívida de los primeros días de la Guerra Civil; también es utilizada como símil en distintas ocasiones. «La esperanza», según la define el americano Slade, «es la fuerza impulsora de la revolución»; el coraje «algo que debe mantenerse como los rifles»; la pipa de García es apuntada «como un revolver» cada vez que realiza una afirmación. La técnica invade y contamina al lenguaje como una forma, tal y como quiere Beatriz Sarlo, de estructurar la imaginación.

Days of Hope by André Malraux

Tanto el inglés como el español para mí son idiomas extranjeros, necesito admitir que cuando leía este libro, Days of Hope, me encontraba con dificultades, sería menos complicado para mí si fuera en español. En todo caso, es interesante conocer la guerra civil española desde la visión de un extranjero como el autor, un francés. En el libro Malraux se sienta en la posición de los republicanos al contar al historia. En las primeras párrafos, los cortos diálogos en teléfono nos cartografian las fronteras y sus situaciones actuales, y se terminan por las frases de emoción como ¨viva España¨, ¨viva el Cristo Rey¨, etc. me suenan muy familiar, que según lo que mis padres en China me contaron, en sus tiempos, cuando estaban en el colegio, al terminar sus frases, añadieron unas slogans similares, tales como ¨viva el Presidente Mao¨ o ¨viva la revolución¨ ¨viva el pueblo ¨o ¨camarada¨...las cuales no tenían realmente ningún relación con la charla, pero se las añadieron al final de sus palabras. Estos slogans eran típicos en la Comunista China durante el tiempo rojo.

Es la esperanza que une a los diferentes grupos en contra los fascistas. Malraux indica claramente el desequilibrio en el poder de tecnología y arma entre ambas partes en guerras. En una materia que leí, dice que en la guerra civil española el gobierno francés mandó aviones para los republicanos españoles pero esos aviones eran obsoletos y sirvieron mucho para aumentar realmente su fuerza aérea, además dice:
The Ministry of Defense of France had feared that modern types of planes would easily be captured by the Germans fighting for Francisco Franco, and the lesser models were a way of maintaining official "neutrality".
 No entiendo muy bien por qué esta neutralidad, pero parece que Malraux no está en neutral, para mí el libro sí tiene cierto nivel de propagada de la parte republicana. En muchas partes describe con mucho detalle la figura, el aire y las acciones de sus caracteres, los cuales son como protagonistas en alguna película, que el autor nos está trazando unas imágenes refinas. Los caracteres son valientes e idealistas, tienen dentro un ideal sublime o unos ideales sublimes que les apoyan, a pesar de la gran desventaja de las armas que poseen. Están esperando, esperando y esperando. Aquí me recuerda San Camilo, que de pronto para Cela, para concluir las causas de la guerra civil español es difícil o imposible, la guerra es inevitable e irreversible, pero al mismo tiempo es casual o accidental, por el montón de posibilidades. Aquí, aunque existe una gran disparidad de armas, los republicanos están insistiendo su(s) esperanza(s), igualmente es porque creen en las posibilidades para ganar.