Marranismo e inscripción

Marranismo e inscripción

Cross-posted to Infrapolitical Deconstruction

“The Secret of Secretiveness”

In the introduction to his book, Marranismo e inscripción, Alberto Moreiras tells us that “the sequence of writings that [he] offer[s us] is more than the history of a professional trajectory, and contains secrets that only appear in its trace and for the astute reader, if there are any.” This, of course, is a challenge: who would not want to be the reader astute enough to pry open the text and reveal its secrets? Who would not want to prove wrong the author’s suspicion that such readers are nowhere to be found? And perhaps Alberto would also want to be proved wrong. After all, he locates the book’s origins in what he calls “a period of profound personal disillusion that had as one of its effects the destruction for [him] of any notion of a public audience [público] for whom [he] might write.” Could now, ten years or more later, this new book appeal to a (new?) public of astute readers? Or perhaps the point is that the unknown, perhaps absent and unknowable, astute reader stands in for and replaces the terminally destroyed notion of public audience. Perhaps this is the book’s own marranismo: a publication or making public whose secret truth in fact only resides in its traces, to be read allusively and privately by a reader who we forever suspect may not even exist. Yet it seems, perhaps precisely for this reason, to invite inquisition.

For on the other hand, in many ways this is a very open book; it is a book in which its author “opens up” about his personal relationship to the academic and intellectual field in a way that is quite unusual. Indeed, also in the introduction, Alberto worries that he has said too much, too personally, too directly. He reports anxiously asking José Luis and the others who had interviewed him: “Didn’t I go too far [no me pasé], are you sure that I didn’t say anything indiscreet, is there something we should re-do?” For here, and for instance in the chapter entitled “My Life in Z,” any codes or attempts to obscure the true object of discussion are, at least on the face of it, all too readable. You do not have to be a particularly astute reader, after all, to know (or feel you know) where “Z” is or was. This is a “theoretical fiction” that may be all too transparent, all too close to the bone for some readers. For this book is also quite explicitly a settling of accounts: the disillusion of which it speaks has a history, and it is time for that history to be written–inscribed for all to see–for it to give up its secrets so we can all move on. Or better, it is time that we confront common knowledge that can only pass as secret because few dare to express it explicitly: “Yes, everybody knows, there are no secrets, we all hear over and over things that were never expected to come to our ears.”

Is there then a tension of some kind between the twin themes announced in the book’s title: between the subterfuge and unknowability of the marrano and the making public and putting on the record of the inscription? Perhaps, but another way of looking at it is that this is a book that declares an end not so much to secrets as to secretiveness. It wants to do away with the practices and rituals of academic life that promote only obscurantism and disguise only the bad faith of its participants. Rituals that everybody knows, but which are repeated and reproduced as the price of admission into the elect–even if one is admitted only subsequently to be churned up and abused, marginalized and disempowered. This is all too often, Alberto tells us, simply a formula for masochism: we accept the academy’s secretive code of (dis)honour so as to be close to institutional power, but that power holds us close only to ensure that we can never really threaten it. This, after all, is the (not so secret) reality of tenure, as well as so much else: a protracted euthanization as life itself is drained out of the institution’s over-eager young recruits. And Alberto’s project, in the end, is to reclaim life, and the possibility of a life well lived, from the twin threats of endless politicization (biopolitics) and bureaucratic obscurantism (unhappy consciousness).

Towards the end of the book, in response to a question from Alejandra Castillo about “autobiographical writing,” Alberto says that “the writing that interests me doesn’t seek constitution in the truth, rather it seeks truth and produces destitution. It seeks truth in the sense that in every case it seeks to traverse the fantasy, and it produces destitution in the sense that traversing the fantasy brings us close to the abyss of the real.” He points out, however, that this psychoanalytic language (borrowed from Lacan) can equally be expressed in terms of the secret. “For me, in reality,” he continues, “there is no other writing than the writing of the secret. Or rather there is, but it is not fit for purpose. The question that opens up then is that of the use of the writing of the secret, but that is a question that I don’t believe I am prepared to answer.” “Prepared,” here, has of course a double sense: it can mean that he is not ready to answer, that he cannot answer the question; or that he is not disposed to answer it, that he will not answer. The question of the use of the secret either cannot or should not be answered. At least, not yet.

In short, for Marranismo e inscripción, what is holding us back is secretiveness, the bluster of those who (believe they) hold the keys to institutional power. But the real secret there is that there is no power to their power; that their chamber of secrets is long empty, and has been replaced by the meaningless transparency of neoliberal quantification in the sway of general equivalence. As the university increasingly becomes a business, ruled only by calculations of profit and loss, we have less and less reason to abide by its masochistic code of omertá. This book aims to break that code. On the other hand, there are indeed some true secrets, and searching for them can unleash destructive forces. The question remains: what do to with them? And perhaps even the most astute of readers is not yet in a position to decide about that.

Life During Wartime

RACAL

“Life During Wartime: Infrapolitics and Posthegemony”
(with a coda of eleven theses on infrapolitics)

Presented at the III Seminario Crítico-Político Transnacional
“Pensamiento y terror social: El archivo hispano”
Cuenca, Spain
July, 2016

Why stay in college? Why go to night school?
Gonna be different this time.
Can’t write a letter, can’t send a postcard.
I can’t write nothing at all.
–The Talking Heads

In what is no doubt the most famous theorist of war’s most famous claim, Carl Von Clausewitz tells us that “war has its root in a political object.” He goes on: “War is a mere continuation of politics by other means. [. . .] War is not merely a political act, but a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means” (119). There is, then, for Clausewitz an essential continuity between war and politics; they share the same rationality and ends. And this notion has in turn led many to think of politics, reciprocally, as a form of warfare. The German theorist Carl Schmitt, for instance, defines politics in suitably martial terms as a clash between “friend” and “enemy”: “The specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy” (The Concept of the Political 26). Moreover, this invocation of the term “enemy” is scarcely metaphorical. Schmitt argues that “an enemy exists only when, at least potentially, one fighting collectivity of people confronts a similar collectivity” (28), and he further qualifies the particular type of enmity involved in political disagreement in terms of classical theories of warfare: the political enemy is a “public enemy,” that is a hostis, as opposed to a “private enemy.” He quotes a Latin lexicon to make his point: “A public enemy (hostis) is one with whom we are at war publicly. [. . .] A private enemy is a person who hates us, whereas a public enemy is a person who fights against us” (29).

Likewise, the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci also calls upon the language of warfare to describe political activity, which he classifies in terms of the “war of manoeuvre” by which a political party bids for influence among the institutions of so-called civil society, and the “war of movement” when it is in a position to seek power directly from the state. Indeed, the notion of an essential continuity between armed violence and civil dispute informs Gramsci’s fundamental conception of “hegemony,” which characterizes politics in terms of a combination of coercion and consent, the attempt to win or secure power alternately by means of force or persuasion. War is politics, politics is war: the basic goals and rationale are the same, we are told. It is just the means that are different.

Keep reading… (PDF document)

eleven theses on infrapolitics

  1. Infrapolitics is not against politics. It is not apolitical, still less antipolitical.
  2. There is no politics without infrapolitics.
  3. It is only by considering infrapolitics that we can better demarcate the terrain of the political per se, understand it, and take it seriously.
  4. The interface between the infrapolitical and the political cannot be conceived simply in terms of capture.
  5. Only a fully developed theory of posthegemony can account properly for the relationship between infrapolitics and politics.
  6. Infrapolitics corresponds to the virtual, and so to habitus and unqualified affect.
  7. The constitution (and dissolution) of the political always involves civil war.
  8. Biopolitics is the name for the colonization of the infrapolitical realm by political forces, and so the generalization of civil war.
  9. But neither politics nor biopolitics have any predetermined valence; biopolitics might also be imagined to be the colonization of the political by the infrapolitical.
  10. None of these terms–politics, infrapolitics, biopolitics, posthegemony–can have any normative dimension.
  11. Hitherto, philosophers have only sought to change the world in various ways. The point, however, is to interpret it.

For Whom the Bell Tolls I

Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls

Halfway through Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, the protagonist Robert Jordan is thinking both forwards and back to Madrid. Forwards because, in the middle of the Spanish Civil War, stuck in a cave behind Fascist lines waiting to begin a tremendously risky and seemingly ill-fated operation to blow up a bridge, he distracts himself by imagining what he will do if and when his mission is successfully concluded. “Three days in Madrid,” he thinks. The capital is under siege, of course, but even so it would offer creature comforts unimaginable on the front lines: a “hot bath [. . .] a couple of drinks.” There would be music and movies: he’d take his peasant lover Maria to see “The Marx Brothers at the Opera” (231). He’d have dinner at Gaylord’s, a hotel that “the Russians had taken over” where “the food was too good for a besieged city” (228).

But all this also leads him to think back (unusually, for a man not given to reminiscence) to other experiences he has had at Gaylord’s, a place of intrigue thick with rumor and “talk too cynical for a war.” It was here that he’d met the shadowy Russian Karkov–introduced by the last dynamiter to work in the zone and described as “the most intelligent man he had ever met” (231). And it was largely Karkov who’d made “Gaylord’s [. . .] the place you needed to complete your education. It was there you learned how it was all really done instead of how it was supposed to be done” (230). For in Jordan’s (and Hemingway’s) jaded eyes, the Republican cause may be right, but it is far from pure. Behind “all the nonsense” (230) is a murky world of machination and deception that only fully comes into focus at the Russian-held hotel. This is the epicenter of disillusion and corruption, but it is also the only place to “find out what was going on in the war” (228).

The hidden reality of the war is not pretty, but in some ways (Jordan reflects) it is “much better than the lies and the legends. Well, some day they would tell the truth to everyone and meanwhile he was glad there was a Gaylord’s for his own learning of it” (230). And Jordan and Karkov talk about when and how this truth will emerge: “out of this will come a book,” Karkov says, “which is very necessary; which will explain many things which it is necessary to know” (244). Jordan himself, a Spanish instructor at a US university, has already written a book–about “what he had discovered about Spain in ten years of travelling in it”–but it “had not been a success.” Some day soon it would be time to try again:

He would write a book when he got through with this. But only about the things he knew, truly and about what he knew. But I will have to be a much better writer than I am now to handle them, he thought. The things he had come to know in this war were not so simple. (248)

Now, Jordan is not Hemingway–and Hemingway is not Jordan, though the author has surely invested plenty in his character, a man of few words who prides himself on his powers of observation and his knowledge of the human psyche. But is this novel the book that Jordan would have wanted to have written? The work of a “much better writer” that is to explain the truth of a complex war whose surface veneer is attractive but whose grim interior is more fascinating still. Perhaps.

But For Whom the Bell Tolls is not really about the war’s covert machination. Indeed, what’s interesting about the novel is that Hemingway refuses to accede completely to Jordan’s notion that the “truth” of the conflict is to be found amid the cynicism and corruption that his protagonist tells us “turned out to be much too true” (228). Or rather, Jordan himself is shown as struggling to determine where the reality of the situation lies. Up in the hills, he knows that the situation is bad, not least when he sees the “mechanized doom” (87) of the Fascist planes that roar overhead and announce, as clearly as anything, that the enemy knows of the forthcoming Republican offensive. But he can’t quite admit this: asked whether he has faith in the Republic he replies “’Yes,’ [. . .] hoping it was true” (91). To admit to the precariousness of their fate, the difficulty of their mission, would be to fall into the trap that has ensnared Pablo, the local guerrilla leader who has let fear (and alcohol) overwhelm him, because he knows that their cause is long lost: he toasts “all the illusioned ones” (214) and explains himself by saying that “an intelligent man is sometimes forced to be drunk to spend his time with fools” (215).

Ultimately, Jordan–and Hemingway–know that Pablo is right. But that cynical truth has to be both acknowledged and at the same time staved off, postponed, in the name of another truth that resides within the illusion itself, the legends and lies. So what we get is an ebb and flow, a tense and agonizing interchange between these two truths, between an apparent simplicity and purity (incarnated above all perhaps in the figure of Jordan’s lover Maria–who can never be taken to Gaylord’s–but equally in Hemingway’s characteristically terse and understated style) and a darker, more cynical complexity that can neither be denied nor allowed to dominate. So the paradoxical result is that simplicity ends up being far more complex than the web of machinations that it endlessly has to deny, precisely because in fending them off it recognizes and so includes them, while the cynic can only destroy all that is pure. It preserves, in other words, the infrapolitical paradox: that what is necessary for politics is never inherent in it, but vanishes with scarce a trace.

Crossposted to Infrapolitical Deconstruction Collective.

See also: For Whom the Bell Tolls II.

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.

Stasis

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.

San Camilo, 1936 II

Cela, San Camilo

There are radios throughout Camilo José Cela’s San Camilo, 1936. One of the major characters, the ardent Republican Engracia, even has a boyfriend who repairs radios. But they often go unheard. At the crucial moment at which the news comes through that a “part of the army in Morocco has risen in armed rebellion” (152) it seems that nobody is listening. We are told of the maids Paulina and Javiera, for instance, that they “always have the radio on, but turn it off whenever the news begins, it’s so boring” (153). When more information starts to come through of events in North Africa and the Canaries–and at the novel’s first mention of Franco–it’s said that “few people listen to the radio, and fewer still at eight o’clock in the morning, at that time hardly anyone thinks of listening to the radio [. . .] you really have to be a morning person and the inhabitants of Madrid tend not to be morning people, it’s not worth it” (157). So it takes some time to register what is going on.

In fact, even by the end of the novel (almost two hundred pages later), it is hardly clear that many, if anyone, have really registered that an epochal change has taken place, a historical rupture opened up. The first mention of the phrase “civil war” comes a good fifty pages after what, with hindsight, would become known as its outbreak, and even then it is presented as a future possibility that might yet be averted if the army would only “bring peace and prevent all these events from degenerating” (213). But there is some vacillation here: if peace still has to be brought, does this not imply that war has already broken out? Amid all the uncertainty on which Cela’s novel thrives, the very border between peace and war becomes diffuse, undecidable. In the book’s epilogue the narrator’s uncle, Jerónimo, declares that “we Spaniards live in a start of permanent civil wars, in the plural, all against all, but also in an inhospitable civil war against ourselves and with our wounded and suffering hearts and battlefields” (358). But this sounds more than anything like a Hobbesian state of nature, as if the problem were that there is no Spanish “civil society” at all, no nation over which contending sides could fight.

And indeed, Uncle Jerónimo comes out against the nation, but in favour of the patria or fatherland: “the fatherland is more permanent than the nation, and more natural and flexible, fatherlands were invented by the Great Creator, nations are made by men, fatherlands have a language with which to sing and trees and rivers, nations have a language that’s for promulgating decrees” (357). In short, in Jerónimo’s hands–and the epilogue is given over almost entirely to his voice alone, in contrast to the multiplicity of voices and perspectives that characterize the book until that point–the novel shifts from what I early called infrapolitics to an avowed antipolitics whose (in fact, merely disavowed) political investments are clear enough. For Jerónimo is less opposed to politics than he is to the liberal institutions of the nation state that he–like Franco–is quite prepared to sacrifice for the greater good of a notional “fatherland” whose purported legitimacy and authority are given by God himself. Hence also the novel’s rather chilling final lines, declaring that “whatever you think this is not the end of the world, [. . .] this is but a purge of the world, a preventative and bloody purge but not an apocalyptic one [. . .] we can calmly go sleep, it must be very late already, I assure you that suffering is less important than how you conduct yourself, let’s go sleep, it must be very late already and the heart gets weary with so much foolishness” (366). All is well, please move along, nothing to see here, just a little housecleaning and the fatherland will rise again.

There is a logic to this conclusion, if we take what has gone before, with Madrid portrayed as a hotbed of licentiousness and prostitution, as a sign that the stables now need to be cleaned out and the corruption of politics erased. This is more or less the argument of Paul Ilie who, in a remarkably angry article (I have seldom seen one angrier) on “The Politics of Obscenity in San Camilo, 1936, claims that Cela goes out of his way to portray the Republic as obscene so as to justify the (eminently political) rejection of politics. At the same time, Imre points out, Cela wants to have his cake and eat it: what he provides is “political pornography” that “seeks to titillate bourgeois taste by means of verbal prurience, immoral suggestiveness, and sado-erotic anecdote” (51, 47).

But instead of dwelling on the all-too familiar hypocrisy of this rhetorical tactic, another way of reading the novel would be to emphasize the ways in which the final epilogue doesn’t so much follow on from what has gone before as attempt to capture it, ultimately without success. For something always escapes–and here, that something is plenty. To put this another way: the epilogue is a betrayal of everything that makes the rest of the novel so fascinating and worthwhile, even if it is a betrayal that has been building from the start, long planned from the very moment at which Cela gives us his narrator staring at the mirror, idly masturbating, wondering whether to sleep with a prostitute who smells of “grease and cologne” (14). All this is obscene enough, indeed, but it is what gives the novel its substance. Without it, there would be nothing; by contrast, the transcendent fatherland peddled by the epilogue is a paltry fiction indeed. This has hardly been a novel of “trees and rivers.” It’s not the betrayal that defines and constitutes the book; it’s what is betrayed.

And whatever one thinks of governments and decrees, in fact these are hardly the key elements of the community (however corrupt) that San Camilo, 1936 depicts. If anything, it’s the call and response of radio and multitude that defines the historical situation that Cela outlines. For in the end “in a city of a million inhabitants it’s enough that a couple of dozen listen to the radio, if the rumour comes from a dozen different sources it floods the city in a couple of hours” (161). Rumour, the voice(s) of the anonymous multitude, a collectivity that fucks and shits and fights and stumbles, is what gives life to history and to the city, and ultimately to the novel that parasitically tries to capture it, too.

San Camilo, 1936 I

Cela, San Camilo

Camilo José Cela’s San Camilo, 1936 opens with a scene in front of the mirror, and consistently returns to this same site of reflection and self-observation. At first, the mirrored gaze brings familiarity, perhaps a sort of comfort. The English translation has it: “A man sees himself in the mirror and even feels comfortable addressing himself in a familiar way” (3). In the Spanish, though, this is not a particular individual, but a generic, impersonal third person: “Uno se ve en el espejo” (13). This is the way things are in general, at least at first sight: in the mirror, we see ourselves and feel we know what we see. But it is not long before the reflection becomes both more uncertain and more specific, revealing something that perhaps we would rather not see. A second glance is less reassuring: “the quality of the pane is not good and the image that it reflects shows bitter and disjointed features [. . .] maybe what’s happening is that it reflects the astonished face of a dead man still masked with the mask of the fear of death” (3). So by the time the second chapter comes around, also opening with a mirror, the address is both more personal (second person rather than third) and more desolating: “Look at yourself in the mirror and don’t break out crying, it’s hardly worth while for you to break out crying because your soul is already more than damned” (32). And it is not long before the reflection provokes a real ambivalence, the mirror seeming to exert a strange hold on a spectator who can’t bear to look but can’t turn away: “look at yourself in the mirror and escape from the mirror, it’s like a gymnastic exercise, look at yourself in the mirror, escape from the mirror, look at yourself in the mirror, escape from the mirror and so on until you can’t take it any more” (34). And why? Why “are you scared to look at yourself in the mirror?, yes, you’re scared to look at yourself in the mirror, are you afraid of finding the mark of the murderer on your forehead or on your cheeks?, yes, you’re afraid of finding the mark of the murderer on your forehead or on your cheeks” (49). Here as elsewhere, in the novel’s insistent repetitions and reiterations, we end up discovering that what we are returning to is the scene of a crime, a crime in which we are both victim and victimizer, murderer and murdered, the dead and the damned.

The crime, of course, is the Spanish Civil War, and the second-person narrator is both particular and general: it is a young student, about twenty years old; it is Spain; it is all of us. “You, you, you,” the narrative voice addresses himself, but also the reader, in a tone that both strives for self-knowledge and seeks at all costs to avoid it, in what is effectively one long, sprawling denunciation of the murderous desire written on all our faces–or, what is perhaps worse, the nonchalant ignorance and self-preoccupation that allows others to murder in our name. For sometimes it is by looking too hard in the mirror that we miss what is going on elsewhere, the violence that is about to break out without our lifting a finger to stop it. For we are both perpetrators and bystanders to a history that could not take place without us, but which we barely notice, or only indirectly. We are too close to the scene of the crime either to avoid its implications (and our complicity) or to understand them: “Seen from close up history confuses everyone, both actors and spectators, and is always very tiny and startling, and also very hard to interpret” (61). Because ultimately “history is full of Narcissuses” but “it will do no good to run away, do not close your eyes, contemplate your full and true (or full and false) image in the mirror, take advantage of your being as though hypnotized, [. . .] the miracle is not likely to occur but you must not give up that hope” (112). Cela is here returning to the civil war, to the very outbreak of hostilities, recognizing the narcissism involved but unwilling to give up on the miraculous possibility of hope for self-understanding none the less. You can’t look at it directly; but you can’t quite look away. Self-reflection and self-ignorance alike open up to moral quagmires. The best you can do, perhaps, is a gaze that looks aslant: indirect, interrupted, but repeated and insistent.

Hence this novel of the civil war is also somehow about anything and everything but. In the first instance because (at least as the first part comes to a close) the war itself has yet to break out. The conflict is (only) on the horizon; it’s a matter of rumour and fear, potential but not full actuality. We hear of the murder of Lieutenant José Castillo, a Republican policeman–a murder that took place on July 12, 1936. We register the assassination the following day of the right-wing politician José Calvo Sotelo. Who is behind these deaths? Falangists? Communists? Or was Castillo, for instance, merely the victim of a crime of passion? Cela passes on all the various stories that circulate around and try to explain the violence: “Listen, couldn’t he have been hit by a taxi as he was crossing the street?” (68). Meanwhile, off stage, something larger is brewing: “They say there is going to be a military coup to guarantee law and order and to save the Republic” (68). No wonder that fear stalks Madrid, that “the country is nervous, the spark can fly at any moment, maybe it has already flown with these stupid deaths, and the fire, if it breaks out, will be hard to contain” (71). But none of this is shown directly or straightforwardly. For (in the second instance) everything is at the margin of the narrator’s own concerns and preoccupations: with his family, his friends, his girlfriend Toisha, his own anxieties and fantasies about sex and health and the day to day. To put this another way, this is less a political novel than an infrapolitical tale par excellence. Cela’s interest is less in the political shenanigans and conspiracies, or even the broad structural tensions and open conflicts, that lead to the open violence of the war itself, than rather in everything that is not itself directly political but without which politics itself would be unthinkable, unworkable. Hence also the novel’s meandering, nonlinear, repetitive style, a “stream of consciousness” that belongs to no one single individual, but which presents the fragmented reflection of an uncertain, ambivalent multitude that at any moment will be cast as two great forces–Fascist and Loyalist, Right Wing and Left–that are supposedly mutually incommensurable. Cela writes against that political fiction, with all its reductiveness, to give us instead a more complex (non)narrative glimpsed in a distorting mirror for which we are inevitably always on both sides of the divide.

Crossposted to Infrapolitial Deconstrution Collective.