A Melancholic Revolution

“We do not only work with signs. Not everything is a text. We also fight for our dreams.” So reads an axiom of samizdat Diaspora(s) Documentos 1. In 1997, the poet Rolando Sanchez Mejias put in a nutshell the two aspirations of his generation: intellectual and political change. It seems that change was in the air, above all when one takes into account that these two wishes were coming from the children of the revolution. Indeed, this group of intellectuals was what Ivan de la Nuez called “a monstrosity . . . that was once called the New Man” (de la Nuez 2001, 10). Namely, they were the first generation of revolutionary writers formed by the revolution, and in the words of Ernesto Guevara, they were the New Men uncontaminated by bourgeois culture. Guevara’s New Men were in charge of constructing the socialist Cuba of the future by continuing the revolutionary struggle of their progenitors.

Contrary to Guevara’s expectations, however, the children of the revolution “were responsible for the most radical break . . . in Cuban history” (ibid.). Given this genealogy, it was not odd that the New Man’s two virtues consisted primarily in his intellectual and political prowess. This generation was clearly haunted by the figure of the New Man, and specifically, with his revolutionary attributes: sacrifice, heroism, and violence.

In the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union, the Cuban regime embarked on a slow economic transition, but cultural critics have argued that it kept the political reforms at a standstill. I argue instead that the traumatic impact of the withering of socialism produced an ideological transformation in Cuba: the acceptance of capitalism and its paradoxical and simultaneous denial (a disavowal, in psychoanalytic terms). The origin of this disavowal can be traced back to the melancholic nature of revolutionary ideology, that is, to the desire for a utopian objective that can never be fulfilled. Ana Serra’s The New Man in Cuba: Culture and Identity in the Revolution shows the tensions in early revolutionary ideology through a cultural analysis of the discursive figure of the New Man. Drawing on her work, I argue that the New Man’s subjectivity cannot be defined a priori; it exists in Guevara’s melancholic discourse as an empty signifier that paradoxically seeks attainment. The logic of destruction with which he describes the relationship between intellectuals and bourgeois art was characterized by a melancholic conception of art, as I show in the debates about socialist realism in the sixties.

Chapter 1 focuses on the affective impact of the revolutionary ideology of the sixties on the cultural production of the nineties. I argue that the trauma caused by the fall of the Soviet Union resuscitated the spirit of the sixties. The poetics of the nineties were influenced by the melancholic nature of the Guevarian discursive configuration of the intellectual as the New Man. The Guevarian subjectivity of the New Man is achieved through an economy of restoration that offers the possibility of a liberation from the idealism of bourgeois art, and, after the liberation from an alienating past, the new Cuban being emerges also as a revolutionary New Man. In order to regain self-consciousness, intellectuals must negate their own ego and strive to embrace a new consciousness. The emptiness left after the negation of the ego produces a melancholic process, which leads to a total loss of subjectivity. Intellectuals from the eighties and nineties also responded to Guevara’s celebration of war and violence, with an aesthetic violence. Both melancholy and violence haunted the cultural production of the eighties and nineties at different moments. For example, melancholy can be seen in an extensive body of poetic works of the eighties, as well as in Antonio Jose Ponte’s “Un arte de hacer ruinas” (2000), and in the film La ola (1995). Aesthetic violence for Proyecto Diaspora(s) furnishes the means through which they attempt to escape the revolution understood as the sublime (absolute pleasure or utopia). Violence is, however, not simply a negation of pleasure. I argue that the understanding of violence as an experience of dread lies at the basis of what I call their “poetics of defacement.”

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