Violence and the Trope of Blood
As a result of the assimilation between violence and Justice, violence always had to be represented in an aesthetically pleasing form. The ethical purity of this type of violence demands that, unlike legal or mythical violence, sovereign or divine violence may always be represented as a bloodless action: especially because, as we perceive it in the cultural production of the sixties, a resurrection of sorts is always involved in the process of death. In the sixties, imageries about the telluric power of blood abounded in cultural production. In social poetry, Gutierrez Alea’s film Historias de la Revolution (Stories of the Revolution), and Castro’s speech History Will Absolve Me, blood is the epic symbol of victory. Jose Baragano’s poem “Himno a las milicias” (“Anthem of Militias”), for example, repeats this metaphor in an elegy where poetry, war, and the people are represented as a unity. The poem’s third stanza is a call to arms where blood symbolizes the people:
jMilicianos del alba y de la sangre!
Sin fuentes ni riberas
Nuestro ojo ve la imagen abierta de las revoluciones
Bajo un viento que quiere cantar
Nadie sabe donde se juntan esos rios
Nuestra sangre no se detiene
Comunica a un nivel de libertad
La creciente del pueblo
En la estacion profunda de la sangre.6
The reference to blood, especially in the first and last lines, is reminis?cent of the Catholic representation of Christ’s crucifixion. In particular, the words “en la estacion profunda de la sangre” allude to his suffering in the cross (the Spanish estacion can mean both “season” and “station,” as in “stations of the Cross”). In the context of the poem, blood represents the soldiers, in the line “Nuestra sangre no se detiene.” But in a different context, the same expression could refer to a group of people belonging to the same social class or ethnic group. Blood represents interrelated elements that always point to a sense of belonging and possession, which is related to the nationalistic nature of the revolutionary process. Etienne Balibar argues that for nationalism to be effective it needs to prove, for example, that there are no natural or hereditary differences among men who belong to the same nation. This results from the inherent impossibility of nationalism to be scientifically justified (Balibar 1998, 99-100). In this regard, the shedding of blood was the element literally uniting all Cubans as a nation. With the goal of producing an idea of nationhood, the revolution was represented as an old system of kinship in which what mattered was blood identity, and sacrifice was the rite of passage that created the mythology of Cubanness. This explains the symbolic importance of the concept of blood, and, in particular, its telluric aspect. Blood meant destruction, but its shedding also produced a cathartic sense of purification, and renewal. The shedding of blood was part of a ritual of passage into a decolonized imaginary space. I am using the concept of “decolonization” because the cultural production of this era reflected the desire to create a new voice divested of discursive and ideological elements from the past. In other words, the revolution was not only conceived of as a process of disrupting power and passing it from one hand to another. Guevara, like Fanon, knew how important it was to create a postcolonial subject and a nation-state, and blood symbolized the need to find commonality and pointed to the notion of “purity of blood”: “Decolonization unifies that people by the radical decision to remove from it its heterogeneity, and by unifying it on a national, sometimes a racial, basis” (Fanon 1963 , 46).
Blood’s idealization, and the religious references of sacrifice, is precisely what we see in the cultural production of those years, specifically in Gutierrez Alea’s Stories of the Revolution. Unlike most of Gutierrez Alea’s films, which are characterized by an ironic look at revolutionary politics, his first film is a eulogy for the 1958 revolutionary war. It was the first feature film produced by the Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematograficos (ICAIC) and a commemoration of the second anniversary of the Cuban Revolution. It was also one of the earliest examples of revolutionary film and as such featured actors who had been real combatants in the Sierra Maestra (Canel 1960). Revolutionary film or new Latin American Cinema originated as a film movement that opposed the main aesthetic goals of Hollywood film (i.e., entertainment and visual beauty) and supported the pedagogic and political function of film to create social consciousness. Stories of the Revolution is a chronological recounting of the struggles that led to the revolution. Three distinct episodes evoke the early fifties’ urban armed struggle, the Sierra Maestra insurrection, and the final taking of Santa Clara, the strategic bastion that led the rebels to eventual victory.
The film adheres to the neorealist aesthetics of the new Latin American film of the 1960s, and as such it proposes a transparency of the image and its unmediated impact on the viewer, which is why the film’s narrative arc conforms to the conventions of mythical epic poems: it has heroes and despicable soldiers, it has sustained dramatic tension, and it has victories and defeats. Stories of the Revolution is certainly an action film, yet the most dramatic scenes in two of the vignettes do not feature crude, gruesome, or tragic representations of violence. In this regard, the film follows all the conventions of melodrama. It is a black and white film with stereotyped scenography, but most strikingly, although an action film, it also conveys sentimentality through its many close-ups and medium long shots. Death imagined as a necessary religious ritual points to this type of sentimentality. For example, the section depicting the assault on Santa Clara begins by showing the popular celebration after the surrender of Batista’s National Guard. In these scenes, Teresa, the working-class hero’s girlfriend, played by Miriam Gomez, suddenly discovers the death of her beloved, whose dead body evokes a crucified Christ, much like the iconic image of Ernesto Guevara taken after his death.
Historias de la Revolucion (Tomas Gutierrez Alea, 1960). Teresa’s dead boyfriend.
The final close-up of the girlfriend’s gaze even more clearly foregrounds the religious analogy. The take follows the slow transformation of her gaze until it finally acquires a martyr’s quality. Silence plays a very important role. This halt in the narration gives the audience an opportunity to empathize with the character. It is also the moment to conquer popular taste. This is accomplished through a close-up showing Teresa’s exaggerated feelings, as her hopelessness suddenly becomes strength and determination. After looking up to the sky, she looks forward again with a certain pride and honor, indicating the transformation of her identity.
Teresa is no longer in the background of the revolutionary insurrection; she has now become the last heroine of the uprising as she understands that, with his death, the hero has redeemed the community by attaining justice, and thus he has not been completely annihilated. Thus, in spite of the hero’s death, as in melodrama, the film wraps up with a conventional happy ending. The woman’s gaze encapsulates all the values of the revolutionary nation.
Sentimentality, more than any other factor, accounts for the representation of violence, which, far from being crude, gruesome, or tragic, is depicted as a ritualistic pantomime. There is another violent but bloodless scene in the film where death symbolizes rebirth rather than destruction. The second vignette reaches its climax with this scene, which lays out the strong symbolic power of sacrifice. The rebels are fighting Batista’s troops in the Sierra Maestra. One of the younger soldiers lies on the floor, severely
Historias de la Revolution (Tomas Gutierrez Alea, 1960). Teresa’s close-up.
“Historias de la Revolution (Tomas Gutierrez Alea, 1960). Piece of bloody shirt.
wounded by the enemy. The rebel’s life is close to an end, and he is being watched by one of the older rebels. At one point, the older rebel kneels down and cuts a little piece of cloth from the young soldier’s shirt. The rebel takes the piece of cloth, which is red with blood, and buries it in the ground next to the prostrate soldier.
Historias de la Revolution (Tomas Gutierrez Alea, 1960). Burying bloody shirt.
The rebel has no intention of burying the dying man because he is just one more expendable body. His importance diminishes until he finally disappears. But the blood signifies neither death nor the tragic loss of a life; it signifies, rather, a new beginning of life. The bloody cloth is planted in the ground, revealing the strong telluric character of the Schmittian partisan and the revolution. We find the same metaphor of the telluric force of violence represented in Peter Weiss’s essay on Guevara, in which Weiss attributes to him the following remark: “The patch of earth that I water with my blood is the only piece of land that belongs to me [El pedazo de tierra que riego con mi sangre el unico trozo de tierra que me pertenece]” (Weiss 1968, 83). The spilling of blood that gives birth to the nation also represents the purification of the revolutionary hero.
By eschewing gore and idealizing blood, these two scenes create an imaginary where violence is sanctioned by justice (an abstract type of legality that transcends institutionally sanctioned law). It is a violence exercised in the name of justice, understood as an abstract concept, and as such it can only be imposed by a higher power that has authority over positive law. Whereas institutional law seeks retribution (in the form of a violent act) for an offense committed against the written law, the revolutionary logic at play in the film shows that a violent act committed in the name of justice seeks rebirth. Precisely because there is no blood or gore in the scene, violence is not avenged legally or personally. Rather than focusing on the heroes’ desire for vengeance against Batista’s troops for killing their comrades, the narrative emphasizes the ritual of the burial of the dead. As such, the film idealizes revolutionary violence, because rather than being destructive, death symbolizes radical change and redemption. What do I mean by this formulation? As can be seen in the burial of the bloody shirt, annihilation does not necessarily imply absolute destruction. The destructive force in this case is actually transformative because, as Castro argues, it is a means to a just cause, and therefore it should not be legally punished. It is a violence committed in the name of justice, which is what Castro argues in History Will Absolve Me. This explains why this blood is not corporeal but rather ideal. Violence is represented as the redemptive power of justice. This is why there are so many religious allegories in the film, as well as in official rhetoric, and why the concept of sacrifice is so prevalent in both. In Politics of Friendship, Jacques Derrida comments on the wars waged with the new technologies: “To kill without bloodshed, with the help of new techniques, is perhaps already to accede to a world without war and without politics, to the inhumanity of a war without war” (Derrida 1997, 130). Stories of the Revolution’s bloodless image of violence neutralizes the existence of politics and foreshadows the type of revolutionary ideology of proceeding decades. Violence without blood speaks of a particular political ideology that doesn’t define war as its goal. Yet, although war is not the aim of revolutionary politics, it always looms in the background as a real possibility.