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Home arrow Language & Literature arrow Minima Cuba: Heretical Poetics and Power in Post-Soviet Cuba

Animality and Humanity

The representation of the human body in Diaspora(s) reaches its limit when that form morphs with the animal, as we see repeatedly in Diaspora(s)’s poetics. The group’s poetic imaginary is full of rodents, pigs, and insects, the only animals included in their bestiary.19 These creatures come from the Kaf- kaesque imaginary that Deleuze and Guattari have incorporated into their analysis of capitalism. These animals are traditionally represented as beings that produce disgust or fear, but not for Deleuze and Guattari or Diaspora(s), who interpret the movements of their packs as lines of flight and deterritori- alization: “Plants with roots or radicles may be rhizomorphic. . . . Even some animals are, in their pack form. Burrows are too, in all of their functions of shelter, supply, movement, evasion, and breakout. The rhizome itself assumes very diverse forms, from ramified surface extension in all directions to concretion into bulbs and tubers. When rats swarm over each other” (Deleuze and Guattari 1996, 6-7). In Diaspora(s)’s work, these sorts of creatures seem innumerable and human bodies and subjectivities are in short supply. Animals and humans are no longer represented as two different classes of beings, however. As in Franz Kafka’s works, they have morphed into each other. Although the resulting figures call into question the ontological difference between the two, it is not a hybrid being. Hence, we are not in the presence of a transformation of men into animals or vice versa, nor can we speak of a metaphoric process from a rhetorical point of view. It is not a question of mimicry, or one of identification. Unlike in parables, animals are not simply representations of men for ethical or political purposes. Parables conceive of animals and humans as two different types of beings who identify with each other. The creatures represented in this story, on the contrary, are no longer men or animals. They do not have a specific nature or role, and their existence has no particular finality. Like Kafka’s animals, they can best be described as what Deleuze and Guattari call “becoming-animal, a being that produces nothing than itself’ (ibid., 238). That is, they are beings in a constant process of transformation.

“Zilla,” a hybrid piece of verse and prose by Sanchez Mejias published in the second issue of Diaspora(s), clearly describes a “becoming-animal.” The story draws on the long-standing tradition of literature about animals, fantastic creatures, and bestiaries. Ultimately, it is a reflection on the ontological representation of animals in relation to humans. In other words, it focuses on the thin line that separates humans from animals, and our disavowal of the fact that, ontologically speaking, there is no clear difference between bestiality and humanity. Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of the “becoming-animal” is an ontological response to this question.

In the story, Sanchez Mejias’s literary references come not only from Latin American works but also from the larger Western canon. These sources often come from Eastern European dissident literature. This inclusion of non-Cuban works is a clear critique of the political and national notion of a literary canon. Although Henri Michaux and William Gass—the foreign authors evoked in the piece—are part of the canon in the Western literary tradition, their names are absent from the island’s intellectual debates. Their works are inexistent in Cuba because they do not fit into the hegemonic discourse that cultural institutions and policies follow and disseminate.

Sanchez Mejias’s text functions at a metatextual level as a search for a different language and conceptualization of the nonhuman through its own writing process, while narrating this process through the voice of a fictive author. It is a text with no specific genre that follows a tenuous story line beginning with three characters: Zilla-x-Notata (the spider), Dr. Peters (who is doing research on the weaving of spider webs), and Dr. Witt (his assistant). Very much in the tradition of Virgilio Pinera, the plot is illogical and absurd. But the plot goes even farther than in Pinera by being only ancillary to the conceptual meaning of the narrative. For instance, the first vignettes present Dr. Peters and Dr. Witt trying to solve a problem that is not actually one. It arises from the fact that the spider only weaves at night. The two men decide to solve this “problem” by feeding the spider a stimulant medication for the nervous system, but the spider keeps weaving at night. As Dr. Witt starts imagining spider webs, it begins to become clear that the story line is a pretext to articulate ontological and political questions. More specifically, the text is posing ontological, aesthetic, and political questions about essentialist definitions of subjectivity. Can the subject be conceived beyond the opposition between humanity and animality? Could political action be a nonteleological practice based on individual subjectivities? What type of aesthetic would represent this new idea of subjectivity and the political?

As a correlate to all these questions, the text also portrays the state’s subjection of individuals to its power and the type of subjectivity arising from it. What is the rhetoric of power? Sanchez Mejias shows the presence of biopower and its consequences through the representation of subjectivity and life. It becomes immediately clear that bare life is represented by the animalization of humans, an idea already explored by Kafka. As an ideological mode of representation, however, Mejias’s text seeks to go beyond Kafka’s metamorphosis: “/Convertirse en ‘un monstruoso insecto,’ en un grotesco cucarachon al termino de una calurosa noche de verano? No. Ya lo hizo K, con mucha efectividad literaria” (Sanchez Mejias 1998, 24).20 The text is implicitly saying that Kafka’s narrative strategy is insufficient to represent the narrator’s goal: the specificity of a “becoming-animal.” The letter R. refers to the author’s first name (Rolando), but, most important, it points to his lack of subjectivity and identity, as he himself is a becoming-animal: “R., miro como tratas de escribir. Te miro a traves del ojo de la cerradura. Te montas a la mesa y te mueves a cuatro patas (/mono?, /arana?, /mono- arana?, /aranamono?), braceando, pataleando entre las hojas revueltas en blanco” (ibid., 25).21 In his search for a new mode of representation, the narrator realizes the impossibility of his task. After reading William Gass’s “Order of Insects,” he concludes that one of the characters “acepta, acepta serenamente la imposibilidad de poder pensar en ‘el alma oscura del mundo’ (jErgo: la imposibilidad de representation!)” (28).22 The narrator defines this impossibility as a “disaster,” pointing to the exhaustion of aesthetics, which can only represent reality allegorically: “Por otra parte, en estos tiempos un escobazo no alcanza la emblematicidad necesaria para erigirse en marca del desastre.”23 The “escobazo” (sweep of a broom) refers to the resolution of Kafka’s stories, in which the alienated human-animal cannot be redeemed and has to be annihilated. The allusion here is to Kafka’s Metamorphosis, and specifically Gregor Samsa’s sister’s sweeping of the food she leaves for her brother, clearly suggesting her desire to dispose of Gregor as well. According to Zilla’s narrator, the allegory of death does not suffice to show the “disaster.” What does he mean?

The response to this question has to do with representation and aesthetics. How could the limits of sameness and difference between animals and humans be represented? Stylistic recourses such as metaphor or comparisons cannot articulate a relationship that does not involve metamorphosis. This explains why the narrator deems the tropological strategies of Kafka and Michaux insufficient. Michaux’s words (translated into Spanish) appear reprinted on the page as the narrator looks at the note in his desk, a detail that adds another visual component to the narration of the story:

Hacerme insecto para asir mejor con patas de gancho para asir mejor insecto, aracnido, miriapodo, acarido si es necesario, para asir mejor24

Like Michaux’s collection of poems Saisir (Seize), Sanchez Mejias’s short story is a meditation on representation. Both texts ask how to represent living creatures without utilizing verbal language: “Qui n’a voulu un jour faire un abecedaire, un bestiaire, et meme tout un vocabulaire, d’ou le verbal entierement serait exclu?” (Michaux 1979, n.p.).25 Saisir responds to this question with pictorial representations. Sanchez Mejias’s story reproduces the same gesture with an ironic tone suggesting that the communicative function of graphic signs is put at a standstill.

What is at stake in this aesthetic choice is the value of allegory as a trope of representation, because the “disaster” refers in part to its exhaustion. Like the body, the power of allegory as a trope of political denunciation has been subjected to the power of state discourse. That is, the “disaster” points to the end of allegorical representation as an aesthetic strategy to confront power. At a metatextual level, writing is thematizing its own destruction, and the text is narrating the process of the quest for its own narration. It searches for a nonmimetic and nonrepresentational language that would be woven like a spider web. Language, like weaving, should be unproductive: “Si destruyeramos los hilos formados en las primeras fases, la arana proseguirla metodicamente con las fases ulteriores de construccion de la tela, aunque el producto final no sirviese a sus fines” (Sanchez Mejias,

1998, 24).26 Like the spider web, language should not follow a rational logic. Instead it should be an “actividad constructiva que vacila entre el Orden y el Azar.”27 For the narrator, poetics are also the foundation for an ontology and remain largely political. As in Lezama’s work, poetics, history, and ontology are woven together, but they are not defined teleologically. It is a quest without an end, a quest that neither awaits nor looks for an answer. The interrelation between ontology, history, and poetics is not one of dependency. Instead, these threads are woven together like a spider web: “La telarana no se teje en terminos absolutos; la eleccion de las distancias se rige por factores relativos” (ibid., 25).28 Ontologically speaking, the narrator and the spider are a becoming-animal. The narrator rewrites the history of the Latin American region, a version that unlike Columbus’s Diary is not idealized. Unlike Columbus, Sanchez Mejias represents his “new world” as a third world without marvels, without cultural comparisons to Spain, without hyperboles, without allegories.





nalgas, tetillas y guanches (siempre a tu izquierda)


oyes campanas y no sabes donde

vine, vi

dale un punzonazo a ese

rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr dime que ves genoves

terceros y hasta quintos mundos uy! (Sanchez Mejias 1998, 41)29

In a poststructural fashion, the text proposes an antimetaphysical logic based on a post-Kantian genealogy from a tradition including Henri Bergson, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Gilles Deleuze, especially in the latter’s departure from Hegel. It is the Deleuzian and Guattarian influence that most clearly demarcates the lack of mediation between ontology, history, and poetics. From a historical point of view, Sanchez Mejias’s text points to the lack of freedom of speech in totalitarian regimes:

Hay un aspecto importante en todo este problema. Y es que, si te fijas bien, Zilla no ha hablado aun. Aspecto que corrobora que nuestro mundo sigue siendo esencialmente coercitivo, en el sentido de que todas sus partes no tienen la misma oportunidad de hablar . . .

Creemos, a esta altura de los hechos, de que ya es bora de que Zilla habite su pagina en blanco y que desde ahi nos hable como ella

quiera. Dejemosla, en el proximo capitulillo, que teja y desteja su urdimbre. /Tejera redes esquizoides o de factura clasica? /Tejera de

noche o de dia? /Tejera? /No tejera? Alla ella con su idea singular acerca del trabajo y la libertad. (36)30

Weaving is writing and it is also working, but these two actions are not analogous. The narrator cannot predict the spider’s behavior, which might be chaotic (esquizoide) or guided by reason (factura clasica). It is actually the conceptual possibility of exhibiting order and chaos at the same time that has drawn the narrator to the spider: “R: veo, con placer, que has escogido la posibilidad aracnido. Que te fascina esa actividad constructiva que vacila entre el Orden y el Azar” (Sanchez Mejias 1998, 24).31 Becoming-animal’s behavior is schizoid because it no longer follows the Freudian phallocentric narrative of castration as a symbol of repression. Schizophrenia, according to Michaux, is taken as the process that represents the production of desire:

The striking thing was that it was neither simple nor really complex, initially or intentionally complex, or constructed according to a complicated plan. Instead, it had been desimplified in the course of its carpentering. . . . As it stood, it was a table of additions, much like certain schizophrenic’s drawings, described as “overstuffed,” and if finished it was only in so far as there was no way of adding anything more to it, the table having become more and more an accumulation, less and less a table. . . . A table which lent itself to no function, self-protective, denying itself to service and communication alike. (qtd. in Deleuze and Guattari 1998, 6)

The schizo defined by Michaux is also the baroque as it appears in Cuban classics such as Celestino antes del alba (Singing from the Well) by Reinaldo Arenas or Tres tristes tigres (Three Trapped Tigers) by Guillermo Cabrera Infante. That is, the art of excess that takes the referent through a metamorphosis, transforming its literal meaning. Metaphysically speaking, the narrator chooses baroque as a way of being in the world; but poetically speaking, he rejects the allegorical trope so commonly present in baroque art, and especially the notion of metamorphosis as a trope. The poetics of the story, like the poetics of Diaspora(s), takes the language through the reverse process: no excess, but subtraction; no allegorical metamorphosis, but lack of denotation; no ornament, and no romanticized ruins, but bareness. This is the constant tension that appears in the story: lack and desire. A body that desires bareness.

The body is no longer human, it is a metamorphosis that turns life into death, into a writing that no longer wants to be writing. Its function is no longer communicative. It is the non-voice of homo sacer. The political process of the schizo is not teleological and revolutionary; but it is the condition of possibility for a revolution: “The schizo is not revolutionary, but the schizophrenic process—in terms of which the schizo is merely the interruption, or the continuation in the void—is the potential for revolution” (Deleuze and Guattari 1998, 341). Toward the end of the story, the narrator depicts the spider’s stroll as she deterritorializes language and space: “Y una tarde se puso en marcha, su cuerpo entre rectilineo y ebrio por el gozo que le circulaba como un calido riachuelo de sangre” (Sanchez Mejias 1998, 34).32 Language undoes itself:

Hasta que llego al pie de un arbol, donde descansaba un hombre . . . decia algunas palabras en voz queda . . .

—Ganancias nulas —No obstante tu pelo tan lindo —Noches noches noches. (ibid., 34)33

Extremely interesting in this vignette is the clear reference to the Lezamian concept of “hipertelia”: “Una tarde, Zilla, despues de haber atra- pado una mosca de proporciones y jugos admirables, decide ir mas alia de sus propios fines” (ibid.; my italics).34 Lezama coined the term hipertelia to describe the poetics that “rompe[n] la concepcion de cualquier finalidad” (Lezama 1975, 764).35 What does hipertelia mean? To explain it, Severo Sar- duy describes the behavior of molluscs (Sarduy 1999, 1293). Animals with flagella, he says, swim away from the tides and out of the water; unable to return, they die. They are hypertelic animals because they have surpassed a limit beyond which they cannot survive. In hypertely the end is excess or supplement, but it is also termination or consummation. The supplement is thus the ending or the consecution of the act, but it is also its destruction. This is the paradoxical nature of hypertely: the supplement is needed for the creation of a work of art, but it is also its own destruction. This occurs because the work of art can only reach its end or goal with its own destruction. Like animals with flagella, literature can only be in agreement with its own nature after having exceeded its own limit. Its truth is also the terminus, the end of literature, and at the same time, its death. If the truth of literature is necessarily subordinated to its own death, then truth can only emerge once language reaches its own terminus or excess. Is this not also the moment of jouissance? In the story the narrator describes the spider’s joy as it reaches its own limit: “Entonces empezo a sentir instintos de nuevo tipo, imantaciones acordadas por una distancia desconocida. Y una tarde, se puso en marcha, su cuerpo entre rectilineo y ebrio por el gozo que le circulaba como un calido riachuelo de sangre” (Sanchez Mejias 1998, 34).36 Jouissance leads to death: “hasta que su sombra, una noche se levantara y se fuera, quedando su cuerpo colgado de un hilo de materia lunar, o de seda, o de cualquier otra cosa. Vio las luces repiqueteando en la lontananza, como campanas. Y suspiro” (ibid.).37

At this point in the story, one needs to understand how the text conceives desire and jouissance. Is desire formulated in a Lacanian way, as the libidinal investment into an object that can never be reached? Or is it expressed as a Deleuzian driving force that destroys and assembles the established order of society? The story ends with the spider’s voice and her sound. Not only is the spider finally given a voice, but the latter also takes on a material presence:

  • 28
  • — /No has escuchado el parloteo de Zilla-x-Notata en el caracol de tu oreja?—Te diria al oido un monje zen de algun dojo de Paris.
  • 29

Aranar: Raspar ligeramente con las unas, con un calamo, con un alfiler, etc. (Sanchez Mejias 1998, 41)38

The spider has taken the form of the good conscience that inspires wisdom. In a cinematographic scene that alludes to The Metamorphosis, the story closes with the sound of music. First comes the melodic voice of Zilla, then the dissonant sound of the action of aranar, a verb that makes reference to Zilla the spider. These two vignettes represent two opposite movements of reterritorialization and deterritorialization. In other words, the story puts into play both an oppressed and an oppressive desire, but it is not clear which one predominates. Which music does the narrator privilege, the melodic and systematic, or the cacophonic? Is desire a negative or a positive force? One needs to recall that the narrator identifies with the spider because through her weaving she represents both order and chaos. The desire to reach that structure through writing remains, however, an impossibility: “Nunca escribiras como Zilla teje sus redes. Ni lo suenes” (Sanchez Mejias 1998, 26).39 In other words, what the story represents is the failure to find the object of desire (in this case, representation). Writing has reached its own limit and this is expressed in a metatextual form. Deleuze and Guattari describe Samuel Beckett’s style as a nonstyle. In other words, style is still present, but it presents its own death and failure. But this is not the case of Sanchez Mejias’s short story or of Diaspora(s)’s overall project. There is not a demolition of forms, or of the body for that matter. The figure of the spider as a becoming-animal could be interpreted as a positive force driven by desire, but it could also be interpreted as a representation of the homo sacer that the biopolitical regime has created. Given the impossibility of representing the absence of style that would demolish the institution of literature, I suggest that the body in this story does not carry the positive force of becoming-animal, as the narrator suggests. It is rather the homo sacer who has slipped through the margins of a writing articulated by the desire to undo itself. Homo sacer remains as the New Man’s haunting spirit exposed to the double exclusion of sacrifice and the law. It is only, as Agamben suggests, the actualization of the “capacity to be killed” (Agamben 1998, 114). The homo sacer can no longer be sacrificed for the spiritual objective of the revolution, since that type of sacrifice no longer exists; there is no longer a common goal or objective for which the New Man could sacrifice himself. He was sacrificed for the cause. The narrator-spider undoes webs and planes but can go no farther.40

The poems and stories we have examined have in common an ambiguous portrayal of subjectivity. The figures they create are neither human nor animal. Their liminality could be due to their representation as bare life, or to the schizo, a body without organs made of flows of power. It is true that the latter is per se an ambiguous notion, since schizos are forces that deterritorialize and reterritorialize almost simultaneously. But this constant transformation and lack of subjectivity is precisely what constitutes them. Their lack of bodies and souls is precisely why they diverge from baroque aesthetics. Like baroque bodies, they are driven by desire. Unlike baroque bodies, however, their desire is not driven by the search for pleasure. While baroque desire constantly seeks pleasure, which it derives from language, the schizo desires “the renunciation of external pleasure, or its delay . . . it is not a question of experiencing desire as an external lack, nor of delaying pleasure in order to produce a kind of externalizable surplus value, but instead of constituting an intensive body without organs” (Deleuze and Guattari 1996, 56). The way the schizo experiences desire is in contradiction with the unending search for a vanguardist aesthetics. In “Zilla,” the narrator expresses a constant frustration caused by his inability to come up with a new language. The desire to create a new language posits another premise: If there is a new language, there is also an old one. Language is therefore thought in terms of historicity, but history is scarcely represented in the texts. The poems and short stories that we have analyzed make no mention of time. The stories are developed in an eternal present that has no future or past because ideologically speaking, they are not teleological. And, yet, the past lurks around their edges. Let us take for example the following poem by Marques de Armas:

Entre arbusto y piedras mondas, bestias sueltas o enroscadas, impasible en lo alto y demoledora, la luna de los campos nos seguia . . . Y aun tuviste la inocencia de detenerte y desve- larla:

gesto inutil, como lo lirico es tardio (de ahi el habito de distinguir

entre verdaderos y falsos alimentos; el hartazgo; gasto futil . . .)41 (Marques de Armas 2002, 13)

The scene takes place in an indeterminate time and space, although the moon is clearly marking the passing of time. It is telling us that life is made of cycles. It is also a topos of lyrical literature that the poet criticizes as an outdated mode of expression. The lyrical and useless gesture consists in unveiling the moon (“desvelarla”). By this, the poem is suggesting that the lyrical gesture also carries a utopian message. It tells us that to unveil the moon is also to perform a hermeneutic operation consisting in explaining its core, its essence. The point of this interpretation is to think about time, that is, about history. In this regard lyricism becomes a way of thinking about history as a dialectical process that will necessarily lead to utopia. The poet instead suggests a notion of time that does not differentiate between old and new, false and real. Yet this idea of an undifferentiated notion of time contradicts the idea that lyricism belongs to the past, because it reinstates a notion of temporality. In other words, the past exists and cannot be denied. What is more, the past follows the poet in the form of the moon: “la luna de los campos nos seguia.” The past lurks like a specter coming to remind the poet of the importance of history, and the symbolic presence of the New Man as a figure of change and sacrifice. This is why a new ideology will necessarily have to take into account the remains of the past.

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