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

Humanism, Irony, and the End of Literature

This final chapter looks at Diaspora(s)’s and Paideia’s opposed ethical and aesthetic choices in depth. If Paideia can be regarded as the last humanist project of this generation, Diaspora(s) was the vanguardist alternative that emerged out of the failure of humanism. That is, Paideia represented the failure of the aesthetic representation of emancipatory politics, a failure that Diaspora(s) embodied and performed. Desire and repulsion were the two conflicting forces at the core of cultural production during the nineties. To understand the coalescence of the two forces at play, I call on psychoanalysis, for I am dealing with literature, a form of expression that defies rational logic. In recent decades, two different factors have plunged Cuba into a political crisis of disavowal. The first is the regime’s inability to acknowledge the exhaustion of the socialist revolutionary process. The second is the acceptance of capitalism and its paradoxical and simultaneous denial (a disavowal, in psychoanalytic terms). The consequence of this double denial is, on the one hand, what Jorge Dominguez has called the state’s “desideologizacion” (1997, 9). The authoritarian evolution of the current Cuban government largely results, according to Dominguez, from this disideologization of a regime no longer rooted in precepts such as those of the “New Man” and “voluntary labor.” Rojas similarly takes up Dominguez’s terminology when he affirms that “today the island’s regime is no longer ideological, in the fashion of the totalitarian model, which implies a withdrawal from, or at least a weakening of, communist republicanism, potentially enabling the introduction of liberal and democratic principles” (Rojas 2003, 54). Unlike Rojas, I do not believe that the withering of communism will give way to democratic reforms. Instead, I think that the retreat of communism is introducing neoliberalism through market reforms. The fact is that, ideologically speaking, the regime’s politics were always defined according to an economist’s model of socialism. As one observes in the brief political program Fidel Castro outlined in History Will Absolve Me, all the proposed reforms were economic. This program was conceived to attend to the needs of the people: the economy was logically the driving force of change. As a result, the nineties’ economic crisis also triggered a severe political crisis.

The crisis is initiated by the lack of the primordial signifier or Law of the Father, that is, the end of socialism and by extension the end of sovereignty. To put it in Lacanian terms, the political crisis of the state points directly to the absence of a primordial signifier, that is, the law of the Father. This lack was neither accepted nor recognized, and this explains its striking similarity to schizophrenia. A defensive pathology caused by trauma, schizophrenia dissolves the differentiation between the imaginary and the symbolic. That is, the law remains within the imaginary without ever reaching the symbolic. The subject’s ego is unable to symbolize the law, and the result is an empty law. While a schizophrenic’s discourse seems logical to him or her, a different subject cannot make logical sense of it. The patient “symbolizes” everything, and we can also “understand” what he perceives. It actually matters little if his perception is understandable or not. The problem is that the schizophrenic perceives only an illusion. It is a perception that dialectical logic cannot decipher (Lacan 1993, 20).

Never symbolized, the law is thus empty. But by definition, a law cannot be empty, so “a fallen ego-ideal” takes the place of the primordial signifier. If the ideal ego is the ideal of perfection that the ego struggles to emulate, from the position of the ego-ideal, subjects see themselves through that ideal place. If we considered ourselves from a space of perfection we might see our own “normal” lives as vain, useless, and repulsive. We thus have a law (i.e., socialism) that strives to perfection but that is empty, because existing real socialism is disappearing, and no law (e.g., market socialism) has replaced it. This conjuncture provokes a schizophrenic logic of sorts, where the lack of law is filled with a useless and repulsive law (i.e., capitalism). The new Cuba of tourism, jineterismo (the “hustling” of tourists, including by selling sex), the black market, blackouts, and precariousness— all of these images were part of a dazzling chain, a new world order in which the island’s political leaders were as much suffering subjects as organizing agents. For them, this new image of the nation was simply imaginary, weak, and fallen, an image they could not approach other than to erase it.

This impure socialism was symbolized by the corruption of Division General Arnaldo Ochoa and by the Interior Ministry (MININT) Colonel

Antonio de la Guardia. Immediately after signing the Angola peace accord in December 1989, the Cuban government entered the most serious internal crisis it had faced in thirty years, revealing the weakness of Cuban institutions, especially that of the Cuban Communist Party. In June, the government arrested Ochoa—a hero of the Cuban Republic, a veteran of the wars in Angola and Ethiopia and leader of the Western Army—as well as de la Guardia and twelve other high-ranking officers in the army and state security services. The fourteen military officers, who until then had enjoyed impeccable credentials, were accused of crimes of corruption against the state and drug trafficking. The subsequent arrest of General Jose Abrantes, interior minister since 1986, was the clearest indication of just how serious the crisis had become. Ochoa and MININT officers were officially accused of having used the Department of Convertible Currency to conceal illegal transactions with Colombia’s Medellin drug cartel and were charged with having shipped a load of cocaine to Florida through the military port at Varadero. Judged by a military tribunal, Ochoa, de la Guardia, and their principal conspirators were sentenced to execution by firing squad. The other officers implicated were given prison sentences of ten to thirty years

(Gott 2004, 286).

Some observers argued that the executions had political motives, claiming that Ochoa could have been involved in a nascent reformist movement within the armed forces. He had viewed the Soviet reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev favorably and would have been in a privileged position to promote similar efforts as leader of the powerful Western Army. General Rafael del Pino, a veteran of the Angola war living in exile since 1989, affirmed that Ochoa had been arrested to prevent an uprising against the regime. This political purge was mistrusted and viewed with incredulity by many, and if it had not been for the imminent economic crisis, it surely would have had more serious repercussions (Gott 2004, 286). For my part, I see the execution of Ochoa and other members of the government as the first symptom of a schizophrenic crisis. It was the first point at which the government, as the body of the nation, lost control and apparent stability. These images are part of the imperfect present of a socialism infected by a virus whose spread it had to entirely eliminate. The schizophrenic’s most coveted ambition is to free him- or herself of all other voices that stand in the way of uniting with the divine. Whatever we make of the claims that Ochoa was executed for political reasons, it is clear that these colonels embodied the image of a capitalism that was being allowed on the island but that could be neither seen nor permitted.

The Diaspora(s) and the Paideia, the two cultural projects that interest us are paradigmatic examples of an era of profound ideological and aesthetic transformations. They have more in common with the visual arts of the time than with literature, because as the former they are deeply invested in articulating an ideological critique. Yet if Paideia was the last humanist attempt at reforming cultural politics, Diaspora(s) was, as Walfrido Dorta has put it, the project of a non-messianic vanguard (Dorta 2013, 45). In other words, Diaspora(s) is caught in what appears to be at best a paradoxical situation. That is, on the one hand, its poetics seek a drastic formal disruption of previous poetic forms by rejecting lyricism and aestheticism, and civil poetry on the other hand. Yet, while their project is counterhegemonic, it is not driven by a messianic force, because it is not based on emancipatory goals. Although this formal upheaval is not at the service of a teleology, one cannot deny that there is a desire for disruption. The paradox to which I referred has to do with the simultaneous existence of a counterhegemonic desire with the refusal to reconquer a space of struggle. I have already discussed their vanguardist position in chapter 2 by arguing that their antisystemic view of the world did not translate into a systematic political agenda. Nor did it produce a prescriptive ideology, nor a systematic poetics. To sum up, their poetics are driven by two strong and antithetical impulses: the desire of disruption (deterritorialization) and a desire to reterritorialize without domination or conquest. In Deleuzian-Guattarian terms, these two irreconcilable demands are actually compatible, and in Diaspora(s) poetics, they formally coalesce as a poetics of irony. Paideia, however represents the last modernist project of the decade as well as the exhaustion of the Gramscian organic intellectual in his role as artistic mediator.

The members of Diaspora(s), on the contrary, display an absolute disbelief in the ethical possibilities of art. Their last works, in particular, bespeak a lack of political engagement. For them, literature is no longer a mode of denunciation; instead, it is pure performance. It is the witty mise en place of the joker’s jest. But their literature is also marked by the constant dedoublement of irony. It is the disruption of an illusion, or of a linguistic code, as well as its own critique (what Gilles Deleuze calls “post-irony”). To illustrate the Paideia and the Diaspora(s) disparaging ideological attitudes regarding art, it is pertinent to look at Daniel Diaz Torres’s film Alicia en el pueblo de Maravillas (Alice in Wondertown, 1990). Alice, the character performed by Thais Valdes plays precisely the role of the organic intellectual in a context characterized by the absence of a law or moral code of conduct. It presents, in other words, the same schizophrenic ambivalence that results from irony. Both attitudes are synthesized in a film symptomatic of the generation’s ethical impasse.

Alicia en el pueblo de Maravillas is among the most controversial films of the nineties. Described by many critics as a glasnost film about totalitarianism and bureaucracy, Alicia was banned in Cuba after being awarded the jury’s special mention at the 1991 Berlin Film Festival. After numerous protests from a group of ICAIC filmmakers, the film opened in ten movie houses in Havana “only to be withdrawn after four days marked by disturbances in the cinemas” (Chanan 2004, 460). The film is a didactic and absurdist satire whose narrative flow is constantly interrupted by scenes from the characters’ past. These flashbacks show the immoral actions that led the town’s inhabitants to be exiled in Maravillas. Alicia, a cultural officer, chooses to go to Maravillas to support the town’s cultural development. She soon finds out that the town is full of odd characters and that it is ruled by a despot, who is also the director of a sanatorium. Allegorically speaking, the sanatorium is where the sinners cure themselves of their immorality. They clean their counterrevolutionary ethos by drinking sulphurous bubbly water. Thus, the cure represents the subjection to the power of the despot. Like Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the film ends by suggesting that its story may all have been a dream. Indeed, the resemblances to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and the dreamlike quality of the images induce us to believe that it is a nightmare, which actually resembles reality. Reality and unreality blend constantly, with everyday life in Havana shown to be as grotesque as it is in the town. The allegories and references to the Cuban regime and government become immediately clear, but the film’s originality lies in its confusing melange of different levels of discourse and truth.

As Diaz Torres wrote in defending his film, Alicia is a revolutionary character.1 She is actually a cultural reformer who fights to transform the dull and propagandistic plays she is directing, until, like Carroll’s Alice, she realizes that she no can no longer recognize the truth: “For, you see, so many out-of-the-way things had happened lately, that Alice had begun to think that very few things indeed were really impossible.” The famous line from the opening chapter of Carroll’s book introduces us to the different levels of realities spatially symbolized in the film. As if opening a Russian nesting doll, Alicia advances gradually through a space that constrains and imprisons her. She first goes into the bus station, then gets into the taxi, and then enters the town from which there is no return. After she forces her way into the hotel room, another door opens as she stands in the dark. A Chinese cook exits his room and disappears, as Alicia contemplates in awe this first absurd and incoherent appearance. Once in the room, she notices that the stairway has been covered with a wall leaving her no way out. But although she cannot leave her room, others can get in. The armoire door opens by itself, and she sees her neighbor on the other side of the bathroom medicine cabinet. Once she has gone that far, Alicia has no choice but to believe in the new reality that she confronts. In this new space, there are three different narratives with their own truths, and Alicia is forced to believe one of them. First, the film presents Alicia’s own narrative as an attempt to rationalize what she sees and reform what she thinks is wrong. Second, it offers the truth of the townspeople, which their odd past actions always call into question. Finally, the film gives us the voice of the sanatorium’s director, the despot, whose narrative is imposed on everybody else. He is the only character clearly portrayed as evil. Omnipresent, he appears as a devilish figure in the flashbacks as he tempts people to sin.

But whom do we believe? Whose truth should we follow? Even Alicia becomes unreliable when she begins to imagine that she was also sent to Maravillas for being a sinner. In the Manichean structure of the film, Alicia, is the good character, in her effort to bring back the right revolutionary principles and eradicate corruption. All the other voices say exactly the opposite of what they mean, and this is where the film’s irony resides. This is why Rodriguez, one of the cultural officials, tells Alicia not to drink the curative water that the sanatorium director gives her. The film’s irony is always set against Alicia’s moral standard, which is what makes the film didactic. In other words, all the other characters act contrary to her. Their acts are measured against the right moral law that Alicia embodies.

Alicia’s voice represents the Symbolic, whereas all the other voices come from the Imaginary. This is why their discourse is understandable to Alicia, but at the same time she finds it absurd and illogical. They represent the revolution’s fallen ego-ideal, so their voice does not articulate a truth. It seems, then, that the film’s moral lesson comes from Alicia’s truth. But the end of the film shows that Alicia’s reformism is not a political choice either. The only “truth” that the film proposes comes at the end, when Alicia tells us that her experience in Maravillas has taught her just one moral: “Con agua de globitos caliente y sin etiqueta no llegaras a la meta [Unlabeled hot fizzy water won’t get you anywhere].” The film thus does not embrace reformism. Alicia’s efforts at reform have been in vain. Although the people of Mara- villas seem content with or resigned to their misery, the film shows us that to be caught up in one’s own delusional logic is to be constantly confronted with one’s own fallen ego-ideal. This is precisely what happens when the sanatorium patients discover that the water is full of excrement. As one of the characters tells Perez, who has just taken a mud bath: “Perez, you stink like shit.” Perez responds to the accusation by acknowledging it as fact: “I don’t get your joke. You know that here we’re all in it up to our eyeballs [aqui todos estamos cagados].” Once the patients realize the truth about the water, they flee the sanatorium. More than escaping a space, they are fleeing themselves for believing that their sentence and their cure are ethical. Jaded by the failure of reformism, Alicia choses humor and choteo (joking), thus embracing her generation’s apolitical nature. Humor prevails over ethics.

A similar choice operates in the poetics of authors such as Rolando Sanchez Mejias or Carlos A. Aguilera, as we will see in the following sec?tions. A larger group of authors, however, crafted a revolutionary reformist project. This idea crystallized as a group called the Proyecto Paideia, whose disintegration in turn triggered the creation of the Proyecto Diaspora(s). The writing of the latter reflected and condemned the regime’s biopolitical power, as we saw in chapter 3. It also developed a poetics of violence in reaction to the revolutionary tropes of violence and sacrifice. But Diaspora(s) does not cultivate a poetics aiming at rhetorically liberating society from the destructive forces that govern history. Diaspora(s)’s goal is not to support a state practice of terror that demands heroic sacrifices to maintain the law. But the group’s poetic is not an attack on state power, either; nor is it a submission to it. At the representative level, violence can also work as an ironic rhetorical operation that reveals the struggle between the fallen ego-ideal and the ideal ego.

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