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Phantoms of Liberty

By David Golding

I recently read two memoirs: Luis Buñuel's Mi último suspiro and Reinaldo Arenas' Antes que anochezca. Buñuel's memoir ends with the word tumba and Arenas' ends with the word noche: words that are like broken talismans or coins that have lost their value with the vertiginous inflation of illness and the regime change that is death.

Both Buñuel and Arenas made their homes just next to the impossible, and so it's impossible to pity them. One day, they knew, the words "tomb" and "night" would cease to be subversive, erotic, incantatory. One day Buñuel would wake up to find that his renowned libido had disappeared and Arenas would walk into a public urinal in New York and discover that no one wanted to play games with him anymore. Then the words would be nothing more than homages to themselves, and finally, not even homages, but the empty, hypocritical, lugubrious silence that both men abhorred.

Both books are stalked by the phantoms of dictators. Buñuel, famously and antically, forgave his, while Arenas' hatred for Castro perfected itself as it approached the asymptote of his death. Arenas signed off his suicide note with the following peroration: Cuba will be free. I already am. Those are the words of a fanatic. But, to be fair, Castro never invited Arenas back to Cuba to write novels in the way that Franco invited Buñuel to film Viridiana in Spain. (There is a famous Mexican cartoon of Buñuel being greeted by a smiling Franco while in the background a Spanish republican calls Buñuel a traitor. In the second frame, Buñuel hands a ribbon-wrapped box to Franco and walks away. In the third frame, the box explodes in Franco's face, and the protester shuts up. But what really happened is that Franco liked Viridiana, or at least he wasn't imaginative or zealous enough to find anything offensive in it. Sometimes, it seems, the game of history is played for nothing, nothing is at stake, a terrorist and a bourgeois or a dictator and an exile are just two sides of the same coin, two negotiations with chance, but then there are men like Arenas who don't forgive, and there's something tough and admirable in that attitude, although it's an asphyxiating attitude, an impossible attitude).

Buñuel's memoir could actually serve as the True Dictionary of the Avant-Garde—a river leading to oblivion in which it is possible to bathe over and over again—but then if you opened one of the innumerable trapdoors hidden inside the Dictionary, you would find yourself in one of Castro's concentration camps for homosexuals and the names Eisenstein, Brecht, Tzara, Éluard, Aragon, Crevel (yes, even Crevel!), Siqueiros, Rivera, Kahlo, Marquez, Cortázar, etc., would all be jailers or informers or apparatchiks of the Seguridad de Estado or worse, and the names of the saints would be dubious (Borges) or grotesque (Gombrowicz), or, to stick to Cuba, they would be the names of Catholic queers (Lezama Lima) or atheist nymphos (Virgilio Piñera).

On the subject of Borges, there is a rare point of agreement between the two authors. Buñuel, who writes that he doesn't like the blind, compares Borges to two blind men he once saw jerking each other off in a park, and says that Borges dreams incessantly and sycophantically of winning the Nobel Prize, while Arenas quotes Piñera's advice to the Argentinian people: "Kill Borges," although he thinks the Left is conspiring to withhold the Prize from Borges.

In Arenas' memoir, you won't find advice on how to make a first-rate martini (with a convoluted analogy about vermouth and Aquinas' theory of the Holy Spirit passing through the hymen of the Virgin Mary). In Buñuel's memoir, you won't find out much about poverty. In neither will you find extended meditations on the artistic process (as if art were committed in the margins of life, which is how it should be), although you will find that the artistic instinct is intimately connected to alcohol, sex, stoicism, and an uncompromising hatred of the powerful. In both memoirs, you will find instructions on how to die, or imaginative cartographies of possible deaths.

In The Exterminating Angel, one of the psychically blocked dinner guests fondly recalls how she felt nothing when she saw a third-class carriage run off the rails and crush its occupants to death. The lower classes have a lower sensitivity to pain, anyway, she says, like bulls when they're castrated. Arenas' memoir doesn't dwell on the pain of the poor and of animals. Instead, he talks about their anarchic capacity for pleasure in a way that proves the Rick Santorums of the world right. The state and morality are punitive and annihilating, according to both Buñuel and Arenas, and there can be no Third Way, no quarter given, no historic compromise.

A friend of mine once told me that when she was ten years old, she wrote her first poem. The poem was only one line in length and it was scrawled in red crayon on a piece of yellow construction paper. It was more of a proverb than a poem, actually, although it was more of a dithyramb than an proverb. The poem could have been written by Reinaldo Arenas while he was in a Cuban prison or while he was dying of AIDS in New York. It could also have been featured in a gulag version of "Kids Say the Darndest Things" (with Andrei Zhdanov playing the role of Bill Cosby and with proud or sheepish parents replaced by terrified parents facing a firing squad). The poem was written for a school assignment ("Compose a sentence using a metaphor"). The poem went:

The road to hell is paved with Fidel Castro.

Beneath the text was an illustration of a supine and gigantic Castro, like a felled Gulliver, over whom walked smiling figures, figures drunk on utopia, into a fiery pit swarming with devils. From the poem, one can deduce that my friend's parents fell somewhere on the spectrum between penitent ex-radicalism and quietist liberalism (if one looks closer one could possibly see them on the edge of the abyss of post-Cold War melancholy, muttering softly to their daughter, Fidel Castro had good intentions). One can also deduce that a child's mind, like a poet's mind, is more alive to metonymy than to metaphor, because metaphors (like prayers) are inherently reactionary, formulaic and petrifying, whereas true poetry, the poetry of Orpheus, melts stones, liquefies truth (which is to say, orthodoxy), so that if you want to kill a poet you can't do it with ideology, you have to kill him (or her) with your bare hands, the way the Circonian women killed Orpheus, you have to tear him (or her) to shreds or fuck him (or her) to death. Because true poetry, my friend realized many years later, finds the hidden grain in objects, releases the souls imprisoned in objects, telescopes the mysterious connection between objects and words, which is the opposite of what states do when they anesthetize objects with dead words, annihilating metaphors, stupefying tautologies. But the poets (the true poets) aren't taken in, they continue to talk (they don't sing anymore, true poetry now is always scribbled or spoken in the margins of prose), and that's why the state has to put them in prison or kill them off with AIDS, or buy them off with sinecures, or just ignore them, that's why they wouldn't leave poor Reinaldo Arenas alone, although we shouldn't let the poets themselves off the hook, I mean the false poets, the ones who don't contradict themselves, the ones who hold conferences and want to put poetry on life support, the dreary poets of the official Left who want to save Empire by criticizing Empire, who want to annex more territory for poetry, like Whitman who supported annexing half of Mexico for American poetry, the poets who sign petitions, the poets with good intentions, the poets who want to bring Waiting for Godot to the huddled Third World masses of Sarajevo and New Orleans, the poets who command us to weep and to feel false sentiments, the poets who drone on about conscience, the poets who do not feel the shame Adorno talked about, the shame of still having air to breathe in hell.

It says something about history, or maybe just about dying, that both Buñuel and Arenas—who were capable of profound joy and profound tolerance—conclude their memoirs in a place that surpasses pessimism, that does in fact resemble hell, in a wistful anticipation of apocalypse. But of course, as a communist once said, it's easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.

From April, 2014

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