Transnational Aesthetics: Literature and Film Between Borders


Gonzalo Navajas

University of California, Irvine



I. The New Construct of the Nation

With Étienne Balibar and Jürgen Habermas, it can be said that modernity, the most encompassing cultural paradigm of the last three centuries, is defined by its adherence to fundamental principles that have a unified nature and can be made universally extensive. Some of those guiding principles that are current until today are the defense of individual and collective freedom, the institutionalization of controls of political power, and the democratic forms of government. All those ideals constitute a driving force of modernity and they have contributed to its characterization and advancement. They are all subordinated, however, to an ultimate referent that encompasses them all: the nation. Modernity is purported to be a project beyond borders and it attempts to unify humanity under a single umbrella of principles and aspirations. Yet, in reality, that universality has been constrained to function within the limits of the nation.

For Ernest Renan, Menéndez y Pelayo, Ortega y Gasset, and Thomas Mann, among others, the nation is the most fundamental source of individual and collective identity, an overarching structure that surpasses other concepts, such as freedom and justice, as the primordial principle of social and political organization. On the other hand, for Marx, Nietzsche, Pi y Margall, Kafka, and Homi Bhabha, among others, the nation is an unavoidable referent, but one that is looked at with suspicion and it is ultimately destined to redefinition and overcoming. The modern paradigm moves between those two orientations, at times one prevailing over the other, but without it ever eliminating entirely the other option.

The case of Spain is exemplary in this respect because, in that country, the two orientations are being confronted in a direct manner. Both universalism and nationalism interchange in an open and at times antagonistic manner. Thus the consideration of the specific Spanish situation is in many respects prototypical for the study of the contemporary cultural condition that I believe is at a crossroads between a factual reality that is still bound to the past national mode and a rapidly emerging paradigm that is open to new configurations of understanding and organizing identity and difference.

A traditionalist country by nature, Spain has had for centuries a problematic relation with modernity and change and, within the European context, it has been emblematic of resistance to new paradigms. Nevertheless, Spain has experienced remarkable changes in the last three decades, in particular in the area of the relations between the peoples, languages, and nationalities that compose it. At the same time, as a society, Spain has had to tackle with one of the most significant demographic and social phenomena of our time: the extensive transmigration and transculturization of peoples. Thus a traditionally homogeneous and mono-cultural society has experienced pressures from within and from without to transform some of its inveterate structures quickly and often against its customary historical tendencies.

Furthermore, on the one hand, Spain is one of the most pro-European countries in the European Union and thus it would seem to underplay the value of the national identity. On the other, it is a country in which the role of the internal nationalities is the strongest. Nation and super-nation confront each other, the local and the cosmopolitan coexist in a difficult interchange that defines one of the decisive issues of our time.

II. The New Narratives

There are challenges to this apparently irreconcilable dichotomy between nation and supernation. Rather than from the realm of the macrostructural--the political, the economic--they come from the area of the microstructural--art, literature, film, architecture--and they conform an ambiguous rather than a complete and well-articulated reality.

II.i. The Borderless Self

The nationally defined subject has a secure identity that is configured around a set of commonly shared referents within the collective Heimat of the nation. That subject is defined as much as for what it is not as for what it is. It is sameness with others that are like him. It is also that which others, different from him, are not. The national subject requires the exclusion of difference and a clear delimitation of those who belong and do not belong in the privileged national Heimat. Heimat connotes warmth and protection to those who are inside of it and coldness and hostility to those who are outside. More than the physical separation of borders is the psychological but strong separation caused by affective exclusion what determines the opposition of the national subject to the non-national other. It is an often invisible demarcation but one that defines the opposition with clarity and unambiguity. In a historical and sociological level, it is the ultimate reason behind the revolts of excluded peoples against the masters of the exclusion and separation.

Against the secure possessor of the national Heimat, another subject arises. It also has an origin but it is not ancestral and historically recorded in exalted terms. On the contrary, it is an origin that is shrouded in ambiguity, uncertainty, and denial. It has been erased and forgotten and, when it is remembered, that memory is denied the collective recognition, the comfortable reassurance of the assimilation by the collective other. That subject lacks common referents since the ones that he can claim as his own are just a memory and the new ones are not fully accessible to him. This subject is dispossessed of a Heimat and no precise physical or emotional frontiers define or welcome him. Its social, political, and cultural impact is doubtful and yet it constitutes an increasingly common mode of individual subjectivity and identity. The a-national self is rapidly becoming the predominant and more defining mode of selfhood in contemporary history. It has reshaped the social and cultural policies of the European and American continents and it has enormous consequences for the future of many nations. Increasingly, the internal relations of many countries will be shaped by the pressures brought about by the groups of those who do not belong fully anywhere, who move and reside between borders. In the case of Spain, the issue of the borderless subject has become in the last two decades an area of paramount importance and it may soon overshadow other more traditional topics of contention.

In literature and film, the examples of the emergence of this new borderless and post-national self are many. The films of Almodóvar, for instance, have progressively evolved from focusing on marginal modes of social behavior –Pepi, Luci, Bom; What Have I Done to Deserve This?—to centering on segments of society that do not have a well-established national identity. All About my Mother, for instance, undermines the foundations of the family belonging to the Barcelona establishment by way of the foregrounding of several outside characters who question the legitimacy of that representative family and the values they incarnate. The modernist city, linked to the aestheticism of Gaudí’s buildings, is threatened by various people that by choice have decided to live between the borders of that secure and beautiful space rather than inside them. The mobile and shifting national identity of the Argentinean nurse is replicated by the other women in the film and by their companion, Agrado, who has also opted for not accommodating himself to the strictures and prerogatives of the normative city.

Likewise, Talk to Her incorporates a borderless roaming journalist—also originally from Argentina--that finds in a utopian mode of love a surrogate Heimat or affective homeland to replace the original one left behind. Although Almodóvar’s films are physically located in clearly recognizable locales in Spain, they are, in fact, an exploration of the nature of the landless self, the one that cannot find an external confirmation in his or her search for sexual, cultural, or artistic identity.

The Bilingual Lover (El amante bilingüe), both in its literary and cinematographic versions by Juan Marsé and Vicente Aranda respectively, is another example of the borderless self, in this case, realized through the schizophrenic ego of Marés/Faneca who renounces his integration in the inner circle of a powerful family to which he has had access through marriage in order to assert the indetermination of his identity and the nomadic nature of his life. In the novel, that indetermination is conveyed in particular through the hybrid language of Marés/Faneca who prefers the inconsistencies of his chaotic discourse to the well-balanced and canonical norm of his wife’s family. That norm is founded on the principles of symmetry and harmony on which Eugeni D’Ors, in La Ben Plantada, centered the psyche of the national Geist of Catalonia. Marés’s words undo that symmetrical order and they assert another mode of being without clear referents and purpose: "ora con la barretina, ora con la montera, o zea que a m’i me guta el mestizaje, zeñó, la barreja y el combinao…"(220). This monologue is an affirmation of the indefinition of the Heimatloss, those who live in between borders and exalt that shifting mobility as the nucleus of the contemporary condition.

Aranda’s version of The Bilingual Lover retraces the origins of Marés through an Odisseic archetypal journey to Ithaca, which, in Marés’s case, is the "calle Verdi," a popular area in the quarter of Gràcia, where Marés was brought up. Marés recognizes himself in that area of the city but, unlike in Homer’s mythical return, Marés’s reencounter with his primordial origin is disturbed by the provisionality of his return that appears merely as a subliminal reality and it is doomed to be undone. Thus, the borderless self can only undertake a return home in an ironic and delusional way.

The modes of exclusion of the self do not always have external agents that are forcibly imposed on the subject. They may also originate in the critical analysis the self performs on him/herself and his/her personal reality. Enrique Vila-Matas’ The Vertical Voyage is an example. The novel is located in Barcelona and its central figure, Federico Mayol, is originally clearly identified with the nationalist politics of the city. Yet, the text explores Mayol’s progressive separation from his national identity and origin. His cultural referents evolve from being identified with the city of Barcelona and its internal politics to opening to the world. Mayol’s journey leads him to the replacement of the familiar environment for a much vaster cultural repertoire. His self-imposed exile from the ancestral domain is physical and geographical as well as literary and cultural. First, Lisbon and then the island of Madeira become his adopted lands where he attempts to rewrite a new personal biography that is devoid of the attachments to a collective past that he has rejected. Although for different reasons than Marés, Mayol progressively rejects the harmonious and symmetric milieu of the D’Orsian Mediterranean civilization that nurtured him and that he actively promoted in order to insert himself in a new cultural environment where he could achieve a more genuine sense of belonging.

Mayol shows that the most difficult task is that of the creation of the post-national imaginary, the identity of the nation-less. And, in this respect, the media of narration, literature and film, can reach farther than the political discourse precisely because, like Mayol demonstrates, they are potentially capable of constructing projects that transcend the predictable and ordinary. Mayol assumes as his own the signs of cultural identity of all human history and he decides to inhabit that utopian realm as his most natural space. The "Atlàntida" (a parodical reference to Verdaguer’s work) is Mayol’s new land. In his letter to his son, he uncovers the program of his project of transnational identity: "Estoy preparando una expedición a la Atlántida … y si un día me buscas has de saber que podrás encontrarme en una casa del Ensanche, en una casa de la Gran Llanura que se halla al norte de la capital de la isla hundida . . . De Cataluña me acuerdo pero ya me dirás tú dónde está . . . Espero morirme sabiendo qué es el big bang y soy un experto en la sabiduría de la lejanía"( 241).

From the comfort of the limited and familiar Heimat, the city of Barcelona where he has spent most of his life, Mayol enters the realm of the unknown, making apparent, as Blanchot argued, the capacity of the mad and illogical mind for reaching to unexplored areas. Mayol is attached to the world of the littera, the written literary culture and thus his new land has a metaphorical and subliminal nature. In its indetermination and fluidity it parallels, however, the nature of the transmigrated and transcultural peoples that increasingly compose a greater part of the stable and ancient societies of the western world.

Like Vila-Matas, Javier Marías views literature as the most natural and genuine nation for the writer. Marías takes as his own the major referents of the Western cultural archive: from Shakespeare and Nabokov to Calvino, Borges, and Umberto Eco. At the same time, he attempts a fusion of the great referents of literature, which are classified within precise national and cultural boundaries, with the more geographically imprecise discourse of popular and visual culture. His drive to foreground marginal writers and texts, to empower the non-canonical and to focus on the art that lies at the outskirts of the great urbi of culture, responds to an effort to combine and to mix the apparently incompatible. Although Marías writes in Spanish by choice, his language, syntax, and general discourse belong to the transnational contemporary condition. The extensive influence of Anglo-Saxon history and literature in his work, the re-elaboration of topics of modern European history and in particular those involving World War II, the peripatetic course of his characters on both sides of the Atlantic shape Marías’s narrative as a cosmopolitan and universal realm with which to counter what he sees as the provincial and self-absorbed drive of Spanish history that has made difficult the meaningful cultural exchanges of the country with the outside. His criticism of the average Spaniard is often direct and unambiguous: "tenía esa mezcla de cursilería y zafiedad, ñoñería y ordinariez, edulcuración y brutalidad, que se da tanto entre mis compatriotas, una verdadera plaga y una grave amenaza" (Tu rostro mañana, 74).

London, New York, Havana and the vast space of modern culture and thought constitute the new nation where Marías places his work. A nation that, because it does not require visible and monumental referents to define itself, it can afford to be anti-hierarchycal and it can assert the canonical simultaneously with the peripheral. The transnational exploration initiated in All the Souls (Todas las almas) and then reconstituted in other works such as Such a White Heart (Corazón tan blanco) and Tomorrow in the Battle Think of Me (Mañana en la batalla piensa en mí) is an example of the reconducting of the literary discourse toward the nationally weak and marginal.

III. The Ethical A-national Self

Although international law has had increasing visibility and functions in the world, it is a fact that the law of the nation still is the ultimate agent and arbiter in legal affairs. Dictatorships and administrative corruption find protection in this national origin and grounding of jurisprudence. From Pinochet to Fujimori, the examples are numerous. In the last few years, we have been witnessing that a central hindrance for the further unification of Europe has been precisely the predominance of the national over the supranational goals and norms.

The advantage that the national enjoys over the transnational is the familiarity of the objectively existing and known over the unfamiliarity of the virtual and unknown. Since transnational discourse lacks a unified history and well-defined spatial borders, the issue of the creation of a transnational ethical norm is paramount. To be between borders, to be at the fringes of the nation is to be nowhere, to lack a voice and the power to be heard. Recent international films such as a Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things and Fernando Meirelles, Cidade das Deus (City of God) are an example of the particular functioning of the norm in peripheral collectivities, such as London’s underground community of undocumented workers in Dirty Pretty Things and the clandestine youth bands of the favelas in Rio de Janeiro.

The global has brought about a reconfiguration of the meaning of time and history. Rather than continuity with that past, the global paradigm is a call to write history ab nihilo, privileging the present as the definitive point of the beginning of a new era free from the burden of the mistakes and guilt of the past. The postmodern offered a temporal medley, the appealing hibridity of the classical and the contemporary that is exemplified in the many buildings of the 70 and 80’s throughout the world. The new age of global information and communication can dispense with the historical producing in turn a void of referentiality and identity.

The void of a pure Pascalian Existenz brings about the new historical bent that can be detected in the latest developments in literature and film. Soldiers of Salamina (Soldados de Salamina), both in its literary and cinematographic versions by Javier Cercas and David Trueba respectively, illustrates the desire of the young (in the film clearly linked to the new means of communication and identity) to find emblematic figures in the past. Miralles embodies the only possible option for exemplary models. And yet he is an ambiguous figure, living outside the core of the nation, in between lands, languages and norms, residing physically in Dijon, but emotionally in Girona, speaking French, but thinking in Spanish and Catalan. Assimilated to the strange environment surrounding him, but installed, in fact, in the mythical past of a heroic time that cannot return. A past, however, that is not dead but that beacons towards him and perhaps also towards us proclaiming the rights of the uprooted, and revealing them as the ultimate and most difficult choice of history. In contrast to the trivialized view of time which is present in the devalued products and objects of the proliferating culture industries of our time, the language and acts of the nation-less, those without a home, may still produce a persuasive post-Nietzschean dimension of an inclusive and anti-normative paragon of individual and collective identity.



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