Diarios de Guerra de Manuel Azaña (8)

(Esta entrada es parte de una serie)

Manuel Azaña narra buenas anécdotas en su diario. Me gusta ésta, en la que un militar gana una promoción por ser el único que NO busca enchufe:

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El coronel Sandino, uno de los peleles de Companys en la Generalitat, es el siguiente en recibir el tratamiento Azaña: machito de boquilla, como tantos otros: “Ha sido el primero en desempeñar, digámoslo así, la prodigiosa Consejería de Defensa de la Generalidad. Juguete, víctima, y aparentemente actor muy señalado en la pueril aberración de creer que, derrumbado todo (y cooperando al derrumbamiento), iban a improvisar un order y unos métodos nuevos, nunca usados”. Nadie despreciaba tanto a los republicanos como su Presidente: “Le imponen el sacrificio de ir a París, como agregado militar. Por lo visto, no han encontrado otra manera de quitárselo de encima.” Excelente, también la viñeta del final de la página: Sandino ha decidido presentarse acompañado de Santillán, “uno de los próceres de la CNT”. Sandino, de uniforme, “Santillán, vestido de cow-boy y pistola al cinto. ‘Tomaremos Huesca el día que queramos'”, explica el payaso.

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Escuchar ideas peregrinas era gran parte del trabajo de Azaña. Santillán continúa explicando que tenía 4.000 hombres de la CNT dispuestos a venir a Madrid para apoderarse del oro del Banco de España. Azaña pregunta si sería por cuenta de la Generalidad, pero Santillán no le capta; su compañero Sandino acaba proponiendo que Azaña se nombre dictador de la República, o algo. El nuevo agregado militar quiere acción: o, al menos, sus jefes la quieren.

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Tarradellas vuelve, para explicarle a Azaña lo bien que ha hecho la Generalidad, acabando con la rebelión en todo su territorio: “Por eso hemos sabido hacer política” A este lumbrera la recibieron como a Mahatma Gandhi de vuelta a España en 1977. Azaña habría sido el primer sorprendido: comenta la actitud de “insolidaridad o semiindependencia con la irrupción sindicalista, cooperante con la Generalidad para anular al Estado y demoliendo a su vez, por cuenta propia, poderes públicos específicamente catalanes. Que Cataluña correrá, como siempre, en esta guerra, la misma que suerte que el resto de España, es una verdad palmaria, que ningún catalán desconoce ni niega (…) Se mueve entre la deslealtad y la obtusidad”.

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Me encanta esta referencia al Canto del Pico, una casona sobre una cumbre en Torrelodones, a unos 30 kilómetros de Madrid, que acabó en manos de la familia Franco tras la guerra: originalmente casa del conde de las Almenas, “allí iba (Indalecio) Prieto a comer todos los días”. Ultimamente se han grabado películas de terror en el lugar, abandonado y tétrico. Cuando se aparezca un fantasma obeso, pensarán que a Franco le adelgazaba la televisión.

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Saravia le comenta a Azaña que hay escepticismo generalizado sobrela veracidad de los partes de guerra republicanos. Esto tuvo efectos serios: cuando se tomó Brunete, nadie lo creía, lo que bien pudo coadyuvar a la enorme lentitud republicana en proseguir la ofensiva, dando tiempo a Franco a rehacer su frente.

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La CNT objeta a la inquina de los comunistas. Azaña escucha resignado, mientras otro grupito le repite lo que ya debe parecerle un refrán: “preferible es que se hunda todo”. Parecido a lo que Azaña ya ha anotado, procedente de Negrín y de Prieto. Obsérvense las dos referencias en esta página a Joaquín Ascaso, miembro de la CNT, durante unos meses desastroso jefe del desastroso Consejo de Aragón que resultó incapaz de apenas mover un frente enemigo defendido por grupitos minúsculos de falangistas. Los gerifaltes de la CNT se le quejan a Azaña de que Ascaso haya sido detenido; Azaña anota que se le acusa de contrabando de alhajas, un crimen que en un presunto anarquista resulta particularmente despreciable. Ascaso pasó unos pocos días detenido, antes de marcharse al exilio latinoamericano. En Venezuela montó un grupito anarquista, así que los admiradores del chavismo deberían considerarlo un excelente prócer de la patria boliviariana.

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Marcelino Pascua, embajador de la República en Francia, visita a Azaña y demuestra más conocimiento de la situación y raciocionio que diez de los visitantes habituales del Presidente, juntos. Está de acuerdo con Azaña en que España, para Stalin, es sólo una pieza sacrificable en la tablero internacional: “no todos quieren comprenderlo”.

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Pascua, miembro del PSOE, es preclaro: “si aguardamos a última hora” para llegar a un acuerdo con los rebeldes “sería como pedir los últimos sacramentos”. Como eventualmente lo fue. Como Azaña, Pascua piensa que Companys es un desleal cero a la izquierda: “Companys le ha rogado que al pasar por Barcelona, en su viaje de vuelta, no deje de visitarlo. Pascua no lo hará porque ya está advertido de lo que se busca con ese género de pleitesías”. Sobre Rusia: “Indiferencia o aceptación resignada de vejaciones increíbles”.

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Azaña vuelve a su tema favorito: con la disolución del Consejo de Aragón, “a Companys y a otros se les acaba la estúpida comedia de que las tierras aragonesas las había conquistado Cataluña, para la gran Catalonia. Y no les conviene nada que, en la raya occidental de Cataluña, reaparezca una autoridad responsable, suprimiendo la anarquía, con la que no les iba mal; incluso para asustar”. Continúa narrando el descubrimiento en Hospitalet, “gran reducto de la FAI”, de un “depósito de joyas y títulos robados que ascienden a sesenta millones… Es una pequeña muestra. Todo esto, y más, se sabía en Barcelona, y lo mismo que la policía del Estado ha dado con ello, pudo hacerlo la de la Generalidad.” Personalmente, no deja de sorprenderme cuán avariciosos eran estos presuntos anarquistas.

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Durante todo este periodo (y más) la ciudad de Madrid estuvo cercada, sólo conectada con el resto de la zona republicana vía la carretera de Valencia, y permanentemente al borde la inanición. Azaña comenta, entre resignado e indignado, que se está construyendo un nuevo ferrocarril “transversal” de Tarancón a San Fernando, que debería estar acabado para septiembre de 1937 (en este reciente mapa ferroviario de la península no encuentro tal línea; supongo que jamás se concluyó). Peores son las reflexiones al final de la página: cómo en los tres primeros meses de guerra se quemó la gasolina y se vaciaron las despensas en un carnaval revolucionario.

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Continúa Azaña, sobre cómo se quedó Madrid sin nada a mediados de 1936: “fue el placer del derroche, un signo de la vida nueva”. Obsérvese en esta entrada, y en muchas otras, como Azaña da vueltas sobre la idea de que la República del Frente Popular, en particular después del 18 de Julio, ofrece por todos lados una imagen de caos revolucionario, de sangrienta algarada de la que se supone que saldrá un nuevo mundo, sin plan ni concepto ni conocimiento alguno. Hubo tantos casos así en el siglo XX que es mejor no detallarlos. “Durante algunos meses, para no pasar hambre en Madrid, había que ser de la CNT”. Ah. “No pude averiguar, durante el Gobierno de Caballero, quién o quiénes eran los directores y responsables del abastecimiento de Madrid”. Ajá.

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Otra visión de las abigarradas milicias sindicales que han llenado las películas españolas de imágenes de heroísmo revolucionario desde 1975: “La provincia (de Cuenca, a decenas de kilómetros de cualquier frente) está arrasada por las columnas de milicias revolucionarias. Por allí anduvieron, en el otoño, los valientes de Del Rosal, que después de estorbar y correr en Madrid, en cuanto arreció el peligro, aparecieron milagrosamente situados a noventa kilómetros a retaguardia.” Añade Azaña: “Como se lo había pronosticado yo a Galarza”. La gloriosa Columna del Rosal tiene una página en Wikipedia, sin mención alguna a los diarios de Azaña.

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A estas alturas, Azaña ya tenía más que calado al lehendakari vasco, obviamente. Le llega Aguirre con el cuento de que las tropas vascas que salían corriendo del frente y hacia barcos ingleses lo hacían con la intención, no de escapar para siempre del Norte, evitando irse hacia la zona republicana de Santander-Asturias, no, sino llegar hasta Francia; y una vez allí recruzar la frontera para unirse al frente en Aragón. Nadie se lo cree, claro. “Aguirre llega a decir en su telegrama que, prohibiéndolas la salida, las tropas vascas se pondrán en contra de la República. Vamos, que desertarán.” Ahí no mentía, y eso fue lo que, en muchos casos, ocurrió.

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(Continuará)

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The Biggest Problem with Resurrection

Say, you die. You close your eyes. It’s the end. Life goes out of your earthly body.

And then suddenly you wake up. Your first thought, probably, will be: “Am I in Heaven? And, if so, is it the Christian Heaven or, say, the Cherokee Heaven?”

At that moment, somebody (a person, an interface, a robot) approaches you and explains in soothing tones that you have been technologically resurrected. Your consciousness has been put together, and your body too: almost certaintly, it will be an improved, young-again version of that body.

Watching the first episode of Black Mirror’s fourth season, USS Callister, made me think of the possible downsides to such a resurrection.

In the Black Mirror episode, a deranged programmer has set up a bunch of clones of real people into a universe of his devising, which he controls and rules, a universe the clones cannot escape; he’s not a terrible man, but he still makes the clones’ lives miserable and they rebel against him. Watch the episode if you want to see what happens.

Potentially, such a Designer has absolute power over those living in the universe, god-like powers in fact. Wikipedia says the show was inspired by an old Twilight Zone episode about a kid who terrifies his town by using his own god-like powers, but I believe a more adept comparison would be with “BitPlayers,” a little-known science-fiction story written by Greg Egan, one of the greatest masters of the genre (available online here).

In that story, there’s a group of mysterious humans who live on a harsh mountain range, where they all arrived with only scraps of memories from the previous lives, who ocassionally come into contact with other humans who come and go after interacting with them only briefly.

Without giving too much away, it eventually becomes obvious to the reader that these inhabitants of the range are “software objects,” virtual clones from (deceased) humans who are living in a computer simulation, put there by a company that needed non-playing characters for its videogame and thus uses old, damaged DNA databases which it dumps on the software as a cost-saving device.

This resurrection as a “software object” may look terrifying, but we can give the screw yet another turn: in another of Greg Egan’s wonders, “The Extra,” (here) we have a real-life (not virtual-world) billionaire who has about a dozen young, healthy brain-damaged clones of himself running around his mansion until he’s so decrepit he goes for a full bain transplant: his conciousness is transplanted into one the clones, so he can go on living happily ever after, but the transplant is botched.

In reality, only a copy of himself goes into the clone, who takes over the mansion, while the billionaire is left in some sort of suspended state, his consciousness stuck within his old body. Because, if you are resurrected far, far in the future: how can you know it’s you who is being resurrected, and not some copy of yourself?

 

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Resumen Rápido de la Segunda Guerra Mundial

Un interesante artículo en el Times Literary Supplement (de pago) nos recuerda el contraste entre el destino del general Stanisław Sosabowski, al mando de las tropas polacas que lucharon en la Operación Market Garden (el desastroso ataque con paracaidistas detrás de las líneas alemanas en 1944, retratado en la película “Un puente lejano”) (*), y los británicos que le metieron en el fregado.

Sosabowski, quien protestó contra la decisión británica de lanzar tal operación, pero envió sus paracaidistas polacos a luchar valerosamente, y morir en combate contra unidades mecanizadas de las Waffen SS, acabó tras la guerra como operario en una factoría de productos electrónicos en Acton, una ciudad provincial británica.

Héroe polaco, que luchó contra el imperio ruso y en el ejército austrohúngaro, en la subsiguiente guerra polaco-soviética y en la Segunda Guerra Mundial, militar responsable que tuvo que contener el amotinamiento de sus tropas cuando no fueron autorizadas a acudir a ayudar a sus compatriotas durante el alzamiento de Varsovia, con un hijo que perdió la vista en combate contra los nazis,  Sosabowski murió en el exilio en 1967.

En el otro extremo de este triste destino, veamos el de los autores del malhadado plan para Market Garden: Bernard Montgomery, principal autor y promotor, acabó la guerra como adorado mariscal, estrella internacional y presunto vencedor de Erwin Rommel; el teniente general “Boy” Browning, quien secundó a Montgomery y lideró en combate a la Primera División Aerotransportada británica (desde la segunda línea, por supuesto), recibió una promoción para quitarle de enmedio tras el desastre de Market Garden, y se le hizo ayudante principal de Lord Mountbatten, tío del consorte de la heredera (y actual rey consorte de Inglaterra, Philip, duque de Edinburgo), antes de colocarle a cargo de los presupuestos de la futura reina Isabel II; Browning acabó de tesorero del propio duque de Edinburgo.

En estos casos, como Sosabowski podría haber puntualizado, es importante recordar cómo empezó todo: con una garantía británica de que se aseguraría la independencia de Polonia, que llevó a la declaración de guerra cuando Alemania invadió el país en septiembre de 1939.

Por supuesto, cuando acabó la guerra, Polonia no solamente no había recuperado su independencia, sino que fue trasladada íntegramente unos cientos de kilómetros al oeste, y sometida a ocupación soviética hasta 1990, como bien recuerda Evelyn Waugh en “The sword of honour”.

(*El título en español contiene una nota de dramatismo que en el inglés original no existe. Una traducción mejor de “A Bridge too Far” sería “Un puente de más”, y responde perfectamente al tono exculpatorio y al tiempo ingenioso con que pronunció esta descripción de la operación el autor de la frase)

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Jorge Luis Borges In World War II

Human minds are hard to read, and the minds of the Swedish Academy members particularly so. Still, most biographers of Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) agree that the writers early support for the dictatorship of Chiles Augusto Pinochet, voiced several times during the 1970s, effectively killed Borges strong candidacy for the Nobel Prize for Literature, the one prize he was always eager to win.

This fact is key in discussions of Borges stance on politics and war, which tend to focus on the politics and the war he knew during most of his life: the Cold War, and the myriad dirty wars that Latin America suffered during the era, sparing no single country and eventually hitting Borges own Argentina with particular viciousness.

However, the pull of the murky allegiances and unfinished conflicts that developed in Argentina and the region after 1945 has left one significant part of Borges wartime experience the one just prior to the Cold War – in relative darkness: this has unfairly tainted judgements of his politics, and has often provided a twisted and narrow view of the stances that the very anglophile Borges held all his life, often against appalling odds.

The fact that Borges supported the Allied cause during World War II, even as the Argentine government and much of Argentinas cultured elite openly hoped for a German victory is well known, thanks to an anecdote that Borges frequently told, about his 1945 demotion from the position of library attendant to that of poultry inspector, due to his Allied sympathies.

In a 1963 conversation with his friend Adolfo Bioy Casares, recorded in Bioy’s diaries (published in Spanish, in several editions, from 2001), Borges explained that then-Argentine strongman Juan Perón didn’t really appoint him “inspector” but gave him a commission to do that job without any salary—a detail that perhaps makes the event less amusing, but indicates just badly Perón’s regime wanted to get rid of the Anglophile librarian.

The arguments for this demotion, and the rationale that made Borges the most consistent and fluent anti-Nazi and anti-fascist spokesman of his country, are even less well-known than the poultry anecdote itself. This is largely because Borges was then a fairly obscure writer who paid his bills by selling short articles on matters mainly literary, mainly to obscure magazines.

The most incongruous magazines of these was El Hogar, a Buenos Aires magazine devoted to household issues, targeting upper middle-class housewives, where Borges writings frequently appeared next to recipes for criollo cuisine, or detailed analysis of French haute couture. Its here that Borges had made his position clear to everyone in 1937, one year before the Munich agreement gave most observers an indication of what was to come, by accusing a German publication of having launched a campaign against (all translations in this article are mine) “the Jews, the Pope, the Buddhists, the Masonry, the Theosophists, the Jesuits, communism, Martin Luther, England and the memory of Goethe.”

In December 1940, with the German armies in control of most of Europe, and the United States and the Soviet Union safely out of the war, Borges published a short essay on El Hogar, “Definition of a Germanophile,” in which he launched a heavy broadside against the local pro-Nazis and the Argentine government.

He accused them all of ignoring the likely consequences of a Nazi victory, in their urge to see the United Kingdom defeated and avenge the loss of “certain archipelago more or less Antarctic which relationship with Germany I haven’t grasped yet”–a straightforward reference to the Falkland Islands, over which the U.K. and Argentina would fight a short but intense war in 1982.

Its hard to believe that Borges written opinions caused much of an uproar amid his fellow Buenos Aires literati, no matter how pro-Nazi and anti-British, when published in a magazine such as El Hogar. Perhaps it would have been interesting to conduct a poll among El Hogars subscribers, to gauge their reaction to Borges heresy against the Argentine sacred belief in the righteousness of their claim over those “more or less Antarctic” islands, a claim that has poisoned relations with the U.K. before and after the war.

But Borges was a bit more than a relatively unimportant writer even then: he was also a proven conversationalist who enjoyed the company of fellow writers, upper-class dilettantes and artists and never avoided a discussion of politics or the arts. He had his share of frustrating exchanges with British-haters and Hitler admirers during the Phoney War period, the subsequent German invasion of France and the subsequent months of uncertainty.

By December 1941, he was writing about the war in the literary monthly Sur, a more prestigious outlet than El Hogar:

“The notion of a German conspiracy to conquer and oppress every country in the world is – I hurry to confess – inescapably banal (…) Le vrai peut quelque fois n’etre pas vraisemblable (in French in the original); what is incredible, true, beyond any argument, is that the Third Reich looks for universal empire, the conquest of the world. I won’t enumerate the countries that they have attacked already and plundered; I don’t wish this page to be infinite. Yesterday, Germanophiles swore that the infamous Hitler didn’t even wish to attack this continent (the Americas); now they justify and sing the praises of his newest hostility. They have applauded the invasion of Norway and Greece, of the Soviet Republics and Holland; I don’t know what joys they will concoct for the day when the fire come to our cities and coasts.”

Continued criticism of the Axis, Germany and their supporters was accompanied in Borges’ wartime writings with frequent expressions of support and love for the U.K., and England in particular. Like many an Anglophile, Borges was not able to avoid the Hitler-Napoleon analogy; he notably deployed it in a 1945 request (in Sur) for resolve against the ‘little Napoleons’ or future eras:

“I think of England as one thinks of somebody beloved, something individual that can’t be replaced. It’s capable of guilty indecisions, atrocious slowness – it tolerates Franco, it tolerates Franco’s branches – but it’s also capable of rectification and contrition, of fighting again – when the shadow of a sword falls over the world – the cyclical battle of Waterloo.”

In his mind, few countries and few peoples could be matched with the English, when measured by their contributions to human culture and civilization. One of those countries was Switzerland. Another one was Israel, broadly understood in his view as the motherland of all Jews, including those in the diaspora.

Anti-semitic Nazi policies were one among many reasons why Borges loathed the Nazi regime, and the fate of the Jews was always a strong factor on his mind and his writings. He certainly didnt enjoy the indiscriminate German attacks on civilian targets in London either, and twicein different articlesused the expression “satisfactory burning of London” to define the reason behind pro-German joy in Argentina. When dealing with allegedly pro-Germans in Argentine, he had this to say in his December 1940 article in El Hogar:

“Germanophiles are not friends of Germany. This is not a false statement, not even an exaggeration. I’ve been naive enough to engage in conversation with many Argentine Germanophiles; I’ve tried to talk about Germany and that which is indestructible about Germany; I’ve cited Holderlin, Luther, Schopenhauer (sic) and Leibniz; I’ve seen that the Germanophile knows next to nothing about such names (…) It would appear that the Germanophile is actually an Anglophobe. He perfectly ignores Germany, but will force himself to be enthusiastic about any country that fights England.”

On the same vein and the same article, Borges had little patience with explanations of gross crimes based on root causes.In a description of a typical conversation with a ‘root cause’ Germanophile, Borges said:

“Invariably, my interlocutor starts by condemning the payment of Versailles (reparations after World War I), forced on Germany in 1919. Invariably, I’ve supported that damning verdict with a text of Wells or Bernard Shaw, who denounced that merciless document in the hour of victory. The Germanophile has never rejected that text. He has claimed that a victor must avoid oppression and revenge. He has claimed that it’s only natural that Germany would wish to dispose of such an insult. I’ve shared his view. Afterwards, just then, the unexplainable has happened. My prodigious interlocutor has reasoned that the old injustice suffered by Germany gives it the authority to destroy in 1940 not only England and France – and why not Italy? – but also Denmark, Holland, Norway: free of any guilt in this injustice. In 1919, Germany was mistreated by its enemies: that all-powerful reason allows it to burn, smash, conquer every nation in Europe and maybe the world… The reasoning is monstrous, as anyone can see (…) I whisper that I will reluctantly accept to pass the morals of Jesus to those of Zarathustra and the Black Ant, but that our rapid conversion will not allow us to feel any pity for the injustice suffered in 1919 by Germany. In that date that he won’t forget, England and France were strong; there’s no other law than the will of the strong; thus, those insulted nations acted very properly in their wish to try and destroy Germany, and we can criticize nothing but their indecision (and even their guilty mercy) in the execution of such plan.”

So, perhaps, many will wonder, does this all mean that Borges would have been a cheer-leader for the sputtering War on Terror, of the kind who would be delighted to be invited to tour the Guantánamo facilities? The answer is obviously tentative, but I imagine that Borges would be skeptical of any enthusiasm for exported democracy.

A good example of this position may be seen in a 1945 article in Sur, in which he pitched the British case against totalitarianism with a spin that appears to contradict assumptions over the role of major powers in the world, saying of England: “I’ll only say that it’s the only country that it’s not infatuated with itself, which doesn’t believe itself to be Utopia or Paradise.”

Later on, Borges was a frequent visitor and admirer of the United States, and his oft-stated doubts over the character of the country (which he found perhaps insufficiently Anglophile) were never as strong as his distaste for its then-enemies.

At the same time, he also managed to remain an admirer of many things German during the ordeal, while rejecting the kind of false association that leads some Muslim converts to join the likes of the Islamic State; in his December 1940 article in El Hogar, Borges built up on his observation over the lack of real German affinities on most pro-Nazis, pencilling this portrait of Argentine Hitlers, which one could apply to modern-day Holy War enthusiasts:

“I always discover that my opponent idolizes Hitler, not despite the fire-bombs and the shocking invasions, the machine guns, the denunciations and perjuries, but because of these habits and these instruments. He’s overjoyed by that which is evil, atrocious (…) It’s not impossible that Hitler has some justification; I know that Germanophiles have none.”

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Borges y sus Inquisidores

No tenía ni idea de que esta revista sobre Borges existía, pero me llena de felicidad saberlo.

Increíblemente, en la sección de “crítica” de la página web, hay una compilación extraordinaria de decenas de artículos eruditos sobre Borges. Hay lectura para años. Esto es sólo un extracto, de los apellidos “Roo” a “Rou”:

  • Roos, Cécile. “Emma Zunz” as Endgame. The Modern Word.
  • Rosa, Nicolás. Borges y la crítica. Los fulgores del simulacro. Cuadernos de Extensión Universitaria. Santa Fe: Universidad Nacional del Litoral, 1987.
  • Rosman, Silvia. Politics of the Name: On Borges’s “El Aleph”. Variaciones Borges 14.
  • Rossi, Luis Alejandro. Borges, Bioy Casares y el peronismo. Estudios Sociales 14.
  • Roubaud, Sylvia. La Petite fille y la Sainte Trinité: Folklore et théologie dans un conte de Borges. Les Culture ibériques en devenir. Paris: Fondation Singer-Polignac, 1975.
  • Ruch, Allen. The Crimson Hexagon: Books Borges Never Wrote. Variaciones Borges 1.
  • Ruffinelli, Jorge. Borges y el ultráismo: un caso de estética y política. Cuadernos Americanos 9 (1988).
  • Ruiz, Horacio Eduardo. Más allá de la intertextualidad: Borges y el hipertexto. Segundas Jornadas Internacionales de Literatura Argentina / Comparatística. Buenos Aires: Universidad de Buenos Aires, 1998.
  • Ruiz, Pablo Martín. El último cuento policial de Borges y lo que había en el laberinto. Variaciones Borges 14.
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Why Don’t We Set The World On Fire?

(Updated Aug. 3, 2019)

In “The Playstation Dreamworld,” a 2018 book (available here for free), Alfie Brown provides a series of interesting responses to the question of why the movie and gaming industries are obsessed with visions of the apocalypse.

We are all familiar with the scenario: a post-industrial wasteland often populated by zombies or zombie-like creatures chasing humans who scrounge for scarce resources, living in something close to a Hobbesian state. I wrote a long essay about the philosophical implications of such videogames some time ago, so this is something that I’ve been intrigued about for a long while.

The question is: why is this suddenly so prominent, when it was never a staple of popular entertainment until the 1980s-1990s? The most basic response, Brown posits, is Marxist:

As critics like Frederic Jameson, Slavoj Žižek, and Mark Fisher have all variously pointed out, such images of dystopian futures (after a zombie apocalypse) promote the dangerous idea that only capitalism separates us from a barren wasteland.

This may appear simplistic, but a close look at computer games (admittedly, not a common point of reference for philosophical books) indicates that Brown is on the right track. He offers the example of Stardew Valley, a very simple but popular farming game, that “reflects the difficult political position of the potential subversive today.”

In Stardew Valley, one plays a subsistence farmer, only concerned with the cycle of seasons and the basic production of foodstuffs. This is attractive to many, and Brown explains the reasons for that appeal:

The fact that internationalism is understood as synonymous with the iniquitous capitalist disaster of globalization is preventing the development of solutions on a broad enough scale to address global crises. This may account for the return to localism.

As Brown notes, dystopias include a strong undercurrent of localism: after apocalypse, the survivors typically come together in simple communes, where any social sophistication is gone, replaced by toil and simple rewards.

These communes often bring people together who wouldn’t stand in close proximity otherwise, because of the shared fear of the Other: invading aliens, plundering bands of wild humans or, most commonly, zombies. In his door-stopper “Less than Nothing,” Zizek argues that zombies represent the ultimate fear of the human survivor: the final loss of all civilization, the complete destruction of culture, a return to the basic instinct of eating and fighting. Social collapse is bad, but it may turn to be good, the basis for a rebirth, as long as men will keep using underwear and brushing their teeth:

Are zombies not figures of pure habit, of habit at its most elementary, prior to the rise of intelligence (language, consciousness, and thinking) This is why a zombie par excellence is always someone we knew before, when he was still normally alive—the shock for a character in a zombie movie comes when they recognize the formerly friendly neighbor in the creeping figure relentlessly stalking them… At the most elementary level of human identity, we are all zombies; our “higher” and “free” human activities are dependent on the reliable functioning of our zombie-habits—in this sense, being-a-zombie is a zero-level of humanity, humanity’s inhuman or mechanical core. The shock of meeting a zombie is thus not the shock of encountering a foreign entity, but the shock of being confronted by the disavowed foundation of our own humanity.

Brown cites a very intriguing, short essay about the Fallout videogame series, called “Fallout: Why Don’t We Set the World on Fire,” (1) that I copied and pasted below this post. It’s worth reading in its entirety, but I will first summarize it. In the essay, the author, Jeffrey Tam, argues that “dystopian disasters are really just a fresh chance, an opportunity to simplify our existence and leave everything behind.” Brown continues:

The problem we are faced with is not a lack of utopia, because this is really what dystopic dreams are: the enjoyment of a chance to re-start in a more simplified world thinly veiled by the apparent horror of dystopic collapse. In other words, it is utopia repackaged, a kind of Hobbesian “state of nature” that is little more than a projection of what the politics of the present imagine “human nature” would look like. The problem is not that only a ream of dystopias is on offer with no utopian alternatives. It is rather that both dystopia and utopia have been appropriated to make capitalism appear to be the “only alternative” by naturalizing a timeline that runs from barbarity to capital. Such patterns aim at the unconscious ingraining of a kind of capitalist conception of history, producing an appearance of uninterruptable linearity from pastoral national serenity to dystopic wasteland. The chance to envisage changes to capitalist modernity is eradicated, leaving only dreams of tempering its destructiveness (Stardew Valley) or of starting afresh after the apocalypse (Fallout).

A key point here, Brown continues, is that videogames — unlike movies or books — allow players/consumers to experience another person’s dream from within. You’re not looking at it, or imagining it: you’re inside of that person’s dream. That makes videogames “a unique form of enjoyment in which the wishes and desires of another are experienced – perhaps momentarily and unconsciously – as the wishes and desires of the gamer’s own.” So:

It is this peculiar brand of enjoyment which can be at once the most ideologically dangerous and the most subversive, which makes such experiences central to our conceptions of enjoyment in a wider sense. Thinking first of the purely ideological side of this function, games can naturalize the enjoyment of the other, forcing the player to feel a kind of affinity between themselves and the role they play within the game when they fall into the dreamlike gamer state. This is often not as simple as direct identification with a playable character and is a more complex connection between the unconscious of the gamer and the unconscious of the game. In such moments the player increasingly feels their emotions programmed by the game’s algorithms. In this sense desire is becoming increasingly algorithmic and videogames are playing a key role in this reorganization of desire. This is a particular concern considering that increasing corporate organization of technological space means increasing potential for corporate control of desire itself.

This corporate control of desire is the price we pay for experimenting such moments, or hours, of relief when we live in a simplified without mortgages and without endless company meetings. A life in which we can dispose of unlikeable characters by simply gunning them down or chopping them off — as long as we are paying for our broadband connection.

While reading Brown, I was reminded of of the second novel of Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy, “The Great Fortune.” In that book, set at the start of World War II, all the British expatriates in Romania are excited when the Germans roll over France, fully comprehending that they are in deep trouble, but also that they’re facing a extreme situation in which they have lost control over their down destinies.

The psychological relief, the idea of not having to worry about jobs, rents, and who likes whom, is overwhelming, and does much to explain the incredible appeal and popularity of the survivalist genre in recent decades, in videogames, movies and TV. When news of the fall of France come, Manning’s protagonist Harriet is on the street with an acquaintance, Clarence, who turns to her in unhappy ecstasy:

Clarence smiled at Harriet, reconciled to her in the exhilaration that comes when outside events take over one’s life.

Jeffrey Tam essay is off the grid now that Existentialgamer.com was shut down, but I could find it thanks to the Internet’s Wayback Machine, here. You can read it below:

“I don’t want to set the world on fire, I just want to start a flame in your heart. Believe me, in my heart I have but one desire, and that one is you—no other will do.”
-The Ink Spots, ‘I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire’

I first heard these lyrics on the radio in Fallout 3 as I was walking through the haunting wastelands of D.C. They continued ringing in my ears when trekking the deserts of post-apocalyptic Nevada in Fallout: New Vegas. As I walked cautiously down the ruined alleyways of Boston in Fallout 4, I heard them again. They even remained with me outside of the gaming experience, much like the themes of the Fallout series, lingering in my mind and challenging me to think about the failures of my own attempted escapism through video games.

In short, I used to play Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas because real life sucked—I had no girlfriend or sex life, was deriving no satisfaction from school or work, had no motivation, and was basically making no ‘progress’ at all. I found solace in the charred wastelands left behind by the atomic bombs that fell in 2077—in a way the game embodied my fantasy of setting my own life on fire and watching it burn to the ground. I suppose we’ve all experienced frustration, rage, and the impulse to destroy the world as we know it; Fallout seems to offer us a chance to start completely over. Dystopian disasters are really just a fresh chance, an opportunity to simplify our existence and leave everything behind.

But does Fallout successfully allow us to escape our real world?

Having now played the games extensively, I would argue that the post-apocalyptic landscapes of the modern Fallout series remain uncomfortably similar to the world I seek to escape. Almost all the main quests and side-quests revolve around morality, economic problems, post-apocalyptic politics, and familiar power struggles. The pivotal characters of these narratives include reimagined versions of historical figures like Julius Caesar, various American presidents, and the figureheads of high-tech companies; other inhabitants of the wasteland—the masses—are weighed down by the huge political and economic influence of these aforementioned few. Social interactions are shaped by these power-structures designed by the 1%, and the player very quickly finds themselves cast into a surprisingly binary morality system.

I can’t help but play Fallout as a morally decent character, choosing mostly the ‘good’ dialogue options and turning down countless mission rewards because I think the hobos I’ve helped need those bottle caps more than I do. I unconsciously repeat the same decisions I make in reality; decisions endorsed by society and my own moral compass. One might think that taking the opposite route would free the player from this constricting system, but that isn’t the case. Watching the ‘villainous’ walkthroughs of the modern Fallout games on YouTube, I was struck by how many of these players seemed driven by their very real need to live out the repressed, sinister part of their consciousness kept so tightly under wraps in their everyday lives. Speaking of how some poetry seems ‘free’ compared to more ‘limited’ forms, E. E. Cummings once said, “Freedom is only freedom when it appears against the background of an artificial limitation.” Being ‘free’ to follow your evil desires and live out your repressed fantasies only seems that way when compared to something else which seems ’limited’—e.g. our boring, morality-driven choices in reality.

Escapism in Fallout, then, is not what it seems.

One thing is for certain: our need for ‘progress’ trumps our need to set the world on fire. In the virtual wasteland as in reality, a ‘level’ or ‘life’ must be present for us to progress and earn achievements. In Fallout this is represented very literally by the integration of ‘experience points’ and the ability to ‘finish’ quests, but in real life I would point to our quests for ‘happiness’ and ‘success’ as possible equivalents. Rare are the players who launch a modern Falloutgame to experience absurdist playwright Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, a world in which people exist in a limbo-like state without progress or change.

In the end, this isn’t such a bad thing. Once we accept (however begrudgingly) that the real world must remain somewhat intact for us to experience satisfaction in our games (even if they are post-apocalyptically themed) we can ditch the pessimistic model of ‘escape’ and see gaming as something entirely other: a fun activity that can help us loosen up and give our existences—and what we do with them—an additional layer of meaning. As human beings, if we don’t like how our lives are going, it’s usually possible to change them. We don’t have to escape reality for a few hours just to return and resume being miserable—we can keep levelling up once we put the controller down.

  1.  Formerly found at http://existentialgamer.com/fallout-set-world-on-fire, but not anymore.

 

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Los Visigodos en la Boda de Isabel y Fernando

En su libro “La Dinastía de los Trastámara” (2001), el medievalista Julio Valdeón tiene un interesante aparte sobre la boda de Isabel de Castilla y Fernando de Aragón (en 1469), que dio lugar a la unión dinástica de la que procede el actual estado español.

Lo transcribo abajo casi en su totalidad porque estoy harto de leer estupideces en medios de comunicación prestigiosos, y desatinos por parte de historiadores y otros que cuentan historietas de cómo España nunca existió hasta 1711 o 1812 o 1978, o en realidad sólo ha sido una paja mental en la mente de Francisco Franco. Esto corresponde a las páginas 248-255 de mi edición del libro:

Aquel matrimonio, como indicó Luis Suárez Fernández (en “Nobleza y monarquía. Puntos de vista sobre la Historia política castellana” del siglo xv, 2ª edición, Valladolid, 1975, p. 235.) daba a entender «que eran capaces de tomar iniciativas y que con ellos se aseguraba el futuro de la autoridad real». Isabel había nacido en la villa de Madrigal de las Altas Torres en el año 1451. Según manifestó el cronista [contemporáneo] Andrés Bernáldez (“Historia de los Reyes Católicos, don Fernando y doña Isabel,” Madrid, Biblioteca de Autores Españoles, 1953, p. 725) al que llamaban el Cura de Los Palacios, la unión de Isabel y Fernando «fue en España la mayor empinación, triunfo y honra y prosperidad que nunca España tuvo después de convertida a la fe católica, ni antes […] y floreció por ellos España infinitamente en su tiempo, y fue en mucha paz y concordia y justicia. Y ellos fueron los más altos y más poderosos que nunca en ellos fueron reyes». No menos significativo fue lo que indicó el viajero alemán Jerónimo Münzer (“Viaje por España y Portugal. 1494-1495”, Madrid, 1951, p. 112): «Creo que el Omnipotente desde el cielo envió esta mujer serenísima a la España que languidecía, para que con su rey la restituyese a buen estado» (…) Fernando se proclamó rey de Aragón en el año 1479, después del fallecimiento de su padre, Juan II. Las opiniones expresadas en aquel tiempo, a raíz de la fusión de las Coronas de Castilla y Aragón, fueron muy significativas. El cronista mosén Diego de Valera, en referencia al rey Fernando, dijo que «es profetizado de muchos siglos acá que no solamente seréis señor de estos reinos de Castilla y Aragón, más avréis la monarchía de todas las Españas e rreformaréys la silla ynperial de la ynclita sangre de los godos donde venís» (“Diego de Valera: Crónica de los Reyes Católicos, edición y estudio de J. de M. Carriazo”, Madrid, 1927, p. CI. 248.) Por su parte el obispo de Gerona, Joan Margarit, indicó, en su obra titulada Paralipomenon Hispaniae, que con la unión de Isabel y Fernando se había reconstruido la unidad de España, si bien aludía a la Hispania citerior y a la ulterior, expresiones ambas que procedían de la época de la dominación romana. Muy llamativas fueron las poesías del franciscano fray Íñigo de Mendoza, el cual daba gracias al Señor por la vida de Isabel y Fernando: «tú que en tus sanctas alturas / soldaste las quebraduras / de nuestros reinos de España». En otro pasaje de dicha obra, el mencionado franciscano afirmaba, dirigiéndose al rey Fernando: «el que de Dios es ungido / para mandar las Españas» (“Íñigo de Mendoza: Cancionero, estudio y edición de J. Rodríguez-Puértolas”, Madrid, 1968, pp. 319-339.) Opiniones semejantes fueron expresadas por un gran número de autores de la época. El bachiller Palma dijo que «todos los reynos d’Espanna en un reyno veverán» (Citado en Miguel Ángel Ladero: “La España de los Reyes Católicos”, Madrid, 1999, p. 124.)  Por su parte, el cronista aragonés Fabricio de Vagad manifestó que al rey Fernando le están «esperando los reynos de España» (Miguel Ángel Ladero: La España, op. cit., p. 124.) Asimismo, en las Cortes celebradas en la ciudad de Toledo en el año 1480 se dijo lo siguiente: «Pues, por la gracia de Dios, los nuestros reynos de Castilla e de León e de Aragón son unidos, e tenemos esperanza que, por su piedad, de aquí adelante estarán en unión» (Cortes de los antiguos reinos de León y Castilla, tomo v, Madrid, 1882, p.185.) También intervino sobre este tema el gramático y humanista Elio Antonio de Nebrija, el cual dijo que «los miembros e pedazos de España que estavan por muchas partes derramados, se reduxeron e aiuntaron en un cuerpo e unidad de Reino, la forma e travazón del cual assí está ordenada que muchos siglos, injuria e tiempos no lo podrán romper ni desatar» (“Elio Antonio de Nebrija: Gramática de la lengua castellana, edición de Antonio Quilis”, Madrid, 1989, p. 112.) Y el viajero alemán Jerónimo Münzer escribió lo siguiente: “Llena de  admiración a los Príncipes y demás nobles de Alemania el que los reinos de España, que en el tiempo pasado, a causa de las guerras intestinas, los odios ocultos y los intereses privados, casí parecían quebrantados, hundidos y destrozados, con tan feliz estrella y en tan corto tiempo hayan podido pasar de la suma discordia a tanta paz, tranquilidad y tan próspero estado” (Jerónimo Münzer: op. cit., p. 109.) En definitiva, por doquier surgían elogios al importante paso dado para conseguir la unidad de los reinos de España. Ciertamente cada reino mantenía sus Cortes, su moneda, sus normas jurídicas e incluso su lengua. De todos modos se había generalizado la expresión, relativa a la unión de las dos grandes Coronas de España, que afirmaba lo siguiente: «Tanto monta, Isabel como Fernando; tanto monta, Fernando como Isabel». Asimismo, el yugo de Fernando y el haz de flechas de Isabel se difundieron por todos los rincones en los que ambos monarcas ejercían su soberanía. De ahí que hubiera una identificación entre los dos cónyuges. No cabe olvidar que aún había, en la Península Ibérica, algunos núcleos políticos cristianos que seguían siendo independientes. Tal era el caso de los reinos de Navarra y de  Portugal. Ahora bien, el humanista italiano Pedro Mártir de Anglería, que vivió parte de su vida en el ámbito hispano, dijo que «Reyes de España llamamos a Fernando e Isabel porque poseen el cuerpo de España; y no obsta, para que no los llamemos así, el que falte de este cuerpo dos dedillos, como son Navarra y Portugal» (Citado en Miguel Ángel Ladero: «Ideas e imágenes sobre España en la Edad Media», en Sobre la realidad de España, Madrid, 1994, p. 47.) Como es sabido, Fernando e Isabel buscaron la alianza matrimonial con el vecino reino de Portugal, casando a su hija Isabel con el monarca lusitano Manuel I. Sin embargo, Isabel falleció a consecuencia del parto del niño que nació de aquel enlace, llamado Miguel, el cual, a su vez, murió cuando sólo tenía dos años. Eso sí, el reino de Navarra terminó siendo integrado en la monarquía hispánica en el año 1512, gracias a la victoriosa actuación militar llevada a cabo por el monarca Fernando el Católico. Uno de los aspectos más significativos es que el término España se generalizara en el continente europeo. El historiador Pierre Vilar, tras la incorporación de Navarra, dijo que «en el extranjero ya no se dice más que “el rey de España”» (Pierre Vilar: Historia de España, traducción española, París, 1971, p. 33.) Es más, la expresión «reyes de España» la utilizaban dos conocidos escritores italianos del siglo xvi, en concreto Maquiavelo y Guicciardini. De esa forma se ponía claramente de manifiesto la unidad política que se había conseguido en las tierras hispánicas.

hispania

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