October 5, 2002

"This can't last: it's too stupid."

Caracas can't be said to have the most vibrant intellectual life in Latin American, but at least we've got Ibsen Martinez. Witty, agoraphobic, shamelessly erudite, misanthropic and totally brilliant, Ibsen really has no peer in the intellectual life of the country. A theoretical mathematician by training, the guy made his name writing soap opera scripts, believe it or not...which says something about the intellectual climate around here, doesn't it - where else could a serious intellectual get his start writing soaps? He proved too unpredictable and prima donnaish to make a proper script-writer - he'd just get sick of them at some point and stop writing, but eventually found his niche in the newspaper and the world of the novel. His weekly screeds in El Nacional have a following, more than a readership, a following I'm proudly part of. Ibsen's writing is really in a class of his own as far as op/ed writing goes in this country: deeper, clearer, wittier, sharper, and more illuminating than anyone else writing in Caracas, and often by a long long ways. He's like our own little Garcia Marquez, but without the international acclaim, or the fidelismo.

His column today is one of the more sobering things I've read in a while: one of his better ones, which is really saying something. It's useless trying to gloss it, since it's so good, so I'm going to take the time to translate the whole thing. It really is that good. [The original in Spanish is here.]

He starts off by citing Camus' The Plague:

"Plagues, in fact, are quite common, but it's hard to believe in them when you see them fall on your head. There have been in the world as many plagues as wars, and yet, plagues and wars always catch people by surprised. When a war starts, people say "this can't last, it's too stupid." And, without a doubt, war is obviously too stupid, but that doesn't keep it from lasting. Stupidity always insists; one would realize that if one were not always thinking of oneself. Our countrymen, in this respect, were like everyone else. They were humanity. They didn't believe in plagues."

"The plague is not made on a human scale, and therefore men always say that the plague is unreal, a bad dream that must pass.

"But it doesn't always pass, and from one bad dream to the next, it's the men who pass, and the humanists first of all, because they haven't taken precautions.

"Our countrymen were no more guilty than others; they forgot their humility, that's all. And they thought everything was possible for them, which meant that as a matter of course that all plagues were impossible.

"And how could they have thought of the plague, which suppresses the future, their movements and their discussions? They thought themselves free and no one could be free so long as there were plagues.

leaving the quote, Ibsen writes,

On this Saturday, I want to call the reader's attention to a disquieting notion that Camus slides in front of us: that plagues and wars always catch people unaware. Especially civil wars, I'd add.

It bears stopping to reflect on Camus' words, right now, in the wake of a very justified protest work stoppage that some -very few, but very powerful- people would like to twist and stretch until turning it into the pretext for military intervention.

Camus, as is well-known, wasn't precisely the contemplative kind, nor a coward: he did for the French resistence what very few of his own intellectual establishment did, and with such daring and intelligence, during the nazi occupation. So Camus knew what he was talking about when he said that the first reflex you have towards the absurdity that war engenders is to tell yourself that "this can't last, it's too stupid."

"This can't last: it's too stupid," says the father in "The bicycles are for summer," the acclaimed Spanish film by Jaime Chavarri, based on a play by the great Fernando Fernán Gómez, with the whole family gathered at dinnertime, one night in July 1936, commenting on the news that had come over the radio that afternoon: in a remote overseas garrisons an obscure colonel named Francisco Franco had led an uprising against the Spanish Republic.

The head of the family shrugs his shoulders and, next to him, all the characters keep on living their petty bourgeois Madrid lives, neither too rich nor too poor, neither conservative nor leftist enough to feel that what had just started could have anything to do with them, much less that any of its consequences might reach them.

But things don't turn out the way they'd imagined - "how could they have thought of the pest, which suppresses the future, their movements and their discussions? They thought themselves free and no one could be free so long as there were plagues" - and the movie ends when only the viewers know that there will be no other summer with bicycles because that "which couldn't last, because it was too stupid" has become a frightful war that in three indelible years left a million dead and one of the most abhorrent and ignominious dictatorships of the last century.

It just happens that both sides made the same mistake: underestimating the other. The fascists thought it would be enough with a military coup, the republican government calculated that it could put the coup down easily.

It's taken almost sixty years for the philosopher Julián Marías - the father of Javier, the novelist - to come to grips with the decisive event for three generations of Spaniards. He does it in Being Spanish, a book that should be required reading for all of those - chavistas or not - who aspire to act constructively in Venezuela's XXI century politics.

They would then witness Marías elucidating how it was possible to reach war, and saying that, to our discomfort, the primordial cause of the catastrophe was not "the disagreements, or the confrontations, not even the struggle, but rather the will to not get along, the determination to see the 'other' as unacceptable, intolerable, unbearable."

It's inevitable to think of today's Venezuela when Marías carefully recreates as a gift to his reader, the mechanism whereby "groups were formed that would enter the category of the mutually irreconcileable." Or when he points out how that diabolical will to not get along brought about "the successive entry of parts of the social body in what one might call automatic opposition."

Slowly at first, but later on incredibly fast, the entire material and social life of Spain gave in to the primacy of the political, "such that every other aspect was obscured: the only thing you needed to know about a man, a woman, a book, a company, a proposal, was whether it was from 'the right' or 'the left' and your reaction was automatic. Politics eclipsed every other consideration."

These burning pages, written by a Spaniard on his own history, discuss something that many suppose cannot happen in Venezuela "because it's too stupid." What's interesting - and alarming - is that almost every paragraph seems to refer to the current political scene in Venezuela.

The similarities are laid bare when Marías discusses the way the intellectual life and the social production of meaning in Spain went up in smoke, in what he describes as "a collective retreat from intelligence, a frightful narrowing by way of simplification: the infinite variety of reality was, for many, reduced to mere stencils or labels, designed to unleash automatic reflexes, elementary, unnuanced reflexes. This led to a tendency towards abstraction, dehumanization, a necessary condition to generalized violence. And lazyness, especially, when it came to thinking, to looking for intelligent solutions to problems; to imagine the others, to imagine their point of view, to understand their reasons, their fears. And also to carry out with continuity the acts needed to solve or lessen those problems, to put in place an attractive alternative. Magic was easier, the verbal solutions that do away with thought.

"The war was a consequence of frivolity. This seems to me the key word. Spanish politicians, almost without exception, most of the church, a large number of those who thought of themselves as 'intellectuals' (and, of course, of the journalists), most of the economically powerful (bankers, businessmen, large landholders), the union leaders, gave themselves over to playing with the gravest matters, without the least sense of responsibility, without imagining the consequences of what they did, said, or failed to say.

I read Being Spanish on the urging of a friend who had found in it the same parallels with our current situation, which I comment on today. When I closed it, I realized that if we went and asked people like Hugo Chávez, or Carlos Ortega, or Diosdado Cabello or Andrés Velásquez, or Carlos Fernández, or William Lara or Cecilia Sosa or Iris Varela or Marta Colomina if they want a Civil War in Venezuela they would surely answer that of course not, what an idea! who would wish a thing like that?

But one can only consider with infinite sadness the clear-eyed wisdom of Julián Marías, poured into words that read as though composed for us: "They didn't want a civil war, but they wanted what turned out to be a civil war: A) Dividing the country in two bands. B) Identifying the 'other' with evil. C) Not taking them into account, not even as a real danger or an efficient adversary. D) To eliminate them, get them out of the way (politically; physically if necessary.)"

And then: "Stupidity always insists. One would realize it if one didn't always think like oneself." Will we Venezuelans know how to prove Camus wrong, just once? There may be less than a week to go to decide."