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Subversive Imagination: The Short Circuits of José Saramago, 1922-2010


Authoritarian, paralyzing, circular, occasionally elliptical, stock phrases, also jocularly referred to as nuggets of wisdom, are malignant plague, one of the very worst ever to ravage the earth. We say to the confused, Know thyself, as if knowing yourself was not the fifth and most difficult of human arithmetical operations, we say to the apathetic, Where there’s a will, there’s a way, as if the brute realities of the world did not amuse themselves each day by turning that phrase on its head, we say to the indecisive, Begin at the beginning, as if that beginning were the clearly visible point of a loosely wound thread and that all we had to do was to keep pulling until we reached the other end...
                                                                 —The Cave

This piece is not meant to be an obituary but rather, an excavation, an archaeology of sorts, of Saramago's florid, rambling art. By "short circuit," we mean (like one of Saramago's interlocutors, Slavoj Žižek), an erroneous connection, a disruption of the routine operations of a network: one of the few Communists and militant atheists awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, Saramago's presence among some of the world's official producers of "nuggets of wisdoms" was a jarring intervention against establishment mores. In his Nobel Prize speech, he said, "Now I can clearly see those who were my life-masters... Common people I knew, deceived by a Church both accomplice and beneficiary of the power of the State and of the landlords, people permanently watched by the police, people so many times innocent victims of the arbitrariness of a false justice." A man who came late to write literature in life, he worked in several different occupations as a result of the Portugese dictatorship's red-baiting; he later rose to an assistant editorship only to be disenfranchised once again after the Carnation Revolution's demise. One might say his 'last laugh' was without smiling, as he explained in his speech, "the author" was in service to his "characters," his life-masters, insomuch as his creations were based on real people. He read, "Blind. The apprentice thought, 'we are blind', and he sat down and wrote Blindness to remind those who might read it that we pervert reason when we humiliate life, that human dignity is insulted every day by the powerful of our world, that the universal lie has replaced the plural truths, that man stopped respecting himself when he lost the respect due to his fellow-creatures." 

The "powerful" often proves a generic term for the more noodlespined of would-be humanist writers. Here Saramago's short-circuit once again served him well, for his antagonists had real faces and names: globalization was the new totalitarianism, full-stop. Now whether one believes literature should only "teach and delight" or if it may dovetail with nobler aspirations for social justice, one has to admire Saramago in continually confronting what he believed to be the sources of inequity. In 2006, he co-signed a condemnation of the Lebanon War with Tariq Ali, John Berger, Noam Chomsky, Eduardo Galeano, Naomi Klein, Harold Pinter, Arundhati Roy and Howard Zinn. With Zinn and Pinter's voices now silenced as well, we might ask where we can expect new cries of dissent and resistance? Perhaps newer generations are too busy attempting to become Outliers ? Regardless, if you truly believe The World is Flat, then why is it we are so plainly surrounded by mountains?

The distribution of tasks among the various employees follows a simple rule, which is that the duty of the members of each category is to do as much work as they possibly can, so that only a small part of that work need be passed to the category above. This means that the clerks are obliged to work without cease from morning to night, whereas the senior clerks do so only now and then, the deputies very rarely, and the Registrar almost never.
                                                                       —All the Names

Another short-circuit to address Saramago's influences. While some posit Borges and Garcia-Marquez, Saramago often discounted his work as "magical realism," and simply did not accept the generalization. Here we may identify a trans-Atlantic "jump-cut" (if you'll indulge this writer) that mirrored magical realism's lyricism against itself: while his prose was never explicitly political, the conjuring of the unconscious and the 'play' of images placed Saramago canonically with the Latin American surrealists and radicals. The excavation here links the present—the 1998 Nobel Literature Lecture, June 18th's obituary—with the past of the marriage between Marxism and Freud. Dominated by macroeconomic and world-historical durations, prognostications and analyses, Marxism's sorely needed supplement into individual human consciousness required the "short circuit" of psychoanalysis. The Frankfurt School dutifully undertook the task of explaining such a link because they couldn't explain the rise of fascism and Nazism without such theoretical tools. In time, Wilhelm Reich's orgone boxes fueled the Sexual Revolution, Herbert Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man inspired revolt on college campuses and in the streets, and later Jurgen Habermas rationally communicated the rationally communicative. 

In the novel, Seeing, Saramago tells of an election in which voters unanimously and anonymously simply do not vote. Collective action coagulates into a phenomenal nothingness. By "doing nothing," the public short circuits the vicious cycle of electing yet another gladhanding sycophant. The corrupt officials, used to playing good cop and bad cop, are beset with disbelief. Strangely, the elite's continual contempt for lazy, do-nothing "masses" actually comes true, thereby slashing away the fantasy of electoralism at its very root. With no public body left to legitimatize their power, the facade is broken. Here, the surreal proves truly iconoclastic—Saramago's "fictional" situation isn't a poetic make-believe, it is "more real" than reality itself, displaying and destroying the very "fictions" that make "reality" what it is. 

The masses., Digital ID 1541070, New York Public LibraryA positivist vision of the nature of dreams and the 'unconscious' leaves us little to look forward to, or look back on; what is more, it simply capitulates to the myopic economist's idea of humanity as windowless monads in aggregate. A language that combines, sutures, or short-circuits the worlds of social justice with those of the surreal and hallucinatory imagination isn't merely "content provision;" its the necessary construction of a platform from which future possibilities occur.

Saramago knew this much; as literary critic Evan Calder Williams writes, "Saramago was a Communist, an atheist, an anti-fascist and a hater of bull****. He'll be missed." Missed, but not forgotten. Another nugget of wisdom. 


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