Desire in Germano Almeida
transl. excerpt of the book Construindo Germano Almeida. Lisboa: Nova Vega. 2008 by
In fact, everything happens as if the world were very narrow for the simultaneous presence of the desiring conscience, of the desired object and of the judging mind. Their coexistence produces an intolerable uneasiness. It is necessary that one of them become disguised, transformed or that it disappear altogether. Thanks to the power of the imagination, and of the acquiescent nature of desire, the possible solutions are many.
--Jean Starobinsky, Jean-Jacques Rousseau: La Transparence et l’Obstacle, 1971 apud Novaes, 1990, 12
Germano Almeida is one of the foremost novelists in contemporary Lusophone Africa. He is also one of the most prolific. To date his novels, short stories, and journalistic essays number ten volumes. His first novel, O Testamento do Senhor Napumoceno da Silva Araújo (1989), has been adapted into a movie and is about to be published in English in the United States.
One of the characteristics of post-modernist writing in general, and of Germano Almeida’s writings in particular, is the ability to juxtapose paradoxes, not necessarily reconciling them but making them inhabit the same space. The space of desire is no exception to this rule. In this presentation I will make an attempt to identify a possible way to reconcile paradoxes within the space of desire in Almeida’s fiction. I will try to do that without recourse to disguise, transformation, or disappearance as such, since any of these conditions is a reality in Germano Almeida’s texts, in spite of the presencein the texts under consideration of the desiring conscience, the desired object and the judging mind.
At this point I would like to briefly summarize Marilena Chaui’s essay “Ties of Desire” (“Laços do Desejo”; in Novaes, 1990, 19-66), in order to apply the several definitions of desire she proposes to the texts under focus in this paper.
“Desire,” which derives from the Latin verb desidero–a term that falls under the purvue of astrology–signifies “ceasing to stare at the stars.” Desiderium is the equivalent of a sort of free will–that of controlling one’s destiny at the same time that one acknowledges the stars’ loss of influence in one’s life. The term is split between two ambiguous meanings, that of the desiring subject who wishes to possess the object, and that of the desired object, which remains permanently absent.
Forthwith a couple definitons of desire, the first being proposed by Spinoza and the second by Thomas Hobbes:
Desiderium is the desire or wish to possess something whose remembrance was preserved but, at the same time, remains hidden by the remembrance of other things (Spinoza, Ethics III, def. 32, prop. 36 apud Chaui, 1990, 23).
Those things that men desire they also love, and those things toward which they feel aversion they also hate. Thus, desire and love are one and the same, except that desire implies the absence of the loving object while love usually implies its presence (Hobbes, Leviathan I, apud Chaui, 1990, 24).
According to Chaui, it is with Freudian psychoanalysis that desire is finally recognized as an unconscious state of deprivation – deprivation of the desired object and the unconsciousness of the projection of one’s desire upon the Other. The well-known Freudian notion that our desire is always the desire of the Other’s desire also focuses one’s attention upon a dialectics of activity/passivity which remains in motion. In other words, this dialectics will last in accordance with the capacity of each subject to sustain it. When one of the subjects is no longer able to sustain it, desire as such ceases. This dialectics, I think, becomes particularly clear when applied to the sex act. By the same token, it seems clear that remembrance of the sex act recreates the dialectics of desire.
Admittedly less obvious is the connection between the corporeal and the imaginary spaces of desire when applied to the political situation of a given country. As we know, Aristotle maintained that man is a political animal and that his desire for knowledge has its ideal space of gratification in the polis. Aristotle’s idea will enable us to consider desire as extending beyond the Freudian binary opposition mentioned above. The expansion of desire from a personal to a political sphere allows us to envision an ethical space in which pure sexual energies will be redirected to benefit the polis since the motion of desire will keep flowing from one citizen to another. This ethical/political space will be by now conceived as consisting of a dynamic virtue between desire and action–one that constrasts with the static Christian virtue which transformed the Aristotelian desire for knowledge into the Judeo-Christian notion of original sin.
Having established the connection between the personal and the collective spheres, between desire and knowledge, between desire and the absence of its object, we must now connect the interior sphere of desire to its exterior counterpart within the subject itself. It is within the subject that feelings undergo change, from the conscious to the unconscious. It is desire, in its most absolute form, that prevents the death of the subject and at the same time propells him into death. The desires that substitute the initial desire for the mother’s body are always unable to placate it. The strategies of substitution are the ones that prevent the subject from reaching the end. Reaching the end of desire is to reach death, to reach non-intereaction and the inability to conjugate one’s body with the Other. Once again, we must reconnect the ideas just delineated to the political sphere. According to Hobbes, happiness is a continuous progress of desire from one object to another. He also maintains that this object takes the shape of power. Happiness, therefore, becomes the desire for more and more power–a desire that will only cease with death.
We now have the missing link between desire and power, i.e., between the body and politics, between politics and a rhetoric of domination among men. It is obvious that the particular desire one wishes to fulfill determines not only a set of actions but the very concept of liberty, as the choice of fulfilling a particular desire rests on the free will that democracy values. Thus the ethical stance which we first outlined will no longer be based on a model of virtues but on the legitimizing of the uncertainty that underlies free will.
We end up by accepting the inevitability of an irrational politics since it is not clear which is the active principle of pleasure, that of the political man himself or that of the community that has elected him; in other words, his own desire or the desire of others. Theoretically, the only way to solve this imbalance would be through a sort of love, a passion for the collective that would allow the politician to confuse his own desire with that of the community he is serving.
Before delving into Germano Almeida I still would like to call attention to Catherine Belsey’s Love Stories in Western Culture (1994). According to this author desire deconstructs the Cartesian binary opposition between body and mind. Desire subsists as an effect of the signifier–and does so before the verbalization of it. That being the case, desire is construed as an absence without surrendering its value as a referent. Belsey maintains that desire dwells in the flesh, and that it exceeds the duality of body and mind. This concept will guide us in the brief analysis I propose here today of Germano Almeida’s novelistic corpus. We will view his fiction as constituting the object of desire, something which I henceforth will call “the body of desire”. From this perspective, Almeida’s discourse is itself that body of desire. What I mean by this is that discourse or the novelistic substance may be understood as being both a physical entity and the reader’s possession of it. Thus the duality of which Catherine Belsey spoke is eliminated. But the language in which this duality is embodied maintains its irrevocable tangibility. Desire resides in the plenitude of language, in the recurrence of the characters, and in the microstories. It’s this excessive repetition, this indispensable excess, that renders these novels challengingly open-ended, resistant to conclusion. This way, as I see it, the author lends his works the ability to overflow from one into the other. There is no definitive conclusion to any of Almeida’s stories. Since Almeida’s works imply specific historical moments in the relationship between Cape Verde and Portugal, the repetition of episodes within the same novel and from novel to novel may be viewed as recastings of official versions of History. His entire ouevre thus lends itself to being viewed as an example of political resistance. Paraphrasing Camoens but also departing from him, it is wanting more for the sake of wanting more; it is never to be content with one’s lot; but it is also to look for strangeness and therein find familiarity. Then we realize that this familiarity will itself be everyday-reality transfigured, one which we apprehend the first time as “x” and then rediscover as “x” plus “y”.
This fictional game–which, as we have seen, points to desire as conceived by psychoanalysis–has the effect of contributing to the indestructibility of that desire. In other words: if, as psychoanalysis maintains, desire remains the first desire forever unfulfilled (i.e., the desire for the mother’s body), when we recognize the ability to surmount the death of that first desire, we are reconceiving it and fantasizing an eternity based on the repetition of death itself. It is not a question of deceiving or avoiding death; it is a question of reconceiving reality through the word as if the word, all of a sudden, were capable of acquiring a maternal nature. The several works then acquire the status of fraternal offspring born of the duality writer/reader. Writer and reader bring forth several works which bear both similarites and differences as might be expected of siblings born and raised in the same verbal home.
If we concentrate on the work itself as instigator of as many readings/interpretations as possible, we will then have a maternity that imposes the law of desire and shapes the reader in accordance with its own needs in a way such that the final result can never distance itself from the primary project that the writing demonstrates, substantiates, corporealizes and imposes. If in accordance with Lacan the subject only starts speaking when he accepts the separation from his mother’s body and, furthermore, accepts the absence resulting from that separation, then we have a divided subject whose desire attains its ultimate possibilities in the death wish. We can then accept the Freudian desire as being equivalent to the Lacanian order, that is, the desire of death becomes the desire of recapturing the lost unity with the mother’s body.
That the body involves desire in such a clear manner belongs to the realm of fact.
But it is also part of the realm of fiction since a great deal of the impetus behind desire comes from imagination and fantasy. If the works of Germano Almeida can be conceived as historiographical metafiction, as defined by Linda Hutcheon, this same category is an ideal space for the development of the notion of desire.
In this way, the realm of fact in Germano Almeida encompasses History, and the realm of fiction is connected to the several stories told around History. Cases in point are O Caso das Calças Roladas, a novel in which the fact is an incident related with the implementation of agrarian reform in Cape Verde, and fiction are the different versions appertaing to the many characters surrounding this same incident. Fact is also the material text itself, and desire intermitently develops as the text is read.
Paraphrasing Catherine Belsey, desire is always quotable, i.e., manifests itself in a series of initial quotations that have been rewritten and recreated in conformity with the cultural and temporal context of its users.Thus in Germano Almeida the initial quotation can be, for example, Manuel Bandeira’s text “Vou-me embora para Pasárgada” (1957), which is afterwards rewritten by Ovídio Martins as “Não vou para Pasárgada” (1973). Finally, the character O Meu Poeta, from the same novel, recaptures both texts in a dialogue with his secretary. He states that he wants to go to Pasárgada while the secretary asks whether they had not already decided not to go and, furthermore, whether they were or were not the flagelados do vento leste. The latter is an obvious allusion to Manuel Lopes’s famous novel Os Flagelados do Vento Leste (1959) and also to the poem of the same title by Ovídio Martins penned in 1962. (I might also add that Ovídio Martins dedicates his poem to Manuel Bandeira.) Not only does desire develop in Germano Almeida’s texts but also through them, thus creating a network of connections between different times and places: Brazil, Cape Verde, and Portugal, namely the 1950s in Brazil; the 1960s and the beginning of the Independence movement; and, finally, the present moment (1989) in Cape Verde. The character O Meu Poeta parodies not only that network of connections but also the political hypocrisy that informs present-day Cape Verde. I am referring to the ridiculousness embodied in the character O Meu Poeta. First, he is a poet who wrote no more than a couple of worthless poems. Second, he attained status by participating in a meaningless rebellion brought about by the closing of a restaurant-bar. These glories are what propell him to the successful candidacy to the presidency of Cape Verde, a post he attains by means of such transcendental actions as giving away washing machines in a country that suffers from a perennial lack of water.
We thus have the quotable desire mentioned above in intimate connection with the political and personal desire(s) to which we also referred. Postmodern writing is characterized by its ability to bring forth the phenomenon of constant and reiterative verbal interchange. Germano Almeida’s works in particular talk to us about desire while at the same time postponing its consummation. The narrative, temporal and spatial discontinuity, parody, irony, allusions and glosses invoke the impersonality of desire. Lovers are never who they are. Their voices are echoes of other voices. And the love stories–which in Germano Almeida’s works are anticlimatically non-romanticized– destroy the Cartesian duality body-mind. The love memes having been destroyed in his works, destroyed are also the monotony and power games characteristic of essentially patriarchal societies. Germano Almeida’s texts are, above all, texts of seduction in which the author is committed to seducing the reader–from the least informed to the most sophisticated. It seems as though the text wants to possess the reader–something which I view within a framework of colonialist absorption and authoritarianism.
But how can we view the author as a “colonial dictator” if the reader’s consciousness is the creative space of a new fiction, disconnected from the fiction that dwells in the primary text itself? How, if the reader him/herself, in accordance with their degree of erudition, can recreate something to which the author himself does not have access? The reality of fiction is another fiction, this time a highly individualized one.
As we have seen, the issue is too complex and could not be fully explained by means of theories such as reception and reader response, even if time allowed me to pursue fully these avenues. I will avoid the well-known concepts of writing degree zero and death of the author but I must refer to The Pleasure of the Text (1973). Barthe’s opening sentence immediately connects with Germano Almeida’s work O Dia das Calças Roladas, to mention the most obvious example of “denying nothing.” None of the hypotheses presented in Almeida’s novel is eliminated or accepted without questioning. The same goes for the novel Os Dois Irmãos when it exposes the different versions of the different witnesses of one crime tried in a court of law. Germano Almeida may be seen as the fiction of the reader who gets rid of the contradictions of one logic and accepts, unquestionably, the irony and the terror of the lack of a unitarian psychology. Is Germano Almeida, after all, the author, the reader, or both? We cannot answer this question as yet. But we must accept the Barthean idea that pleasure corresponds to the fruition of an anticipatory space of jouissance. If I am proposing that the reading entity be equated with the author himself, it is impossible to conceive the idea of a text written at the margins of pleasure. It is impossible to conceive of a frigid text separated from any nevrotic marks. The truth is that all the texts of Germano Almeida are constructed upon the foundation of the primary pleasure of the author himself. He is the one who maneuvers the action toward infinity and fatally assumes the role of commentator, observer, and reader of that same action. The situation approaches tiredness since the reader is transported into an unclear space in which his/her role is not obvious, for the author/narrator has already assumed most of the reaser’s funtions. The text should desire its own reader as it would be constructed in such a way that only reading would complete it. But this desire does not matter to us. Germano Almeida’s texts go far beyond this immanent desire of the written word, since it expands onto a para-historical universe where writing develops, as well as onto a parapsychological universe of its own characters whose construction is never completed. When characters flow from one text to another and History encompasses histories/stories, the Barthean rupture, which is the fundamental condition of desire, goes beyond the need of a desiring conscience for it is the rupture itself that constitutes the text(s). The author carries his own desire of characters’ recreation from text to text. And this godlike author is what constitutes a divergence from Barthes’ concept of plaisir du texte that, nevertheless, will help us to proceed. We have not yet answered the question regarding the ambiguity of the reader’s role vis-à-vis an overpowering narrator. If we accept the concept of the author’s jouissance, we can interpret the repetitions, the recreation of the characters, and the verbal excesses as une jubilation continue (Barthes, 1973, 17). This jubilation would redirect us into an analysis os this kind of discourse as political discourse. Moreover, the narrative overflow destroys the classic notion of narrative, transcending the space of writing and approaching the notion of writing as a body. The several texts are pieces of clothing slowly and systematically pealed off causing in the reader the same erotic sensations of a factual and unending strip-tease. The end of the story never comes. Even when the naïve reader believes he/she has finished the author’s first book, the pleasure of the text will lead the reader into another book. The reader will start out convinced that he/she came across something totally new, to realize that the first book had only constituted the first desire. Germano Almeida beckons the reader to stretch out the primary Edipean pleasure.