Stephen Hawking, a fellow alumnus of my adolescent alma mater, St Albans School, has just died, over 50-years after he was forecast to by doctors upon his diagnosis of Motor Neurone Disease. Stubborn and resilient to the last, he also added humour to help overcome his physical and mental health challenges.
“Life would be tragic if it weren’t funny.” – Stephen Hawking
“Keeping an active mind has been vital to my survival, as has been maintaining a sense of humour.”
Even in his older years he still regarded himself as a “child, who has never grown up”, maintaining his curiosity till the end. Best known for A Brief History of Time – on many people’s shelves but less often read, we were lucky to have had his challenging mind and courageous heart on this planet and in this universe for so long.
“We are just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star. But we can understand the Universe. That makes us something very special.”
Hawking was a profound thinker who found women more complex than the universe, questioned religious and scientific views alike, but for all his deep wisdom and intelligent theories, I like his saying that –
“It matters if you just don’t give up.”
At school, apart from traditional studies, he messed around manufacturing fireworks and building computers, the latter inspired and aided by his British-Armenian Maths teacher Dikran Tahta, of whom Hawking said:
“…behind every exceptional person, there is an exceptional teacher”.
Although intelligent, Hawking was initially not very hardworking nor academically successful and used risky tactics in both his studies and when coxing an Oxford University boat crew resulting in a few scrapes and crashes. Too busy “enjoying himself” rather than working, he spent an average of just an hour-a-day on his degree.
“I was never top of the class at school, but my classmates must have seen potential in me, because my nickname was ‘Einstein.'”
He described himself as essentially an introvert yet needing the stimulation of others. Speaking on Desert Island Discs, Stephen Hawking said:
“I need discussion with other people to stimulate me. I find it a great help in my work to describe my ideas to others. Even if they don’t offer any suggestions, the mere fact of having to organise my thoughts so that I can explain them to others often shows me a new way forward.”
He did not see progress as inevitably leading to utopian improvement, instead, he cautioned that greater inequality could result.
“Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution. So far, the trend seems to be toward the second option, with technology driving ever-increasing inequality.” – Hawking on Reddit
Given that the announcement of his death came on the same day as the reigniting of Cold War tit-for-tat expulsions between Britain and Russia, and sitting alongside the incendiary dialogue between North Korea and the US, one hopes that Hawking was wrong that:
“I believe alien life is quite common in the universe, although intelligent life is less so. Some say it has yet to appear on planet Earth.”
To most people, it is Stephen Hawking’s mind that inspires or his positive attitude in overcoming disability. To me, it was his attitude to life and his mental health that encourages me.
“Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.”
His changing health being the biggest adaptation he had to choose to deal with. He recognised that you could not be angry with the world and be a part of educating it.
“People won’t have time for you if you are always angry or complaining.”
Focus on the good, on what you have, be a glass-half-full person:
“My advice to other disabled people would be, concentrate on things your disability doesn’t prevent you doing well, and don’t regret the things it interferes with. Don’t be disabled in spirit as well as physically.”
Not only intelligent but wise Stephen Hawking used humour to help overcome his physical and mental health challenges, his legacy is his spirit as much as his mind. He chose Je ne regrette rien, on Desert Island Discs, and that is as inspirational an attitude as all his writing.
I hate ‘isms, whether capitalism or communism, neoliberalism or even postcapitalism. I also dislike ‘ities, whether cities or christianities – for there are thousands of incarnations of both. I prefer the land and environment of the countryside, not high-rise development living on top of each other, aspiring to the penthouse apartment, swarming like bees to a square mile of golden honey, gold handshake, gilded lifestyle of the 1 per cent. History has led us ever closer to each other in terms of where we live, with population expansion and the pressure to move towards the capitalist and industrialist means of production. Will the age of the Internet allow us to live out self-employment part-time creative dreams?
The EU – Peace & Prosperity in our time?
Will modernity bring or sustain peace? The European project, the EU, has been an ever expanding union in terms of peace, even prosperity perhaps, until the crash of 2008/9 affected us all as we shored up banks and capital but not people and livelihoods. Whilst the UK marginally voted to leave the European Union, assuming “Brexit means Brexit” as Theresa May so simply and yet evasively said, it is undeniable that however lumbering a bureaucratic behemoth ‘Brussels’ is, it has been on balance a force for good. The UK, well England in the main, recoiled nonetheless against ever increasing fiscal and foreign policy union.
NATO – “One for all and all for One”?
As with a nuclear “deterrent”, have defence pacts really saved us from wars? Arguably, NATO‘s 28 nations are neither at war with each other and would, in theory, defend each other against external aggression. In principle, at least, for Jeremy Corbyn has expressed his doubts and previously said that NATO only furthers capitalist self-interest and has had its time.
“I don’t wish to go to war. What I want to do is achieve a world where we don’t need to go to war, where there is no need for it. That can be done.” – Jeremy Corbyn
Who can disagree with that? Yet, the media focus is on the possible breaking of NATO Article 5 pledges instead. His words are idealistic rather than realistic but where would we be without ideals?
Capitalism and PostCapitalism?
In his 2015 book, Postcapitalism, Paul Mason argues, along with the OECD, that “the best of capitalism is behind us” and that with decreasing returns for the many inequality will rise 40%, as the few batten down the hatches. What lies beyond a breaking capitalism, not neoliberalism, for sure.
“Is it utopian to believe we’re on the verge of an evolution beyond capitalism? We live in a world in which gay men and women can marry, and in which contraception has, within the space of 50 years, made the average working-class woman freer than the craziest libertine of the Bloomsbury era. Why do we, then, find it so hard to imagine economic freedom?
… All readings of human history have to allow for the possibility of a negative outcome… But why should we not form a picture of the ideal life, built out of abundant information, non-hierarchical work and the dissociation of work from wages?
Millions of people are beginning to realise they have been sold a dream at odds with what reality can deliver. Their response is anger – and retreat towards national forms of capitalism that can only tear the world apart. Watching these emerge, from the pro-Grexit left factions in Syriza to the Front National and the isolationism of the American right has been like watching the nightmares we had during the Lehman Brothers crisis come true.
We need more than just a bunch of utopian dreams and small-scale horizontal projects. We need a project based on reason, evidence and testable designs, that cuts with the grain of history and is sustainable by the planet. And we need to get on with it.” – Paul Mason
Putting the Human where Capital once was
Humanism begins well, with human, but ends in another ism. An upside down society, as suggested by Jesus, where the last are first, the migrants welcomed, the poor ‘last hour workers’ paid well, the sick, disabled or mentally unwell treated with care, dignity, and respect, is possible. If, we choose to create it.
But it takes an ‘us’ not a ‘me’. So many recoil at immigration because of a perceived threat to self, status, employment, a drain on health or schooling. Yet migration is what history and evolution are all about, the development and expansion of humanity. Again, like humanism, humanity puts human beings first and then ends with an ‘ity’, another intangible unified concept, a utopian ideal that lumps us all as one, without recognising our differences, diversity and distinction – the very things that when accentuated create mistrust and tribal misanthropy.
I prefer the word humankind, for it is only in being kind, being kindred, perpetuating random acts of kindness towards our fellow human beings – recognising their ‘being’ and right to ‘be’ that we can coexist, cooperate and create a humane society together.
It’s a generation since the death of author, feminist, and existentialist, Simone de Beauvoir on 14 April 1986. A lover of Sartre – in both senses of the word, she was a sexually liberated bisexual whose disregard for sexual convention – including age of consent laws, caused her to lose her right to teach in France. Her 1949 defining work on the oppression of women, Le Deuxième Sexe – “The Second Sex“, is widely considered a groundbreaking treatise on sex and gender for 20th-century feminism.
As to her sexual liberation, her “erotic liberty“, and open relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre, she saw any sexual categorisation as restrictive:
“In itself, homosexuality is as limiting as heterosexuality: the ideal should be to be capable of loving a woman or a man; either, a human being, without feeling fear, restraint, or obligation.” – Simone de Beauvoir
Simone de Beauvoir Quotes
I recently quoted, knowingly totally out of context, this from de Beauvoir:
“One is not born a woman, but becomes one.”
I was quite promptly, and perhaps rightly, accused of ‘quote mining’. Contextomy or the unjustified use of an uprooted, and in this case anachronous, quote, to prove a point it was never intended to address, is a fair criticism.
My use of the quote was because it resonated with the idea that people can be born female, raised a girl, but become a woman. A woman is as much experience, as nature. I’m not jumping in and suggesting, for example, that post-operative trans women are thus women, the same as those who were born with a uterus and raised as girls. Indeed, is anyone any less of a woman after uterine cancer (affecting 8,500 women in the UK a year) and removal of the womb via hysterectomy? Similarly, women can have various difficulties in reproduction due to infertility, or any number of intersex medical differences that may cause an XX or indeed other chromosomal combination such as XXY etc to present a body that defies the defined binary female stereotype. Women should not be defined by their ability to procreate and bear children – that much I am sure de Beauvoir would agree with.
My question is, though, whether de Beauvoir would have condemned or supported the rights of some to pursue a gender trajectory that more matches their inner feelings and psyche than their binary-born bodies. In other words, transgender, non-binary and other forms of gender fluidity or transition.
Simone de Beauvoir on Woman, Femininity, the Other, and maybe a Third Sex
So to add insult to injury, to compound my contextomy crime, here are some further Beauvoirisms that might shed light on what might have been her attitude to “The Third Sex”. A phrase which I use, advisedly, for the main purpose of echoing her “Second Sex”, rather than for the purpose of defining all trans and/or gender non-conforming people as a “Third Sex” even though that is a way which some, especially in Asian and Indian cultures, do define.
Does ‘Woman’ even exist?
Beauvoir existentially questioned whether woman would always exist, suggesting that ‘she’ is an ephemeral concept ,driven by culture and construct as much as conception:
“Are there women, really? Most assuredly the theory of the eternal feminine still has its adherents who will whisper in your ear: ‘Even in Russia women still are women’; and other erudite persons – sometimes the very same – say with a sigh: ‘Woman is losing her way, woman is lost.’ One wonders if women still exist, if they will always exist, whether or not it is desirable that they should…” – The Second Sex, introduction (1949)
One can be female but not a woman
As to femininity, she saw it as something esoteric, and that female ≠ woman ≠ femininity:
“It would appear, then, that every female human being is not necessarily a woman; to be so considered she must share in that mysterious and threatened reality known as femininity. Is this attribute something secreted by the ovaries? Or is it a Platonic essence, a product of the philosophic imagination?” – The Second Sex, introduction (1949)
If female equals the “female of the species” reproductively, and feminine a cultural construct if not oppression, then woman need not be feminine and feminism a path to throwing off that oppression. But does ‘woman’ need to be female? If one can be female but not a woman, can one be woman but not a female?
What is woman?
If much previous philosophical, and biblical-theological enquiry, stemmed around “What is man?” and the nature of man, then de Beauvoir helpfully examines, what is woman:
If her functioning as a female is not enough to define woman, if we decline also to explain her through ‘the eternal feminine’, and if nevertheless we admit, provisionally, that women do exist, then we must face the question “what is a woman”?
Yet would it not be more helpful to discuss what it means to be human, or are we still stuck seeing woman as something less than a man, and hence neither equal nor fully human since, as in the Bible, Adam stands for man and humankind as the first point of reference?
“Thus humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him” – The Second Sex, introduction (1949)
On BBC Woman’s Hour today, British Army Captain Rosie Hamilton was interviewed about how female recruits are trained, but it was then made all about how many of them made the ‘male’ standard.
Woman as the ‘Other’
Beauvoir rebelled against the patriarchal concept that man is human and woman is defined only in relation to being man’s so-called opposite pole, that she is ‘othered’ in reference to him. Not that we have achieved gender parity yet, but I wonder how she would see trans, non-binary, intersex people now, as perhaps the new (however ancient a group of people they are) ‘other’?
“No subject will readily volunteer to become the object, the inessential; it is not the Other who, in defining himself as the Other, establishes the One. The Other is posed as such by the One in defining himself as the One.” – The Second Sex, introduction (1949)
Trans, Non-Binary and Intersex people are ‘othered’ by the default biologically and socially essentialist binary. In the same way, de Beauvoir saw woman as othered by man. Thus, gender non-conforming people, whether assigned male or female at birth, should have some solidarity with the feminist struggle to assert the equality of women with men, and their common core identity as human beings absolutely, not relatively. Sadly, that is not always the case and some folk do not see a common struggle between feminism and gender identity. As de Beauvoir said:
“Enough ink has been spilled in quarrelling over feminism” – The Second Sex, introduction (1949)
Some radical feminists, such as Julie Bindel, Germaine Greer, Sheila Jeffries and others, are well known for exclusionary attitudes to trans people. Indeed, de Beauvoir others intersex people, formerly termed ‘hermaphrodite’, in her seeking to find an independent voice on ‘what is woman?’:
“What we need is an angel – neither man nor woman – but where shall we find one? Still, the angel would be poorly qualified to speak, for an angel is ignorant of all the basic facts involved in the problem. With a hermaphrodite we should be no better off, for here the situation is most peculiar; the hermaphrodite is not really the combination of a whole man and a whole woman, but consists of parts of each and thus is neither.” – The Second Sex, introduction (1949)
In a 1976 interview, when asked about excluding men from some aspects of the feminist struggle and female gatherings, she opined that sometimes it was necessary. So she may have argued against the full and unfettered access of some transwomen (e.g., pre-operative) to women-only safe spaces. She did also say, however:
“The battle of the sexes is not implicit in the anatomy of man and woman.” – The Second Sex, conclusion (1949)
Similarly, she spoke of some lesbian women, in particular, being male-exclusionary:
“There are other women who have become lesbian out of a sort of political commitment: that is, they feel that it is a political act to be lesbian, the equivalent somewhat within the sex struggle of the black power advocates within the racial struggle. And, true, these women tend to be more dogmatic about the exclusion of men from their struggle.” – interview (1976)
Anyone, who is oppressed has the right to gather in safe spaces – whether other oppressed minorities should have rights of access to the safe spaces of other groups who have been ‘othered’ is another matter. That siad, shared oppression is sometimes more important than shared hormones.
“Woman is determined not by her hormones or by mysterious instincts, but by the manner in which her body and her relation to the world are modified through the action of others than herself.” – The Second Sex, conclusion (1949)
It was Audre Lorde that said, whilst “any woman is not free”, then “no woman is”. Being the one oppressed is sadly part of a common humanity, and a common responsibility:
“Each of us is responsible – to every human being.” – Simone de Beauvoir
In some matters, if not most – except the most basic biological differences, “men and women” and anyone that is defined or identified outside that binary need to” unequivocally affirm their brotherhood”, as de Beauvoir concluded in The Second Sex.
So, could every Human be a Woman?
“I wish that every human life might be pure transparent freedom.”
Beauvoir speaks of every human being, every human life, less of the categorisation that in a class-distinctive way oppresses all of us, even the men. For, in defining men and not women, as not soft or empathic, or similar stereotypes, we trap them in conventional masculinity, we oppress gay men, drag queens and transvestites who may still identify as male.
“…man, like woman, is flesh, therefore passive, the plaything of his hormones and of the species, the restless prey of his desires.” – The Second Sex, conclusion (1949)
We no longer accept feminism as the sole regard of women. True women’s liberation also liberates men from roles and rules of sex and gender.
“…the woman of today is [not] a creation of nature; it must be repeated once more that in human society nothing is natural and that woman, like much else, is a product elaborated by civilisation.” – The Second Sex, conclusion (1949)
If a feminist need not be a woman, and a female need not be a ‘woman’, and the ‘feminine’ just as possessable by males, then, perhaps too, a ‘woman’ need not be female, at least not assigned one at birth. In other words, is the very term ‘woman’ as much a social construct as gender itself, and the so-called masculine and feminine ideals?
“No single educator could fashion a female human being today who would be the exact homologue of the male human being; if she is brought up like a boy, the young girl feels she is an oddity and thereby she is given a new kind of sex specification.” – The Second Sex, conclusion (1949)
Only in an androgynous (but not uniform) utopia, where all human beings were raised without class or gender specificity, could true equality perhaps be found.
On International Women’s Day the other Wachowski sibling, Andy – until yesterday, has also, like Lana, come out as transgender under the name Lilly. She had prepared for this moment, but also seems to have been pushed by a Daily Mail journalist – now that bit isn’t news or surprising, although it is denied by the newspaper who claimed to be “courteous at all times” and “baffled” by the accusation. It is sad and intrusive. It is more invasive than investigative journalism. It’s also dangerous and unethical, like ‘outing’ someone in a witness protection program because of the high rates of trans suicide – almost 50%. The Mail has distanced itself and defended accusations that it ‘outed’ or hounded trans teacher Lucy Meadows, as quoted by Lilly in her statement below.
Lana had been transitioning during the 2000s but first went public in 2012 when she revealed that she too had considered suicide in her teens because of her gender identity.
Gender binary – Two little boxes
Lilly describes the enforced binariness of gender as oppressive and a false idol:
“Being transgender is not easy. We live in a majority-enforced gender binary world. This means when you’re transgender you have to face the hard reality of living the rest of your life in a world that is openly hostile to you.”
“But these words, “transgender” and “transitioned” are hard for me because they both have lost their complexity in their assimilation into the mainstream. There is a lack of nuance of time and space. To be transgender is something largely understood as existing within the dogmatic terminus of male or female. And to “transition” imparts a sense of immediacy, a before and after from one terminus to another. But the reality, my reality is that I’ve been transitioning and will continue to transition all of my life, through the infinite that exists between male and female as it does in the infinite between the binary of zero and one. We need to elevate the dialogue beyond the simplicity of binary. Binary is a false idol.”
Lana wanted to “transcend the limitations of two little boxes” and the flat-earth pseudo-simplicity of binary bathrooms and their policing:
“I see few things as beautiful as my community and all the miraculous ways we transcend the limitations of two little boxes, blurring and even erasing the distinctions that legitimize and support the belief in all equalities of gender… I understand. I really do. I know how important these rules and regulations, these binary bathrooms are to your understanding of the world…” – Lana Wachowski, at Equality Illinois 2014 Gala, accepting Freedom Award
Without putting words into their mouths, I think it is safe to say they are both ‘out’ as not only transgender but have left the binary gender matrix behind too.
Take the pill, leave the Matrix
The Wachowskis’ ground breaking films are both escapist and challenging. Lana says that what they were trying to achieve in the Matrix trilogy was:
“…a shift, the same kind of shift that happens for Neo, that Neo goes from being in this sort of cocooned and programmed world, to having to participate in the construction of meaning to his life. And we were like, ‘Well, can the audience go through the three movies and experience something similar to what the main character experiences?’ So the first movie is sort of typical in its approach. The second movie is deconstructionist, and it assaults all of the things that you thought to be true in the first movie, and so people get very upset, and they’re like ‘Stop attacking me!’ in the same way that people get upset with deconstructionist philosophy. I mean, Derrida and Foucault, these people upset us. And then the third movie is the most ambiguous, because it asks you to actually participate in the construction of meaning.” — Lana Wachowski,Movie City News, October 13, 2012
Red Pill, Blue Pill
The Red Pill represents reality, often raw and painful, whilst the Blue Pill is the illusion, the delusional space we inhabit to avoid confronting reality:
“After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill — the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.” – Morpheus, The Matrix (1999)
A decade ago, one of the first trans* (explicitly a male crossdresser) autobiographies I read was called Alice in Genderland by Richard Novic, MD – yes he is a Doctor, psychiatrist and psychotherapist. He describes his gender journey as like falling “headlong down a rabbit hole”, like Alice.
Other Worldly Queerness
Lilly also quotes from José Esteban Muñoz’s writings on queerness:
“Queerness is essentially about the rejection of a here and now and an insistence on potentiality for another world.” – José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (2009)
Several of the Wachowskis’ films including Jupiter Ascending have been about other worlds. Their private worlds have now been shattered and they are now both in the public domain, but I hope their ongoing transitioning(s) are respected and lauded, not hounded and sensationalised.
Lilly Wachowski’s full statement
Lilly Wachowski‘s statement in her own words to Chicago’s LGBT paper the Windy City Times:
“SEX CHANGE SHOCKER—WACHOWSKI BROTHERS NOW SISTERS!!!”
There’s the headline I’ve been waiting for this past year. Up until now with dread and/or eye rolling exasperation. The “news” has almost come out a couple of times. Each was preceded by an ominous email from my agent—reporters have been asking for statements regarding the “Andy Wachowski gender transition” story they were about to publish. In response to this threatened public outing against my will, I had a prepared a statement that was one part piss, one part vinegar and 12 parts gasoline.
It had a lot of politically relevant insights regarding the dangers of outing trans people, and the statistical horrors of transgender suicide and murder rates. Not to mention a slightly sarcastic wrap-up that “revealed” my father had injected praying mantis blood into his paternal ball-sac before conceiving each of his children to produce a brood of super women, hellbent on female domination. Okay, mega sarcastic.
But it didn’t happen. The editors of these publications didn’t print a story that was only salacious in substance and could possibly have a potentially fatal effect. And being the optimist that I am, I was happy to chalk it up to progress.
Then last night while getting ready to go out for dinner my doorbell rang. Standing on my front porch was a man I did not recognize.
“This might be a little awkward,” he said in an English accent.
I remember sighing.
Sometimes it’s really tough work to be an optimist.
He proceeded to explain he was a journalist from the Daily Mail, which was the largest news service in the UK and was most definitely not a tabloid. And that I really had to sit down with him tomorrow or the next day or next week so that I could have my picture taken and tell my story which was so inspirational! And that I really didn’t want to have someone from the National Enquirer following me around, did I? BTW—The Daily Mail is so definitely not a tabloid.
My sister Lana and I have largely avoided the press. I find talking about my art frustratingly tedious and talking about myself a wholly mortifying experience. I knew at some point I would have to come out publicly. You know, when you’re living as an out transgender person it’s … kind of difficult to hide. I just wanted—needed some time to get my head right, to feel comfortable.
But apparently I don’t get to decide this.
After he had given me his card, and I closed the door it began to dawn on me where I had heard of the Daily Mail. It was the “news” organization that had played a huge part in the national public outing of Lucy Meadows, an elementary school teacher and trans woman in the UK. An editorial in the “not-a-tabloid” demonized her as a damaging influence on the children’s delicate innocence and summarized “he’s not only trapped in the wrong body, he’s in the wrong job.” The reason I knew about her wasn’t because she was transgender it was because three months after the Daily Mail article came out, Lucy committed suicide.
And now here they were, at my front door, almost as if to say—
“There’s another one! Let’s drag ’em out in the open so we can all have a look!”
Being transgender is not easy. We live in a majority-enforced gender binary world. This means when you’re transgender you have to face the hard reality of living the rest of your life in a world that is openly hostile to you.
I am one of the lucky ones. Having the support of my family and the means to afford doctors and therapists has given me the chance to actually survive this process. Transgender people without support, means and privilege do not have this luxury. And many do not survive. In 2015, the transgender murder rate hit an all-time high in this country. A horrifying disproportionate number of the victims were trans women of color. These are only the recorded homicides so, since trans people do not all fit in the tidy gender binary statistics of murder rates, it means the actual numbers are higher.
And though we have come a long way since Silence of the Lambs, we continue to be demonized and vilified in the media where attack ads portray us as potential predators to keep us from even using the goddamn bathroom. The so-called bathroom bills that are popping up all over this country do not keep children safe, they force trans people into using bathrooms where they can be beaten and or murdered. We are not predators, we are prey.
So yeah, I’m transgender.
And yeah, I’ve transitioned.
I’m out to my friends and family. Most people at work know too. Everyone is cool with it. Yes, thanks to my fabulous sister they’ve done it before, but also because they’re fantastic people. Without the love and support of my wife and friends and family I would not be where I am today.
But these words, “transgender” and “transitioned” are hard for me because they both have lost their complexity in their assimilation into the mainstream. There is a lack of nuance of time and space. To be transgender is something largely understood as existing within the dogmatic terminus of male or female. And to “transition” imparts a sense of immediacy, a before and after from one terminus to another. But the reality, my reality is that I’ve been transitioning and will continue to transition all of my life, through the infinite that exists between male and female as it does in the infinite between the binary of zero and one. We need to elevate the dialogue beyond the simplicity of binary. Binary is a false idol.
Now, gender theory and queer theory hurt my tiny brain. The combinations of words, like freeform jazz, clang disjointed and discordant in my ears. I long for understanding of queer and gender theory but it’s a struggle as is the struggle for understanding of my own identity. I have a quote in my office though by José Muñoz given to me by a good friend. I stare at it in contemplation sometimes trying to decipher its meaning but the last sentence resonates:
“Queerness is essentially about the rejection of a here and now and an insistence on potentiality for another world.”
So I will continue to be an optimist adding my shoulder to the Sisyphean struggle of progress and in my very being, be an example of the potentiality of another world.
The colourful Colombian Nobel novelist Gabriel García Márquez died in April at the ripe old age of 87 at his home in Mexico City. Although solitude was a recurring theme in his novels he leaves behind his wife of 56 years and two children. Gabriel José de la Concordia García Márquez, or Gabo, was born in March 1927 and at 45 he won the Neustadt International Prize for Literature and at 55 the Nobel Prize in Literature. He started out in law, but abandoned that for journalism and work as a foreign correspondent. He wrote for Bogotá’s El Espectador newspaper in the 1940s.
His literary style has been termed magical realism, a style that began in Latin American/Hispanic writing and which contains fantasy or unnatural elements in otherwise commonplace, mundane ordinary life. Think, Guillermo del Toro movies! No, not, Kung Fu Panda 2 but perhaps Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) or Cronos (1993). Surrealism, symbolism and subtle historical satire also make regular appearances as if works of surrealist art rendered in literary form.
As a result of this Spanish-language literature emerging from South America in the 1960s, it has also been called the Latin American Boom with such literary giants as Julio Cortázar, Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel García Márquez being key figures in its development and global renown.
His most famous novel was One Hundred Years of Solitude (“Cien años de soledad”), published in 1967, and declared by a NY Times review to be “required reading for the entire human race” and the Guardian as “kaleidoscopically, mysteriously alive”. It has been translated into more than two dozen languages and sold tens of millions of copies.
“It’s just a small thing to even call it a book. It is a whole universe that’s been created that you’re being asked to step into.” – Patricia Smith, Associate Professor of Creative Writing, City University of New York
The book begins with the family patriarch’s scion, the now Colonel Aureliano Buendía, looking back on his childhood whilst facing a firing squad. Very evocative of an older era of Hispanic revolutionary times. The description of the early village settlement of Macondo, nestled on the bank of a river containing “polished stones…white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names…” is Edenic and utopic. Then comes the mysterious Melquíades and his gypsies, inventions, alchemy and a secret manuscript that would remain undeciphered for 7 generations of the somewhat doomed to repeat history family – another Latin American trait, fatalism. As his biographer Gerald Martin told AP it was “the first novel in which Latin Americans recognized themselves, that defined them, celebrated their passion, their intensity, their spirituality and superstition, their grand propensity for failure”.
Salman Rushdie described it as the “greatest novel in any language of the last 50 years”, but it wasn’t just any language, it was Spanish – a language almost as suited as English to passionate expression, with so many evocative words and idioms. It is said that English has perhaps twice as many words at its disposal but that “doesn’t mean that it can’t be just as expressive as English; sometimes it is more so.”
“One feature that Spanish has when compared to English is a flexible word order. Thus the distinction that is made in English between “dark night” and “gloomy night” might be made in Spanish by saying noche oscura and oscura noche, respectively. Spanish also has two verbs that are the rough equivalent of the English “to be,” and the choice of verb can change the meaning (as perceived by English speakers) of other words in the sentence. Thus estoy enferma (“I am sick”) is not the same as soy enferma (“I am sickly”). Spanish also has verb forms, including a much-used subjunctive mood, that can provide nuances of meaning sometimes absent in English. Finally, Spanish speakers frequently use suffixes to provide shades of meaning.”
I remember trying to read a Márquez novel in a post-A level Spanish literary class, and needing a dictionary constantly in hand. Though that interrupted the the flow of the narrative and slowed the comprehension, I was no less enthralled by the beauty and colour of the language, readily understood or not.
Márquez has been described as “the most popular Spanish-language writer since Miguel de Cervantes in the 17th century” and as having “outsold everything published in Spanish except the Bible.”
Upon accepting the 1982 Noble Prize for Literature, Márquez situated his fictional writing firmly in the real, the political, the crucible of civil wars, revolutions, exiles, people ‘disappeared’, “between reality and nostalgia was the raw material for my work”:
“The country that could be formed of all the exiles and forced emigrants of Latin America would have a population larger than that of Norway. I dare to think that it is this outsized reality, and not just its literary expression, that has deserved the attention of the Swedish Academy of Letters [Nobel committee]. A reality not of paper, but one that lives within us and determines each instant of our countless daily deaths, and that nourishes a source of insatiable creativity, full of sorrow and beauty, of which this roving and nostalgic Colombian is but one cipher more, singled out by fortune. Poets and beggars, musicians and prophets, warriors and scoundrels, all creatures of that unbridled reality, we have had to ask but little of imagination, for our crucial problem has been a lack of conventional means to render our lives believable. This, my friends, is the crux of our solitude.”
The opening lines of Love in the Time of Cholera (“El amor en los tiempos del cólera”, 1985) are literally bittersweet:
“It was inevitable: The scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love…his most sympathetic opponent in chess, had escaped the torments of memory with the aromatic fumes of gold cyanide.”
Written 18 years after One Hundred Years of Solitude, Love in the Time of Cholera is less fantastical but no less magical. Described as “a compelling exploration of the myths we make of love” by Barbara Hoffert, in the Library Journal, and the Independent wrote of it that “Few have written so passionately about the power of love”. The Daily Telegraph said of Márquez’ writing, that it was “Quite the nearest thing to sensual pleasure that prose can offer.”
In all the apparent hopelessness of Latin American existence, he, nonetheless, writes of a triumph of hope over experience and celebrates love in its many forms, including lovesickness, and at every age, even in the twilight of our lives. He reached the twilight of his existence and will remain loved by his family, fellow Latin Americans, and avid readers from most every nation alive.
Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos said of Márquez that he was Colombia’s “most loved and admired compatriot of all time” and has announced three days of official mourning.