CONFUSED BY LOVE: READING ANDRÉ ACIMAN’S CALL ME BY YOUR NAME

[Warning: this post deals with the novel Call Me by Your Name and contains spoilers!]

One of my TFG (or BA dissertation) tutorees, Marc, has chosen to work on the novel Call Me by Your Name (2007) by Egyptian-born American author André Aciman. You may have already seen the successful film adaptation directed by Lucca Guadagnino and based on a script by acclaimed filmmaker James Ivory, who was honoured with an Oscar for it. I am aware that the film is quite faithful to the novel but, since I haven’t seen it yet, I will refer here only to Aciman’s gorgeous text.

Call Me by Your Name is an exquisite literary novel which narrates in the first person the relationship between 17-year-old Elio (the narrator) and 24-year-old Oliver, a brilliant college teacher and published scholar. Prof. Perlman, Elio’s father, has the habit of inviting budding academics to his Italian Riviera villa for a six-week stay during which they are supposed to assist him in his own work. Oliver is, then, the last addition to the list of guests, whereas his brief sojourn with the Perlmans functions as the time frame constraining his relationship with Elio. Their love story, which happens in summer, fits in many ways the conventions of this kind of transient romance: it is intense but brief and it finishes as soon as the participants return home.

Since they are two men, inevitably Call Me by Your Name has been read as a homosexual story– as a matter of fact, it got a Lambda Award for Best Gay Fiction in 2008. This is quite peculiar because actually both boy and man are in relationships with women: Elio has a besotted girlfriend, Marzia, whom he treats not too kindly, and, this is crucial, Oliver returns home to the United States to marry an unnamed girl. Technically, then, this is the story of two bisexual men. However, Aciman refrains from pinning any label onto his protagonists and their relationship; we need to wonder, then, why we, readers and critics, do use labels anyway. This is in fact my student Marc’s research question.

Marc started off from a position which completely rejects how labels are used, arguing that Elio and Oliver are involved primarily in a love story, with their gender and sexuality being of secondary interest. This would work, I told him, if the members of the couple could be other than two men, and we agreed that they could easily be two women, and even a young man and an older woman. Turning Elio into Elia, however, would result in quite a different story: one framed by patriarchal heteronormativity. A surprising point in the romance happens when Prof. Perlman books a luxury suit in Rome for Elio and Oliver, aware of what has been going on between them under his roof. Marc and I read this as proof that, quite possibly, Prof. Perlman is a closeted homosexual. What would not fit, at any rate, our current politically correct taste is a story in which a father would book a hotel room for his underage daughter and her lover, and be fine about her having seduced one of his guests. Odd. Labels, then, are still needed.

Not that Call Me by Your Name is not an odd tale. Reversing Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (1912), in Aciman’s novel the one who obsesses over a beautiful male body is the adolescent (though Oliver, of course, is a young man whereas Mann’s voyeuristic Gustav von Aschenbach is in his early fifties). Elio’s erudition and fine prose are simply baffling. He belongs to a family of Jewish intellectuals, which might be a justification for the passion he feels for high Culture. Still, he’s only 17 and, since I was myself 17 at the time he lives his summer romance, in 1983, I can tell you that he is a completely unrealistic rendition of a 1980s teenager. He sounds, in fact, like someone out of a Thomas Mann novel, perhaps Hans Castorp in The Magic Mountain. I don’t doubt the intensity of the feelings Elio has for Oliver, but I find it impossible to believe that a 17-year-old would ever write in that subtle vein about them. Unless, that is, the one actually writing the story retrospectively is the 37-year-old Elio of the last part, set in the author’s narrative present.

It is this segment, Part 4 ‘Ghost Spots’, which makes Call Me by Your Name a particularly ambiguous text about modern love. As I explained to Marc, whatever gender and sex option we prefer, we’re awfully confused about how we want our love stories to end: if the couple remains together, then what follows is dreaded domesticity, a total anticlimax; it seems, rather, that we prefer the lovers to separate for ever, if possible tragically, as this prevents domesticity from spoiling passion. Aciman, though, chooses a peculiar third option: he has Elio and Oliver get together for a return to the landscape where their love flourished so many years ago, but he offers an open end. No decision is made, albeit Elio seems to be hoping that Oliver takes a step.

This might never happen, however, because he and Elio spend the first four weeks of their 1980s summer romance giving each other very confusing signals as they feign mutual indifference for strange personal reasons. This is more or less justified because Oliver worries that Elio might not really be ready for a sexual relationship with him, and also because the boy is still finding his feet as a seducer. As I read the novel, though, and because we live in the Tinder/Grindr age, I marvelled that any two persons could take so long to express their desire. To be honest, I started getting impatient, absurdly concerned that they would run out of time! Elio’s and Oliver’s cavalier use of time presents, as you can see, a serious obstacle to believe in a possible happy future together, now in the 21st century. Marc tells me that Guadagnino and Ivory are working on a second movie, so we’ll see…

Let me step back a bit and return to this puzzling Part 4. As I was explaining, the summer romance ends, simply, with Oliver’s return home. I find Aciman’s decision not to continue the love story (by, for instance, having Elio become a student in the USA and Oliver abandon his fiancée) correct. A 17-year-old boy seems to be in no position to commit for long, as most likely Oliver sees. This is hard to say, anyway, because and this is my main complaint against this discerning novel, Oliver remains a cipher. He is all handsome face and sexy body, but not a full person, a round character. But never mind. Assuming, then, that it makes sense to keep the two lovers apart as long as Elio is young, I cannot see, however, why Aciman stages their reunion 20 years later. It seems a very long time. Unless, that is, the author is narrating autobiographical events that simply happened in that way.

This long time lapse is a vital part in how Call Me by Your Name exemplifies modern love, for protagonists, author, and readers share a total uncertainty about romance. Conventionally, love stories are supposed to be intense but, like Elio and Oliver, we now avoid deep feelings out of fear of being excessively affected, or hurt. When romantic feelings start looming anyway, quite often the relationship is cut short, though this is, I think, far more frequent in real life than in fiction (is it?!). This is why Aciman’s novel is so original and at the same time so realistic: there is no tragedy (remember Brokeback Mountain?), just a logical, sensible drifting apart.

Or not so logical. Elio and Oliver’s passion could have been presented as a happy physical relationship within a specific period of their lives, and it would work well. Nevertheless, Aciman felt the need to add that problematic Part 4, which suggests that it was really love, of the kind Elio has never found (we’re not sure about Oliver, who seems more keen on being a father than a husband). But, then, if that summer fling was true love, why does Elio take so long to seek Oliver out…? You may sense here a hidden (or not so hidden) fear that the renewed relationship might not be as exciting, sexy or satisfying. To begin with the seven years separating Elio and Oliver, which made their first encounter so problematic but also so thrilling, mean now nothing: one is 37 and the other 44, practically the same age.

Of course, if we compare Call Me by Your Name to the most popular heterosexual romance of recent times, the Fifty Shades of Gray trilogy, we immediately realize that Aciman’s elegant final paragraph is light years away from the cheesy heteronormative resolution which E.L. James offers. The two texts, however, are at the same time inevitably linked: neither makes sense of how sex and love connect, and I very much suspect that, even though he could not have read James’s first novel, published four years before Call Me by Your Name, Aciman is conditioned by the happy-ever-after trope she uses against all odds. That is to say, he avoids it like the plague it is.

This is both a strength and a shortcoming of Call Me by Your Name, published at a point in the history of the United States, 2007, when same-sex marriage was already available (Massachusetts was the first state to legalize it, in 2004). We need to read, then, in Aciman’s open end a question mark about how to narrate romance today, when a main homophobic barrier has already been broken. Perhaps the remaining barrier is aesthetic and Aciman’s main dilemma is that although Elio’s inspired prose can transmit the nuances of attraction, it cannot accommodate the corny image of his walking down the aisle to marry Oliver twenty years later. And I have no idea, begging your pardon, whether any other LGTBI+ novel has managed to conquer something as essentially heteronormative as marriage for classy, literary queer romance. Or reinvent it.

Lovely novel… Wistful ending.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

A CLOSER LOOK AT PATRIARCHY THROUGH SOME KEY BOOKS

Since I am always ranting and raving about patriarchy, I have been taking a closer look at the key bibliography on the topic. The discussion of patriarchy appears to be disseminated among many heterogeneous texts and has not generated one single essential volume, though I grant that Austrian-American historian Gerda Lerner’s The Creation of Patriarchy (1986) comes close. Also, the monograph by British sociologist Sylvia Walby, Theorizing Patriarchy (1990). I haven’t read yet Transformations of Patriarchy in the West, 1500-1900 (1998) by the historian of sociology Pavla Miller, nor her new volume, simply called Patriarchy (2017). Whatever I say here is, then, woefully underresearched.

My own enlightenment about how patriarchy has pulled the trick of making itself absolutely dominant yet invisible, camouflaged as ‘human nature’, came from Anne Baring and Jules Cashford’s The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image (1993). I have no idea why this book is so little mentioned; perhaps Penguin’s decision to place it in its Arkana collection has made many readers avoid it supposing this is a book on esoteric feminism. It is not, beyond leaning a bit too heavily on the theory supposing that Homo Sapiens first organized society along matriarchal lines and the cult of an Earth Goddess. This has not been proven, although the remains of Turkish proto-urban Neolithic (and Chalcolithic) settlement of Çatal Höyük suggest that non-patriarchal arrangements did happen. Baring and Cashford explain that by the end of Neolithic times nomadic bands, probably from Central Asia, colonized the Middle East, imposing a regime based on male dominance then new to most of the world. Lerner narrates how this regime started History by making private patriarchy the foundation of the state, that is to say, of public patriarchy. Proof of this is the Hammurabi Code (1754 BC), though at this point it must be clear to you that the history of patriarchy is much older than 3000 years.

We are going now through an intense examination of patriarchy, a word which has taken quite a while to finally appear in the media and public opinion as the root of all trouble. Patriarchy used to mean ‘the rule of the father’ but we are all aware now that it actually means ‘male supremacism’. This poses the problem I am trying personally to solve (ehem!), which is how we distinguish between the men who support masculinism (another name for ‘male supremacism’) and those who don’t. Supposing that all men are patriarchal is like supposing that all whites are racist, but, then, if this is what you do suppose, my arguments won’t work with you.

I can’t say with precision when the Second Wave feminist debate on patriarchy begins (possibly with The Second Sex) but I can say that a turning point was the publication in 1973 of Steven Goldberg’s The Inevitability of Patriarchy (known since its second expanded edition as Why Men Rule (1993), see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Inevitability_of_Patriarchy). Goldberg, simplifying very much, started (or reinforced) biological essentialism and evolutionary biology by claiming that men rule because testosterone inclines them in that direction.

This is why, he claimed, all over the world we have the same social structure supported by patriarchy (the power-based hierarchy), male attainment (the ‘achievements’ that give men a place in patriarchy) and male dominance (self-explanatory). He himself claims in his website (http://www.goldberg-patriarchy.com/logic.html), in the long section counterarguing accusations of sexism, that his research descriptive, not prescriptive, for “No scientific explanation of how the world works can tell us how we should politically or morally act”. In short, he offers a diagnosis on which society then can act, even in anti-patriarchal ways. Supposing we accept this diagnosis (I certainly don’t) the only solution for patriarchy is, as he more or less concludes, a genetic intervention to curb down testosterone and produce a post-humanity with the right hormone balance. The word you’re looking for is preposterous. At least I’m glad a man, not a woman, is suggesting this.

The obvious solution is education, based on the fundamental tenet that “Patriarchy is not a historical constant” (Walby, 173) and on the hope that, therefore, patriarchy can be ended. This is why understanding how it began is so important: because this historicity justifies the idea that, pace Goldberg, patriarchy is not inevitable. If it were, I, a woman, wouldn’t be here expressing my opinion against it, to begin with.

Lerner believes that in a span of about 1000 years “patriarchal dominance moved from private practice into public law” by making “the control of female sexuality, previously left to individual husbands or to family heads, (…) a matter of state regulation” (121); this made it necessary to set up public law. I have little doubt that this neatly ties up with private property: the alpha male (with high testosterone?) who first announced “this is mine”, whatever ‘this’ was, needed to make sure that his property would pass on to a male heir, hence the obsession with regulating virginity and all female sexuality. Also, as novelist Lorenzo Mediano wonderfully explains in his novel El secreto de la Diosa (2003), patriarchy may have started when Neolithic men finally realized how sex connects with reproduction–the time lapse between intercourse and birth may have been used by women to convince them that they created life alone and to maintain the cult of the Goddess.

Lerner makes the case that, in essence, the links between the patriarchal family and the paternalistic state have survived thousands of years of changes. An essential aspect of this process was the rise of monotheistic, patriarchal religion and, as we all know, its use to convince women of their secondary status. This is, Lerner, says, “the historic moment of the death of the Mother-Goddess and her replacement by God-the-Father and the metaphorical Mother under patriarchy” (198), precisely what Baring and Cashford narrate. As it is obvious if you know any woman with deep monotheistic religious convictions (Jewish, Christian, Islamic), “The system of patriarchy can function only with the cooperation of women” (217). Sorry if I’m being offensive, but if you’re a woman, and much more so if you’re a mother, ask yourself why you need to believe in a male God as the world’s creator.

Lerner lists other ways in which patriarchy ensures our cooperation: “gender indoctrination; educational deprivation; the denial to women of knowledge of their history; the dividing of women, one from the other, by defining ‘respectability’ and ‘deviance’ according to women’s sexual activities; by restraints and outright coercion; by discrimination in access to economic resources and political power; and by awarding class privileges to conforming women” (217). This was published in 1986 but thirty years later still makes sense. If you think about it, 200 years of feminism (starting with Mary Wollstonecraft) can hardly dent thousands of years of patriarchy.

Walby typically defines patriarchy “as a system of social structures and practices in which men dominate, oppress and exploit women” (20), denying the biological determinism defended by Goldberg but also the “notion that every individual man is in a dominant position and every woman in a subordinate one” (20). This is, precisely, why I cannot agree that patriarchy is constituted to subordinate women only: when pro-feminist men started giving their view of the matter in the late 1980s they stressed that actually patriarchy is also destroying the lives of many men (think of conscription in war times, for instance).

Most interestingly, Walby presents patriarchy as a flexible model “composed of six structures: the patriarchal mode of production, patriarchal relations in paid work, patriarchal relations in the state, male violence, patriarchal relations in sexuality, and patriarchal relations in cultural institutions” (20). This explains why at some points “some of the structures are more important than others. The elimination of any does not lead to the demise of the system as a whole” (177). Think of the Cold War: the Eastern communist block and the Western capitalist block were equally patriarchal though each foregrounded a different set of beliefs. How do I know that both were patriarchal when, actually, the Soviet Union presented itself as the utopian state in which women could finally enjoy total equality? Easily: there was never a Politburo (or Soviet Government) headed by a woman or with a significant female representation.

In patriarchies, like ours, in which hegemonic masculinity is at high risk of collapsing, the system makes room for women at the lower levels and occasionally at the upper ones but the glass ceiling of masculinism prevents radical change. I may be a university teacher, something my own mother could never dream of, but the university itself is still deeply patriarchal.

British historian Jill Stephenson’s Women in Nazi Germany (2001) is also very useful to understand something that has always puzzles me: how come that so many women work outside the home in patriarchies which insist that their nature is domestic. The plainly misogynistic, masculinist Nazi regime tried to exclude women from the public sphere and deployed a vast propaganda machine to convince ‘Aryan’ women to fill the Third Reich with perfect ‘Aryan’ babies. At the same time, the complex state machinery and the economy needed women to participate, particularly in the 1939-45 war period, when the ‘Aryan’ men were sent to occupy Europe. In the face of these incompatible demands, many ‘Aryan’ women reacted by dragging their feet, having not too many children and even shirking factory work. The actual truth, Stephenson writes, is that Nazi patriarchy didn’t exclude women from all kinds of work but only from the very high positions of power. Women were “a resource to be tapped when necessary and dispensed with when there were sufficient men” (72). Funnily, this excluded the Wehrmacht.

Stephenson categorically denies that gender lines operate in a clearly-defined way even in the most blatant patriarchies, like Nazi Germany: “Even if the only people wielding political power were men, the vast majority of men were politically impotent” (5). That most Nazis were men, does not mean that being a man in their regime granted you a privilege, as Communists men first learned, and then Jewish men, Roma and Sinti men, gay men. Actually racist/patriarchal criteria were applied above gender/patriarchal criteria: Jewish women and children were massacred, as ‘Aryan’ women were pressured to produce children (or sterilized if deemed ‘worthless’: ‘asocial’ or ‘hereditarily unhealthy’). The correct picture of patriarchy is rather, one of a minority of Nazi men gathered around alpha male Hitler, oppressing the rest of society, with the collaboration of a minority of subordinated women.

The hardest passage to read in Stephenson’s volume is this one: “There were women who collaborated in the worst crimes of the Nazis (…). Women were, clearly, neither better nor worse than men. The difference was that men had more opportunity to commit crimes against humanity, given their greater role in the public sphere, including serving in the Wehrmacht. It was when women were given the opportunity that their potential for evil could be judged” (128, my italics). Nazism, then, which only accepted women in Hitler’s coterie as pliant wives or as pets (Eva Braun), placed, however, some of their female adepts in positions where they could exercise unlimited power over defenceless persons. I’ll speculate that the horrors that ensued may have even surprised some of the Nazi men. It is still very hard for me to believe that gender equality might lead in the future to a female-dominated, genocidal regime but Stephenson’s work presents patriarchy not so much a social structure based on gender but on power. Power, in its turn, is not enjoyed by all men, but by a minority, backed by a minority of women also seeking the enjoyment of power. I refuse to call these Nazi women victims of patriarchy (just in case this came to your mind).

I’m still shuddering, thinking of Stephenson’s phrase: ‘given the opportunity’. Perhaps Goldberg’s thesis should be rephrased: what we face is the inevitability of gender-neutral oligarchy. Given the opportunity.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

WHAT ABOUT THE LITTLE BOYS?: LOOKING FOR NEW MODELS

These days all of Catalonia is choosing the books that our family, partners and friends will receive on Saint Jordi’s Day. One thing you may have noticed is that there is a significant increase in the offer of books about feminism and, generally, women’s issues. These include many volumes addressed to little girls; particularly popular among them are the collections of brief biographies of prominent women, such as Elena Favilli’s Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls (and its sequel). I have purchased a copy for one of the rebel girls in my family circle, as she specifically asked for it, though with some doubts. It turns out that Favilli’s selection includes, hold my breath!, notorious women such as Margaret Thatcher. This means that I’ll have to caution my little rebel to distinguish between the truly positive role models for women and the ones that, following current nomenclature, I would call toxic.

Now, toxic is a word that you hear now frequently in connection to masculinity (it’s a word I try to avoid as it always brings to my mind Britney Spear’s eponymous hit song and then it stays on for while…argh!). And it is a word that has complicated enormously the production of similarly inspiring volumes for little boys. Something I didn’t quite mention in my previous post about Pablo Poo’s excellent Espabila Chaval, is that the title itself highlights that the problematic teens in Spanish secondary schools are males. He makes no specific comment on gender but implicit in his diagnosis is the idea that boys, rather more than girls, need to ‘wise up’. In short, most non-fiction texts addressing men today, as the #metoo campaign still unfolds, are mainly negative and tend to present, as I have noted, masculinity as toxic. What happens, then, as a young woman posted, in a GoodReads comment on Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, if you happen to be the parent of a little boy? What advice and what stories can you offer him?

I asked my new publisher in Catalan, Hugo Camacho (www.orcinypress.com) during a recent meeting at one of the most interesting bookshops in Barcelona (Espai Contrabandos, www.contrabandos.org/espai-contrabandos) for his opinion. Contrabandos, actually a cooperative project connecting dozens of small independent presses rather than just a bookshop, specializes in books aimed at raising political awareness at all levels. Hugo and I were, thus, surrounded by a few hundred books on gender and feminism, none of which addressed specifically little boys. Hugo tells me that readers, who are mainly female, are now demanding books on women and that publishers go with the tide. He agreed that there is no room right now for the kind of book on male heroes that was common a while ago (no Good Night Stories for Rebel Boys, then). I don’t like gender separatism at all, and I think it’s about time we put together a volume with positive role models for both boys and girls but Hugo corrected my idealism and stressed we haven’t reached that point yet.

I should say, however, that this is an urgent task. The reasoning is quite simple: boys and girls are co-educated and interact socially all the time, not to mention the basic fact that, regardless of their gender and sexual preferences, they constitute future society and are already a mixed-gender community. It makes, then, absolutely no sense at all to boost girls’ self-confidence and to make at the same time all boys the object of a blanket attack that should only apply to those endorsing patriarchy. Even if we assume that the budding patriarchs are the majority, my argument still applies: it is extremely important to find for them alternative models that undermine the appeal of toxic patriarchal masculinity. The problem, I’m well aware, is that the heroic discourse based on real-life persons works better for girls today than for boys: it is easier to find female heroes who had to struggle to be respected in their own patriarchal context, even when they did not call themselves feminist (please exclude Maggie Thatcher from this argument–she was in total collusion with patriarchy). In contrast, all habitual heroic role models for boys are, one way or another, tainted by patriarchy.

Let’s take a look at the main areas of human activity to consider where we may find positive figures for young men (and start thinking of names):

*sport, including e-sports, both individual and team sports, summer and winter varieties, and, indeed, adventure sports
*arts, from the fine arts to the popular arts: writing, cinema, TV, videogames, radio, comics, illustration, painting, sculpture, performing arts…
*science and technology: laboratory work, engineering of all kinds, and a huge etc., including space exploration (which used to be so exciting!)
*intellectual work, usually expressed in writing but not the kind of artistic writing I listed above
*teaching, at all levels, kindergarten to college
*architecture, including urban planning and interventions in the landscape
*law enforcement, from police to the judiciary
*care of persons, from medicine to fire services; include care of animals, too
*humanitarian work, in and outside NGOs
*activism, including environmentalism, gender issues, racism, anti-capitalism and any other form of struggle against discrimination and injustice
*politics, both in conventional party structures in democracies or in the opposition under tyrannies
*business, particularly business following less predatory strategies
*unionism
*social media/celebrity, with youtubers and Instagrammers at the top
*the military…

At this point we start seeing where the problem lies: none of these areas is free from the patriarchal taint, with some being the most direct expression of patriarchy (the military, above all). Even in areas that should respect egalitarian principles–like unionism, humanitarian work, and activism–there have been constant complaints regarding abuses and misbehaviour, I’m sure some are fresh in your mind (Oxfam in Haiti?).

This means that we risk a total collapse of the categories ‘great man’ and ‘admirable man’, even plain ‘good man’. This might seem to be a cause for celebration, particularly for radical feminism, but it is actually a very serious problem. Plainly: without positive models to imitate, and told that they’re the product of toxic masculinity (please, always use ‘patriarchal’), many young boys might react by embracing the worst forms of patriarchal entitlement. I correct myself: many (most?) are already doing that. Patriarchy has, precisely, used this strategy against, us, women: by depriving us of positive role models and denying the achievements of many women in the past, our self-confidence has been heavily undermined. Still today, many of us exhibit what I can only call the traits of our deeply engrained slave mentality. We are now finally lashing out against patriarchy for mistreating us and this is why we need to understand that if we deny men their own positive role models this will also result in a backlash–a patriarchal one against our very own interests.

Of course, I realize that the task of finding a new, alternative list of heroes is daunting because it seems that there is hardly a man on Earth who is not guilty of espousing a patriarchal attitude and behaviour if only at specific times in their lives (the media are these days busy outing basically all public male figures). They are all presumed guilty, which is not really as it should be. Supposing that we agree, for the sake of argumentation, that, say, Mahatma Ghandi, is the greatest man in all of human History and the best role model for young boys, we immediately see the problem: it doesn’t work, just as being told that Mother Theresa was a great woman doesn’t work for girls. Too saintly. I mean, rather, someone more directly imitable–young girls may connect with Malala, but who is the equivalent for young boys? Is Leo Messi the best we can do? (if you forget for a second the patriarchal lines along which football operates).

It occurs to me that the necessary thing to do is to progress beyond the biographical approach and to use, for instance, the list of areas I mention here as the framework. If anyone is listening, I would like to buy next Saint Jordi 2019 a book that speaks both to girls and boys, and that offers portraits of great figures, both male and female, in a variety of fields. I acknowledge that I’m by no means sure that there is anyone to admire right now in the fields of politics and, indeed, the military but, perhaps we might find someone who has truly worked for justice on egalitarian foundations. Perhaps I should start a poll! The problem with the existing ones, obviously, is that the persons invited to vote for a favourite hero choose along easy, conventional lines, and not following the gender awareness criteria I am supporting. Try explaining to a young boy why Edward Snowden rather than Leo Messi should be admired (and I hope it doesn’t turn out that Snowden is also tainted, one patriarchal way or the other–yes I do recall that he lives in Putin’s Russia… deep sigh!).

Perhaps the current obsession with superheroes, leaving aside the economic interests of Marvel and DC Comics, has very much to do with the general inability to find admirable real-life men. Funnily, Superman, now 80 years old, still embodies much we admire in men, without being a patriarch (or is he?, I should check with Lois Lane) and taking into account the fact that he is a (privileged) white male. We need to remember, however, that he is an alien and, hence, even more impossible to use as role model than human Gandhi. It might be either too early–or too late if you consider Trump–for new heroes to be born that can be both masculine and anti-patriarchal, that is to say, the good men little boys need to look up to.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

IT COULD HAPPEN ANYWHERE: SINCLAIR LEWIS, THE RISE OF FASCISM (AND KENNETH JOHNSON’S LIZARDS)

I recently downloaded Sinclair Lewis’ novel It Can’t Happen Here (1935, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/It_Can’t_Happen_Here) by mistake, believing it was the source for the delicious Frank Capra comedy film You Can’t Take it with You (1938, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/You_Can’t_Take_It_with_You_(film)). Any fool can see that the titles are very different but, well, mistakes do happen… I had read another novel by Lewis, Babbitt (1922), which I enjoyed (apparently it earned him the Nobel Prize in 1930) and, so, I decided to make the best of my blunder and read It Can’t Happen Here.

Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951) is often confused with Upton Sinclair (1878-1958), who was actually Lewis’s mentor in his youth, during the years when he worked at Helicon Home Colony (1906-7), Upton Sinclair’s utopian project in Englewood (New Jersey). Later, the two authors became estranged and, funnily, Upton Sinclair appears mentioned several times as a crank in It Can’t Happen Here (Lewis names many other real-life persons). Incidentally, Upton Sinclair became famous thanks to his muck-raking novel The Jungle (1906), an exposé of the US meatpacking industry, which led to the passage of new legislation shortly thereafter. This book is the oldest predecessor of Eric Schlosser’s no less controversial Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal (2001), a highly recommended read.

It turns out that Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here has been in the news recently because it has been an object of a second stage adaptation by Tony Taccone and Bennett S. Cohen (2016), intended to replace the one written by Lewis himself with John C. Moffitt (1936) for Roosevelt’s Federal Theatre Project. Also, sales of this not too well-known novel have been booming because Lewis narrates the access to power of a barely literate populist whose unexpected electoral victory and chaotic presidential mandate soon degenerate into a fierce fascist regime. In case you still need me to spell this out, many have seen worrying affinities between Lewis’ Berzelius ‘Buzz’ Windrip and Donald Trump.

Now be amazed… There were several attempts to turn It Can’t Happen Here into a movie between 1936 and 1938, finally abandoned by MGM in part because of the success of Charles Chaplin’s anti-Nazi satire The Great Dictator (1940). An ABC TV movie broadcast in 1968, Shadow on the Land (a.k.a. United States: It Can’t Happen Here), intended to be the pilot for a new series, failed, however, to stir sufficient interest. Later, in 1982, NBC rejected producer Kenneth Johnson’s adaptation of Lewis’ novel, titled Storm Warnings. The unyielding Johnson recycled then his project as the arch-popular alien invasion mini-series, V, premiered in 1983 (there was a second longer series in 1984, and a far less successful version in 2009). Johnson is now working on a new film: a sequel of his cautionary fable to be released in 2019. In case you’ve never heard of V, in that series the invaders are a disgusting lizard-like species, fond of eating rodents, that masquerade as humans. Initially, everyone assumes they are benevolent humanoids but soon enough their true reptilian nature, fascist politics and genocidal plans are discovered by the newly formed resistance. I believe that part of V’s immense success in Spain is that the alien leader, Diana (played by beautiful Jane Badler) literally embodied the word ‘lagarta’, or she-lizard–the Spanish equivalent of ‘bitch’.

Apparently, Lewis wrote It Can’t Happen Here in just four months in 1935 because he was very much concerned that corrupt politician Huey Long, Louisiana Governor and a US Senator, might win the American Presidency in 1936 and start a fascist regime in the style of those rampant in Europe (Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin, Franco was yet to become Spain’s dictator). Long was murdered but, tragic as his assassination was, Lewis still published his novel just a few weeks later, possibly realising that Long might be dead but fascism was still very much alive. As I read It Can’t Happen Here I wondered why this novel is not as famous as 1984, for it should be, and I came to the conclusion that it is beset by three main problems: a) it’s not as well written as Orwell’s masterpiece, b) it ends in hope, a mood cancelled out by the horrific course of WWII from which 1984 springs, and c) the events that Lewis narrates are so grotesque that It Can’t Happen Here has been misread as political satire whereas, as Trump’s madcap Presidency shows, it is 100% realistic. It is, believe me, a very, very scary story.

Another circumstance that has played against Lewis is that he could not know in 1935 how far the Nazi regime would go. Many of its key elements are present in ‘Buzz’ Windrip’s tyranny: the undeniable demagogic brilliancy of the new leader, his rise to power thanks to a legitimate election, the clever use of new media (such as radio and even television) for rabble-rousing purposes, the quick formation of a nation-wide paramilitary corps (the Minute Men), the brutal repression at all levels, the rampant anti-Semitism, the murderous hatred of Marxism, the misogyny, the widespread censorship, the summary executions–even the concentration camps. That Adolf Hitler was applying all of this to his German subjects was well-known in Lewis’ America but few could have imagined in 1935 how far the Nazis would go in their attempt to exterminate the whole European Jewish population.

Windrip’s personal rule starts decaying before he can embark on an international war of conquest, as Hitler did, but, nevertheless, Lewis excels at identifying what his protagonist–provincial journalist Doremus Jessup–calls the ‘biology of dictatorships’. Let me cite from the novel: “The universal apprehension, the timorous denials of faith, the same methods of arrest—sudden pounding on the door late at night, the squad of police pushing in, the blows, the search, the obscene oaths at the frightened women, the third degree by young snipe of officials, the accompanying blows and then the formal beatings, when the prisoner is forced to count the strokes until he faints, the leprous beds and the sour stew, guards jokingly shooting round and round a prisoner who believes he is being executed, the waiting in solitude to know what will happen, till men go mad and hang themselves—Thus had things gone in Germany, exactly thus in Soviet Russia, in Italy and Hungary and Poland, Spain and Cuba and Japan and China. Not very different had it been under the blessings of liberty and fraternity in the French Revolution. All dictators followed the same routine of torture, as if they had all read the same manual of sadistic etiquette. And now, in the humorous, friendly, happy-go-lucky land of Mark Twain, Doremus saw the homicidal maniacs having just as good a time as they had had in central Europe”.

Many believe that fascism died in 1945, by the end of WWII, but it is evident that this is not at all the case. It may not be right-wing but tyranny persists in many territories of the world as the worst incarnation of patriarchal dominance. In the United Stated many have objected that it would not be possible for Donald Trump to go to the same lengths as Lewis’ Windrip because the structures of democratic power cannot be demolished in 2018 as easily as they were in the 1930s. That they are being demolished in other nations of South America and the Middle East is regarded as a sign of how backward these areas of the world are, and not as a warning that democracy is extremely frail everywhere–including Russia. The ‘manual of sadistic etiquette’ is being implemented today, right now, in many so-called democratic nations. And if we have learned one thing from the Holocaust, this is that genocide can be happening under our very noses and we will do nothing to stop it. Think of Syria. Or the Kurds. Or the Rohingya.

As I read It Can’t Happen Here I did not think primarily of Donald Trump or of Adolf Hitler (though it was eerie to see that before 1939 he was not an arch-villain but just the German dictator, a wacky ruler among many), but of Spain in 1936–the year when Lewis published his novel. Hitler ruled with absolute malice for 12 vicious years, half of which were taken by WWII, until he saw no option but commit suicide. Here in Spain, however, Franco’s dictatorship lasted for 39 years, and the tyrant died of old age as his family thrived on the profits accrued. Seeing how Jessup describes the birth of the resistance movement that might perhaps, one day, return democracy to his nation, I thought of the many Spaniards who tried to oppose Franco and who were defeated: imprisoned, tortured, sentenced to die, or just disappeared into ditches, where they still are.

Also, I thought of the many that didn’t even try because they were crushed before they started to resist and very much afraid of the fanatics surrounding them. I’m sure that many in 1931, when the Spanish Republic was proclaimed, thought that fascism could be kept at bay and that, once Primo de Rivera’s farcical monarchic military dictatorship was out together with King Alfonso XIII, Spain was safe–that ‘it could not happen here’. Yet, it did happen indeed. As he waits for the terrible circumstances to change, Jessup notes that “So much of a revolution for so many people is nothing but waiting. That is one reason why tourists rarely see anything but contentment in a crushed population”. I thought of 1960s Spain, flooded by tourists that didn’t care, and I marvelled that visitors could think of enjoying themselves in a dictatorship. As happens today with so many callous instagramming tourists visiting the many tyrannies around the world.

Everyone recalls the brutal torture that Winston Smith suffers in 1984 and how this causes him to betray everything he believes in, including love. Sinclair Lewis’ torture scenes are equally shocking (even more, perhaps, because there is no suave O’Brien behind them, but just blood-thirsty thugs), yet he decides to have his protagonist retain his faith in the future of democracy. Perhaps we find even the mild open end of It Can’t Happen Here too optimistic for our times and this is why Orwell and, generally speaking, dystopia are so popular. Yet, Lewis is not naïve and understands very well, as his vivid rendition of physical pain shows, that our fragile bodies often undermine our (theoretical) heroism. He still leaves, however, a door open for fascism to eventually end. I’m not sure that we have reached this point but perhaps one day we can learn not to be blinded by populist demagogues who present themselves as national saviours when they’re actually crazy, ignorant villains willing to ruin our lives for their personal glory. Or even worse, ambition.

Do read Sinclair Lewis’ novel and think not only that ‘yes, indeed, it can happen here’ but also that ‘yes, certainly, it can happen to us’. Call yourself very, very lucky if you don’t live in fear of what happens to Doremus Jessup and the rest of his nation. And consider carefully who you vote for–if you can vote at all.

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