Red Sunset Mother

It All Goes Back to Aesop

It All Goes Back to Aesop

The three words of the title of this post were separately suppressed by Myanmar’s ruling junta: “red” because of its association with Communism; “sunset” because General Ne Win’s name meant “sunrise”; and “mother” because that was the nickname of Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi.

That brings back to mind another draconian instance of censorship. In Costa-Gavras’s film (1969), the rightist Greek colonels in charge forbid the use of the letter Z (Zeta) in the Greek alphabet because of the protestors’ use of the Greek phrase “Ζει,” meaning “He lives.” The pronoun refers to the democratic politician Grigoris Lambrakis, who was assassinated in 1963.

What does one do when the powers that be forbid the use of certain words? Russian and Eastern European writers under Communist rule came up with the solution: use other words in their place. This is referred to as the use of Aesopian, or Aesopic, language. Just as the ancient Greek teller of fables used stories to mask political realities, writers would use metaphorical language to stand in for the proscribed language. In an article entitled “The Rhetoric of Subversion: Strategies of ‘Aesopian Language’ in Romanian Literary Criticism Under Late Communism,” Andrei Terian describes the procedure used:

Since organized dissent was absent, the ‘resistance through culture’ represented in Romania the main form of assertion of the writers’ independence from the Communist regime. Civically, it materialized through the refusal to enroll in the party’s propaganda machine, while artistically, it took place through the defense of the priority of the ‘aesthetic’ criterion in the production and reception of literary works, which generated a literature relatively autonomous from the political sphere. Nevertheless, from the perspective of maximalist ethics, the ‘resistance through culture’ is a deeply duplicitous phenomenon, which fits perfectly in the Ketman paradigm described by Czeslaw Milosz. In the Polish writer’s opinion, ‘Ketman means self-realization against something’ (The Captive Mind ….), which, in the case of totalitarian societies, is translated in a profound divergence between an individual’s private thoughts and their public expression.

I thought Milosz expressed it better in The Captive Mind—a book I urge everyone to read—but I can’t quote it because, alas, I can’t lay my hand on it at the moment.

Terian is a bit abstruse, so let me think of an example. Let us say that the Tea Party rules America as a rightist junta and bans the use of the word “abortion.” A hated Liberal writer can use another term, such as “ablution” in such a way that a censor would let it pass, despite the fact that its meaning would be clear from its context, as in “they were able to limit the size of their family with the discreet use of ablution.” Writers can and did develop an entire language of such circumlocutions under the noses of the Communist censors.

Even words as basic as “red,” “sunset,” and “mother” can find Aesopian equivalents, such as, perhaps, “rubicund,” “gloaming,” or “progenitrix” respectively—though a poet can play with the concept much as Viking poets used kennings such as “wave’s steed” for “ship” or “Freyja’s tears” for “gold.” And the Viking’s did this not because of censorship, but to help the meter of their compositions.

Don’t Fall For His Poor Old Blind Man Act

Jorge Luis Borges

Jorge Luis Borges

It is easy to be fooled by Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986). He spent the last couple decades of his life giving out interviews, some of them book-length. The damned thing of it all is that he was a devious interview subject. He would insist that he was apolitical:

I am not politically minded. I am aesthetically minded, philosophically perhaps. I don’t belong to any party. In fact, I disbelieve in politics and in nations. I disbelieve also in richness, in poverty. Those things are illusions. But I believe in my own destiny as a good or bad or indifferent writer.

Yes, but, at the same time he irked one Swedish literary critic that he single-handedly prevented Borges from receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature because, at one time, he accepted an honor from Chile’s dictator General Pinochet Ugarte. Also, he so burned up Juan Peron that he derisively appointed the Argentinean to be the poultry inspector for Buenos Aires.

In an article for the L.A. Review of Books that was reprinted by Salon.Com, Filipina writer Gina Apostol has an interesting perspective on Borges, who, as you may or may not know, is one of my favorite authors:

As a writer from the colonized world, I find Borges’s work almost intolerably revealing, as if spoken directly to the political debates that beset my country. Borges’s postcolonial critique and analysis in his ficciones are obscured by his philosophical sleights of hand, startling plots, and narrative wizardry, but though buried, his critique is powerful. In particular, I am struck by his logic of the inverse. His use of doppelgangers (sometimes triplegangers) and mirrors and refractions and texts within texts — spies that become victims, heroes that are villains, detectives caught in textual traps of their own making, translators who disappear in puffs of smoke in someone else’s writer’s block — in Borges’s stories, these astonishing mutations force us to see reality from new perspectives, force us to question our own encrusted preconceptions. While questions of ontology and Berkeleyan illusion and all those philosophical games beloved of Borges are paramount, the constant revisiting of the problems of fictionality and textuality in these stories have profound echoes for the postcolonial citizen, bedeviled by and grappling with questions of identity and nation, questions seething always under our every day, our working hours, our forms of art.

What I find interesting is that Borges himself claims he is an unreliable interviewee. He instructs his interviewers to doubt everything he says. Because he was an old blind man, we tended too often to give him the benefit of the doubt, when he was very artfully putting us on.

Because he lived through so many dictatorships, such as those of Peron and the juntas of the 1930s and 1970s, Borges has learned to be what Eastern Europeans used to call an aesopic writer. According to Dr. Gerd Reifahrt:

One possibility is for [authors] to seek refuge in the realm of the Aesopic. Aesop is said to have written fables in the sixth Century B.C. to veil his opinions, and writers 26 centuries later continue to use and develop his method. In symbolic and coded terms, they write fairy tales and fables, and employ myths and elements of folklore. New forms of discourse emerged, where political realities and social truths were referred to in symbolic and coded terms rather than explicitly mentioned, and where, concurrently, these realities and truths were re-framed and re-contextualized. Protest and subversion found a new voice.

So all those tricks with mirrors and identity that Jorge Luis Borges employs represent a sophisticated method of confronting what some dire realities were for Argentinians in the not too distant past. Apostol writes, “Borges’s writing was always, to some degree, a creative form of reading, and many of his best fictions were meditations on the condition of fictionality: reviews of invented books, stories whose central presences were not people but texts.” Behind the invented lay the unvarnished reality, which he confronted indirectly.