Note: Much on sexual assault and spoilers ahead.
"Now go and forget all about it," she said. "This never happened."
No matter how one reads Love in the Time of Cholera, Florentino Ariza loses his virginity at the hands of assault. Yet, the newly-heartbroken lover immediately discovers, instead of trauma, that “his illusory love for Fermina Daza could be replaced by an earthly passion.”1 There is not much else to say about Ariza’s behavior in the rest of the novel: he begins to take women in whatever way he pleases, emotionally and physically, with very little consideration of the consequences his actions have on them. The women take him in because of his pathetic disposition; because he always lies to them that he is a virgin; because he picks out mainly those who are vulnerable or hungry for any type of love, from widows to maids to fourteen-year-old girls. Garcia Marquez does not write any of them very differently, despite each woman having her surface “quirks”—Florentino Ariza treats them the same way: a place to hide and escape from an illusory love that, at its marrow, never existed in the first place outside of his grand gestures of violin, poetry, and letter-writing. In his mind (and the minds of similar men who are tragically common in the world), one might acknowledge their humanity without acting in their interest, as if the story of the maid who was raped and whose life and honor were ruined could be a passing story of Ariza’s virility; as if a school girl who is tricked into sex by a guardian half a century older can eventually commit suicide from heartbreak and only illustrate, above anything else, that guardian’s compassion.
Is the reader supposed to forgive him because once, for love, Florentino Ariza drank an entire bottle of Fermina Daza’s cologne; that he followed her every day after school, watched her from a bench in a park close to her house; that he wrote her feverish, unending letters despite knowing nothing about her? What is actually happening when a man, to survive himself, forges a woman like a weapon, an arrow in his bow, a stone in his sling? A woman read like a book is treated like a story, a mere moment in the trajectory of a man’s history veiled, in here, as a love story.
Garcia Marquez is never clear with his tone towards Florentino Ariza: does he intend the reader to sympathize with him completely, do we feel skeptical of him only until the very end, or does one entertain him as this preposterously flawed and romantic hero whose solitude and intransigence for a single illusion are enough to excuse any casualties or moral slippage along the way?
For Florentino Ariza, no truth deserves fidelity more than achieving the love that he imagined “fifty-three years, seven months, and eleven days and nights ago.”2 Its dominance and the ensuing quest for possession, even at the cost of distorting reality, is disturbing at best. Love skims on the boundaries of love where instead of a metaphor, a cliché gives birth to love; where instead of conversation, a book of poems unearths new methods for loving. Let one not forget that Lorenzo Daza calls his daughter a mule for her stubbornness; that the two great loves in her life with a man she initially despised and a man who would never stop following her. The plot transformed is just another romanticization of “when a woman says no, she means yes.” Though Garcia Marquez calls Florentino Ariza’s later letters to her as “ground in reality,”3 his declaration that he stayed a virgin for her is not; his denial of having ever entered her poetry contest is not. From a single missing navel, the whole of reality may be unraveled.
It is comfortable to argue that Love in the Time of Cholera is a satire in the shape of a deeply flawed love, but Garcia Marquez fails to make this clear. The long-suffering Florentino Ariza, who stalks and obsesses over a teenage Fermina Daza and who uses his sadness to seduce the most vulnerable women in his city, receives his fairytale ending of getting the girl. The last fifty pages particularly describe how easily Florentino Ariza can overcome Fermina Daza’s rejection by not only learning to speak the burgeoning technologies of typewriters and steamboats, but by mastering the business language and methods through which they operate in the world.
From the very beginning he attempted a new method of seduction, without any reference to past loves or even the past itself: a clean slate. Instead, he wrote an extensive meditation based on his ideas about, and experience of, relations between men and women, which at one time he had intended to write as a complement to the Lover’s Companion. Only now he disguised it in the patriarchal style of an old man’s memories so that it would not be too obvious that it was really a document of love. […] And so he planned everything down to the last detail, as if it were the final battle: new intrigues, new hopes in a woman who had already lived a full and complete life. It had to be a mad dream. […] It had to teach her to think of love as a state of grace: not the means to anything but the alpha and omega, an end in itself.p. 293
Fermina Daza is so dazzled by the disinterested stoicism of her “new” suitor that she doesn’t recognize the hurried and frantic love of his youth, now metamorphosed through another language of men: treatises, technologies, and river laws. At his first pass at her, Florentino Ariza was rejected by her father as a poor boy who didn’t measure up to the racial, social, and economic classes her father craved; at his second pass, he still asks another man for her fate, only this time from inside the dinner club from which he had so vehemently been rejected. The conversation of love between man and woman, in the time of cholera, seems suspiciously to remain a conversation between men, whether with himself or others, and yet again ennobles taking a woman’s affection without the honesty in true consent.
Postscript towards a politics of love
This book has been making me think about love. I have been reading a good amount of Pablo Neruda mostly by coincidence, despite how women never speak in his poems. It has been two years, perhaps, since I’ve seriously looked at him, but a firm part of me believes that to write about anything, one must see through what has already been written.
I should explain why I consider this the beginning of a politics and not, say, a philosophy. First, it occurred to me that love, being a relationship between people, also harbors systems of power. As supported by Love in the Time of Cholera, one’s actions towards another human being support or engender larger narratives of dominance.
Second, the system of power most evident in love is that of emotional dominance. My greatest worry in loving some person is to discover that I’m really loving what that person reminds me of myself, yet to deem myself worthy of love seems prerequisite for a relationship free of dominance. In order to love someone, I must extricate my fate from that presence; that the greatest respect I may have for someone is a whole recognition of our respective autonomies; that there is no such thing as one hand but always two hands as we fall asleep.
Third, the personal is political. Rejecting a tradition of love engenders the proliferation of many loves. Where will they go? What will they exemplify? How can we give love a second opportunity on earth?
Perhaps, next, Calvino.
 Love, p. 348.
 Love, p. 330.
If a certain thing was said once for all in Atlantis or Arcadia, in 450 Before Christ or in 1290 after, it is not for us moderns to go saying it over, or to go obscuring the memory of the dead by saying the same thing with less skill and less conviction.
My pawing over the ancients and semi-ancients has been one struggle to find out what has been done, once for all, better than it can ever be done again, and to find out what remains for us to do, and plenty does remain, for if we still feel the same emotions as those which launched the thousand ships, it is quite certain that we come on these feelings differently, through different nuances, by different intellectual gradations. Each age has its own abounding gifts yet only some ages transmute them into matter of duration. No good poetry is ever written in a manner twenty years old, for to write in such a manner shows conclusively that the writer thinks from books, convention and cliché, and not from life, yet a man feeling the divorce of life and his art may naturally try to resurrect a forgotten mode if he finds in that mode some leaven, or if he think he sees in it some element lacking in contemporary art which might unite that art again to its sustenance, life.
What a man for poetry but not a great one on the person level.
People often ask about my love poems, more particularly who I’ve written them for. Just because I was thinking of someone at the beginning doesn’t mean I’ll finish with the same person in mind. The who and the what of love changes with the drop of a feather; a light in a storm. Feelings, at most, are born, shine, and die out. My love poems are written in them; on the backs of metamorphoses. For a real love, I prefer the future, someone who teaches my poetry its own words.
For long after I encountered Apollo and Daphne as a youth, I was haunted by the hands where leaf burned through; the feet that collapsed as root on rock. The old myth I first read as a child—Greek mythologies that first awakened my thirst for other worlds and introduced the oblique effervescent trials of the second sex I was still unconscious of being part of—was the twist of torso and a face of horror that had no final view. I never looked at Apollo. Instead, there was only the grotesque flesh of Daphne’s metamorphosis; the “luck” of her escape from something so smothering that she wished against her own existence. She escaped without the body of a woman but not, like Caeneus, transformed into a man. In mid-transformation, Daphne’s bones creak with a fleshly pain, her silence with women who are haunted by not mythology but history; not hearsay but what is said to us, be they cat-calls, pressures to marry, or unrelenting text conversations, that clutch as chokingly as Pluto’s hands on Proserpina.
One remembers that Daphne’s metamorphosis is possible because of her father, but hers is one of the only instances where it is her own prayer that is being answered; where being a tree is more desirable than being a woman. Yet, there is some power to that: to become impenetrable, to lose the mark that curses you; to veer upwards away from the mounting oppression of the everyday. Daphne had the final word of the pursuit she was born to lose: no.
Daphne become my emblem of escape from another power: a closet that I constantly stepped in and out of. Her refusal to marry was, in turn my refusal to carry any definition for my gender and orientation. We both preferred to blend back into the miasma than adopt a form in it. Her transformation, at least a choice in a helpless situation, felt temporary. We never know what happens after the end of the myth; whether the bark slid down to reveal a worn but smooth face; if that face would have aged; if her roots uncurled from beneath the deep-set rocks and remade her quick feet; how the leaves undid their buds and retreated their light edges until all the sap was back inside of her, sweet.
I didn’t know Bernini’s name, nor did I learn it after I first saw Apollo and Daphne. But I liked it enough that I wrote a poem about it, obliquely—
held a head of mud in your
soft hands, a fresh pelt
of marsh womb, and its breath
blistered into thin-skinned
bubbles, squeeming through your
sycamore-still bones. Days we were
made of currents instead of veins,
of clay and fresh-kill, I loved you
enough to pulp my lungs into yours”
Caleb Kaiser, from “Of Marshes”
My perspective on those sample topics is definitely skewed. I’m lucky enough that I came out of school with no loans and ended up with a well-paying job that I really like.
So, if I had to answer anything, I guess it would be something along the lines of “the challenges of creating your own life” via me and the conversations I’ve had with friends who are at a similar point in their lives. For me, I’ve noticed one main theme: achieving the abstract concepts of “making it on your own” and “being an adult,” whose definitions are murky at best but loosely include holding down a job, paying your own bills, and owning Real Kitchen Appliances. It’s a model of adulthood that is fairly material and focused on normalizing you as a capitalist agent. What’s interesting is that people completely embrace or reject this: dive headfirst into investment banking or struggle for a long time to identify and acquire a usually nonexistent job that will offer meaning, happiness, and gainful employment.
If you grew up in the K-12-then-college trajectory, you’re used to having The Next Big Thing on the horizon. You’re also used to fantasizing about it and the life it’s supposed to give you. After graduation, your Next Big Thing is the rest of your life and, as is habit, it’s easier to mimic what culture’s handed us, so the challenge seems to be about holding down loans; making more money; getting more famous. This is what we’re often asked about—that and how closely our lives resemble Girls. Yet, the real challenge is far removed from labor, consumption, and matching your skills to a job. The challenge is painfully uncovering the world we live in; is recognizing that a capitalist society is not a level society, and that you are not on equal footing with your friends; that you are disadvantaged in some way or privileged in another, and that these abstract concepts that have real, material effects will follow you and others like you for the rest of your lives. In the midst of this, you can no longer delay figuring out who you want to be; every day you will make choices that actualize who you are in the world. You will have to stand by definitions of “justice” or “good” that you may not have had the chance to think about. Or maybe you have. How will you act? What mechanisms of our world will you look to move?
The first year out of college was me reading the news and books and writing often. Creating my own life has been figuring out my commitment to acting and living outside of it.
Note: assume spoilers.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is an admirable example of what a Wes Anderson film could be—satirically self-reflective, minutely orchestrated, and firmly supported by aesthetic strengths without overwhelming the subtleties of the film’s plot and characters.
Why I like Budapest is most evident through why I didn’t like Anderson’s previous film, Moonrise Kingdom. Though the plot of the latter—two outcast children finding each other and running away together—matches the Anderson aesthetic well enough, the story is removed from any reality aside from finding your dream person and being with that person against all odds (arguably to a destructive point of self-involvement). In Moonrise, we approach the quixotic limit of idealism and naïveté through Sam and Suzy; it’s a strange reversal of Don Quixote’s original story, where the irrational romanticism is found in an eccentric adult. Making Sam and Suzy the primary vehicles of this idealism, in contrast with Anderson’s failed adult characters, who are either resigned, isolated, trapped as supervisors to their younger counterparts, or some combination of these traits, suggests that a similar fate will befall Sam and Suzy and their relationship.
Moonrise, in focusing on their adult-like child protagonists, is trapped in a childhood nostalgia, an arrested development that is likely mirrored in Anderson’s primary audience: millennial twentysomethings (myself included) whose only break comes in occasional lapses of complete and utter aesthetic removal, purposefully unattached to a world of limited economic options and social mobility. The outcome of Moonrise does its audience two disservices: it further alienates jaded viewers from the possibility of its ideals—fate, coincidence, the simple elegance of the world colluding into certain answers—and panders to others’ desire to believe in them. This critique excludes the socioeconomic inequalities that create the latter disposition; inequalities that are beautifully erased from Anderson’s dreamy sets.
Budapest differs from Moonrise with a more fitting story, better use of literary technique, and marked self-awareness. We drift gradually with Anderson into nostalgia: a girl visits a cemetery to pay tribute to a dead author, whose book, The Grand Budapest Hotel, was written from a story told to him one night at the location of the same name. In three short scenes, we jump from the present to the near past to the far past (1932). We encounter M. Gustave H., the flawed and charismatic concierge of The Grand Budapest Hotel, who lives for a world even further in the past; a world that has already disappeared, even in his time. Anderson’s elaborate sets, once plush detailing to thinner stories, blend in naturally to the grand hotel and its Old World denizens and staff. Through his severe and detailed watch at the hotel and frequent recitations of romantic poetry, Gustave repaints this world frame by frame, even at his last moments when he attempts to save Zero from another run-in with the army. His power, realized only in the illusion he’s created, disappears by no coincidence at that symbol for destruction: war. Throughout the film, Gustave finds his criticisms towards Zero rebutted with matter-of-fact recollections of Zero’s experience as a refugee, another fact that pulls at the threads of Gustave (and Anderson)’s perfectly constructed sets.
As mentioned elsewhere, M. Gustave H. is a thinly-veiled depiction of Anderson himself, a man lost in his own time whose quixotisms earn him nothing but their inevitable and ill-fated demise. But unlike the protagonists of Moonrise Kingdom, we see Gustave and Zero’s futures through the frame-narratives set in motion at the film’s beginning. The Grand Budapest Hotel neither exalts nor belittles Gustave as he is. Rather, it serves as a faithful transcription of how Gustave tries to bring into the world a perfection that Moonrise Kingdom assumes. It’s an important distinction; one that brings its viewers to think, rather than critique, what a world without such generative quixotisms might look like. Like the Man of La Mancha, must all like M. Gustave H. be cured of their insanities or disappear, and what will we miss if we do?
If, indeed, the term “institutional critique” emerged as shorthand for “the critique of institutions,” today that catchphrase has been even further reduced by restrictive interpretations of its constituent parts: “institution” and “critique.” The practice of institutional critique is generally defined by its apparent object, “the institution,” which is, in turn, taken to refer primarily to established, organized sites for the presentation of art. As the flyer for the symposium at LACMA put it, institutional critique is art that exposes “the structures and logic of museums and art galleries.” “Critique” appears even less specific than “institution,” vacillating between a rather timid “exposing,” “reflecting,” or “revealing,” on the one hand, and visions of the revolutionary overthrow of the existing museological order on the other, with the institutional critic as a guerrilla fighter engaging in acts of subversion and sabotage, breaking through walls and floors and doors, provoking censorship, bringing down the powers that be. In either case, “art” and “artist” generally figure as antagonistically opposed to an “institution” that incorporates, coopts, commodifies, and otherwise misappropriates once - radical - and uninstitutionalized - practices. These representations can admittedly be found in the texts of critics associated with institutional critique. However, the idea that institutional critique opposes art to institution, or supposes that radical artistic practices can or ever did exist outside of the institution of art before being “institutionalized” by museums, is contradicted at every turn by the writings and work of Asher, Broodthaers, Buren, and Haacke. From Broodthaers’s announcement of his first gallery exhibition in 1964 - which he begins by confiding that “the idea of inventing something insincere finally crossed my mind” and then informing us that his dealer will “take thirty percent” - the critique of the apparatus that distributes, presents, and collects art has been inseparable from a critique of artistic practice itself. As Buren put it in “The Function of the Museum” in 1970, if “the Museum makes its ‘mark,’ imposes its ‘frame’… on everything that is exhibited in it, in a deep and indelible way,” it does so easily because “everything that the Museum shows is only considered and produced in view of being set in it.” In “The Function of the Studio” from the following year, he couldn’t be more clear, arguing that the “analysis of the art system must inevitably be carried on” by investigating both the studio and the museum “as customs, the ossifying customs of art.”