‘Historia y masoquismo’ by Enrique del Risco

Every worthwhile essay collection provides at least one revelation. Historia y masoquismo [History and Masochism] by Enrique del Risco gives us two and a half, as the book is traversed by a specter that is never fully unveiled. The first revelation is the definition of masochism as the invisible, ultraviolet side of utopia. It is important to clarify, along with the author, that “masochism here is not understood as sexual behavior, of course, but as ‘the satisfaction or pleasure experienced through one’s own pain, whether physical or psychic, and through humiliation, domination, and submission’.” If utopia is nothing more than ideology disguised as the dreamlike dogmas—the stern side of duty—with the attire of yearning, delirium, and abandon; masochism, as defined in this book, is the hidden face of desire that lurks behind every utopian aspiration. Beyond the possible—that no-man’s-land that utopias attempt to map—there exist forms of subjection much more challenging than the most oppressive reality, as it becomes elusive to distinguish between desire and duty, freedom and necessity. Enrique del Risco invites us to delve into the back room, that which only reveals itself in the negative—the doses of humiliation hidden in the yearning for perfection—of totalitarian regimes.

There is also masochism by proxy, when one lives trapped in another’s dream and is forced to recreate, in wakefulness, the nocturnal delusions of someone who goes to bed weary of the prosaism imposed by everyday existence. Those who travel to the antipodes of the island of Jauja do so to liberate themselves there, even if only for a few days, from consumption—from the pressure of having the latest model car, brand-name clothing, etc.—or from the overwhelming connectivity with everyone and everything. Asceticism has never been more joyful: in the misery of others, the futility of one’s own luxury is discovered. Thanks to this form of vicarious suffering, one attains a civic, edifying joy, otium cum dignitate, as defined by the old humanists: the delight of learning how little others need to survive; and upon returning home, waking from the dream, with plans for improvement.

“Totalitarianism—in Cuba as anywhere else—is more than a political regime; it is a culture, a civilization, a habit.” The second revelation of this book pertains to both its novel understanding of the totalitarian phenomenon and the type of historical narrative it demands. The key word to decipher this interpretative proposal is habit. What form does the quotidian take in realities defined by their radical break with the past? How is the intra-history—the events that transpire while nothing happens, the before and after the eruption of the new—of the revolutionary events that marked, for better or worse, the history of the 20th century and continue to condition this new century narrated? In the second part of the volume—through small narratives, microhistories—we see a kaleidoscopic view of totalitarianism: a plural vision that extends from the microscopic to decipher a phenomenon often associated with the monolithic and the cyclopean. The author provides a history of hunger, intolerance. He shows the supporting and opposing narratives of the revolutionary space as well as its racism and homophobia. What the author demonstrates is the history of how everything, even a literacy campaign, can become another means to wage war—Clausewitz on steroids—against those who dissent, whether with pencils, rifles, or even just their voices.

Front Cover of ‘Historia y masoquismo’ (2023) by Enrico del Risco publiched in Miami by Ediciones Furtivas

The Great Bald Man of Vincennes-Saint-Denis, when writing microhistories of sexuality, madness, prison, and medical gaze, sought to rupture the sensus communis. The topography that demarcates what an era understands as the possible—this and nothing else is the sensus communis—is conceived solely as a space of coercion. Regarding truth, only its will to domination is acknowledged. Both the concept of the archive and that of genealogy—the two major rhetorical-epistemological devices that governed this style of historiographical work—aimed to unearth the voices, the forms of subjectivity that had been denied, silenced, excluded. Hospitals, prisons, factories, even schools were historicized as examples of places where bodies were disciplined, reason exorcized their demons, and public space purged of everything deemed undesirable. All of this and much more had also been done by the totalitarian utopias that were supposed to emancipate humans from the subjection of property and capital and banish from public space the gray vulgarity that bourgeois societies had poured over everything existing. Paradoxically, to carry out this task, the demiurges of totalitarianism needed to dynamite the sensus communis themselves. Their minstrels defined themselves as singers of the impossible because the possible—that which is known too well—was only the well-trodden, the familiar, the dead weight of tradition. The beliefs that demarcated the space of the legitimate were turned into mere prejudices and remnants of the old regime. Moreover, the impossible only recognized the validity of the norm at its instituting moment: that in which the leader and the masses take to the streets and, through decrees, pave the way from which the licit and illicit are redefined. Thus, a new enclosed inside is created, this time surrounded by antagonists. A norm that is the child of exception can only imagine what lives outside its boundaries as an absolute negation.

The type of microhistory practiced by the author in this book demystifies the exceptional-instituting moment by reconstructing its prehistory: it narrates everything that happened before, in those nondescript days that preceded the event that made—at least in the eyes of the majority—everything change. I’ll give an example. The essay “Humor and the Canary in the Mine”—which tells a history of censorship and intolerance during the revolutionary period, using humor as an example—is structured around an ad infinitum regression that ends up tracing the origin of the censorship of freedom of expression almost to the same day as the triumph of the Cuban Revolution. Declaring that the “birth certificate of intolerance toward the creative art in post-1959 Cuba is in June 1961,” when Fidel Castro delivers the famous speech “Words to the Intellectuals,” is not only an illusion but also an error in historical perspective. The essay, in fact, proposes another date—much less known and supposedly of lesser significance—the 6th of February 1959 when a cartoonist is attacked for drawing Castro’s companions in bowler hats during their visits to the Sierra Maestra.

The essayist is not satisfied with this correction either. There is always a preceding date, even less known and apparently more inconsequential. Behind the exceptional event, the small everyday events pile up, the impossible is only understood by sinking one’s feet into the mud of reality. “When you see cartoons burning, soak your constitution,” warns Enrique Del Risco. The suspension of constitutional guarantees, the construction of a regime based on a permanent state of exception, begins on any given day and arises from attempts to veto what until then seemed trivial.

I have spoken of the revelations; the specter? remains.

New ghosts haunt the world and this book: the revolts. The one that erupts in the pages I am addressing signifies both the denial of those divine twins, utopia and masochism and the habits that sediment the totalitarian ground. The ghost of 11J allowed us to peek, even if only for a few hours, into what exists outside of fear, exposed to the elements that live beyond the walls of totalitarian states. The way in which this event should be narrated has not yet been revealed. Let’s hope it does not end up buried by that false superlative, the –azo, which condemns it to sterile exceptionalism since it fails to weave a common thread with other events in history, as is the case with Bogotazo, Cordobazo, Caracazo, Maleconazo… The singularity of the name given to this rebellion, 11-J, distinguishes it, at least in a sense, from the other mentioned revolts. That it is denoted by a date illustrates the fact that it was an event that spanned the entire national territory and was not confined to just one city or a specific location. However, if echoes of this event are not found in future history, its anomaly and strangeness could be even greater than that of the revolts confined to a single point in space.

There is no way to escape a prison made of time.

* This text is the prologue to History and Masochism by Enrique del Risco, published in Miami by Ediciones Furtivas in 2023.

Jorge Brioso. Professor of Peninsular and Latin American literature at Carleton College. He has published El privilegio de pensar (Casa Vacía, 2020). He has translated and edited the poetry and essays of José Lezama Lima with James Irby in the volume A Poetic Order of Excess (Green Integer, 2019).


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