The first casualty

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(Something about this short piece by Héctor Torres really touched me. I guess it stirred up the conservative that lives within me. I’m taking the liberty to translate it. These are the real Caracas Chronicles – read it and weep)

The first casualty, by Héctor Torres for Prodavinci

The girl at the register has a pretty face, one that clashes with her monument to indolence made up of the combination of the tiny triple-S lycra blouse and the profusion of flesh that pours out of the edges of the fabric. “Decorum” is obviously not in her vocabulary. Outside, at the corner, inside a box of paper towels that sits underneath a canopy, a three-year old child sleeps. Next to him, his mother eats a plate of pasta with ketchup and grated white cheese, dangling her flip-flop with the ugliest foot any human being could dare show in public, yelling, with her mouth only partially occupied:

Guareveryouwannfortenbolivar, guareveryouwannfortenbolivar!

Her male colleagues have the habit of folding their undershirts in two, as if they were tank tops, so that everyone can admire their perfectly compressed spheres covered in brown skin that pass for abdomens. As soon as they sell their first Chinese alarm clock the beer bottles start swiveling. And since beer is diuretic, one wonders how … Never mind, let’s just skip the sanitary details and leave it at that, beer and dominoes all day long. And they’re working. And the right to work is sacred.

In a Metro car at four thirty in the afternoon, two young men talk as if relating noble deeds about the many motorcycles they have “lit up” and those they have yet to. It’s a  euphemism for stealing. Same car, and a man hops on. He is not yet forty years old. He is asking for money by showing an oozing ulcer in his abdomen. He lifts his shirt in front of each of the passengers. He gets off and another person hops on with a wrinkled sheet of letterhead. It’s supposedly a medical report detailing a sad state of affairs, and the urgent need for an operation. That person gets off and another hops on, one claiming to be a psychiatric patient with a desperate need for money – his treatment is expensive. That one gets off and “la Pidepide” –  a Caracas Metro celebrity panhandler – gets on. “La Pidepide” gets off and a guy gets on riding a skateboard. He has no legs, so he yells “watch out for the cripple!” The “cripple” gets off, and another hops on, begging because “he doesn’t like stealin’ no more.”

Venezuelans once seemed so proud. So vain. They would glance at those underneath them in the map as if actually looking down on them. For a while, they really believed they were up and everybody else was down. They seemed so haughty. But one day, any day, one of those permanent days in which they lived on what’s immediate, what’s easy, on the philosophy of “I buy everything made,” they lost paradise. They lost it because they lost their sense of beauty, just like they lost their sense of decorum. And without any dignity, without that conscience of his human condition, without the tacit agreement that regulates our truce, the Venezuelan lost all hope.

The first sign of poverty that permeated Caracas was the absence of the habit of cultivating beauty. That was the first casualty, and by beauty I include demureness and decency. Everything else came later. That is where our end may have begun: this poor country with oil ended up respecting only money. That is the only element of success Venezuelans are able to recognize. And with it comes resentment. And corruption. And crime. And the thousand ways of whoring yourself. And the disdain for the infinite possibilities life offers when we stop living through what we see, and start living through what we dream.

1 COMMENT

    • Some people are knee-jerk enough about their groovie-liberalism that when folk point out to them the conservative values that lurk within them they recoil in horror. “Consevative? Moi?!”

      • Ideological labels tend to oversimplify and falsely stereotype smart peoples often highly nuanced, complex and ambivalent view of things.Labels foster antinomism which is a sign of intellectual shallowness , one shoulnt be concerned with these labels , Also they can be very arbitrary and incongrous changing meaning with every person and circumstance.

          • No Jeffrey , criticism of antinomism is not the same as saying that all antinomies are false but that people who only place things into two opposite slots miss out on the richness and diversity and sometimes intrinsic equivocity of reality , some antinomies may be correct but not every thing can be understood in antinomical terms . Because most people find contrast easier to understand there is an instictive bias towards anti nomism , Try reading Daniel Kahnemans latest book on how those biases develop . A smart well read man such as your self is bound to enjoy it !!

        • “The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
          “The nameless is the beginning of heaven and Earth.
          “The named is the mother of the ten thousand things. ”

          [from Tao Te Ching]

          • Ex Torres, not sure I understand these deep verses , sort of reminds me of Wittgensteins famous line : “whereof one cannot speak , thereof one must be silent “, which is a sort of a vindication of the ‘ineffable’ as a legitimate logical concept.

      • hahaha fair, that has happened to me. But, I have always since Juan as a quite conservative dude, in the European politics conservative, i.e. fiscal conservative. But anyway, I don’t think the text stirs any conservative or liberal veins.

  1. I was also puzzled by “I guess it stirred up the conservative that lives within me.” I have always seen you as a very tall conservative with a liberal heart :-p

    In the book written by Ducoudray Holstein there are similar passages about Venezuela after the Independence.

    If you read Dumas, you will find similar passages. Although fiction, his work portrayed a lot of French society back in the day.

    Again I remind you of the proverb: “As a dog returneth to his vomit, so a fool returneth to his folly.”
    As Venezuelans hate to learn from real history, they keep doing the dog thing.

    In other societies these things have happened to some extent or other, but they end up disappearing if properly treated. Sometimes they worsen when an attempt to change issues goes awry.

    I used to travel a lot through La Hoyada prior to Chávez, go around bus terminals from West to East, North to South of Venezuela. Things are now just more visible. They were always there.

    • “I used to travel a lot through La Hoyada prior to Chávez, go around bus terminals from West to East, North to South of Venezuela. Things are now just more visible. They were always there.”

      This.

      Pretending that millions of venezuelans were invisible prior to 1998 is part of PEEQECE, after all.

      • Exterminators say that when you see a rat in daytime there are 8 of them around, when you see tehm ate night, there are 14.
        ¨Things are now just more visible¨ because there´s so much more of this now…

  2. Venezuela has always been a land of contrasts as far as people’s aesthetic sense is concerned ,You see so much every day vulgarity and grossnes and tackiness and faux exagerated or frivolous ostentatiousness in ordinary people that your sense of aesthetic balance is constantly challenged , Its not only the way people dress or adorn themselves but the way they sometimes talk or generally choose things to buy or wear or more subtly in the gross insane fantasies with which they ‘adorn’ their thinking . At the same time peoples musical sense is extraordinary as is their sense of personal cleaninness ( talent for music is something which every colonial visitor has commented on even the very constipated and sour Docrouray Holstein ) . With more indulgent times customs now allow people to exhibit a greater level of vulgarity than would have been possible only a few years ago . Venezuelan’s are statistically one of the worlds greatest consumers of beauty products and aesthetic surgery showing that most people do care very much about their personal appearances (showing also a vein of narcicism which others have commented about) .Peoples modesty of dress or personal adornment has never been a strong virtue , instead they revel in their love of lavishness and extravagance . Also when you do find beauty then it can be outstanding , heard a spaniard complain about the presence of ‘sudacas’ in Spain , except for the Venezuelans because ‘they are so majos’!!, To my surprise the tilt of common Venezuelan speech appeals to other spanish speaking people , dont know the number of times in which my kin or myself (blush) have been complimented on the musicality or softness or our spoken spanish by spanish speakers outside Venezuela . ‘just like in the telenovelas’ they say !!

      • I could have called him worse. He was an excellent writer though.
        To be clear, I do not attribute to JC those views. Far from it. It is possible to admire the writing and not the man or his politics.

      • But it seems he hadn’t lived in Venezuela for the last 500 years, only in El Cafetal.
        Those people he saw now in the underground are much more present now than in the nineties or eighties, admitedly, but they were very present even in Caracas. And there have been periods when they have taken over the public space more than before.

        Around the time between the Caracazo and several years later I saw them much more often than I saw them before. I saw them less in 2000, things have got worse again in spite of the petrodollar flow, but basically these things have happened a lot. tha

        You just had to go to La Hoyada, to the area South of it, to Southern Valencia in 1988-1998 to see that stuff. Had to used a bus to go to the Llanos back then, you would have seen a lot of that.

      • I read it. It is a more moderated and more understanding voice in the piece you linked. Take the treatment of the panhandler on the metro…completely different. Maybe Mr Torres, like all of us, just had a bad day when he wrote that rant about decorum. I’m not a fan yet, but that was an interesting contrast. Thanks

  3. How did we get caught up in the ideological label-name- calling debate? I thought the article was moving- and as a translator- I think it very well done. I thought the premise was touching, especially since I just saw Gabriela Martínez in concert last Friday. Fabulous and charming.

    • She is indeed. Both talented and disciplined.

      Having lived around the world in many cities and finding myself in Caracas again.

      I sense the lost for appreciation of beauty is not new. Socrates mentioned it in Plato’s dialogues in one occasion. Our lives, our societies, do come in cycles. From deep crisis to rebirth. There are people and places in Caracas that are still not mundane. That are filled with both kindness and a sense for appreciation of beauty. I do feel society here is in the verge of either deepening its crisis or blooming.

      One thing I find remarkable is that in prodavici’s comment section, even when the author made the clarification that beauty is “demureness and decency” some people still think beauty is just that of an individual’s aspect (as in Plato’s dialogues). Which is an absolutely narrow view of beauty.

      It reminded me Quico’s previous post on Guillermoprieto’s writing and on how he found beauty in her writing (in an almost disturbing manner, hehe). It also reminded me of this experiment:

      http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/04/04/AR2007040401721.html

      • Good article. A great read is Arendt’s lectures on Kant. The connection between aesthetic sense and political judgment is an interesting topic, because among other things, it justifies democracy.

        Guillermoprieto is exactly the kind of counter-point to this style of writing that makes a useful comparison, and Guillermoprieto, who if I recall correctly happens to be very interested in ballet, seems to me to have a broader view of what constitutes beauty in human beings. And perhaps a broader understanding of what constitutes suffering and injustice.

          • What a treat that article, I saw the movie and loved it but had no idea who Bell was. Thanks for sharing, as per the conversation on his thread I would say that this quote summarizes it: “Kant argued that one’s ability to appreciate beauty is related to one’s ability to make moral judgments” We value beauty according to what we consider qualifies as beautiful, different cultures consider different things attractive and the big bussom of the woman in the article might well be what makes her attractive to the guy with the belly protruding under his shirt.
            I understand why Juan felt his conservative side showed here, as Kepler said this things were always there, it was just that middle class could avoid seeing them so much as to pretend they were not part of their life, of their country. This is and has always been Venezuela too, not only the nice things, also the bad and the ugly.

        • Guillermoprieto actually trained originally to be a dancer (but modern) and was a professional dancer until she became a journalist (She actually never went to college, so much for the need of a college education to have a way with words ) She worked in Cuba, a period she described beautifully in La Habana en un espejo.

        • Although a great fan of Arendt Im doubtful about appreciation of beauty being in any way related to political judgement , that’s actually the fascist and soviet take on the issue , Nazis persecuted modern art as degenerate and Stalin tried to impose Socialist Realism as the template for all artistic expression . Then lets remember Neruda and his admiration for ‘ little father Stalin’ or Celine’s unabashed sympathy for nazism . I think it was Walter Benjamin who linked Fascism to a form of aestheticism (“the logical result of fascism consists of the introduction of aesthetics into political life”) . Venezuelan sense of aesthetics in general is suffused with a cult of kitsch , if Chavismo has an aesthetic it is the aesthetic of Kitsch !! but there is lots of kitsch also influencing non chavista middle class tastes . Although both red (Chavismo) and black ( Italian /. german ) fascism share an aesthetics which privileges the spectacular or colossal expression of Might , there are losts of people who are not fascists who also like that sort of thing !! Otherwise why is Leni Riefenstahl film the Triumph of Will considered one of the best films of all times. even by people who loathed nazism!!

          • We make judgments about beauty in a similar way that we make other judgments. Beauty is unmediated by interest. Including political interest. That is the connection. I would butcher any close explanation here. If you like Arendt, I think you need to read Arendt on Kant!

          • Canuck : Actuallly I have, all 13 sessions of her Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy plus some other pieces where she deals with the subject of ‘Judging’ which is what brought her to examine Kant but which she was never able to fully address before her death. its just that Im not a Kantian and have a hard time believing that just because two human activities are equally ‘purposeless’ or devoid of ‘interest’ that makes them partake of the same basic nature . Kant lived long before we learned any thing about how our judgments and valuing experiences (two separate things) actually happen so that he was doing heavy theorizing in a cognitive void something which can lead to some pretty wild generalizations absolutely lacking in any empirical support. Also aesthetics and political principles are concepts which designate a very varied broad floating spectrum of empirically fuzzy thoughts and experiences so that they are hard to pin down which gives me the jibbers. I gravitate towards the notion that you need to nail down what specific forms of aesthetic and moral political ideas we are dealing with before venturing with any theorizing . Still Kant is a great thinker and anyone that admires his teachings has all my respect . Thank you for the courtesy of explaining to me what the conection between the two kinds of judgments was .

          • ‘A bad man is the man who makes himself the exception.’

            Put that Kant on every Venezuelan school door, when the robolution is over, I say.

  4. I found the text to be a tad conservative. I thought Torres was hinting at the ever-present State (and its oil rents, and the ugliness and lack of values it has generated) as the culprit. The Petrostate has degraded us as human beings, aided and abetted by us, the voters.

    • But perhaps his up-most conservatism comes from equating a sense of beauty and ‘decorum’ with one of ‘dignity’. It was indeed an interrogation of the petro-state but it seemed to come from a scary mixed figure of Mérida archbishop with Osmel Souza.

      • ” It was indeed an interrogation of the petro-state but it seemed to come from a scary mixed figure of Mérida archbishop with Osmel Souza.”
        LOL!

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