Terror and House-painting: Teaching One Hundred Years of Solitude, part 3

by zunguzungu

When Moscote shows up in Macondo and declares himself to be the Magistrate — by writing it down — his “first order was for all the houses to be painted blue in celebration of national independence,” and when Buendia demands to know by what right he has given this order, he declares, in a wonderfully productive passive voice, that “I have been named magistrate of this town.”

I love the way you can paint a house blue in celebration of an anniversary, the way an event fixed in time — the day of independence — becomes an ongoing, never ending spectacle, the way it is always September 12th for a certain mindset in the United States. But I’m even more interested in the passive voice construction of that second declaration, the way it asserts an authority, a power to compel, based in the complete elision of that power’s origin. Who has declared him the Magistrate? If he had to say, he would limit his power, give it a temporal and spatial scope, and that kind of power is not the kind he wants. After all, it is the very basis of omnipresent terror-power that it admits no actual existence, as Kafka understood.

Buendia struggles against it; when an authority emerges out of nowhere attempting to enshrine an event no one remembers into official history, he is affronted, against the attempt to retell the town’s history — to impose the narrative of “independence from Spain” as the town’s origin story — Buendia appeals to living memory. “In this town, we don’t give orders with a piece of paper,” he argues, and attempts to retell the story as he remembers it, as he lived it. But this is no lasting answer. He might win in the short term by disarming the magistrate, but in the long term Buendia will age and fade, while the Magistrate’s power stems from a different and more ageless source: as people forget the original disarmament agreement, slowly, bit by bit, Moscote’s state power worms its way into the reality of the town until Buendia is a senile old man under a chestnut tree and the Magistrate has become the only reality.

The difference between the two parties is, from the beginning, farcically irrelevant. While all the houses in town are soon painted blue for the conservatives, when the political tides turn to put the town is under liberal rule the houses are not unpainted but rather the exact same structuration of power is in place in a different color, as Jose Arcadio forces everyone to wear the red ribbons of the liberals. The point is not which history wins out, then, but the victory of written history over living memory, the power of an absent power to emerge out of a passively voiced founding to institutionalize the panoptical security state.

Garcia Marquez’ fable is also Domingo Faustino Sarmiento‘s, who gave in 1845 this account of the concrete process of institutionalizing governmental terror in Fecund (though the colors are reversed). When Argentine dictator Juan Manuel de Rosas confronted the same problem as Moscote, Sarmiento voices his project this way:

“How does one teach the idea of personalist government to a republic which has never had a king? The red ribbon is a token of the terror which goes with you everywhere, in the street, in the bosom of the family; you must think of it when dressing and undressing. We remember things always by association; the sight of a tree in a field reminds us of what we were talking about as we walked under it ten years ago. Imagine what ideas the red ribbon brings with it by association, the indelible impressions it must have joined to the image of Rosas…”

About the ribbon and the normalization of state terror, Sarmiento notes the same origin in endless universalizing, a “systematic organized enthusiasm” that goes on and on, for years. but while “[a]ll America has scoffed at these famous celebrations of Buenos Aires and looked at them as the maximum degradation of a people,” Sarmiento argues that “ I see in them nothing but a political strategy, and an extremely effective one,” and describes how celebratory enthusiasm merges with permanent personalized terror:

“After a year and a half of celebrations, the color red emerges as the insignia of loyalty to “the cause.” The portrait of Rosas first graces church alters and then becomes part of the personal effects of each and every man who must wear it on his chest as a sign of “intense personal attachment to the Restorer.” Last, out of these celebrations comes the terrible Mazorca, the corps of amateur Federalist police, whose designated function is, first, to administer enemas of peeper and turpentine to dissenters, and then, should the phlogistic treatment prove insufficient, to slit the throat of whoever they are told.
“The story of the red ribbon is, indeed, curious. At first, it was an emblem adopted by enthusiasts. Then they ordered everyone to wear it in order “to prove the unanimity” of public opinion. People meant to obey, but frequently forgot when they changed clothes. The police helped job people’s memories. The Mazorca patrolled the streets. They stood with whips at the church door when ladies were leaving Mass and applied the lash without pity. But there was still much that needed fixing. Did someone wear his ribbon carelessly tied?– The lash! A Unitarian!– Was someone’s ribbon too short?– The lash! A Unitarian!– Someone did not wear one at all!– Cut his throat! The reprobate!

“The government’s solicitude for public education did not stop there. It was not sufficient to be Federalist, nor to wear the ribbon. It was obligatory also to wear a picture of the illustrious Restorer over one’s heart, with the slogan “Death to the Savage, Filthy Unitarians.” … If some young lady forgot to wear a red bow in her hair, the police supplied one free– and attached it with melted tar. This is how they have created uniformity of public opinion. Search the Argentine Republic for someone who does not firmly believe and maintain that he is a Federalist!

“It has happened a thousand times: a citizen steps out his door and finds that the other side of the street has been swept. A moment later, he has had his own side swept. The man next door copies him, and in half an hour the whole street has been swept, everyone thinking it was an order from the police. A shopkeeper puts out a flag to attract people’s attention. His neighbor sees him and, fearing he will be accused of tardiness by the governor, he puts out his own. The people across the street put out a flag; everyone else on the street puts one out. Other streets follow suit; and suddenly all Buenos Aires is bedecked in flags. The police become alarmed and inquire what happy news has been received by everyone but them. And these people of Buenos Aires are the same ones who trounced eleven thousand Englishmen in the streets and then sent five armies across the American continent to hunt Spaniards!

“Terror, you see, is a disease of the spirit which can become an epidemic like cholera, measles, or scarlet fever. No one is safe, in the end, from the contagion. Though you may work ten years at inoculating, not even those already vaccinated can resist in the end. Do not laugh, nations of Spanish America, when you witness such degradation! look well, for you, too, are Spanish, and so the Inquisation taught Spain to be! This sickness we carry in our blood…”