Burning the Mediterranean: Anarchism and Satire in Southern Thought

Josep Suñer Sarrión

Universidad de Valencia

Based on the idea that in the Mediterranean we were never “Mediterreaneist” until northern European romantics created this code, in this article we will attempt to show how anarchy and satire are the fundamental features of Mediterranean societies. To this end, we will highlight their shared attitude towards representation, conceiving this as a fissure in the code that is at the heart of the decay of Mediterranean spaces and has little or nothing to do with the abstraction above them.

The profound conflict of this age is perhaps not so much between the German ideologies of history and Christian politics, which in a certain manner are accomplices, but rather between German dreams and the Mediterranean tradition.


The Rebel, Albert Camus

Colonialism and Romanticism: The Era of the World Image 

It was 1862 when, on his visit to London, Fyodor Dostoyevsky regarded with irritation the palace in South Kensington, one of the milestones of techno-scientific modernity, which housed that year’s international exhibition. These kinds of events maximised homogenisation dynamics of the diverse cultures exhibited therein, not so much because of the content, which was different in each case depending on provenance, but rather because of the place it was displayed and by how it was contextualised. The “crystal palace”, as the Russian named it, became a black hole where all exotic cultures were absorbed. Its tentacles, spawned by the colonial dynamics that at that time were already well-established, reached almost all whole the world. Although colonialism was the political structure that sustained and continues to sustain many of these dynamics, Romanticism and its fixation on what is popular and folkloric is the ideology that explains the need for turning traditions considered exotic into images. Broadly speaking, these are the historic foundations of the middle class or consumerist tourism of our society of spectacle, which reduces the whole living tradition to a frozen image to adapt it to the historicist prejudices of the tourist spectator pursuing authentic experiences; authentically fake, we would say, because the traditions are dramatised, corroding the reality of their users, who usually feel bound, by economic needs, to put their intimacy on sale. Thus a status quo is created in which if one belongs to a peripheral culture, given the unfavourable conditions in which its people usually live, the best option at hand on many occasions is to disguise oneself as what the images engendered by the cultural spaces of colonial tradition – such as the international exhibition – expect to see, to project naturalness by dramatising each of the manifestations of everyday life and to profess a servile relationship with the naive – or determinedly naive – taste of the tourist, who does not distinguish a theme park from an indigenous settlement.

In this respect, to understand the Russian writer’s dread at the crystal palace, it is significant that he formed part of that “retarded” Eastern European periphery, as Peter Sloterdijk notes commenting on Dostoyevsky’s experiences. His exterior subjective position in relation to the devouring centre embodied by that palace and its divergent approach to the ideology that shaped it, along with the critical capacity that is conceivable in a personality like his, would be the fundamental basis for the reservations he expressed with what was being gestated there, to use a euphemism to describe the fright that he tells us about and that to a certain extent can be familiar to us. 

If something remains today that may be considered exterior to the palace, we should look for it in the spaces that survive precariously, in the margins, or directly in the ruins of what it once was. In many cases we feel bound to carry out retrospective, albeit very necessary, exercises that open to us the door to other ways of seeing and being. It is worth noting that with these arguments the aim is not to see this palace and its approach to the world as absolute evil, and the margins as the salvation, but rather to warn of the omnipresence of this palace, increasingly more hermetic, and of the difficulty of escaping the power it exercises both at a macro-political level and in the consciousnesses and schemes from which we approach the world individually and collectively. Having said that, reflecting on or imagining the Mediterranean, or rather, Mediterranean culture, necessarily involves confronting this global reality into which, like so many other peripheries, it is fitted; understanding periphery as everything that has already been absorbed by this ideology born in Central Europe. This is difficult because speaking of the Mediterranean as periphery with respect to this centre means denying how far any form of reflecting on, inhabiting and experiencing the Mediterranean is any longer determined by these political, economic and social structures. At present, perhaps it is possible to live “Mediterraneanly” but reflecting on the Mediterranean culture as an autonomous entity is little more than a meaningless abstraction, although perhaps for this reason it is worth reviewing. This does not mean that in the Mediterranean there are no alternative spaces to the ideological bases of the crystal palace – there might be, and they can even offer resistance to its most harmful dynamics – but what is clear is that this palace’s approach lives on, to the point that it may be counterproductive to inquire about those spaces that have preserved their autonomy and idiosyncrasy if we are not already sure that our own approach does not form part of the ideology described. If anything remains to be done it is to confront something that, as we said, only survives precariously and probably because we have not yet discovered how to make it profitable. On many occasions the intellectual agents are responsible for creating these landscapes, for romanticising, packaging and selling them. The clearest evidence, as we will explain later, is that many of the notions around the “Mediterranean culture” are codes created by the same people who built the crystal palace, or those close to them, rather than by the Mediterraneans themselves. For this reason, before taking pleasure in these labels, we must review who has conceived this idea of what we the supposed Mediterraneans apparently are on our behalf. “Burning the Mediterranean”, the title of this article, is an attempt to wipe away, or at least to be aware of, this image imposed by the historicist prejudices of the crystal palace while acknowledging everything they owe to the German romantic ideology to which Albert Camus makes reference in the initial quotation. Otherwise, instead of organising this space for the shared life that we call the Mediterranean and feeding what lies in the subsoil of the palace, any attempt to give it meaning will favour a mystified image superimposed over the whole of Mediterranean reality, as usually happens with any kind of periphery. 

Life in the Subsoil: An Outline of the Mediterranean Approach 

In any case “it is not a question of despising anything, or of exalting one civilization at the expense of another,”  as Camus notes. It is evident that to a certain extent both central European culture and its interpretation of Mediterranean life already form part of our culture, which is obvious at first sight, and it is absurd to think that this is always in a negative and invasive sense. At the same time, central European culture is also impregnated with the culture or cultures that emerged in the Mediterranean, with the difficulty that they lost their autonomy long ago and, as they are defined more by others than by themselves, remain disconnected without discursive references that may remove the mask they are wearing. Although, like Nietzsche, we believe that behind each mask there is just another mask, we also believe in the need for unmasking. As we said, the Mediterranean as a cultural unity is a very un-Mediterranean abstraction because “neither Greece nor Rome, nor even the Renaissance are Mediterraneaneist as exist in and form part of the Mediterranean” in the sense that they continue to be within something that is only seen as unity when it ends and sees itself as something closed. Thus, he continues, “the Mediterranean as a cultural coding is instead a modern phenomenon of clear Nordic (German, French and British) invention.” 

This lack of discourse does not mean that there are no typically Mediterranean features. In fact, we find it plausible, as we will see, to trust in Camus’ judgement that “it is a thought which the world today cannot do without for very much longer” because “in the depths of the European night, solar thought, the civilization facing two ways awaits its dawn.” However, in principle nothing tells us that this kind of hidden motherland of which Camus speaks is not a new outpouring of the same Romanticism, reworked differently, undoubtedly broadly, yet no less dangerously. Although we believe the opposite, this suspicion of any movement led by the nostalgia for something lost would be legitimately, if not necessarily, the fundamental basis, for example, of extreme nationalisms, as well as Christian fundamentalism, whose lost motherland is paradise. Nevertheless, in what follows, we will seek to provide several reasons that corroborate the vision of this pied noir, biographically linked both to Central Europe and Mediterranean Europe – because of his family relationship with Spain – and even further – because of his Algerian origin –, who argues that Europe “has never existed but in this fight between midday [the Mediterranean tradition] and midnight [the Nordic tradition].” Nevertheless, it will only be possible to enquire about this distinction he proposes provided we understand how relative this separation between two entangled and confused blocks is, bearing in mind also that neither of them is or has ever been a homogenous but are rather a plural reality. Moreover, there is the need to challenge any idea of European reality as a closed and hermetic whole, at a time like this when the relationship between Europe and its other self is undergoing a profound crisis that we cannot ignore. In this, the Mediterranean, as a network of networks between Europe and its exterior, may play a key role.

To understand why one part of European culture eclipsed the other ‒ which we will not do exhaustively ‒, instead of now focusing on the belligerent and imperialist attitude of the centre faced with the peripheries, we will review a series of ideas that perhaps will explain why the Mediterranean has been vulnerable to and harmed by the prevailing central European culture; features that at given moments could be qualified as typically Mediterranean, while at others can be considered typical of many peripheral cultures. First, we could point out, in the vein of Eugeni d’Ors, as quoted by Xavier Rubert de Ventós, that the most characteristic form of Mediterranean culture might be the ellipsis. This statement is perhaps based on a more unitary idea of Mediterranean culture, which today can only be conceived as a meeting point, or where we find a plurality of cultures, perhaps, with similar features. Nevertheless, as a common trait, it would be worth considering this idea of elliptic culture that Ventós borrows from Ors to argue that Mediterranean culture “usually has highly characterised, marked and idiosyncratic features but in contrast there are very few pure forms and very few pure concepts in this world.” In this vision, despite the fact that an analogous structure between language and form of life is established, erring perhaps on the side of the discursive reason that makes reality equal to the acts of consciousness, what is suggested is actually a way of life that escapes this discursive reason. A priori it is worth emphasising in this idea some degree of Eurocentrism because it takes as a paradigm of “purity” the ideas of 18th and 19th century Central European thought. Thus, it suggests a reality that is very close to the dialectics that María Zambrano found between poetry and philosophy, noting that in Spain, philosophy, with the exceptions of isolated thinkers that did not forge philosophical groups, never took shape, as it is a territory of essentially literary expressions. Thus an idiosyncrasy highly marked by this literary relationship with language was created, which was resistant to the concepts because they are too rigid. This first explanation helps us understand this vacuum that at the discursive level has meant that the definitions of Mediterranean culture made by non-Mediterraneans, particularly those by romantics such as Goethe, Stendhal or Nietzsche, are so important. 

To further explore this different relationship with language, which is also different from the forms of life, the difference between these two Europes established by Joan Fuster, based on the relationship of each one with the literary genres, is suggestive: “It is curious to see that coastal western Mediterranean countries have lacked an epic literature born out of the people and aimed at the people at the right literary moment ‒ let’s say the 12th and 13th centuries – […]. Many years of cultivated absence of our literature leads us towards this natural taste for satire.”

Beyond the causes, which would occupy a more extensive article than this one, we will analyse, albeit not exhaustively, some of the possible consequences that can be drawn from this predilection for satire, seeking to understand the aforementioned idea of elliptic culture. This relationship of familiarity between satire and ellipsis could be explained with reference to the relationship with identity brought about by satire, which for Fuster would be the essential form of expression of the late Mediterranean. Homer provides examples of early Mediterranean epic, of which Germans such as Heidegger would assert themselves as true heirs. 

Satire always seeks to destroy models and to enhance their most grotesque side, revealing everything socially hidden in public life. We could say that much of the purpose of satire is to uncover the epic when it tries to conceal the vileness that its heroic models, with pretensions of perfection, refuse to show by themselves. In this attitude, satire, or rather the identity of the satyr, is fundamentally elliptic, because when laughing at something, it aims at its object even though this is enunciating the mockery, without defining from where the laughter comes and leaving only indirect clues to this identity, or rather, to this burlesque gaze. The identity of the satyr, therefore, is shown but not stated, in contrast to the epic. It is suggested but not stated or said in concepts and forms as “pure” as its opposite, the epic, whose aim is usually to generate clear and distinct models. In fact, in many cases its objective is to end all semi-darkness, to illuminate everything and thus leave complete forms that no longer call on an exterior, in contrast to the satyr, who would live in this semi-darkness favourable to identities that are not meant to be finished. Of course, what is at stake here is a vision of the epic in its most decadent form faced with a satire in its most critical form, and the demonization of one faced with the idealisation of the other may be adduced; we cannot rule out that there are epics that do not lead to these hermetic stereotypes, as there is no conservative satire that exploits this semi-darkness to maintain reactionary identities with impunity. However, 20th century events, set out by Camus in the initial quotation as a conflict between “German dreams and the Mediterranean tradition”, may allow us to accept this vision of the epic of the German dreams in its most decadent state, faced with a Mediterranean tradition whose elliptic, satirical and anarchist attitude – the third concept that, with Camus, I would like to relate to the previous ones –, was crushed and eclipsed at a germinal moment, of which only living ruins and scattered fragments remain in our way of life, today totally governed by Central European culture. Thus, in Mediterranean spaces we have no lack of national epics that collect those started in France or Germany with Romanticism. But this would not completely annul the predilection for satire that would inhabit the subsoil of those epic representations – more typical of power than of subjects, of plebs than of “people” – which in my view becomes more effective when it is linked to the political stance of anarchism, which adds a strategic precision to the arrows shot by the satyr, who has never been very different, both in his virtues and vices, from the anarchist. 

Anarchism, in its turn, is always located on the margins of the legally established society and goes against all the normative models that conceal the violence they exercise against historically harmed minorities. The place of its identity is the demand for a future and a collective transformation, and where they will take us is not forewritten – hence also the risk that this position will end in an unachievable aporia. In this denunciation of the contradictions of political reality, it would coincide with a type of popular satire cultivated by anarchist groups themselves, both beginning, or rather, together, with the destruction or criticism of such a reality, leaving a gap, sometimes too empty, for what will come later. This lack of affirmation of firm values is exactly the semi-darkness from which the satyr mocks and the anarchist denounces – which, in fact, in many cases, is one and the same thing: the satyr also denounces and the anarchist also laughs. Faced with the chivalresque epic and its shift towards the national epics, which Cervantes had already parodied –continuing a tradition started by Tirant lo Blanch, one of the few Mediterranean chivalresque epics where the epic models are already disfigured –, both satire and anarchism are necessary spaces to prevent the image of any future from oppressing the reality of the future itself. This is one of the fundamental problems of historicism that we inherited from those “German dreams” we were describing.

A Sample: Anarchism and Satire in the Valencia Fallas

In order to illustrate this relationship with identity that we seek in satire and in the libertarian tradition of the Mediterranean areas, the fallas, as a local example of satire, can be a good point to begin this search for traditions or spaces where these two elements are combined. Thus, the social reality appears on these monuments and in the phrases and sayings hung on the dolls on display, showing its more grotesque side, offering itself therefore to an audience ready to laugh at their own contradictions. Their satirical meaning opposes any attempt to glorify the stereotypes and political figures represented there and, should there be any doubt about it, the monuments themselves are later burnt, thereby bringing about the experience of collective catharsis that undoubtedly has a relevant role in shaping the political space. Although it is not so in all of today’s fallas – and less so since their “touristification” –, many of them combine satire, anarchism or an anarchic attitude, which together with fire and not much idolising of the images represented – in contrast to the epic, which canonises them, and with the exception perhaps of the pardoned dolls –, ensure that the identity of this part of the Mediterranean never aspires to the fixation and rigidity to which the by-products of chivalresque epic, such as national epic and, all things considered, the ideology of the entrepreneur in capitalist societies, aspire to, whose epic, stirred up by individualism, is a privatised utopia. Because, as Traverso rightly notes, today’s utopias have evolved from being collective to individual and are only within reach of those who can buy them.  

The process by which many of the associations of fallas have gradually unlinked themselves from the satirical element inherent to them since their origin is not irrelevant. The “touristification” of the fallas spaces has meant that many of their performances are mere fantasies without any critical meaning or, rather, samples of the epic that in principle might seem to be their opposite. However, there are still spaces where the opposite happens, such as in the case of the Falles Populars i Combatives  and what happens every year in the Centro Social Okupado Autogestionado l’Horta, both of anarchist tradition, which claim a vision that escapes commoditisation and seeks to recover the critical and social potential of the fallas. The social fabric is articulated differently in them, with a space of carnivalesque jubilation, without forgetting either the historical and political awareness or the urban reality in which they are gestated. As an illustrative anecdote, it is worth noting that, in the second of the cases, last year, shortly after her death was announced, the effigy of Rita Barberá was burnt in front of a crowd seeing off her twenty-four years at the head of the City Council, probably as many or more years as the age of those present. Given that it is just an epiphenomenon of everything taking place there, this specific falla, for obvious reasons manufactured by themselves, has the essential characteristics of a rite of passage – of those that, as Koselleck notes, our modern societies are increasingly lacking –, which evoked to those attending everything related to the figure of the corrupt mayoress, and was accompanied by fire to emulate the hell where all those present imagine she now resides. Thus, the ritual promotes an experience of jubilation that is essential in the community; in other words, it builds collective bonds between those who recognise themselves in the rejection of what is burnt there – which is not only Rita, but everything she represents – and in the need to create a community beyond what, to a certain extent, has gone forever with her death. 

For all these reasons, claiming the satirical spirit and anarchism today does not necessarily have anything to do with an essentialist vision of the origins of the fallas, or of the Mediterranean in the broader sense we were discussing. It would rather be due to our need to enquire into this approach – which continues to live, although precariously, in the ruins of the past –, faced with the current political panorama, which perhaps needs to explore in depth this attitude which is both a practice and a way of being in the world. The libertarian, anarchist and satirical tradition, with its errors and contradictions, has been cultivated in many of our Mediterranean areas. If not explicitly identifying itself with these appellations, at least with many of its fundamental gestures and aspects that determine a type of sociability that we would record in areas beyond the Iberian Levant on which, broadly, we have focused. In other words, although it is not legitimate to confront the history of the Mediterranean by seeking only specifically anarchist agents or those who practised the satire genre, it would be possible, in contrast, to analyse in depth these two figures by examining how far they bring together everything that the wake of the epic – chivalresque, national, entrepreneurial – cannot. Mediterranean life is undoubtedly closely linked to all those subaltern classes, such as the rural proletariat and the lumpenproletariat, and their close relatives, such as the picaresque and banditry; ways of living disgracefully. Laughter, irony and the interpellations of all these characters, resembling in their way the Diogenes who understood his society better from his barrel than many of those who lived in palaces, suggest to us the task of tracing in them ways of living and aspects of them, which enable us to escape, or survive, the sacrificial logic of the epic practised by ideologists and idolaters, and that, undoubtedly, at present are getting ready for a fresh revival.