Untranslatable Subalternity and Historicizing Empire’s Enjoyment in Luís Cardoso’s Requiem para o Navegador Solitário
Untranslatable Subalternity and Historicizing Empire’s Enjoyment in Luís Cardoso’s Requiem para o Navegador Solitário
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter follows up on Sylvan’s expository indictment of Empire’s monologicism with an exploration of contemporary East Timorese writer Luís Cardoso’s contributions to decolonial tropes of movement and the making of meaning. Following a brief overview of Cardoso’s larger oeuvre, the chapter examines his 2007 novel, Requiem para o Navegador Solitário [Requiem for the Solitary Sailor], particularly the actions and experiences of its narrator, known only as Catarina. As a teenage girl, born in Batavia, Dutch East Indies, to a Chinese father and Batavian mother, her arranged marriage to a Portuguese port administrator of Dili leads her to move to the then colonial capital of Portuguese Timor. Taking place between the mid-1930s up to the Japanese invasion of the island of Timor during World War II in 1941, Catarina is ensnared by imperial actions both local and global.
Following Portuguese decolonization and during the decades of Indonesian occupation, a new generation of East Timorese writers emerged seeking to formulate and grapple with cultural meanings revolving around the nation’s postcolonial political and economic strife. While the twenty-first century saw the end of Indonesian occupation, which had initially been supported by the United States and Australia, the nation’s political and economic autonomy continues to be undermined by the historically fomented relationships of dependency upon Western powers, particularly Australia.
In conveying meaning in literary form vis-à-vis the forces of contemporary global power inflicted upon life in East Timor, writers have, in different measures, looked to a revised politics of untranslatability in the construction of protagonists, narrators, and broader articulations of global reality. Like Fernando Sylvan, many have used the trope of trans-spatial movement in order to elaborate a scene of writing that is itself in strategic flux, barring the subject from becoming a fixable object in the web of Empire’s field of meaning and knowledge. For instance, novelist Ponte Pedrinha’s (pen name of Henrique Borges) most impactful novel, Andanças de um Timorense [‘Wanderings of a Timorese’] (1998), embodies precisely this. One can argue, however, that no writer tied to the literature of East Timor, at least that written in Portuguese, has taken such a trope and the project of untranslatability to further levels of creativity than contemporary novelist Luís Cardoso.
Born in 1958 in the East Timorese village of Calaico, Cardoso was raised speaking Tetun-Prasa (also known as Tetun Dili), a creolized form of the Austronesian language Tetum, spoken primarily in the Belu Regency of West Timor and over the border into East Timor. Tetun-Prasa’s creolization is, of course, a result of Portuguese colonial presence and it is one of (p.146) the nation’s two official languages alongside Portuguese. Cardoso learned the latter through colonial primary and secondary education. Following Portuguese decolonization, he emigrated to Lisbon, where he earned a university degree in agronomy while also exploring his interest in writing. Since the publication of his first novel, Crónica de Uma Travessia – A Época do Ai-Dik-Funam [The Crossing] in 1997, he has become the most celebrated contemporary East Timorese writer. There are, naturally, deep political and cultural implications to such a status, starting with the role of the former imperial metropolis as center of mechanical reproduction and canonization of literature from former colonies. Cardoso’s choice to write in Portuguese, but also to deploy numerous Tetun-Prasa expressions, has undoubtedly enabled his work to find a metropolitan readership (regardless of intention) seeking a cultural product that teeters between similarity through language, Western notions of literary excellence, and ‘exotic’ linguistic innovation. As Timothy Brennan points out regarding Western readership of non-Western literatures, the latter ‘bridge the literary world’s Manichaean spaces,’ feeding an ‘attraction to writing that is aesthetically “like us”’ (9).
Despite the possible meanings which Cardoso’s works have taken on through the canonical agency of metropolitan bourgeois readership – itself an inevitable by-product of Empire and global cultural consumption – his fiction nonetheless articulates subjects grappling with the realm of imperial historicity and the power relations embedded therein. This would itself be symptomatic of a writer whose nation of birth, with which he continues to identify, has found itself at the mercy and born out of such imperial power relations. Isabel Moutinho has categorized Ponte Pedrinha and Luís Cardoso as diasporic writers, arguing that both formulate protagonists whose sense of East Timorese identity is fundamentally fragmented, fraught with seeming paradoxes (359). We can, though, go even further in exploring the political repercussions of such fragmentation in the current moment of global power. Cardoso’s central characters and narrators are, like him, in flux through spaces and positions of power, privilege, and capital. It is through this flux that we can better examine the subjective movement toward postcolonial untranslatability.
In his first novel, Crónica de Uma Travessia, for instance, the semiautobiographical narrator, an anti-colonialist exile in Lisbon, retells the story of his colonized yet colonialist father. Like Cardoso himself, the narrator leaves a marginalized district of East Timor (specifically the island of Ataúro) to pursue a university education in Lisbon. Moutinho’s analysis of Cardoso’s novels centers on notions of diaspora and exile as subjective and psychic deficits. As such, she focuses on perpetual displacement as the marker of the absence of a totalized ‘national’ identity. Similarly, in (p.147) exploring exilic identities in East Timorese literary production, Teresa Cunha posits exile as an ‘experiência de ressignificação de identidade’ [‘experience of identitarian resignification’] (142). Such a revision represents a transformative ‘potencialidade para a sociedade timorense’ [‘potentiality for Timorese society’] (Cunha 142). Following Sylvan’s rethinking of movement and its decolonial possibilities, we can go in the opposite direction by arguing that it is the absence of a fantasized core of identity that affords the narrator of Crónica de Uma Travessia his critique of his father’s political existence and his place within Empire. Tellingly, it is the narrator’s father who obliges him to study in the metropolis; he had trained as a nurse, believing that acquiring a professional education was the best way to serve the Portuguese flag.
The goal of the novel, I would venture to argue, is not so much to trace or question the parameters of an East Timorese identity. After all, Cardoso seems only too aware of his privileged place as a metropoliseducated exile to propose a model of national identity, or even to identify as East Timorese in the same ways that most of the population would. He makes this a fundamental part of the narrator’s journey in Crónica de Uma Travessia. Upon returning to East Timor, ‘tive de fazer a minha autocrítica perante o representante pelo meu passado burguês, decadente e com prática contra-revolucionária’ [‘I had to perform my own self-criticism in front of the representative for my own bourgeois, decadent, and counter-revolutionary past’] (Crónica de Uma Travessia 133). This offers an interesting internal critique of Cardoso’s larger role as postcolonial and metropolis-educated writer, seemingly distancing him from any pretention of speaking for the postcolony. Instead, his work offers interrogations as to how a postcolonial subject can grapple with colonial discourse and the life of imperial power up to the present; or, as Adriana Martins reflects on Cardoso’s oeuvre, it addresses ‘colonialism as a system and its consequences to [sic] the configuration of identity experienced by [his] protagonists’ (4).
Beyond any claim to, or reflection on, national identity, Crónica de Uma Travessia stages a postcolonial inscription of the past, the possibility of which arises through the father’s loss of memory. The father, as colonial subject and vessel of colonial discourse, carrying out Empire’s prerogatives and field of meaning, is emptied by amnesia. The narrator thus takes on the task of historicizing the father. In re-narrativizing the father, he is able to simultaneously reorder Empire’s signifying chain. The narrator, in other words, takes charge of establishing the relationship between his father and Empire – the one that is ultimately rendered to the reader. The father, once subject/producer of imperial meaning, is now object of postcolonial inscription.
(p.148) Throughout Cardoso’s oeuvre, there is a concern with the possibilities of postcolonial and subaltern historicization. A central problem confronted by many of his narrators pertains to reinscribing the past, (re)signifying the time and space that has led to the present moment from which his narrators speak and write. These moments of reinscription do not arise through monumental political shifts in power. Rather, they emerge through fortuitous, or at times bizarre or even magical, circumstances within different moments of Empire, as is the case with the father’s amnesia in Crónica de Uma Travessia. The same is true for Cardoso’s second novel, Olhos de Coruja Olhos de Gato Bravo [‘Owl’s Eyes Wild Cat’s Eyes’] (2001), and his third, A Última Morte do Coronel Santiago [‘The Final Death of Colonel Santiago’] (2003). In the former, Beatriz, a narrator of mixed Timorese, Chinese, and European origin relates the roles which her parents, especially her priest father, played in Empire. This is after she spends 15 years in Lisbon with her father, who blindfolds her after baptism as a consequence of her large owl-like eyes. She then returns to East Timor only to confront various voids in her paternally manipulated life narrative – i.e. the death of her mother, whom she had expected would remove her blindfold, and the unknown that is her homeland after departing at an early age. In A Última Morte do Coronel Santiago, the narrator, following the Australian intervention against Japanese forces on the island during World War II, tells the story of the titular colonel, a colonial Portuguese military official.
Equally important to the role of historicization in Cardoso’s fiction are the historicizers themselves, the diasporic scenes of writing that offer alternative narratives of Empire and the problematic figures embedded therein. The fact that such scenes of writing emerge within Empire, rather than as a clear interruption of it, is particularly central to his construction of narrators. Temporally located within Empire, it is no surprise then that historicization ‘remains the operative strategy or, more properly, the method of the postcolonial in so far as it is a way of conceptualizing history from the present – from the vantage point of where we are “now”’ (Abeysekara 506). This points to a larger theoretical issue confronting the discourses of postcoloniality, as Ananda Abeysekara notes: ‘one cannot historicize the past from the past; one can only historicize it from and in the present. Thus historicization is caught up in the metaphysics of transcending the present’ (506). We can, moreover, view historicization in Cardoso’s works through Walter Mignolo’s decolonial prism. Historicization, Mignolo would argue, contains a strong pedagogical function. In this vein, one can connect delinking (explored here in previous chapters) to what Mignolo refers to in a project cowritten with Madina Tlostanova as ‘unlearning.’ Unlearning for Mignolo and Tlostanova reformulates, in many ways, the act of transcending (p.149) into rethinking the present, and subsequently the subject, as emerging in the ‘colonial matrix of power’ (2). Postcolonial historicization, for them, would target specifically the epistemological life of Empire – the realm of imperial knowledge formation pertaining to bodies, land, and commodities. Such a focus on imperial knowledge implies a concern with both the inscription of imperial meaning and the site from which it is inscribed – the formation of the imperial West as it signifies global time and space into a narrative, History.
There is in Cardoso’s fiction a laboring toward a scene of writing that grapples with the colonial matrix of power, similar to what we have seen in Mário de Andrade’s Macunaíma. For Cardoso, this translates into the construction of narrators who are born out of such a matrix but re-evaluate it through the act of narration. We can thus examine how Cardoso frames and performs the relationship between a postcolonial scene of writing and the movement toward decolonial historicization in his fourth and perhaps most nuanced novel, Requiem para o Navegador Solitário [‘Requiem for the Solitary Sailor’] (2007).
Set in the early 1940s as Portuguese-administered East Timor braced itself for a Japanese invasion during World War II, the novel’s narrator is Catarina, a young woman born in Batavia, in the Dutch East Indies (present-day Jakarta, Indonesia), whose father is Chinese and whose mother is ‘fruto de uma relação entre uma crioula e um governador colonial’ [‘the fruit of the relationship between a native girl and colonial governor’] (Requiem 13), presumably from Batavia. Catarina’s father is the owner of a struggling silk factory in Batavia. One day, he receives a visit from Alberto Sacramento Monteiro, captain of the port of Dili, and born in Goa, ‘filho de pai português’ [‘son of a Portuguese father’] (Requiem 16) and owner of a coffee plantation in the remote village of Manubera in southern East Timor. Monteiro arrives with a business proposition which would make Catarina’s father a part owner of Monteiro’s coffee business, and Monteiro part owner of her father’s silk business in Batavia. To seal the business transaction, Monteiro and Catarina’s father arrange for her to marry the Goa-born businessman and port administrator. She subsequently moves to East Timor to join Monteiro, but also to serve as her father’s business envoy, in accordance with his financial interests.
Catarina’s Ensnarement in Empire
As narrator, Catarina relates her time in East Timor, beginning with her stay in Dili and the characters circulating within the capital’s physical space. She also narrates her rape at the hands of Monteiro, consequently leading to the birth of her child. Following the rape, she wrestles with the (p.150) institutional impossibility of seeing Monteiro, her then fiancé, charged of any crime. Monteiro ultimately leaves her in East Timor with a child and a failed coffee plantation whose crops have been burned in a mysterious case of arson. Part of Catarina’s narrative includes her attempt to solve the mystery of the plantation’s destruction and to salvage her father’s business endeavor in East Timor.
A central aspect of the novel that sets it apart from Cardoso’s earlier works concerns the narrator’s relationship with East Timor as cultural and political space. The narrator is an individual not overtly preoccupied with negotiating an exilic identity with a point of origin, and so East Timorese space appears first and foremost as a dizzying conjunction of imperial actors and forces. Carlos Henrique Lucas Lima, in exploring the novel’s ‘“transcontinentalidade” como contribuição teórica e política’ [‘“transcontinentality” as a theoretical and political contribution’] (2), posits Dili as ‘um local de exilados, degredados e de toda a sorte de comerciantes de distintas nacionalidades’ [‘a locale of exiled individuals, those banished from the metropolis, and an assortment of merchants of different nationalities’] (3).
The temporal setting in itself evokes myriad political and economic phenomena that afflicted Southeast Asia and the South Pacific: the final decades of European occupation (Dutch colonial presence would effectively end as a consequence of the war) and the imminent Japanese invasion of East Timor anteceded by a pre-emptive occupation by a Dutch and Australian coalition. These looming events threaten to interrupt the everyday life of what in the novel appears to be a colony on the distant fringes of the Portuguese maritime empire where Portuguese, British, Dutch, and Chinese economic interests are pursued by mysterious characters who are also looking to forward their own individual interests.
In addition to the Goa-born Alberto, other important characters whose diegetic existence speaks to the chaotic modus operandi of local colonial power include Indian Jones, described as a Malabar adventurer working as driver, bodyguard, and hitman for Portuguese port administrators. Within this cast of characters, one also finds Rodolfo Marques da Costa, manager of the Hotel Salazar in Dili, native of the Algarve town of Silves, and part-time Arabist who studies the life and literary work of Muhammed Ibn Abbad al-Mu‘tamid, the last ruler of the taifa of Seville, al-Andalus. Marques da Costa is, perhaps more importantly, a political exile, expelled from the metropolis by the Salazar regime for his anarchist views. Drawing on Edward Said’s reflection on experiences of exile, Carlos Henrique Lucas Lima argues that ‘é a partir de fora, do exílio, que a ideia da nação portuguesa é construída por Marques da Costa’ [‘it is from outside, from exile, that Marques da Costa constructs the idea of the Portuguese nation’] (6; emphasis original).
(p.151) The way in which Marques da Costa performs this construction, or rather, this particular historicization of Portugal is especially interesting, and is yet another example of how Luís Cardoso engenders characters that produce meaning against Western historicity. His interest in the Islamic political and cultural presence in the Iberian Peninsula goes beyond the superficial syncretistic narratives of Portuguese nationhood, such as those of Gilberto Freyre and Teixeira de Pascoaes which posited the origins of ‘Portugueseness’ as the result of Semitic and Aryan cultural mingling. What is often left out of such narratives is the brutal erasure of the former through centuries of persecution and the dominant historicization of Iberia as a Christian, and subsequently European, geo-cultural space. This erasure, and intertwined othering of Semitic signifiers, is central to the fantasy of a white Christian Europe as the racial and spiritual underpinnings of Westernness.1 Such a version of Europe whose narrative of modernity – scientific and political – owes much to Semitic thought, whose ideas have been whitewashed and historically separated from their former temporalities. From the experience of exile, Marques da Costa gestures against these forms of erasure through his study of al-Mu‘tamid, and proposes a conceptualization of Iberia that reclaims Islamic presence while also questioning the dominant global mappings of East and West, and the racial consequences thereof.
What Catarina thus finds in East Timor is arguably more than the intersecting of exilic identities, but also that of global narratives, both imperial and decolonial, in contact and flux. Another example of this is the character central to the unraveling of the coffee plantation. The enigmatic Malisera, also known as Adriano da Fonseca, a Timorese leader and anti-colonial rebel, resides in Manumera, the location of the plantation. The colonial authorities accuse him of burning the crops. He is seemingly a mythic figure venerated by the Dili community with which he interacts: ‘todos os maltratados iam ter com Malisera para se queixarem das autoridades, civis e militares, dos régulos e dos sipaios, e também das calamidades naturais’ [‘the mistreated all sought Malisera to complain of the authorities, civil and military, of the chief or native soldiers, and also of natural disasters’] (Requiem 123). Catarina is one of the few non-Timorese people to have been in direct contact with him. As she learns, the true perpetrators of the plantation’s destruction were (p.152) the Portuguese colonial authorities (carried out specifically by Indian Jones) seeking to maintain a monopoly on coffee production.
Catarina is thus ensnared in a complex interweaving of inter-imperial desires (Doyle 2014) – European, Chinese, Japanese, and Australian – in addition to the desires of particular characters which may or may not dovetail with those of Empire. These include those of her father, a member of the Chinese bourgeoisie in Batavia, and also, more complexly, the anti-colonial desire of Malisera. The novel’s narration grapples precisely with the different ways in which Catarina is placed into the realm of meaning where the aforementioned desires and imperial interests are manifest. Within this signifying field she, as a woman of Chinese and Indonesian descent, is often the object of different male gazes, as well as the imperial masculine gaze residing behind Empire’s epistemological function. East Timorese space, as a chaotic intermingling of different individuals, is subsequently an intersecting area of a plethora of subject-positions within Empire. In her narration, Catarina carefully considers (or at the very least, cleverly alludes to) the ways in which she is signified by the different subject-positions that comprise East Timorese space, in itself a microcosm of Empire.
In this regard, she is able to historicize, through her own narration, how she is signified, beginning with her first encounter with Monteiro. In doing so, she also signifies other identities in the text, and how these affirm themselves in colonial space. In this sense, Catarina’s narration operates through a particular critical distance (but also stemming from visceral proximity) from the inscribed actions, and simultaneous closer examination of how identity interacts with Empire at the crossroads of race, national origin, gender, and class. She narrates the imperial signifying field by way of the subject-positions that operate within and reproduce it. At the same time, Catarina carries out such a narration of Empire by playing with different elements that have served to reproduce hegemonies within this realm of meaning, namely the interplay of occulting and presenting information. As particular examples will make clear, she brings forth topics, largely through brief digressions, that problematize imperial narratives of masculine and European superiority and historical agency. In this vein, we can discuss the possibilities of the novel presenting a de-masculinized/decolonial act of historicization.
It is important to begin with the very fact that Catarina is able to historicize. This speaks to a reality in which privilege and subalternity are not fixed oppositions. Part of her privilege is seen through her ability to sidestep subalternity in different moments and contexts and gain access to meaning production. Privilege and subalternity exist, therefore, in a continuum rather than as a dichotomy. As such, Catarina effectively shifts to and from privilege and subalternity depending on the bodies (placed within (p.153) power) with which she interacts. The trans-spatial reach of Empire manifests itself in how subjects residing within the imperial power spectrum shift position and inscribe themselves according to the signified bodies and signifiers that make up a particular space within Empire’s coordinates. This seems to be a common prerogative among many of the characters with whom Catarina comes in contact – ranging from the aforementioned Goa-born administrators and Malabar adventurers to metropolitan Portuguese prisoners sent to East Timor to reproduce a Portuguese colonial presence.
The lack of a consistent diegetic presence of East Timorese characters, aside from Malisera, points toward a circle of local power from which natives are barred, and their marginalization from such power is implied throughout most of the novel until the reader begins to better understand the life of Malisera. Moreover, this implied marginalization functions vis-à-vis the dominant and more visible characters as an amalgamated, unspecified otherness, an imperially signified background against which foreigners can inscribe their subjective presence within Empire. Such a diegetic marginalization serves to underscore the dialectics of subalternity and power/privilege, reproduced by the ability of particular characters to perform power in the colonial terrain.
Catarina herself is an example of this. When she lived with her parents in Batavia as a young girl, she could not speak in the presence of her father. The same is true in the presence of Monteiro upon their first encounter. Her body is at the mercy of the historicizing processes of the imperial matrix of power. She recalls her presence in this particular moment as resembling that of – and indeed being confused with – a jade ornament in the form a cat:
O visitante, durante todo o tempo em que esteve em nossa casa, não tirou os olhos nem de mim nem de uma peça de jade, que representava uma gata. Provavelmente, o seu interesse pelo objecto servia de cobertura para outra peça amarela que não era de pedra, mas sim de carne e osso e representava uma menina chinesa com pretensões culturais exóticas. […]
Antes de sair, olhando na minha direcção, perguntou pelo nome da peça que o meu pai disse chamar-se Catarina.
[The visitor never removed his gaze from me nor from a jade ornament representing a cat the entire time he was in our house. Perhaps his interest in the object was a cover for his interest in another yellow piece that was not made of stone, but of flesh and bone and represented a Chinese girl with exotic cultural pretentions. (…)
Before he left, looking in my direction, he asked the name of the piece my father said calls herself Catarina.]
(p.154) This is a particularly complex reflection on Catarina’s subjective experience, namely her placement within power and the forces at work behind identity. She exists, first and foremost, as a signifier manipulated by the paternalism of Empire: the ‘piece my father said calls herself Catarina.’ The verbosity of this clause is certainly no fluke. Through the process of subjectivation, Catarina is not only signified by her father, she is taught to signify herself paternally, through the discourse of the father – calling herself Catarina. Her act of historicization that is the text of her narration thus begins with her journey of identity, her placement within dominant historicization. The excerpt above adds a notable layer to the Lacanian conception of ego formation in the mirror stage, notably the specular image of identity as a ‘fictional direction’ (Écrits 76). Catarina points out the signifying forces behind such a fiction – an image engendered for the reproduction of a particular symbolic order. In the exchange between Monteiro and Catarina’s father, the name/signifier ‘Catarina’ is merely the surface of the symbol/ object that characterizes her early life, as an inter-masculine object of exchange, within the realm of imperial power. The consequences of her narrativization as object for power reaches its apex when she is raped by Monteiro, her fiancé.
The incident leads her to question a particular narrative that had guided her romantic desire up until that point – that of Prince Charming [‘príncipe encantado’]. She gradually comes to grasp the story as a part of her entrapment within the matrix of power. The tale of the Prince Charming who would appear at some point of her life ultimately dovetails with her subjectivation, teaching her to desire, as part of both compulsory heterosexuality and conformation to masculine agency. The tale, furthermore, becomes an instrument through which she is taught to desire masculine agency over meaning, the desire to be signified patriarchally. Moreover, Catarina’s account of her own infatuation with a fictitious Prince Charming – the tale through which she framed Monteiro’s initial presence in her life – obliges us to understand this fable as one of patriarchy’s obscurantist tales of its own power and the epistemic violence of masculinity over its phantasmatic feminine other. The overlapping of the Prince Charming tale with Catarina’s rape forces the reader to connect the masculine historical agency at the core of the tale with patriarchy’s very real and, in this case, physical and institutionalized violence.
Catarina, moreover, adds various layers of colonial meaning to the myth of Prince Charming and its repercussions for her subjective experience within Empire. In a colonial space whose institutions operate patriarchally, thus sanctioning the reproduction of an imperial field of meaning, her racial identity inevitably supplements the patriarchal reification of her body as a (p.155) gendered entity. Aside from finding no justice against her rapist through institutional channels, she is signified in Dili as a nona.2 The term is assigned to Catarina by the capital’s colonialist social circles when it becomes known that Monteiro was in fact already married to a Portuguese woman. She thus once again becomes a sexual signifier within Empire’s realm of meaning, revealing in turn the limits of her social privilege in East Timor. Where male characters are able to inscribe themselves in different ways in the easternmost Portuguese colonial holding, the patriarchal component of Empire implies a persistent signification of Catarina’s subjective existence. In this regard, Catarina’s historicizing act is most crucially a historicization in confrontation with that of Empire.
Her act of narrativizing the reproduction of Empire leads her to consider not only the colonial signifiers that place her body into Empire, but also some of the everyday praxes of imperial power. Catarina recalls a notable instance of these in the wake of her rape, which impacts her ability to historicize the traumatic experience, especially vis-à-vis the schema of power through which the trauma emerged. In an ambiguous and laconic reference to the rape, Catarina notes: ‘O que me aconteceu estava escrito algures num local que não pude, em tempo oportuno, decifrar. Faltou-me um visionário que me tivesse ensinado a ler o meu futuro nos sinais do tempo’ [‘What happened to me was written someplace that I could not decipher in time. I lacked a visionary who could have taught me to read my future in the signs of the time’] (Requiem 92). Catarina’s reflection here posits the rape as an inevitable consequence already written within Empire, where her body is constructed as violable. The tale of Prince Charming, in other words, rendered such a violent event indecipherable to her in her subjectivized place of the other; an ontological site barred from writing and only able to liminally and partially access the textuality of Empire.
In this sense, Catarina seems to reflect on Empire’s historicizing function as a series of heterologies, to borrow Michel de Certeau’s terminology; that is, as a set of ‘discourses on the other’ (Writing 3). De Certeau theorizes modern Western history as an ‘intelligibility established through a relation with the other’ (Writing 3). The other, of course, is just as constructed as the ensuing relation. De Certeau thus expounds on the other as a shifting object within Western heterologies such as historiography, medical knowledge, ethnology, and pedagogy: ‘it moves (or “progresses”) by changing what it makes of its “other” – the Indian, the past, the people, the mad, the child, the Third World’ (Writing 3). Catarina’s evocation of an indecipherable place speaks to her existence as ‘an object that is supposedly written in an unknown (p.156) language’ (Writing 3), to the ‘division between the body of knowledge that utters a discourse and the mute body that nourishes it’ (Writing 3).
Both Catarina and de Certeau grapple with the modus operandi of Western signification and its organized ‘rift between discourse and the body’ (Writing 3; emphasis original). It is from this rift that Catarina writes her text, from the site of exclusion from dominant writing. Barred from the indecipherable place of writing, of signifying time and space embodied by local colonial authorities that both keep her under house arrest and produce their own meaning pertaining to her, she takes up her own writing. This, of course, is a writing that is not fully supported by political imperial power, despite her relative clout in the privilege/subalternity spectrum. Like the current limits of postcolonial cultural production and decolonial knowledges imposed by contemporary global power, Catarina’s writing will, therefore, not supplant or adequately contest colonial power. Rather, Catarina, we can argue, offers a writing on writing; on the imperial ‘relation between a “will to produce history” (a subject of the political operation) and the “environment” (into which is carved a power of decision and action)’ (de Certeau, Writing 7). A core component of her historicization concerns examinations of how colonial power is reproduced in East Timor through various signifying processes, whether through written records or sexual acts.
Writing, Resistance, and the Inscription of Jouissance
Following Monteiro’s departure from the post of Dili’s port administrator, a new administrator, Geraldo Pinto Pereira, appears at Catarina’s place of residence, which she shares with Madalena, a previous lover of Monteiro with whom she too had a child, Esmeralda. Due to her earlier contact with Malisera, seemingly the colonial police’s most sought-after individual, Catarina is a person of interest to the colonial authorities and intelligence agents. Like Monteiro before him, Pereira offers Catarina a pet cat, a gesture that expresses sexual interest on the part of the giver. Suspecting that Pereira’s interests may be principally political and/or sexually exploitative, Madalena suggests that Catarina invite him for dinner where Madalena would prepare a poisonous fish specifically for him. During the dinner, Catarina initiates a sexual encounter, but not without also tasting some of the fish Pereira was beginning to suspect. She wakes up in the hospital, while Pereira is comatose due to the larger portion of fish ingested.
Through this encounter with Pereira, Catarina finds a sort of redemption; not so much from poisoning the port administrator, but more so from being able to control an interracial sexual encounter from the position of other and, more importantly, to narrativize it. Being left comatose, moreover, (p.157) Pereira is physically unable to carry out his imperial, patriarchal mandate of inscribing the liaison. Within her narrativization of that night, Catarina also captures how Pereira interpreted her body during the encounter, leading her to several digressions regarding how her body had been patriarchally and imperially signified in the past. One passage is particularly illustrative of this. During a flirtatious conversation about Pereira’s dream of reaching the Pearl River in South China, Catarina recalls her mother wearing pearl necklaces and her father’s (to whom she refers simply as ‘the old Chinese man’) refusal to allow Catarina to also wear one:
Quem gostava de pérolas era a minha mãe. Para ser precisa devia dizer o meu pai, que se servia dela para exibir a sua rica colecção de pérolas. Os seus inimigos, quando queriam fazer-lhe a vida negra, diziam que um dia cortavam a cabeça à mulher. Ele não se ralava com isso. As verdadeiras escondia-as num cofre secreto.
Nunca andei com nenhum colar de pérolas. O velho chinês dizia que o meu corpo não precisava de outros ornamentos para fazer um homem feliz. Nasci com a justa medida de todas as coisas, as formas distintas e proporcionadas.
– Uma gata de jade
e tirava as medidas ao meu corpo como se fosse um alfaiate.
[My mother really liked pearls. To be precise, I should say my father did, as he used her to exhibit his rich collection of pearls. His enemies, when they wished to antagonize him, used to say that one day they would behead his wife. That did not bother him. The real pearls remained hidden in a secret coffer.
I never wore a pearl necklace. The old Chinese man would say that my body did not need any ornament to make a man happy. I was born with just the right amount of everything, a distinctive and well-proportioned body.
– A jade cat
and he would measure my body as if he were a tailor.]
Interestingly, this digression transitions directly back to the actions of Catarina’s encounter with Monteiro, the last two lines of the excerpt situated ambiguously between the memory of her father’s signification of her body and Pereira’s physical contact with it. The penultimate line is a reference to the metaphor evoked by Monteiro in the presence of her father, where her marriage was arranged. The jade cat was the statue/commodity – serving as (p.158) stand-in for Catarina – which Monteiro ambiguously indicated as the object that would seal the business agreement between him and her father.
The use of a commodity as the sign-substitute for the female body points to Catarina’s place within the masculine sphere of power, as a reified object of exchange necessary for the reproduction of capital and the existing field of meaning. Luce Irigaray reminds us that:
the society we know, our own culture, is based upon the exchange of women. Without the exchange of women, we are told, we would fall back into the anarchy (?) of the animal kingdom. The passage into the social order, into the symbolic order, into order as such, is assured by the fact that men, or groups of men, circulate women among themselves. (170)
Catarina’s passing from father to fiancé embodies Irigaray’s understanding of this ‘matrix of History, in which man begets man as his own likeness, wives, daughters, and sisters have value only in that they serve as the possibility of, and potential benefit in, relations among men’ (171). This rings true for both the exchange of Catarina, from father to husband, and her father’s symbolic use of her mother as a vehicle through which to inscribe his identity vis-à-vis the circulation of capital and the inter-masculine competition therein.
The female subject, an object produced/gendered here under the father’s supervision, himself an instrument of the symbolic order/Empire’s reproduction in his paternal function, is conferred to the would-be husband. This patriarchal transaction is thus centered on an inscription of Catarina, the jade cat. It also reinscribes the masculinity of the transacting parties. Catarina thus seems to add a further element to the exchange of women: the commodity becomes the fantasy – the screen or frame through which her body is signified. In locating the fantasy, Catarina pinpoints the phantasmatic nature of masculine agency and inscription over women. She also foresees and seeks to disable the fantasy through which Pereira attempts to render her body knowable within their sexual encounter. She uses this knowledge of masculine power in her own dealings with Empire, reading Empire by way of how Empire reads her.
The inclusion of the sign-substitute commodity in Catarina’s historicization of the sexual encounter with Pereira constitutes an interesting superimposition of temporalities – the masculine historicization of her body is historicized by her in turn, in a new moment. She inscribes a realm of meaning while not disconnecting it from its modes of reproduction. Catarina, in other words, inserts imperial jouissance into her representation of Empire. Following Slavoj Žižek’s take on jouissance, the term for the subject’s act of signification – ranging from historiography to sexual violence – in (p.159) response to the big Other’s (here, Empire’s) desire for reproduction, the act of signification in itself must not be historicized. That is: ‘jouissance designates the non-historical kernel of the process of historicization’ (Žižek, Plague 49). Her narrativization of her time in East Timor pays particular attention to not only the relations of men and power (namely the different port administrators who succeed one another in Dili), but also the levels of jouissance that produce and reproduce this matrix of power.
Returning to Catarina’s narration of her night with Pereira, she now refers to Pereira’s tactile perusal of her body after she recalls its placement in the masculine economy of desire. The passage develops as if Pereira were reading the body as a signified text:
Passava as mãos pelos meus cabelos, pelo rosto, pelos olhos. Desceu até aos lábios, que espremeu até ficarem rubros, antes de deslizar pelo pescoço e finalmente lançou a âncora junto do meu peito e por lá amainou. Demorava-se nos meus seios enquanto tacteava os mamilos, que ficavam tensos. Como se apalpasse as pérolas debaixo da blusa.
– Tem mão de pirata, capitão
– Todos os ocidentais têm fantasias acerca do oriente
– Qual é a sua, capitão, qual é a sua?
[He ran his hands through my hair, down my face, over my eyes. He moved down to my lips, which he squeezed until they were bright red, before slipping down my neck and finally anchored himself on my chest, where he settled. He lingered around my breasts while feeling my nipples, which grew tense. As if he were groping the pearls under my blouse.
- ‘You have a pirate’s hand, captain.’
- ‘All westerners have fantasies about the Orient.’
- ‘What is yours, captain, what is yours?’]
Although Pereira never answers Catarina’s question before losing consciousness, he nonetheless reveals the phantasmatic nature of imperial signification and the operation through which he reads the body. It is an imperial fantasy of gendered oriental otherness that makes it knowable to him, and that informs empirical experience. The Western fantasies to which Pereira refers, whatever they may be, intermingle with both the gendering carried out by Catarina’s father and the space of masculine exchange in which the female body is inserted. The imperial field of Western meaning has, in other words, already coded ‘oriental space’ and the bodies that inhabit it. Having read the field of meaning through interpellation, Pereira is equipped with an array of signifiers pertaining to sameness and (p.160) otherness, functioning as a priori screens of interpretation through which to experience time and space.
Žižek argues for an even deeper function of fantasy vis-à-vis the symbolic order of meaning, namely as its ‘unacknowledged obscene support simultaneously serv[ing] as a screen against the direct intrusion of the Real’ (Plague 64–65). The implications of Pereira’s utterance in his exchange with Catarina thus go far beyond his imperial experience of that particular moment. The orientalism of Empire, and more broadly its entire signifying field of sameness and otherness, is undergirded by a repeated phantasmatic operation. The subject gives meaning to experience, and thus staves off the intrusion of the Real (where meaning and power break down), through the existing signifiers of the symbolic. In doing so, the subject simultaneously reproduces this field of meaning, the big Other. As Žižek clarifies in this regard, fantasy is the ‘screen concealing the gap, the abyss of the desire of the Other’ (Sublime 132). Fantasy, in other words, allows the subject to carry out the desire of the Other, Empire, for its own reproduction and the homeostatic balance of power. Herein lies the jouissance of Empire, the reproduction of its signifying field. Through enjoyment, in the shape of inscribing/performing identity, the subject also enjoys (reproduces meaning) for Empire.
Part of the decolonial potential of Catarina’s text thus resides in its relationship with imperial enjoyment sanctioned by the imperial fantasy of otherness. In historicizing jouissance, she is giving meaning to an excess that is too much to be signified into Empire, and thus has no place in the dominant field of meaning. Žižek elaborates: ‘Every ideology attaches itself to some kernel of jouissance which, however, retains the status of an ambiguous excess’ (Plague 50). Catarina’s dealings with the port administrators demonstrate her own placement in relation to imperial jouissance. The fantasy to which Pereira alludes indicates the imperial exchange value attributed to ‘oriental’ women’s bodies. They are a site of jouissance, a phantasmatic other through which the imperial field of meaning and Pereira’s place within it as a specularly total subject are simultaneously reconsolidated by way of interracial sex and framed by the imperial orientalist fantasy.
Enjoyment, Masculinity, and the Imperial Superego
Catarina’s exploration of enjoyment and the imperial field of meaning revisits a theoretical discrepancy concerning the psychic existence of the subject, with crucial implications for the subject within Empire. Jouissance, for early Lacan (pre-1960), was intricately tied to the superego, itself an entity he locates as existing within ‘the totality of the system of language’ (Lacan, Seminar I 102). In this sense, the superego appears to be an inevitable (p.161) by-product of the symbolic order and its incessant demand for reproduction. The superego in traditional Freudian readings appears as an entity of repression, seemingly opposed to the subject’s enjoyment. For Lacan, on the other hand, the superego is the voice of the enjoyment afforded to the subject within the symbolic order. It is the superego, in other words, that enjoins the subject to enjoy, as long as the enjoyment serves the balance of the symbolic order – the desire of the big Other.
Throughout his work, Žižek posits the injunction to enjoyment as a postmodern condition in which the subject’s relationship with its specular image of totality is based on the fulfillment of pleasures ranging from the sexual to the consumption of commodities. This has long been the case within the imperial symbolic order, especially for the subjectivized masculine subject. The performance of European heteronormative masculinity, such as that of Pereira in Catarina’s text, is potentiated by an imperial injunction to enjoy the field of power in which its agency is signified and legitimized. This masculine enjoyment based on the signified bodies and spaces in circulation within Empire ultimately serves the desire of Empire – reproducing its symbolic order and the agency of European heteronormative masculinity therein.
The obscenity of the superego in its injunction for masculine jouissance lies in its opposition to supposed conservative social norms such as heterosexual monogamy and marriage. These are, however, tenuous aspects of the Law in relation to men, although as Adrienne Rich reminds us, marriage nonetheless serves as an operation of compulsory heterosexuality (633). The superego’s injunction to enjoy beyond such norms seldom has consequences for men in positions of power backed by patriarchal institutional support. Subsequently, the breaking of the Law by masculine enjoyment constitutes the heteronormative masculine subject’s response to the desire of Empire. Herein lies the relationship between the Law and the big Other tied together by the superego. There appears to be a gap between the sometimes superficial laws of the symbolic order of intersubjective relations and the reproduction of this order. The superego marks this gap – the space where broken rules maintain the status quo of power, so long as the rules are broken by those in or serving power.
It is crucial to bear in mind that the symbolic order, especially that of Empire, never emerges spontaneously, but is rather reproduced by way of existing systems of power. In this regard, the superego, existing ‘within the symbolic plane of speech’ (Lacan, Seminar I 102), speaks for the field of power through which it is rendered. Lacan elaborates on his rethinking of the superego vis-à-vis Freud in his writings, notably tying the emergence of the superego to gaps in the symbolic chain, in the desire of the big Other (p.162) (Écrits: Selection 143), thus leading to distortions of the Law. Herein lies the function of the superego’s injunction to enjoy, in the case of the masculine imperial subject.
Any gap in the imperial field of meaning is to be taped over by way of enjoyment, distorting the Law to maintain the integrity of the Other. For Pereira and Monteiro, in other words, the superego as the will-to-enjoy (volonté de jouissance) repeatedly, if not structurally in the case of white European masculinity, distorts the Law (i.e. that of white bourgeois marriage) in order to reproduce the imperial field of racial and sexual meanings and subject-positions therein. This inevitably leads us back to jouissance and fantasy, the latter functioning as the significational screen through which the subject experiences the former in response to the desire of Empire. Reproducing Empire thus always means covering the gaps in the symbolic order. It is no surprise, then, that Lacan explores the centrality of this will-to-enjoy in his theorization of sadism in the essay ‘Kant and Sade.’ Lacan’s fundamental argument here is that the sadistic act of the subject works for the balance of the symbolic order, for the big Other. The superego thus operates in relation to the gaps in the symbolic order by making the subject the ‘instrument of jouissance’ (Écrits 654) for the big Other. In this regard, the superego is a central aspect of the symbolic realm, enjoining the enjoyment of the subject necessary for the enjoyment of the Other – its reproduction and homeostatic balance.
Enjoyment and the superego are not universal entities and series of demands for all subject-positions residing in the imperial field of meaning. The content of the superego injunction is, in other words, contingent upon the demands of Empire for each subjectivation. In the imperial realm, the superego’s injunction will inevitably vary by subjectivizing imperial categories such as race, gender, class, and sexuality. Firstly, the signifying field of Empire, at least within Cardoso’s novel, does not provide the quantity of phantasmatic texts and possibilities of enjoyment for non-European, non-masculine, non-heteronormative subjects that it offers Pereira and Monteiro in Requiem para o Navegador Solitário. In this regard, if the feminine subject within the imperial symbolic realm truly has no superego, or at least a weaker one, as Freud argued, it is not because women lack guilt, as he suggested. Rather, in a patriarchally established field of sexual, racial, and social meaning, the injunction to reproduce (through enjoyment) a symbolic realm where the privilege of European normative masculinity resides applies particularly to the individual interpellated and subjectivized into that privilege. The superego is a psychic function for the Other, it is a product of patriarchal imperial signification, and therefore sanctions enjoyment primarily for those who carry out such signification.
(p.163) The superego, after all, enjoins a breaking of the Law, rules and regulations most strictly enforced on disenfranchised others. In other words, for the object of imperial historicization and knowledge, there are fewer gaps in a violently enforced Law, as evidenced by Pereira and Monteiro’s known and accepted marital infidelities in comparison with the strict surveillance of Catarina by local authorities, to say nothing of the local collective inscription of her sexuality. For subjective experiences of subalternity, breaking the Law ultimately leads to a punishment that reinforces subalternity. As is well-documented, and tritely represented in cultural production, an adulterous woman almost always suffers a fall in the social hierarchy of power.
Under the guise of such a Law, one finds the market of commodity exchange where women’s bodies are located, as theorized by Irigaray; a market guided by the superego injunction for heteronormative masculine enjoyment: ‘The possession of a woman is certainly indispensable to man for the reproductive use value that she represents; but what he desires is to have them all. To “accumulate” them, to be able to count off his conquests, seductions, possessions, both sequentially and cumulatively, as measure or standard(s)’ (Irigaray 174). The use value of woman as commodity, pointed out here by Irigaray, marks the means by which the masculine subject inscribes himself in Empire; through the accumulation of women, in other words. It is no surprise, then, that both Monteiro and Pereira are married to European women. For Pereira and the masculine imperial subject able to move transnationally and/or trans-colonially, this is a global market spawned by imperial inscription and where women’s bodies are attributed use and exchange value based on the signification of racial difference. Colonial space and colonial bodies become interweaved, the latter often standing for the former in the imperial market of masculinity.
Irigaray does not, of course, fail to underscore the inter-masculine tensions played out by masculinity in the market:
Reigning everywhere, although prohibited in practice, hom(m) o-sexuality is played out through the bodies of women, matter, or sign, and heterosexuality has been up to now just an alibi for the smooth workings of man’s relations with himself. Whose ‘sociocultural endogamy’ excludes the participation of that other, so foreign to the social order: woman. [… the social order] does not tolerate marriage with populations that are too far away, too far removed from the prevailing cultural rules. A sociocultural endogamy would thus forbid commerce with women. Men make commerce of them, but they do not enter into exchanges with them.
(172; emphasis original)
(p.164) We can, moreover, take these relations between men even further, to the level of imperial historicization, namely Empire’s masculinist existence. Imperial inscription, emerging and reproducing itself by way of inter-masculine dialectics, points toward the existence of an implied male gaze within Empire’s field of meaning. More than providing the phantasmatic material through which women are exchanged and used for and by historical inscription, the signifying field implies a surveying entity that oversees subjectivation and identity performance. Lacan’s term for this implied gaze is the ‘ego ideal,’ the psychic site ‘from where we are being observed, from where we look at ourselves so that we appear to ourselves likeable’ (Žižek, Sublime 116; emphasis original).
As I have explored regarding Empire (Silva Subjectivity), the ego ideal is created and reproduced concurrently with its larger field of meaning, a product of the dialectics of historical inscription, guided of course by the masculinist forces and agency sanctioned and reproduced within said field of meaning. In this regard, the ‘hom(m)o-sexual’ sphere of relations between men is fundamentally a relation between the masculine subject and the imperial field of meaning, particularly its masculine gaze. To reaffirm their position within the big Other, responding to its desire, masculine subjects must enjoy for the big Other by way of the phantasmatic support of experience offered by Empire’s textuality. In this sense, the imperial field of meaning is constituted and constitutes its subjects’ hom(m)o-sexually.
What Catarina’s text performs through her tension with imperial male characters is an attempt at historicizing imperial masculine enjoyment and, subsequently, the imperial superego. The superego, in evoking gaps in the Law and how it is not applied universally, is as Žižek clarifies, a ‘supplement of obscene unwritten rules’ (Plague 11). As such, the superego maintains an ambivalent position in relation to the field of meaning. Citing Lacan, Žižek elaborates on the status of the superego: ‘the superego is a Law in so far as it is not integrated into the subject’s symbolic universe, in so far as it functions as an incomprehensible, nonsensical, traumatic injunction’ (Metastases 20). This status of the superego as not integrated into the symbolic yet, a crucial factor in the subject’s social existence within meaning, is unsurprisingly reminiscent of Lacan and Žižek’s take on jouissance, the latter pairing enjoyment with narrativization. In other words, the non-integrated status of the superego does not mean it is not a function of the symbolic. Rather, the subject’s inability to integrate the superego can be translated as the subject’s incapacity to narrativize it.
Joan Copjec furthers this ambiguity by positing the superego vis-à-vis the subject as a series of ‘voice-commands’ (57) which, despite being ‘obscene, is felt “within like a stranger”’ (57). For Copjec, ‘obscene’ comes to indicate (p.165) that which is ‘out of scene,’ out of the subject’s readily accessible field of meaning. In comparison to the Law, therefore, the superego and its always-implied enjoyment is seldom made publicly present. The rules of enjoyment, although sanctioned for the imperial masculine subject through the symbolic field’s phantasmatic support, are never part of what we call public knowledge or official rules. Catarina’s text offers an intricate example of this psychic/significational ambiguity of the imperial superego through her dealings with different port administrators and colonial functionaries, namely in sexual interactions.
The fantasies to which Pereira refers, allegedly harbored by all Westerners about an imperially constructed Orient, point toward an injunction to enjoyment that we can locate in the superego, thus pinpointing its operation within Empire. In the context of the imperial signifying field where the subject resides, the Law arguably pertains to the official imperial rules of engagement between subject and othered bodies. It is at the level of imperial Law, for instance, that one finds the Manichaean discourses of strict racial compartmentalization, the masculine dominance of particular spaces, and the interdiction of interracial love and sex. These visible, public, or ‘on-scene’ rules all serve the purpose of responding to the desire of the big Other, and in doing so safeguard imperial European masculine power over historicization.
The symbolic field that is the big Other is, however, more than a set of official rules. It is a field of signified time, space, and bodies where these are objects of imperial knowledge, a set of signifiers that seldom correspond to any positive physical property. As such, the fantasies to which Pereira alludes are always already built into the imperial field of meaning that is produced and reproduced phantasmatically. The official rules of the Law themselves must be followed through this phantasmatic support through which the subject experiences and interacts with othered bodies. Following the rules of racial compartmentalization, for instance, implies an understanding of the other through the meaning with which such a body has been signified – as monstrous, dangerous, virile, sexually deviant, a threat to the normativity of white life, itself a fantasy as well.
Because the field of imperial meaning is greater and more broadly encompassing than the official rules of the Law, the phantasmatic content of the big Other also offers the subject the significational frames through which to break the Law. In other words, the same phantasmatic support for the Law is also that of the superego, both operating in accordance with the desire of the Other. The superego, though, is not simply a consequence of the existence of the Law, somehow coming after it. Rather, the superego runs parallel to it, emerging and making its presence felt simultaneously (p.166) with the Law. Žižek comes to a similar conclusion in attempting to resolve the relationship between the Law and the superego:
The only solution to this deadlock, of course, is to conceive of these two narratives as the two complimentary ideological gestures of resolving/ obfuscating the underlying deadlock which resides in the fact that the Law was smeared, stigmatized, by enjoyment at the very moment of its emergence as the neutral universal formal Law. The very emergence of a pure neutral Law, free of its concrete ‘organic’ life-world support, gives birth to the obscene superego underside.
As such, the Law and the superego, while appearing to be oppositional, constitute their own dialectic in synchronizing the subject’s desire with that of the Other. We can also think of this relationship between Law and superego in terms of Lacan’s distinction between pleasure and jouissance in that the former is aligned with the Law and the latter with excess beyond pleasure. As Lacan explains, ‘the function of the pleasure principle is, in effect, to lead the subject from signifier to signifier, by generating as many signifiers as are required to maintain at as low a level as possible the tension that regulates the whole functioning of the psychic apparatus’ (Seminar VII 119).
The excess beyond the pleasure principle in the case of the masculine imperial subject-position, however, also contributes to the generating of signifiers and the reproduction of meaning – the homeostatic balance of the big Other. A signifying-field whose emergence is predicated on excess toward a phantasmatic other offers a built-in excess of enjoyment beyond its immediate realm of public knowledge. We see this reconciliation of Law and superego, pleasure and jouissance, at work in Pereira. He holds an official position within the colonial administration, enforcing rules of Empire, but he is also guided by the enjoyment implied by the fantasies of sameness and otherness within Empire.
The textuality of the other within the signifying field – the fantasies mentioned above – makes the other an object of official colonial knowledge within the Law, and a site of enjoyment beyond the Law. The heteronormative European masculine subject in Catarina’s text is mandated through the body of meaning rendered in both sides of the symbolic realm. We can go as far as to argue that the Law and the superego function in the case of Pereira as interpellating entities, hailing and maintaining the subject in the symbolic by way of a promise of enjoyment through the body of the other – oriental woman, in this case. In this regard, Freud may have been right to situate the superego within the Oedipal complex, as the agency that shifts the subject’s desire from the mother to another entity. Even here, there is a level of enjoyment in Freud’s elaboration of the superego – one that Lacan (p.167) would later expand. In shifting the desire of the subject, the superego promises future enjoyment; that is, through the phantasmatic support of the signifying field. In this sense, the superego may enunciate the Law’s prohibition, but does so by guaranteeing enjoyment later within the desire of the big Other. It is in her flirtation with Pereira that Catarina extracts this promise of enjoyment – one that, as she uncovers, guides Pereira’s imperial trans-spatial movement.
Interpellation and Empire’s Masculine Subject
A significant portion of Catarina’s text is, in fact, guided by an interest in the interpellation of imperial male subject-positions – how they come to take on their imperial mandates. This is the case not only with port administrators, but also with the titular character: the solitary sailor referred to is Alain Gerbault, a real-life lone sailor who circumnavigated the world and lived a portion of his life in the South Pacific, before dying in Dili. He wrote numerous books on his travels, one of which Catarina read in her youth and mentions throughout her text – A la poursuite du soleil (translated into English as In Quest of the Sun: The Journal of the Firecrest). Fiction and history once again intersect in the text when Catarina recounts learning of the arrival of Gerbault’s vessel at the port of Dili, where he seeks medical attention for the malaria that would ultimately kill him. Local colonial authorities summon Catarina to welcome Gerbault and help monitor his illness.
Even before her encounter with him, Catarina interrogates the economy of desire at work behind travel endeavors like those of Gerbault. What we learn through Catarina’s questionings are the possibilities of enjoyment afforded by Empire to masculine subjectivity. Sexual enjoyment by way of othered bodies rendered accessible by Empire operates in a similar capacity to the enjoyment of travel, which for Gerbault culminates in his writing and contribution to imperial knowledge. He takes on the enjoyment of travel afforded to European bourgeois men, a level of jouissance by which they fulfill their interpellation, their imperial gendered mandate. Gerbault’s voyages embody enjoyment beyond the pleasure principle/Law. Remaining on land would allow him to carry out the imperial mandate in traditional ways (i.e. within metropolitan society) while also retaining his physiological balance. Exceeding the pleasure principle, however, allows him to pursue his interpellation even further, to generate more signifiers conducive to the balance of Empire.
Despite his open criticism of the colonial exploitation of non-European populations, Gerbault’s circumnavigation is nonetheless an experiential enjoyment made possible by the existing imperial narrativization of (p.168) time, space, and matter into which he is subjectivized. For Gerbault, this narrativization came in the shape of maps, earlier travel writings, and the realm of imperial knowledge – in addition to spontaneous interpellation. Catarina’s text gauges an imperial materialism when noting how Gerbault’s writings ultimately become part of and reproduce the signifying field in which he was interpellated.
This is the case of the third port administrator with whom Catarina comes in contact – César Semedo, who is described as having been born in Cabo Verde. Considering his access to higher education in the metropolis and ability to ascend through the administrative ranks, he seems to hail from a family with colonial Portuguese ties. Prior to Gerbault’s arrival at the port of Dili, Semedo tells Catarina of his own interpellation into Empire by way of maritime travel, namely through an adolescent chance encounter with Gerbault in Cabo Verde during the latter’s circumnavigation. Through the filter of Catarina’s narrativization, we learn that Semedo
ainda era finalista do Liceu. Havia a promessa de continuar os estudos na metrópole. A façanha do francês levou-o a decidir entrar na Escola Naval. Tinha o sonho de fazer uma viagem à volta do mundo. Claro que isso não passou do impulso de um adolescente. Quando se fez marinheiro deixou o romantismo de lado. O mar passou a ser a sua profissão. A rotina fez da sua vida um tédio. Começou a ficar enjoado de andar tanto tempo embarcado. Só queria chegar a qualquer porto para se desforrar do tempo em que tinha ficado fechado numa gaiola de ferro.
[was a high school senior at the time. He had the opportunity to further his studies in the metropolis. The feat of the Frenchman guided his decision to enter the Naval Academy. He dreamt of sailing across the world. Of course, such a wish never led to anything more than adolescent impulse. When he became a naval officer, he set aside such romanticism. The sea began to be his profession. The repetitive routine made his life tedious. He grew seasick from spending so much time in ships. He yearned to arrive at any port to make up for the time spent in a steel cage.]
In historicizing Semedo’s interpellation into Empire and maritime work, Catarina also points out the dynamic between jouissance and pleasure operating in Semedo’s subjectivation. His quest for enjoyment sanctioned by Gerbault’s text leads him toward an excess of the Law, which he experiences as painful tedium and persistent nausea. Between jouissance and the fundamental prohibitions of the pleasure principle, however, Semedo is (p.169) offered a balance allowing him to efficiently take on his imperial mandate and adequately respond to Empire’s desire. As an interpellated masculine imperial subject, Semedo, like Monteiro and Pereira, is able to move in the interstices between jouissance (superego) and pleasure (Law). It is no surprise that the lives and actions of these three port administrators/masculine imperial subjects constitute much of Catarina’s text. Within her own act of historicization, they become her objects of study – from interpellation to enjoyment. It is through their roles as subjects within Empire that she attempts to understand the field of imperial meaning within which she also moves, a field that she attempts to narrativize while she herself is narrativized by and for it.
The dialectics of interpellation pertaining to Gerbault and Semedo reveal, for Catarina, the politics of enjoyment offered by their masculine imperial mandate, an enjoyment she is denied despite her interest in travel engendered by her own reading of Gerbault’s narrative. She thus contrasts her predicament with that of Gerbault and other French travelers. Citing Gerbault’s statement to her that ‘os franceses estão em todo o lado’ [‘the French are everywhere’] (Requiem 174), she reflects upon the imperial sanctioning of European movement across global space as opposed to the signification that surrounds her own travels:
não era nenhuma mentira. Tinha um na minha presença. Não era nenhum militar e muito menos estava ao serviço dos holandeses. De mim não diziam a mesma coisa. Mostravam alguma desconfiança pelo facto de ter vindo da Batávia. Uma espia. Uma nova Mata-Hari.
[it was no lie. I had one in my presence. He was not a military officer and much less at the service of the Dutch. They did not say the same about me. They were suspicious of me due to the fact that I came from Batavia. I was a spy. A new Mata Hari.]
The imperial field provides European masculinity a global passport, while rendering non-masculinity and non-Europeanness knowable by way of existing permutations of otherness.
Catarina’s evocation of Mata Hari is particularly relevant here. The famed historical figure known by that stage name (given name Margaretha Geertruida Zelle) and executed by a French firing squad after being presumed a spy for Germany during World War I becomes a signifier within Empire, one into which Catarina is placed by colonial historicizing authorities. Like Catarina, Mata Hari was also a traveling woman, one whose movement across imperially signified space (the Netherlands, Dutch East Indies, France) (p.170) raised the suspicions of English and French port authorities. Catarina thus provides an implicit contrast of signifiers by which masculine and feminine subjects are placed into meaning – Gerbault exists as ideal ego for Semedo while Mata Hari remains a fantasy of gendered otherness by which imperial authorities regulate traveling women’s bodies.
The historicizing project of Catarina’s text is, perhaps due to Empire’s complexities, inevitably multifaceted. Carlos Henrique Lucas Lima therefore posits the novel as one that ‘procura fundar uma ética da diferença e da diversidade, abandonando o dualismo’ [‘looks to found an ethics of difference and diversity, abandoning dualities’] (3) tied to Empire. Catarina thus expresses her ordeal in establishing a scene of writing emerging from the intersectionality (studied in more depth in Chapter 7) of her subject-position within Empire, while also being ensnared by the imperial field of meaning. Her text, in other words, grapples with being a scene of writing against being written. In this sense, her writing project inaugurates a renewed search for untranslatability vis-à-vis Empire, carried out via a flux through imperially signified space and the signifiers of subject-positions that constitute the imperial signifying field.
In several passages of the text, she looks to sidestep the meaning imposed on her by gesturing toward a place between signifiers of otherness, residing at the intersection of different gendered and racialized forms of imperial otherness. She attempts to use her movement through imperial space and interactions with different subject-positions within Empire to gesture toward untranslatability – an escape from being a knowable object of imperial narrativization. Her writing is thus always a multifarious act – writing in order to avoid being written, to elude Empire’s translation (again, the verb trasladar) of her from historicizing subject to historicized object.
We can think of this gesture as an example of critical hybridity, utilizing the interminglings of privilege and subalternity that mark her life and movement through the realm of power – bourgeois, woman, ‘oriental,’ foreigner – in order to inaugurate a site of non-imperial signification. Catarina, moreover, is guided by a search and exploration of the gaps in the imperial symbolic realm of meaning, looking to exploit intersectionality to grab hold of an ontological space between imperial signifiers of otherness. It is no wonder that her text contains several dystopian allusions to a nonexistent time-space not yet signified by forces of power. In narrating her dinner with Pereira, she offers a digression related to the possibility of an existing paradise, ultimately refuting its projection as a place:
(p.171) Nunca formulei no meu pensamento que o paraíso pudesse ser projectado num lugar. Seria antes um estado de alma. Já me aconteceu estar num lugar horrível sem que isso fosse um impedimento para me sentir feliz.
[I never thought that paradise could be projected onto a particular place. I thought of it rather as a spiritual state. Although I have been in horrific places, I never allowed it to become an obstacle to happiness.]
We can read such a reflection as suggesting there is no locatable escape from the signifiers of power. Rather, the only possibility is to critically engage with existing meaning. This, of course, entails for Catarina a decolonial stance vis-à-vis meaning, a need for delinking that her text carries out in relation to Empire, particularly in terms of the imperial masculine subject and the excesses enacted upon her.
Aside from opening myriad identitarian possibilities through her untranslatable scene of writing, itself a noteworthy political act, Catarina’s text aims to destabilize the hegemonic writing and signification that is inflicted upon her. A crucial example of this is her historicization of the interracial sexual encounter with Pereira, a gesture with profound implications vis-à-vis the patriarchally signified narrative of Lusotropicalism, based largely on Gilberto Freyre’s (and others’) theorization of Portuguese colonialism as a union with the tropics based on love, rather than convenience (Portuguese 46). In doing so, she underscores the phantasmatic content of sameness and otherness that informs interracial relations including the private (sexual) and the public (institutional).
She critically draws the lines from the signification of her body within imperial meaning to her rape at the hands of Alberto Monteiro, the colonial surveillance that surrounds her, the kidnapping of her son, and several other tragedies that mark her time in East Timor. This interrogation as to the politics of desire operating behind the violence she suffers leads her to confront Empire’s economy of enjoyment for imperial masculinity. In doing so, we gain a perspective on the place of jouissance in terms of the imperial masculine subject and, more broadly, the relationship between the Law and the superego, between publicly sanctioned rules of pleasure and the obscene unwritten injunctions to enjoy by way of Empire’s phantasmatic content. By exploring enjoyment, Catarina renders visible the off-scene, that which is outside of the Law but informs the seen/ on-scene modes of imperial narrativization. It is the off-scene injunction that inflicts the subject’s enjoyment upon the phantasmatic other in different forms of violence.
In many ways, Catarina’s text can be thought of as a writing on writing, bringing forth a critical reflection on and delinking from enjoyment, signification, and imperial power. Catarina thus historicizes a masculine sphere of imperial interpellation, one in which subjects are enunciated to become scenes of writing and producers of meaning, while she is placed into Empire to be their object of knowledge, meaning, and enjoyment. Most importantly, Catarina historicizes the excess of Empire beyond its Law, and subsequently, the frailty of the imperial subject operating at the intersection of the Law and the superego. Her text leads us to think of the superego’s operation within Empire as the institutionalization of excess and jouissance necessary for the continuity of Empire and the individual powers of the European masculine subject, the latter always being the assumption of a specular image residing in the signifying field. The excess becomes crucial to the sustained assumption of the image by the subject, which of course constitutes their response to Empire’s desire. Sustained subjectivation (i.e. performed identity) guarantees the reproduction of the imperial field of power via excess. In this sense, Catarina envisages Empire’s signifying field as a series of written-over voids – from the subject that inflicts violence upon her to the entire symbolic realm and power itself. These are the layers of imperial meaning that are unveiled through her historicization of Western signification. Catarina’s text does not simply relate the signifiers of Empire to the reader, but seeks to point out the ways in which such signifiers are reproduced.
(1) The place of the Iberian Peninsula within this fantasy has itself been a point of contention among cultural and political elites that have set out to establish the parameters of Europe. William Ripley’s famous The Races of Europe (1899) and Carleton Coon’s second edition of the same title quickly come to mind. Roberto Dainotto’s Europe (in Theory) (2007) offers an in-depth exploration of the fantasy of Europe vis-à-vis both the rest of the world and the margins of Europe.
(2) See p. 112 for a definition of nona.