W(h)ither Europe? Human Rights Kaputt?

Dr Fernando Gomez Herrero delivered the paper 'W(h)ither Europe? Human Rights Kaputt?: Carl Schmitt and Enrique Tierno Galván Read Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno' at Humanitarian Fictions (21 April 2018 at the University of Warwick).

This was an AHRC-funded Graduate-level workshop organised by Professor of English and World Literatures Ankhi Mukherjee and coordinated by Dr David Barnes, as part of “The Psychic Life of the Poor: A City Unseen in Mumbai, London and New York”  

Dr Herrero reports:

I addressed how two very different intellectual figures approached the hard-chewing novella by American novelist Herman Melville to address the situation of Europe in the 1950s and 1960s. The themes I addressed were the “human” and the “humanitarian,” the inequality and instability of the former and the fracture of the latter, at least within the triangle of the three main names in question. We are facing the discursive practice of “continental allegory” and its related rhetoric of otherness (non-Europe). Surrounded by literature people, I appealed to the crisis of literature (the form of the novel became the dominant mode among most of the participants) to address the true impasse, and a second crisis, that of the “postcolonial,” certainly in conventional formulations mostly contained within the sign of “literature.” The examples around me where mostly coming from the novel in the Anglophone world (the Commonwealth countries predominantly, with the inevitable inclusion and traction of the U.S.). But spatializing social energies done whenever we talk of “Europe” or “America” or of this or that nation is one standard way of hastily talking about larger social and historical processes of no easy formulation.

Is the postcolonial, the other meaningful side of the West, and yet part of the current diet of Western consumption of knowledge production? How insurgent is it? Is it instead the moral rescue of the West under the name of “humanitarian fictions”? The psychic life of the poor? The deeds of the wretched of the earth? The identity politics of difference? The more or less convincing performance of otherness? The other side of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment? The “non-white” dimension? The languages other than English (LOTE) within the predominant Anglophone domain of the workshop inside the horizon laid out by legacies of the Commonwealth? And yet there is the discipline and the institution inside which we may talk to each other or pass each other as though in a busy train station. A dignified contingent of the University of Oxford in various stages of doctoral training and faculty status landed at the U of Warwick. I brought up the Hispanophone area to complement the dominant Anglophone domain, the uneven English / Spanish linguistic relations, Europe and (Latin) American dimensions to the discussion table with no falling for defensive tics (“postcolonial literature” among others). There is no sin of nominalism here. My talk pressed the need to continue interrogating the sign of “literature” within the general crisis of the institutionality of the humanities within the various disciplines inside convulsions informing higher education, or the university, in these messy times in Brexit Britain and elsewhere. There are strikes around us as we speak.

The landscape of my talk included the American fiction writer Herman Melville, the German legal and political theorist Carl Schmitt and the Spanish sociologist and former Madrid major Enrique Tierno Galván whose one hundred years’ anniversary of his birth kicks off as we speak. We are dealing with different timespaces, yet some of these connections are direct. Tierno Galván’s article on the figure of Benito Cereno (also called Cereño) and the so-called “myth of Europe” is dedicated to Schmitt and included in the Festschrift for the jurist’s eightieth anniversary (1968). Their friendship lasted with ups and down an entire lifetime. What could possibly do the fifty-years-old Spanish “dissident” and later Socialist Major of Madrid in the final years of the Franco Regime (the official start of Spanish Democracy is 1975) with the older conservative “pariah” or reactionary German “outsider” of unmistakable anti-Jewish Nazi sympathies? Dangerous liaisons are these indeed standing on the shifting sands of international relations by the early Cold War? Why would the German and the Spaniard go “there,” to the foreign literature of the Nineteenth-Century American?

We are dealing with allegorical mode of fictional writing, particularly in relation to the clear racial features of the characters. Melville’s novella partitions white-and-black worlds in harrowing terms during times of legal slavery. The resulting “humanities” offer little comfort. Declining Europe typified by Spain (Cereno) is to be overtaken by an emergent “America” embodied by the genial and racist main narrator, Amasa Delano. An external narrator assumes Delano’s racism “ever so naturally.” And yet this is Gothic piece of psychological horror and dread aiming in a direction that is not clear merits the name of humanitarianism or morality.

 There is no humanitarian impulse in this representative piece of “world literature.” Neither in either German or Spanish public intellectuals who use Melville as vehicle to say things they would otherwise not have been able to say to the authorities of their respective audiences in different national contexts. We, as readers, are “at sea”? Liquid modernity indeed! Coloniality of any other quality? Gothic-horror devices infest Benito Cereno. No soft emotions plague Schmitt and Tierno Galvan. Do we go along with them? Are we horrified accordingly? There is a sense of strangeness, foreignness, outlandishness, faraway sea-faring in what would be called later Latin America where a revolt of the “black” masses topples Cereno’s leadership and forces him to join in the masquerade of life as normal for the eyes of the genial Delano.

The noted German intellectual Carl Schmitt self-identified at the end of his life with the main fictional figure of the Spaniard Benito Cereno in Herman Melville’s namesake novel of (historical) adventure (1855). His is the self-fashioning of the intellectual caught up in larger social and political forces in relation to the first half but also the second half of the Twentieth Century. Interestingly, he goes to American literature, the literature of the “enemy” for Schmitt, to understand the situation of the Cold-War “West,” given Germany’s defeat. Are the blacks exclusively the Nazi SS? But there is also the “exception” of the Iberian peninsula, and there are many contacts, public and intellectual as well as family and personal, Schmitt had there, Tierno Galvan among others. We are therefore dealing with the relations between literature and law in relation to the history of international law, and of politics, directly implicating the historical links between United States of America, Germany and Spain against other nations in the dramatic aftermath of the Spanish Civil War (1936-9) and World War II (1939-1945). We are dealing with right-wing or “conservative” ideology in the case of Schmitt and also with the “pessimism” of an end of an era, but also with the “dissidence” and the Socialism of Tierno Galván in the final years of the Franco Regime and the early years of Spanish democracy. There is mixture of sociology and foreign literature: uneven interdisciplinarity and saying in between the lines, also role-playing and (dis-)honesty of authorial intention. There is the emphasis on the “situation” (or the contingency, or the immediate pressures of the present tense, also for knowledge practices) and this foreign literature delivers nothing as precious and rare as xenophilia. Perhaps literature is still the natural realm of the mythic element in the modern age of secularization of the theological disposition Schmitt wanted to preserve for his own understanding of belligerent politics. Tierno Galván’s conclusion to this essay is aesthetically “regressive” seeking a certain neo-medievalism, and Spanish-Golden-Age habitations. He was soon to go into exile from which he could come back to visibility in the early years of Spanish Democracy. How far away is 1986? The notion of humanity is however compromised in our three authors. The notion of the (fictive) humanities is hard to come by, and human rights (its Boom in the late 1970s and 1980s) appear nowhere to be seen here. How do you like this nihilistic landscape? What is going on is the preeminence of politics. Is this (otherness of) “Europe” –perhaps (Latin) America for short-- recognizable and even desirable, and for whom?