Roberto Lovato’s Unforgetting is published today. He shares five books (and a movie) about the underworld and redemption from below. He offered me some background on his obsession: “As you will read in the book, underworlds—criminal, psychic, physical (mass graves), immigrant, family, revolutionary, underworlds—played a foundational role in my life’s journey—but I never knew this growing up, I was too deep into the journey. Paralleling the lived experience of these intersecting underworlds was my interest in the mythic journey into the Great Below as expressed in different mythologies and in literature. Again, I had no idea of either the gravitational pull of the Bible (i.e. Christ’s Harrowing of Hell), Dante’s Inferno and other books with subterranean themes or the connection of this passion with the conditions of my life.” Writing his memoir, he says, “helped me connect the life’s journey above to the underworld journey in the books.”
Alice in Wonderland as told through The Matrix
Both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Matrix illustrate well how the underworld is the perfect trope for illustrating the epic journey into the underground that civilizational crisis—in our case the crisis of industrial and post-industrial capitalism—can inspire. When I see Alice tumble down the rabbit hole, when I see her body shrunken, stretched and distorted in Wonderland, I see an industrial age example of the “disorganization of the senses” Rimbaud was admonishing poets to commit to before the crisis of capitalism that sparked the Paris Commune just five years after Carroll published his book. Neo undergoes a similar disorganization of his body in The Matrix, which I see as a post-industrial fairy tale for those of us facing the civilizational crises of the digital age.
More recently, the Wachowski sisters, who both came out as trans after the film came out in 1999, have said that one of my favorite movies is about the great transformation that is the transgender experience. In the words of filmmaker Lilly Wachowski, “That was the original intention but the world wasn’t quite ready.” Like many Matrix fans, I just heard this in early August of this year and am still processing it in between preparing the first book I’ve ever written and doing so in the middle of a global pandemic that is the latest expression of the civilizational crisis we’re all facing. The Wachowski sisters’ intention is as clear as it is obvious when I watch the movie for the 500th time in twenty years. As someone who denied parts of my life, including my clandestine work for El Salvador’s revolutionary underground, I also see The Matrix as a movie about rebels against countries and the capitalist civilization that distorts us all into believing its lies about our bodies, our minds and our bonds.
Jane Ciabattari: Which scenes from The Matrix most parallel Alice’s “disorganization of the senses?”
Roberto Lovato: The two scenes in The Matrix that best parallel Alice’s disorganization both have to do with birth: the re-birth scene where Neo is unplugged from the Matrix and flushed into the real world and the scene in which Neo is in the Loading Program and learns how humans trapped in the computer-generated dream world are harvested and fed to the machines ruling the earth.
The former shows a naked Neo having the plugs and tubes of the Matrix being unplugged by Morpheus and his crew. A naked Neo then gets flushed into the tube in what feels like a birth canal, another illustration of the kind of radical re-birth of and disconnect from reality the Wachowski sisters were positing at the dawn of the information age—just as Carroll posited about Alice’s distorting descent in the middle of the industrial age.
Similarly, the scene in which Neo learns the truth about the Matrix—that it is a system of control designed to turn humans into computer food—disorganizes and distorts Neo’s sense of himself and his society. Among the most powerful images the Wachoswki sisters use in their efforts to disorganize and distort reality is the image of a baby that, like Neo, is also nude and has tubes plugged into it. As the camera focuses on the baby, the literal embodiment of tenderness, the camera shows the tubes pumping liquid into their little bodies and mouth; the narrator, Morpheus, says he Watched them liquefy the dead so they could be fed intravenously to the living.
This stunning contrast of life literally fed by death hit me powerfully, reminding me of the many stories of children—children slaughtered by the hundreds in villages in a matter of hours, children bombed and strafed, migrant children whose tender skin was marred by barbed wire, children whose tiny bones were all that remained in the deserts of the Southwest, children caged and separated from their mothers by Republicans and Democrats—I’d heard over 30 years I had to unforget in order to write my book.
Beloved by Toni Morrison
The way Morrison uses “rememory” to exhume the ghosts of the terrorizing, enslaving, misogynistic past with her characters and her readers is stunning, even after several reads. In the process, we see the underworld as the house of memory, forgetting and, sometimes, overcoming the unspeakably horrible things brought on by the capitalist commodification of Black bodies.
JC: You are writing about erasures of memory within families, neighborhoods, communities, countries, regions. How does your concept of “unforgetting” compare to Morrison’s “rememory?”
RL: Both involve history, memory, and remembering. Rememory is both an action and a result of the ways the past inhabits and influences the present. In the way I use it, unforgetting, an ancient Greek concept later adopted by political theorists of fascism like Hannah Arendt, is primarily an action, an act of overcoming. In this sense, both also have a lot to do with the experience of time and how it is shaped by things like trauma, which can psychically shackle the traumatized to the painful past, as when Sethe, the protagonist of Beloved, introduces the idea of rememory:
I was talking about time. It’s so hard for me to believe in it. Some things go. Pass on. Some things just stay. I used to think it was my rememory. You know. Some things you forget. Other things you never do. But it’s not. Places, places are still there. If a house burns down, it’s gone, but the place—the picture of it—stays, and not just in my rememory, but out there, in the world. What I remember is a picture floating around out there outside my head. I mean, even if I don’t think it, even if I die, the picture of what I did, or knew, or saw is still out there. Right in the place where it happened.
Morrison’s rememory idea shook me up, when I first read it. Decades later, after I took the red pill that committed me to the writing life, it still does, but in more adult and writerly ways. The way she deploys it as a way to grasp at the ghostly shadows born of our catastrophic past(s), her virtuosity in trying to give voice to the unspeakable things lurking beneath the origins of individuals, families, houses, nations and the globalized, racial-capitalist system, spoke to me, the kid who, early on, got drunk in the depths of the Great Below. In Beloved, the depths were the depths of “the dark” Morrison uses to describe things like rape and patriarchy (i.e. “Ghosts without skin stuck their fingers in her and said beloved in the dark and bitch in the light”), the silence and sounds inside a slaveship, a grave, or the circumstances that drive an enslaved mother to commit infanticide.
In addition to being raised in the literary traditions of San Francisco California and the U.S., I came of age at a time when the revolutionary poet Roque Dalton’s phrase, todos nacimos medio muertos (we were all born half dead) was one of the most oft-repeated lines in quiet back rooms and clandestine hideouts. The way Dalton’s words sparked ten-year-old me’s imagination began the long journey of unforgetting—the personal and political process of excavating the forgotten and often painful truths that benefit the powerful by keeping the poor, women, racialized people, and others oppressed—is not unlike what I felt reading about Morrison’s rememory. Both involve the unpredictable and sometimes dangerous and potentially destructive journey into different underworlds. Both use memory as a means of descending into those underworlds and coming back a new, more conscious person freed of the haunting effects of the half dead states of individual forgetting and institutional amnesia. And both deal with personal and institutional trauma and other cataclysmic experiences brought.
In Morrison’s case, the rememory orbits around the cataclysm of slavery and its lived legacy, while, in the case of my book about my two home countries, U.S. and El Salvador, unforgetting deals with the cataclysms of war, genocide, and mass servitude that made our morning coffee possible.
Antigona González by Sara Uribe
Uribe’s riff on Sophocles’ Antigone brings readers into the subterranean sorrow of the tens of thousands of desaparecidos gone missing because of Mexico’s drug war. Like the desperate search of families of the 43 missing students of Ayotzinapa I interviewed, Antigona’s desperate search for the body of her brother, Tadeo, brings to life the half-dead feeling of the hundreds of thousands of Mexicans whose loss turns them into hungry ghosts unable to satisfy their longing.
JC: Which lines from this book-length prose poem resonate most (and as you noted above, specifically, lines about “the mythic journey into the Great Below”)?
RL: There’s just so much to love in this gorgeous gift of a lyrical book I’m not sure where to begin. But, if I must choose, the lines in which the protagonist, Antigona, is speaking to her brother, Tadeo, who like Polynices in the play by Sophocles, is a desaparecido, one of the more than 61,000 Mexicans who have disappeared since the U.S.-sponsored drug war began in their country in 2006:
The days are piling up, Tadeo, and I still have to buy gas, pay the bills, and keep going to work. Because obviously if some woman’s brother is disappeared, it’s not an excuse to stay home. In the teachers’ lounge, they tell her: I’m so sorry, hopefully everything will work out. I’m so sad about your situation. People whisper about her for a day or two or three, maybe even a week. But then the gossip gets old. Life never stops for personal catastrophes. Life doesn’t care about whether your damage is collateral or not. Routine presses on and you have to keep up the pace. Like on the Metro, when people are pushing you and the current sweeps you in or out of the cars. A question of seconds. A question of inertias. I’m floating just like that, Tadeo.
The way Uribe uses daily life—gossip at a school she works at, buying gas, spying bills—to the banality of a Mexican modernity that normalizes mass murder and disappearance is stunning. Anyone who knows about the very violent recent history of Mexico and has been swept up in the anonymizing crush of the Metro in the Distrito Federal will understand how those like Antigona who’ve had a loved one disappeared must struggle not just against the corrupt, murderous, U.S.-backed Mexican state she alludes to in the book, but also against modern life itself. Such forces also cause what in El Salvador we call “luto prolongado,” the hell of prolonged mourning. The longtime student of genocide and state terror in me grabs the hand of my inner writer, as both clap loudly in a standing ovation at Uribe’s art. The activist in me—the person who, for example, helped organize and joined about 100 family members of the disappeared in Mexico for the Caravan for Peace of 2011, a 26-city tour to raise awareness of the Obama Administration’s support for the murderous Mexican government—appreciates the way Uribe points to the only antidote to state and cultural erasure: continually bearing witness, even when the world wants to silence and stop you.
Diving Into the Wreck by Adrienne Rich
I love this poem because of how it illustrates the way the underworld trope often uses the physical journey to bring the reader into the psychic, linguistic and emotional depths brought on by civilizational crisis; how, even when we’re wading and trying to stay afloat in the darkest waters, we are also often submerged in the sublime and the beautiful, something Kant and Longinus and the Mesopotamians, the Greeks, the Aztecs, and other civilizations before them understood.
JC: How do Rich’s opening lines—“First having read the book of myths, and loaded the camera, and checked the edge of the knife-blade, I put on the body-armor of black rubber the absurd flippers the grave and awkward mask”— resonate with your own fascination with myth, and the underground, and also with our strange summer of 2020?
RL: Great question. Rich, who remains one of my favorite U.S. poets, describes the journey into the inner depths as an “act of survival.” In her exquisite essays, she calls “Re-Vision—the act of looking back,of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction.” As I interpret Rich’s poem and essay, this diving into the wreck of civilization demands a reinterpretation of the old texts, a re-telling of the accepted stories passed on by individuals and nations alike, in a process not unlike that described by Morrison’s “re-memory” or “unforgetting.” All three concepts respond to Nietzsche’s admonition:
Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”
Rich’s underwater metaphor in Diving Into the Wreck provides the key tool that humans, the homo faber species, need to gaze into the dark depths of history and trauma beneath us all: myth. Myth acts as the word map guiding the dive of the narrator. Of course, the myths and the words that turn it into a book have a higher, off-the-page purpose:
the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
Like Morrison, Rich knows the redemptive power granted those courageous enough to use story and myth to gaze at the Great Below, like Sethe. We can only look into the personal and civilizational wreck left by the Angel of History through the rearview mirror of myth.
Poemas Clandestinos by Roque Dalton
Aided by Nueva Cancion music and some radical family members, this book and others like it inspired me to join the revolutionary movement in El Salvador that Dalton belonged to. My cousin, Adilio, dug Dalton’s prohibited book (i.e., the military killed those caught with it) out from beneath an almond tree and read some of it quietly to ten-year-old me in his room. This early exposure to the book was one of my first forays into the world of a Latin American poetic tradition that, in addition to sometimes being “underground” poetry, never made the artificial and dangerous distinction between the “poetic” and the “political.”
JC: How have Dalton and other Latin American poets inspired you?
RL: More than any other writers, Latin American poets flipped the tortilla of my consciousness in revolutionary ways. Their enlightened, poetic response to the gravity and savagery of U.S. policy in places like Guatemala or my parent’s homeland of El Salvador altered my sense of poetry and politics, fusing them in ways so deep I’m still trying to understand.
Whether it’s because he lived for a time just blocks from my Tia Esperanza’s house where my cousin first clandestinely introduced me to his poetry during the 1970s, when the U.S.-backed military dictatorship made such poetry prohibido or whether it’s because he really is the great poet admired by the likes of Eduardo Galeano and other Latin American greats, Roque Dalton still lives in me. His combination of poetic brilliance and radical politics moved many of us to pursue the path of the poet warrior he paved as the guerrillero scribe of legendary proportions.
Early on, when I was at Berkeley and old enough to understand what he was saying, Roque’s Poemas Clandestinos replaced the Bible as my be-all, do-all beatific book. Far from the deadening, hermetic approach to poetry of too many teachers at Berkeley in the 1980s, Dalton was my Prometheus, stealing the fire of poetry from on high. In El Salvador’s countryside, the site of some of the most barbaric acts of the 20th century in this hemisphere, his poetry combined with liberation theology to invert Blake-like the relationship between heaven and hell, even dragging the divinest of the divine, God, not just down to earth, but deeper, into the Great Below of the clandestine city of God beneath the deadly surface of life under a U.S.-backed fascist military dictatorship:
When social revolution begins to unfurl its flags
the heirs of those who crucified Christ
tell us Christ is the only hope
precisely because he waits for us
there in his kingdom, that is not of this world
My own decision to join the FMLN guerrillas bore the imprint of the words and deeds he married to extraordinary effect. After the war in El Salvador ended in 1992, I saw myself being a bridge between the words and ways of the revolutionary sensibility and culture of what Jose Martî called “the continent of light” and “America,” the country that, in its dark imagination, took the name of the continent—and the continent itself—as its sole proprietorship. Roque aided and abetted my decision, in 1991, to stop calling myself “American,” and eventually destroy the border wall of my mind with the most powerful poetic accent I know—the one above the “e” that makes me an “Américan,” a citizen of the United States of América.