Sunday, Sept 3, 2017
Havana v. Oslo, Hysteria v. Obsessiveness, and the Absurdity of Categories
Having visited Havana just a few months ago, I find the contrasts between it and Oslo mind-boggling.
It brings to mind Lacan’s thoughts about hysteria and obsessiveness.
Oslo looks like Havana after a major steam clean. The pretty, colorful buildings—many of which date from a similar era—have been fully restored. They shine with fresh paint. They look freshly scrubbed, gleaming in the sun when the omnipresent clouds part.
In Havana, most of the buildings are falling apart, crumbling. The city looks like orders for much-needed paint were never filled. Few facades are even whitewashed. Signs of disrepair are everywhere. Mud runs through many of the uneven streets. And yet, Havana has its own chaotic charm.
Havana features a true rainbow of colors of persons, from white to yellow to tan to brown to black. Mostly they have chocolate brown eyes. They intermix with ease. Unlike Oslo, with its remarkable social security system, most Cubans live near or below the poverty level. They struggle to economically survive. Nonetheless, they exude a friendliness and warmth. They have an indescribable emotional availability.
The streets in Oslo are crowded with mostly tall white people. Many look strikingly Nordic, with sharp facial features, blonde hair, and steely blue eyes. They seem emotionally distant—polite, remote, reserved.
Jacques Lacan, the obscure French psychoanalyst and philosopher who writes with such little respect for his readers (!), thinks humans fall into two rough categories:
Hysterics, who tend to be highly emotional, disorganized, and unable to think of themselves as desirable.
Obsessives, who emphasize cognition and are highly organized. The diametrical opposite of hysterics, they struggle to see others as worthy of their desire. They seek the ideal, the unattainable.
Of course, such a binary system is a horrible, objectifying oversimplification.
Foucault, who devoted an entire volume to studying the absurdity of identification systems, would have dismantled it.
I could, too.
However, sometimes playing with generalizations can be fun.
You walk through streets in Havana sensing danger, the exotic, the erotic. Crime is rare. You’re probably just as safe walking through Havana as Oslo, even late at night. It’s the hysteria that lights you up. The impulsivity, the alcohol, the riskiness, even the embargo.
As an American, it feels like you’re not supposed to be there.
The feel of the economic struggle in Havana is reminiscent of the hysteric’s attitude towards being desired. The number one source of income in Cuba is money sent from American relatives! They are the poor, undesirable cousins. Sadness.
Here in Oslo, begging is illegal (although you still see some beggars but they look well-groomed and nourished). The buildings, the bars, the streets, the signs, the cars, the tall people, the souvenir stores, the restaurants, the hotels—all look so, well, perfect.
It’s almost kitsch. Originating in German, the word kitsch relates to the words, sketch, draft, or selling cheap. I read somewhere it means “free of shit.” In other words, kinda reminiscent of Disneyland, Oslo seems almost too homogenized, too hygienic.
And the idealization of the obsessive works here. The entire place looks like mathematics, the perfect circle, the search for the paragon of everything.
Oslo is the paragon of everything.
(Except, apparently, in the winter, when it’s cold as hell.)
(Also, they named an Israel-Palestinian peace effort after the place, and that didn’t work out so well.)
While researching the meaning of the word kitsch—arrogantly thinking I was the first to view Norway in this fashion—I stumbled upon several references to kitsch in this country.
For example, an artist of mixed Hungarian-Norwegian heritage, Charles Roka, painted popular depictions of gypsy women in 1939—art which earned iconic Nordic kitsch status. Connoisseurs considered his work uninteresting but fashionable, thereby kitsch-worthy.
Another painter, Odd Nerdrum, earned a reputation as another kitsch painter here during the late 1990s. Other Norwegian figurative painters soon afterwards began considering themselves the kitsch school. They even formed a traveling international exhibition of drawing, painting, and sculpture, starting in Norway in 2004, and called, yes, the Kitsch Bienniale.
Too late now to elaborate on how and why categories are as stupid and absurd as Foucault thought.
As a start, though, consider the lyrics of the Beatles song, Norwegian Wood. Written as part of the Paul McCartney and John Lennon partnership, it goes:
I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me…
She showed me her room, isn’t it good, Norwegian wood?
She asked me to stay and she told me to sit anywhere,
So I looked around and I noticed there wasn’t a chair.
I sat on a rug, biding my time, drinking her wine
We talked until two and then she said, “It’s time for bed”
She told me she worked in the morning and started to laugh.
I told her I didn’t and crawled off to sleep in the bath
And when I awoke, I was alone, this bird had flown
So I lit a fire, isn’t it good, Norwegian wood?
Now, I ask you, what category other than AWESOME would describe that song?
Foucault, M. (1970). The order of things: an archeology of human knowledge. New York: Random House.
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