A child has an accident and loses a leg. From that moment, one of two things can happen: the child can build her or his character based on the leg that is missing and consequently on everything she or he can no longer do, or, on the contrary, based on the leg that is left and thus on everything she or he can still do. It is true that to walk with a limp is a handicap, but it is also a way of living. It is the specific procedure I use to get home or arrive on time for a date with my loved one. It also gives me the opportunity to start using an elegant walking stick. The philosopher Jean Paul Sartre would have said that the vital prominence of one of the legs, the missing one or the one that is left, is an absolute decision and thus an act of freedom. It is true we are not responsible for the accident that has mutilated us, but we are for choosing on which leg we are to sustain our existence from now on: after all, a man who has lost a leg only becomes a mutilated person if he wants to.
There is something beneficial about deciding to have one leg. But everything gets more complicated if we apply this logic to collective matters and social construction. Everyone who sits beside a river throws a stick into the water; this gesture, this basic anthropological particle identifies us as human beings. We have repeated this gesture so many times through the millennia that we could say without exaggeration that the human species, erect on its two legs, needs to throw sticks into the river. Man has difficulty walking with only one leg and he cannot live without food. But it is more difficult to understand that the repression of this gesture (throwing sticks into the river) would entail radical frustration and vital degradation of humanity. But how would we notice that?
The importance of this basic gesture is because it connects woods and rivers and, in a way, points out and protects their existence. If anyone were to forbid an indigenous people from throwing sticks into the river, that person would no doubt meet with resistance. But there are much more radical ways of repressing or suppressing fundamental gestures. Capitalism will never forbid people throwing sticks into the river; it will just cut down the trees and dry the rivers. Whole generations all over the world will very soon have forgotten how the improvised projectile needed an arm and the air to form geometric drawings on the surface of a lake. But when that occurs, we will not feel hunger as if we were deprived of food, nor will we walk with a limp as if we only had one leg.
Fighting not to forget what is missing, what has been taken away from us, is very difficult because the absence of woods and trees is actually the presence of roads, buildings and throbbing iron. We could say the decision to forget about the leg that is missing builds a strong individual character, but the decision to forget about the felled wood or the dried river threatens our collective fate. Sometimes we have called this “alienation” and we could use this term if we were to remember immediately that its origin is not a speech or a false conscience, but the force of things themselves. Amidst shacks and cars, human beings no longer remember the act of throwing a stick into the water (neither do they remember the wood or the river) because these have been substituted by houses and factories which we perceive not as a negation of nature and humanity, but as a new way of staying alive and even of defending what is human.
The problem is that everything that exists, because of this very fact, in some way acquires the irrevocable right to existence. The pyramids of Egypt are actually a monstrous monument to slavery and the theocratic dictatorship of the pharaohs, but nobody would dream of asking them to be demolished because of this. In a way, humanity now needs, as much as bread and legs, that irrational stone pointing towards the empty sky. It is as if we need objects that should not have come about, creatures whose existence we should have prevented. This is the reason revolutionaries should not make the mistake of copying capitalism by thinking that the most creative moment is that of destruction itself; neither should they give up radical criticism and political hierarchy of the different origins and forms of existence.
It is beauty that is important. One of the revolutionaries I most admire is the Sicilian, Peppino Impastato. Born in 1948 into a mafioso family, his communist commitment confronted him not only with his father but also with the tentacle structure encrusted in the very heart of the state; this structure, exploited, accepted or ignored by parties and citizens, corrupts democracy, lubricates capitalism and multiplies the number of objects whose existence we should prevent. Tortured and assassinated by the Mafia in 1978, it was only after 22 years that in March 2000 his murderers were brought to justice. That same year, an excellent film made by Marco Tullio Giordano, I cento passi, paid a vibrant and mobilising tribute to this young revolutionary. In a sequence of the film, Peppino and his friend are painfully contemplating from the top of a hill the landscape of Sicily devastated by real-estate speculation and illegal building. Peppino, after much thought, states somewhat puzzled: “It’s not really as ugly as it seems… From here, you could say nature always wins, that it’s stronger than Man. But it’s not like that. Sometimes, once things have been done and even though they are worse than what was there before, there is logic in them just because they exist. These houses are horrible, with their aluminium windows… but then the balconies, the inhabitants, the clotheslines, the geraniums, the television sets all become part of the scenery and come into existence. Nobody remembers what it was like before. It’s easy to destroy beauty”.
Without rivers or woods, schools or hospitals, in horrible houses and contaminated grey neighbourhoods, our lives continue leaning on the leg we have left, without remembering what has been taken away from us. However paradoxical it may seem to us, the communist militant Peppino is right when he says: “Instead of political struggle and raising class consciousness, we should remind people what beauty is like and help them to recognise and defend it. Beauty is important; everything else stems from it”.
Whoever loses a leg becomes a mutilated person only if she or he wants to. Whoever loses contact with woods and rivers becomes an alienated person because she or he does not remember what beauty is like. What we can admire in some people who walk with a limp is that, with the aid of their walking stick, they choose to be cheerful and revolutionary. What we admire about peoples’ struggle is that they know the difference between a stick and a truncheon, between a pyramid and a prison. It’s what we call dignity and José Martí denominated “decorum”.