Hope as the Will to Turn Things Upside Down

Picasso’s Harlequin (1918).

From an early age we are taught not to discuss politics and religion with others. Why is that?  Is it because we do not want to offend our neighbor, or is it for self-protection? Is it out of respect for other peoples’ views, or is to prevent confrontation? Although any of these reasons can be justifiable, none of them are totally sufficient because, to my mind, they produce the same result: silence. If vocation requires listening we must try to overcome silence and encourage dialogue with respect for difference and dissent. Of course, this is often easier said than done. To authentically listen and to speak our truth sometimes we need to be willing to turn things upside down. Inversion, as a reversal of order, can help us see things anew, give new meaning and perspective even to contradicting ideas and discouraging experiences in order to pursue our callings with hope.  

This fall I taught a new seven-week culture course in Spanish with these concerns in mind. In my course, “Art, Religion, and Politics in the Hispanic World,” I asked students to consider ways to overcome the silence that conversations on religion and politics often produce. At the same time, I invited them to think of how the interconnections between art, religion, and politics could help transcend silence and, instead, offer new possibilities for identity formation, community, and the discovery of new commitments and life purpose. My students’ favorite units included learning about the transformative story of Saint Oscar Romero, who listened to the call for the liberation of the people of El Salvador silenced by authoritarian rule, and the struggle for freedom under repression in 1930s Spain through works by Federico García Lorca, Pablo Picasso, and Fernando Trueba. Each of these examples provided students with opportunities to reflect on how symbolic inversions can help generate new meaning for identity, community, purpose, and hope.

Inversion I:  Subverting the meaning of violence

Saint Romero’s story of conversion, from a quiet, bookish, and apolitical priest to a strong defender of the poor through Christian commitment to love and social justice, is well known.  In his meditation above we sense the political pressures that he and the people of El Salvador faced at the time. Wrongly accused of promoting armed violence against the State and the powerful, Romero subverts the meaning of the word “violence” through which his accusers intended to silence his message. Romero is not afraid to turn “violence” upside down, to subvert its meaning of hatred for that of love, and to transform it into an instrument for social justice and peace. In this paradigm shift, Romero calls us to examine our own lives and to get rid of any form of injustice and hatred that we may carry. His words call for the transformation of the whole person for the sake of the poor and the marginalized among us.

Several students in my class were specially motivated by Romero’s life.  One of them wrote:

In this course I’ve learned much more about Hispanic cultures, but also about the kind of person that I want to be. Several class themes, especially the life of Oscar Romero, have taught me that I must fight for what  I believe and for other people’s rights. Romero’s life has inspired me. His example showed me how important it is to fight for the things that I believe in. Sometimes I can be a little shy and quiet on issues that I really care about. In the future whenever I feel lost or confused, I will think back to Romero and how he fought for things that mattered to him, and I will do the same.

Student in “Art, Religion, and Politics in the Hispanic World” course

Inversion II: Seeing the hope that lies beneath despair

As my course progressed, I started to notice my students gradually growing more tired, anxious, and filled with despair as they continued to face pressures brought by the current pandemic and an accelerated fall curriculum. When students find themselves afflicted and lacking clear direction, they have a tendency to miss opportunities for hope. In moments like this, we need to remind them that hope, like vocation, requires patient action and participation.  As Cornel West explains, hope takes courage and imagination; hope is “about everybody trying to contribute to the push, the motion, the momentum, the movement for something bigger than them that’s better. The good, the beautiful. If you’re not in motion, you’re a spectator.”

Hope is about everybody trying to contribute to the push, the motion, the momentum, the movement for something bigger than them that’s better.

Cornel West

This is the same kind of hope that Pablo Picasso is asking us to find in Guernica, which he painted in reaction to the Nazi bombing of the Basque town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. At first glance, all that the eye can see in this mural is the destruction and tragedy of war and the suffering of innocent civilians and other forms of life. But despite all that is wrong with the world, Picasso left several symbols of hope for the viewer to decipher. With courage and imagination, Picasso asks us to immerse ourselves in the painting so that together with the wounded and afflicted we can turn violence upside down and discover the hidden signs of hope for a better tomorrow.

Pablo Picasso, Guernica (1937).

Picasso challenges the spectator to become a spectactor, a participant able to move towards hope disguised as suffering, silence, and sorrow. The artist accomplishes this through the figure of the harlequin, that agile trickster from the Commedia dell’arte capable of subverting social order and overcoming any obstacle through disguise. Guernica contains several hidden images of harlequins, all of which can be seen by turning the human figures in the mural upside down. By doing this, the viewer of Guernica becomes an active spectactor who contributes to the transformation of the silenced victims of war into agents of hope and liberation.

Viewing the mural from left to right we see the screaming woman and the dead child in her arms, the fallen soldier holding a flower, the wounded woman, the woman carrying the light, and the last person with raised arms screaming at the burning building. By inverting these figures it becomes clear that all of them are wearing a harlequin hat. Through the active participation of the spectactor,  the human figures in Guernica turn themselves from victims in despair into a collective group of magical beings, carriers of hope in the midst of deadly destruction.

Pope Francis and harlequin from the “Aqua Circus.” Jan. 2020.

My students and I learned about how inversion and participation can create a special dialogue between words and images. The result is not silence but hope. This is “the push” that wills to change things often by turning them upside down. Similarly, in his new encyclical Fratelli Tutti (2020), Pope Francis warns against silence and its “complicity in grave misdeeds and sins.” Instead, to move forward in these uncertain times, he argues in favor of “an authentic reconciliation [that] does not flee from conflict, but is achieved in conflict, resolving it through dialogue and open, honest and patient negotiation” (244). We serve our students well when we encourage them to not dismay, but to stay active and engaged by inverting the impasses of our current times into opportunities for renewed hope.

For further reading: For other interrogations of the nature of hope, see “Hope, History and the Redress of Vocation” and “When Hope and History Rhyme,” by Jason Stevens and Rachel Mikva’s “Optimism vs. Hope.” For more on the idea of inversion, see Kathy Talvacchia’s reflections on dissent, “Cultivating Dissent as a Tool for Vocational Discernment.”

Esteban Loustaunau is professor of Spanish at Assumption University in Worcester, MA and director of the Center for Purpose and Vocation and the SOPHIA Program, which encourages students, particularly sophomores, to reflect on their lives in terms of vocation. He co-edited the collection Telling Migrant Stories: Latin American Diaspora in Documentary Film with Lauren Shaw (University of Florida Press, 2018). Esteban was a member of the NetVUE Faculty Seminar in 2017 and a panelist in a recent webinar hosted by NetVUE entitled “Courageous Text, Courageous Teaching.”

Leave a Reply