"Identity Transformation and the Power of Imagination: Becoming Other" was examined using the unknown main character and female character named Guadalupe Frejas of the novel Los Años Marchitos using theories that explored different ways humans can imagine becoming others. One way to accomplish this idea of becoming other can be through nomadic thinking process, which is a way to resist the striated thinking that only allows people to think in ways convenient to society, as Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari discuss in their literary works. Another way is in the concept of the posthuman, such as the one discussed in Rosi Braiddotti, and Nayar, among others. Others ideas of becoming other such as through subjection, our imagination, and transportation are also reviewed within the context of the novel using journal articles to explain them. The main unknown character of the novel is used to explore all these theoretical works based on his experiences as the novel progresses.
Identity Transformation and the Power of Imagination: Becoming Other
By Raquel Flores
In the novel, Los Años Marchitos, by Rafael Menjivar Ochoa, the unnamed main character has a job of being the voice of multiple characters on radio novels. His studies about acting allowed him to have a deeper understanding of the people he represents with his voice. His story starts as he struggles to make a living because his current radio novel was suspended and he cannot seem to find a job because he was typecast as a villain. Additionally, nobody would hire him as an actor because of his looks and he could not go back to doing theater, which is his ongoing dream. At the same time, readers meet Guadalupe Frejas, another radio novel actress that lends her voice to benevolent characters. She is famous for her distinct and pretty voice. She routinely plays the “beautiful” characters. For many years they work together and without even trying the main character falls in love with Guadalupe, but he does not realize that until she dies. As the novel continues, he has to deal with losing Guadalupe and trying to make a living. He obtains a job as part of a special task force where he is hired to declare responsibility for the kidnapping and killing of an important government entity by impersonating the voice of the person that everyone thinks committed the crime. As he studies what he considers his ultimate theatrical character, he personifies the voice based on pictures given to him. His gray and monotonous life as a radio actor turns into a life full of lies, which he must get accustomed to or risk living on the streets or getting killed for not doing the job. In conclusion, towards the end of the novel, he not only gets to find out who he is working for and why, he also realizes how much of an impact the act of becoming other can have. With my research I analyze how society prevents people from transforming themselves, which minimizes the ability to keep identity fluid and cuts the possibilities of people imagining becoming other.
The novel presents this idea of becoming other for the first time when the voice overs affect the unknown main character’s life and career. The way in which the voices affect him are through typecasting: people attach a negative connotation to what he does and this transfers over to the person he is in real life. While the main character of this novel is having a conversation with his boss at the radio station, the man whom he refers to as the “bald man” says to him how he loves that he can do a different voice for each novel: “It’s your voice but it sounds like each time a different person does it” (18). He goes on by explaining how he has not been able to do commercials because he does not have the right tone of voice and that it would help a little more to get him that job if they would not mention his name at the beginning of the radio novel. The reason he gives is because most people will not hire rapists, which is the role that he plays in the radio novel. What all this means is that sometimes becoming other can have a negative implication when people decide to frame him for the character he plays. He is so talented at playing the role of a rapist that people assume he and his character are the same person.
With this in mind, I can recall the theoretical work by Hector Leyva titled, “El discreto encanto del cuerpo social corrupto: violencia, literatura y medios de comunicacion,” where he discusses how the crimes mentioned in the newspaper chronicles were written by a policeman who uses a pseudonym, Wayler, to hide his identity in an attempt to avoid repression from the public. Leyva explains how the crimes being committed in the stories actually happened, but sometimes the main character of each story is facing repression of the public for what he has done. However, these stories also open up the door to let the reader realize how these crimes can actually happen depending on the circumstances. Leyva also describes how for some authors the criminal acts serve as therapy to satisfy violent instincts within fantasy, which might help society get rid of some possible assassins. In the same theoretical work, it is mentioned how Slavoj Zizek argues that this type of narrative leads to the inability to separate the real from the fantasy. In the case of the main character of Los Años Marchitos he is not a real criminal until he decides to participate doing the confession as Juan Pablo Escudero Becerra, who had killed the politician Heraclio Jimenez Fresedo. His confession had to be partly improvised and he allowed himself to become Juan Escudero at times when he had to lie liberally for the fear of being killed by the special police force who hired him. Studying his character as Juan Pablo Escudero Becerra allowed him to realize that this guy might be killed thanks to his recorded fake confession. The hunger for money had made him believe it was okay to interpret Juan, but as he discovered his real job, his conscience allowed him to think twice about the damage he could do.
Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in their book titled, Mil Mesetas, detail a chapter about the treaty of nomadology and the war machine; they discuss how the classical image of thought and the striated space of our mental thinking aspire to universality (383). They argue that the reality and true are found within that striated space, but nomadic thinking rejects this and turns to the thinking in smooth space or what they refer to as espacio liso. As stated by Deleuze and Guattari, “Variability is an important aspect of smooth space…what is limited is the striated space for providing barriers or frontiers which limits or hinders the possibility for growth” (386). In this sense the main character of the novel has opened himself to the many possibilities of becoming in his own acting career by representing and becoming all his characters. His acting became his everything because he was able to experience living the lives of others. He states: “I would have liked to have done a character where I was the main character, the painful, to not have to imagine it in my insomnia. Because above all I believed my characters; it was the only thing I had left…I hated them with love” (Menjivar 22). His real life was so painful that he indulged in his characters. That is the beauty of imagining becoming other--one can escape the real world and the behavioral box made by society to benefit society itself, not the individual person. His characters not only help him survive physically by the money he earned but also emotionally because they fed his mind with possibilities of being other even if they were cruel villains.
In the same sense, readers see the idea of how through this special police force the state is trying to control people’s minds and benefit themselves. Deleuze and Guattari, see the “war machine” depending on who takes over it whether it is the State or the nomad takes on different meanings. Remember that the “war machine,” as Deleuze and Guattari described, refers to the resistance shown against something. This is expressed through nomadic thinking as resistance to live in society’s limited thinking. In this example, I use the way in which information is being filtered and altered through the main character’s acting of other people’s voices: “When the State takes over the war machine, this changes evidently its nature and function, because then it is directed against the nomads and all the one’s fighting to destroy the State, in the sense that a State only pretends to destroy another or impose its purpose” (420). The voices of the main character become a weapon to destroy not only the truth of the crime that occurred but the weapon of destruction for the nomadic thinking he was able to achieve through the voices of all his characters: “When the big ones command we just obey, would have said Guadalupe to encourage me to keep going. That is what I kept telling myself since the night before, and that is why I was there, feeling like an imbecile, lending my body and vocal cords to a possible guerrilla member, possible killer of Jimenez Fresedo” (Ochoa 118). Jimenez Fresedo is seen as a guerrilla member. The government sees Fresedo as a threat who would try persuade people to protest the government. When the main character verbalizes Fresedo’s testimony, he becomes the other character, which is a representation of the government using the war machine of nomadic thinking as a way to get rid of Jimenez Fresedo. What was previously a war machine along smooth space, the main author’s imagination, becomes a dangerous machine with vocal cords that the main character cannot fight.
In another theoretical work by Rosi Braidotti, The Posthuman, she states how “the modern era stressed the power of technology not as an isolated event, but as a crucial element in the assemblage of industrialization, which involved manufactured objects, money, power, social progress, imagination and the construction of subjectivity” (106). In order for an entity, such as the police, not to make themselves look bad with an unresolved case, they must hire the main character to disguise the impunity and corruption of the legal system. Deleuze and Guattari also touch upon the subject. For example, when the state takes over what they refer to as being part of the striated space because they want countries to remain the same under their own terms and ideologies: “One of the main works of the State is to create a striated space over what they govern, or utilize smooth spaces as a way of communicating in service of a striated space” (389). Deleuze and Guattari explain how the goal of the state is to avoid nomadism and that includes the nomadic thinking process. Many times people limit themselves to many other possibilities for change. This is seen in the case of the protagonist when he never looks for a better paying job. It is as if striated spaces makes us conformists even when people are not happy with their realities.
When Guadalupe dies, the main character realizes the love they could have had, which is something that Braidotti refers to as the extreme threshold of the powers to become. Braidotti states, “Because humans are mortal, death, or the transience of life and frames our time zone, not as a limit, but as a porous threshold” (131). Braidotti’s view is that experiencing someone’s death allows us to the drastic imminence of “just a life” here and now for as long as we live and able to imagine that. Guadalupe’s death is used as a mirror for his own life not only to dwell on what could have been with her, but also to reflect on the things he gets himself into. He is able to question himself and realize he will be a part of something atrocious. Death becomes an immense number of possibilities for Guadalupe. But for the main character; it is as if through her death he is able to experience what some people in Hispanic countries say, “life is nothing.” In a sense, it is not that life is not anything important, but when someone dies people realize the footprints they left behind not just in their own history but also in the lives of others. Through memories, the deceased person becomes a ton of possibilities, as in the case of the love between Guadalupe and the protagonist. He will forever keep the memories present until the day he dies: “As an individual occurrence it will come in the form of the physical extinction of the body, but as event in the sense of the awareness of finitude, of the interrupted flow of my being-there, death has already taken place” (Braidotti 133). Braidotti is refers to the fact that once a person is born, one knows death is inevitable but it’s not until one’s body is completely gone that they realize it.
Death helped him make her someone more acceptable for love in the main character’s mind. The diagram of who she was to society and in her possible love life disappeared.
In Pure Immanence: Essays on a Life, Gilles Deleuze’s explains how a life with an identity reduces possibilities because it diagrams a person. A life has more potential before identity. For example, a person before being born is full of potential to become anyone and this life is not theirs yet. They have complete power and bliss. Furthermore, Deleuze believes life contains only virtuals. He states, “It is made up of virtualities, events, singulatories” (31). Those singulatories refer to individuality that comes with identity, and once you obtain an identity you have been placed in a diagram, such as having a certain background with different characteristics. One’s chances of becoming other became nonexistent unless a person uses their imagination as a child through play, or doing other activities as adults (such as reading or watching a movie). In the case of Los Años Marchitos, the main character is able to maximize his potential through the voices of the characters he performs. In the case of Guadalupe Frejas, her life stops being the diagram of a fat, hamburger-eating fluffy body when she dies. The main character did not want to confess his love to her when she inhabited that body. Her death opened her potential to obtain those possibilities, whether it’s in another world or through the thoughts of others who will mourn and remember her. It’s the protagonist’s thoughts that open her up to the possibility of her becoming the love of his life. Death helped him make her someone more acceptable for love in the main character’s mind. The diagram of who she was to society and in her possible love life disappeared.
Pramod K. Nayar is another author that digs into the subject of becoming but with a different approach in in his book also titled, Posthumanism. As detailed by Nicola Darwood in an article:
“Nayar looks first at the notion of human subjectivity and existence as an ‘autopoietic’ living system with identifiable boundaries. However, Nayar suggests that intelligence and consciousness live outside these boundaries and, drawing on symbiogenesis and epigenetics, concludes the chapter by asserting that, in the posthuman vision, ‘we are Others, and [. . .] human intolerance of the Other’s difference [. . .] is not simply untenable but also unethical since we have evolved with, and live because of, these “others”, and share more than just the earth with them’. (Darwood 319)
The main character of Los Años Marchitos has the ability to embody all these characters and becoming other, but this momentary transformation is not an excuse for him to take advantage or hurt other people. When he starts to envision himself as being more powerful just because he will make fifteen thousand dollars for his dirty job with the special police force, he starts to act very arrogant towards people and uses one of his characters to let it take over him and humiliate a waiter at the restaurant where he used to drink coffee with Guadalupe Frejas. He felt that the waiter had always treated him as less and decided to imitate him to mock him and make his point that he was not better than him: “I decided to take revenge…imitating his voice and gestures to the last detail. Suddenly, the waiter had lost all his dignity. I had imitated his voice and gestures, which even he knew were false, I had reached the depth of his soul of a broke poor devil full of siblings and with an inadequate salary. I had shown him he was not a Duke, but a pitiable waiter. (Menjivar Ochoa, 62-63) Using his characters as a way to become other in order to enhance his real life is plausible, but to use this to belittle the waiter was not only unnecessary but also cruel. He leaves the guy a fifteen dollar tip, which on a regular basis he would not even consider any kind of gratuity at all. Instead of using his consciousness and intelligence to confront the waiter, he went for the cruel revenge and humiliation route. Just like the war machine with Deleuze and Guattari’s theory, that consciousness and intelligence was used with the end purpose of harming others.
On another theory by Keith Oatley regarding the “Process and Content in Engagement with Stories: What is the basis for effects of improved empathy and theory-of-mind with engagement in fiction? Two kinds of accounts are possible, process and content, and they complement each other. His theory is a little similar to Nayar but with a more cognitive science approach to the subject: “In an experiment on empathetic effects, the more readers were transported into a fictional story, the greater were found to be both their empathy and their likelihood of responding on a behavioral measure…The vividness of imagery during reading has been found to improve transportation and to increase empathy” (Oatley 621). The main character of Los Años Marchitos is able to study his characters so well thanks to what he learns in his studies. Taking that into consideration, there are two points to take into account. First, what happens to the whole concept of empathetic effect in the case of the waiter because the main character was not empathetic towards him at all, because even giving him a fifteen dollar tip was to humiliate him, it was only until Guadalupe’s death that he acquired a sense of empathy for the guerrilla member Juan Pablo Escudero Becerra because thanks to his confession he might be killed. Emotion in fiction being part of the transportation experience as in Oatley’s reading regarding fiction stories, it can also relate to the way the main character embodied his characters which he claimed he hated them with love. These characters where his life and in a way kind of like in the previous theory by Leyva, he might have been acting out through voices but also maybe expressing some hidden sentiments he had in real life but could not express. For example, we can argue the sense of power he got when portraying his characters, which was probably nonexistent in his real life because from what we can perceive in the whole story of Los Años Marchitos the only people that had power were the ones that had money as in the case of the character himself when he made so much money when working for the special police force, and the police force itself which operates through the government which would obviously always possess more power than the regular people. He was great at achieving his transportation but not so great when using that ability to become more empathetic for others.
Another interesting theory to take into account is the one presented in the article titled: “The missing self: competence, the person and Foucault” by Sophie Park, Caroline Pelletier, and Michael Klingenberg where they discuss the example of the communication between doctors and patients where they speak in hospital and doctors terms but it is possible for the patient to still understand them based on the language and context being used:
A discourse of ‘patient-centeredness’ or of ‘the doctor as person’, for example, allows patients and doctors to act and speak intelligibly under specific conditions; their words and actions are made sense of in specific ways, in relation to these respective accounts of the world. The notion of subjection describes how historical ways of making meaning are imposed on subjects, exercising power by constraining the capacity to be heard, to speak and to be understood. Foucault describes ‘subjectivation’ in somewhat different terms. Here, the subject is actively, indeed passionately, attached to given subject positions; these are not so much imposed as wanted and adopted, as conditions for being recognized and intelligible. Subjectivation, then, points to the way in which a subject is not only made (or named), but given ‘internal’ wishes and desires.
The biggest example of a subject being subjected is the main character because he is being forced by offering him a lot of money and showing him the good life, to convince him to participate; even though once he accepted to hear about the job he had no choice but to do it and act out a voice recorded confession as Juan Pablo Escudero Becerra. Since the reporters who would account for the recording he would do had idea of what was being done, he spoke in a manner where he would not make himself obvious but would still at times commit mistakes that he had to fix as the interview went along: “Remember- said the boss rising his arms; you have to identify yourself, say which media you represent and refer to him as Mr. Juan Pablo Escudero Becerra. You know how the situation is; I’m begging you…uh…no, you are the professionals. I know everything will come out perfectly, for everyone’s own good, right” (Menjivar Ochoa 112). With subjection in mind, we see how the execution of power was driven by the special police force on everyone including the media, and the subject; meaning the main character, was made and named, and we can even argue given internal whites and desires. By the main character becoming Juan Pablo Escudero Becerra he adopted his role to the point that when he was being interviewed he knew very well what to respond to mishaps in the interview in the way the Becerra could have possibly responded according to what the special police force wanted him to testify.
Doctor Deborah C. Letcher in her work titled “Imagination: Innovating the Could Be,” discusses about imagination in various forms:
Clinical psychology and law have acknowledged imagination. From a clinical psychology perspective, Freud (1900/ trans 1958) highlighted the importance of imagination in human understanding. Jung (1953/1975) posited imaginative thinking as core in becoming who we are as humans. In the case of law, attorneys have frequently made their case by presenting story, cases, metaphors, and imagining what may have been possible, what may have taken place (Tracy, 1981). Even when trying to be rational in living life, imaginative thought is present. (Letcher 288)
Imagination is this imperative in today’s society, yet somehow we manage to not only attribute it to children and times of leisure such as reading or watching a movie, or in the case of an actor through their job that if it was not so highly paid it would probably still would not be considered a career. Nonetheless, these high paid actors and actresses are in high demand because we, the public want to see more of them in films, or television. Maybe if imagination was not viewed as a leisure activity sometimes it would be taken more into account to help us understand its importance. The only time we normally hear about the power of imagination and how it is important to let it flow is with children. But if one of these lawyers would do a full case based on imagination they might not win it if mentioned this was just a story that they constructed for us and we imagined it. Without proof these lawyers case has no validity in terms of trying to win. Maybe the problem is not them reconstruction a scene, and us imagining it; but how it is presented and how we listener also imagines it. That someone’s describes a story does not mean we will all imagine that same thing, the same faces of characters, and the same environment; even when described equally to all of us because we all think different. Someone’s imagination can be way more creative than others. In the case of Guadalupe Frejas, because of her nice tone of voice people imagined her to be someone completely different than who she really was and added to that was the characters she portrayed. “Many times they had asked me about her and I would always answer the same thing: beautiful, very sweet, excellent actress. I felt a little embarrassed with my hostess; I couldn’t lie to her. She weighed more than one hundred and twenty kilos- I said to try to soften up the lie. But it made it worse: I felt like a traitor” (Menjivar Ochoa 91). Imagination can be a powerful tool of possibilities of becoming other, but in the case of Guadalupe it became a tool for assumption, body shaming, pity, and lies. The same society that might or might not embrace imagination, through social media now a days makes especially our youth believe we should look a certain way even if that involves issues like anorexia and bulimia. To look like a supermodel or an actress, people go through rigorous diets, surgeries, they use tons of make-up, fake hair, and all sorts of resources that transform you into whatever you want to become. Guadalupe had a beautiful, distinctive voice loved by the listeners, but nobody really knew what she looked like since all they knew was her voice in the radio. However, the same way the main character felt ashamed to describe her would have probably been the way everyone would have looked at her if they saw how heavy she was. From what the main character describes she was intelligent and down to earth, also at some point Guadalupe in one of their coffee meetings mentions the situation happening in relation to the case the special police force is interested in having full control of its outcome trough to voice recordings of the main character: “Things are going to change- she whispered with her hummingbird eyes. There is a strong movement. That was to puzzle anyone: Guadalupe would never speak about politics. In general her conversations were deliciously frivolous, pieces of nothing said with a beautiful voice” (Menjivar Ochoa 15). These just shows that Guadalupe between her hamburgers, famous voice, her asthma attacks, and pointless conversations; was main more informed about the situation in her country. Just because someone is overweight should not mean they are any less to have to lie like the main character would about what she looked like, because who she was should have been more important. Imagination should also be used in a positive way as in the case that Jung views it and it should influence as better as human beings to do no harm but to swim in our possibilities of becoming others.
In conclusion, society prevents us from transforming ourselves which minimizes the ability to keep our identity fluid and cuts the possibilities of us imagining becoming other. Society, therefore, is the striated space to our vast imagination that we should allow more to travel around smooth space and let it five into nomadic thinking, where we are not subject to a fixated way of thinking implanted by not just society, but governments, and even some religions. I think we should still embrace imagination trough works of fiction in any of its forms because those are the windows to our possibilities of imagining becoming others. We were given the power of imagining for a reason, so why not use it to escape into other worlds, other detentions, other possibilities of being someone or even something else.
Braidotti, Rosi (2013). The Posthuman. (55-142). Massachusetts: Polite Press.
Darwood, N. (2014). Posthumanism. Journal Of Gender Studies, 23(3), 318-320.
Deleuze, Gilles. "Immanence: A Life". Pure Immanence: Essays on A Life. Trans. Anne Boyman. New York: Zone Books, 2001. 25-33. (La inmanencia: Una vida).
Leyva, Héctor. "El discreto encanto del cuerpo social corrupto: Violencia, literatura, y medios de comunicación". Istmo 29-30 (2014-2015).
Menjívar Ochoa, Rafael. Los años marchitos. San José: EDUCA, 1990.
Oatley, Keith. "Fiction: Simulation of Social Worlds." Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 20.8 (2016): 618-628.
Park, Sophie, Caroline Pelletier, and Michael Klingenberg. "The Missing Self: Competence, the Person and Foucault." Medical Education, 48.8 (2014): 741-744.
Secciones de Mil mesetas: Capitalismo y esquizofrenia de Gilles Deleuze y Félix Guattari: "Tratado de nomadología: La máquina de guerra" (359-431).