Activists from Equanimal, Anima Naturalis and CAS-International together in protest in Bilbao in August 2010.

by Kata Beilin •

The leading story in the New York Times on February 19th “60 Lives, 30 Kidneys, All Linked” could be read as a screenplay of a new Almodóvar movie, except that the story is too long for just one film. Thirty people gave one of their kidneys to a total stranger, creating a chain of life which connected various points on the U.S. map. This time it was not a killer virus which was carried by plane from one city to another as it happens in dystopic fantasies, but a sort of miraculous filter that allows life to thrive for a few more years in the midst of all sorts of environmental degradations. Enthusiastic readers’ responses, in the online version of the article, fell into three categories: “I also gave a kidney in the past”, said the first group. “I wish I were able to give a kidney, but since I do not feel capable of doing that I want to help in other ways”, said the second group. “I also want to give a kidney, how do I do that?” said the third one. I was beginning to expect that at least five or six of the richest people in the U.S. would write: “Tax me so that budgetary cuts do not touch the poorest.” But, it looks like it is easier to give away a kidney than share some money.

Remember the opening scenes from two of Almodóvar’s films, The Flower of My Secret and All About My Mother, both obsessed with organ donation. They literally analyze life anew; in the moment when an encephalogram shows cerebral death, Almodóvar insists on a possibility of transcending it, not through soul salvation, but still through a sort of “life after death,” possible through a seemingly miraculous transplant. A new understanding of immortality emerges as a result of the immersion of an element from one individual organism into another, a social communion achieved through the transfer of a piece of flesh, which continues life through another being. From a literary scholar’s point of view, like mine, that can be thought of as an avant-garde realization of the metaphor of Christian communion. New ethics of life re-envision transcendence as being placed not in the other world but rather in the living flesh for whose sake, as long as it lasts, it seems justified to change habits, traditions and laws.

I am writing a book entitled, Bulls, Apes, Genes and Clouds: New Ethics of Life in Contemporary Spain that touches on such diverse issues as the anti-bullfighting movement and organ donation.  Debates on organ donation were a part of political debates after the death of Franco in 1975.  In 1979, Spain pioneered a so called opt-out model, according to which everyone after cerebral death and five minutes of unsuccessful efforts of resuscitation is a potential organ donor. According to Rafael Matesanz, Director of National Organization of Transplants, thanks to the “generosity of people and the efficiency of the sanitary system” – and, perhaps, a credit should be also given to Almodóvar movies – by 2005, Spain reached the greatest rate of organ donors in the world.

In All About My Mother, organ donation becomes a metaphor parallel to those of maternity and creativity. In all three, the main figure is a “gift” (don) which gives shape to life and death of both the donor and the receiver. The most important element of transcendence, now material and not religious, understood in this way, is transfer. Life needs to be transferred through a movement of love to any subject that needs it. In All About My Mother, all love, even the erotic one, appears to function like maternal care for the child. Perhaps, then the main commandment of what I call in this book “the new ethics of life” is to overcome egoism, individualistic ethics, and religion of the “self” for the sake of community and continuity of life. The (maternal) impulse to give and sacrifice life for one’s child needs to be transferred to all those in-need-of help, thus turning it into to a universal ethical imperative for sustaining life.

Transfer, transplant, transcendence, and maternal love have their vectors turned to the future. The second commandment of the new ethics of life is to be mindful of the state of affairs after one’s individual life expires, and to think of the world for future generations. The search for transcendence is in fact a search for a meaningful sacrifice for future, and thus it connects to notions of sustainability and ecological activism. Organs are recycled like most precious objects needed for a happy life, and through recycling they become a property of the whole society; for we should live as if we were all one body. This brings me to a scene which speaks for and about the new ethics of life which has been debated in Spain in recent years, and to the first part of the sub-title of my book: the bull.

Activists from Equanimal, Anima Naturalis and CAS-International together in protest in Bilbao in August 2010.

In 2009, 2010, and in 2011, the cities of Pamplona, Bilbao and Madrid witnessed protests against bullfighting, with activists forming with their bodies a huge shape of a bull.  The figure seen from above is an impressive example of body art; humans painted in black filled the healthy skin of the represented bull, and those painted in red marked the wounds.  The resulting image of a continent-like bull’s body, constituted by small human bodies, can be read as a figurative representation of Spain, which according to Roman historians had the shape of a bull skin.  In contrast to its symbolic representation in bullfighting (called ‘the National Feast’ by Franco’s government), where a Spanish male defines himself in opposition to a bull, the protesters seemed to argue for the organic unity of human and animal flesh as a component of national identity. Thus the figure redefines citizenship, and posits that non-human animals be included with their human counterparts in the ethical domain, based on their shared capacity for perceiving pain. It is also noteworthy that the image requires a special way of seeing, namely it asks for transcending one’s limited perspective and seeing “a big picture” from above where individual life appears only as a part of a greater organism whose composition is heterogeneous, but whose wounds are shared. This is an ecological perception of the interconnectedness of all life.

[Katarzyna Beilin is an associate professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at UW-Madison, where she teaches contemporary Spanish narrative, film, and culture. Her book-length projects include Conversaciones literarias con novelistas contemporáneos (Tamesis, 2004), a novel, Meteory (Agawa, 2005), and Del infierno al cuerpo: otredad en la narrativa y cine penninsular contemporéneo(Libertarias, 2007). She is currently a Resident Faculty Fellow for the UW-Madison Institute for Research in the Humanities and a distinguished Faculty Participant in the UW-Madison Center for the Humanities Sawyer Seminar on Biopolitics: Life in Past and Present.]