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The Buendía Family Curse
How collective amnesia drives a new iconoclasm.
One of the big reasons I started this Subtack was because of my interest in the preservation of memory and heritage. Few books have impacted me in this line of thought as much as Gabriel Garcia Marquéz’s “100 Years of Solitude.”
Today is Memorial Day in the United States — a day where we honor and remember those who perished serving in the military. Although the book ends tragically, Marquéz’s 1982 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech expresses hope, saying, “Faced with this awesome reality that must have seemed a mere utopia through all of human time, we, the inventors of tales, who will believe anything, feel entitled to believe … A new and sweeping utopia of life, where no one will be able to decide for others how they die, where love will prove true and happiness be possible, and where the races condemned to one hundred years of solitude will have, at last and forever, a second opportunity on earth.
Enjoy this re-run of my October 15, 2022 article below.
"Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice."
— Gabriel Garcia Márquez, first line of "100 Years of Solitude"
The morning of Friday, October 14, 2022, two young protesters from Stop Big Oil entered The National Gallery went to Vincent van Gogh's "Sunflowers," threw tomato soup onto the painting, superglued their hands to the wall, and began to shout, "What is worth more: art or life?"
Their intention, however unclear, was to escalate the discussion about fossil fuels and their environmental impact. Ignoring the polyester-blend T-shirts that were probably imported from China, the hot pink hair dye probably made from ammonia, and what suspiciously felt like an ad for Heinz — the stunt was ill-conceived, to say the least.
Oil paint is usually made from linseed (flax) oil or some other plant-based oil. The first gasoline-powered engines by Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler weren't even invented until the last few years before Van Gogh's death. Turpentine, the agent used to thin or strip the paint, is made from distilling pine tree resin. No fossil fuels were harmed in the making of this painting.
Clearly, these two young people missed out on a valuable art history and arts education.
How the Buendía family forgot who they were
Few books have impacted me as much as Gabriel García Márquez's "100 Years of Solitude." I picked it up as a way to brush up on my Spanish. I did not expect it to be such an ambitious or life-changing read, and I certainly never expected that strange first line of the book to be so profound.
Published in 1967, "100 Years of Solitude." is considered García Márquez's greatest work, winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 1982.
It covers multiple generations of the Buendía family, who leave their coastal village in Colombia after the patriarch José Arcadio murders his neighbor in a fight, needs to escape justice and has a vision of a gleaming city called Macondo where he leads his family and whoever will follow him. The book then tells the stories of the following seven generations and their lives, affairs and misdeeds in Macondo.
Throughout the story, a Gypsy named Melquíades shows up to reveal the family's past, present and future to José Arcadio. It's unclear whether he is dead or alive, but nevertheless, he continues to appear to the family member most receptive to writing down what he reveals and dictates those prophecies to them.
I will always recommend the book, but if you're short on time, go watch the movie "Encanto." The story and theme are virtually the same but with a LOT less murder, rape and incest.
According to legend, the phrase "Know Thyself" was inscribed on Apollo's temple at Delphi, Greece. It's a question that's hard to pin down — and a poignant one to put on a house of worship — what does it mean to know oneself? A wise friend once told me you can tell when someone doesn't know who they are because of all the things they do that make them (and often the people around them) so unhappy. You see this play out in "100 Years of Solitude."
Although Melquíades regularly visits the more spiritually aware members of the family to tell them the future of their clan, no one ever revisits the book. Interestingly, many of the characters are a reiteration of their forebearers. The men either follow the pattern of being an Aureliano — a calm, intelligent and often calculating character — or an Arcadio — an impulsive, sensual and brutish character. The women are either an Úrsula — a strong, exacting matriarch who knows what she wants — or a Remedios — a reticent and wilting flower who gets pushed around.
As each generation moves on, the characters never revisit their history and never challenge their fate. By the end of the book, the final Buendía generation has no idea how his family ended up in Macondo, who his progenitors are, or that he's even related to the people he lives with.
As mystical as Marquez's book is, he intended it to be a commentary on the world in which he (and we) live. Marquez was a journalist who witnessed a great deal of war, bloodshed and atrocities in his time — particularly in Latin America. "100 Years of Solitude" was supposed to reduce much of what he experienced onto a smaller scale.
It's true that it's hard to see your place in the grand scheme when you are in the thick of it. But having the history laid out before you puts your life and the world in a greater context. We're seeing a crisis of people who do not know the history of the world in which they live, nor do they understand the context of their lives. According to Ancestry, 53% of Americans cannot name all four of their grandparents.
At the end of "100 Years of Solitude," Macondo is decrepit and falling apart. Then a catastrophic hurricane hits and wipes it off the face of the earth. It is only when the wind starts picking up that the final Buendía goes to read the book Melquíades was dictating to him and his ancestors. He scans through the book discovering shocking facts about his family, learning the woman he just had a baby with is actually his aunt — and then it hits him — he's not going to finish this book before he dies in the hurricane.
He decided to learn who he was only when it was too late.
My dad is an attorney, and unlike most industries, there's no "target demographic" for lawyers. I basically grew up at his law firm, so I met all sorts of people who would never have been in my social circle if not for my dad's line of work. I learned a lot from them.
I remember one of his clients vividly—an orthodox Jewish woman who was the victim of a brutal antisemitic attack in her own home. It was nothing short of a miracle she survived. After the attack, a kind older gentleman from her synagogue helped her get around town and run errands. At the time, I was a receptionist for my dad's law firm, so I got a chance to get to know them while they waited to meet with their attorneys.
He caught me looking at the tassels hanging off his belt and took the opportunity to teach me about them and what they meant. We had a good discussion about religion and the importance they placed on having reminders of who they were and where they came from.
Understandably, this client of my father's was incredibly traumatized by this attack. Still, it seemed that she had the constant reassurance that for thousands of years, those who went before her went through (and survived) some of the darkest times of human history. She knew who she was.
A new iconoclasm
In the 8th and 9th century Byzantine Empire, a mischievous bunch of rapscallions decided to take the commandment against worshipping graven images very seriously. The Iconoclasts, as they were called, went around destroying religious iconography in protest of Eastern Christians' veneration of paintings and icons.
With 1200 years’ worth of context, it's pretty easy to laugh at the ridiculousness of this situation, but we've never exactly gotten past this tendency to destroy other’s icons for not matching our own ideology. Like the protesters I mentioned at the beginning of the article, we tend to ignore, or worse, destroy our history, identity and icons to make an unrelated point.
There are conversations around the nation about removing statues of George Washington from college campuses or renaming schools named after presidents associated with American slavery. And as someone who loves the arts, I am growing concerned about the gatekeeping in artistic creation.
Ultimately, although we'll lose some of the magnificent creations of times past, we'll eventually tucker ourselves out on this lonely new version of iconoclasm.
"He really had been through death, but he had returned because he could not bear the solitude."
— Gabriel Garcia Márquez, first line from "100 Years of Solitude"
Correction: An earlier version of this essay said early Eastern Christians worshipped icons. A reader kindly pointed out that Eastern Christians don’t “worship” icons but venerate them.
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