From Despair to Resistance:
The Politics of Dreaming in Christos Ikonomou’s “The Blood of the Onion”
10 May 2022
Charlotte Fraser University of Amsterdam
Christos Ikonomou’s short story collection, Something Will Happen, You’ll See (Κάτι θα γίνει, θα δεις), was published in late 2010, on the eve of Greece’s first debt crisis bailout and the wave of revolutionary protests that swept the globe in 2011. Though written in the earliest days of the global financial crisis, the collection became emblematic of the Greek debt crisis that followed, as its stories of precarity and unemployment in Athens’ working-class neighbourhoods only gained in relevance.
The narrator of “The Blood of the Onion,” the sixth story in the collection to which I turn here, works at an ice cube factory in Kaminia. To him, the dreams of his colleague Michalis are as transient as the ice cubes they manufacture. At first, Michalis’ dreams of one day moving to Spain offer a source of humour and relief but, as the story progresses, they trigger despair in the two characters. For all the joy of its earlier sections, “The Blood of the Onion” ends on a note of dejection. The story’s thematic concern with the act of dreaming and, moreover, its emphatic shift from hope to cynicism, suggest the high stakes of dreaming under crisis. They invite the question: is Michalis worse off for having dared to dream? Does the short story offer any resistance to the narrator’s assertion that, for the working-class protagonists of the story, “dreams are like ice cubes – sooner or later they melt” (Ikonomou trans. by Karen Emmerich, 107)?
In her chapter in Vulnerability in Resistance (2016), titled “Dreams and the Political Subject,” Elena Loizidou offers a potential answer. In what follows, I will use Loizidou’s writing on how dreaming can constitute the political subject to unpick the stakes of Michalis’ dreaming. I will detail how Hannah Arendt’s distinction between Thought and Action, as presented by Loizidou, can help to illuminate the two characters. I will explore how the characters, in dialogue with one another, move from private thought (despair) to a form of political action (resistance). Finally, I will analyse how the story intervenes in debates about political action, such as self-immolation, that is motivated by despair.
The central dream in “The Blood of the Onion” is Michalis’ ambition to finish his medical studies and move to Spain, but the text also connects dreaming with the fictive and aesthetic realms. The narrator describes Michalis in the following way:
He said he’d find a Spanish woman with glossy hair and bright white teeth…They would go to where Don Quixote was from to see the windmills and the vineyards that stretched on as far as the eye could see. (107)
Michalis’ daydream is punctuated with the language of fantasy (the “glossy hair” and “bright white teeth” of his ideal woman) and the language of fairy tale (“as far as the eye could see”). However, the reported speech makes it impossible to tell how self-aware Michalis is: whether his styling as a quixotic figure is a humorous self-styling, or imposed at the level of narration. The reader is left to interpret how earnestly Michalis presents his dreams, and to what extent he uses humour as a defence against potential disappointment. She must sit with this tension in considering Michalis’ viability as a political subject.
Whilst Michalis may believe that he will one day achieve his ambitions, the narrator takes a pessimistic view and is unequivocal in likening his dreams to the ice cubes that the two men manufacture. In this way, the figure of the ice cube becomes central to how dreaming is presented in the story and a cipher for the colleagues’ different attitudes. Michalis thinks that the characters’ job at the ice factory is “an inhuman thing,” invoking, as Jonas Taudal Bækgaard argues, working conditions that are both unforgiving and precarious (250). For the narrator, it is not work, but dreams that are precarious. Despite these different perspectives, the turning point of the story hinges on a moment of agreement. On a winter day when the ice machine has stopped working, the characters are angered by a caption in an article that Michalis is reading. The caption is dismissive of the final graffitied words of “a young man sentenced to death” by the Gestapo, describing them as “[a] message with no recipient, written in the heat of the moment and therefore subjective” (113). Michalis is the first to object, but both characters shortly connect the young man’s circumstances to their own and are distressed by the caption’s indifference. When the ice machine suddenly starts working again, they let the cubes tumble onto the floor and melt in the sun. The reader might interpret this as a political action (a form of wildcat strike), but they might equally interpret it as a passing moment of inertia. This inconclusive ending provides a focal point for considering the stakes of dreaming under financial crisis.
To illuminate “The Blood of the Onion,” I have chosen to elaborate on Elena Loizidou’s work on “Dreams and the Political Subject”. Loizidou critiques what she sees as a central position in the writings of Hannah Arendt, namely that “dreams and more generally the sensual realm can’t be designated to the sphere of the political” (125). Following Arendt, Loizidou uses a framework for dreaming that includes both conscious and unconscious dreaming, as well as “poetry, and other sensory accounts” (124). This makes it possible to apply her writing to “The Blood of the Onion” and account for both Michalis’ waking daydreams and his passion for poetry. Of specific relevance to this essay is how Loizidou works with Arendt’s distinction between Thought, which includes dreaming, and Action. Though, to Arendt, thinking is “singular and subjective” and therefore “socially but not politically emancipatory,” Loizidou builds on work by Judith Butler to argue that “the boundary between outside and inside is much more permeable” (128; 124; 131). As “sociality precedes and enables what is called thinking,” that which Arendt considers private and subjective is in fact inseparable from the public realm (Butler qtd. in Loizidou, 130).
Applying Arendt’s “thinking/action distinction” to “The Blood of the Onion” helps us understand the characters’ function within it (Loizidou, 130). Michalis’ dreaming might well exemplify the “singular and subjective” activity Arendt writes about, from the notebook he uses to “scribble down all his strange thoughts” to the narrator’s rejoinder that he “[j]ust stop thinking and work” (Loizidou, 128; Ikonomou, 106). However, in the end, it is precisely his singularity (his passionate response to the magazine caption) that provokes the narrator to a form of politicisation. In the moment of silence that follows Michalis’ outburst, the narrator muses:
I thought about what it would be like to write I will be executed on a wall… What it’s like to work and save and dream and have those dreams melt like ice, as if there were special hands that existed in this world just for that – to hold the dreams of poor people and squeeze them until they melted like ice. (115)
He begins to identify with the dispossessed figures in the story, moving from the conditional tense (“would be like”) to the present (“it’s like”). Having previously referred to himself and Michalis as “people like us” he begins to talk explicitly of “the dreams of poor people” (107; 115). If we can characterise this moment as a politicisation, the formation of a class consciousness, then it is the recounting of dreams (Thought) that has got us here.
It is in this spirit of contemplation that the characters let the ice cubes melt. Whilst not a premeditated form of resistance, a “deliberat[ion] with others for the creation of a common world” as per Arendt, the characters’ decision may well have consequences (Loizidou, 133). Their overseer has already warned them that if they let the ice melt they’ll “be the onez zcreaming” [sic] (111). Can we therefore read their withdrawing their labour as a conscientious objection? In which senses does it matter whether their actions have felicitous consequences – that is, better working conditions rather than disciplinary action?
I would argue that the emphasis in the story on subjectivity renders the consequences of their acts of secondary importance. This emphasis unfurls through the metaphor of heat. The magazine caption about the graffiti regards anything written in “the heat of the moment” as “therefore subjective” (113). When, angry about the caption, Michalis melts the piece of ice he has been squeezing in his hand, the narrator calls it his “own heat of the moment” (114). Heat is associated with emotions and the subjective, but it is also the energy that changes states, much like the conversation between the two characters which leads to their politicisation. Perhaps the same process that melts Michalis’ dreams excites his subjectivity into action. Thus, by privileging poetry and the sensual realm, “The Blood of the Onion” matches the undeliberated action of crisis politics with its own undeliberated resistance. Indeed, given the muteness the characters feel, “deliberat[ion] with others for the creation of a common world” might not be available to them (Loizidou, 133).
This emphasis on subjectivity is underscored by the point at which Ikonomou chooses to end his story. Loizidou uses the example of Rosa Parks, the civil rights activist who resisted bus segregation in Montgomery, Alabama, to argue that an account of political action that removes the subject - “remov[es] the force behind action” - can only ever be partial (134). According to Louizidou, Parks accounted for her actions not only “because she was convinced (after deliberation with others) that segregation laws were unjust” (Loizidou, 134). Rather, Loizidou suggests, she acted “because of indignation, fearlessness, and a curiosity to see how far the law could recognize her humanity” (134). Much as Loizidou’s writing enables us to see “the force behind action,” Ikonomou ends “The Blood of the Onion” just at the moment of (possible) resistance. He therefore centres the subject and the “force behind action” above and beyond the action and its consequences.
There is a wider relevance to this examination of action born out of a private, subjective moment. The ending’s ambiguity comments on action which may or may not be felicitous, may or may not be conscious, and which may well present us with an alternative way of theorising acts of political desperation. In their writing on this topic, Achille Mbembé and Judith Butler argue, respectively, that, “under conditions of necropower, the lines between resistance and suicide… are blurred” whilst, in acts of public suicide, “[d]ispossessing oneself as a life becomes the way to dispossess the coercive and privative force of [subjugation]” (Mbembé, 40; Butler, 146). In contrast, I am uneasy with this manner of placing political meaning onto suicide, feeling that it cannot account either for the private subjectivity of the agent, or for those acts which are not felicitous. We must find a way to account for both Mohamed Bouazizi, the vendor whose self-immolation galvanised a revolution, and also those who dispossess only themselves, whose sacrifice goes unnoticed. “The Blood of the Onion” intervenes in this discourse, and eases my disquiet, by highlighting the slippery line between self-dialogue and action, affect and act. Through Loizidou’s work on the “force behind action,” manifested in Ikonomou’s short story, we find a way of theorising these acts of conscientious objection or self-destruction that does not ignore the despair that spurred them. In turn, this helps us restore political agency to even an infelicitous self-destructive act.
Loizidou’s work has provided a useful framework to examine how the two characters in “The Blood of the Onion” relate to dreaming and has helped to unlock the ambiguous ending. The ice cubes may melt in the sun, but the characters’ dreams have left a tangible residue: their politicisation and resistance. In this essay, I have argued that Ikonomou’s story foregrounds the “force behind action” rather than the consequences of that action. I have tentatively suggested that this can help us theorise political acts that are motivated by despair, and also account for the felicity or otherwise of those acts. The stakes of dreaming under crisis are therefore represented as extremely high: as countering the undeliberated action of crisis politicians with an undeliberated, yet still legitimate, form of resistance.
Bækgaard, Jonas Taudal. “Ice-as-Money and Dreams-as-Ice: Christos Ikonomou’s ‘The Blood of the Orange’ and the Critique of Liquidity.” Languages of Resistance, Transformation, and Futurity in Mediterranean Crisis-Scapes: From Crisis to Critique. Edited by Maria Boletsi et al., Springer International Publishing AG, 2020, pp. 249-65.
Butler, Judith and Athena Athanasiou. “The Political Promise of the Performative.” Dispossession: The Performative in the Political. Polity Press, 2013, pp. 140-9.
Ikonomou, Christos. “The Blood of the Onion.” Something Will Happen, You’ll See, translated by Karen Emmerich, Archipelago Books, 2016, pp. 89-116.
Οικονόμου, Χρήστος. Κάτι θα γίνει, θα δεις. Αθήνα: Πόλις, 2010.
Loizidou, Elena. “Dreams and the political subject.” Vulnerability in Resistance. Edited by Judith Butler et al., Duke University Press, 2016, pp. 122-45.
Mbembé, J.-A. “Necropolitics.” Public Culture, volume 15, number 1, Winter 2003, pp. 11-40, https://muse.jhu.edu/article/39984.
Charlotte Fraser studied English Language and Literature at the University of Oxford and is now an rMA student in Cultural Analysis at the University of Amsterdam. Her research interests include participatory cultures (online and offline) and the political status of the ‘amateur’ in art and performance.
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