On Francisco Umbral

On the 28th of August, I wake up in a hotel in Madrid to the news that Francisco Umbral, celebrated Spanish newspaper columnist, essayist, and genre-bending lyricist, as well as reputed womanizer, has died. He dies as every writer should: in the midst of dictating his next newspaper column to his wife, who reported that in the moments leading up to his death, his sentences became so jumbled and nonsensical that she hadn’t bothered to write them down.

Umbral, as it turns out, left behind over eighty published books. All the same, on the television that morning, and in the papers the next, he is remembered at least as much for his womanizing and his notorious sexual appetite, documented liberally in his often first-person writings, as he is for that vast body of work. “Su monomania,” writes Vicente Verdú, “se dividía en dos: escribir y ligar, ligar y escribir, enlazados en un nudo narcisista que finalmente lo lubricaba todo.””‘His megalomania divided in two: writing and screwing, screwing and writing, tangled into a narcissistic knot that in the end lubricated everything.’”1

I already knew that Umbral had been a womanizer, according to the turn of phrase, and knew as well about his gratitude for the advantages conferred upon him, in his old age, by Viagra, a gratitude made public in a series of articles that provided one of the final chapters to a literary career marked throughout by the stark presence in it of its author’s own flesh, “white and naked,” as he described it, in 1975, in Mortal y rosa. I also knew that Umbral had been something of a prolific writer, over the course of thirty years or more rarely making less than a weekly intervention into Spain’s public life, as a newspaper columnist for first one, then another of the country’s most widely circulated and influential newspapers, and a frequent and regular contributor to various mainstream and avant-garde magazines. In addition I knew that due to his reputed womanizing and the writing he did about it Umbral had been largely banned from the academy, excepting the unforgettable poignancy of Mortal y rosa—a genre-bending book, somewhere between novel and poem, prose and lyric, fiction and autobiography, that he wrote both about and not about the death by leukemia of his 6-year-old son, Pincho, the only child he would ever have.

But eighty books? That’s a lot of books, especially when one considers that behind every published book there must be who knows how many other failed or unpublished books, those written and those left unwritten.

I celebrate his death, therefore, and the unexpected discovery that accompanies it, by setting off in search of one of Umbral’s seventy-nine books whose existence, until now, I could have never imagined. Before a long row of them at Madrid’s La Central bookstore, a sort of consumer annex in the guise of an elitist bookstore attached to Reina Sofía museum’s recent addition, I allow my intuition to guide me—which is to say, I choose the book whose cover seems most interesting. It’s a pink cover, adorned on the back with white typeface and on the front, in black, by a devil who has dipped the tip of a quill into a now overturned inkwell and is about to begin to write. From the black-and-white author photograph on the back cover, and the typeface, and the brittle, yellowed pages inside, I determine that this particular edition must have been produced during the book’s first and perhaps only printing, in 1985. I imagine the circuitous path by which it has arrived at La Central bookstore in Madrid, which opened not two years ago: through how many back-alley warehouses, and the hands of how many overstock wholesalers operating their literary import-export on some outskirt of Barcelona, did it pass before finally coming back into the daylight? I think of mine, now that the author can no longer stand for his own books, as a kind of rescue operation, and having coughed up the €11.50 while doing my best not to convert that sum into the dollars in which I get paid, I drop the book into my bag and head back into the daylight myself. It is called, I should mention, Fábula del falo—in English, Fable of the Phallus—and if buying it was a rescue operation, and reading it was a sort of communion with the dead, perhaps my hope here is that in writing about it I might perform an all-out resuscitation.


Fábula del Falo, it turns out, is a good book. Maybe even a great book. There are aspects of it—for example, Umbral’s insistence upon explaining the “postmodern”—that feel a bit dated, and other aspects of it—such as Umbral’s incessant use of the slash to create the appearance of hybrid concepts where in fact there are none, nor, for that matter, any need for them—that seem a bit affected, but on the whole it is a daring piece of literature, one that tiptoes along the paper-thin line that divides essay from meditation, prose from poetry, in an effort to articulate a content that is itself no less daring and hybrid. Given the book’s title, combined with Umbral’s public reputation as a womanizer, and his reputation in the academy, less celebrated than in the obituaries, as a machista, one might assume that Fábula del Falo is an ode to the phallus, a testament to its power and to its glories. And in a way it is exactly that—but the conclusions to which Umbral’s celebration of the phallus lead him, or the hypotheses about the human experience drawn from his long meditation on it, are not what one would expect at all, based only on what one can read in the newspapers or hear whispered or muttered in the hallowed halls of the academy.

Fábula del Falo takes as its point of departure Umbral’s insistence that men, much more than women, are those who truly suffer from the absence of the phallus. If Freud’s woman suffers from penis envy when she looks down and sees nothing hanging between her legs, only an absence or a lack, Umbral’s man, poor soul, suffers from something more along the lines of penis anxiety, or penis panic, upon inevitably discovering, first as an unwitting child and then again and again throughout his adolescence and adulthood, that this beautiful and uncanny phallus that he sees dangling from his crotch, hanging between his legs, occasionally inflating like a wind sock, pointing like a sword, or standing at attention like a soldier ready to spring into action, is absolutely absent from the society in which he exists.

“We don’t do that,” Umbral’s man, when he is only a child, is told when he takes his phallus out to show it off, or, when he tries to describe it: “We don’t talk about that.”

When he is a man, worse yet, he becomes the one who dissuades the unwitting child: “We don’t show that in public; we don’t talk about that.”

The trauma, when Umbral puts it this way, is not difficult to intuit. Man—not only men, now, but mankind—knows himself by way of others, and The Other, in whose perception of him, and reactions to him, he sees himself constituted as a reflection. Society therefore is the system of relations that man has constructed in order that he might know himself. But, Umbral suggests, man in society can find no evidence at all of that which dangles from his crotch: he looks down and sees his phallus, but when he looks out into the world in which he sees himself reflected, and therefore knows that he really does exist, the phallus disappears. It is absent.

So he comes to doubt its existence, or to fear that, in spite of what he sees hanging, or dangling, there is really no phallus there at all, and this doubt, Umbral suggests, is compounded by the fact that, alone among all of the other mammals, man is incapable of licking—of tastinghis own genitalia. If the biblical fall—the price paid for knowledge—is into shame, Umbral’s evolutionary fall—the price paid for standing erect—is the inability to taste one’s own genitals. Copious passages are dedicated, in Fábula del Falo, to Umbral’s cats, who, after copulating with one another or masturbating against the arm of the sofa or even against Umbral’s own leg, retire to some semi-private corner to lick their shriveling pink members. It is an intimacy whose absence man suffers greatly, and Umbral even goes so far as to suggest, somewhat hyperbolically, that homosexuality itself is an attempt to compensate for this inability. When a man fellates another man, he writes, that other man’s phallus functions as a stand-in for his own; when he tastes it, he is expressing his desire to taste his own.

We do not need to take seriously Umbral’s playful psychoanalysis of homosexuality to take quite seriously his insistence that the pursuit of such classic machista desires as money, success, glory, fame, and sexual conquest (all of which Umbral enjoyed in generous proportion during his seventy-two years) is little more than a sublimation of man’s almost pathological need to know that his phallus really does exist by seeing it reflected in society, or his no less pathological need to prove to the society that tries to ignore it—that waves its hand over it and, poof, it’s gone—that indeed, like it or not, his phallus does exist. If these pursuits prove always unsatisfactory, it is because none of them satisfies the original desire, which is, simply, for the phallus to exist in society.

Now more than ever, the individual and collective desire for, and corresponding pursuit of, such perpetually unsatisfactory pleasures as money, success, glory, fame, and sexual conquest, structures the very society whose inability or unwillingness to perceive the phallus, according to Umbral, drives the pursuit of such perpetually unsatisfactory pleasures as money, success, glory, fame, and sexual conquest. I’m not the first person to suggest that a society that could break free of this inanity would be a better one: more compassionate, more humane, more just.

Umbral himself envisioned precisely such a society, and precisely such a world. On the final day of 1971, while both he and his child were still alive, Umbral published a short article, composed ostensibly in honor of the New Year, entitled, “I am hearing my child grow.” In it, he wrote: “I am hearing my child grow and I would like for him a better world, more just; freer.” A moment later, he addresses that child directly. “Camus,” he tells him, “said that between justice and his mother, he’d take his mother. Madariaga said that there came a day when he gave up justice for liberty. Justice is in a bad state, my son, it gets very little press these days, and between justice and you, I don’t have to choose, because if I say justice I’m saying justice for you (also for you).”

For Umbral, to transform the world in which he lived into the world he imagined on behalf of the son who would not outlive him, was as simple, but also as interminably complicated, as putting the absent phallus—neither mythologized nor pornographic, but only the disappearing flesh itself, frail, naked, a white that is, as Umbral writes, “neither clear nor simple”—back into it. Freed thus from their collective mania for replacing absence with presence, societies could instead construct themselves in view of the possibilities offered by their hitherto concealed duality: presence/absence, but also birth/death, and present/future.

To understand this is to understand why, for Umbral, there was virtually no difference at all between his relentless pursuit of women, and sex, and his tireless literary pursuits: they were, as Vicente Verdú has written already, a single mania divided into two—and one, moreover, that the late author lived to his last breath.

  1. “‘His megalomania divided in two: writing and screwing, screwing and writing, tangled into a narcissistic knot that in the end lubricated everything.’” 

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