“Unable to perceive the shape of You, I find You all around me. Your presence fills my eyes with Your love. It humbles my heart, for You are everywhere.” Guillermo del Toro, (The Shape of Water)
The main protagonist in Guillermo del Toro’s 2018 Oscar winning movie, “The Shape of Water”, is a mute woman named Elisa Esposito who works in a government laboratory in Baltimore during the height of the Cold War. (Note: spoiler alert – the movie plot will be detailed) As an infant, Elisa was found on the side of a river with her throat slashed, which rendered her speechless and gave her three large scars along the side of her neck. She thus has trouble connecting with people. Her only friends are her co-worker Zelda, an Afro-American woman, who doubles as her sign-language interpreter at the lab, and her neighbor, Giles, an artist. The facility receives a mysterious creature captured from a South American river by Colonel Richard Strickland, who is in charge of the project to study it. Curious about the creature, Elisa discovers it is a “humanoid amphibian”. She begins visiting him in secret, and the two form a close bond.
Seeking to exploit the creature to American advantage in the Space Race, a General, Frank Hoyt, orders Strickland to vivisect it. One scientist, Robert Hoffstetler, who is an undercover Soviet spy actually named Dimitri Mosenkov, pleads unsuccessfully to keep the creature alive for further study and, at the same time, is ordered by his Soviet handlers to euthanize the creature. When Elisa learns of the Americans' plans for the creature, she persuades Giles to help her free him. Mosenkov discovers Elisa's plot and chooses to help her. Though initially reluctant, Zelda becomes involved in the escape, and it is successful. Elisa keeps the creature in her bathtub, adding salt to the water to keep him alive. She plans to release the creature into a nearby canal when it will be opened to the ocean in the coming days. As part of his efforts to recover the creature, Strickland interrogates Elisa and Zelda, but the failure of his advances toward Elisa hampers his judgment, and he dismisses them. Back at the apartment, Giles discovers the creature devouring one of his cats, Pandora. Startled, the creature slashes Giles' arm and rushes out of the apartment. The creature gets as far as the cinema downstairs before Elisa finds him and returns him to her apartment. The creature touches Giles on his balding head and his wounded arm. The next morning, Giles discovers his hair has begun growing back and the wounds on his arm have healed. Elisa and the creature soon become romantically involved.
Hoyt gives Strickland an ultimatum, asking him to recover the creature within 36 hours. Meanwhile, Mosenkov is told by his handlers that he will be extracted in two days. As the planned release date approaches, the creature's health starts deteriorating. Mosenkov leaves to meet with his handlers, with Strickland tailing him. At that meeting, Mosenkov is shot by one of his handlers, but Strickland shoots the handlers dead and then tortures Mosenkov for information. Mosenkov implicates Elisa and Zelda before dying from his wounds. Strickland then threatens Zelda in her home, causing her terrified husband to reveal that Elisa had been keeping the creature. Strickland searches Elisa's apartment and finds a calendar note revealing when she plans to release him. At the canal, Elisa and Giles bid farewell to the creature, but Strickland arrives and attacks them all. Strickland knocks Giles down and shoots the creature and Elisa, who both appear to die. However, the creature heals himself and slashes Strickland's throat, killing him. As police arrive on the scene with Zelda, the creature takes Elisa and jumps into the canal, where, deep under water, he heals her. When he applies his healing touch to the scars on her neck, she starts to breathe through gills. In a closing voice over narration, Giles conveys his belief that Elisa lived "happily ever after" with the creature.
The film’s message is that, like water, love is fluid and for this reason can take unexpectedly different shapes to survive and infiltrate our lives. If people forbid one form of love, it resiliently reinvents itself by creating new channels and ways for expressing itself. Nothing can stop it. It’s fluidly creative. The film represents a strong and persuasive defense of the irresistible and untamable power of love to unite beings. Even beings we consider disabled, abnormal or inferior – because love’s language is universal and immune to human prejudices, limits and bias. Very often existential and physically disadvantaged beings (deaf, mute, feeble-minded or animals) understand love’s universal non-verbal and non-rational language much better than we supposedly rational beings usually do. Therefore true love is intrinsically and existentially transgressive because it fights against economic, social, ethnic, religious, gender or “speciesist” barriers and segregation. In fact, the film’s ending describes how the discriminated and death-pronounced “humanoid amphibian” heals Elisa’s injuries and literally turns her scars into gills so that she can breathe underwater. As unrealistic as such an event may appear, it fits perfectly into the genre of “magical realism” – a staple of Latin-American literary fiction and favorite of Mexican director Guillermo del Toro. This genre often depicts a highly realistic setting in which one specific element is magical or mysterious: in this case an amphibian creature with healing abilities. And, as Latin-American “magical realism”, the “magical” or the “enchantment” is not the exception, escape or parenthesis, but the very essence of “true reality”. Rather than a dictatorship of crude facts in a pretended, refined realism, it offers the renewing and refreshing power of symbolism and imagination that doesn’t renounce reality, but opens it up to change and to existential innovation and meaning.
What does all this have to do with “hybridity”? In its more basic sense hybridity means mixture, relation, sharing. Hybridity, in its noblest form, is nothing else and nothing less than incarnated love. Not a transient act of generosity, a temporary friendly visit, or a punctual form of empathy or mercy – but a permanent and definitive assimilation of the Other and in the Other. I become part of the Other’s identity as much as the Other becomes part of my own. Being structurally a mixed culture, we Latin-Americans should easily accept hybridity since we have lived with it for centuries. Unfortunately that’s not necessarily the case, because ours has been and still is a “passive” and a “unilateral” hybridity. We have not freely chosen what to integrate from others or what to value in ourselves. We have very often been used to improperly undervalue ourselves by trying to copy others, or to undervalue others by rigidly closing us up in ourselves. Hybridity, as much as “inside-out” translation, are identity enhancers when presupposing the joyous acceptance of what we are, then go forward and mix it up with other people’s values and riches. We Latin-Americans still need to learn what an “active” hybridity really means. So let’s briefly describe three characteristics of it that actually represent a challenge for us, religious as much as cultural.
1. Reciprocal Hybridity
There is “Reciprocal Hybridity” when we don’t simply endure other people’s identity but also are able to persuasively propose to them what we are, as an opportunity for personal and cultural enrichment. To achieve this we must implement a bilateral politics of “recognition”. According to the perspective of A. Honneth and P. Ricoeur, there is noble and consistent “recognition” only; first, when we positively welcome the encounter with those who are different from us; second, when we acknowledge in them something unique and specific; third, when we allow ourselves to be enriched and transformed by the uniqueness that others represent.
2. Holistic Hybridity
The challenge of hybridity articulates itself differently today than in the 16th or 17th centuries. Achieving hybridity has never been easy because we humans have always preferred to use from others only what is advantageous and profitable for ourselves. We need to put aside unilateral and manipulative hybridity as incongruent and short-sighted. Urgently we need to introduce a larger view of what humanity is and represents in our present context. And today we see that the alliance we should foster is not only inter-human but also ecological. We humans can’t survive alone. Our identity cannot only be determined “ethnocentrically” or “anthropocentrically”. We need to open up our process of personal and symbolic growing also to animals, plants and nature. We have become too detached from the “ecological community” and have deceived ourselves in thinking that we can survive alone, against nature. Is will not be an essential loss if we renounce to some of our typical anthropocentric obsessions and chose to integrate animals and plants as “balancing” and “redeeming” models.
3. Erotic Hybridity
Eroticism is tangentially and partially related to sex. It indeed infiltrates and rescues the whole life. Eros is life’s main strategy for surviving. No entity can endure and last without this. Rational and ethical efforts are important but secondary events in human life. Before them, life’s impulse in preserving itself is already strong and oriented. No life can start, either with an enlightened thought, or a willful act. Life is a gift coming from our living God, mediated through the generous life of others. Only life calls forth life. That’s the biophilic structure of an erotic hybridity. And it’s not reducible to a contract or an agreement on life. It’s already a direct expression of it.
We humans are all cultural hybrids. But we need to choose the positive and active form of it. And that is not spontaneous. We need to wisely and patiently work on it. And Latin-America has only partially achieved this. Thus our “passive”, “past-oriented”, “ethnocentric” and “anthropocentric” Hybridity needs to be superseded by an “active”, “future-oriented”, “multicultural” and “ecological” Hybridity.
Hybridity is neither “undifferentiated monolithism” nor “dispersive fragmentation”. It is, simultaneously, respect and communion of differences. It has a polycentric and a convergent structure. And the best guarantor of it is the Holy Spirit. In fact, where the Holy Spirit works, there is necessarily “Life”. And life is never abstract or universalizable. It’s always specific and particular. Therefore to say that the Holy Spirit is the fountain of life is to say that it creates differentiated life. But, at the same time, the Holy Spirit is “Communion”. And communion is not symbiosis, i.e the overcoming of differences, but the resilient interaction of convergent differences. And that is what the Holy Spirit creates, not only within the church, but especially outside it. The Holy Spirit is the differentiating” and amalgamating guarantor of every life in our world. And that is also what Hybridity, in its very essence, culturally creates and fosters.
“Unable to understand the shape of others, we find them all around us. Their presence fill our eyes with their love. They humble our heart, for They are everywhere.”
- Hybridity (from and for the ecological Community)
Hanz Gutierrez is a Peruvian theologian, philosopher, and physician. Currently, he is Chair of the Systematic Theology Department at the Italian Adventist Theological Faculty of “Villa Aurora” and director of the CECSUR (Cultural Center for Human and Religious Sciences) in Florence, Italy.
Previous Spectrum columns by Hanz Gutierrez can be found at: https://spectrummagazine.org/authors/hanz-gutierrez
Image Credit: "The Shape of Water" - Official Trailer
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