Monday, May 19, 2008

Imagining Argentina

I took a social work class this semester entitled "Foundations of Nonviolent Peacemaking." I spent most of my research energy on the kind of stuff I have already been working on -- psychic numbing, dehumanization, that kind of thing -- but in the process of reading for those topics, I stumbled upon the book Imagining Argentina, which I mentioned in my previous post, and I got hooked. What follows is a paper I produced on that book for this class.

My old professor Walter Brueggemann, in his book The Prophetic Imagination, mentions in passing a book by Lawrence Thornton, Imagining Argentina. On a whim, I finally picked it up at the library, more than 5 years after I first studied under Brueggemann, and have been fascinated by Thornton’s quasi-mystical theme as well as Argentina’s “Guerra sucia,” which is the setting for the book. This will not simply be a book report, but given the manner of response that the book offers to the events of the war, I will engage Thornton’s model of imagination as well as the historical happenings of the dirty war itself.

Some months after the abduction of his wife Cecilia by government kidnapping squads, Carlos Rueda, the director of the Argentine National Children’s Theater, begins to see in his imagination people who have been “disappeared.” These imaginative scenarios, although they have the power to shape reality, are beyond his control; whereas at times he sees people being freed or escaping through holes that appear “miraculously” in brick walls, or babies returned to the mothers from whom they have been taken, at other times he sees people being tortured, raped, or killed, and he is powerless to change it. Although he had been apolitical, his wife had been a journalist, writing articles about the abuses and terror tactics of the government. Whereas she had been concerned with hard-nosed reporting of the data, says the narrator, a retired journalist and friend of Carlos and Cecilia named Martín Benn, Carlos’ intellectual life “is wholly metaphorical,” (Thornton 18) which at the beginning of the story would have meant “unreal” for Benn. However, Benn’s own awareness of what Carlos’ ability means develops, and he gradually comes to understand, as did Nietzsche, that “truth is an army of metaphors” (Theology of the Old Testament 85); that is, our access to reality is in fact a construct of numerous voices which we try to boil down to one coherent tone, inevitably distorting or silencing those which do not fit our program. Speaking about the silence and complacency of so many Argentines in the face of the disappearances, Benn remarks that they reacted “more or less like the citizens outside Belsen did to the horrors behind the fences, except that we found refuge in a phrase, rather than silence. ‘Debe ser por algo,’ we said, ‘It must be for something.’” (Thornton 20) Thus did the generals’ imagination dominate that of the people – they were willing to accept the generals’ rendering of reality on faith, rather than asking the kinds of questions that might undermine the stasis that the generals’ imaginations inevitably sought. As William Cavanaugh, in his book Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ, states, “To refer to torture as the ‘imagination of the state’ as I have done is obviously not to deny the reality of torture, but to call attention to the fact that torture is part of a drama of inscribing bodies to perform certain roles in the imaginative project which is the nation-state.” (Cavanaugh 279)

Despite the quasi-mystical portrait of Carlos’ imagination that pervades the book, it is not primarily a fantasy book, but a defense of the urgency of imagination, understood as the capacity to see reality in a way other than merely the facts on the ground. Carlos spells this out early on by declaring that there were in fact two Argentinas, the one that the generals believed was self-evident, and the one in the people’s hearts. When the soldiers look at the people, he argues, they see sheep and terrorists; on the other hand, the people “remember a time before the regime, but they do not take their imaginations beyond memory because hoping is too painful. So long as we accept what the men in the car imagine, we’re finished…We have to believe in the power of imagination because it’s all we have, and ours is stronger than theirs.” (Thornton 65) This plays itself out in Carlos’ understanding of General Guzman, who serves as a symbol of the government: “He conceives of himself as a patriot who believes that Argentines are a little mad, ungovernable by ordinary means, and capable of thriving again, of realizing our potential only if we accept the strong hand of people like himself.” (Thornton 90)

Carlos begins to march every week in front of the Casa Rosada, the seat of government in Buenos Aires, with the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, an actual organization which was founded during the dirty war to make visible the faces and names of those who had been disappeared. In response to their signs with names and pictures of disappeared loved ones, Carlos makes a sign of his own: “I AM CARLOS RUEDA. THEY HAVE TAKEN MY WIFE. I CAN HELP.” (Thornton 38) From that point forward, every Thursday evening Carlos holds audiences in his garden, and people from all over come to tell him about their loved ones who had been disappeared, hoping that he could tell them what would become of them. Friends and strangers alike come in ever-greater numbers as their loved ones continue to be disappeared, desperate for some bit of information, whether of hope that their loved ones will escape, or of the minimal but real consolation of at least knowing that they are dead, as opposed to the unknowing that gives way to despair.

Carlos’ imagination moves from his garden into his work at the theater, where he produces a new play called Names, which was about the generals’ belief that they could erase history, erase people’s very existence, by removing people from sight, and the need to keep those names alive by and in memory. Carlos repeatedly sees in his imagination what is happening to his wife and daughter (who is also taken in the wake of the performance of Names), including seeing them being tortured, raped, and, in the case of Teresa, eventually murdered. Benn recounts his heartache each time Carlos asks an acquaintance to tell him about what happened to Cecilia, and later Teresa, partially because of the pain it causes Carlos to see with his imaginative gift what they are suffering, but more because he wishes that Carlos would simply accept reality, namely that they are dead. Even after he sees Teresa’s death in his mind’s eye, Carlos repeatedly goes out to find Cecilia, refusing to accept the version of reality that even his friends would have him believe. After Teresa’s abduction, Carlos follows General Guzman to his house, intending to kill him, until Guzman’s daughter comes outside and Carlos finds himself unable to fire; he later reflects to Benn that, “Everything he [Guzman] sees is small, distorted by his preconceptions…He could never comprehend that my stories are more dangerous to him than the Mannlicher, my words more explosive than bombs planted in the Casa Rosada.” (Thornton 136)

Thornton writes about the willful amnesia that appears as the regime in the book is losing its power; the generals themselves tried to disappear, while simultaneously leaving in their wake the message, “It never happened.” (Thornton 191) Unlike the meticulous record-keeping of the Nazis, the generals in Argentina worked to completely efface, not only their crimes, but the very existence of those whom they had disappeared. No such person ever existed to have been taken, tortured, killed. Faced with the reality that, “It’s only a matter of time before there’s silence in Buenos Aires, in all of Argentina, before the records are shredded, before the bodies are buried too deep to find,” (Thornton 197) Carlos steps up the sessions in his garden, knowing that to not bring his new power of imagination would be to allow the imagination of the generals to win. Such was the same logic of the Madres: by marching with signs with the names and pictures of their children, they resisted the fiction that would deny that their children ever existed. Nevertheless, such testimony retains at best an elusive hold on truth. As Robert Jay Lifton points out, “Hannah Arendt, discussing official deceptions revealed in the Pentagon Papers, emphasizes the ‘fragility’ of ‘factual truths,’ their dependence upon ‘testimony to be remembered and trustworthy witnesses.’” (Lifton 360) Cecilia, for example, despite being deprived of means of writing down the story she was experiencing, made use of the swirling patterns etched into the plaster of her walls as mnemonic devices to remember her story (which she eventually collected in a book called, appropriately, The Wall), in a way reminiscent of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago.

Cavanaugh comments, “Confronted with evidence of the miraculous, Carlos’s friends nevertheless remain skeptical, convinced that Carlos cannot confront tanks with stories, helicopters with mere imagination. They can only see the conflict in terms of fantasy versus reality. Carlos, on the other hand, rightly grasps that the contest is not between imagination and the real, but between two types of imagination, that of the generals and that of their opponents.” (Cavanaugh 278) Whereas his friends see imagination as fantasy, the generals themselves know the power of that kind of alternative rendering of reality, even as they are unable to admit their fear as such to one another: “it is inconceivable that a general, or a ranking member of his staff, would admit to colleagues that he was afraid of a storyteller.” (Thornton 162) However, like J. Edgar Hoover’s ironic comment that Martin Luther King was “the most dangerous man in America,” (ironic because Hoover thought King was a communist, whereas King’s truly prophetic imagination was indeed more dangerous than any amount of armed force that could have been brought to bear on American power structures at the time) the power to reclaim reality by speech, which can be misunderstood as mere skill at making rhyme schemes, authorizes living in a different way. It is for this reason that Yale theologian and torture survivor Miroslav Volf argues, “in order to expose crimes and fight political oppression, many writers, artists and thinkers have become soldiers of memory.” (Volf 18) Following Teresa’s death, Carlos notes that the generals “assumed I would follow Teresa into the whiteness, give up on myself as well as Cecilia, and they were very close to being right. But as I was thinking about letting myself go I understood that Cecilia would drown too, that she lived only because I remained to know she lived.” (Thornton 172) This hope keeps Carlos alive, when the fiction of the generals tells him to give in to grief and take his own life; despite all odds, it eventually culminates in Cecilia’s escape and return to him.

Historically, the estimate is that roughly 30,000 people, mostly trade-unionists, students, and activists were disappeared during the dirty war, which the government euphemistically called the “National Reorganization Process,” and which lasted from roughly 1976 until 1983. Whatever the book’s historical inaccuracies may or may not have been, (Thornton is neither a historian nor an Argentine) Thornton communicates something of the nature of living inside a truncated imagination, as most of Argentina did. Although many of them were assaulted, arrested, and even disappeared, the Madres, who continue to exist to this day, were one of the few groups who “successfully countered the military’s calculation that if the terror was absolute enough, no one would dare to complain.” (Sharp 221) The Madres continued to march with signs showing the names and faces of disappeared loved ones until 2006, at which point they said that the government was no longer an enemy, no longer opposing their efforts to find their loved ones.

The scenes in this book that were most horrible to me as the reader were those in which Carlos is forced to see the repeated torture and rape of his wife and his daughter, to know his powerlessness to stop it and the feelings that would accompany such a reality. Is his use of his imaginative gift the appropriate response? Should the sword have joined to the spoken word in efforts to stop the generals’ imagination, even if it would have ended with Carlos sharing the fate of so many of his fellow citizens? Despite having himself been assaulted on several occasions, despite the contemptuous attitude with which Guzman exits the courtroom in which he is eventually found guilty of crimes against humanity, Carlos realized in that moment when the crosshairs of his rifle converged not only on Guzman but on his daughter that to kill Guzman would have made Guzman’s imagination correct; as he puts it, “the bullet would have sent me into exile and silence.” (Thornton 137) However, even though the closing chapter of the book does fast-forward several years after Cecilia’s return, to show the downfall of the generals, it does not linger on the effects on Cecilia of her captivity. Does she ever wake up screaming, feeling the soldiers’ hands on her body, or listening to her daughter scream for mercy? After months or years of captivity and abuse, how damaged is her psyche? Is forgiveness possible? Can she live her life without being consumed by the enormity of trauma she endured? It is one thing to say, as does Walter Wink, “The enemy too believes he or she is in the right, and fears us, because we represent a threat against his or her values, lifestyle, or affluence. When we demonize our enemies, calling them names and identifying then with absolute evil, we deny that they have that of God within them that makes transformation possible.” (Wink 59) It is another to think about the cost to sufferers, to think of the contemptuousness of torturers even when presented with all the evidence of their wrongdoing.

In that vein, psychologist Jordan Peterson talks about a fellow therapist who works with women who have suffered horrific trauma: rape, abuse, torture. Those women who were able to most fully enter in their imaginations into their experiences of trauma, who felt the pain and indignation most completely, got better faster and stayed better longer. Why? Peterson argues that this model of therapy is built on the premise that coming into contact with that which is most terrifying, not running away from it, demonstrates that we can encounter that which frightens us most and not be destroyed; in effect, we can reclaim those lacunae in our “maps of meaning”; even if they remain unfathomable evil, they don’t reduce us to inarticulacy about our own lives. However, it is precisely the effect of torture, says Elaine Scarry, to “unmake” the world: to render the sufferer inarticulate, to shatter the sufferer’s matrix of a coherent world, and, given the unique ability of pain to defy explanation, to deprive them of the ability to describe their experiences.

How, then, does this book and its model of imagination and hope speak to the task of peacemaking? In one way, it clarifies just how painful and tenuous a task peacemaking is: we can get lost in examples of peacemaking that, despite the sufferings of those who participate, make it seem almost “majestic,” to use the term that Martin King used to describe the struggle in Birmingham. Certainly it was atrocious, we say, but it can almost seem to be a mathematical formula: acceptance of suffering leads to the consciences of the oppressors to be stung by seeing the suffering they inflict on the innocent, and the oppressed are upheld as paragons of virtue and selflessness. There is no such formula here: a mother, herself subject to serial rape, is forced to choose which soldier in a group will be the first to rape her daughter, and then forced to listen to it all happen. Those soldiers remain contemptuous, unharmed by guilt, to the very end, while the mother survives but faces a lifetime of trauma, guilt, and terror.

On the other hand, however, the story reinforces the urgency of hope: partially in Wink and King’s sense of the word, that even the most vicious opponents have within them a shred of humanity that contains the seeds of conversion, but also hope in God’s power to make happen more than we are capable of seeing from where we are. This is an awful hope, one that must say that, while everything may well not work out for me, that I may suffer to death, or worse, be left alive to suffer under decades of pain and trauma, hope is still authorized, is in fact essential, for a bigger picture than my own small life.

Similarly, the book points to the need to continually rehumanize those whom oppressors would rather see dehumanized (to justify their violence) or made invisible (to deny their violence ever happened), and the place of the media in fostering the illusion or piercing it with truth. Much of the furor in the book was over the silencing of dissent, often in the form of mass media and artistic expression: critical editorials, dramatic productions in the theater where Carlos worked, intellectuals or students saying the wrong thing. Some people were silent out of fear, while others did so out of ideology, but Thornton’s central point throughout remains consistent: the pen, and by extension the imagination, is genuinely mightier than the sword.

Works Cited

Brueggemann, Walter. The Prophetic Imagination. 2nd Edition. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001.

---. Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997.

Cavanaugh, William T. Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ.
Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1998.

Sharp, Gene. Waging Nonviolent Struggle: 20th Century Practice and 21st Century Potential. Boston: Extending Horizons Books, 2005.

Thornton, Lawrence. Imagining Argentina. New York: Doubleday, 1987.

Volf, Miroslav. The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World. Grand Rapids,
MI: Eerdmans, 2006.

Wink, Walter. Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003.


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Anonymous said...

Buenas noches

It is my first time here. I just wanted to say hi!