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Representation, Fiction and Allegory

In the late 1960s and the 1970s, Roland Barthes, Hayden White and Paul Ricreur noted that fiction as a form of literary representation was no different, in its structure, from the representation of history. Both literary fiction and history share, in Leonor Arfuch’s words, “similar procedures of fictionalization.”7 In “The Discourse of History” ([1967] 1989), for example, Barthes suggested that the realist discourse of historical narration relies on a “referential illusion” created by writing devices such as the inclusion of details relevant only as markers of reality. For White ([1973] 1998), furthermore, the historian’s choice of form, whether satire, drama or tragedy, influences the interpretation of each historical account. From a post-modern perspective, Linda Hutcheon argues that, as we only have access to the past through its traces (documents and testimonies), we can only construct narratives and explanations of the past not from the past itself but from representations, such that “the representation of history becomes the history of representation.”8

Fiction as a literary form and history thus share certain formal attributes but they are nonetheless different types of representation depending on the (invented or factual) nature of the events they relate.9 That is why Ricreur differenciates fictional narratives from historical narratives and Todorov argues that “even making allowance for the imperfections of historical research and researchers ... we must still draw a line between the language of truth [the truth of correspondence] and the language of fiction. Otherwise it would really be the end of history.”10

Discussions about the relationship between fiction and history shaped post-dictatorship literature in Argentina, not least because the experience of the dictatorship produced a crisis in realist representations of the past,11 posing crucial questions for literature and art about the possibility of representing violence and communicating suffering.12 Already in the 1970s and early 1980s, writers were engaging with the relationship between literature and reality, including Jorge Asfs and Osvaldo Soriano, who trusted in the mimetic illusion of realism, and Rodolfo Fogwill and Sergio Chejfec who, among others, started to question such illusion, instead debating the nature of representation in fiction.

In the early years of the return to democracy, many other Argentine writers also questioned mimetic realism, using oblique and displaced allusions to the dictatorial past in the form of metaphors, allegories and euphemisms. The plural and ambiguous voices present in these literary fictions opposed, on the one hand, the often Manichean readings of the past found in the discourses of the radicalized left in the 1960s and 1970s,13 and, on the other, the “univocal truth and meaning” of authoritarian discourse.14 For cultural theorist Beatriz Sarlo, these literary fictions are therefore “interrogative fictions of the real,” at the same time as being “self-conscious of the mediums and forms of their interrogations.”15

Such interest in the different modes of representing the real and the tendency to reveal, in the texts themselves, the literary procedures of narrative construction were not only the result of the difficulties posed to art and literature by the experience of the dictatorship. During this period, Argentine writers also avidly read the works of theorists and philosophers such as Roland Barthes, Walter Benjamin, Michel Foucault and Julia Kristeva, all of whom reflected on intertextuality and the relationships between fiction and history. Foucault, for example, who had earlier noted that the term “fiction” had become rather unclear as a result of its varied meanings,16 used it in an essay published in 1966 to designate the narrative system as opposed to the narrated events (the “fable”) of any literary tale.17 In the 1970s, however, he began to apply the term beyond the field of literature, describing his works History of Madness (1961) and The History of Sexuality (1976) as fictions—that is, works that create and transform an experience and reality. In this reformulation of the term, as explained by Timothy O’Leary, Foucault thinks of the fictive as a verbal presence, a means of exploring the relationship between language and things.18

During the 1980s, some Argentine writers constructed their narratives around this notion that fiction explores the distance between language and things and, following Foucault and Maurice Blanchot,19 that the language of fiction “kills” things by naming them. Echoing the principles of a certain anti-mimetic literature of the 1960s and 1970s, including Luis Gusman’s El frasquito (1977) and the experimental journal Literal (1973-1977), writers such as Osvaldo Lamborghini and his brother

Leonidas, and Nestor Perlongher, tried to destroy the illusion that there was some kind of truth to discover in the text, arguing rather that literature was only fiction without any connection with the real.20

Other writers, equally convinced that fiction did not erase but rather explored the distance between language and things, proposed ways in which fiction could also connect to the real, not through mimesis but through allegory. For both Ricardo Piglia and Juan Jose Saer, for example, fictions had nothing to do with a mimetic contract with the real. Saer saw truth as neither the opposite of fiction nor what can be verified.21 Equally, fiction is not a form of escape from reality but instead combines the empirical with the imaginable to inform us about reality. Likewise, for Piglia, “fiction works with truth to build a discourse that is neither true nor false.”22 Moreover, reality, he suggested, is made up of fictions, as exemplified by the discourse of the dictatorship, which acquired the shape of a criminal fiction. For both Saer and Piglia, (literary) fictions problema- tized the relationship between the true and the false, and the real and the unreal.

Thus while some writers in the 1980s and 1990s sought to produce an “effect of reality” by applying the principle of verisimilitude in their fictions, Saer and Piglia, among others, chose to refer to the dictatorial past using allegories. In particular, as pointed out by Andres Avellaneda, the formula “present shaped as past” defined the way in which a significant number of novels, but also films and plays from the 1980s, approached the traumatic experience of the dictatorship.23 Novels such as Cuerpo a cuerpo (Vinas 1979), Respiration artificial (Piglia 1980) and En esta dulce tierra (Rivera 1984), films such as Camila (Bemberg 1984) and theatrical plays such as Griselda Gambaro’s La mala sangre (1982) all locate their plots in the remote past, specifically in the period of terror under Juan Manuel de Rosas in the 1840s, using allegory to refer to the horror of the dictatorship.

In Alegorias de la derrota: La fiction postdictatorial y el trabajo de duelo (2000), Idelber Avelar analyzes the use of allegories in narrative fictions of the 1980s and 1990s by Ricardo Piglia, Silvano Santiago, Diamela Eltit, Joao Gilberto Noll and Tununa Mercado. One key feature of the work of these post-dictatorship writers is the presence of a memory structured according to the logic of the market that substitutes the old for the new and pretends to leave no traces of the past in the present. Yet, writes Avelar, not everything is a perfect metaphorical transaction in the market since, through this operation of substitution, the market creates an army of residues and ruins that point to the past. Avelar proposes thinking about these ruins in terms of allegories.

Both ruins and allegories share as a common trait resistance to figuration and substitution, and are useful for thinking about the work of mourning and melancholy in post-dictatorship Argentina. As explained by Avelar, in 1976, Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok proposed two forms of internalizing the loss that complicates the Freudian distinction between mourning, which he understood as overcoming loss by separating the self and the lost object, and melancholia, the inability to separate self and lost object. “Introjection” is a successful and complete work of mourning, through which the lost object is dialectically absorbed and expelled, internalized and replaced by a substitute object. In “incorporation,” in contrast, the traumatic object remains lodged within the ego as a foreign body, invisible yet omnipresent. As long as this object resists introjection it will express itself in a cryptic and distorted way.24 “Incorporation” would thus construct a sort of “psychic crypt,” to use Abraham and Torok’s term, that negates the loss and buries the lost object alive, condemned to a spectral existence. For Avelar, the manifestation of the crypt is allegorical because this ghostly entity resists figuration and substitution. Melancholy emerges as a reaction against any threat to the protected crypt, making it impossible to replace the literal traumatic word with another object.

For Avelar, the literal traumatic word points to melancholy but also to the work of mourning. The latter does not imply mere substitution of the lost object, as dictated by the logic of the market, but means recognizing that there will always be remains and ruins of the past that resist “meta- phorization.” Post-dictatorship literature reminds us of everything that remains in the present of the past and which can neither be replaced nor discharged. Moreover, the literary fictions analyzed by Avelar show how writing after the dictatorship is impossible, and that the only task left to literature is to write about that impossibility.

The need to overcome the opposition between mourning and melancholia is also present in Christian Gundermann’s book, Actos melancolicos: Formas de resistencia en la postdictadura argentina (2007), which proposes an even more radical connection between melancholia (the deepest aspect of mourning) and post-dictatorship works. Gundermann refers to Judith Butler’s reading of the myth of Antigone and to her expression “combative melancholy” to describe how Antigone refuses to accept the loss of her brother and his burial outside the polis, by bringing him inside the polis and making public what was supposed to be private. For Butler, this return to the public sphere cannot be explained within the category of mourning because this implies a more private act. For Gundermann, the rondas of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo (with their fundamental “negation” of reality as exemplified by the slogan aparicion con vida) and the escraches of HIJOS are acts of combative melancholy similar to Antigone’s. In opposition to Avelar, Gundermann does not believe that every allegorical work of the post-dictatorship period is about recognizing the failure and producing self-criticism of the left. For Gundermann, the rondas and the escraches, as well as the works of writers such as Saer, Perlongher and Gambaro and of filmmakers such as Fernando “Pino” Solanas, Leonardo Favio and Alejandro Agresti during the 1980s and 1990s, aim precisely to recover that (defeated) culture through “melancholic acts” of resistance against oblivion and the demand to mourn the dead in individual and private ceremonies.

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