Playing with Trauma
In the case of the works of the Argentine post-dictatorship generation, the focus on the subjective and affective experiences of the 1970s and 1980s responds to the fact that the gaze of the artists is born in the wake of the post-modern crisis of master narratives and subjects that fused individual and collective memory. In “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” Walter Benjamin wrote:
where there is experience in the strict sense of the word, certain contents of the individual past combine with material of the collective past. The rituals with their ceremonies, their festivals, ... kept producing the amalgamation of these two elements of memory over and over again. They triggered recollection at certain times and remained handles for memory for a lifetime.84
In the years prior to the coup it was not difficult to establish clear connections between past and present. Even when there were differences, struggles and antagonisms, they always took place within a teleology that produced narration and identity. After the coup, such clear connections between past and present, and the collective and the individual, were increasingly difficult to establish. As a result, the works addressed in this book are characterized by various processes of distancing that make evident the gap opened by the coup in the intergenerational transmission of the past, whether expressed in terms of rejection, anger, disillusionment, incomprehension or desacralization.85
As part of that desacralization, the estrangement that some artists and authors feel towards the world and lexicon of the 1970s and their childhood experiences of violence have led them to represent that world in a playful and sometimes even humorous way. In the prologue to his Anthology of Black Humor, Andre Breton reminds us that in his 1927 essay “Humor,” Freud suggested that humor is liberating and that in humor the ego refuses to be distressed by the provocations of reality, to let itself be compelled to suffer. It insists that it cannot be affected by the trauma of the external world; it shows in fact, that such traumas are no more than mere occasions for it to gain pleasure. This last feature is a quite essential element of humor.86
Breton adds that to participate in black humor you have to have won several victories against silliness, sceptical irony, light-hearted jokes and, above all, sentimentalism.
As Pilar Calveiro, abducted by the military and disappeared in 1977 in the concentration camp known as Mansion Sere, has pointed out, inside the camps, laughter was also a way for prisoners to reaffirm their humanity in inhuman conditions. In the ESMA, she writes in Poder y desaparicion: Los campos de concentration en Argentina (1998), some prisoners even fabricated small books with comics cut from newspapers as a Christmas present for their fellow prisoners: “work, play and with them laughter were defence strategies against the threatened subject. In effect, laughter is present in many testimonies and confirms the persistence and stubbornness of humanity for protection and subsistence.”87 The crucial role that laughter played for some survivors is further illustrated by the fact that Calveiro dedicated her book to Lila Pastoriza, “dear friend, expert in the art of finding weaknesses and fighting power with two high-calibre weapons: laughter and mockery.”
Moreover, the dissemination in 2015 of a comic strip entitled II Capuchino, which had been made by the disappeared Leila Margarita Bicocca (abducted by the military on 31 May 1977) inside the ESMA and kept in the archives of the CONADEP, only served to reinforce the idea that black humor was indeed a strategy for resistance and testimony for some of the prisoners there. The title alludes to the Capucha one of the rooms where prisoners were kept hooded, chained and blindfolded. Bicocca gave the comic strip to another prisoner, Beatriz Mercedes Luna, who was able to smuggle it out of the detention centre. Inhabited by macabre skeletons, graves and bones, the comic, as Alejandra Dandan has pointed out, bears witness both to a powerful strategy of resistance and to the conditions inside the camp.88
For Carlos Gamerro, who cited Calveiro’s quotes on laughter in his reading of the work of the children of disappeared parents, the militant generation seemed “incapable of laughing” because they took themselves too seriously. That is why mocking them became “an irresistible sensation,” especially from the 1990s onwards.89 (Before that, however, it is worth remembering that books such as Julio Cortazar’s Libro de Manuel, written in 1974, had already parodied the figure of the militant in not so different a manner to some post-dictatorship narratives.)
In the mid-1990s, black humor also played an important role among the members of HIJOS. Gabriel Gatti argues that black humor is, within the group of descendants of disappeared parents, a strategy for assuming a distant position towards the demands of both certain epic discourses of memory and those of bloodlines. At the same time, however, humor reaffirms the links of continuity between the struggles of the “children” and those of their parents’ generation, and also reinforces a sense of belonging to their own community of orphanhood, not least because those who joke about the traumatic past in the most irreverent ways are mainly direct victims of the dictatorship.90 In a similar vein, Cecilia Sosa remembers being surprised by the humor that descendants of the adult victims used when recalling painful experiences in HIJOS: “it was not regular humor but a particular spirit of the comical, a mix of affects always flirting with death.”91 She follows Henri Bergson’s famous essays on humor (published together as Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic), and his idea that we should try to understand the comic spirit in the specific community in which it arises. Thus, in the neoliberal 1990s, humor was, for the members of HIJOS, not only a way to cope with the loss of their parents but also a way to strengthen a collective (and restrictive) idea of “us” at a time when the relatives of the victims were not being heard by a state that chose instead to forget and forgive perpetrators.
In the new millennium and particularly during the kirchnerista era, (black) humor in the autofictions of the children of disappeared parents addressed in this book (“children” who, interestingly, left or never participated in HIJOS) acquires new tones and meanings. For Sosa, the “self-deprecating style of descendants” such as Felix Bruzzone and Mariana Eva Perez work now “as a way of generating new lines of identification and empathy among wider audiences,” not directly affected by state terror.92 Similarly, Gamerro points out that the laughter of the Montonera Princess is first internal (she laughs at herself and at her friends) and then external, as she tries her jokes with those who are not children of disappeared parents. That, he suggests, is the moment when the interactive nature of her blog acquires full potential.93
Both Gamerro and Martin Kohan also suggest that as human rights became more explicitly integrated into state policies during the governments of Nestor Kirchner and Cristina Fernandez, literature and art were freed from certain restraints and allowed these discourses to talk about the past without always falling into an homage to the victims.94 Gamerro is right to point out that more important than the mere passing of time for understanding a period of history is what takes place in that time. Had the trials of the military juntas and of the perpetrators, the recovery of many children snatched from their families or the identification of previously unnamed bodies not happened, “literature would still be tethered to the most basic functions of testimony and denunciation.”95
In his analysis of Perez’s Diario de una princesa montonera, Kohan further explains that in earlier texts by writers such as Gamerro, Daniel Guebel and Federico Jeanmarie, all works that replaced the epic and solemn gaze with a satirical one, we also find parodies and the sarcastic treatment of the political imaginary of the 1970s. Yet the target of these texts is always the political militant. Conversely, the writers and artists of the younger generations use humor and parody mainly to address the rites and institutions of post-dictatorship memory and reparation. Crucially, he adds that laughter in Perez’s blog (and I would add in other humorous narratives and images examined here, such as Bruzzone’s novels, Montonensima and the testimonies of the actors of Mi vida despues) does not trivialize the enormity of the atrocities of the dictatorship. Nor is it a frivolous gesture, since in her diary Perez also narrates the pain and anguish that marks her condition of being a daughter of disappeared parents. For Kohan, Perez’s phrase “we are all orphans but we dance” means that although there is no way to overcome or repair orphanhood, there is, all the same, a way to deal with that condition via a healing laughter.96
Nevertheless, it is important to stress that other cultural memories examined in this book, such as those studied in Chapter 5, are playful without being particularly humorous. There are, then, other reasons why the artists and writers of these texts turn to this new aesthetics of memory of which humor plays just one (important) part, including, for example, references to childhoods marked by the coexistence between play and horror, the ennui that more conventional testimonies and images of the past have often produced in these artists over the years, the need to reappropriate history, and the rejection of being portrayed only as passive victims in other accounts of the past. In this vein, the autofictional works by the post-dictatorship generation in Argentina have some similarities with artworks, comics, films and novels created by the second and third generations of other violent events across the world, which, as I show in the following chapter, also play with trauma.