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Spectacles of Gender and Nationalism in Argentina's "Dirty War"
By Diana Taylor
Duke University PressCopyright © 1997 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
Caught in the Spectacle
The Scene of the Crime
Utter darkness. Some indiscernible sounds. The sounds grow louder, more distinct. Grunts. Gasps. Rustling in the dark. The lights go up slightly. A mournful, beautiful tango comes out of nowhere. Two figures can be made out, though it's not clear either from their movements or from the noises they make whether they're struggling or having sex. What's happening? Who are they? It's a man and woman. They're in a pit full of mud. It's sex, it seems from the way she sits on his lap, clutching him. He howls, slaps her, pushes her away. He stands up, cinching his pants at the waist. She clings to him. He yells at her. A female voice answers him, but it's not her voice. Where is that coming from? He throws her into the mud, slapping her some more. Kicks her. Pulls all her clothes off her. She tries to get close to him. He grabs her face. Hits her. He screams "Bitch!" He pulls her naked body, exposing her, humiliating her. Though the female voice talks back, it's not hers. She never says a word, just whimpers and crawls back to him. He kills her. The female voice vows revenge. He wont get away with it. He stands defiantly, buttoning up his military jacket as he towers over her prostrate, naked, dead body.
Applause. Weary but seemingly content, Eduardo Pavlovsky, Susana Evans, and Stella Galazzi (the voice offstage) take their bows in the circular tub full of mud.
From the bleachers, I watched in stunned silence. I was disoriented. How to position myself in the face of the spectacle I had just seen? I was trapped—trapped between wanting to see, to make out what was happening in front of me, and not wanting to see once I had made it out. I tried to disbelieve: this couldn't be happening. By moments, the mournful tango and beautiful lighting swept me up to what seemed a lofty plateau of transcendent "meaning" where all this made sense. But her brutalized body brought me back. I wondered what the other members of the audience felt. Were they looking at her destruction, or through it to that lofty beyond? The prolonged applause suggested that this play had resonated with them.
Paso de dos was the hit of the Argentine 1990 season. The show had been sold out for months. What were people expecting to see, I wondered? What was I expecting? I wasn't sure, but having read Pavlovsky's earlier works and the original script for this play (Voces or Voices), I anticipated some indictment of the atrocities of the Dirty War. Eduardo Pavlovsky, a psychotherapist/playwright/actor, had long been a prominent "leftist" and confirmed enemy of the military regime. He had narrowly escaped abduction by the military in 1978 and had gone into exile in Spain until 1980. In the production, Pavlovsky played He, a monomaniacal military man who beat, stripped, raped, and finally killed She, played by Susana Evans, Pavlovsky's wife. What did this graphic representation of sexual violence against the female body say about the Dirty War? What fantasies did it convey about Argentine nation-ness? What function was it performing for the enthralled audience? And what was my role there, anyway?
The play clearly raised questions of national identity and resistance in the context of Argentina's recent tragedy. He, the male protagonist, is a torturer during the Dirty War (or proceso) who becomes obsessed with one of his female victims. Even before meeting her, simply hearing about her from his fellow torturers, he confesses later, "I had already created an image of you" (13). "I was obsessed with the thought of possessing you ... claiming you as a trophy, I was always thinking about your body ... Overpowering you forcefully ... suddenly ... like when an animal catches its prey" (14). He needs her, he says; she is his "NECESSITY. The necessity of our bodies ... together" (11). His dependency makes him feel vulnerable, violent, and insanely jealous. "Not being with you was like facing the void; the horror was knowing that my intensity could cease at any moment, that it depended entirely on you" (12). She, the script tells us, becomes caught up in his search for intensity. They engage in a tortuous ceremony during which he inflicts physical pain. She endures the ordeal stoically, but then, the play suggests, he was not torturing her in order to obtain answers. He wanted her to resist, to keep silent, so that the interrogations and sessions might continue and intensify his pleasure. "I wanted to possess your body, your cavities, your smells, each part of your body that I struck; I knew the color of every one of your bruises" (28). He feels compelled to expose and control her interior, innermost parts. Now, after the proceso is over, he confesses in a meeting they have arranged, he still needs her—not as a source of intensity but to give him his identity: "I don't understand you. Now you could scream out my name and again you choose to keep quiet, you won't say a word. Confess, you bitch, scream out who I am, who I was ... Because I existed! Why? Why won't you name me?" (28). Her final choice, at the end of the script, is again to keep silent: she will deny him the hero status enjoyed by the generals who are free to walk down the streets of Buenos Aires. Throughout the play he demands, he interrogates, tortures, and possesses her "entirely" (22), but she "wins." She, not he, the play wants us to believe, holds the ultimate power.
Having read the script, I had been prepared to accept that the play was "about" the torturer's perversity, a term Robert Stoller defines as "the erotic form of hatred" (4). After all, it has been well documented that the Argentine torturers routinely raped their victims. There was even a well-known case in which a victim "fell in love" with her tormentor. There is psychiatric literature that elucidates the phenomenon, known as the Stockholm syndrome.
Or perhaps the text could be seen as critiquing the military's version of masculinity, predicated on the eradication of the "feminine." He, much like Klaus Theweleit's Freikorps soldiers, is acutely conscious of being trapped in a highly vulnerable body, a "feminized" body full of holes (huecos, 9). He wants a controlled, masculine body, which he tries desperately to discipline: "I want every gesture to make sense. I mean, I want every gesture to have a feeling of spontaneity. I don't want any holes" (9). Pavlovsky the psychoanalyst even has a few lines about castration anxiety to "explain" how the male killer got to be that way: As a child, a bully had beat him up; he complained to his father; his father took him back to the group, promising to hold the other boys back while his son took on the bully one-on-one; the boy, terrified, failed to take on his opponent. His "cowardice" and "weakness" transformed him into a "shit" in his father's eyes. One moment shaped his entire life. Now, shunned permanently by the father, he himself must play out those rituals of intensity one-on-one, on a safe body, the body socially constructed to not fight back, the woman's body. Her body is scripted to allow for his virility; her silence is given to justify his actions; she is passive, he is active, but he depends on her absolutely for his masculinity. Alone, he himself pursues the "fascist aesthetic" (Theweleit 2:197) of turning his body into a well-functioning machine: "I turn my head to the right, now to the left, now to the front again. Pause" (9).
As I watched the play, however, the political critique seemed to recede as the performance replicated and affirmed the fascination with eroticized violence. The female body was sexually exposed and violently obliterated even as the play denounced Argentina's torturers and the imminent indulto (the governmental pardon of those leaders of the armed forces found guilty of human rights violations in 1985). While the repetition and displacement of violence against the female body seemed to relate to the historically "real" trauma suffered by the terrorized Argentine social body, the visual frenzy provoked by her abuse seemed closer to pornography. The woman's voice, now separate from the body, reenacted the implicit misogynist violence of the military's discourse which splits the "feminine" into the lofty, disembodied Patria (Motherland, literally belonging to the Father) and the corporeal, dispensable woman. Intensely beautiful, set to a mournful tango, this production presented the woman as a metaphor for a beleaguered Argentina. Her destruction was somehow coherent, necessary, and, yes, aesthetically pleasurable and morally redemptive. So what was the play about, I asked myself? Was it about sadomasochism? or about torture and the indulto (the torturer goes free at the end of the play)?
Not even the commentators could agree about Paso de dos, though they, like most of the women and men who watched the play the night I was there, seemed to admire the play enormously. One "reading" of the spectacle that reviewers reiterated was that Paso de dos was a testimonio, along the lines of Peter Weiss's The Investigation, here based on the testimonies of the victims televised during the generals' trials in 1985. As one commentator stated, the play stages Argentina's recent tragedy. Another claimed that it was in the horror of the production that its redemption lay: "Paso de dos is horrible. There lies its triumph over a horrible part of our history." Or was this a porn show intended to titillate rather than critique, thus recapitulating paradigms of domination? Her "intimidades" and "intersticios" (22), repeatedly alluded to in the script, were fully exposed female body parts. The poster advertising the production focused specifically on a nude frontal of her in the process of being strangled. Did the sex and violence—indisputably theatre's two major selling points—lure the audience into the tiny cubicle of a theatre? Was the play about quasi-fascist violence, or did it imply that criminal politics were simply a sexual aberration? Pavlovsky, in an interview, called the play a "love story" in which both partners enjoy themselves: "I imagine them enjoying themselves like dogs in this love story." Love or repression? Pornography or docudrama? Was she, like the female captive of the Argentine stag film El Satario (ca. 1907-12), just carried away by a horny devil? Was this merely one more macho fantasy of sadomasochism projected yet again onto a social (female) "body," or a politically committed attempt to demythify the violence of Argentina's Dirty War? And how do we decide?
Apparently, the play would have us believe, there are two stories. In the first, the female body is committed to the pursuit of erotic, deathly pleasure, which, the play tries to convince us, is hers, not just his. This, seemingly, is the world of mutual desire and consent. Paso de dos seems to be the theatrical equivalent to the narrative of "torture as a love story," best exemplified in Argentina by authors Luisa Valenzuela and Marta Lynch. The woman can't help but give herself up to the powerful, seductive military man. Pavlovsky's "intensity" seems equivalent to Georges Bataille's eroticism, "the assenting to life to the point of death" (11). True, it is the woman who dies, but as Bataille himself insists, that has always been the case: "I must emphasize that the female partner in eroticism" he says, is "seen as the victim, the male as the sacrificer" (18). In Bataille, too, eroticism is tied into male individuation, it "is that within man which calls his being into question" (29). But the annihilation of the female simultaneously serves a collective goal, for when "the victim dies ... the spectator shares in what [the] death reveals" (22). Again, the split: the dead female body/the redemptive image. She dies so that we (the viewers) might live. Thus, she is positioned as the other, the disposable, sacrificial body that marks the viewing audience as implicitly male. Much as in the military discourse that I examine in the following chapter, the puta dies, the Patria reunites a shattered population. Not only that, she likes it! The conquest is complete and empowers him beyond the actual rape. He has truly penetrated her deepest being: She now has no desire that is not merely the extension of his desire. The play depicts the fatal linkage between male identity, male violence, and male pleasure. The female body (putal women) is simply the inert mass on which that violence and pleasure are acted out. At the end of the production her body is almost indistinguishable from the endlessly malleable mud of the pit. But the play reproduces the violence it sets out to reflect because the spectator's pleasure in Paso de dos depends on and develops what Barbara Freedman calls the "coercive identification with a position of male antagonism toward women." As spectators we are required to participate in the misogyny in order to reap the redemptive dividend. Sadism and redemption for the price of one single ticket. The "dead," naked body of Susana Evans lying in the mud fills the house; Galazzi's painful voice offstage allows spectators to share in what the death reveals.
The problematic depiction of female pleasure and desire, as illustrated in the first of the play's two tales, is even more disturbing than the above suggests. It is not only that women are cast as victims to be exterminated for male pleasure, under the misnomer of female pleasure. The violence and repression inflicted on women is intrinsic in the very way we are forced to be women. By "Woman" I refer simply to the embodied image of the so-called feminine (as in Patria), the cultural construction of gender attributes in patriarchy. By "women," I refer to "real" flesh-and-blood, female-sexed persons—laying aside for the moment the question of whether such a category can even be imagined outside of culture and gender. Feminist scholars have long noted that women are socialized into a sex system that forces them into masochistic submissiveness and obliges them to act out obligatory sexual and gender roles. The play perpetuates the masculinist move of appropriating female desire: her only pleasure comes from participating in his desire, even if it kills her. The depiction of her desire and erotic pleasure as masochistic of course reaffirms the notion that female sexuality develops from the experience of pain, envy, frustration, and humiliation. Thus, as the play suggests, women "like" brutal treatment, enjoy it, need it, respect the hand that beats them. In fact, the acceptance and even pleasure in pain affirm their femininity. This version of feminine surrender confirms the military's political discourse that relocates the masculinist desire for domination onto the feminized population, claiming that "she" desires to be dominated; "she" willingly offers up her subjectivity, even her life, to the superior power.
The disembodied voice in Paso de dos seems to tell a different, no less troubled, story. The voice tells us that the play is about national identity, victimization, retribution, and the indulto. The military male tries to define himself through violence. Like the junta leaders, He is immune to retribution. Though a couple of junta leaders had been sentenced to jail terms in Argentina's Trial of the Century (1985), She maintains they were proud of what they had done. Her silence, then, had been politically motivated. She wanted to deny him celebrity status. The need to deny torturers a heroic role was a hot political issue in 1990. That year, Emilio Massera, the junta leader most directly linked to the practice of abduction and torture, had been spotted in downtown Buenos Aires, though officially he was in jail. There were rumors (which became reality in December 1990, a few months after I saw the play) that President Menem was about to pardon all the junta leaders, including Videla and Massera, who had been condemned to life imprisonment. Some people even saw the military leaders as national heroes who had come down hard on the enemy. As one commentator stated, "there's talk of monuments to these men, to their heroic war against subversion" (Feitlowitz, 60). "Her" refusal to name him, then, countered the pro-military aggrandizing gesture even as it expressed her unwillingness to be further exposed: "You want me to name you, don't you, to tell everything, all the details. I know that would make you feel better, proud that everyone knows you touched me. You want to be a hero, like the rest, proud once again of what they've done, proud to be walking free, defiant, always on the lookout. Heroes once again" (29). She suspects that her confession of the crimes committed against her would only serve to fuel the public's fascination with sexualized violence and would, ironically, enhance the military's heroic status.
Excerpted from Disappearing Acts by Diana Taylor. Copyright © 1997 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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