To The Finish Line: Testimony as a Subversion of Literature and History

With every end there is an obligation to reflect on what has passed, on how I’ve changed during my brief yet wild quest for knowledge. But as I write this post hidden away in the confines of a cozy dorm, the same one in which I recorded my first tentative notes about Historic Memory, I find that I’ve very much come full circle. An academic purgatory of sorts between the exhilarating rush of the new semester and the rewarding trials of summer. In these past six weeks, I’ve worked on transcribing testimonies from small towns in southern Spain, from second-hand victims of Franco’s regime and the Spanish Civil War, in addition to subtitling a portion of the documentary La Sauceda, de la utopía al horror, which I’ve posted below for convenience. Yet in my attempts to answer my initial questions about the morality of memory, the stagnant and self-mutilating nature of trauma, and the problematic linear model of history, I’ve become just as confused now as I was from the start, perhaps the only difference being details and personal investment. For every truth uncovered, another is yet to be seen, and I’m still only at the beginning. Or more accurately, I’ve returned to the beginning, the very basis of this entire project: the testimony.

For my final post, I want to clarify my statements in my second essay, in which I speak about the power of narratives as a means to construct identity. As one of my readers summarizes, I am not saying that testimonies should be read as literature because I think that belittles the human voice into what is, in effect, fiction. Rather, I want to show that there are modes of thinking that not only limit how we say something, but also what we can say in the first place. In the process, I gloss over the difference between History and Historical Memory because “realness” isn’t important for my purposes. For me, it is a question of representation, of identity. However, I neglect to acknowledge that the testimony, at its core, seeks to portray the truth because what’s at stake is abundantly consequential. That is to say, for the victims in La Sauceda, it is a question of finally attaining justice for the thousands of executions under Franco and the ultimate victory of Republican ideals. Indeed, Raymond Williams finds a similar intersection between a need for expressive forms and truth when he discusses the British working-class literature in comparison to the novel. He observes:

Very few if any of us could write at all if certain forms were not available. And then we may be lucky, we may find forms which correspond to our experience […] The novel with its quite different narrative forms was virtually impenetrable to working-class writers for three or four generations, and there are still many problems in the received forms for what is, in the end, very different material. Indeed the forms of working-class consciousness are bound to be different from the literary forms of another class, and it is a long struggle to find new and adequate forms.

He concludes that the emerging autobiographical forms come from the working-class’ struggle against the hegemonic literature of the time, and, as such, must be different to sufficiently reflect their situation. It is precisely this new form born from the struggles of the marginalized and oppressed that John Beverley describes as testimony, or more specifically, the Spanish testimonio. In his book Against Literature, which is paramount in legitimizing the testimony as a valid source of knowledge, John defines the testimony as a first person text that illustrates a “‘life’ or a significant life experience.” Though the genre is dynamic and problematic in its refusal to be categorized, it encompasses various types of texts including oral histories, memoirs, and confessions amongst others.

But his most salient point is that the speaker, the corporeal and poetic “I,” does not simply recount his personal experience, lest the testimony be reduced to a mere autobiography (that’s not to say that a testimony can’t be an autobiography). Instead, the speaker’s voice is expansive and must encompass the struggles of the community. “The narrator in testimonio, on the other hand,” John contends, “speaks for or in the name of a community or group, approximating in this way the symbolic function of the epic hero without at the same time assuming his hierarchical and patriarchal status.” In effect, the speaker is a surrogate voice for the subaltern.

John continues to say, “testimonio implies a challenge to the loss of the authority of orality in the context of processes of cultural modernization that privilege literacy and literature as a norm of expression. It permits the entry into literature of persons who would normally […] be excluded from direct literary expression.” Herein lies the driving pilar of the book: the testimony serves to challenge the hegemony of literature and History, which seek to denounce any alternative narratives. Yet, we fail to realize that literature and History, which follow their own sets of ideology, can perpetuate the subaltern’s situation because they create the very conditions that marginalize him. The testimony propels the periphery into the center; to invalidate it is to further deny the subaltern a means to express himself. We should not look at the relationship between testimony, literature, and History as antagonistic. Instead they are complimentary. Different forms of the truth.

I end this post as I did with the first, with a call to transform the ideologies that inadvertently inhibit us and to thank Werner and Mary Anne Weingartner for their generous support, Professor Cate-Arries for her guidance and patience, and the Charles Center for allowing me to participate in this project. I plan to continue transcribing throughout my final university year, and I hope to gain a greater knowledge of Historic Memory and its role in liberating the subaltern.

Comments

  1. I’ve read all of your posts, and I think this one is my favorite. I’m really interested in the idea that the testimonios allow average people to contribute to historical and literary discussion, and I definitely agree with you. Historical accounts can be portrayed in alarmingly different lights depending on who is describing them, and I think it is important that people who may be powerless in other ways can assert their place in society by recounting incidents that are of such enormous significance to them. By even one person relating his or her experiences, they give a voice to a community that may otherwise be brushed aside.
    I’ve been interested in the desaparecidos of Argentina for a while, but before reading this blog, I wasn’t familiar with Franco’s rule or the desaparecidos of Spain. I’m curious – are there any narratives other than Euripides’s (whose you mentioned in “Storytellers of War: The Power of Narratives in Constructing Identity”) that stuck out to you as you transcribed testimonies?

  2. Kerri, I transcribed a bit of Andrés Rebolledo Barreno’s interview where he talks about his grandfather and this intense yearning to know his grandparents. It’s heartbreaking and feels very much like a need to know one’s identity, which has essentially been denied and stolen from him. I also recall the vocal Lucía Román, who spoke about how her grandfather died in her father’s place when the soldiers collected civilians. I also remember María Cristina Martín Pérez, the granddaughter of a desaparecido. She spoke about how the soldiers were killing children, and her grandmother had to leave her husband to protect her family. She ends up falling to tears when she says that her grandmother and mother were so consumed with the fear that the soldiers would find and kill them one day, that her mother ended up committing suicide years later. It’s rather hard to watch.