Hilary Goodfriend, Researcher based in El Salvador and graduate of New York University in Latin American Studies
Joan Didion’s 1983 book Salvador groans with a heavy subtlety. Each word, each phrase is excruciatingly weighted with the overwhelming presence of the unsaid. Didion’s words flow dreamily, distantly, languidly, accepting and presenting the horrific as nearly banal. As she navigates through the ubiq- uity of terror in 1982 El Salvador, two years into what would be a twelve-year civil war, her writing anguishes with the responsibility of communicating a horror that is becoming casual, a Problem with infinite causes and no solu- tions. Numbers are editorial, facts are interpretable, and every question has multiple answers.
One dry morning, Didion ventures on a bold excursion into the country- side to speak with a Commander who never arrives. It is later revealed that he had been shot that same day. She describes, in understated monotone, the journey by taxi into the jungle, where every roadblock presents a new oppor- tunity for death: “The taxi driver was perhaps twenty years older than most of these soldiers, a stocky, well-built citizen wearing expensive sunglasses, but at each roadblock, in a motion so abbreviated as to be almost imperceptible, he would touch each of the two rosaries that hung from the rearview mirror and cross himself” (42). The sentence is long, frequently interrupted by com- mas but never separated entirely, running every observation, every fragment of information together. “El Salvador,” she writes, “is one of those places in the world where there is just one subject, the situation, the problema, its vari- ous facets presented over and over again, as on a stereopticon” (55). Every fact and implication is connected, in her syntax as in El Salvador, where nothing stands apart from the whole.
Having returned safely to the capital, Didion writes that “nothing came of the day but overheard rumors, indefinite observations, fragments of infor- mation that might or might not fit into a pattern we did not perceive” (45). Searching for answers in a country where all information is subjective, Didion’s quiet frustration and dull state of panic saturate her text with a trag- ic irony that deftly conveys the Problem of El Salvador.
Didion struggles with the weight of her journalistic responsibility, hesi- tant, even reluctant to retell horrors that she would rather have never wit- nessed in the first place. She recalls: “As I waited to cross back over the Boulevard de Los Heroes to the Camino Real I noticed soldiers herding a young civilian into a van, their guns at the boy’s back, and I walked straight ahead, not wanting to see anything at all” (36). Her honesty is apologetic, uncomfortable, and torturously human.
Salvador is marked by repetition, sometimes grinding and insistent, sometimes subtle and almost imperceptible. One term that Didion returns to is “ineffable,” which, like so many words claimed by politics in that small, embattled nation, takes on a specific connotation, defining the entirety of the Salvadoran Situation. Considering the continuous renaming of operations and institutions, she writes that “this renaming was referred to as ‘reorgani- zation,’ which is one of the many words in El Salvador that tend to signal the presence of the ineffable” (64). The ineffable: that which is too great, over- whelming, or complex to express in words, that which is unspeakable, or that which is not to be uttered. In El Salvador, the unspeakable is often also for- bidden. Language itself has lost definitiveness, and Didion is weary from struggling to retell something for which the words have been vanished and replaced.
The weight of Didion’s text, however, is not a burden, a hindrance to her efficacy, but the vehicle for it. In her textual atmosphere, as in the nation itself, all is frustrated, exhausted, and uncertain. She sifts listlessly through the terminology of the embassy, newspapers, and military reports like an orbiting moon, persistently circling but unable to make contact, unable to uncover meaning in the empty labeling and relabeling of what was once fact. These are words that would likely otherwise escape our attention; they are positive and vague and thus marketable, words like “improvement,” “perfection,” “negotiation,” and “pacification” (64). Didion directs us to these signposts of the ineffable, embracing the politicized vocabulary with a super-conscious irony. The text ends with the report that “the State Department announced that the Reagan administration believed that it had ‘turned the corner’ in its campaign for political stability in Central America” (108). Didion illuminates the fallacies to which we have grown increasingly and unconsciously accus- tomed; she points us to this language and reveals a want.
Didion is not alone in her efforts to liberate some semblance of meaning from the human snare of syntax. Professor James W. Tuttleton’s essay “Jacques et moi” pits the “vexed ruminations” of a scholar of realism against the onslaught of Deconstructionism (313). Throughout what becomes an impassioned defense of meaning, Tuttleton allows the voice of French scholar Jacques Derrida, father of Deconstructionism and a recent addition to the faculty at the institution where Tuttleton teaches, to interrupt his musings from down the hall like the fleeting interjections of nihilism in the infinite dialogue of history.
Language’s purpose is to communicate truth, Tuttleton insists. “For the realists,” he writes, “it was precisely art’s capacity to represent reality, in more or less comprehensive detail, that made the novel a moral and social agent in the contingencies of real life,” and that “art’s very capacity to be truthful (with or without overt preaching) meant that it had, implicitly, the power to effect a social transformation and to promote useful private moral growth” (314). But for literature to effect change, the language employed must be chosen with thoughtful intent and interpreted accordingly.
Tuttleton believes “there is such a thing as truth and that language can (though not perfectly) represent it” (317). The threat that Derrida’s ideas pose to literature and interpretation in general, according to Tuttleton, is that Deconstructionism allows the reader to relinquish cognitive responsibility; he needn’t search for meaning. The act of interpretation and criticism becomes arbitrary. The result: chaos.
Tuttleton writes disparagingly of “the claim that the literary work is a self-contained heterocosm, an arrangement of language self-sufficient unto itself, constituted by its internal elements of structure, tension, imagery, irony, paradox, symbolism, and the like,” a claim well represented in Argentinean author Julio Cortázar’s work until the mid 1960s (315). Cortázar’s short story “Nightmares” was published in 1983, a year before his death, in a collection entitled Unreasonable Hours. Pesadilla, Spanish for “nightmare,” is a bitter bal- ancing act between the unspeakable and what Cortázar feels must be told, an embrace of what Tuttleton calls the “ancient doctrine of the utilitarianism of art” (314). The racing narration, almost exclusively dialogue, unravels from within a house in an unspecified nation in contemporary Latin America: a young woman, Mecha, has fallen into a coma and begins to show outward signs of internal disturbances that culminate in her awakening—at the same time that her family’s home is invaded.
Wailing sirens and distracting machine guns frequently puncture the agi- tated silence of the household. These interruptions, considered commonplace by the characters, coincide with Mecha’s unconscious twitching and unease. Her family members are equally paralyzed by their daughter’s immobility; they can do nothing but “wait, everyone said so, you have to wait because in cases like this you never know” (Cortázar 215). Mecha’s body is suspended in time and space within a house likewise frozen, and while an unnamed vio- lence seems to threaten from the outside world, the turmoil within Mecha seeks an outlet. Her tormented motions have a sinister, foreboding quality, revealing themselves too late as premonitions of the destruction that will soon be wrought upon her family.
“Nightmares” is something of a fantastic short story, full of code and syn- tactical gymnastics. Dialogue drifts in and out of the narrative stream only occasionally marked by quotation marks or speakers, sentences run on for a full page. Cortázar creates an ambience of grave unease, a climate of tension and increasing urgency that accelerates as all syntactical elements rush together in chaos to culminate in a bitter irony: “the lurch of the pack of bod- ies bursting in, everything as if timed for Mecha’s awakening, everything on schedule for the nightmare to end and for Mecha to return to reality at last, to the beauty of life” (138).
Cortázar creates a taut political climate for this story, despite the absence of political reference. Lauro, Mecha’s brother, is a young student engaged in frequent but ambiguous activity that keeps him coming and going from the house at all hours, making phone calls from public telephones and attending meetings at the university. His actions and intentions are never explained, nor are the recurrent hostile eruptions outside. But Lauro doesn’t come home one evening after the television announces that yet “another terrorist attack [has been] fortunately prevented thanks to quick police action, nothing new,” and the police shut down the neighborhood. The subsequent raid that coin- cides with his sister’s revival seems almost inevitable, a point toward which the events, the characters, and the narration itself have been surging (136).
Much of Cortázar’s later career was hindered by incessant criticism of the inclusion of politics in his writing, and Unreasonable Hours represents the cul- mination and conclusion of his effort to engage politically and artistically. Cortázar’s early work is pure code; it offers seemingly inexhaustible literary games that often grow wearisome within the framework of the fantastic. But the urgency of his politics adds a new depth and fecundity to his later work. “If literature were merely a language game, as Deconstructionism suggests, we would tire of it very quickly,” writes Tuttleton (333). Rather than consid- ering his linguistic manipulation the story’s purpose, difficulty for the sake of difficulty, in “Nightmares” Cortázar allows it to serve as the vehicle for a mes- sage. His earnest appeal renders this story more memorable than his earlier ones. Cortázar isn’t just showing off anymore. He truly, passionately feels for his characters, and his appeal to the reader is the sounding of an alarm.
The integration of art and politics is a delicate and volatile task. Cortázar’s work initially suffered from his politicization. Some of his early endeavors were blunt and clumsy, and neither the international literary com- munity nor the public wanted to hear this artist of syntax incorporating con- temporary political jargon. This language is tired and, as Didion shows us, useless in the pursuit of true understanding. In “Nightmares,” Cortázar found his solution. The story triumphs because, despite its subject matter, Cortázar avoids the terms “guerilla,” “contra,” “death squad,” and “imperialism” and lets them float above the story as a context to be inferred. Cortázar frees his readers from the weighted terminology that dehumanizes struggle and reduces it to “conflict.” The term “terrorists” surfaces only once, through the polluted medium of television, confused, imprecise and meaningless against the honesty of Cortázar’s tense quotidian. He rejects the heavy, political lan- guage that dominated all discussion of violence in Latin America (as it does today) and allows the brutal reality to speak for itself.
English author E. M. Forster certainly had a social conscience, but an ini- tial reading of his 1910 novel Howards End might give the impression that he is inclined to expose and then retreat, reluctant to engage fully with the entirety of the English class-system yet unable to overlook it. Virginia Woolf, in her 1927 essay “The Novels of E. M. Forster,” finds fault with his attempt to engage at all. Forster “believes that a novel must take sides in the human conflict,” she writes with exasperation, but he does so at the expense of artistry (165). Woolf divides the domain of literature into the realms of the “pure artist” and “the preachers and the teachers,” and like Cortázar’s critics, she disparages what she sees as Forster’s inability to integrate the two (166). A closer examination of Forster’s novel, however, reveals the careful construc- tion of his social critique, a delicately crafted text that reflects the conscious- ness of his characters, allowing brief but profound glimpses into the darkness.
Howards End traces several years in the lives of the Schlegel sisters, Helen and Margaret, two cultured and comfortable Londoners. Forster examines the Schlegels against the Wilcoxes, another prosperous English family of a more vigorous sort—conservative, charismatic, practical, and indifferent. With a keen eye for irony and hypocrisy, Forster pits these two families against poor Leonard Bast.
Deep, brooding, existential conflict is illuminated in Howards End in the form of goblins, rascally demons that crop up where they oughtn’t with cries of “panic and emptiness” (40). Helen discovers their troubling presence in the midst of the thundering, heroic magnificence of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony; she is only temporarily consoled when, “as if things were going too far, Beethoven took hold of the goblins and made them do what he want- ed . . . he blew with his mouth and they were scattered!” (40). The crisis is momentarily averted. “Beethoven chose to make it all right in the end,” writes Forster. “He built the ramparts up. He blew with his mouth for the second time, and again the goblins were scattered. . . . But the goblins were there. They would return” (41). And return they do, invading the fragile temple of English grandeur with the introduction of the unfortunate Basts.
The Basts, Leonard and Jacky, stand on the brink of poverty while main- taining some semblance of gentility. Helen uses the unsuspecting couple to exercise her theories of social justice, and here the goblins raise their eager heads. She converts Leonard and Jacky into an archetypal problem that she is determined to solve, and her inept fumblings for justice result in only humil- iation, scandal and, ultimately, the violent death of Leonard himself. Of Leonard:
He was not in the abyss, but he could see it, and at times people whom he knew had dropped in, and counted no more . . . had he lived some cen- turies ago, in the brightly coloured civilizations of the past, he would have had a definite status, his rank and his income would have corresponded. But in his day the angel of Democracy had arisen, enshadowing the classes with leathern wings, and proclaiming: “All men are equal—all men, that is to say, who possess umbrellas,” and so he was obliged to assert gentility, lest he slipped into the abyss where nothing counts, and the statements of Democracy are inaudible. (54)
Forster illuminates this grey no-man’s-land between wealth and destitution only briefly. The rest of the novel is devoted to the flitting and fighting of the gentlefolk, in their many gentle homes, gently cushioned always by their gen- erous incomes. But the abyss that threatens Leonard Bast and the many face- less like him gapes silently beneath, exposed on occasion to the discomfort of a system that Forster would award only two cheers.
Forster, bravely assuming the powers of Beethoven, chooses also to end with the goblins banished. The Schlegels have their house, the Wilcoxes have seen the light of reform, and the Basts are gone forever. The novel ends with an exhilarating declaration: “‘The field’s cut!’ Helen cried excitedly—‘the big meadow! We’ve seen to the very end, and it’ll be such a crop of hay as never!’” (393). But though Helen is thrilled, the earth fertile, and the future bright, Leonard Bast is still dead. The goblins are there, be they mere “goblin foot- falls, as a hint that all is not for the best in the best of all possible worlds, that beneath these superstructures of wealth and art there wanders an ill-fed boy” (53). Even if Helen can forget, Forster will not—he recognizes an obligation to the ill-fed, the obscured victims of democracy. “Democracy” and “equali- ty,” words so prized and prided, ring false in the face of this failure. They stand, rather, like Didion’s signposts of the ineffable, a placid surface beneath which lurks a brooding band of goblins.
Pondering what she calls these “degenerated phrases,” Didion pauses over the simple term la verdad, Spanish for “the truth,” but of course nothing in El Salvador is so simple (66). La verdad was also the term adopted by the rightist Salvadoran government to denote their truth, their interpretation of reality. International journalists like Didion, they insisted, had a responsibili- ty to report la verdad. She writes that “language as it is now used in El Salvador is the language of advertising, of persuasion, the product being one or another of the soluciones crafted in Washington or Panama or Mexico, which is part of the place’s pervasive obscenity” (65).
Didion also draws our attention to the Spanish word desaparecer. An intransitive and transitive verb in Spanish, the word allows someone to both disappear and be disappeared by someone. Of course, to disappear in the Latin American context is to be killed. A cruel tradition has irrevocably asso- ciated this word with human life, yet when freed from this rhetoric of repres- sion, it allows for broader interpretations. The artist, too, has the power to disappear things. Didion’s fascination with language is unsurprising, for words constitute the essence of her craft. Her horror is all the more intimate; the perversion of language is a truly despicable crime in the eyes of a writer. Language gives us the dangerous power to craft our own truths, or at least to bury them. We can omit and present what we like, shaping the reality per- ceived by our audience.
The power of fiction to “disclose truth,” as Tuttleton puts it, depends on the capacity of language to express it (331). The Deconstructionist attack against language, according to Tuttleton, is an interpretive free-for-all, by which neither consensus nor authority determines meaning. The mutation of language by politics is strategic, not arbitrary, yet it poses another dire threat to expression. Of course, all writers must claim their own words as well. Didion endows the ineffable with a unique and sinister specificity; Forster transforms goblins into dancing symbols of darkness; Cortázar consistently manipulates syntax to toy with his readers’ expectations, but it’s all in the name of truth, in the name of expressing a reality that deserves, even demands, expression. The writer’s sense of social obligation depends on a belief that there is truth, and that this truth can be adequately conveyed.
This capacity for truth telling is being undermined, but there is yet no certain method of response. Cortázar’s method in “Nightmares,” the utter rejection of politically weighted terms, is an effective tool but by no means a solution to the problem of misrepresentation and deception in political lan- guage. Cortázar recognized that it is essential to see beyond the shiny and shallow packages of political terminology. The removal of a complex and con- voluted political vocabulary serves to rehumanize the violence that was dev- astating Latin America at the time; to fill the void, behind those empty labels that Didion found so abundant in the region, with truth.
Our ability to effect change only goes as far as our ability to express it. Didion, Cortázar, Tuttleton, and Forster recognized, from their respective continents and decades, that the writer shoulders a heavy burden. Today, pol- icy has created a vocabulary of repression and censure, and the politicization of language has redefined words like terrorist, socialist, interrogation and even democracy. Didion’s “ineffable” is increasingly present in each of these terms—in the so-called Patriot Act, in the “reorganization” of the School of the Americas from SOA to WHINSEC, the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. These “statements of Democracy” are indeed inaudible to those they most affect, and are tending toward the unintelligible. The writer, whose task it is to craft language to convey meaning, has a responsibility to articulate the truth that is being obscured. Art demands nothing less.
This piece was originally published in: Mercer Street 2009-2010: A collection of essays from the expository writing program. Hoy, P. C.; McKenzie, A.; Forrest, D. A.; Margini, M.; and Trevett, K., editors. (2010) New York: New York University. Pages 239-246.
Cortázar, Julio. “Nightmares.” Unreasonable Hours. Trans. Alberto Manguel. Toronto: Coach House, 1995. Print.
Didion, Joan. Salvador. London: Granta, 1983. Print.
Forster, E. M. Howards End. New York: Quality, 1911. Print. Tuttleton, James W. “Jacques et moi.” Vital Signs: Essays on American
Literature and Criticism. Chicago: Dee, 1996. 312-33. Print.
Woolf, Virginia. “The Novels of E.M. Forster.” The Atlantic Monthly. Nov.
1927: 642-48. Print.