Speaking Truth to Power

How do destruction and violence, repression and hatred, come to be memorialized or transcended in creative acts?

On a rainy September Tuesday, in the atrium of the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., the air tingles with celebrity as movie stars, aristocrats, and Nobel Peace Prize laureates take to an understated stage for a press conference. They have come together to mark the publication of a book, Speak Truth to Power: Human Rights Defenders Who Are Changing Our World.

Speak Truth to Power, the output of Kerry Kennedy Cuomo's last two years, is the latest in a long line of artistic attempts to come to terms with wide-scale oppression and destruction. With Eddie Adams, considered the father of photojournalism, Kennedy Cuomo has documented the lives and works of fifty-one "defenders," scattered across the continents, whose actions in the face of grave personal danger have brought deliverance to thousands upon thousands of child laborers, persecuted minorities, and political prisoners.

In the pages of Speak Truth to Power, staid black-and-white photographs of people like Guatemala's Rigoberta Menchu, Louisiana's Helen Prejean, and South Africa's Desmond Tutu are arranged with thousand-word essays, excerpts from their interviews with Kennedy Cuomo. The book tells of their deepest sufferings: the years in prison and exile, the rapes, the beatings. To celebrate and commemorate the book's release, and to raise American awareness and understanding of their own and similar plights, the fifty-one defenders have journeyed to Washington for a week of discussions, presentations, and receptions. It is, in Kennedy Cuomo's words, "a forum that would allow human-rights defenders and dilemmas to be transmitted to the world."

At the center of this forum is a play, Speak Truth to Power: Voices from Beyond the Dark. At the center of this press conference is its author, Ariel Dorfman, the prolific novelist, playwright, memoirist, scholar, and Duke's Walter Hines Page Professor of literature and Latin American studies. Perhaps best known for his play Death and the Maiden, which examined the complex process of reconciliation in post-Pinochet Chile, he was commissioned by Kennedy Cuomo to write something that would celebrate and memorialize the efforts and sufferings of the defenders represented, that would transform them from campaigns mounted and atrocities endured into aesthetic moments felt.


Photo: Les Todd


Given hundreds of pages of transcripts from interviews with the defenders, Dorfman was charged with weaving the stories into a text. Born in Argentina to Jewish émigré parents, he split his youth between Chile and the United States, and finally left his homeland in 1983 under political pressure. "I feel like my whole life was preparation for this project," he says of the production. "It became my turn to try and figure out how I could write stories and find the words that explored the vast heart of human suffering and the vaster complexity and enigmas of evil." Ever since going into exile, he "had been waiting for the occasion to put my art yet one more time at the service of those who had kept me warm in the midst of my own struggles," he wrote in its program notes.

The play, set to premiere at the Kennedy Center later that night, will raise a question that has been asked by countless artists, scholars, and critics since Goya's bloody painting The Third of May: What is the place of art after atrocity?

Dorfman's play is full of meaty, pages-long accounts of specific instances of suffering, concrete images of persecution read by eight actors representing the activists as a large projected picture of a given defender lurks above them. At the premiere, the actors included John Malkovich, Sigourney Weaver, Kevin Kline, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. In addition, Dorfman invented a ninth voice, the figure of "the Man," played in the premiere by Alec Baldwin. "The Man starts out as the voice of the state, the repressive authority. He's an evangelist of evils, the voice of the defenders' adversary," Dorfman says.

Flanked on each side by four "voices," the Man blurts out threats like, "She knows. She can't say she isn't walking into this with her eyes open, that we didn't warn her. She can't say she doesn't know." As the play advances, the individual voices gather courage, and it becomes clear that physical repression won't stop these people. They don't fear death anymore, and the Man becomes transformed into their deepest fear: that no one cares about their struggles.

"The Man provides a dramatic element," Dorfman explains. "But there's also narrative element, that is, how to tell these stories in an interesting way. And there's a poetic element, in that the play is constructed from their words, but beauty is added in the arrangement of those words." In looking to find poetry in a set of journalistic interviews, he says, "I immersed myself in the voices, turned phrases over until I found a way of opening. And I settled on the verb 'I know.' 'I know what it is to wait in the dark for torture,' one line goes. And I made it a refrain, 'knowing this, knowing this.'


"The task here was particularly complex. First there was an editing dilemma. There were a huge number of lives and a need to find a balance between male and female actors, between different causes and continents and ideologies. And unlike my other work, which is fictional, here I wasn't free to invent experiences-they had all already been lived." Dorfman came to appreciate the sameness of the stories, and he used that sameness to drive home a point that philosopher Hannah Arendt made in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: Oppression and torture are uniformly banal. "There's an inherent drama in what they say, but many of their stories are quite similar. It's the pattern of the heroic gesture, and repetition of that can get boring." The greatest compliment he received, Dorfman emphasizes, "was from one of the defenders who said that it didn't matter at the end of the play who was speaking."

As much as Dorfman is satisfied with the verse he was able to craft, he delights most thoroughly in how the play, on a metaphorical level, mirrored the context in which it was produced. "I wrote this looking to conquer apathy, passivity, indifference in the broader society. And I incorporate this as a conflict into the narrative action of the play itself." Dorfman says he realizes that "in spite of all their courage, most people don't know who these defenders are, and they don't care. The play anticipates that these people are going to be relatively ignored. For example, The L.A. Times said it couldn't cover the event because Parade carried a few photos of the defenders the previous week, and it was considered excessive to show them twice. And so Kailash Setyarthi, who has freed 40,000 Indian children from slave-like working conditions, goes unknown. Would anyone say that about Hitler? Would anyone say that two photos of Hitler in one week was excessive?"

Asked just what is meant by the "truth" in Speak Truth to Power, Dorfman responds that it "is the articulation of a situation of injustice that is both hidden and obvious in the world. It is turning a private witnessing of terror into a public expression of that terror." In taking this view, he enters into a debate that has proceeded furiously, if intermittently, for the past 200 years. How do destruction and violence, repression and hatred, come to be memorialized or transcended in creative acts? And what is at stake-aesthetically, epistemologically, politically-when artists enter into this troubled terrain?

Art history professor Kristine Stiles is no stranger to the topic. As a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley, she wrote the first dissertation in the discipline's history that considered the themes of destruction and violence in art, focusing on the medium of performance art, in which she is herself an accomplished practitioner. Currently a Guggenheim Fellow, Stiles is on leave from Duke for the year to finish several books, one of them titled Remembering Invisibility: Documentary Photography of the Nuclear Age. Her scholarly work has focused on artists whose representations, like Dorfman's, have dealt with trauma.

"Where continuous peril exists," she notes, "trauma is constant. The task is to undermine its invisibility. For its concealed conditions, its silences, are the spaces in which the destructions of trauma multiply." Artists have always been predisposed to destructive subjects. "The most immediate example is Goya, the disasters of war, where he dealt with horrific images of destruction and violence in a realistic way," Stiles says. "But throughout time, art has always addressed the most problematic

experiences. If you think about it, destruction-along with sex and play-has been one of the most profound questions in art. And, it seems, the only way to convey the complexity of destruction is to put it in that artistic context-after all, even cave paintings are about the destruction of animals."

In modern times, this conversation has grown increasingly complex. "Since the Romantic period," Stiles says, "there has been a major discussion about the aesthetics of repulsion and revulsion. That's a two- or three-hundred-year-old discussion. There is a horrible kind of beauty in destruction, and traumatic experience." The period of the last hundred years has proven more complicated than ever, both because of the unprecedented violence of its history, and the unmatched vigor with which it has critiqued traditional artistic forms. "In the twentieth century," she says, "conventional forms of representation and media have changed so rapidly. Just in the visual arts, we went from collage to assembly to performance. Then you can understand that if you take the traditional themes and combine them with new media, you're going to get very radical representations of destruction and violence." So what is the aesthetic place of such brutal images and accounts? And how can suffering come to be beautiful? Stiles refers to the eighteenth-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant. "Kant talked about the beauty of the sublime. For him, it has two kinds: There is the overpowering experience, and then there is the mathematical sublime, something so sheer you can't grasp it. In other words, something that's so awesome in its terror, its size, its horror, its magnitude, that you can't understand it." Beauty qua beauty, claims Stiles, is a very recent invention. "It's only in the mid- to late nineteenth century that we get this idea of beauty as something that's pleasing. And I think it's the ultimate formalist folly." Stiles certainly doesn't object to art that is simply beautiful in this sense-"there are many things that are only that, and they're very worthy." She says, however, that this notion of pleasing beauty, deriving largely from the works of critic Clement Greenberg, may have gained currency in our violent times. Instead of acting as a place to confront suffering, art becomes a place to retreat from that suffering.

Representations of trauma and destruction are remarkably varied. Perhaps the only thing uniting them, in Stiles' opinion, is that "most of those people who have engaged in the subject of destruction come out of experiences of destruction themselves. The work and their attempt to come to terms intellectually and aesthetically with these deep problems of the world usually comes directly out of a personal experience. When you get involved in the stories of artists, when you get involved in their personal traumas, you understand that they're responding to a traumatic situation and you start to study the etiology of trauma. You learn that the only way to heal trauma is to confront it directly through some system of knowledge and some system of representation."

While this does apply to Dorfman, who went into exile because of the repressive Pinochet regime, Stiles maintains that "all the evidence we have shows that language is the least effective in dealing with trauma. Violence has a special kind of access to the unspeakable." Still, Dorfman says, "I talk about atrocity because I've spent the last thirty years devising strategies for communicating the pain, and simultaneously looking at the complexity, of what the consequences create."

One thing on which Stiles and Dorfman certainly agree is the importance of art in generating a community of interest around issues that may be too painful, or too obscure, to tackle in any non-artistic manner. They come at this, however, from slightly different angles. Dorfman's central poetic in Speak Truth to Power: Voices from Beyond the Dark is that his subjects have been through the worst and not kept quiet, that now the greatest danger facing them is not obliteration or violence-both of which descend into banality-but indifference.

Stiles speaks to the psychological necessity of witness, and the centrality of witness to the very notion of art. "One of the most constructive aspects of art is that it requires a witness. In order to create a work of art, you create it for someone else. You're always making it to be seen or experienced in some way. So when you act for the witness, that witness confirms your experience, and the confirmation of suffering is a part, in a very particular and essential way, of the healing process. If you don't find a witness you won't ever actually heal. You may still not, but a witness helps."

It is this idea of art as a place to find a witness, sympathetic or otherwise, that connects art-after-atrocity to its mighty complement -politics. In exposing and narrating, art provides the launching pad for political movements. And so it is at this juncture that artists and artistic movements confront a set of questions that has plagued them throughout the twentieth century: How does one further a social or political ideal while still remaining true to the creative self? Some schools of criticism question the existence of this division in the first place, asking if art has ever, at any time, ever been distinct from its historical moment. Others look to preserve that dichotomy, if just a little. Says Dorfman, "I tend to be suspicious of writers who put themselves entirely at the service of a cause. That generally curtails one's freedom of invention. The trick is to serve what you believe but still be cautious."

That balance can be especially hard to strike. In writing his play, Dorfman had to find a way in which he could render his subjects as extraordinary individuals without slipping into constant praise. "Suppose they're 'good,'" he says. "Merely good people are not that interesting. As a writer, you're interested in their flaws."

Then there is the issue of didactic or propagandistic intent, and the "purpose" of artistic creations that take on the themes of mass atrocity. "I would call the play informational, surely, but not didactic," says Dorfman. "There's a difference between saying, 'you should be like the defenders,' and saying, 'you should be inspired by the defenders to do one small thing.' In all of my writing, I've been examining the moments when ordinary people get involved with history in very meaningful ways." Finally, there's a question about art and context, in this case, what it means for a work about worldwide ethics to premiere in the city that holds the keys to worldwide power. While Dorfman and Stiles both say that these governmental undertones don't corrupt the "aesthetic purity" of the work, they also agree that a good artist must understand the community in which he is creating. This didn't mean that Dorfman sacrificed his artistic aims to politics, but rather that he examined the politics of his subjects as a kind of art. In the end, we are left with texts contrived to serve as bulwarks against future evils, endowed with a special enduring power to "remind" us of atrocities past.

For Dorfman, all of these concerns-about representation and atrocity, about politics and art-were bundled neatly in a single moment at the Kennedy Center that autumn night in Washington. Once Sigourney Weaver had uttered the final words on the script, the lights rose on the voices and dimmed on the Man. And then, deus ex machina, the curtain lifted to expose the activists themselves at center stage.

"This was extraordinary because seldom do we see subjects and their interpreters come together. And in this moment, when famous celebrities turned their back on the audience to applaud these obscure defenders, representation was subverted," Dorfman says. "People with faces familiar to the whole world were both representing and acknowledging people who are obscure even in their own countries.

"What really came to the fore was an alternative, secret, ignored, trampled-upon reality. It was a classic Pirandello moment, a symbol of what should be happening in a broader society and a force for change in that it actually helped these people become visible." In the relatively stable confines of history's most prosperous civilization, he says, "it's more difficult to confront indifference than violence."

Tinari '01 is the magazine's Clay Felker Fellow.


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