Staging the Civil War

October 26, 2017 § Leave a comment

‘Everyone is a literalist when it comes to photographs,’ Susan Sontag wrote in Regarding the Pain of Others.  She has a point, sort of.  We expect photographs to represent reality back to us.  But they don’t, of course, or they don’t necessarily.  For example, she discusses an exhibit of photographs of September 11, 2001, that opened in Manhattan in late September of that year, Here is New York.  The exhibit was a wall of photographs showing the atrocity of that day.  The organizers received thousands of submissions, and at least one photo from each was included.  Visitors could chose and purchase a laser printed version of a photo, but only then did they learn whether it was a photo from a professional or an amateur hanging out their window as the atrocity occurred.  Sontag talks about the fact that none of these photos required captions, the visitors will have known exactly what they depicted.  But she also notes that one day, the photos will require captions.  Because the cultural knowledge of that morning will disappear.  9/11 is already a historical event for today’s young adults.

So we return to the veracity of photos, our expectation of a documentary image of the past.  For me, the first time I was seriously arrested by a photograph was in my Grade 12 history textbook, in the section on the Second World War.  There was a photograph of an American soldier lying dead on a beach somewhere in the Pacific.  I don’t remember where or which battle.  I don’t remember the image all that well, actually, I don’t think the viewer could see the soldier’s face.  I remember just a crumpled body, in black and white.  And for the first time, I understood the devastating power of war and the fragility of the human body.

Later, in grad school, I read Ian McKay’s The Quest of the Folk, about how Nova Scotia’s Scottish history was carefully constructed and curated by folklorists at the turn of the 20th century. At the start of the book is a photograph of a family next to their cottage on a hard scrabble stretch of land on the Cape Breton coast.  McKay plays around with captions of the photo, both the official one in the Nova Scotia archives in Halifax, and alternative ones.  I realized that photographs are not really necessarily a true and authentic vision of the past.

And so, in reading Sontag’s words I opened this essay with, I thought of the fact that we do like to think of ourselves as literalists when it comes to photography, we expect a ‘picture to say a thousand words,’ and so on.  Just prior to this comment, Sontag discussed Francisco Goya’s Disasters of War, a series of plates that weren’t published until several decades after Goya’s death.  The disasters were the Napoléonic invasion of the Iberian Peninsula in 1808.  These plates are vicious.  And Goya narrates each, claiming each one is worse than the other, and so on.  He also claims that this is the truth, he saw it.  Of course, they aren’t the documentary truth, they instead represent the kinds of events that happened.  That does not, however, lessen their power and brutality. But they are also not photographs.

This led me to Alexander Gardner, the pre-eminint photographer of the US Civil War.  In fact, war photography in general owes a huge debt to Gardner.  Gardner worked for the more famous Mathew B. Brady, but it was Gardner who took the majority of the more famous photographer’s photos.  Gardner shot some of the most iconic images of the Civil War, including the dead at Gettysburg.  His most famous is this one:

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Photo taken from the Library of Congress’s website

This photograph is staged.  Gardner and his assistants dragged the body of this dead Confederate soldier from where he fell to this more photogenic locale.  They also staged his body.  And yet, given our insistence on literalism in photography, the viewing public took this photo for what it’s worth and accepted it as a literal representation of the Battle of Gettysburg.

It was over 100 years later, in 1975, when a historian, Willian Frassantino, realized that all was not as it seems.  Of course, what Gardner, et al. did in staging the photos of the Civil War seems abhorrent to us, unethical, even.  But it was not so in the mid-19th century at the literal birth of this new medium of representation.

Nonetheless, what is the lesson from Gardner’s photograph?  Do we dismiss it for its staginess?  Do we thus conclude that the photos of the Civil War are fake?  Of course not. Gardner’s photos, like Goya’s Disasters of War, are representations of what happened.  They are signifiers that things like this happened (I am paraphrasing Sontag here).  It does not make these representations any less valuable.  Young men did die by the thousands in the Civil War.  They died at places like Gettysburg, and they died like the staged body of this unfortunate soul.  The horrors of war remain intact in our minds.  We have a representation of what happened, and this one in particular (like Goya’s Disasters) has been replicated countless times since 1863, we have seen countless other images like this, including for me, the one in my Grade 12 history textbook when I was all of 17 years of age.  The image is still real.

The Spanish Civil War: On Memory and Forgetting

March 10, 2014 § Leave a comment

photoI have just finished reading Jeremy Treglown’s fantastic Franco’s Crypt: Spanish Culture and Memory since 1936.  Treglown is a literary critic, so he approaches history and memory in a manner rather different than a historian, nonetheless, there is definite overlap in methodologies.  I must say, I was originally concerned when I picked up the book and read this on the dust jacket: “True or False: Memory is not the same thing as History.”  Um, yeah, true. No kidding.  But, the whims of publishers are rather different than the arguments of authors.

Treglown does a fantastic job of dealing with the complexities of the Spanish Civil War of 1936-9 and then the long Francoist dictatorship from 1939 until the Generalisimo’s death in 1975 and the transition to democracy that followed.  Treglown works very hard against the myth that Republicans = Good and Nationalists = bad during the Civil War.  He also works hard against the myth that Franco’s régime was purely repressive and oppressive vis-à-vis art and artists, noting that a great amount of art (film, literature, music, visual art, sculpture) emerged in Francoist Spain.  This is not to say that Treglown paints a rosy picture of Francoist Spain.  He doesn’t.  He doesn’t glorify Franco, but he seeks to complicate the dictator and the community of artists in Spain during and since the Civil War.  He also deals with the complexity of characters like Camilo José Cela.

Cela was a nationalist soldier during the Civil War, and later worked as the censor for the Francoist state.  And yet, he was also himself a novelist, and remarkably blunt and sensitive in his work. He began a literary journal in 1956 “as a way of countering cultural officialdom and giving space to the ideas of Spanish writers living abroad.” A noble sentiment, given that most of those expat Spanish writers were expatriates due to the Civil War and Franco’s dictatorship.

Treglown points to Cela’s most famous work, San Camilo, 1936.  While San Camilo, 1936, has been criticised for a lack of morality, both due to the amount of time the characters spend in brothels and Cela’s avoidance of the larger issues of the war, it is in the details that the novel works.  Cela shows the moral and actual ambiguity of war, in Treglown’s words:

Above all, San Camilo, 1936 grieves for Spain, gazing at a graveyard full of flowers of all colors, ignoring the shouts of “¡Viva la república!” and “¡Viva España!” because “it is no use being too enthusiastic when melancholy nests in the heart.

But what mostly interests me about Treglown’s discussion about San Camilo, 1936 is the intersection between memory and forgetting.  As Cela writes, “No one knows whether it is better to remember or to forget.  Memory is sad and forgetting on the other hand usually repairs and heals.” Nevertheless, as Treglown notes, San Camilo, 1936, is essentially a “puzzled, angry act of commemoration.”  In other words, Cela and his characters remain ambivalent with what is to be done with trauma, history and memory.

I find Cela’ claims about the virtues of forgetting to be interesting.  We live in an era that seems to believe the opposite in many ways.  In our times, cultural historical memories have been exhumed and examined in public.  Sometimes this takes the form of commemoration, (such as in Cork, Ireland, in the summer of 1997, marking the 150th anniversary of the Famine) or commissions of Truth and Reconciliation (such as in South Africa after Apartheid).  Treglown himself recounts attempts by the caretakers of Franco’s memory to maintain his dignity, three decades later at the Valle de los Caidos (Valley of the Fallen), a huge monument outside of Madrid to honour the Nationalist fallen of the Civil War.  Meanwhile, since the end of the dictatorship in 1975, the Spanish have attempted to exhume the bodies of massacred Republican soldiers and sympathisers.  Indeed, the balance of power has tipped in favour of the Republicans, to the point where the atrocities committed by them during the Civil War have been whitewashed, just as the Francoists whitewashed the Nationalist atrocities.

Cela’s words, however, led me to think about Marc Bloch’s blistering Strange Defeat: A Statement of Evidence Written in 1940, about the quick Fall of France at the start of the Second World War.  Bloch, a captain in the French Army and the country’s most famous historian, wrote this on the run from the Nazis (who eventually killed him).  Strange Defeat is a searing book, almost painful to read, written by a fierce French patriot stunned and shocked his nation collapsed in defeat at the hands of the Nazis.  Bloch blames France’s political and military leaders for failing to have prepared for modern warfare.  And while Bloch remains an annaliste (the school of historical scholarship Bloch pioneered) in writing Strange Defeat, the immediacy of the events he’s describing and his anger and fury are clear.

Bloch was too close to the events, and too involved, to provide a long-view analysis of the Fall of France (nor, for that matter, did he wish to).  The same can be said of Cela, a Nobel laureate.  San Camilo, 1936 was published in 1969, thirty years after the end of the Civil War, while Franco was still alive and in power.  Cela, like Bloch, was involved in the events his novel attempts (or doesn’t attempt) to deal with, and his view on the past, memory, and forgetting is perhaps not surprising.

My grandfather, Rodney Browne, was 17 when he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1943. He was a tail gunner, which meant his chances of survival were pretty slim. And yet he did survive, and he came home to Montréal in 1945 with the conclusion of the war.  But he was traumatised, deeply.  He suffered silently, primarily by drinking.  And he was restless, unable to settle into a job or family life, until his late 40s/early 50s, nearly thirty years after the war.  By the time I was born, Rod was settled, married again, and he was a good grandfather.  It is from him that I gained an historical consciousness about the Irish in Montréal.  He didn’t talk about his past much, and he never talked about the war.  I later found out that this was pretty common for men of his generation who served in the Second World War.  He didn’t want to remember, which is why he drank when he got home, trying to obliterate those memories.

So maybe, it is the generation who lives through the worst of the trauma that wishes to forget, to never have to think of the atrocities they saw or committed.  It is their descendants who feel the need to excavate these memories.  Either way, these are not complete thoughts on memory, commemorations, and forgetting.  Memory and forgetting remain incredibly powerful tools in historical scholarship.

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