Thursday, August 18

“To understand violence, you also have to listen to the executioner”


The essayist Enrique Díaz Álvarez in an interview for EL PAÍS, in Mexico City, on October 20, 2021.
The essayist Enrique Díaz Álvarez in an interview for EL PAÍS, in Mexico City, on October 20, 2021.Nayeli Cruz

A strange love of war. The glory of combat. The pleasure of attacking and destroying. The underground levers of violence are thoroughly analyzed in the latest Anagrama essay award, The word that appears, scored by Enrique Díaz Álvarez when we have the information. The conclusion, following the thread that runs from Hobbes to Freud, is that war seduces us, war takes us away. And what better remedy to calm a passion – following Spinoza this time – than to nurture a stronger one. Before the epic of the hero, the shock and the duel of the witness.

On the one hand, the addiction of the soldiers of the Second World War to the extreme experience of staying alive amid a cloak of corpses, the delusions of Hernán Cortés about how he subdues tens of thousands of savage warriors, or the Mexican teenager who, upon becoming in hitman he feels respect and, above all, power for the first time. On the other, the compassion of a Soviet woman who stops a fight between two dying soldiers to heal them, the Japanese doctor overwhelmed by the absolute silence of his patients after the Hiroshima bomb or the nightmares of the Auschwitz survivors.

Professor of political philosophy at the Autonomous University of Mexico, Díaz (Mexico City, 1976) reviews the authors who have warned of the trap of the official story of the hero, condemned to be an executioner and a victim at the same time. From Simone Weil to Primo Levi or Foucault, a story is being built against the grain where the voice of the victims and witnesses weighs as a more effective tool than any pacifist allegation.

Question. Is there a way out of that anthropological pessimism that speaks of the love of war?

Answer. The position of Freud or Hillman that understands that love for war of human beings as something inevitable, almost as a biological excuse, worries me because it is a way of normalizing and justifying violence as something inherent or natural. I am more interested, for example, in what Virginia Woolf suggests, that to try to prevent war one must appeal, for example, to visual testimonies, photographs of the Spanish civil war, those images of the massacred, vulnerable civilian population , wound. Artistic or narrative practice helps us resist those discourses of inevitability or the asepsis of round numbers.

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P. In this sense, the book makes a somewhat paradoxical reading of the Iliad of Homer.

R. Many times it is forgotten that it ends with a funeral. Priam goes to find Achilles to show his son, Hector’s corpse. That teaching makes me very powerful. I stop a lot in mourning because in a context of violence like that of Mexico, it is crucial to rescue the right to public mourning, the importance of recovering a body from the Iliad. We tend to think that grief is the most intimate, most private thing. But in the end, as Judith Butler says, when we miss someone, we realize our dependence on others, the fact of being interconnected. And in Mexico I believe that the duel has been mobilized politically. Let’s think of Ayotzinapa or the poet Javier Sicilia after the disappearance of his son. Society was literally moved by the pain of that father who was that of so many others.

In September 2014, the news of the disappearance of the 43 students from the Ayotzinapa rural school coincided with the start of classes at the university. Already shocked by the first blow of the event that has affected Mexico most emotionally in recent years, Díaz decided to change the course of his first-year classes in political philosophy on the fly. Instead of studying the canonical texts of Plato’s Republic, he had his students read aloud the passages about the mourning in the tragedy. Antigone Sophocles and the Iliad from Homer “to understand that every life counts, that every body matters and that the right to mourning must be demanded.”

P. What more lessons does Homer have for Mexico?

R. Felipe Calderón’s war against drug trafficking, with its monstrous numbers of dead and missing, was shielded by a very binary, reductionist, heroic story of good guys and bad guys, heroes and villains. I am precisely interested in deconstructing this type of story. The Iliad It is a very violent epic, heroic song, but at the same time it has this lesson in impartiality and ambivalence. Homer’s great gesture is that he narrates that war from the perspective of the victors and the vanquished, of both sides, and thus we understand that every political community is ultimately a community of memories. And that no one has the right to murder twice by denying the voice of one of the parties. That is why I am interested in rescuing the history of the defeated, the defeated, the disappeared.

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P. Why is it so difficult to get out of the epic frame?

R. Because the first spoils of war is always being able to narrate it. Cortés is very clear about it. The narration of his letters to the King was an important part of his strategy to legitimize himself. And from there it was this epic-heroic framework: this almost supernatural male leadership that with courage and a handful of people conquered an entire civilization. Lately this has all been deconstructed. We are already clear that this epic story does not hold, that they would never have been able to achieve the fall and the siege of Tenochtitlán if they had not had the alliances of many native peoples.

P. The book also includes the contribution of feminism to the change of story.

R. Yes, for example I stop at Virginia Woolf when she talks about “fighting has been a habit of men, not women”. But also in Svetlana Alexievich, in War does not have the face of a woman. Gathering the testimony of female soldiers reveals another war. There are even moments when the border between us and them is blurred. For example, they heal or serve both sides. This converges again with Woolf when he connects that quest for war with the education of the great elite male colleges based on fierce competition. This idea of ​​the survivor as the fittest or the strongest, which is also in Canetti. I contrast him with the figure of the witness as a survivor who has gone through an extraordinary event and is in a position to relate what happened. Because testimony is the last resort left for those who have nothing. They only have the word. And here again feminist practice has worked a lot. The personal is political. The power of giving testimony about abuse, about harassment, about situations of inequality. It appeals to us because the testimony is always given to someone else. So, it makes us jointly responsible for the damage, the loss, the abuse.

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P. Your witness is not a third party, it is part of the conflict. Therefore, it can also be the executioner, the victimizer.

R. Yes, my witness is the one who experienced something tremendous, traumatic and is in a position to give an account. In Mexico, since 2006, many journalists, writers or artists have turned to the testimony of the victims and relatives of the violence. But it has reached a point where we still don’t fully understand it. And lately, attention is also being paid to the voice of the perpetrators, of the perpetrators. And it is curious because when they are interviewed many of them excuse themselves that they were obeying orders or seeing themselves as victims. There is an ethical and political challenge in being able to distinguish a false testimony or openly an impostor like Enric Marco, who posed as a survivor of the Nazi camps. We live in a time where it even seems that there is a desire to be a victim or to pass for a victim.

P. The politics of testimony has its dangers.

R. Yeah there’s all this effect Joker. That behind the monster there is always a victim. In a context like Mexico, with extreme impunity, with the structural violence that we have, one can fall into the temptation to justify acts or actions that cannot be justified. Like the femicides in Juárez. This is one of those challenges posed precisely by the testimony. But the time has come to enter what Primo Levi called the “gray area.” You have to explore the line or the thread that goes from the victim to the executioner. That is why I am so interested in those exercises where journalists or writers try to approach or put themselves in the place of the perpetrator, without this entailing empathizing with them, with the criminals. But to understand violence, you also have to listen to the perpetrator.

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