For all of the learning we do, the gaps in our knowledge are – unbelievably – overwhelmingly vast. We are the most educated generation in history, but there is so much that we don’t know, and so much that we will never know. We like to overlook our ignorance, but that can be a very dangerous thing to do.
My degree subject is IR, but I also study Management and Comparative Literature. This semester in Comp Lit, we’re studying political plays from the 20th century. Each week, we study a play from a different culture. There are a couple of big names — Arthur Miller and Bertolt Brecht, notably — but many of the plays are rather obscure.
In week four, we read Antígona furiosa, Argentinian playwright Griselda Gambaro’s short adaptation of Sophocles’ Antigone. The plot follows Antígona, a girl imprisoned by the empty shell of King Creon for attempting to give her brother a proper burial. Though only 22 pages, Antígona furiosa covers the themes of pride, freedom and power. It is also completely bewildering without context.
We walked into our lecture on Monday hoping that it would clear some things up – namely, why a Greek tragedy was being put on in a coffee shop, with three actors playing five characters. We walked out of that lecture with a completely different outlook on Argentina, and on our own knowledge – or lack thereof.
People – especially musical the-atre kids – may know of Juan Perón, President of Argentina from 1946-1955, and his wife Eva. Perón championed a distinctive political ideology which came to be known as Peronism, involving political sovereignty, economic independence, and social justice. Unable to cope with an unstable post-WWII economy, Perón resigned in 1955, leaving Argentina with nearly twenty years of successive military coups and authoritarian regimes.
In 1973, Perón returned to politics and won a landslide majority. Nine months later, he had a series of heart attacks and died, leaving his second wife, Isabel, in charge. Isabel was vastly under-qualified (she was an exotic dancer before marrying), and the strings were mostly being pulled by self-declared warlock José López Rega. Things started to look a little bit fascist, and the public’s love for Perón was no longer extended to his wife. In 1976, Isabel was deposed and exiled to Spain.
The new leader of Argentina was Jorge Rafael Videla, a senior commander in the coup that deposed Isabel. Videla disbanded trade unions, implemented mass censorship, and strove to promote “western Christian values” (read aggressive nationalism, xenophobia and sexism).
He also begins the “Process of National Reorganisation”: state-sanctioned kidnapping, torture and murder of suspected dissidents. People were taken from their homes in the night, never to be heard from again. Because of the secretive nature of the disappearances, the numbers are unclear, though 30,000 is a commonly suggested figure. 30,000 people became los desaparecidos – the disappeared.
The period of 1974-1983 was called The Dirty War – supposedly between the military junta and guerilla warriors supporting Peronism. It wasn’t a war, it was a genocide. Those taken were framed as “left-wing terrorists”, but were anyone who might have cause not to support the regime: students, militants, trade unionists, writers, journalists, artists.
Vanished people were taken to one of hundreds of concentration camps and tortured, predominantly by tasers. In the lecture, we were given a handout of testimonies from a few of the survivors who spoke about what had happened to them, and what they saw happen to others. (Trigger warning: torture, sexual violence.)
‘The guards began to have a BBQ and drink wine, and get drunk, and then it occurred to them to torture the prisoner and so they began to torture him once more. This time they didn’t even want any information, Mr President, they were enjoying it in a cacophony of shouts and cries…”
“They tortured every part of my body, especially my breasts, my vagina, my clitoris, my abdomen, my arms and also my eyelids. Afterwards, they began to pour kerosene and petrol in my ears, nose, and mouth.”
After being tortured, many of the prisoners were taken up in planes, stripped, drugged and thrown, alive, into the Atlantic. Naked, drowned bodies started washing up on the beaches.
The lecture theatre was silent and rigid. We were one mind: horrified, heartbroken.
Democracy, in its most basic form, returned to Argentina in 1983. The perpetrators, including Videla himself, went to trial, facing overwhelming evidence of war crimes. Under pressure from the military, a set of “amnesty laws” were put in place to ensure that they were acquitted. They were acquitted. They went free.
Videla was put under house arrest in 1998 for baby kidnapping.
It was not until 2005 that the amnesty laws were repealed and those responsible went to prison. 2005: the year Harry Pott er and the Half-Blood Prince was published, the year YouTube was created, the year of Hurricane Katrina.
The lecture theatre was silent and rigid. We were one mind: furious. Argentine naval officer Adolfo Scilingo, who has publicly confessed his participation in the Dirty War, said “[We] did worse things than the Nazis.”
We know about the Holocaust, we know about Stalin’s Russia, we know about the atrocities of Rwanda, but no one I’ve talked to knows about this.
Of course, history classes in school cannot be completely comprehensive. We cannot learn about every period of time in every part of the world. There’s far too much, and curricula developers have to cherry-pick what they think is important for the general populace to know about.
Even at university, when our education becomes more specified, there is simply too much material to cover in a few years. At St Andrews, we study three subjects at the sub-hon-ours level, which allows us to have a more generalised education than most of the UK, but at most North American universities, students take classes across a wide variety of subjects. Those in charge of shaping the education system are left with an impossible choice between breadth and depth.
The students of CO1002 walked out of that lecture theatre shell shocked at their own ignorance about humanity’s capacity for pure evil. The idea that such atrocities were committed so recently in what is now a relatively prosperous country — one we associate with tango and football — is utterly unnerving. Equally unnerving, however, was our own complete obliviousness. It was a cruel reminder of how little we really know.
Our year is the first comparative literature class at St Andrews to study Antígona furiosa, though Spanish students learn about the Dirty War through a fi lm, La historia official.
“We are most fortunate at St Andrews to have comparative literature to offer students access to texts of international acclaim from across the globe through translation, as well their accompanying contexts, such as the Dirty War in the case of Antígona furiosa, via subject specialists,” says Dr PJ Lennon, who gave the lectures on Antígona furiosa. “A Latin American student thanked me for broaching the topic in such a lucid manner and thought the use of victims’ own testimony of the atrocities apposite.”
In addition to broaching an area of history that many of us had never studied before, comparative literature teaches history in a much more human way than you would likely get in a history class. There’s no real pressure to memorise the dates or the names of the political parties – it is learning for the sake of knowledge, for the sake of context. We read the work, not of the leaders or of scholars looking back at what happened, but of a writer who lived through the Dirty War and who risked her own life to get her message out.
I’d hazard a guess that quite a few people taking first year comp lit are taking it as a second or third subject, myself included. They signed up for the class thinking that reading plays from around the world would be interesting.
It has been so much more than interesting. In the course of 50 minutes, over one hundred people were completely changed. Our eyes were opened to our own remarkable naivety. We were talking about the lecture for days afterwards, unable — unwilling — to forget. In my tutorial for that week, we talked about the theme of memory in Antígona furiosa. Antígona, facing her death, says that “memory… makes a chain.”
You can steal people, but you can’t steal memories. Every time someone tells their story, it grows stronger. Knowledge radiates outwards, passed from person to person: a burden, a gift. The students of CO1002 were added to the chain, and with this, I add you. We strengthen the memory, and with that, we may find some semblance of hope.