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  • Aporias of MarranismoSabina Berman’s En el Nombre de Dios and Jom Tob Azulay’s O Judeu
  • Erin Graff Zivin (bio)

Leer al marrano, en parte, significa leer la incompletitud del hombre en la modernidad

[to read the marrano, in part, means to read the incompleteness of man within modernity]

(Forster 155)

[the] secret keeps the Marrano even before the Marrano keeps it

(Derrida 1993a, 81)

Just months before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon set off a series of reactionary foreign policy decisions—including the establishment of black sites in undisclosed foreign locations and prisons in Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, resurrecting the practice of violent interrogation as a primary means by which military and private contractors attempted [End Page 187] to extract the “truth” through torture—Peggy Kamuf edited and translated a collection of essays by Jacques Derrida on the topics of lying and truth-telling, alibis and confessions. Without Alibi, the introduction to which Kamuf completed in June 2001, includes lectures delivered in the United States during the 1990s that anticipate the urgent questions of the post-9/11 era: the relationship between machine and event, truth and fiction, and the history of confession. In one of the volume’s most provocative essays, “History of the Lie: Prolegomena,” Derrida develops a critical genealogy of lying—as well as a genealogy of thinking about lying—by linking it structurally to the concepts of marranismo and secrecy, underscoring the spectral (marrano) untruth that haunts every truth.

Of course, debates on torture and confession, testimony and truth, had already permeated Latin Americanist circles for several decades, as intellectuals, journalists, and human rights activists responded to the brutality of the Southern Cone dictatorships, when state-sanctioned violent interrogation was used by the military and secret service to consolidate power and eliminate political resistance during the 1970s and 1980s. Yet while torture has been repudiated throughout the Americas, it continues to be used not only by military dictatorships but also by ostensibly democratic governments. This is because, as I suggested in a recent essay, even in the fiercest condemnations, the link between torture and truth—the classical idea that torture extracts the truth from the body of the other1—is rarely called into question. Idelber Avelar has argued that, until recently, social-scientific discourse has dominated conversations about torture, the proliferation of which is no longer doubted. What do literature and philosophy have to say about torture, asks Avelar, now that we no longer wonder whether or not torture happens (2001, 254)?

The present essay draws upon a strange phenomenon of Inquisition narratives that surfaced during or in the wake of totalitarian regimes in Latin America, Spain, and Portugal during the second half of the twentieth century, works that returned to the historical moment of the Inquisition to address contemporary preoccupations with political repression and violent interrogation. In particular, I focus on two works of art from the 1990s that thematize the persecution of the marrano under the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions: Mexican playwright Sabina Berman’s En el nombre de Dios (1991) and [End Page 188] Brazilian filmmaker Jom Tob Azulay’s O Judeu (1996). Taking as its point of departure Derrida’s reflections on marranismo and secrecy, this essay unpacks the aporetic nature of the marrano subject—what Ricardo Forster calls the alter ego of the modern subject—in order to argue that it is the universal marrano subject that continues to inspire torture well beyond the historical confines of the Inquisition. By performing close readings of aesthetic representations of marranismo and crypto-Jewishness, by exposing what Patrick Dove calls the “enigmatic singularity of the text... what is both in and more than the text’s intentional, metaphorical signifying economy” (2004, 22), I aim to destabilize ideas of subjectivity and truth that have served as the basis for torture from Greek antiquity to the present.

I. True Lies

Let us say that there is a secret here. Let us testify:

There is something secret.

[Il y a là du secret.]

(Derrida 1995, 23–24)

Initially delivered as a lecture at the New School of Social Research in 1994, Derrida’s “History of the Lie...


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