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  • Seeing and Saying:Towards an Ethics of Truth in José Saramago's Ensaio sobre a Lucidez
  • Erin Graff Zivin (bio)

The 1967 film The Battle of Algiers, a path-breaking documentary-style fictionalization of the Algerian struggle for independence from colonial domination, opens with the stark black-and-white images of an imprisoned National Liberation Front operative who has just been tortured. The man appears to reside on the border between life and death or, perhaps more precisely, between opposing states of consciousness or subjectivity. Once a prominent leader of the armed uprising against the French, the prisoner has been reduced to a degraded informant who, in the following scene, leads the French occupiers to the secret hiding place of FLN leader Ali la Pointe. Although the scene alludes to but does not show directly the acts of torture that have allowed his captors to extract this valuable information (the more brutal scenes come later in the film, after the story has been told from the beginning of the uprising), a crucial link is established from the outset between torture and truth. The (implied) infliction of pain in conjunction with careful interrogation yields the desired results: the acquisition of information ("the truth") that will lead to the enemies' defeat.

In her 1991 study on torture in ancient Greek culture, Page duBois argues that some of the earliest instances of torture (basanos) in Western Civilization appear intrinsically linked to the formulation of the idea of truth (a-lêtheia). By tracing the etymology of basanos, which originally referred to a touchstone to test the purity of gold, and which evolved, in Athenian culture, to signify the extraction of truth from the body of the slave using force, duBois demonstrates that our very notion of truth is inseparable from the Western practice of torture: "the logic of our philosophical tradition, of some of our inherited beliefs about truth, leads almost inevitably to conceiving of the body of the other as the site from which truth can be produced, and to using violence if necessary to extract that truth" (6).

The depiction of torture in The Battle of Algiers can be read as a political act insofar as it occupies an oppositional stance in relation to the [End Page 109] practice. The film reveals to its viewers abhorrent acts of violence, and demands that this violence be named. In a press conference scene halfway through the film, journalists use euphemisms when questioning Colonel Mathieu about the methods used to acquire information from prisoners, until a more forthright journalist dares to pronounce the unmentionable word: "I feel that being excessively careful, my colleagues keep asking roundabout questions to which you can only reply in a roundabout way... If it's torture, let's speak of torture." Yet while the film stands in critical opposition to the use of torture by the French (even as the General declares that he is an opponent of fascism and defended France against the Nazis just a decade earlier), the revelation of violence does little to dismantle the relationship between torture and truth. Hence, although The Battle of Algiers takes a (political or moral) stance against the violation of these prisoners' rights, the idea of torture itself remains intact because it is still believed to extract the truth: the infliction of violence elicits a name to be added to a chart of the FLN's structure, in order to eliminate its leadership. If the aesthetic resistance to torture can leave the practice unscathed, then, what would it look like for a work of art to destabilize the act of torture, beyond simply naming it as wrong? In what way can literary language interrupt the seemingly necessary link between torture and truth, in the very place in which other discourses fall short? In what way can we begin to think about a logic of truth—an ethic of truth—that would destabilize the conceptualization and practice of torture and interrogation? Finally, how does "theory" (literary criticism, philosophy) enable us to ask these questions?

In order to address these preoccupations, I would like to turn to José Saramago's 2004 novel Ensaio sobre a Lucidez (translated as Seeing), a sequel to...


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pp. 109-123
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