Dinu Gherman, “The Avowal and Testimony of Fear in the Romanian Concentration System (1948-1965): Notes on Detention Memoirs”, Caietele Echinox, vol. 15, 2008, pp. 126-132.
Detention memoirs enjoyed a remarkable currency after 1989, amongst scholars working both in the social and the literary sciences (narratology, linguistics, semiotics, etc.)1, forming the object of enquiry of various interdisciplinary approaches. Most of the times, preoccupation for this kind of memoirs took the shape of an interest which the public sphere manifested for the theme of communism and its adjacent aspects – lustration, bringing torturers before justice (for the pain and fear they had inflicted), etc., facilitated the public manifestation of the Romanian Gulag memory, mostly subsequent to the Romanian Democratic Convention’s takeover of political power in 1996.
If up to this date the testimonies of political prisoners regarding repression in communist Romania (around 75 works), “exiled” to the outskirts of public sphere by the political heirs of the communist regime, have been published restrictively and the journalistic or cultural interest has taken the shape of simple editorial advertising, in the second half of the 90’s the writing and publishing of the autobiographies of former political prisoners produced a feverish public reception (although one can count only around 50 works)2. Also, the collective memory began to be recuperated by oral historians who started to interview the survivors of the communist repression, and by public associations which organized commemorative meetings, such as those celebrating the anticommunist revolt of the citizens of Braşov in 1987, meetings in which the political power publicly participated at the highest level in 1998 or 2008.
The drama of the victims of communism provides answers to both the researcher and the society in general, as regards the repercussions that the repression had upon human behaviour and attitudes or upon the development of society after 1989. Fear, one of the most important human feelings, was being used by the repressive apparatus to impose certain mental patterns of reception and signification of reality with a view to obtaining, at a behavioural level, obedience and docility towards the regime. Manifested in the early days of the communist regime as physical violence, after the amnestying of the political prisoners in 1964, fear was insidiously redirected towards the collective psyche. By means of a long process of contagion operated with the help of the vehicle of representations, the regime managed to develop fear configurative patterns at the level of depth structures of the mind and of collective behaviours.
As Sanda Cordoş notices, the horizon of expectations of today’s reader (by extrapolation, of the individual) no longer corresponds, from a social point of view, to the communist period; thus, the political identity of individuals from the communist epoch no longer presents any interest, but the detention memoirs remain important from a psychological or existential angle.
“Guilt, forgiveness, death, the father-son relationship, the human condition within an absurd universe are always current issues for the human being and, by representing perennial themes of literature, they can create and create new horizons of expectations for the new generation of readers”3.
The autobiographical perspective of the former political prisoners combines objective and subjective valences: here reside two implicit types of value (documentary/objective and subjective), which are retrievable through interdisciplinary approaches. Beyond the diversity of the authors’ manner of avowal and style, a line of objectivity of the suffering can be identified within the testimonies of detention, one which traces invariably the frames of repression. The writing of the concentration area in itself brings about, by testimony, a cathartic exit from the physical and psychological space for the victims of fear4. Even the textual unfolding of the memory of the survivors of a “limit-event”5, such as the Gulag and Holocaust, proves “a combination of certification and [moral] protest”6. The testimony of Primo Levi about the Holocaust shares this “joint status”, but this can be extended globally to the testimonies of Gulag or Holocaust survivors. In the Newsweek issue of January 16th 1995, the Austrian philosopher of Jewish origins, Jean Amery, noted in his discussion about the tragic suicidal of Primo Levi: “anyone who has been tortured, remains tortured”7. The “remains tortured” concept identifies the violence of fear inoculation experienced prevalently in detention, but also after the act of testimony on the limit experience, which, in Primo Levi`s case, brought about the extreme suicidal act as a means of absolute liberation from the frames of suffering. The victims found themselves perpetually caught between two testimonies and two avowals profoundly connected to fear and suffering – we understand testimony as a finite product, as a document/proof, and avowal as a process which brings about a testimony, either by force or voluntarily. The first testimony took place in the interrogation rooms of the Securitate, where the repressive authorities obtained the required statement to secure a political sentence, and which resulted in an “avowal” process of torture. Sanda Golopenţia considers this type of testimony to be a “painfully negotiated” text8, designating the “labour” of elaborating certain interrogation reports or autobiographical statements, primarily generated by fear during the confrontation between the interrogator and the convict. The second testimony occurs within the frame of a certain existential undo assumed in time by the victim, by which one attempts to remake the ontological order shattered by the confession fabricated during the Securitate’s inquiry; this type of testimony is seen as a testament left to posterity and as evidence in a possible trial of communism. Gheorghe Andreica writes to an ex-colleague of suffering:
“There was nothing for us in the world of the twentieth century. But if fate made us go through this century of knavishness and suffer the consequences, our duty is to leave our followers everything we have lived and endured”9.
The testimonial process no longer takes place by force, by fear, as the former one; instead, it is made out of one’s free will, within the literary register, within an “avowal to chill”10. If the testimony snatched by torturers was meant to get rid of the victim, the autobiographical testimony is meant – socially and symbolically – to save the victim.
The documentary character and the subjective component become complementary within the text and are vital to the history of mentalities in that they can help reconstitute the mental frame of repression. The objective testimony on fear and suffering is achieved by subjective, textual filters of the avowal. Fear may be detected at the level of representation, of images which the subject of avowal contributes to the common biography of suffering, images which render within the text mental and affective traces of the perception of this emotion during political detention. The scenes of horror are exclusively “replayed” in the planning of discourse, of literary representations of the past, from the traumatic to the symbolic scene11. Thus, the moment of avowal brings the perception of fear, which was reified under detention, towards a cure within the theatre of representation. As regards the registry of theatre, Chartier remarks on a certain “perversion of the representation relationship”, in the sense that representation masks rather than designate its referent in an adequate way12; however, representation takes place within a process of mnemonic labour, as a result of the transactions between the free present and the terrifying past, which is recollected by the “instrumental memory”13.
This process of memory recovery renders a posteriori the collective fear assimilated as perception or representation during the communist regime. It unfolds through the inextricable filters of meta-representations and seeks healing by witnessing what is revealed within the mental frames of some as yet uncured fears. To complicate matters further, the representations formed within the processes of signification during communism are themselves the result of mental structures profoundly altered by a deep-seated, institutionalized fear, which doubly perverts the representation relationship, if we are to credit Chartier. Even if representation and meta-representation cannot manage an “absolute” concordance with the reality of the historical past (which, by the way, is not their intention), this point is hardly relevant for our discussion. What is important for our research is the manner in which the activity of representation is achieved and the way in which fear, understood both as a feeling induced at a physical and psychological level and as an identity created by the communist regime, is remembered by the collective memory.
Ion Ioanid presents fear as similar to a travel companion in his journeys through the Gulag, as he sets off “into the unknown, side by side with fear”14. Ioanid projects the reified space of fear as a convivial setting: fear is neither rejected nor approved – the inmate learns to live with his unwanted companion, so that the latter interferes as little as possible with his actions. We take part in a “programmatic” fragile banishment of fear from its omnipotent physical setting, into a minimal space of representation, where its projection maintains its veracious identity, but is deprived of the unidirectional monopoly of the pedagogical attribute with which the penal power has invested it. The convict assumes a more distant position, quasi-self-dictated in relation to suffering, a decisive fact in the unfurling of the habituating process of fear.
“I started to teach myself, not to master my fear or remove it, but to get used to living with it. In the coming years, many were the times I wanted to be put into the situation of undertaking something risky and, every time I decided to act, I was afraid, but I did it. I never gave up, due to fear [our emphases]”15.
If the event is known by historians in a direct way, with the aid of archival documentation and, thus, by the means of language, the knowledge of the mental frame of fear and suffering during the times of political detention can be reconstituted at the level of discourse on suffering. In the essay Le monde comme représentation, Roger Chartier elaborates some new instruments of research into the history of mentalities (or representations16),
“empruntés aux disciplines voisines: ainsi les techniques de l’analyse linguistique et semantique, les outils statistiques de la sociologie ou certains modèles de l`anthropologie”17.
At the level of discourse, any analysis of the narrative structures applied to detention literature can detect the presence of fear, or, more likely, of its representations. Fear becomes the driving force of the narration, skilfully albeit discreetly inculcated for the larger part; in some of the cases, however, the sentiment is exposed unhindered as an auctorial hypostasis, and is subdued to an intra-textual hermeneutics18. How it manifested itself, how it was perceived, and how it sank into collective memory, we learn from the avowal – the second central term in our argument – that the victims make concerning suffering. If testimony grants documentary value to the detention text, avowal brings forward the subjective value of the individual traumatic experience. The degree of the text’s transparency as to the amount of suffering during detention (here hermeneutics meets the necessity of establishing a new interpretation pattern – from the perspective of fear – according to the degree of avowal), the way in which this is rendered at a textual level, through semantic indices, the imprecision of the narration, the usage of the third person19 or the condensed and abrupt rhythm of the narrative thread20 form the ingredients of the emotional load constitutive of the fear-pain tandem within the labour of avowal.
Another practice quite common within the detention memoirs is that of changing the name of prisoners – of the author himself and of others – or of close friends from outside the concentration area, to protect their privacy. It is not fear itself that is perceived mentally outside the concentration area, but the metamorphosis of it at an individual and collective level of representation.
“What constitutes ‘punishment’ at the level of punitive action is not the sensation of suffering, but the idea of pain, of unpleasantness, of inconvenience – ‘punishment’ of the idea of ‘punishment’. Hereby punishment doesn’t act upon the body, but upon representation. Or, if it acts upon the body, this is insofar as the body is not the subject of the actual suffering, but the object of a representation of it: the recall of pain may hinder the relapse (…)”21.
The representation thus produces a multi-regular and irregular identity of fear, with a striking capacity of generation at the mental level; it is terribly contagious, especially as it accesses not only the human psyche but also the affect and the instincts. Communism did not manage to destroy the bodies of political prisoners and annihilate them entirely as individuals; rather, it managed to create a representation of an all-encompassing sentiment of fear pervading society.
Thus, suffering and fear are given the “value” of self-authentication, an authentication produced at the level of a plurality of individual minds, by the means of contagiousness spreading from within the concentration area, as an epicentre of terror, towards the “free” zones (it is not the emotion itself which is fostered, but its representation, an image and a crescendo of images). For the population situated within the “free” area, one of the semio-techniques pointed out by Michel Foucault, operated by the punitive power and hermeneutically applicable to the communist regime, is the rule of lateral effects, which reveals about political prisoners that
“for those who see them or who can represent those slaves, the pains that they endure are focused in a single idea; all seconds of slavery gathered within a representation which thus becomes more frightening than the prospect of death”22.
The language will contribute to fostering the representation of fear, mostly within smaller communities, among friends or family; the stories and images of terror and the act of narration constitute a panoply useful both for the oppressors – as a mode of articulating the contagion – and for the oppressed – as an articulation of the limited symbolic expurgation of the emotional load. The inter-subjectively experienced social world, by the credit given to the other’s word (a fact which lies at the heart of the testimony), is unsettled by the totalitarian attack upon the “common sense”; this is “powerfully affected when some corrupt political institutions found a climate of mutual surveillance, of denunciation, where the knavish practices undermine the basis of language trust”23.
Aniţa Nandriş-Cudla narrates about the state of fear insinuated among the inhabitants of Bukovina during the time of war and Stalin’s regime. The two acts of violence – the atrocities of the war and the political violence of Stalinism – are compared within Aniţa Nandriş’s narrative, very likely on the grounds of the large number of human victims incurred by these two types of massacre. The Bukovinian woman peasant records the unleashing of arbitrariness and of uncertainty (“we’ve been very hard pressed”), the impossibility of fulfilling basic biological needs, the fear of denouncement and the prospect of an unexpected confrontation with the regime (“they came unexpectedly and took him away”). The verbal locution “to fear his own shadow”, a characterologic idiom which refers to personal physical and psychological features, within a normal social setting (the attribute of being scared, as a character feature), is metonymically extended upon the entire community, which is affected by fear beyond reason (“the world was so full of fear that it feared its own shadow”)24.
The arbitrariness of reality finds its quasi-perfect articulation in the arbitrariness of representation. Fear reconfigures with a veracious skill the collective psyche and establishes the way and the patterns through which people invest reality with meaning. Detention literature composes a terrifying testimony of fear experienced within the concentration system and, at the same time, overtakes the plurality of the avowing voices, articulated in the discourse
As Stephen King remarks, the excellence of L. Ron Hubbard’s book, Fear, is due to the fact that it makes your blood freeze in your veins, as it is “an excellent story of a frightening, unimaginable and all-penetrating horror”25. The experience of detention memoirs could be situated in the vicinity of the horror or thriller genres, with the marked difference that, whereas in a horror novel, the effect of the real originates in imagination, in the detention memoirs it stems from first-hand lived experiences, from actual life stories.