Proper Corruption Index and Metaphor in Photographs of the Embalmed Corpse of Eva PerÓn
Photography does not create eternity, as art does; it embalms time, rescuing it simply from its proper corruption.
André Bazin, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image”
A representation of the departed in the medium of its own flesh, the embalmed corpse stubbornly refuses categorization. What is it? It is no ordinary object, but it certainly is no longer a human being. It is not alive or merely sleeping, though this appearance is the ideal of modern embalming; it is a dead body, a physical object that, despite its resemblance to the living, is called “the deceased” or “the departed.” The embalmed body is also not a representation of this “departed” one, but is literally identical, physically speaking, with that person. The difference is ontological but not essential: the being-in-the-world of the departed person and the embalmed corpse are radically different, even if their substance is mostly the same.
Moreover, an embalmed body is not merely a corpse. Unlike corpses, bodies embalmed for indefinite display do not follow the people they once were into memory. They do not decompose: they remain, at the level of appearances, identical to the person in life. At the same time, while the corpse is an object and not a person, it is a very special kind of object, death’s physical remainder. When the corpse decomposes naturally, or is cremated, its physical disappearance is the corollary of the original, metaphysical departure. Yet in the modern era, major figures have been embalmed—not mummified, that is, not simply preserved, but preserved in such a way as to look exactly as they did in life.
The story of just such an embalmed corpse, that of Eva Perón, is the subject of the 1997 documentary La tumba sin paz/The Unquiet Grave, directed by Tristán Bauer and written by Miguel Bonasso.1 Eva Perón, commonly known as Evita, was the flashy and controversial populist icon whose untimely death in 1952 is one of the most important events in Argentine politics. The documentary seeks to vindicate Evita’s legacy by telling of the mistreatment of her corpse by enemies of the Peronist regime, which appropriated the corpse in 1955 when Juan Perón was driven into exile. Though he was essentially a dictator, Peronism represents a left-of-center political philosophy in Argentina because of its roots in the labor movement and its restructuring of the old, colonial social structure. Evita, the rags-to-riches first lady, embodied this populist spirit and represents, therefore, the emotional core of what Peronism might still accomplish in terms of social equality and justice.
The Unquiet Grave is part of an ongoing struggle over the legacies of Evita and Peronism. Peronism continues to be the most important political movement of the Argentine twentieth century and beyond, and the figures of Juan Perón and Evita still wield political currency today. The Unquiet Grave tells the story of what happened to Eva Perón’s embalmed corpse during the thirty-year period it was missing from Argentina. Much of the story is already known: after Perón fled the country without the corpse, the military stole it from the embalmer’s laboratory and eventually buried it abroad. The Unquiet Grave’s main project, however, is to prove that the military mutilated the corpse, using photographs taken when the corpse was exhumed for its return to Argentina in the mid-1970s.
When Perón was ousted by the military in 1955, two years after Evita’s death, this “Liberating Revolution” made Peronism illegal and even went so far as to refer to Perón not by name but only as “the exiled tyrant.”2 Evita’s corpse—now almost perfectly embalmed for permanent display—was still in the laboratory of her embalmer, Dr. Pedro Ara, awaiting construction of a monument to the Argentine worker, where it was to have been displayed. Soon after the coup, secret police broke into the laboratory and stole the body. The new government’s interest in the body was simple: they wanted to eradicate all traces of Peronism from Argentina—and Evita was the movement’s most powerful symbol. Her embalmed corpse would have become the primary relic in this iconography of the flesh, and any resting place instantly a site of pilgrimage for the faithful. To avoid this, they had to make the body disappear—without destroying it. 3 Even enemies of Peronism were unwilling to burn it—the only easy way to destroy it because the chemicals used in its preservation made it highly flammable but otherwise very durable—possibly because to do so would violate the Catholic Church’s stance against cremation. Whether or not they feared for their everlasting souls, however, it is interesting to note that the corpse was able to provoke an ethical response even among people who had certainly not been sympathetic to the living Evita.
For several years the body was simply held by various police and military agents, within Argentina; eventually a more permanent solution was needed, and the corpse was buried under a false name in Milan, Italy. It was exhumed in 1971 and returned to Perón, who was then living in Spain but who would soon return to Argentina for his third and final presidency. When he died in office later that same year, Evita’s body was displayed with his, but it was not buried. Finally in 1975, the family complied with the military’s orders that Evita’s corpse be buried in Buenos Aires’s Recoleta Cemetery, in a locked crypt eight meters below ground. Although the mausoleum that contains Evita’s remains is one of the most popular sites for both tourism and pilgrimage in present-day Argentina, it is not possible to view the body.
During the time when the corpse’s whereabouts were secret, the men charged with guarding it were victims of what is popularly considered a kind of “curse”: madness, alcoholism, manslaughter, and even necrophilia. Officially, however, the surviving men who were involved in the affair claim that these charges are false—a claim that is supported, at least marginally, by their unwillingness to simply burn the corpse and erase all traces of its existence. The Unquiet Grave counters with concrete evidence that at least one charge—mutilation—is true.
The documentary’s damning evidence is photographs taken by Perón himself when the corpse was exhumed for return to Argentina. These photographs, which no one knew existed until they were shown in the documentary, reveal a broken nose, gashes on the face and feet, and a snipped finger, all of which were cosmetically repaired before the corpse was returned to Argentina in the late seventies. These shocking photographs are used to marshal evidence against the right-wing military who are shown as barbaric monsters with no respect for the dead, and as liars who attempt to cover up this barbarism. The photographs thus serve an important purpose in exposing the crimes of the military, an institution whose more visible transgressions— notably the period of state terror from 1976 to 1983 when the military tortured and killed 30,000 Argentines—are here linked metaphorically to their crimes against Evita’s corpse.
The documentary, then, hinges upon photographs of an embalmed corpse—representations of representations, within the larger framework of the film. Like the embalmed corpse, the photograph has a vexed relationship to the problematic of the real. Both represent the real, and both are themselves independent objects that cannot be reduced to mere representations. Photographs and embalmed corpses inexorably point toward their referents in the register of appearances: they are uncannily like the objects they depict, and yet they are not those objects. Nevertheless, neither is identical to the referent they represent—the corpse because it has been chemically and cosmetically altered, the photograph because it is in fact a separate object. Moreover, both stand in a particular relation to time, garnering their iconicity from the suspension of time’s effects. The mediation that allows for this suspension also allows for photographs and embalmed corpses to be spatially dislocated with more ease. This ease in spatial mobility allows for the peregrinations of Evita’s corpse; however, photographs are also far more mobile objects than their referents, hence the ability of these photographs of the corpse to be reframed within the space of this documentary.
This essay draws upon the legacy, in film studies, of André Bazin’s famous essay “The Ontology of the Photographic Image”4 and Paul Ricoeur’s work on metaphor5 to construct a theory that challenges the dominant reading of representation—particularly photographic representation—as an indexical figure whose economy is substitutive, that is, as standing in for an absent moment to which the representation univocally refers. I analyze photographs of the embalmed corpse of Evita Perón as presented within the documentary film The Unquiet Grave using the special case of photographs of an embalmed corpse to illustrate the ways in which an indexical or semiotic reading of the photographs forecloses the work they do to create new meaning. Though the photograph shows a very faithful likeness to the object it depicts, it can never be considered identical to that object—and it is this tension between resemblance and difference that produces new meaning. I argue that the corpse signifies via a similar tension between resemblance and difference, one that is made all the more clear because of the coincidence, in the case of the embalmed corpse, between the medium of representation (i.e., the flesh) and the person who is represented.
My argument thus draws upon the figure of the corpse to unearth a new kind of economy of signification at work, one that is closer to Ricoeur’s notion of metaphoric tension than to the Peircean index that is often associated with Bazin’s work on the photograph. More specifically, indexicality makes the signifier into a mere indicator, pointing univocally toward a past moment. This, in turn, tends to efface the materiality of the signifier, a key part of its process of signification, circulation, and mediation. The point about materiality is made clear by the case of the embalmed corpse, whose medium is the flesh, but it also holds true for the photograph. In both cases, Ricoeur’s notion of “metaphoric tension” provides a more dynamic model of signification, one that allows for the signifier to both differ from the object it represents and to resemble it closely. It is in the space between this is like and is not that signification happens.
Because Evita’s embalmed corpse is buried where it cannot be seen, photographs of it are particularly potent tools in the ongoing struggle to come to terms with her controversial place in Argentine culture, politics, and history. Much like the corpse itself, whose embalming causes it to linger unnaturally and thus have its own “life” and “history,” these photographs are productive remainders whose discursive function cannot be reduced to mere substitutive evidence (the photograph standing in for the corpse) or commemorative truth (as iconic representations of her “real” legacy). I argue that while the documentary presents the photographs as evidence and thus as indexical signs, the specific context in which they are presented leaves open the possibility for an alternate reading of the photographs. While a dramatic re-creation of the act of photographing the corpse underlines their indexical function, the use of a voiceover narration during their viewing suggests they may be productive of multiple meanings rather than static indicators of a singular moment in the past.
The Unquiet Grave’s Project of Vengeance and Reburial
The Unquiet Grave was made for Argentine public television and first aired on March 24, 1997. On March 30, the Buenos Aires newspaper La Nación reported that the documentary scored an unprecedented twenty-six points in the ratings system, and as a result it was rebroadcast several days later. Since then, The Unquiet Grave has become a staple in yearly observances of Evita’s death. It aired the night of July 26, 2002, on the fiftieth anniversary of her death when I was in Buenos Aires, and again later that year it was screened as part of a retrospective titled “Eva Perón . . . esa mujer”—or “Eva Perón . . . that woman.”6
The Unquiet Grave engages the question of reference that the photograph, the metaphor, and the embalmed corpse itself present. It is part of an explicit project within Argentine culture to simultaneously revise and preserve the memory of the woman Eva Perón separately from, or perhaps even in spite of, the memory and history of her embalmed corpse. Like Mao and Lenin before her, the Argentine first lady was embalmed for public display in 1952, after her untimely death at the appropriately biblical age of thirty-three. The Spanish doctor Pedro Ara succeeded in preserving her body in such a way that it would indefinitely resist decay using a combination of glycerin, paraffin, and flexible plastic.7
Revered as the “Spiritual Leader of the Nation”8 and “The Mother of All Argentines,”9 Eva Perón was one of the most powerful women of her era, and certainly one of the most iconic figures in Argentine history. Her rise from the illegitimate child of a rural landowner to the radio actress who became first lady is the subject of the Broadway musical Evita! and the film version starring Madonna, as well as several Argentine films. Her husband, Juan Perón, is the most dominating figure in modern Argentine politics, and, thirty years after his death, the Justicialista Party based upon Peronism still dominates the current political scene.
Perón’s regime, from 1946 to 1955, was both a labor movement and dictatorship, with a complex iconography that centered around the personalities of Perón as wise, strong leader and Evita as the emotional heart of the movement. General Perón initially served as secretary of labor in the military government; three years later, the radicalized working classes would become the base of the Peronist party that swept him into power. In this sense, then, Peronism was a deeply populist movement, overturning the old colonial social structure and promoting workers’ and women’s rights. Nevertheless, Perón also muzzled the press and deployed private police squads to silence enemies and dissidents. Membership in Peronist labor unions was not voluntary, and non-official unions were illegal and violently suppressed.
Perón’s enemies finally overthrew him in 1955 via military coup, and Perón fled to exile in Spain. Even in exile, however, he maintained a strong influence over leftist radicals, many of whom had first encountered Peronism as part of “Juventud Peronista” or Peronist Youth groups. As confrontation between the leftists and the military and conservatives escalated into violence, Perón was elected president for a third term in 1973 and made a triumphant return to Argentina with the promise of a middle ground between left and right extremism. He died after only nine months in office, however, and the chaos that ensued ended in the so-called “Dirty War,” when 30,000 Argentine civilians were tortured and killed by the military government in the name of the reestablishment of social order. Thus part of Perón’s legacy is the bloodiest, most shameful period in Argentine history. This dictatorship ended in 1983 with the Falkland Islands War against Britain, and Peronism returned to the political scene in a neoliberal form, now called the Justicialista Party. Argentina’s current president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, is a Justicialista. Thus the legacy of Peronism is very much alive in present-day Argentina, as well as a major engine driving its history. The violence of the latter half of the twentieth century either stems from Peronism (Perón himself used death squads and torture) or was a reaction against it (the military’s rounding up, torturing, and execution of Peronist militants or anyone associated with them). However, Peronism’s current reimagining as the Justicialista Party is decidedly centrist, with none of the radical socialist tendencies that characterized the youth groups of the sixties and seventies. As a result of this less volatile Peronist political presence, present-day Argentina is in the process of redefining Perón’s legacy. As a symbol of the purest and most ambitious Peronist aspirations, Evita thus becomes a focal point in that process of redefinition.
Evita’s union with Perón symbolized the leader’s union with his people and his legitimization of their status as participants in government and society. She represented the illegitimate, disenfranchised masses: she was born out of wedlock, and Perón, whose background was more traditionally bourgeois, had nevertheless married her—“legitimized” her—and made her first lady. All these biographic facts were used consciously by the Peróns to figure the union between Perón and Evita as the union between Peronism and the Argentine people. Evita’s role in Peronism was thus as his most impassioned and devoted supporter. She was the “bridge of love” between Perón and his people, working tirelessly to fulfill the Peronist dream of social justice via her charitable Eva Perón Foundation. Her death was widely construed as martyrdom, an impression she herself encouraged both in speeches and in denial of treatment for the uterine cancer that eventually took her life.10 Her corpse, therefore, embalmed for display in a monument to the Argentine worker, became Peronism’s most powerful relic.
Enemies of Peronism usually came from the wealthy Spanish families that constituted a kind of colonial oligarchy in the face of the early twentieth century’s wave of immigration (Argentina’s aboriginal population was all but eliminated at the end of the nineteenth century). Those families tended to be well represented in the military, so despite Perón’s rank of general, many of his enemies were also military men. More precisely, Perón’s enemies in the military tended to show him the respect of his rank and reserved their scorn for his wife. They maintained that she had been a prostitute (which has never been proved) and called her “The Mare,” among a number of other sexualized slurs.
Indeed, sentiments about Peronism—either negative or positive—tend to coalesce around Evita, and, more specifically, around her body. Fervent Peronists call her their patron saint and liken her touch to a holy laying on of hands. Peronist iconography includes images of Evita hovering above her people that resemble images of the Virgin Mary: she appears ethereal, spiritual, and pure. Anti-Peronist sentiment casts her as brazen and unfeminine at best and whorish at worst. Thus Evita’s body is a literal emblem for what Peronism called the “New Argentina” and its overturning of class and gender roles: a body made “legitimate” by the act of marriage, and then made holy by its suffering. Evita’s body thus transgresses or transcends, depending on whether one supports or deplores the new social order.
At fifty-five, the embalmed corpse is already twenty-two years older than Evita the woman, who died at thirty-three. And, it has its own bizarre history: it has been stolen, mutilated, secretly buried abroad, then finally returned to Argentina and reburied there. More than one person, including an ex-president, lost his life in the affair, which spanned two decades. In short, the lurid spectacle of the corpse (which, as noted above, is not displayed but buried—meaning that the story is the spectacle, not the corpse) threatens to overshadow the more “serious” memory of Eva Perón the political figure, humanitarian, and icon. Its thirty-five years in the Recoleta have corresponded to a comparatively stable resting place in the public imagination, and modern-day Argentina is occupied with the process of coming to terms with the often violent legacy of Peronism.
In telling the “life” story of the corpse, rather than that of the woman, The Unquiet Grave seeks to address this problematic relationship between the historical figure and her very actual embalmed body. The Unquiet Grave tries to liberate the historical Evita from her embalmed corpse, figuratively “burying” the latter so that the former may live in cultural memory. This liberation from the corpse can be understood as part of the ongoing project to cleanse Evita’s body—here quite simply of its continued existence, which has become in some sense obscene because of the way it threatens to obscure the memory of Eva and her suffering on behalf of Argentina’s poor.
The photographs of the corpse play a crucial role in this project and are thus the central node in the knot of reference and representation tethering Evita to her body. Interestingly, the corpse itself undermines the indexical function of the photograph, because it endures in time without photographic mediation. Thus the documentary’s project depends heavily upon the photograph’s indexical function, and works hard to reinforce such a reading, as detailed below.
The Unquiet Grave is thus a key part of this reconstruction of Evita’s legacy. Though it also tells the spectacularly lurid tale of the embalming of Eva Perón’s body, its subsequent disappearance, and its eventual return, the main agenda is to prove that the corpse was mutilated by the anti-Peronist military and, in so doing, to avenge Evita’s tainted honor. The mutilation of the corpse becomes, politically, the besmirching, commercialization, and trivialization of the legacy of a woman who, to the Peronist left, represents the most radical and emotional core of their allegiance.
Avenging the honor of Evita’s corpse—that is, her body—is especially important since her sexuality is so much a part of her image and legacy. During her lifetime, Evita was the most powerful woman in Argentina, and arguably her most lasting and important political achievement is women’s suffrage. However, her image is also highly sexualized—because she was poor, because she was illegitimate, because she worked as an actress and model and sometimes posed in a bathing suit, and because she lived openly with Perón before they were married. The “legitimization” that Perón gave her when he married her was not only to give her a name: he also did the unthinkable for a man in his position by marrying his mistress and elevating her to the status of wife. The subsequent martyrdom of Eva Perón for the cause of working people, and her canonization by those same people, is therefore also a reclamation of that body. To claim that Evita’s body was disrespected by anti-Peronists is to assert that she suffered in death the same dishonoring she did in life.
Both the director, Tristán Bauer, and the writer, Miguel Bonasso, have a history with the Peronist left. Bauer has since directed Blessed by Fire, a fictional indictment of the Falkland Islands War that won the Founders Award for best narrative feature at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2006. This war was essentially the dictatorship’s desperate gambit to maintain credibility as it faced mounting economic and, more important, human rights pressure both abroad and within. Blessed by Fire is part of an ongoing leftist project to prosecute and expose the crimes of the dictatorship, which, until recently, neoliberal, democratically elected governments have treated as an unpleasantness best forgotten.
Bonasso’s history with Peronism is longer and more intimate. He worked on the publication La Causa Peronista, published by the militant Peronist youth group the Montoneros during the 1960s and 1970s. Later, when Peronism returned to power, he worked as press secretary to Perón’s puppet president, Héctor Cámpora. In 1996 his written account of Cámpora’s time in “office,” El presidente que no fue/The President Who Never Was, was a national bestseller.
There had always been allegations and rumors of the corpse having been mistreated, mutilated, and even raped,11 but The Unquiet Grave produces for the first time photographic evidence that testifies to the mutilation of the body. These were photographs taken by Juan Perón at the time of the body’s exhumation in 1971. In a 2002 interview with the leftist daily Página/12, screenwriter Miguel Bonasso claims he personally obtained the photographs via an undisclosed source. They corroborate the claim of Evita’s sister, Erminda, that when the corpse was exhumed and returned to Perón it showed signs of deliberate violence. Her statements about the condition of the corpse directly contradict the testimony of other witnesses, who claimed it was intact. Thus the photographs function as a sort of imagistic “last word” on the question of the corpse’s treatment at the hands of its enemies. The photographs show a broken, almost destroyed nose, gashes in the cheeks and temples, and feet split open and covered with a plaque of tar. Since the body is now buried and not on display, and since the mutilations were corrected before the body’s last public viewing (in 1975; it was buried the next year and has not been exhumed since), these photographs provide special access to the precise moment of the corpse’s existence when these mutilations were evident.12
The Unquiet Grave showed these photographs for the first time and thus proved the allegations of mistreatment of the corpse. In this sense the documentary avenges the corpse and thus seeks to provide it the peace that, as the title suggests, it has never enjoyed.
Bauer begins the documentary by setting up its two central oppositions: the “known” story versus the “secret” history of Eva Perón, and the political and social agenda of the “oligarchs” versus that of the Peronists. There is, of course, a relationship between these two sets of oppositions: the oligarchs want to maintain a certain story of Peronism’s aftermath, one in which their crimes are downplayed or even obscured; the Peronists are those who will bring the secret crimes to light. This exposure—the photos—ratifies a story of “defamation” and mutilation that has been secret “for more than forty years.” Bauer and Bonasso present Evita as a restless soul in need of revenge for the outrages committed against her remains. In this sense she appears as a saint: her relics have been disturbed, and the documentary will expose the perpetrators.
The scene is set in the Recoleta Cemetery, “where the rulers of Argentina lie”13 and where, “among the aristocrats who so disparaged her,”14 the body of “that woman” also lies. “Hidden eight meters below ground, her body holds the keys to its own mystery.”15
This mise-en-scène sets up Bonasso’s story of revenge and redemption. Like Hamlet’s father’s ghost, Evita cannot rest until those who wronged her have been exposed. The narrative arc of the documentary, therefore, is a kind of exhumation and reburial—a translation16 —whereby the burial “eight meters deep” no longer becomes a place of occultation of crime but a site of memory and pilgrimage to its “proper” referent, the woman Eva Perón.
Lens as Witness and Light as Testimony: Indexicality in The Unquiet Grave
The Unquiet Grave frames the display of the photographs in three ways. First, an interview with Lieutenant Colonel Héctor Eduardo Cabanillas, in which the retired military officer testifies that the corpse was completely intact when he exhumed it and returned it to Perón. The second framing strategy is a dramatic re-creation of Perón taking the photographs. Third, as we see the sequence of photographs, we are also hearing the voice of Erminda Duarte, Evita’s sister, reading a passage from her book in which she details the mutilations she witnessed at the time the corpse was exhumed.
The re-creation of the act of photographing cements their function as evidence within the documentary. And Cabanillas, whose testimony comes first, is clearly set up to look like a liar. However, Erminda’s voiceover sets up a tension between word and image, between model and photograph, between referent and representation. This metaphoric tension arises from the possibility that the corpse is perhaps not identical to the person it was in life and thus exists not only as a witness to a past moment but also as an independent object in the present, where it might be part of other processes of signification and thus other constellations of meaning.
On a basic level, this tension is a result of the discrepancies between Cabanillas’s testimony that the corpse is intact and Duarte’s testimony that it was not. The shocking evidence of the photographs therefore serves to support Duarte’s words and to undercut Cabanillas’s. Moving past this rhetorical purpose, however, the voiceover functions to open up a space of productive tension because it addresses the corpse in the second person, thus highlighting the difference between the person, Evita, and the object that is her embalmed corpse. Thus, sometimes the voiceover appears to be telling an absent Evita what has happened to her—to the embalmed body she left behind. At other times, the voiceover invests the corpse with the consciousness of what befell it, saying that she endured these humiliations with the patience of Christ. Here we have the intimacy of the second person—where Evita’s presence is invoked as if she were able to hear her sister’s words—held in tension with the absence of the person addressed, because at the same time and within the same second-person address, Erminda tells the absent Evita what has become of her body. The voiceover never resolves into either a kind of animism (investing the corpse with the human properties of the woman Evita) or an address of an absent presence (a letter to her dead sister about what has been done since she has been gone). The photographs appear in a series of rapid dissolves and are shot using the “Ken Burns effect,” wherein the camera moves over the surface of the photograph. Meanwhile, the voice in our ears speaks of the blurred relationship between the embalmed corpse as representation and the embalmed corpse as unique object, between the photograph as sign and the photograph as an object adding something new to the world.
The present-day interview is prefaced by a portrait of Cabanillas as a young officer with an open, optimistic face dissolving into the present-day face of an old man whose aspect is alternately anxious and resentful. He has broken his thirty-year silence to clear his name of wrongdoing—to prove that the military did not mutilate or mistreat the corpse in any way, nor attempt to cover up any such crimes that others may have committed. “Is the colonel [Cabanillas] alive?” the voiceover asks. “He is alive. He’s a forgotten shadow who does not make public statements, although this time, he agreed to talk.”17
Cabanillas describes the process of exhuming the corpse and bringing it to Perón’s Madrid residence. He asserts that the corpse was absolutely intact when he returned it to Perón, and we are shown the documents Perón signed corroborating this claim. In his insistence, Cabanillas makes reference to what “has already been published”18—to the embalmer, Dr. Ara’s testimony, in his memoirs, that the exhumed corpse was exactly as he had left it.19 He concludes emphatically that when the corpse was exhumed, it put an end to “all the outrages that had been published, all that had been said was done to the cadaver of Eva Perón.”20
Cabanillas explicitly ignores at least one published source, the book Mi Hermana, Evita/My Sister, Evita, written by Erminda Duarte in 1972, which details the damage she witnessed on her sister’s body at the time of its exhumation. He apparently does not even consider this testimony worthy of dismissal, though he could not have been unaware of its existence.
Against this authority, the (female) voiceover,21 heavy with moral condemnation, speaks over brief newsreel footage of Evita’s sisters, Erminda and Blanca: “This is not what Evita’s sisters saw in their brother-in-law’s house. The horror would accompany them all of their lives.” And then, over the dramatic re-creation of Perón taking the photos, “The horror of these photographs, taken by Perón himself but which he never showed, and which remained hidden for twenty-five years.”22
However, just making Cabanillas look bad is not the point of the photographs. They are the most sensational aspect of the documentary, the first bit of new information in a well-known but still disputed story. Bauer and Bonasso aim to put an end to all disputes, and their “last word” is the photographic evidence. Within The Unquiet Grave’s narrative of vengeance and closure, the impact of the photographs therefore depends upon reading them as indexical. The precise aim is to point to an irrefutable presence of the body at a past moment, to employ the objectivity of photographic evidence to refute the claims made by witnesses.
Daniel Morgan identifies three “entailments” that follow from what he calls “the index argument”—the tendency to read photographs as indexical signs, following a dominant reading of Bazin. These “entailments” are of utmost necessity to the filmmakers’ ends in The Unquiet Grave.23 First, in order to function as proof and to serve the function of revenge, the photograph, although it is not the same thing as the corpse, must indisputably refer to a reality “behind” it. Second, the photograph must function as evidence of a past moment, because in the present it is not possible to see these mutilations, first of all because the corpse is buried, and second of all because the mutilations were later cosmetically repaired and do not appear in subsequent, widely circulated photographs. And finally, the photographs only have the power to avenge Evita’s sufferings if they attest to the presence of the body before the lens, if they could not have been taken in the absence of the corpse—that is, they must be understood to function indexically.
The re-creation of Perón taking the photographs cements this gesture toward the photograph as witness. We see a tight shot of (an actor portraying) Perón at waist level, his hands holding an old Roliflex camera, advancing the film with a hand crank, snapping the photographs. We don’t see his face, only his hands and the line his belt makes at his waist between his pants and his shirt—the characteristically high pants and thick waist. The camera tracks from the dark hem of his jacket to his hand, turning the crank to advance the film. In a series of rapid fades to white accompanied by a sound effect that mimics the “snap” of a flashbulb, we are shown the lens of the camera in increasingly tight close-up (figure 1). This sequence ends on the actual flashbulb of the camera, and there is again a rapid fade to white that takes us to the first photograph of the corpse, a color photograph showing a curtain of reddish-blonde hair. Thus our introduction to the sequence of photographs.
Framing the photograph’s introduction with this re-creation of the act of photographing clearly sets up an indexical reading wherein the lens is witness and the light is testimony. We see the camera; we hear a sound effect of a shutter snap; there is even a close-up of the lens to underscore its mechanical objectivity. The focus on the flashbulb and the white-out effects all point toward an understanding of photography as “light writing”—and hence toward the traditional link between photography and truth. As Miles writes, “the history of western philosophy as photology” metaphorically links light to truth, figuratively closing off its potential for violence, its ability to blind as well as enlighten. “The notion of a stable and coherent luminosity permeates philosophical discourses where light serves as a transparent medium in which truth and the objective world are revealed.” 24 Parts of Bazin’s argument and those who read his argument as congruent with the notion of semiotic index fall squarely into Miles’s “photology”—this tendency to construe light as the medium of objective truth—as well.
Figure 1. A close-up of the lens of the camera frames the reading of the photographs as indexical in The Unquiet Grave.
Bazin and Indexicality
A photograph of an embalmed corpse presents a unique opportunity to explore the implications of the relationship of the photograph to the practice of embalming. “The Ontology of the Photographic Image” makes this connection explicit, asserting that the photograph “embalms time.”25 Rather than focus on the photograph’s ability to faithfully depict appearances, Bazin focuses on the photograph’s “process of becoming” as the crux of its psychological power to “bear away our faith”:
Only a photographic lens can give us the kind of image of the object that is capable of satisfying the deep need man has to substitute for it something more than a mere approximation, a kind of decal or transfer. The photographic image is the object itself, the object freed from the conditions of time and space that govern it. No matter how fuzzy, distorted, or discolored, no matter how lacking in documentary value the image may be, it shares, by the very process of its becoming, the being of the model of which it is the representation; it is the model.26
A standard interpretation of Bazin is to read his theory of the photograph (as the origin of his theory of realism) through the lens of Charles Sanders Peirce’s semiology. In other words, in theorizing the “substitution” of which Bazin speaks in the quote above, a different kind of semiologic substitution, one in which the relationship to the referent was not arbitrary, was necessary. In Peirce’s index, whose relation with the referent is one of presence or testimony, film theorists found a way to theorize the special kind of substitution for reality the photograph offers. Peter Wollen27 was among the first to link André Bazin’s “The Ontology of the Photographic Image” with Peirce’s semiotic taxonomy. Citing a particular passage from Peirce, Wollen is able to read Bazin’s interest in the photograph’s “process of becoming” with Peirce’s definition of the index as a sign with a peculiar temporal relationship (viz., non-arbitrary) to its referent:
Photographs, especially instantaneous photographs, are very instructive, because we know that in certain respects they are exactly like the objects they represent. But this resemblance is due to the photograph’s having been produced under such circumstances that they were physically forced to correspond point by point to nature. In that respect, then, they belong to the second class of signs, those by physical connection [viz., indexical signs].28
The “circumstances” to which Peirce refers are those of the camera’s chemical/technological apparatus. “Physically forced” means that a photograph works according to specific physical laws, in this case those governing the refraction of light off an object, and those governing the reaction between this light and the chemical solution on the film. Peirce thus classifies the photograph as indexical rather than iconic (resembling its referent physically) or symbolic (having no necessary connection to its referent other than that of conventionality, such as the sign for radioactivity).29 Phillip Rosen comments on the importance of Peirce’s inclusion of the photograph in his definition of indexicality for film theorists, particularly those concerned with realism:
An indexical sign indicates or attests to the existence of something. In the case of a genuine index, the referent or what Peirce calls the sign’s object, is an existent whose presence is required in the formation of the sign. Among Peirce’s examples of indexicality are a weather vane; a man’s rolling gait, which indicates he is a sailor; a rap on the door; and a sundial signifying the time of day. As a film theorist, Wollen [writing about Peirce] can point out that one of Peirce’s examples is a photograph, the definitional genesis of which is that light rays strike a chemical emulsion upon being reflected from the concrete objects in the actual spatial field to be pictured.30
Roland Barthes, who also cites Bazin, calls the photograph’s referent “the necessarily real thing which has been placed before the lens, without which there would be no photographs.” In contrast with the “chimerical” referents of discourse or literature, “in Photography I can never deny that the thing has been there.” He therefore identifies photography’s noeme as “That-has-been”: “it has been here, and yet immediately separated; it has been absolutely, irrefutably present, and yet already deferred.”31 It is this deferral, this difficulty in accounting for the temporality of a referent both absent (in reality) and present (in the photograph), that opens up a space for a theory of metaphor whose model is not that of signs or substitutions but of meaning-making and polysemy. In other words, what is the process of signification for an object that refers to the past, but in the present? What can we say about this present moment, which is, after all, the moment of signification?
Barthes, Wollen, and Rosen are only a few players in the long association between indexicality, photography, and filmic realism. Dudley Andrew, Miriam Hansen, Gregory Currie, and Mary Ann Doane also wrestle in various ways with the photograph’s indexicality. Dudley Andrew’s book on Bazin links indexicality to Sartrian existentialism.32 Mary Ann Doane uses indexicality to theorize film’s role in the modern experience of time and the emergence of the archive.33 Gregory Currie’s “Visual Traces” teases out the ways in which indexicality functions differently in fiction film, where we understand that the traces function in a narrative frame, and in documentary, where the images themselves are the story.34 Melissa Miles challenges the notion of photography as “writing with light” (and thus the crux of indexicality) by showing how its violent and excessive effects are discursively constrained.35 In her introduction to Kracauer’s Theory of Film, Miriam Hansen writes that “the same indexicality that allows photographic film to record and figure the world also inscribes the images with moments of temporality and contingency that disfigure the representation.”36 Here again I call attention to the use of the verb to figure—that is, to make, as in a figure of speech.
These slips of the critical tongue indicate a debt to a poetics heavily influenced by structuralism and Saussurian semiotics. I would like to conserve the implicit connection between the index and the figure of speech (specifically, the metaphor) but open up the tropological discussion to a field that moves beyond word-level substitution to discursive meaning-making. Such a move implies that the resemblance between a sign and a signifier is not their only relationship—that in the end, there is also a difference between them, and that it is this interplay between difference and resemblance that makes possible the work of figuration.
Daniel Morgan directly addresses what he calls the “index argument” and shows that Bazin uses the notion of a “transfer of reality” to elaborate the idea of the photograph’s special contribution to the order of natural creation. “With photography, there is a “transfer of reality from the thing to its reproduction’” (14).37 Insofar as semiotics is precisely concerned with the mediating function of a sign between a thing and its representation, the notion of a “transfer of reality” does not work with the logic of substitution, arbitrary or otherwise, that is the foundation of semiotic analysis. Bazin further asserts that “photography actually contributes something to the order of natural creation instead of providing a substitute for it.”38 Here he explicitly rules out the photograph as a stand-in for an absent reality, regardless of the relationship between the sign and its production. Here we do not have substitution, but transfer.
Moreover, Bazin’s most intriguing and enigmatic comment—that the photograph is the model,39 is the referent—is itself a metaphor for photographic representation as a kind of transfer, rather than substitution. If the photograph is the model, that is, if it is in some way congruent with the object it represents, it cannot stand in for something or substitute for an absent original to whose reality it testifies. Bazin here suggests that the relationship between a photograph and its model or referent is fundamentally figurative, metaphorical. What the photograph does is liberate the object/model/referent from its temporal contingencies.40
Photographs of the embalmed corpse of Eva Perón lay bare the metaphorical claim at stake in Bazin’s argument. If we take seriously Bazin’s idea that the practice of embalming lies at the psychological heart of representational practice, then in photographs of the embalmed corpse we literally have this principle embodied. This observation does not alone rule out a semiotic model of metaphor based upon substitution at the level of the word. However, it invites us to consider Bazin’s comments within the broad range of theories about the work of metaphor, not all of which depend upon substitution or use the word as their fundamental unit of analysis. Paul Ricoeur’s classic The Rule of Metaphor surveys theories of metaphor in order to account for the production of new meaning in discourse. I propose to use it to understand how the photograph, like the embalmed corpse, not only remains—that is, endures in time—but also reverberates, or signifies via an unresolved, reverberating tension within the photograph between difference and resemblance.
An indexical reading of the photograph, then, construes it as a witness working in collusion with light, whose trace is the physical evidence of the presence of the object photographed. The Unquiet Grave introduces its proverbial trump card by means of a framing mechanism that places the photographs of the corpse squarely within this tradition. As Morgan points out, a photograph only has indexical power if the viewer is aware of how it is made, or what Bazin would call its “process of becoming.”41 Otherwise it is merely iconic: a picture that resembles rather than a witness that testifies. The Unquiet Grave, working in an age when audiences have lost whatever naive trust they may have invested in the photograph, forcefully steers its viewers toward an indexical reading by re-creating the act of photography itself. The recreation also points us back toward the past moment behind the photographs, the moment of inscription, here reanimated and thus all the more present and “real” for the viewer. Light itself is an actor in these re-creations, whiting out the screen entirely as though we ourselves are blinded by the flash. And the gateway to the photos themselves is the same white-out effect, only this time we dissolve from the moment of presence (the body’s presence as its photograph was taken) to the moment of evidence, of Barthes’s that-has-been.
In Imitation of Christ: Metaphoric Tension in The Unquiet Grave
However, the dramatic re-creation of Perón photographing the corpse is not the only frame in which The Unquiet Grave presents the photographs. The use of text and voiceover during the display of the photographs couples photographic evidence with eyewitness testimony—and produces a tension between the photograph as witness and the photograph as object. This tension, as is developed below, corresponds to Ricoeur’s notion of metaphor as holding “is like” and “is not” together around the verb to be. The photograph both resembles what it depicts and differs from it, and in order for it to signify, both these things have to be true at the same time.
As the series of photographs unfolds—some in color and others in black and white, as Perón used both a Roliflex and a Polaroid—we hear a woman’s voice, identified as that of Erminda Duarte, reading aloud. The passage is written in the second person as if it were a letter to her sister, lamenting the outrages the corpse suffered. At times, the passage speaks to Evita as though she does not know about her corpse’s fate—that is, it speaks to Evita’s “soul” or to her departed self. At other times, Erminda seems to write as though the corpse itself were Evita, suffering the blows with all the patience of Christ. The corpse is not Evita—she must tell Evita what has happened. Yet the corpse is like Evita, as the use of the second person to refer to it indicates.
You occupy the entire length of the table where you lie, and your hair has grown so long that it seems not to know you are dead . . . It hasn’t been mutilated as your face and one of your fingers have been . . . Your forehead is still serene despite showing a puncture in the right temple and signs of four blows. I see a large gash on your right cheek, and what remains of your nose is destroyed, almost completely destroyed . . . I look at the soles of your bare feet covered with a coating of tar . . . What signification does it have, this mineral plaque on the soles of your feet? On what tarred floor have you been standing, sustained only by your own death? Forgive me . . . for the blow that severed one of your fingers, for those that show on your forehead, for the aggression marked on your left cheek, for . . . better not to go on, since I’m sure that in an imitation of Christ, with each blow, from the trembling of your soul you must have said: “Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they do.”42
As Erminda’s voice, with its provincial accent and tone of pleading anguish, empties itself into our ears, we see the photographs in the following sequence. As she refers to Evita’s long hair, we see it falling in a curtain from the table, and the camera tracks up toward her face, then dissolves into a shot from the side from her forehead to her covered nose as Erminda details the marks on the forehead and temples. As she describes the gash in the cheek, we see a black and white photograph, taken from below the right shoulder looking up toward the face, so that the mark is plainly visible as a thick black line extending for perhaps an inch and a half (figure 2). The nose is covered with some kind of plaster, but it is clearly utterly crushed. Later in the film, an expert will testify to the fact that because of their chemical treatment, embalmed corpses are actually more durable, physically, than normal bodies. Thus whoever destroyed Evita’s nose had to have used excessive force.
Figure 2. “I see a large gash on your right cheek, and what remains of your nose is destroyed, almost completely destroyed.” From The Unquiet Grave.
As Erminda begins to talk about the soles of her sister’s feet, we see them in close-up, in black and white, tarred, split, and flattened (figure 3). Then, as she muses about where the body must have been standing, propped up on some tarred floor, we see a tracking shot, very tight, left to right on the hands, which although still interlaced around a rosary, shows the mutilation of the third finger of the left hand, snipped off at the first joint. Erminda asks forgiveness; we dissolve into a close-up of Evita’s face, now covered with a lace handkerchief from the bridge of the nose down. The camera slowly pulls back, then dissolves to a medium shot moving up from the hands and ending at such an angle that the severed finger’s stump faces us and we see the covered face as well (figure 4).
The images are shocking. Rather than an untouchable holy relic, the corpse appears utterly vulnerable. The hands, so piously twined around the rosary, display their mutilation with mute simplicity. Yes, this is proof of what happened then. But the photographs also signify in the endlessly iterable moment of viewing. Despite the documentary’s rhetoric, merely exposing these images cannot foreclose their signification, that is, the possibility that they will mean otherwise in other contexts. There is no guarantee that they will be read indexically as witnesses in every instance. This is why The Unquiet Grave works so hard to frame them as such, and why the voiceover is introduced. Photographic witnessing is paired with eyewitnessing, and we are meant to consider the former merely a mechanical, and thus more faithful, version of the latter.
Figure 3. “I look at the soles of your bare feet covered with a coating of tar.” From The Unquiet Grave.
Figure 4. “I’m sure that in an imitation of Christ, with each blow, from the trembling of your soul you must have said: “Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they do.’” From The Unquiet Grave.
At the same time, the way in which the voiceover addresses the corpse makes it uncertain whether she is speaking to Evita the woman or to her embalmed corpse. This uncertainty in turn undermines the indexical reading of the photographs because it introduces another kind of signification that I am here calling metaphorical: an unresolved tension between is like and is not. Both the corpse and the photographs of the corpse participate in this tension: they are both like and not like the objects they represent. An indexical reading of both the photograph and the embalmed corpse (which registers indexical marks of violence on its body) focuses on the likeness of this relation, which is construed in that economy of signification as stable, physical, and causal. The voiceover, on the other hand, operates within an economy of signification wherein the corpse (and, by extension, photographs of it) is also just as much not like what it purports to represent—in this case, the woman Eva Perón, whom the documentary is trying to “liberate” from the unseemly spectacle of her embalmed corpse.
Is Like and Is Not: The Tension Theory of Metaphor
How might a metaphoric reading undermine the indexical function of the photograph? As the “trope of resemblance par excellence”43 metaphor mirrors in textual form issues at stake in the ontology of the photograph. Tropological taxonomy is central to any rhetorical analysis that understands metaphor as substitution, just as semiotic analysis classifies photographs as iconic or indexical signs. However, in his classic work on metaphor Paul Ricoeur argues that metaphoric resemblance is not necessarily exclusively linked to a theory of metaphor as substitution at the level of the word. He argues for what he calls a “tension theory”44 in which the “ontological vehemence”45 with which metaphor gestures toward new meaning is a result of the tension, inherent to metaphor, between “is like” and “is not.”
Resemblance, in classical rhetoric, is “intimately connected to the primacy of naming or denomination . . . subsequently with [the themes of] borrowing, deviation, substitution and exhaustive paraphrase. Indeed, resemblance first of all motivates the borrowing; next, it is the positive side of the process whose negative side is deviation; further, it is the internal link within the sphere of substitution; finally, it guides the paraphrase that annuls the trope by restoring the proper meaning.”46 Thus the proper noun, the proper name, the fitting metaphor—all these are governed by what he calls iconic resemblance.47
Ricoeur does not entirely discard the word as the locus of metaphor, but its detours are only “effects”48 of a larger process of meaning-making at the level of discourse. The mechanism of this process is ontological: the tension between similarity and difference, between is not and is (like). Famously, “Juliet is the sun,” a metaphor in which the verb to be holds in tension two things that are both dissimilar and similar, only works because Juliet is not the sun, and yet because she is like the sun in particular ways that the reader must construct in productively discursive ways. Like the index, the metaphor only points: it holds two terms in tension, but it uses the verb to be, the verb of present and future existence.
Compare this idea to Barthes’s noeme of the photograph: that-has-been. An indexical understanding of the photograph, as Morgan observes, points in only one direction: to the past, to the moment of the photograph’s creation.49 I would add that it also points to only one function: that of testimony. In what follows, I show how photographs of the corpse of Evita Perón not only point toward the moment of their creation, but also point toward an imaginative, discursive space in which these images may be productive of new meaning.
Erminda Duarte’s voiceover opens up the detour that the documentary’s rhetoric seeks to return to its proper place: the grave. The Unquiet Grave places this voiceover such that it is heard while the photographs are shown—as if we, the audience, were also present at the moment of its exhuming. Because the photographs are here meant to function as evidence, this use of the voiceover tends to efface their status as representations—physical objects in their own right, as well as signifiers. Via Erminda Duarte’s voice, The Unquiet Grave seeks to transport us to the moment in the past when the photographs were taken. This act of witnessing can therefore liberate Evita’s memory, which until now has been trapped in her wronged body, thus allowing the former its proper place in Argentine cultural history as the people’s proxy and champion, and the latter its proper place in a finally quiet grave.
Rather than burying the corpse, however, Erminda’s voice animates it within a discourse that vacillates between Ricoeur’s is not and is like. The voiceover directly addresses the corpse as “you”; on the other hand, it also addresses Evita as an absent “you.”
It is as if she were speaking to Evita: she uses the second-person familiar address. At the beginning of the passage, she appears to be reporting to Evita the conditions of her own corpse, as if she would not know: “Your hair has grown so long that it seems not to know that you are dead.” Not only does this phrase suggest that the object of address is elsewhere; this displacement is mirrored in the conceit of the hair’s growth, as if it did not know, either, of its fate. Later, she asks the corpse what has happened—“On what tarred floor have you been standing, sustained only by your own death?”—as if the corpse itself might have the answer, suggesting that it, not the departed Evita, is the object of her address.
Most dramatically, she imagines the corpse withstanding the blows with Christlike patience, even quoting Christ’s words on the cross: “I’m sure that in an imitation of Christ, with each blow, from the trembling of your soul, you must have said, “Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they do.’” This last sentence figures all the ambiguities about the object of her address, opening a space for metaphor understood not as substitution but as productive tension, of meaning freed from its proscribed deviations. Evita speaks Christ’s words from the “trembling of her soul” even as her embalmed body “suffers.” That is, it isn’t absolutely certain that it is the corpse, here, to whom Erminda refers. Yet at the same time, the soul trembles with the blows dealt to a body she had abandoned years before. Perhaps here the horror is embalming itself, the unnatural preservation of remains. Nevertheless, at stake here is not a resolution of the meaning of Erminda’s words, but to show that their pairing with the images figures the tension between is not and is like that operates in metaphoric language, in the ontology of the photograph, and in the embalmed corpse.
Grammatically speaking, this confusion of address is not marked on the voiceover text at all, since the object is still the second-person singular: it is not, therefore, a consequence of the difference between images and words as modes of representation. Rather, the slippage between addressing the absent Evita and her present dead body is a direct result of the uncertain ontological status of the embalmed corpse. The embalmed corpse is simultaneously Evita and the marker of her absence in death. This simultaneous “both/and” relationship makes the representation into something more solid than simply a window into a past moment. Although Erminda’s words are directed toward the corpse, it is clear from the prior discussion of the similarities between embalmed corpses and photographs as modes of representation that the voiceover must, by extension, call into question the photograph’s transparency as mere evidence. Indeed, were the photographs to depict anything other than an embalmed corpse, this simultaneous “both/and” would perhaps not be evident.
In this special case, however, viewers are offered the opportunity to make new meaning of the photographs, because the voiceover undermines The Unquiet Grave’s efforts to keep their signifying process purely indexical. Instead, with the voiceover viewers experience the photographs as metaphorical: as independent objects that are very much like the corpse of Evita Perón, but that are not, in the end, identical to her.
A metaphoric reading of the corpse and the photographs opens up the field of possibilities for the reimagining of her legacy in today’s Argentina. Though Bauer and Bonasso are what might be called “second wave” Peronists (who were radicalized in the 1960s and 1970s, before Perón’s return), younger Peronists might view the project to “cleanse” her body of the defiling hands of the military as extraneous or even prudish. Indeed, literature in particular (but also theater) has done much work to “queer” the corpse or to make other its purported promiscuity in life, adding its endurance in life as just another in a long list of pornographic attributes.50 Moreover, the fact of the corpse’s embalming—which endures, of course, even below ground and out of sight—makes the possibility of exhuming the corpse and moving it to another location, perhaps one in which it would be displayed, always real.
As long as it exists as an object with its own fate and history, Evita Perón’s embalmed corpse will be as much of a protagonist in Argentine culture as the woman who once animated it. Nevertheless, it cannot operate as such independently of the legacy of Evita and Peronism: it is an object freighted, therefore, with metaphorical relations with the nation, with the bodies of the 30,000 Argentines killed during the period of state terror, with changing notions about women and power and sexuality, and on and on. The project here has been to show the way in which representation works to both abet and undermine attempts to privilege one set of metaphorical relations over another.
The fact that this body has been photographed only adds layers of mobility and iterability to the effects of the embalming, as a special type of representation whose relationship to its referent is particularly causal and physical. Photographic images may be indices, but they are not only that. Like embalmed corpses, they are material metaphors that both point back to their departed referents and point elsewhere, beyond the scope of the relationship between signifier and signified. Via chemical solution, photographs and embalmed corpses share a special physical relationship with the objects to which they refer. This special relationship is what makes indexicality so compelling as a way to resolve the ontological quandary they present—it provides a way to safely anchor them to their past referents and yet allow them to circulate in the present. Nevertheless, this kind of analysis leads to a rhetoric of substitution that inevitably effaces the materiality of the signifier. Not despite but because of the special relationship they share with their referents, photographs and embalmed corpses are unique and independent objects in the world. They are not and are like what they represent, metaphors in space as well as indices in time.
Margaret Schwartz is an assistant professor in the department of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University. A literary translator, she also works at the intersection between communication studies and translation studies. Her translation of the seminal Argentine avant-garde novel Museum of Eterna’s Novel appeared from Open Letter Press in February 2010.Notes
1. Evita: La tumba sin paz/The Unquiet Grave (Tristán Bauer, AR, 1997).
2. Joseph A. Page, Perón, A Biography (New York: Random House, 1981), 251.
3. Which, by the way, they could have done simply by lighting a match. Although the corpse is excellently preserved for contact with the air and is both strong and flexible, it is also extremely flammable because of the alcohols used in its preservation.
4. André Bazin, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” in What Is Cinema, vol. 1, trans. Hugh Gray (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), 9–16.
5. Paul Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor, trans. Paul Kegan (London: Routledge, 1977).
6. “Esa mujer” is the title of a famous short story about the corpse by Rodolfo Walsh. It is also a common euphemism used to refer to Evita. Its pejorative overtone stems from its refusal to make use of either her popular name—Evita—or her “legitimate” name, Perón, and in its insistence upon her gender, which emphasizes without stooping to name Evita’s transgressive sexuality. See Walsh, “Esa mujer,” in Los oficios terrestre (Buenos Aires: Ediciones de la Flor, 1986), 9–19.
7. People who had contact with the corpse, in particular Lieutenant Colonel Cabanillas, who was responsible for its secret burial in Italy, comment on its resemblance to a life-sized doll. “Not a wax doll,” says Cabanillas in The Unquiet Grave, “but a doll of flesh and bone” (“No una muñeca de cera, sino de carne y hueso”).
8. Marysa Navarro, Evita (Buenos Aires: Planeta, 1994), 311.
9. Page, Perón, A Biography, 345.
10. Navarro, Evita, 302.
11. For more on the allegations of mutilation see Page and Navarro, as well as Tomás Eloy Martínez’s historical novel, Santa Evita (Buenos Aires: Planeta, 1996), which includes some fictionalized accounts as well as newspaper reports.
12. That the mutilations themselves could themselves be read as indexical signs pointing toward the blows the corpse received is an interesting point that testifies to the sort of ad infinitum series inherent in the nature of the index. Peirce himself acknowledged this, and indeed, toward the end of his life, he had begun to see most signs as indexes in general (especially since the three classifications are not mutually exclusive). For more on this topic see Douglas Greenlee, Peirce’s Concept of Sign (Paris: Mouton, 1973), and Mary Ann Doane, The Emergence of Cinematic Time: Modernity, Contingency, the Archive (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002).
13. “Donde yacen los dueños de la Argentina.” Translations are mine, here and throughout, unless otherwise noted.
14. “Entre los aristocratas que tanto la despreciaron.”
15. “Su cuerpo, oculto a ocho metros de profundidad, guarda las claves de su propio misterio.”
16. A “translation” is the movement of a saint’s remains from one site to another. I am claiming, therefore, that by setting up Evita as a saint and then narratively exhuming her in order to refigure the site of burial, The Unquiet Grave constitutes a kind of figurative translation.
17. “¿Vive el coronel? Vive. Es una sombra olvidada que no hace declaraciones, aunque esta vez, acepta hablar.”
18. “ya está publicado.”
19. Ara had died in 1973; his memoirs were published posthumously in 1974.
20. “Todas las infamias que se habían publicado, y a todo que se había dicho que se había hecho con respecto al cadáver de Eva Perón.”
21. The use of a female voiceover and the importance of Erminda Duarte’s voice in The Unquiet Grave marks Peronism’s association with Argentine feminism— truly, one of the only indisputable advances of the Peronist social project. It was Evita Perón who founded the Peronist Women’s Party and whose political influence secured women’s suffrage in 1950. For more on Peronism, Evita, and feminism in Argentina see Marifran Carlson, ¡Feminismo! The Woman’s Movement in Argentina from Its Beginnings to Eva Perón (Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers, 1998), and Marta Raquel Zabeleta, Feminine Stereotypes and Roles in Theory and Practice in Argentina before and after the First Lady Eva Perón (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 2001).
22. “No es lo que vieron las hermanas de Evita en la residencia de su cuñado. El horror las acompañaría toda su vida. El horror de aquellas fotos que tomó el propio Perón, y no mostró nunca, que permanecían ocultas durante veinte-cinco años.”
23. Daniel Morgan, “Rethinking Bazin: Ontology and Realist Aesthetics,” Critical Inquiry 32 (2006): 441.
24. Melissa Miles, “The Burning Mirror: Photography in an Ambivalent Light,” Journal of Visual Culture 4 (2005): 330.
25. Bazin, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” 14.
26. Ibid., 14.
27. Peter Wollen, Signs and Meaning in the Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1969), 120.
28. Charles Hartshorn and Paul Weiss, Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1932), 159.
29. Greenlee, Peirce’s Concept of Sign, 70–98. Peirce’s definitions of icon, index, and symbol changed over his lifetime and contain many internal inconsistencies. Indeed, as Doane (2003) shows, film scholars have simplified Peirce immensely by focusing on this passage. Since I am tracing the traditional thread of this argument, I won’t document Peirce’s complexities outside of noting them here.
30. Phillip Rosen, “History of Image, Image of History: Subject and Ontology in Bazin,” in Rites of Realism: Essays on Corporeal Cinema, ed. Ivone Margulies (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 42–79.
32. Dudley Andrew, André Bazin (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978).
33. Mary Ann Doane, The Emergence of Cinematic Time: Modernity, Contingency, the Archive (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002).
34. Gregory Currie, “Visible Traces: Documentary and the Content of Photographs,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 57 (1999): 285–97.
35. Miles, “The Burning Mirror,” 329–49.
36. Miriam Hansen, introduction to Siegfried Kracauer, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), vii–xlvii.
37. Morgan, “Rethinking Bazin,” 443–81.
38. Bazin, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” 15.
39. Ibid., 14.
40. Morgan, “Rethinking Bazin” (450n28; 453n35), rightly points out that despite Gray’s English translation, “freed from the conditions of time and space that govern it [the object photographed],” the French merely reads “libéré des contingences temporelles”—that is, the introduction of “space” in the English translation is extraneous. This translation error is important for our purposes because of the question of embalming, another “process of becoming” that liberates an object from the effects of time. Both embalming and photography also introduce a higher level of spatial mobility, but this changed relationship to space (a photograph of a battleship being easier to transport than the object itself) is not commonly what we think of as embalming and photography’s main effects.
41. Ibid., 447.
42. Erminda Duarte, Mi hermana, Evita (Buenos Aires: Ediciones “Centro de Estudios Eva Perón,” 1972). “Ocupas todo el largo de la mesa en que yaces, y tu cabellera cae tan crecida que parece ignorar tu muerte . . . No ha sido mutilada como lo han sido tu cara y una de tus manos . . . Tu frente continúa siendo serena pese a que muestra un puntazo en la sien derecha y la señal de cuatro golpes. Veo un gran tajo en tu mejilla derecha, y lo que queda de tu naríz destrozada, casi completamente destrozada . . . Miro las plantas de tus pies desnudos cubiertos por una lámina de brea. ¿Qué significado tiene esta capa mineral en las plantas de tus pies? ¿En qué suelo de brea has estado parada, sustenida por tu propia muerte? Perdón . . . por el golpe que seccionó uno de tus dedos, por los que muestres en tu frente, por la agresión cuyo señal guarda tu mejilla derecha, por. . . mejor no continuar ya que estoy segura de que a cada golpe, desde el temblor de tu alma, a imitación de Cristo habrás dicho: “Perdónalos, Señor, que no saben lo que hacen.’”
43. Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor, 173.
44. Ibid., 6.
45. Ibid., 299.
46. Ibid., 173–74.
47. Jacques Derrida’s essay “White Mythology” launches an insightful critique of the role of the “proper” in metaphor, especially where it concerns philosophy. Ricoeur considers Derrida’s argument but does not engage with it at length; he does not dispute the role of the proper name in his notion of iconic resemblance, but he is interested more in the ways in which new metaphors—and hence, new meaning—is made, not in the ways in which so-called figurative language is naturalized and obscured. See Jacques Derrida, “White Mythology: Metaphor in the Text of Philosophy,” in Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 207–71.
48. Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor, 4.
49. Morgan, “Rethinking Bazin,” 447.
50. See for example Néstor Perlongher’s short story “Evita vive (en cada hotel organizado),” wherein the corpse joyfully joins in an orgy (with both male and female partners, and also with a black male partner) and takes drugs—all of which is depicted as evidence of her solidarity with the masses, not as morally decrepit behavior. Néstor Perlongher, “Evita vive (en cada hotel organizado),” El Porteño 88 (1989).