Sunday, February 17, 2008

Un Cuento y una Historia: What’s the difference?

On the Reyes family’s final return trip from Mexico City to Chicago, Celaya, the story-teller of Sandra Cisneros' Caramelo, asks her father to “tell more cuentos of your life” (Cisneros 246); her father responds with an attempt at clarification: “But I keep telling you, they’re not cuentos, Lala, they’re true. They’re historias” (246). When she inquires about the difference, her father answers enigmatically: “Ah! that’s a different kind of lie” (246). The distinction between un cuento (a story) and una historia (a history) might, superficially, appear self-evident, but explore the difference with even a minimal veracity and what once was a given quickly becomes problematic; the story and the history might differ, but commonalities abound. To use Inocencio Reyes’ words, they are both “lies.” But do these “lies” differ in “kind,” or merely degree?

In Methodology of the Oppressed, Chela Sandoval explores Barthes’ “seven principle poses,” or rhetorical figures, that promote and solidify dominant “processes of politics and identity” (118). One such principle is the privation of history; it “works by distancing all objects in culture from the material history of what has made them what they are, and an estrangement that deprives (Western) consciousness of any responsibility for what has become…[and] creates a peculiar kind of passivity in consciousness” (120). As such, one must actively engage with the material history of a cultural object to attain a more “enlightened” consciousness, and thus create a more “responsible” citizen-subject.

But the process is not that easy. Another Barthesian principle Sandoval discusses is that of the statement of fact: “Under ‘the statement of fact’ the citizen-subject is encouraged to speak and know with certainty, is trained to assert its own reality as if there were no other” (123). While Sandoval echoes Barthes’ belief that the most prominent examples of the statement of fact are “the aphorism and the maxim” (123-4), there is another form of speech that contributes to the statement of fact: the historical narrative. By passing itself off as factual, historical narratives “stand in resistance to a radical way of speaking and knowing” and work in contradistinction to expressions of “revolutionary truth[s] of knowledge and power” (124).

One may ask though: isn’t history factual? Doesn’t history present us with a series of real events, researched and documented, that can be taken as truth? Nothing could be further from the “truth.” Hayden White, whose conceptual framework Sandoval mobilizes within her book, investigates the construction of historical narratives at length in The Content of the Form. In the preface to this ground-breaking work, White writes: “narrative is not merely a neutral discursive form that may or may not be used to represent real events in their aspect as developmental processes but rather entails ontological and epistemic choices with distinct ideological and even specifically political implications” (ix). The ideological underpinnings of narrative become all the more devastating when we realize that “narration is both the ways in which a historical interpretation is achieved and the mode of discourse in which a successful understanding of matters historical is represented” (60). In other words, if narrative is a ideological device, and history (in both its construction and dissemination) is a narrative, then history is by its nature an ideological construct with inherently political, epistemic, and ontological ramifications. While historians themselves may not explicitly link their creations to “any specific political program, all knowledge produced in the human and social sciences lends itself to use by a given ideology better than it does to others” (81); in the case of history, that tends to be the dominant (Western) ideology or consciousness.

Can one escape the hegemony of consciousness that history necessitates? White claims that “for subordinate, emergent, or resisting social groups” to actively oppose dominant ideology, they must view the historical record, “not as a window through which the past ‘as it really was’ can be apprehended but rather a wall that must [be] broken through if the ‘terror of history’ is to be directly confronted and the fear it induces dispelled” (81-2).

Returning to Caramelo, we can witness the way Cisneros engages with Sandoval, Barthes, and White through her use of footnoting. Celaya, a Mexican-American, chronicles the Reyes family narrative, focusing on their genealogy that covers several continents and extends through numerous generations. Within the context of the novel, the Reyes history is the dominant history: a story about a particular Spanish-Mexican-Indian-American diaspora. Throughout the story’s telling, though, Cisneros embeds a series footnotes that contain the “legitimate” historical events that correspond to the “imaginative” events of Caramelo. But the only “legitimizing” factor the footnotes contain is that they are derived from the established, dominant historical narrative[1]; as the theoretical triumvirate of Sandoval-Barthes-White demonstrate, histories are less about “legitimacy” and more about “ideology.” Interpreting Caramelo meta-textually, Cisneros literally constructs an alternative historical narrative of a marginalized people and places it at the forefront, while concomitantly relegating the traditional historical narrative to footnotes. In this fashion, the text displaces standard hierarchical order.

Of course, one cannot say that the narrative Cisneros creates through Celaya is any more or less factual than the narrative of the dominant ideological consciousness. Perhaps, the main difference between the two concerns their respective transparency. Whereas the narratives within the footnotes exemplify the Barthesian rhetoric of “the statement of fact,” Celaya’s narrative acknowledges it own construction. During the second section, Celaya and Soledad exchange meta-narrative commentary about the story being told. At one point, Soledad chastises Celaya, saying: “You’ve never been able to tell the truth to save your life” (Cisneros 188). Celaya responds not with denial, but with a rhetorical shift: “They’re not lies, they’re healthy lies. So as to fill in the gaps.” (188) Truth claims these are not; they merely an attempt to re-construct a narrative that is always already lost to time. Later, when Soledad questions the factual accuracy of specific events, Celaya will rebut with: “Let’s pretend...just for poetic purposes…It suits the story better” (171). And herein, perhaps, resides the difference between the lie that is un cuento and the lie that is una historia: un cuento acknowledges through transparency the ideological construction that it is, whereas una historia attempts to deceive its audience through the opacity of truth statements in order to promote the “terror of history,” the terror of ideology, the terrorism of Western consciousness.

Works Cited

Cisneros, Sandra. Caramelo. New York, NY: Vintage-Random House Inc., 2002.

Sandoval, Chela. The Methodology of the Oppressed. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.

White, Hayden. The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.

[1] Events that the footnotes in Cisneros novel present are details from America’s 1914 invasion of Mexico, information about the Mexican outfit of fighter pilots that fought with the U.S. in WWII (Escuadron 201), a description of the television program that aired the Vietnam “lottery,” and aspects of the Mexican revolution. While this list is nowhere near complete, it should provide a idea of what Caramelo’s footnotes contain.

No comments: