Academic journal article Framework

Proper Corruption: Index and Metaphor in Photographs of the Embalmed Corpse of Eva Perón

Academic journal article Framework

Proper Corruption: Index and Metaphor in Photographs of the Embalmed Corpse of Eva Perón

Article excerpt

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. …

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