Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Lassitude

Irony seems to be gnawing at the edges of the Betancourt aureole within days of her deliverance (see, for one of countless examples, here). I can't help but compare the French hoopla with the low-key reception of the American hostages. It's not that we don't know how to perpetrate such media extravaganzas in the United States: think of the rescue of Pvt. Jessica Lynch. Indeed, I think we pioneered the genre. Is it simply that, in this case, the only "white woman in the hands of bloodthirsty savages" was not American? No, it was clearly more than that. The Betancourt phenomenon has exceeded even the Aubenas phenomenon, perhaps because Aubenas, once freed, insisted on returning to la vie ordinaire, while Betancourt, even before her capture, led a life that was not quite ordinary and, since her capture, has seemed to revel in her quasi-apotheosis. She had been iconized during her captivity, so that it seemed only natural that she should present herself as a living icon now that she is free. Yet there is an inherent contradiction between the status of icon, as the focal image of an enduring cult, and the status of media idol, which endures only until the next idol comes along (Warhol's "fifteen minutes of fame"). Betancourt survived her captivity, but will she survive her inevitable twilight of the idol? Doubt is permissible.

5 comments:

kirkmc said...

For whatever reason, the Betancourt family managed to get media attention every time they sneezed - the kids have been on TV so many times in the past few years, that I grew quite tired of the whole thing. (And others I know echoed the same feeling.) Sure, she was a hostage, but there are 700 others. It's amazing how they managed to create, and maintain, such a Barnumian hoopla.

As for the US, I think the government wasn't proud that these "contractors" were caught, and wanted to keep the whole thing low-key because they weren't supposed to be there.

Kirk

Steven Rendall said...

As you point out (and Kirk seems to overlook) Betancourt was not just any hostage. She had fought long and hard against the Columbian drug lords and against the political corruption associated with them, she had created a new political party, she was a legislator, and she was a candidate for the presidency. It's hardly surprising that her kidnapping received a great deal of attention. In France, it got even more attention because her father had been Columbian ambassador in Paris and was well-known; she grew up largely in France was a French as well as a Columbian citizen, and she had written a widely-read book about her political activity in Columbia, "La Rage au coeur" (full disclosure: I translated this book for HarperCollins).
Will she survive the inevitable end of the media hoopla surrounding her release, which has certainly been politically exploited (naturally enough)? We don't yet know how six years in the jungle have affected her. But assuming she is relatively intact, it seems likely that she will return to her earlier activities, and almost certainly write another book. Then we'll see.

alexpri said...

Personally I’m reluctant to accept that unmixed irony is the appropriate response to the Betancourt phenomenon. I agree that the “white woman in the hands of the savages” subtext helps to explain the particular hold over the public imagination that the Lynch, Aubenas, and Betancourt stories have had, but the comparison with Aung San Suu Kyi that Betancourt herself (implicitly) made brings out some of the particularities of her case. Both traded comfortable lives to become martyrs to democracy and icons of which their femininity is an essential component: both are political figures who were candidates for high office (prime minister, president) at the time of their imprisonment, and yet they are both perceived as being somehow above politics. They evoke a schema in which feminine “purity” and selflessness intervene to redeem a masculine political realm perceived to be corrupt beyond any possibility of self-correction. Betancourt is a “pasionaria,” a term that Le Petit Robert notes is often used ironically in French. There is indeed something embarrassing and self-dramatizing about Betancourt’s shameless emotionalism. But there is also, I think, something genuine, and she may well be able to serve the political ideals -- national reconciliation in Colombia, for example -- that she advocates better than a more conventional political figure such as Álvaro Uribe.

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