February 22, 2007

Tortured Imaginary

Back in 1964, Graham Greene repeatedly saw American and British newspapers printing images of South Vietnamese torturing captured Vietcong. The images were not documentary evidence unearthed. They were taken at the behest of the torturers. Greene, who used his novelist's gift to pursue the gnawed heart of each matter, took note that the captions in the newspapers were descriptive but not marked by any condemnation; editorial approval of the demonstration that the enemy was not human. He wondered if such "honesty without conscience" should not make one prefer the older forms of hypocrisy. By 2007, the old tension between visibility and silence has developed into a more pronounced form of exposure as ideological advertising--vivid vindication of the worst impulses.

This week The New Yorker outlines how a histrionic television show ("24") represents torture in the hands of the righteous, where the pain inflicted is flaunted as the difficult task of the just. In fact, it seems to determine the essence of the righteous purpose itself. Repeatedly, routinely, necessarily disaster inflicted on bodies averts the detonation of the omnipresent "ticking time bomb." The audience is aligned with the torturer since those abused are always guilty (or when innocent, consenting to the process that they too accept as absolutely necessary). The slogan for this process: "everyone breaks eventually." And facts are left to puddle red on the floor.

The scandal in all this is not in the fictional renderings, whatever their politics or perverse appeal. An aesthetic of the tormented body is nothing new. The twisted and broken of medieval art continues along a dense spectrum, all the way to the present; and the eroticization of the torturer also remains a fascinating aspect of fascism, as Susan Sontag suggested.

Such images reverberate, however. According to a Dean at West Point, they are shifting the imaginary of soldiers in training. Many who enter the climate of the military bring with them a culture of torture in the name of the cause. They claim, with conviction, the very myths that would have, once before, betrayed and defined barbarity. They imagine themselves as protector and executioner of the tough decision. The conviction that they dwell and act on truth's side sanctifies the murderous acts and allows for wantonly adopting the ruthlessness that operates "without conscience."

In his novel, Waiting for the Barbarians, J. M. Coetzee writes of the ways power, pain, and paranoia orbit around Empire's nucleus, and its ever-changing dream of "peace." It is a novel about the drives and desire of torture. He puts the insidious words of justification into the mouths of the law-abiding torturers. The very real "pitch of human pain" for the witness is, for the blindly abusive Colonel of the novel, "the tone of truth." There can be no mistake where the failures of proper perception reside.

The perception, though, is of the cries from behind the barred door of the frontier granary where the "barbarians" are taken for their indoctrination to civilized discourse. Coetzee shows very little. Elsewhere he has written about the potential destructiveness of even imagining, in too much detail, such wretched things. It is our conscience, and his own, he is protecting. One must remain capable of flinching, of turning away, of condemning the unbearable. There must be respect for the forbiddenness of forbidden places. He has the authorial voice of Elizabeth Costello suggest that one risks a great deal if they decide to descend down into the torture's cellar, even as a witness.

The "witness" in Waiting for the Barbarians is an ambivalent colonial magistrate. In the wake of the torturing of a family at his outpost he is drawn--against his own impulses to maintain a peaceful state of mind--to the ghosts of those who emerged broken by their contact with the Empire's need for truth.

"Somewhere, always, a child is being beaten. I think of one who despite her age was still a child; who was brought in here and hurt before her father's eyes; who watched him being humiliated before her, and saw that he knew what she saw."

The absence of the details is what rightfully haunts. The truth is in that distanced, struggling apprehension. Everything ill-remembered, "all I see is a figure named father that could be the figure of any father who knows a child is being beaten who he cannot protect. To someone he loves he cannot fulfil his duty. For this he knows he is never forgiven. This knowledge of fathers, this knowledge of condemnation, is more than he can bear."

Coetzee shows us a proper response worming its way through the brain. The tortured imaginary sees clearly and is free from conscience, certain that it takes the painful path out of absolute need imposed on it by others. No responsibility, therefore. Instead, only the glorification of the abuses dispensed, in reality or in dream.