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Posts Tagged ‘Primo Levi’


Cover illustration: an image of a painting by Felice Casorati, a favorite painter of Natalia’s (whom her father presented as a not-so-comic tyrant then naturally abhors)

Of one of the Nazi functionaries Levi meets in Periodic Table, he writes: “, “è nostro dovere giudicarlo, non perdonarlo” [it is our duty to judge him, not forgive him].

Prison Box: Inventory (Rome, February 1944)

copy War and Peace
cyrillic type
(fading, spine bent)

cashmere scarf,
arm length
(dirty, white, torn)

photographs of a girl,
two boys
and a woman (frayed at the edges)

pencil stubs
(carbon
tips spent)

lined spiral notebook
(nine pages left,
yellowed, blank)

pair of wire-rimmed glasses
(left lens shattered,
nose support gone)

— from Peg Boyers’ Hard Bread, a poetic autobiography for Natalia, this poem the imagined box of things she could have gotten after her husband, Leone, had been tortured to death

“See, see where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament!” — Faustus, in Christopher Marlowe’s play

Gentle readers and friends,

Perhaps not altogether by chance, I’ve been reading a series of Northern Italian and Jewish writers tragically directly relevant to what is happening in the US and elsewhere today — slowly before our very eyes, keeping at this point millions of people quarantined at home with no testing for said virus, or humane exit plan (except death for millions). This in a course I’m taking with Judith Plotz at the OLLI at AU (as after all she picked the books and authors); most of them written between the mid-1930s and not long after WW2; you see the assigned books above. I’ve not been content with these, but added to them Ginzburg’s The Little Virtues (with her rightly much admired “Winter in Abruzzi”), a book of essays on her and Peg Boyer’s extraordinarily good recreation of her autobiography; I went back to Primo Levi’s If this be man and The Truce (which I read in Italian in the early 1990s), about If not now, when?, and Carlo Levi’s Fear of Freedom, in William Weaver’s Open City (an account of his relationship with post-war writers in Rome (these three and Ignazione Silone, Alberto Moravio, Elsa Morante).

I cannot recommend them too strongly —

The longer texts assigned were all ultimately forms of life-writing. In The Periodic Table Primo Levi retells his life through a series of ironic essay-stories which take their immediate inspiration from 21 different chemical elements, each of which allows him to tell of aspects of his life more or less chronologically, as boy and man in Northern Italy, before, during and after WW2, often seen from the aspect of him practicing his profession as a chemical engineer (this helped save him from death in the extermination camps). We meet his family, friends (Sandro and Rita who help him resist fascist culture), people he loved, whimsical utopian dreams, and (in one case) now exposes for committing without ever with understanding or acknowledging the evil enacted. We are led to see how central to our lives is chemistry. Personal stories filled with life’s troubles, philosophical reflections, whimsical irrational doings, often intertwined with his sense of an imposed alienation and stigmatizing as a Jew lead to our seeing a collective experience of humiliation and oppression lightly presented. Unusual and elusive accounts of life in a laboratory or chemist’s shop often ending in a characteristic sobering gesture. I liked especially the individual scenes, with their unexpected turns. This is a kind book by a kind man who has endured much.


Primo Levi at the New York Public Library

Natalia Ginzburg’s Family Sayings (another translation of the book’s title) feels de-centered: she hardly ever gives us her or her family’s thoughts hidden from the collective outward life; the anecdotes are mostly about others, with her as the quietly presiding POV. Yet the book is about her life, starting with the time she has consecutive memories at age 5 to near the end of her life when she visited England with her second husband, and now somehow freed of her immediate Italian world can spill out what happened the intimate events and calamities inflicted on her family and close friends and associates as well as their relationships, achievements, losses. Family sayings are repeated phrases, words, sentences that the family uses as collective comic glue for themselves. And we can track them (as they add and subtract people) from one place to another as they move around Italy, or are forced to move, hide, become imprisoned, escape (her brother swam across a part of the Mediterranean in winter to reach unoccupied France). Part of the reason for her reticence is this is a memoir, all the people are real, and the events really happened, so she must protect them and herself. I suggest frustration at this led Boyers to write the feelings and thoughts we do surmise (we are given enough to extrapolate) in poems that give Natalia’s repressed reactions and only partly expressed critiques and celebrations full play. I loved her plain matter-of-fact style: simple sentences expect us to provide in-depth understanding as when she says of Jewish and other displaced now vulnerable peoples they are “without a country.” While the surface is prosaic, quietly telling about all sorts of interesting people (many involved in politics and literature), the underlying pattern is tragic. Boyers calls her style and tone “astringent yet passionate.” The refrain: I never saw him again (of her husband); they never saw one another again. Like Virginia Woolf in Jacob’s Room, she produces a portrait of humanity as seen through the lens of a personal rich Italian secular-Jewish culture — during a time of aggressive fascism.


Natalia Ginzburg

One of the unexpected pleasures of Boyers’ poems is that in elaborating, imagining Ginzburg’s relationships to a number of Italian writers mentioned and central to her book (e.g., Pavese), we get close to these.


Peg Boyers reading her poetry

Christ Stopped at Eboli is more than a poetic masterpiece; it is a political argument and ethnographic study. It covers the year he spent in internal exile — a peculiarly Italian form of imprisonment descending from the Roman period, where a person is cut off, exiled from his or her community, isolated in a remote spot and watched to keep him or her from any kind of political activity, news of the world he or she understands. (A number of the Jewish and socialist/communist literati in Italy were treated this way: Ginzburg’s memoir includes a couple of years in Abruzzi.) Carlo Levi may be said to have thoroughly internalized his exterior culture — he acts as physician (he was trained to be a doctor), paints (his vocation), writes, joins in tangentially — which culture during his sojourn expands to sympathize with these strange and victimized (for centuries) people he finds himself among, whom since the Northerners know little of them, he is determined to bring before the world of his readers (the book was written in 1946 after Mussolini fell from power). I think his conclusion that these people live in a timeless realm they cannot be plucked from wrong: they have been given no opportunity, no good choices (like the working class whites of the US), exploited by every group that has taken power over them, and the result has been seething just repressed destructive violence. (The lesson for our era is more direct in Carlo Levi’s book’s conclusions than the above books.) He compels our attention by the riveted and insightful nature of the chronological settling in and living alongside story he tells. His sister visits him at one point, and we see this world from her experienced sophisticated compassionate eyes.


Carlo Levi

Late in life both Carlo Levi and Natalia Ginzburg became directly politically involved, both as independents in the parliament with ties to the socialist parties. They wrote journalism, she worked for Einaudi all her life. Both seem to have been known by other much respected writers and artists — from Croce to Pavese and Elsa Morante. It is a small and elite world these people belong to, but one with a pro-social democracy tradition – now under threat too.

*************************************************


Movie poster

I’ve now begun the fourth author for this term, Giorgio Bassani whose Garden of the Finzi-Continis (I have the Isabel Quigly translation) has some wider fame because there was a popular movie adapted from the book. I began this autobiographical novel after reading an apparently famous meditation: “A Memorial Tablet in the Via Mazzini.” He differs from the other three by his name (no Levi), because he comes from Ferrara (the others Turin and Rome), and because his tale is of fascists. This epitomizes one of Bassani’s central themes: the moral problem of assimilation. A man whose has suffered unspeakably from the camps and seen so many friends worked to death, outright killed (probably raped — this is only very recently recorded as on Marta Hiller’s A Woman in Berlin) sees his name as having died on a memorial plaque on a wall where there was once a synagogue. He wants to inform all that he is still living, but they are willing (good of them) to acknowledge the mistake and seemingly welcome him back, seemingly sorry for all that has happened, in fact they want him to be silent about what happened, to enable their own forgetting of the roles they played in betraying neighbors, often enough taking their furniture, their things, their property, their positions. It seems to be his moral duty to assimilate in the way demanded in order that the society can return to functioning. But is it? What happens is the one survivor refuses to pretend nothing happened, refuses to forget, demands his house and furniture back. And we see that the others (outright fascists and those who supported the fascists) want to return to the status quo that favored them after the war as well as before. They want to carry on wearing fascist costumes, acting like fascists (the partisans with their machine guns are behaving like fascists).

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis seems to be about how uUnlike the Levis in Turn), Bassani’s family in Ferrara, surrounded by fascists and sometimes fascists themselves, were not aware that they could and would be destroyed — they thought their insulated wealth protected them. This naivete is found in Olivia Manning’s depiction of a wealthy Jewish family in Bucharest in her Balkan Trilogy: with what ease the father is imprisoned, personally crushed, his property taken from his family whose best option is flight (if they can manage it).


Giorgio Bassani

The relevance here works a little differently. With the increased monopolization of all trade by a few giant corporations, the film has become one of these unaffordable super-expensive DVDS, no longer on Prime Video on Amazon (gradually such films are being removed) and available only as a blu-ray, merely now very high-priced. A 4 part film of Christ Stopped at Eboli is available only in Italian (as who would get a profit from this, so why provide translations) and at astronomical prices.

While I have my own long-time favorites in Italian poetry from the Renaissance and again the later 19th century to our own time, I’ve been introduced to new poets I hadn’t read or known about. Bassani’s style in his novel seems to be long sinewy sentences moving back and forth in time, drenched with an edgy-raw sort of nostalgia, but here is a poem by him where the emphasis falls on the here and now. The problem is what do you do when fascistic groups have taken over the land you live in and are working to do all they can to impoverish (so as to enrichen themselves) and terrify you into submission. (I cannot reprint the stanzaic form, which you can see here.)

The Racial Laws

The magnolia smack in the middle
of our Ferrara house’s garden is the very
same that reappears in almost every
book of mine

We planted it in’39
ceremoniously
just a few months after
the Racial Laws were brought to bear
it was a solemn-comical affair all of us
fairly lighthearted God permitting despite
being encumbered with the dull historical appendix
Judaism

Walled-in by four walls forewarned
Soon enough it grew
black luminous wide-rimmed
pointing decisively up towards the imminent
sky
full day
and night with grey
sparrows dusky blackbirds
unflaggingly scanned from below by pregnant
cats and by my
mother—
she too confined defenceless behind
the windowsill forever brimming
with her crumbs

Straight as a sword from its base to its tip
twenty-some years on
it overtops the neighboring roofs
beholding every bit of the city and the infinite
green space that circles it
but now somehow stumped I can guess
how it feels unsure
of a stretch up there in the heights a narrow space
in the sun
like someone at a loss
after a long journey
as to which road to take or
what to do
Giorgio Bassani, tr. James McKendrick


Felice Casorati — untitled

Ellen

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Friends,

Shortly after my husband, Jim, died, I began a process of finishing the books he was in the middle of reading when his brain gave out and he could no longer concentrate. One was Carolyn Steedman’s Labours Lost: Domestic Service and the Making of Modern England. At the time I couldn’t face the one he had by his bedside, Speaking about Torture, edd. Julie A Carlson and Elisabeth Weber. Four years have now gone by, political situations facilitating torture have increased, so I thought I would finally tackle this one. Reading this material is upsetting but I have gathered far more than one blog ought to hold as it cries out to be shared. The underlying premise is humanities studies explain torture to us. It is thus a book in defense of the humanities, showing the importance and usefulness of the perspective too.

Part One consists of the Introductory essay by Carlson and Weber, “For the Humanities,” Lisa Hajjar’s “An Assault on Truth: A Chronology of Torture, Deception and Denial,” and Alfred W. McCoy, “In the Minotaur’s Labyrinth: Pyschological Torture, Public forgetting and contested history.” Read together, the argument across these essays is one Orwell made concisely: the purpose of torture is not to gain information; it’s to destroy someone’s personality, them as a self, and by extension as others learn of this to cow whole populations. What happens to people is they lose their belief in themselves as human beings: stripped, shaven, forced to defecate and urinate in public with nothing to clean them, tortured beyond endurance (the introduction says the Bush techniques were as bad as the Nazis), they live beyond death. They are like people who have died. A key element: from the time we are young we look to others for help. We expect help. This is from our relationship with our mother. The tortured person sees no one will help him or her. That abandonment is central to the new view of others and life that cannot be gotten over. This is why such a person will commit suicide, sometimes decades later. The term for this is “hauntology.”

This is seen in Elizabethan times — especially in the area of religion and atheism. In Elizabeth I’s prisons she tortured atheists — Christopher Marlowe was tortured and confessed to his atheism; Thomas Kyd’s death was attributed to torture. We forget that it was dangerous to be a playwright and if Shakespeare’s plays often punt too or are subtextual that’s why. I read on and have discovered something that is demoralizing in a new way: these “enhanced torture techniques” are more or often as mental as physical; that’s why they passed muster when they were first invented. These mental/physical humiliation tortures were — wait for it — an invention of psychologists trains in US universities. The origin of modern torture is sophisticated modern psychology/psychiatry applied. This enabled practice with impunity. Of course thousands (one citation in either South or Latin America was 80,000 dead from torture) were simply brutalized; the difference is in say 16th through 18th century racks and torture instruments of steel and iron were used; now electric currents are run through someone’s nerve system based on these “principles.” There are manuals of how to. Neither the Clinton or Obama administration had the courage or stomach to prosecute — and just as bad, not to expose this origin.


Jamie (Sam Heughan) in Outlander

One recent troubling development is this kind of experience is increasingly dramatized in films. In the final sequence of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander Jamie is humiliated personally (made to do submissive begging) and he feels he has to tell this to Clare: we get a depiction of torture which condemns it on all grounds and shows how it is basis of a tyranny (as Eleanor Scarry discussed in The Body In Pain); beyond that in the telling why someone would kill themselves after they escape even years after they escape (as Primo Levi and others who spent time in extermination and German concentration camps). He lives in dread of Randall and has nightmares. In the mini-series the emphasis was on a man raping a man, in other words sexual, and the discussions (such as they were on popular websites run by professionals, very discreet) focused on see how men are raped too (so it almost became a show revealing women lying in another direction — they pretend only they are raped) though to do the mini-series justice it was also deeply anti-torture.

Hajjar demonstrates from what happens in different situations and centuries too in these torture outbreaks that the purpose (as the thing achieved is) to de-humanize people, rob them of all security and stability; that is what the torturers are doing. The torturers go well beyond trying to get information. So the excuse of getting information is false, and that’s when you and prove it’s false (no good information, all lies), it does not stop. You say we cannot use this in court and cannot prosecute this person. Well, that wasn’t the point. You want to define them as outside all law and human community (unlawful combatants for example). You want to put them were they are abandoned and no hope from any other human being around them. Then you do want people to know in the countries and among the groups you are seeking to destroy, exploit, subdue. Assad’s slaughterhouses do more than murder; the hanging is a perfunctory last step. To me Hajjar tells an extraordinary story: after 9/11 the Bush administration snatched huge numbers of people and tortured them; not long after they began, they realizes these people knew nothing, were innocent of 9/11, but they carried on torturing them. It will be said but surely they believed them guilty and knowledgeable: the evidence they had nothing to do with 9/11 was so clear. I read a story recently about our court system in which judges say they have to kill someone convicted even if it’s proved he was innocent after he was convicted to “vindicate the system” (it was either in the LRB or NYRB). Were these people vindicating their system by doing these truly dreadful things to people — the people who did them had to be dreadful; the sole control was the people doing them feared they’d be punished

The second essay by McCoy puts paid to the notion in a way that Trump is beyond all we’ve seen: in a number of ways we see Bush did what Trump now threatens to do, and Obama refused to prosecute and condemn and left in place laws and apparatus in the US system that now could be used again. I discovered these “enhanced torture techniques” are more or often as mental as physical; that’s why they passed muster when they were first invented. These mental/physical humiliation tortures were — wait for it — an invention of psychologists trains in US universities in the 1950s at the beginning of the cold war and that is when they first spread. Among the shameful shameless behavior in public which has led to the majority of Americans who are asked (small but shocking) approving of torture as necessary for information: 481 prominent professors from universities which include the top 110 declared in a Harvard document that we should seriously consider torture as an effective coercive policy …. Everyone knows the history of Yoo, the spread of torture, the public disclosure — and suddenly for a while the public is horrified, the saying it’s just a few bad apples&c Those who fought included a group of soldier lawyers, JAGS they were called; they persisted. I have seen General James C Walker arguing cases on TV YouTubes. Colin Powell one of the few to break rank. Careless language again and again show this is not at all about information. Terrify and punish. Cheney has said we should decorate those who did this. Meanwhile their names are kept from us. Some international organizations continue to push back hard.

****************************

Goya, Disasters of War

Part Two places torture in the contexts of specific societies. Reinhold Gorling’s important “Torture and Society,” begins the part with an attempt to get at the psychology of how torture destroys a personality. we are never self-contained, no matter what we may think we are continually closely involved with others from drinking water, to breathing, our thoughts and emotions reach out to other human beings and we feel others’ presences. He does not deny there is a self apart, but that the self acts within relationships — even if for some at a distance. Torture attacks the vulnerability of people in this area directly, it makes us aware of how dependent we are by depriving people of protection and provision. This explains why solitary confinement (which I’ve read is also subject to sadistic punishments by depriving food and light) is torture. It not only de-cultures people.

This is an evil that occurs periodically and when encouraged hard to check. There is this impulse to control, for power. What you do is block the person and bring their exchanges to a standstill. (A book called Psychopathologie des violences collectives is about states that use torture systematically — as the US does in prisons). The more a person is conscious of his or her vulnerability, dependence, more sensitive, the easier to torture and dominate. An important weapon is recognition, the withholding of it. When others recognize us and we them, the openness this depends keeps the torturer at bay (tweets function in a vacuum where the slanderer or tormentor does not have to recognize responses). It is a kind of theatrical or performative act and thus deprivation and recognition can be manipulated in schools to make children very miserable. These structures emerge when virulent conflicts in the society are ratcheted up. A repetition and spread of behaviors are then aimed at people deemed “unacceptable.” These then frighten others who are similarly “unacceptable” because they are vulnerable.

(Remember the Victorian novels about children whose pain goes unacknowledged (Jane Eyre, David Copperfield). Very mild seeming but Ausen’s appalled Mr Knightley tells Emma she has done wrong because she now encourages others to openly despise and mock Miss Bates. This also fits in with Winnicott’s theory of how children grow up in families with object relationships needing love and empathy. When parents refuse empathy, it’s beyond neglect and functions as abuse which the child won’t forget.)

Gorling then argues how those not literally there, those fed rumors of the torture are witnesses and so drawn into the relationship. These witnesses are subdivided into those who shrug, are complicit, seem to turn away and ignore it. Turn a blind eye. The point here is they are pretending; they know it’s going on; the perception has taken place before the person manages to exclude it. The witness from afar can also fight against what’s happening in a variety of (often) feeble ways. There is another set of people involved: those in a relationship with the victim; they are indirectly but powerfully hurt too; their sense of security shaken. Nowadays with the Internet we have many more silent witnesses.

Isolation and disconnection seems to be part of the point of letting people know from afar that this is happening. Phiip Gorevitch who researched genocide in Rawanda said “genocide … is an exercise in community building.” Horrible I know but when in Trollope he acquiesces (openly in his travel book) in “elimination” of the native peoples you do see how he is doing this as community building, enlisting the settler colonialists. (Think of “the removal”of Palestinians from the west bank in Israel.) That violence and trauma leave their mark. By radically splitting it off (say into black sites) it is easily kept out of overt culture but it is there, and at the end he describes those pictures from Abu Ghrabi which most of us have seen and do remember. But the point seems to be is at the same time it can be denied (a few bad apples, not happening any more &c&c). You don’t account for what happened. You can deny the urge to do it. The process is Lacanian projection — where people really (it’s said and they do in part) try to conform themselves to what they think others see of them and how others see them. (My feeling about Lacan is usually that those who really allow this mirroring to be a prison forget how unimportant we are to most people, how they couldn’t care less about us as individuals and whatever they say or do is mostly transient gossip.)


Primo Levi, If this be Man and The Truce

The volume’s fourth essay suggests why we are today hearing explicit analogies with Hitler and Nazi and fascist regimes: Susan Derwin’s “What Nazi Crimes Against Humanity Can Tell Us about Torture Today.” She begins with the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a direct consequence of Nazi crimes against humanity, from a commission chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt. She then moves into Primo Levi’s If This Be Man (correctly Englished). I agree with her the title published as Survival in Auschwitz is worse than misleading: the book is not about survival in Auschwitz, we know now that of the 650 people taken with Levi to Auschwitz, 15 men and 9 women survived. The book is about Levi’s experience of living in the universe where most of the people were deprived of every right, and driven down to the level of animals (including no bathroom facilities, stripping, shaving, no utensils to eat with with). She says he wanted to make us see what happens to a social order predicated upon “the principle of enmity.” She then reports that the interrogation techniques of the Nazis included precisely those used by the Bush people. (They didn’t need the psychology/psychiatry profs of the 1950s to tell them what to do or why.) The idea was violate the integrity of the physical body, make you body your enemy since it is so full of pain, to make person be as dead.

I’ve read If this be man in Italian and I thought the title was referring to what the Nazis were doing to others, and how how the people were treating one another in this hell: they became utterly estranged, but Derwin feels Levi is describing the deterioration of each person within and without. How they lost the ability to observe, to remember, to express themselves, what it is to be “de-humanized”,’ the deep wound to human dignity, how depriving people of the smallest objects around which their memories clustered was to deprive them of memory and their worlds. (This reminds me of how a prisoner is forced to dress differently and everything taken from him or her when they enter a prison; only later is some returned as if it were a favor for good behavior.) Memory is integral to self-hood.

Derwin tells us Levi’s history, how he came to be captured, how he survived because he was put into a I.G. Farben laboratory (so was Lustig whom I mentioned put in a factory/lab and so escaped immediate death, and then managed to escape). He was left to die of scarlet fever when the Germans fled, but survived and resumed life in Milan as a manager of a chemical factory until 1977 when he retired to write full time. She goes over his works, and he fell from a stairwell in 1987. She will not say he killed himself — we cannot be sure says she.

Derwin then moves on to the work of Jean Amery who renamed himself from Franz Stangl, a former commandan of Treblinka – he killed himself afterwards too. He gave an interview and wrote that beyond the violence the pushing people into becoming quite naked and alone was torture. It is again what Carlson and Weber say at the beginning: this abandonment, sense of being alone with no help is central to the horror psychologically. Now Derwin suggests Amery tells us (in effect) the reason people kill themselves later is they can never forget that abandonment, they can never forget no one anywhere would help them. This intense loneliness (italicized) and lack of security and safety ever after triggers primordial anxieties, not to be overcome. You cannot face your dependency and broken attachments. The anguish of survival is the world is afterward forever foreign a place you are tormented in.

Then she brings back Levi where he describes sleeping with strangers who will sleep on top of you. I do remember this passage. It was so desolating how the people behaved to one another. They are out of contact with one another as people, all alone in effect. “Polluted sleep” is the translation, an atavistic anguish. Without possibility of communication there can be no relief.

This resonates with me – just a small example I think as I read if I try to tell people some of what I feel and they just can’t understand and if trying one terrifies or upset them — there can be no liberation from this once you have known it. I get it. A psychiatrist named Knell talks of how silence protects people, if you tell and get nowhere you feel rage or unprotected and it makes it all worse. People like Knell therefore are astonished at Levi and his lucidity. The policy of containment keeps you from that area of darkness. Cynthia Oznick writing of Levi’s writing said how he is writing out of retaliatory passion. Not at all, but I have read writers who I find are retaliating at the reader by terrifying them: to me Flanner O’Connor and Wm Faulkner are such writers, and some of the writes of spy thrillers (Susan Hill for example). So the gothic can be faulted centrally as a tool to hurt people? I have thought so …

The issue of who survives concludes Derwin’s essay. Ethical people who cannot compromise. Another group is caught up in the Italian erased by the English translation of another book by Levi: The Drowned and the Saved: I sommersi and il salvati: the submerged, the sunk, the overwhelmed. Those who fell into utter silence were those among whom it was far less possible that a sliver would survive. A shocking 80,000 died in southeast asia and the middle from torture – done by Americans too. What Levi says is the people who are so shocked they can’t talk are those who die quickest. Those who won’t communicate their suffering are the most vulnerable. Being able to talk, to reach out, to tell shows strength and also a sense of a self violated, the self is still there and it’s complaining and loud and long. It takes strength to be angry, it’s exhausting. Indignation means you have to think well of yourself on some level.

Derwin’s essay ends on the horrifying criminal behavior – whole scale – this man was a monster – of Hitler upon being asked if an infant be granted a mercy death – a severely disabled baby. Of course yes, but then he sent a doctor to look and before you know it a secret decree was issued between 1939 and 45 to slaughter and approximately 5000 babies died. “this would not have been possible without the cooperation of physicians, nurses, bureaucrats and parents. It was mandatory to notify the hospital if your child was born with a defect. Those with disabilities were labeled ‘eligible’ in the Orwellian language used.”

The fifth essay, Elisabeth Weber’s “‘Torture was the essence of National Socialism:’ reading Jean Amery today,” begins with the new acceptability of torture in US media: it’s not a good thing that 24 (a TV show) shows horrifying torture. It does not evoke horror but inures and the stories are about how X got this great information. The people at Guantanamo and elsewhere are defined out of existence. They are given a category which makes them not part of any category: unlawful combatants. They have no legal existence. Unnameable, unclassifiable. She repeats Levi’s point that the submerged are those who rarely survive. He called them Muselmanner, “walking dead,” “non-men, “Ghost like beings.” Ghost detainee was almost an official term. Ghosting. She then turns to the effect of immediate brutalization and her examples are not from torture but arrests. It’s common practice to brutalize people upon arresting them. This delivers a shock like torture: they have no recourse, they are not accused of anything, they never forget the experience.

On Jean Amery’s writing: Weber discusses the problem of the softened and misleading translations of Amery who wrote in German. Even the most famous phrases from this man have been toned down. One really reads: The ignominy (infamy) of annihilation cannot be erased (not Whoever has succumbed to torture can no longer feel at home in the world. The shame of destruction cannot be erased.) She goes into the German language and how viscerally Amery uses it: torture is the fleshification of someone; they become their body. When the police killed Eric Garner they would not his body breathe and we see on that video his hysteria and astonishment they were killing him.

Amery in his work shows us first how astonished people feel when they find themselves treated as nothing, as subhuman, as without a life that matters. Most tortured people even the submerged never cease to feel astonished at some level of their being. There is no path back from having experience this other side of death, of annihilation. (Derwin out of Levi said sadists want to nullify other people.) He or she occupies an inbetween place from then on where torture and the memories never end. They are more tormented at the time at ways of dying; they want death but not this humiliating animal one they are getting filled with intense pain — intense pain said Scarry is world-destroying. Then they take on the view of them of their torturers: they betrayed a secret; they are cowards.

I’m impressed by Amery and Weber’s use of Heidegger. What is violated is the pre-ontological understanding of being-in-the-world acquired by most children (not abused ones). Irreparable assault on “the House of being.” The third Reich was the apotheosis of torture. Their methods centered on this experience or threat of it. A system based on sadism. It makes me remember the powerful novel by Michel Faber, Under my skin: when someone suddenly pleads “mercy” it seems to harrowing as to break down the soul of a reader. (All should read Faber’s masterpiece). Amery disagreed with Foucault, Lacan and other French philosophical systems. There is a deep innate self in touch with itself that people can live on.

Weber ends with the idea where ever torture is used it’s impossible to control its ever widening reach. The horror is people who torture others enjoy it – how far can they go; what can they do to this person? Floodgates of transgression are opened, break down psychic boundaries systematically, as principle.


The Night Bagdad Fell (a farcical tragic political movie)

The sixth essay in the book, “What did the corpse want” by Sinan Antoon is about poetry. He says – and this is true, unlike most poets in the West, Arab poets are politically engaged and write political poetry, poetry which directly addresses political situations. The breaking into the news of the Abu Ghraib pictures and then the spread of knowledge that the US tortures systematically caused an eruption of hundreds of poems. The incident was seen as “ a ritual of collective domination and assault: — its effects were felt as “extended to the audience of the visual event and were traumatic for those who identified with the naked and assaulted bodies of the victims. Toonan then reprints a long powerful poem and analyses it. Tortured and wretched are synonyms; those speaking are the voices of the dead. The emphasis of the poem is to show how stripped the people have been, how stripped the corpse of all identity. They have only their own blood to be buried in. The use of dogs (and dogs were used in North Dakota as filmed by Amy Goodman – -she is the only one to have exposed the dogs with their jaws covered in blood) – the dogs there in the pictures used against the victims compounds the abandonment by other human beings. Given the Arab religion it also makes the corpses impure, unclean, caries the torture and wretchedness to the grave.

Antoon’s second chosen poem is by Youssef who is said to be one of Iraq’s most famous poets, he is a communist intellectual. A recent collection of poems by him is Englished as The Last Communist Enters Heaven. The voice of the person is someone who rejects compromise with the invader (the US) with its capitalism. The point of this poem is there are no saviors; no individual can save the country or any group from anything. It is also to show that one of the purposes of torture is to prevent the victim from being an agent of anything. Then he tries to show the released who live trying to re-appropriate agency by becoming part of a group.

Sargon Bulus’s poem, “The Corpse,” seems to be about the torturing of a corpse, but then it turns out the corpse is alive and mutters, wants something. It reaches the harrowing effects of torture. Scarry says physical pain actively destroys our ability to speak, we revert to a state anterior to language, to sheer sounds and cries. This happens in in Michael Faber’s Under the Skin. Most of Bulus’s poems are about the carnage in Iraq. Antoon congratulates him upon being in a unique space “vis-à-vis the various ideological narratives competing for Iraq’s history and future” (!). Bulus avoids falsifying as good or triumphant what Iraq was before British colonialism, with no false promises for the future. An elegiac tone and no closure. Simple and eloquent in language an attempt not to have a specific personality. Worn, tired, exhausted people. These poems are conveying what is so hard to convey. I find Antoon absurd when he worries lest we think Bulus’s poems are defeatist. Why not be defeatist?

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Hans Hacke, US Isolation Box, Grenada, 1983

The third part of the book moves to artful representation of torture. “John Nava: Painting against Torture” begins with something more cheering: people seem to come together and feel for one another right after 9/11 (at least inside the US and NYC), but when Bush and Cheney started their hellish war, all this feeling was thrown away. Then real protests began and were savagely attacked. After an exhibition of paintings and tapestries at Sullivan Goss Gallery in Santa Barbara, Cal, 2006, the art gallery had to endure weeks of editorial attack, police involvement from its pictures based on Abu Ghraib. Sure art should and can also console, provide escape, spiritual renewal, but it should tell hard truths too. One problem though was such pictures also had the effect of inuring people and getting them used to torture, even to accept it as “old hat.” Bush said “damn right” that they tortured (years later I remember Obama’s statement: “folks were tortured.”) Nava says in the end the torture and reaction in public eroded justice, devastated our national standing, licensed illegitimate war and corrupted a free society.

The eighth essay by Abigail Solomon-Godeau, “Torture and Representation” is about how these images of torture have been assimilated into our culture. She says the truth is earlier depictions were done in a way that justified the torture. A rare instance of pity can be seen in the famous Laokoon which can be seen as a God’s revenge through torture. From the 16th through 17th century pictures of torture were not supposed to make us reflect on the pain or create pathos or tragedy. It just confirmed this is the order of the world you must obey. A change came in the 18th century, the Enlightenment, the first real attempts to create compassion, identification, blame the establishment, the state as unjust merciless. The disquieting thing is how easily people become voyeurs and art even explicitly said, directed to critique the “bad guys” is being enjoyed by the watchers. After saying that the first true anti-torture, anti-war anti-establishment pictures we have are Goya’s, and that his Disasters of War were published only in 1863, 40 years after Goya produced them, Solomon-Godeau goes over 4 artists, 4 exhibitions which are troubling. She says first pain is mostly what can’t be communicated, the world shattering experience exceeds representation.

So what are the possibilities and limitations. Fernando Botero’s paintings after Abu Ghraib are so stylized, and he justifies a distanced formal approach by saying he wants to give the prisoners dignity. Solomon-Godeau questions this desire to “restore dignity.” Isn’t the point they had none. Botero fears the Sadistic Trump type follower will just despise the tortured – the way Trump openly despises McCann. Solomon-Godeau most successful object in one exhibition is an imitation of an actual box prisoners were put in by Hans Haacke: “US Isolation Box,” 1983. Four dimensional and the same size. Information about what the prisoners experience is immediately “visceral, palpable, immediate” Little ventilation, only slits for windows too high for eyes to look out, no bed, no toilet, old wood – like the person was an object of junk. Brutal pesent: “this is how the US military treats detainees and prisoners” all the boxes said. It was moved from a conspicuous to an inconspicuous space under political pressure. (Donald Trump falls squarely into the type of person that enjoys watching torture and despises the tortured person for being tortured.)

Clinton Fein’s Rank and File could be called Defiled. It seems to be a print of a sculpture of abject bodies all kneeling and bowed on the floor, you see only the backside of the man, or his feet coming out from under, and other bodies clinging over these. Solomon-Godeau sees a voyeuristic element in the silvery color and spectacle. Jenny Holzer’s Protect Protect is another which eschews imitations of people. On a wall the prints of actual hands, military memos, policy statements, autopsy reports: it’s these that permit and guide the torture and the deeply inhumane boiler plate language makes a point.

Last these black silhouettes I’ve seen and one hit me hard: it’s of a man in a kind of witches garb (or Klu Klux Klan outfit), over his head a bag; he’s being made to stand on a stand with his arms outstretched. Somehow it communicate a terrible psychological suffering to be so humiliated. So driven to do this. The silhouettes are done by a group of artists called Forkscrew; they are put on posters which are easily distributed. Perhaps that’s why I’ve seen these. They are called iRaq after the jargon names of our gadgets: ipad, iphone. She says the hooding makes for a shock of recognition. There are writhing women and men holding on to what looks like cell phones or old walky talkys in their hands, a wire to their head or ear – -they are being tortured with electricity. Again there is no possibility of enjoyment, even if each image is a spectacle, it’s a weak one. This group has produced other art mocking Apple ipod ads.

Douglas Crimp is quoted: there is no reason collective art in public is any less powerful and great than the work of art in a private gallery attributed to some artist, famous or not.


Waterboarding, Antwerp 1556 — it looks like the force-feeding of the suffragettes — which was a form of torture

Stephen F. Eisenman is on “Waterboarding: Political and Sacred Torture,” the 9th essay takes up the topic of waterboarding. The question he asks and finally answers is why of all techniques is waterboarding the most acceptable; the answer is it corresponds to primal religious rituals. First, statistics: after the photos from Abu Ghrabi wre published 2003. 54% of the US public were “bothered a great deal:’ a year later only 40%; December 2005 61% said torture was justified. Bush invoking “ticking bomb” succeed in getting congress to agree “CI should be allowed to use ‘alternative interrogation procedures’ and be given immunity from prosecution. A few senators fought that immunity (Leahy, Sheldon Whitehouse, Joe Biden) but immunity granted. In investigations under his attorney general (Mukasay, that’s 2008) the criminality of the procedure of waterboarding wasn’t the subject of the session, only the destruction of evidence for it. Support for torture in the US today is not hidden or kept in professional websites; it’s open, available for all to see; Giuliani had police practice torture and was unabashed. Pictures of torture just don’t undermine the procedure no matter how brutal; these have been “normative practices” in the US as in the history of politics.

Eisenman then describes waterboarding: painful, terrifying, you come near death and many die. Many die. Many die. That this is kept up on someone shows it’s not information that is sought, what’s wanted is a confession you are in error, an apostate, deeply in error, it’s all your fault what is happening. He cites and describes instances from Roman through medieval to our own times. Many paragraphs.

Some artists have contested these: Hogarth, Goya, Picasso, Sartre, Benamin, Pontecovo — challenged the regime of these images and this talk. He goes over a picture by Sue Coe, “We do not torture” which successfully challenges (without voyeurism). Leon Golumb’s series from the later 1970s, Mercenary, Interrogation and White Squad, whos source is many photographs, journalistic reporting, raw accounts of people from South Africa, Guatemala, El Salvador — including things like Walling a person: the person is kept seated, bounded, hooded, raw and extremist theater. All are described neutrally but we get it (it’s like some game).

This is where the essay becomes very worrying: there is a “longstanding pathos formula whereby torture victims are shown accepting and participating in torture, where it’s eroticized, the subjugation made part of a contract the victim agrees to.” (Oh yes that’s Outlander I realize in the depiction of Jamy and Black Jack.) Studies have shown that people write about this as how the interrogator becomes the parent, authority figure and the tortured acquiesces. Eisenman is concerned to refute these beliefs utterly. Not so. He says a hostage situation when not torture is not the same at all. Bodily pain utterly transforms this. He suggests it’s this idea the victim acquiesces, and become “child” is part of what makes people feel the victim deserves his fate because he is a victim. (Let me bring in that young man who deserted and was tortured and Trump wants to see murdered by the state as a coward.) The sexuality belongs to the image traditions of orientalism. Says Eisenman at the end: torture bears no resemblance truth, pleasure, cooperation; it is oppression, violence, frequently death and nothing more.

The tenth and last essay is by Hamid Dabashi, “Damnatio Memoriae.” Dabashi begins with a startling highly unusual letter that Medi Karrubi wrote to Akbar Hashamei Rafsanjani (I remember him from long ago, some American in Reagan’s cabinet, a woman, Fitzgerald?, said he was a moderate, and she was mocked, as a joke, there are no Iranian moderates – ho, ho, ho, what a ridiculous woman; she was an Ayn Rand fan as I recall). Karrubi spoke openly, with horror and remorse about how the Islamic republic “kidnaps, incarcerates, savagely beats up, rapes, tortures, murders, and then secretly buries in mass graves its young citizens, men and men; it’s like the prisons in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 120 Days of Sodom (1975, the source of an Italian film). It was self-flagellating and yet he could not bring himself to give any concrete details. A cleric openly writing about the atrocities of the regime. Dabashi says the letter is Kafkaesque, Karrubi sees what is happening as a catastrophe for the Islamic country.
Dabashi says there is a little known Iranian film called K, which dramatizes 3 Kafka stories,”the married couple,” “In the penal colony,” “a Fratricide. “In the penal colony,” shows how people begin to have such a fascination with torture machines they no longer sympathize with, even think of the victims. In Karrubi’s letter he pleads with Rafsanjani to do something about this. He began to publish hard evidence; soon 3 official investigators came to take him in, ostensibly to find out about the torture, but soon he was the one interrogated, who is he charging? they seem to have forgotten what the charge was. They intimidate and accuse him of being bribed; he is taken to a presiding doctor, The Surgeon General and accused of lying. Need I say he disappeared.

It should be recalled that in 1954 an election produced a secular social democracy. The US CIA and its allies took that down, and replaced it with the capitalist- pro-US Shah. He did nothing for the poor but produced an early neoliberal state, and was overthrown. It seems there lingered public groups in the Iranian gov’t who were anxious about torture, angry to hear or admit to them, but the result was sidelining. New and images were now kept to a minimum; that Karrubi videotaped his testimony horrified them.

In comparison what the AbuGhrabi Americans reveled in is a kind of orgy without shame, and the Iranians regarded the pictures and all that came out of Abu Ghraib and thereafter as shameful to watch; US soldiers took pleasure in having themselves photographed the way lynching southern vigilants did over black people. People were tortured for the camera’s sake; for US people exhibitionism crucial. There was an exhibit of these photos in NYC curated by Brian Wallis, text written by Seymour Hirsh. Some people did see the sanctimoniousness hid the reality of exhibitionism and complacency. Dante argued that this exhibit was a form of entertainment which did not bring viewer close to agonies of victims (think of Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others.)

One might say an excess of evidence was turned by academics into tropes for analysis (and papers for conferences and tenure). The US people would take prisoners out, force them to be animal like take pictures and then rape and beat
Gluttonies of violence are seen in Quentin Tarantino films. We are luxuriating in animperial visual regime; spectacle sustains this museumification. Over-estheticizing produces tomes of unreadable prose about unrealities – the images themselves. Victims become invisible – an empire of camps, all under surveillance. Palestinians cannot talk about what was done to them – indirection is how torture speaks. A cycle of naked life has been set up where we come back to Nazi concentration camps. Dabashi is suggesting that trguments that civil rights movementd in Iran are rich people’s resentment against poor people’s president reveals a depth of moral depravity –- this is to ignore millions risking lives, tortured, taped, murdered by “popular” president’s forces. He feels science fiction tech films erase reality — this is important as so many US people go to see these and then go on allegorizing about them. What then can make these regimes fall? Real screams and hidden horrors are all that came make them fall, if the accumulation begins to be too many people over too long a time ….

The interested reader may want to go on to read essays on “hegemonic masculinity” in film as connected to torture (Viola Shafik) and music (two on this, Christian Gruny, Peter Szendy).

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From a recent production of Shelley’s Beatrice Cenci (her grotto-prison)

The last section of the book is about people who have written treatises and handed down legal decisions justifying torture and poetry, plays and novels in the 19th and 20th century about torture. I’ll be briefer here. Speaking about Torture is reviewed in an academic arts journal (ironic) the Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, 28:1 (2013:102-4 where Aaron C. Thomas singles out these last essays in the book: on Shelley’s Beatrice Cenci (the essay another by Julie A. Carlson) he writes in a way that exemplifies Dabashi’s argument; Carlson’s context includes William Godwin and the Italian writer Cesare Beccaria, the man who “has long been credited with galvanizing public opinion against torture and leading to its abolition” in Europe during the Enlightenment” (only it didn’t). Thomas covers Darieck Scott on a pornographic novel by Samuel Delancy, Hogg, which detailed the torture and murder of many women and children (apparently censored).

Speaking of Torture is an important book. Many essays all considering torture from a wide variety of angles. It is troubling that I do not remember any reviews in the mainstream review journals (LRB, NYRB, the New Yorker, or the TLS).

Ellen

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