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Reading: Who's Afraid of Torture?

Kate Millett writes about horror, but she's not willing to look it in the face.

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Outrage is the most basic, but also the most limited, of political emotions. It can spur one to action--but it can also lead to a peculiar paralysis. We can gain a certain smug satisfaction in outrage, taking refuge in our own offended purity. This is why the literature of exposure rarely serves to eradicate what it exposes. The problem isn't that people don't know that evil exists. The real problem is that they don't care--or that they do care but can't see what can be done about it.

Of course outrage is a natural, even healthy reaction to the worst of the brute injustices and indignities of the world. It's certainly a healthier reaction than apathy or the smug cynicism that today passes for political sophistication. "Nothing in the world frightens as much as torture," Kate Millett writes in The Politics of Cruelty, her book-length essay on the literature of torture and political imprisonment. "Nothing so outrages, cries out as hard to be cried out against." But anger is an emotional reaction, not politics; outrage can dissipate like a bad mood--or feed on itself, transforming a potential spur to action into a smoldering, ineffectual resentment of the world at large. (There's no one quite so distasteful as someone permanently outraged.)

Millett knows well the limitations of outrage, knows what it's like to feel, as she puts it, the "futility . . . of shouting against the wind." Yet in her new book she almost willfully restricts her reaction to outrage. The Politics of Cruelty isn't so much an essay about torture as it is an essay about her recoil from the idea of torture. The book is a personal survey of the writings of survivors of torture and of some writers who've imagined the experience in compelling detail. Millett ranges from the words of famous writers such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Primo Levi to the more obscure writings of the Chinese dissident Nien Cheng and the former South African political prisoner Moses Dlamini. Through an examination of this literature, she recounts the experience of torture in settings from Guatemala to Iran.

The argument of the book, such as it is, is simple and direct: torture is a monstrous evil, torture is spreading, torture works. In presenting the general outline of her case Millett writes with forceful eloquence. "The practice of torture is an imposition of the body upon the mind. So that the mind (self, idea, will) is put at the mercy of the body's capacity to withstand pain. . . . If insult is the psychological equivalent of a blow, torture aims at the organization of insult so general and overwhelming as to destroy: through helplessness, the shame of helplessness, an exhaustion and impotence directed toward a final surrender of the self."

But though Millett can set down her main themes with grace and power, she seems unable to grapple with the subtle specifics of the individual cases she's drawing on. Despite the range of her subjects, Millett's accounts of torture blend together into a suspicious homogeneity. She forces her narratives to fit her preconceptions, only occasionally allowing her subjects to tell their own stories. She seems wary of details, as if afraid they'll disrupt the grand sweep of her narrative. She observes in some of the writings of torture survivors a peculiar (and probably telling) fixation on the incongruous detail: the reproduction of van Gogh's Sunflowers on the wall of the office in which South African writer Molefe Pheto was tortured, the smell of barbecued meat that accompanied the repeated gang rapes of an Argentinean painter. For Millett, such details serve only to "heighten . . . brutality, giv[ing] it a further surreal quality." Can this be all? I would think that such details might also have served, among other things, to anchor the victims in the real world. In any case we don't get to hear what the torture victims make of such details: Millett has substituted her reaction for theirs.

When the accounts of the survivors cease to fulfill her purposes, she moves on. She interrupts chapters on torture in Algeria and Ireland to deliver unconvincing and unrelated sermons on the "tortures" of contemporary psychiatry and on the practice of consensual S and M. And she repeatedly interrupts the narrative for brief (and in the main misleading) digressions on the subject of pornography (she's against it). It's not that these subjects are necessarily irrelevant; it's just that she seems to launch into them when her patience with the stories told by others has worn out. Only when recounting the details of the surrealistic 1991 film Closet Land does she allow the text to speak, more or less, for itself. Not coincidentally, this is the best chapter of the book--in part because the screenwriter was freed by the conventions of fiction to examine the process of torture from all sides--to examine the psychology of the torturer as well as the tortured, to examine some of the incongruities and ambiguities of the situation.

But such immersion in details is rare in Millett's book. And so despite the range of her writing, despite its pained eloquence, Millett tells us very little we don't already know: Torture is a horrible, devastating experience, a vicious rape of the body and the soul. But this we know. She explains some of the power of cruelty, but not its politics. She describes the effects of torture, but not its causes. Able to convey, at times quite powerfully, what the experience of torture must be like, she's afraid to allow herself any feeling but outrage for what she vicariously witnesses. And so she can't help explain the experience; she can only denounce.

To some degree the dilemma Millett finds herself faced with is the dilemma faced by all political writers. Political rhetoric is, by and large, the attempt to fit the irreducible complexities of life into the confines of some comfortable cliche. And the cliches of the antiestablishment rebels are as stale as those of any small-town booster. The patriot mumbles his stale homilies to the glories of the American Way of Life; the third-world revolutionist repeats his stock denunciations of the unique degradations of Western Culture. The capitalist writes his tributes to the mystical power and superior morality of the Market; the Marxist-Leninist to the mystical power and superior morality of the Proletarian. Some actually believe the cliches they present as truth and inspiration; the more sophisticated recognize that much political writing is simply a form of quasi-institutionalized dishonesty.

Millett is a much better writer than the average political hack, and she's able to give even the most toothless cliche a little bite. The trouble is that she's trapped between contradictory cliches. She's drawn in first by the traditional leftist paean to the powers of the people, what novelist Milan Kundera calls the "fantasy of the Grand March," which is "the political kitsch joining leftists of all times and tendencies. The Grand March is the splendid march on the road to brotherhood, equality, justice, happiness; it goes on and on, obstacles notwithstanding, for obstacles there must be if the march is to be the Grand March." The irrational, essentially religious power of this fantasy is nowhere more evident than when a few dozen demonstrators at some bedraggled leftist protest take up the chant "The people, united, will never be defeated"--when just about the only thing "the people" are united on is thinking that such protests are a waste of time. The appeal of the fantasy is evident in Millett's reflexive references to the cleansing wisdom of the masses, the power of the "collective will": "If we care, there is the possibility of action against this evil," she writes. "As the old freedom song reminds us, "One and one make a million."' (As one who's helped organize demonstrations in recent years--I've given up the habit--I can attest to the sad fact that one and one make no more than two.)

But Millett is drawn much more strongly to the rhetoric of victimization, a rhetoric that takes its force from the presumed moral superiority of the victimized. She speaks of the "helplessness" of torture victims (while frequently implying that we all live in a state of helplessness). She speaks of the "terror of the individual before the state"--as if the state can do nothing but evil and as if we have no power to challenge or even withstand such evil. At times her writing resembles nothing so much as a Cliffs Notes summation of Kafka: "Dizzy and overcome by a labyrinthine terror, the individual watches as official authority . . . defines and codifies reality. At times it merely crushes all before it. At other times it first picks the meat from the bones of contention, cruel with an elaborate intellectualism. There are moments when it is as blunt as a boot, as the pounding at the door. At other times it is complex as Christian theology, as ponderous as scientific classification." Millett reduces all of us to the condition of the wounded soldiers in W.H. Auden's poem "Surgical Ward": "They are and suffer; that is all they do."

Insofar as Millett presents a political vision, it's a profoundly and fatally limited one, limited by her exaggerated rhetoric and failure of imagination. So concerned is she with conveying the awful power of the torturer that she forgets his weaknesses; so concerned is she with showing the full horror of victimization that she forgets that those she writes about are more than victims. Like the torturers, she reduces her subjects to objects.

To some degree Millett recognizes the problem, but she's so wedded to the rhetoric of victimization that she can't escape it. The best she can manage is to contradict herself and so salvage a shred of human agency. In her introduction she states that "torture cannot be withstood," yet later she presents the stories of some who have withstood it. On one page she suggests that "determined victims produce still more determined torturers; a battle of wills between absolute power and absolute powerlessness is a foregone conclusion." On another she describes the "spirit" and "fortitude" of Nien Cheng, whose determination overcame that of her torturers. Millett suggests that torture is the ultimate act of state power, that the ultimate guarantee of tyrannical power is the force behind it. "We are all," she writes in her conclusion, "helpless before the state." But only a few pages earlier she acknowledges that the indiscriminate use of force may "backfire," that "sheer force creates greater and greater resentment. As government plunges into crime, it loses its way and ultimately its authority."

Here Millett--without acknowledging what she's done--has stumbled upon a strange but crucial dilemma: the complex, often contradictory relationship between force and authority. The cruelty of a government isn't always a sign of its power; it's often a sign of weakness--cruelty is the last, and not always effective, resort of hated regimes. The political philosopher Antonio Gramsci distinguished between governments that rest their power upon force--police, the army--and those that rest their power on a more nebulous, but deep-seated cultural authority, what he called cultural "hegemony." Governments that abuse their subjects may compel obedience through terror. But such governments are much weaker than those that compel obedience through respect.

This is why reports exposing torture retain a certain, though decidedly limited, utility: they tend to embarrass the authorities, make them look like bullies. Torture is by definition a cowardly act: an institutionalized bullying of the at least temporarily weak and helpless by the at least temporarily strong. Torturers prey on the infirm, kick their prisoners when they're down. But they're well aware that no one respects a bully. Inside the confines of the torture chamber the torturer may wield near absolute power. In the outside world he can't. And therein lies the hope that Millett so often seems at pains to deny.

The failure of Millett's book is as much psychological as political: her writing is ultimately undone by her unwillingness to look beneath the surface, to look beyond her most immediate and obvious reactions. "Why does one study torture? Read about it, think about it, analyze and "obsess' over it?" she writes. "Because of hating it, fearing it, having felt or imagined or somehow experienced it. Because of wanting to see it end." This is a simple, logical, even honorable explanation--and an unconvincing one.

Millett sets up rigid boundaries between good and evil. But few of us are so pure: even the most fervent do-gooder may secretly nurture grandiose desires for power and control, and most of us have felt at least momentarily the thrill of violence--if only in the imagination. The media, from the nightly newscasts to the Saturday morning cartoons, are saturated with violence, and popular films offer a violent excitement as ritualized as that of a public execution.

If we are ever to eradicate cruelty and torture in the real world, we need to understand why they have such a hold over our imagination. And we could start by looking inward, beyond our shock. At one point Millett comes close to making such an argument, but then she retreats. In her eagerness to denounce the darkness in others, she studiously avoids acknowledging even the possibility of darkness in herself.

One can't blame her for denouncing torture--and given the bestial nature of what she's writing about, her indignant tone is hardly unforgivable. But denunciation is only a first step, and Millett is hardly the first to take it. Freud taught us that the only way to fully understand--and ultimately master--our darkest impulses is to bring them to the surface, to examine them coldly in the light of day. Millett has forgotten this lesson, and so deprives herself and her readers. She writes about horror, but is unwilling to look it in the face.

The Politics of Cruelty: An Essay on the Literature of Political Imprisonment by Kate Millett, W.W. Norton, $23

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Andrew Epstein.

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