Can We Mourn Yet?


That segment of the population [the privileged segment] wants to be surrounded by people with similar characteristics.

—Kevin Sheehan, former chief executive of Norwegian Cruise Lines, as quoted by Nelson D. Schwartz in “In New Age of Privilege, Not All Are in Same Boat,” the lead article on the front page of The New York Times for Sunday, April 24, 2016 (the 100th anniversary of the start of the Irish Easter Rising of 1916, be it noted)

In my preceding post, the first in this series on whether we can mourn yet, I wrote about two articles that appeared in The New York Times for Sunday, March 20, this year. This new post will also concern pieces from The Times, but from an even more recent issue.

The first piece is itself a sort of recent reissue of an older one. Two years ago, regular Times contributor Nicholas Kristoff did a series of columns he called “When Whites Just Don’t Get It.” Then just a few weeks ago, in The Times for Sunday, April 3, he wrote a reprise called “When Whites Just Don’t Get It, Revisited”—a revisiting he wrote was necessary because “public attention to racial disparities seems to be flagging even as the issues are as grave as ever.”

“Why do whites discriminate?” Kristoff asks in his recent reprise. “The big factor,” he writes in answer to his own question, “isn’t overt racism. Rather, it seems to be unconscious bias among whites who believe in equality [that is, “whites” who, when asked, say they believe in equality, even and especially, I will add, if they are just asking and answering themselves] but act in ways that perpetuate inequality.” Kristoff then cites Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, whom he identifies as “an eminent sociologist,” and who “calls this unconscious bias ‘racism without racists.’” About such presumably covert racism, Kristoff says, “we whites should be less defensive.” One reason, he adds, that “we whites” don’t need to be so defensive about our own lingering, unacknowledged racism, is that, in his judgment at least, such bias “affects blacks as well as whites, and we [all of “us,” presumably: “blacks as well as whites”] also have unconscious biases about gender, disability, body size and age.” Then a few paragraphs later he ends his column by writing: “The challenge is to recognize that unconscious bias afflicts us all—but that we just may be able to overcome it if we face it.”

How likely Kristoff thinks it is that “we” will ever actually face the fact of such bias, he doesn’t say. Speaking solely for myself, I do not think it is very likely at all. Hence, I am equally skeptical that “we” have any real ability to overcome such bias.

*     *     *     *     *     *

Kristoff’s remarks about how we all have such bias makes me assume that what he means by that term bias is very broad. It would seem to cover such things as the simple uneasiness that we all have toward that which is different from us or unfamiliar to us. For example, if we grow up in a place where no one has red hair, and suddenly find ourselves visited by some red-haired stranger, then we will naturally tend toward being suspicious of, or at least not completely at ease with, our visitor, at least till we get to know him or her better: We will have an “unconscious bias” against any such red-heads, as Kristoff seems to be using that phrase.

It is precisely with regard to unconscious “biases” of that perfectly natural and universal sort that our chances of coming to face them, and then perhaps even to overcome them, are best. However, if we turn to a different subset of unconscious biases, the odds against such change rise sharply. That applies above all to that subset of unconscious biases with regard to which our not knowing we have them is all too often because we do not want to know—those biases we have of which we do not just happen to be unaware, but which we actually have a vested interest, as it were, in keeping secret—secret even, and perhaps especially, from ourselves. At issue are those biases that we actually have a vested interest in maintaining, precisely because of all the benefits maintaining such biases brings us, at the cost of the very people against whom we do maintain them. That very self-interest then also strongly motivates us unconsciously to hide those unconscious biases from ourselves.

To give an example that is still of great ongoing importance, when it comes to racial bias in this country, it seems to me that, in general, the benefits from such bias are overwhelmingly weighted in favor of those of us who think ourselves “white,” as Ta-Nehisi Coates puts it in Between the World and Me (and which I have discussed in some earlier posts), rather than those of us who are not encouraged—if even permitted—so to think of ourselves. It directly benefits all of us who think we are “whites” to think that the rest of us, all the “non-whites,” are inferior to us “whites,” since that lets us “whites” keep on denying such supposed inferiors their fair share of the communal pie, so that we can keep on getting bigger slices for ourselves.

*     *     *     *     *     *

To give another example: It happens that in the same op-ed section of the Sunday issue of The New York Times in which Mr. Kristoff has his column revisiting how, still, “whites just don’t get it,” there also appears another column, by Margaret Sullivan, who was then serving as the “Public Editor” for The Times (she’s since stepped down), called “Are Some Terrorism Deaths More Equal Than Others?” The answer editor Sullivan gives to that question is clearly in the affirmative, at least insofar as it comes to coverage of such deaths in dominant United States news media, including The Times itself. After devoting the first half of her column to various readers’ letters to her about the matter, Sullivan asks the most pertinent question, that of “why [there is] the persistent inequality that readers rightly observe?”

Her own answer to that question is four-fold. “Part of the answer,” she writes, “is access. It’s far easier to get a number of staff members to Paris or Brussels than, for example, to Pakistan [. . .] .” Next she addresses “another factor,” that of “deployment of resources,” of which she writes: “The Times has more than a dozen correspondents working in bureaus in Western Europe; far fewer, for example, are based in Africa.” As a third factor, according to her, “there is a legitimate question of newsworthiness. News is, by definition, something out of the ordinary. In some places, like Iraq, the tragic has become commonplace.” She then gives Egypt as another example (besides Iraq), citing a former Times correspondent stationed there who says that, while it used to be that “a bombing in Cairo would have been ‘a shock’,” that is no longer the case. Today, as the former correspondent says, “We can’t cover every attack there.” Finally, Sullivan cites as a fourth factor “the relationship between the United States and the country where an attack takes place.” In effect, she is saying that since France, for example, is important for our own interests (and, we might add, we even feel fondness for the French at the moment, a moment when it is no longer de rigueur for all good United States patriots who want to be politically correct to substitute “freedom fries” for “French fries,” and to call attention to themselves for doing so), we pay more attention to what happens there than in some place that has far less strategic importance for us (such as, say, Somalia or Haiti) or that we don’t like so much (such as, say, Finland or Indonesia).

Sullivan then draws her piece toward its end by patting her own employer on the back, writing that she is “glad that Times journalists recognize the need to reflect the importance of all human life lost to terrorism—whether it happens in a place where we Americans [by which she means United States citizens in good standing, of course] may have gone sightseeing [if we’re fortunate enough to be part of the minority of the United States population that can afford global tourist-travel] or one we will probably never set foot in [probably because the amenities there are not up to our standards for “exploring the world in comfort,” to borrow a slogan from Viking River Cruises]. And regardless of whether the victims seem ‘like us.’” In her following, final paragraph Sulllivan concludes by writing: “Because, in fact, they surely are”—by which I assume she means that, even if some other people don’t “seem” so, all people really do turn out, upon thorough enough investigation, to be “like us.” That assumption is confirmed by the rest of her final paragraph, where she writes: “And it’s part of The Times’s journalistic mission to help its readers not only know that intellectually, but feel it in their hearts.”

*     *     *     *     *     *

I find that I am even more skeptical in the face of Margaret Sullivan’s apparent optimism that her employer is fulfilling a high “journalistic mission” than I am in the face of Nicholas Kristoff’s apparent optimism that those in the United States who most need to face and change their “unconscious biases” will ever do so. I have already given one reason for my skepticism in contrast to Kristoff’s optimism, a reason that has to do with how, for some of us, such biases are too deeply grounded in preserving our own privileges.

Among my reasons for skepticism about Sullivan’s optimism, I have one that is similar, which is this: Among the factors Sullivan lists to account for the “persistent inequality,” in dominant news sources such as the New York Times, of coverage of “terrorism deaths” in diverse places, she nowhere even mentions the factor of profit. But after all, what really accounts for the four factors she does address—the factors of “journalistic access, deployment of resources, and the admittedly subjective idea of what’s newsworthy,” as she summarizes her account (leaving out, for some reason, the fourth factor she mentions, that of being more concerned about deaths in nations that are of more strategic importance to our own national self-interest than deaths in nations with less such importance)—being factors in the first place? One need not even be as cynical about such things as I tend to be to suspect that the reason for those reasons themselves is above all because it is far more profitable to The Times to keep things that way, rather than to face its own biases, let alone change them.

Nor is that all. I have other grounds for skepticism. Indeed, even in the very same Sunday edition of The New York Times that contains Kristoff’s and Sullivan’s two columns, there are two more articles that remind me of those grounds. In my next post, I will turn to those two remaining pieces from that morning’s Times.

Can We Mourn Yet?

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.

—Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963


Recently a couple of articles in The New York Times for Sunday, March 20, of this year caught my eye. My attention was drawn to them both at least in large part because, around that same time, I was writing posts for my preceding series on “Faith in Trauma,” which included some discussion of the classic 1967 book by Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich, Die Unfähigkeit zu trauern: Grundlagen kollectiven Verhaltens (Munich: Piper Verlag)—eventually translated into English as The Inability to Mourn: Principles of Collective Behavior (New York: Grove Press, 1975).

The first of the pieces in that Sunday’s Times that drew my attention was on the front page of the op-ed section. It was a column by Eric Fair, who was a civilian contractor helping United States forces conduct interrogations in Iraq after the U.S. invasion of that country in 2003, under President George W. Bush. Fair assisted in the torture of Iraqi prisoners—what the Bush administration, of course, preferred to call the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” since, after all, “the United States doesn’t torture,” as Bush blithely insisted.

Fair’s piece was given the title “Owning Up To Torture,” and served, among other things, to advertise his since-released memoir Consequence. What first made me notice the piece was the line inserted by the editors in large, boldfaced print near the end of the first of the article’s two columns. It read:

Men like Donald Trump and Ted

Cruz don’t have to bear the cost

In one paragraph late in his article, Fair writes about how during this election season both Trump and Cruz have repeatedly “suggested that waterboarding and other abhorrent interrogation tactics should not be considered illegal.” A bit later, Fair adds that, given “the opportunity to speak to other interrogators and intelligence professionals, I would warn them about men like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.” Fair says he “would warn them that they’ll be told to cross lines by men who would never be asked to do it themselves”—just as neither Trump nor Cruz ever would be—but that “once they cross the line, those [same] men will not be there to help them find their way back.” He concludes his article by writing: “As an interrogator, torture forced me to set aside my humanity when I went to work. It’s something I’ve never been able to fully pick back up again. And it’s something we must never ask another American to do.”

In that final sentence, by the pronoun ‘we’ Fair obviously does not mean fellow “interrogators and intelligence professionals,” since it is precisely they whom “we” must never again ask to do the sorts of things “we” have in the past asked Fair and others to do in Iraq—and all too many other places. Presumably, by “we” Fair means the United States as a nation.

In their 1967 book Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlichs address the German nation’s inability to mourn its Nazi past from 1933-1945, and especially to mourn the victims of Germany’s many acts of aggression and genocide during that period, the many millions of people the Germans murdered in those years. That inability to mourn was still all too definitive of Germany at least in 1967, twenty-two years after the end to World War II, as it may well still be today, almost half a century further on.

Fair’s article—and the book it advertises, which has since appeared and which I’ve also now read—raises the same issue for the United States as a nation today with regard to its actions in Iraq after we invaded that country in 2003, just thirteen years ago. If we as a nation are not able to mourn those we have asked such men as Eric Fair to torture and murder in our name, then neither will we be able to heed Fair’s admonition that we never again ask such a thing of anyone.

It is all too easy to say “never again.” The hard part is to keep our word, once we do say that. Part of what makes that so hard, in turn, is that, in order to keep our word, we must first truly acknowledge and mourn all we have lost by having once done what we now say we will never do again. Can we so mourn?

Our national history gives us scant reason for optimism that we can.

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The second piece in the same recent Sunday New York Times that drew my attention was a book review of The Black Calhouns: From Civil War to Civil Rights With One African Family, by Gail Lumet Buckley, daughter of Lena Horne and a descendent of the same Calhouns. The review was by Patricia J. Williams, a law professor at Columbia and columnist for The Nation. In the second half of her review, Williams touches briefly on the blatant racism of such all-American icons as Woodrow Wilson and John C. Calhoun. Then she remarks that The Black Calhouns “makes for particularly interesting reading against the backdrop of today’s culture wars, from Donald Trump’s disingenuous claim not to know anything about white supremacy to efforts in Texas [Ted Cruz’s home state, be it noted] to cut all mention of Jim Crow and the Klan from social studies textbooks.” She ends her review by complementing Buckley for how well the “meticulously detailed recollections” of her book call out insistently to the reader, on behalf of black slaves and their descendants: “We were here! We were there! Do not forget!”

However, as Williams goes on to remark, that’s just what we have done. We have “forgotten, over and over.” Williams compliments Buckley for giving us in her book “a comprehensive reminder of how, even when not immediately visible, the burden of racial trauma is carried deep within the body politic.” Then Williams concludes her review with this line: “With so much of our collective national experience consigned to oblivion, we tread unknowingly on the graves of those whose lack of accorded dignity echoes with us yet.”

How can we possibly mourn what we refuse even to remember?

*     *     *     *     *     *

We can let the Germans concern themselves with the question of whether they have even yet proven themselves capable of doing their own mourning for their own dark past. We need to focus on the question of our own national ability—or lack of it—to mourn our own such past, whether that be so recent a past as our war in Iraq, or a more distant past, such as that of the centuries during which some of us built the power of the United States as a nation on the backs of others of us, the backs, that is, of African American slaves.

The two pieces—one to each of those two: the relatively recent American invasion and occupation of Iraq, and the long American history of the enslavement of African Americans—that especially drew my attention in the Times for that recent Sunday of March 20 suggest that we, as a nation, lack that ability.

In my next post, I will introduce more disheartening recent evidence of our own continuing, shameful national incapacity to mourn.

Faith in Trauma: Breaking the Spell

Trauma-Faith: Breaking the Spell (continued and concluded)

The decision whereby one comes truly alive is itself never without risk. If it were, there would be nothing decisive about it. To take that risk is to risk oneself, not just such stuff as one’s money, one’s comfort, or one’s security; and to run such a risk—where the stakes are one’s very being as a “self” in the first place—requires real faith, not just comforting self-bewitchment.

Yet, as Kathleen Norris notes, that faith is nothing out of the ordinary, reserved for only the few. That is the “fascinating trait” of every real choice for life over death—every choice, as Alain Badiou puts it at one point in his recent book on the “metaphysics” of happiness (p. 37), to surmount “the tissue of mediocre satisfactions” held out to us all by our rampantly consumerist society as its vision of what constitutes a happy life. It is a choice to risk real life, and the real happiness that goes with such life, and only with it.

Norris and Badiou are at one in insisting that the opportunity, the opening, to make such a choice is nothing that comes only in rare or unusual moments, and only to a select few. It is, rather, an opportunity, an opening, that can suddenly present itself, as Badiou writes, “in every episode of life, no matter how trivial or minor it may be.” Even the most everyday of occurrences can suddenly break the spell that binds us, calling upon us to display real faith by choosing to begin really living our lives, rather than just passively undergoing them, just going on outliving ourselves day after day to the grave.

Once we are truly given a real choice, everything depends on us, and whether we have the faith to go ahead and choose.

What is more, such simple faith, the faith that permits choosing actually to live one’s own life rather than just trying to survive it, can never be claimed as some sort of permanent acquisition. It is not some piece of privately owned property that, once acquired, can be disposed of as one sees fit. The decision to live, however everyday it may be, is a decision whereby one accepts martyrdom for one’s faith—from the Greek term martyr, to witness—which need have nothing flashy or Hollywood-heroic about it. As Norris helps us see, such genuine martyrdom can be as quiet and unpretentious as the small daily sacrifices, fully embraced, that parents continually make for their children.

Nor, short of death itself, is such witnessing ever over and done with. It is always there in front of us, needing to be demonstrated ever again anew. It demands constant, ongoing reaffirmation—exactly what Kierkegaard called “repetition.” Exchanging truly understood and meant wedding vows in some formal setting, to use one of Kierkegaard’s own best examples, does not let spouses off the hook of then having to honor those vows, to keep them and the love they sacramentally express alive in their daily life together—forever repeating their vows and the love the bestowing of those vows effectively signifies, “till death do us part.”

Nor is that anything peculiar to getting married. It is the same with every decision, once really taken.

The faith witnessed by any real decision to run the risk of coming truly alive is just such a faith that must be kept. The specific “content,” as it were, of the decision and faith at issue, may vary greatly, of course, from person to person and even from one day to the next.

In the same way, each day for each person, temptation to “break faith” (a tellingly accurate expression) with one’s own decision can take a new form. Whatever form the temptation to break the faith with one’s own life may take, however, each and every day one is faced again with the decision either to keep on truly living, or just to fall back into letting one’s days dribble on endlessly, one after another, till one can finally check out of the whole game altogether and just expire—like Nietzsche’s ever-contented “last man.”

Only a faith that accepts the risk of living is one that finally turns and faces trauma, rather than running from it, and then tests and proves itself by faithfully facing trauma again anew, each and every day, day after day thereafter.

That is true faith in trauma, a faith that always keeps the wound open.

Faith in Trauma: Breaking the Spell

Trauma-Faith: Breaking the Spell

To enchant is to cast a spell. In turn, to disenchant is to break the spell of an earlier enchantment. In the first decades of the 20th century, Max Weber made popular the idea that modernization—with its ever more exclusive prioritization of science, technology, and instrumental rationality over faith, tradition, and belief—centrally involved a process of the “disenchantment” (Entzauberung) of nature. Ever since Weber, however, it can and has been debated whether modernization really broke a spell, or whether it cast one.

So, for example, in one of his writings on the rise of modern technology in volume 76 of the Gesamtausgabe (“Complete Edition”) of his works, Martin Heidegger makes explicit reference to the Weberian idea of disenchantment, only to argue against that thesis. Rather than a dis-enchantment (Entzauberung), says Heidegger (pages 296-297), what is truly involved in the rise of modern technology itself is instead an en-chantment (Verzauberung), a bewitching, hexing, or casting of a spell. That enchantment, according to him, is one whereby the very power at play in modern technology can make good on its own exclusive claim to power, as it were—just as, in the fairy story, the wicked witch, to secure her own claim to the power of beauty, casts a spell over Sleeping Beauty, the legitimate claimant.

According to Heidegger, that enchantment—the casting of the spell whereby what is at work in modern technology (as well as at work in all of the modern science and instrumental rationality that goes with that technology) seizes and secures its own power—goes hand in hand with the de-worlding (Entweltung) of the world, the de-earthing (Enterdung) of the earth, the de-humanizing (Entmenschung) of humanity, and the de-divinizing (Entgötterung) of divinity. “Technology,” writes Heidegger, “as the unleashing and empowering of energies [. . .] first creates ‘new needs’,” and then produces the resources to satisfy them: technology “first discloses the world to which it then fits its products.”

Badiou said essentially the same thing just last year in À la recherche du réel perdu (“In Search of the Lost Real”), his critique of our contemporary “entertainment world,” as he calls it at one point, using the English expression—a world-less pseudo-world actually, one ever more frenziedly devoted to the pursuit of Pascalian diversion from reality. In such a desolate pseudo-world, what falsely but inescapably presents itself as “reality” is in truth so utterly crushing that it permits no genuine, full living at all any longer, but only survival. Nor does such a divertingly fake world any longer have any room for any true faith. It only makes room for superstitions—precisely the sort of dangerously superstitious nonsense, for example, that United States Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia spouted at a high school commencement speech shortly before his recent demise, when he attributed the global success of the United States to the frequent invocation of God’s name by our Presidents and other public officials (see my citation of his remarks to that effect at the beginning of my earlier post, “An Anxious Peace: ‘God’ After Auschwitz”).

In a world already deeply asleep, under the bewitching spell cast by what Badiou lucidly calls “triumphant capitalism,” what we need is precisely dis-enchantment, the breaking of the spell. The spell that holds the world in thrall today is broken whenever, anywhere in the world, reality suddenly and unexpectedly breaks through to dispel (good word for it: “de-spell”) any illusion that happiness consists of endlessly buying what the global market endlessly offers for sale.

In Métphysique du bonheur réel (“Metaphysics of real happiness”)—a short book he also published earlier last year and in which he was already “in search of the lost real”—Badiou describes the illusion that the shock of reality shatters. It is the illusion wherein one takes the height of happiness to consist of the conjunction of the following factors, as he puts it in his introduction (p. 6): “a tranquil life, abundance of everyday satisfactions, an interesting job, a good salary, sound health, a flourishing relationship, vacations one doesn’t soon forget, a bunch of sympathetic friends, a well-equipped home, a roomy car, a loyal and cuddly domestic pet, [and] charming children with no problems who succeed in school.” In short, it is the illusion that one could be happy while living a life of crushing consumerist boredom, where nothing disruptive ever happens—life as no more than survival: outliving oneself from birth, in effect.

As opposed to any such pseudo-happiness of mere security and consumerist comfort in sheer survival, real happiness comes only as a by-product of true living. In turn, real life in itself begins only in the deliberate choice, the decision, to engage fully with reality, whenever it does break through our numbing consumerist spell to strike us. When it does, it reawakens us to the realization that, as Badiou puts it later (p. 38), “existence is capable of more than self-perpetuation.” When the consumerist spell that has held us in thrall is finally broken, we reawaken to the awareness that real happiness is nothing but the feeling that accompanies true life—a life fully lived “even unto death,” as the Christian biblical formula has it, rather than just survived.

Faith in Trauma: Breaking the Spell

Faith Purified by Trauma (concluded)

In my second post of this current series on “Faith in Trauma,” I cited Jean Améry’s observation that the very denial of reality that is present in what he calls “Finalistic” religious or political faith gave believers imprisoned in the horror of Auschwitz a certain distance from the horrifying reality around them—a distance that actually increased such believers’ odds of survival. In contrast, non-believers, lacking such denial-based protection, were more nearly certain to be overcome and crushed by the horrific reality they so clearly saw surrounding them.

Améry’s observation can fruitfully be juxtaposed to a remark that at first glance appears to oppose it, a remark Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich make in the 1970 afterword to the classic analysis of “the inability to mourn” they give in their 1967 book of that title (Die Unfähigkeit zu trauern, Munich: Piper). In that book the Mitscherlichs are addressing specifically the inability of the Germans as a nation to mourn the misdeeds of their own Nazi past, a past wherein they created such death-camps as Auschwitz—and above all their concomitant incapacity to mourn the millions of innocent victims they murdered there and throughout Europe. What the Mitscherlichs observe at one point in their 1970 afterword applies not just to Germans, however. It applies to everyone. “To endure reality as it is,” they write, “is the presupposition that first makes it possible to alter it into something more bearable; denial unwillingly preserves the status quo.”

Despite the appearance of opposition between the two remarks—Améry’s on the one hand and the Mitscherlichs’ on the other—they can and should be combined as follows:

When reality permits no hope for a better outcome beyond sheer survival, the denial of reality is necessary simply to preserve bare life itself—and with it the possibility of some day returning to true, full, and abundant living, rather than just surviving. As I already argued when first discussing Améry’s observation, that is really just an instance of the numbing against traumatic shock that allows those it strikes to live through it at all (the literal meaning of survive). However, if the survivor is not to be locked forever after into a pattern of compulsive repetition of the traumatic situation itself, at some point that survivor must grow strong enough at last to endure the very reality that has been thus denied. It is only then that any genuine recovery of real life, that is, life in its full sense and not just some endless survival, becomes possible, precisely as the Mitscherlichs observe.

Such faith to live a recovered life face to face with trauma can only be the sort of pure and purified faith Walter J. Ong attributes to Gerard Manley Hopkins, as discussed in my post before last. It is, as well, the simple but difficult faith of a woman freely consenting to bear a child, with no illusions about what that child itself may have to bear once born.

Such faith purified by trauma is true faith, not merely some defense mechanism.

Faith in Trauma: Breaking the Spell

Faith Purified by Trauma (continued) [for posting 3/28/16]

In The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy, and “Women’s Work” (New York and Mahway, NJ: Paullist Press, 1998), Kathleen Norris, an American poet, best-selling spiritual writer, and Benedictine oblate, recognizes that simple, non-dramatic faith of the purest sort is actually as quotidian (“everyday”) as pregnancy—or, rather, as the free, un-coerced consent to that condition of a woman who, finding herself pregnant, decides to go ahead and bear her pregnancy to term.

In my earlier series of posts on “An Anxious Peace: ‘God’ After Auschwitz,” I quoted Emmanuel Levinas’s suggestion that the final meaning of Auschwitz may well just be “that God requires a love that entails no promise on his part,” one that undergoes “a suffering devoid of any promise, totally gratuitous.” Norris gives an unexpected undertone to that suggestion by writing: “At its deepest level the pregnant woman must find the courage to give birth to a creature who will one day die, as she herself must die. And there are no promises, other than the love of God, to tell us that this human round is anything but futile.”

Norris is not proclaiming any “pro-life” dogma that would deny women the right to terminate a pregnancy, if that is their choice. Nor does what she says entail that, once a woman discerns she is pregnant, the only truly courageous choice, “at the deepest level,” would be to continue the pregnancy. In fact, those who freely choose to abort a pregnancy often show no less courage in so choosing that do those who freely choose to embrace one. In some circumstances—circumstances, in fact, that were all too common in the United States not so very long ago—it often takes far more courage to abort a pregnancy than to continue it. When general social conventions, the expectations of significant others (husbands, parents, friends, etc.), the availability of proper medical resources, financial circumstances, and even laws, all militate against abortion, to choose to do whatever is necessary to obtain one can take great courage. Under such circumstances, it is going ahead and having the baby that is typically “the easier, softer way,” to borrow a phrase.

The damage that women in the United States before the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade often inflicted on themselves because they were denied access to inexpensive legal abortions is well known, no matter how often certain segments of the American public might like to forget it. However, even beyond such grisly realities, the damage inflicted by coerced continuations of unwanted pregnancies—damage done not only to mothers but also, and above all, to their children—is incalculable. To put it mildly, a mother who does not really want a child, but who is pressured by laws or social norms into having one anyway, is not likely to be a very loving mother. She is unlikely to show her child the sort of love all children are entitled to receive from their mothers (and fathers, be it added). The fault for such sad states of affairs lies neither with those made unwilling mothers by being forced against their own desires and interests into carrying a pregnancy to term, nor with the children unfortunate enough to be born to such mothers-by-coercion. It lies with those who continue to derive selfish benefit from denying women the opportunity to live their own lives fully, by making their own choices for themselves, and then living with the natural consequences of their own decisions—rather than having arbitrary penalties imposed upon them by others, should they choose differently than those others want them to.

For some women under certain circumstances, choosing to carry a pregnancy to term does indeed take great courage “at the deepest level,” as Norris says. For other women in other circumstances, however, the greatest courage at the deepest level may be shown in choosing to terminate the pregnancy. In general, whether any choice or decision bears witness to courage and the faith that goes with it, or betrays cowardice and the lack of any real faith, is not a matter of what we might call the “content” of the choice. Put in terms from Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, “choosing and acting rightly and well” is not a matter of choosing this over that. Rather, it is a matter of how one goes about doing the choosing, as it were. If one chooses rightly, which means goes about the business of choosing in the right way, then in those particular circumstances one has make “the right choice”—regardless of what one chooses.

When it comes to choice, there’s always a choice. No one choice fits all.

Faith in Trauma: Breaking the Spell

Faith Purified by Trauma

At the end of his 1986 book Hopkins, the Self, and God (University of Toronto Press), Jesuit priest and scholar Walter J. Ong addresses the sort of Christian faith to which the life and work of 19th century poet Gerard Manley Hopkins bears witness. Like Ong, Hopkins was a Jesuit priest. He was also an exact contemporary of Nietzsche. Both were born in 1844 and both entered into darkness in 1889—the darkness of the grave for Hopkins, that of the madness in which he spent the last eleven years of his life for Nietzsche.

Ong finds in the poems, prose, and letters of Hopkins a “forthright” view of Jesus’ crucifixion, one in which there is no weakening of the suffering and failure involved. That includes any weakening of that suffering and that failure through any consoling idea that what Jesus was working for would somehow still finally be accomplished even after his own death on the cross. That is, there was nothing such as, a century after Hopkins was born, allowed orthodox Marxists to find consolation, even in the face of imprisonment and death in Auschwitz, in the sustained conviction that the eventual victory of communism remained inevitable. In the view of Jesus on the cross that Ong finds in Hopkins, there is no such reality-weakening faith in play. Rather, by the “forthright” view Ong attributes to Hopkins, “[t]he truth was that what Jesus was working for, what he had planned, turned out a total and spectacular failure.” In confirmation of that interpretation, Ong quotes from a letter Hopkins once wrote to his friend Dixon:

His [Jesus’] career was cut short and, whereas he would have wished to succeed by success—for it is insane to lay yourself out for failure, prudence is the first of the cardinal virtues, and he was the most prudent of men—nevertheless he was doomed to succeed by failure; his plans were baffled, his hopes dashed, and his work was done by being broken off undone. However much he understood all this he found it an intolerable grief to submit to it. He left the example: it is very strengthening, but except in that sense it is not consoling.

Ong expands upon that passage by remarking that, in Christian teaching as Hopkins understood it, “God the Father had let Jesus’ ‘career’ work out as a failure not to cancel out the failure later but because he had plans about the consequences of the failure. The failure was never cancelled out and never will be,” regardless of whatever subsequent history—or the supposed end of it—might bring.

A faith purified by trauma, which is to say a faith that no longer avoids or numbs itself in the face of trauma but instead opens to it, can only be the sort of clear-eyed faith that Ong sees in Hopkins. It is not anything like a faith in “pie in the sky by and by,” as one popular put-down of reality-weakening religious faith puts it—no sort of defensive certainty that everything will prove to have been for the best in the end, when the whole story finally gets told, and the mysterious ways of God are at last made clear. Central to Hopkins’ sort of “forthright” Christian faith, a faith that faces trauma, rather than denying it, is the insistence that the wounds will always remain open, even in Christ’s resurrected body.

A faith that has been purified by trauma need not prove itself in dramatic acts that command attention. Instead, such faith is one that carries itself out in the fidelity (which is what faith is all about, after all) demonstrated by the daily living out of a life fully open to traumatic reality. In an important sense, there is nothing complex about such faith. It is a very simple and straightforward. Despite that, it remains demanding and difficult.

The real difficulty lies precisely in the fidelity—what St. Paul in his letters calls the “perseverance”—required for keeping such faith. The hard part is remaining faithful day after day in a life fully lived, and therefore lived in full exposure to the suffering that all true life entails. Yet however difficult the ongoing keeping of it may be, manifestations of such faith are really not all that rare. One does not have to have any special gifts, such as Hopkins’ for poetry, to keep such faith. It can be, and often is, kept faithfully in the daily life of the most ordinary people—a point I will continue to explore in my next post.

Faith in Trauma: Breaking the Spell

Traumatized Faith

Allowed to come to term rather than remaining forever avoided and compulsively repeated, trauma traumatizes faith itself. Through trauma everything is changed, including faith. As belongs to trauma, however, it takes a while before that change can fully register, sometimes even a very long while.

Nietzsche said that the trauma he named “the death of God” might well take two thousand years to register fully. That is, it might well take that long for such stupendous news as that of God’s death to spread everywhere.

As is always the case with traumatic shocks, it is only in its recurrent after-shocks that so great a trauma as what Nietzsche calls the death of God can finally register. It is worth noting that the extent of the destruction engendered by a traumatic shock does not become fully visible until brought to the surface precisely by its after-shocks. In just that way, for instance, a building shattered by a major earthquake may not fall down until a later, much milder after-shock gives it the final push. It even took some time, after all, for the damage inflicted by the two planes flown into New York’s Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, to bring about their collapse, a time during which at least some of those who otherwise would have remained trapped inside were able to escape death, at least for some while.

In the sense that Nietzsche speaks of God’s death, God did not die in Auschwitz, as has sometimes been said. In truth, the God at issue died well before that. As shocking as it may sound to say so, Auschwitz was but an after-shock of what Nietzsche calls the death of God. To many eyes, that after-shock made the extent of the devastation wrought by God’s death visible, to be sure. However, it was not itself the real cause of the destruction it finally made visible to so many. That is why it is far easier to say that we will never again permit an Auschwitz, than it is actually to act to against its recurrence.

I began an earlier post this year (“An Anxious Peace: ‘God’ After Auschwitz”) by quoting some lines put in the mouth of Ikonnikov, a character in Life and Fate, Vasily Grossman’s great novel of World War II and the battle of Stalingrad, the battle that finally turned the tide against Nazi Germany and all its death camps. “On the fifteenth of September last year,” Grossman has Ikonnikov say at one point in the novel, “I watched twenty thousand Jews being executed—women, children and old men. That day I understood that God could not allow such a thing and that therefore he did not exist.” On that day Ikonnikov was given to see (to use another of Nietzsche’s formulations for restating the point of those lines) that the God familiar to him from his birth was no longer worthy of being believed in. After seeing what Ikonnikov saw that day, no one with any self-respect, or any respect for anyone else, could any longer entertain such a belief. They have become aware of what Nietzsche calls the death of that God. The corpse of that God will never be resuscitated.

In The Century, which first came out in French in 2005 and in English two years later, contemporary French philosopher Alain Badiou defined the 20th century as the century of “the passion for the real.” The fictional character of Ikonnikov embodies that passion, as does the entire great novel—Grossman’s Life and Fate—in which Ikonnikov is only one of many fictional characters. So does the work of Pier Paolo Pasolini, the Italian film director, writer, and public intellectual who was born in 1922 and murdered under still unclear circumstances in 1975, and to whose poem “The Ashes of Gramsci” Badiou devotes a lengthy discussion in a book he published just last year, À la recherché du réel perdu, “In Search of the Lost Real” (Fayard, 2015).

In “The Ashes of Gramsci,” as Badiou reads it, Pasolini speaks of what passes for a world today, this endless day of the global dominance of capitalism—a dominance far more entrenched today than it was in 1954, when Pasolini first wrote the poem. As Badiou describes it (pp. 43-44), “the characteristic of our [contemporary] world, let’s call it the ‘Western’ world, is to be and to want to be sheltered from all reality. [. . .] It is a world where reigns what Pascal once and for all named diversion. Today, one might as well say entertainment: ‘entertainment world’ [in English in the French text].” A few lines later Badiou adds that in the “triumphant capitalism” of our global society today: “There is nothing but diversion. There is nothing but the concern to keep oneself as distant from reality as possible.” Badiou says that “Pasolini will call that subjective disposition ‘replacing life by survival’,” which is to say replacing real life with a pseudo-life, one that is “able to do no more than continue the negative work of diversion.”

Badiou then cites a passage from the poem according to which, caught in such a pseudo-life of ceaseless diversion from all reality, “one senses the absence of all true/religion”—which is to say any religion that opens upon reality itself, and not upon some illusion. A supposed religion that opens only on illusion is no true religion at all, but only idolatry; and a faith that puts all its faith in an idol is no true faith, but only superstition.

To any such pseudo-religion and pseudo-faith, reality will always come as a traumatic shock, the after-shocks of which will eventually destroy the illusory religion and faith altogether. Only a traumatized faith can face reality—and be purified in the traumatic process. Just what remains of faith itself once it is so purified—once it is distilled down to its essence by the traumatic confrontation with the real—will be the subject of my next post.

Faith in Trauma: Breaking the Spell

The Role of Faith in Withstanding Trauma (Cont.)


Concerning Auschwitz inmates who were sustained by a faith either religious or political, Jean Améry, who survived Auschwitz with no such faith, observes that the believer “is both more estranged from reality and closer to it than his unbelieving comrade” (At the Mind’s Limits, p. 14). By Améry’s analysis the two, estrangement from reality and yet a certain sort of closeness to it, go together.

What removes the believer “further from reality” than the unbeliever is what Améry calls the former’s “Finalistic attitude,” an attitude whereby the believer “ignores the given contents of material phenomena and fixes his sight on a nearer or more distant future,” whether that future is believed to lie at the end of time itself, in some religious eternity, or to lie at the end of a long historical process, in some political utopia.

However, it is precisely such reality-estranging conviction that also allows the believer in a certain important sense to be “closer to reality” than the unbeliever. For the very reason that the believer’s faith distances him from his horrifying reality, “he does not allow himself to be overwhelmed by the conditions around him.” In his very distance from reality, he is given the freedom to act in ways that more “strongly influence” his very surroundings than can the non-believer who is crushed by them: “For the unbelieving person reality, under adverse circumstances, is a force to which he submits. For the believer reality is clay that he molds, a problem that he solves.”

However, despite how much he and other “nonbelieving intellectuals were impressed by this bearing” among their believing comrades at Auschwitz, Améry writes (p. 15) that he is “aware of only extremely few instances of conversion” among such non-believers. “Only in exceptional cases,” he adds, “did the magnificent example of his comrades make a Christian or a Marxist engagé of the skeptic intellectual. Mostly he turned away and said to himself: an admirable and redeeming illusion, but an illusion nonetheless.”

Two different factors are in play in such turning away from the sort of “Finalistic” faith at issue in Améry’s remarks, despite how much survival value might lie in having such faith. The first is that such faith is not something one can just choose to have, as one might choose a product off the shelves. Actually to have such faith one must receive it, one way or another. It comes as a gift—if not from some supernatural power, then at least from one’s upbringing within such a Finalistic religious or political tradition as orthodox Christianity or orthodox Marxism.

The second factor barring the non-believer’s way into belief is even more crucial. It lies in the very thing that gives such faith its survival value in the first place, namely, in the very denial or distancing from reality that defines the “Finalistic” faith at issue, the faith the cause in which one believes will inevitably triumph in the end (whether that end be eschatological or historical), despite all the evidence to the contrary.

In such works as The Road Less Travelled, his longtime bestselling book from the late nineteen-seventies, popular psychiatrist M. Scott Peck defined mental health itself as the insistence on facing reality as it is, whatever the cost to one’s emotions and one’s sense of security. Whoever has a sound mind, by that criterion, must reject whatever denies reality, including any such faith as that from which Améry and others like him turned away. For them, such faith has to be rejected as just another childish security blanket, no matter how beautifully woven. No matter how “admirable and redeeming” the illusion of such security might be, it nevertheless remains, as Améry says, just that—an illusion.

Hence, not only did he or other non-believers “turn away” from such faith, but also sometimes even “rebelled ferociously against his believing comrades’ exclusive claim to the truth.” Especially in its religious variant, such faith even became offensive to the non-believer: “To speak of God’s boundless mercy appeared outrageous to him, given the presence of a so-called senior camp inmate, a powerfully built German professional criminal who was known to have literally trampled a number of prisoners to death.” At any rate, even aside from such outrage: “One could respect one’s believing comrades and still more than once mutter to oneself with a shake of the head: madness, what madness!”



Actually, such mad faith resembles—if it is not actually just one form of—the numbing that Freud long ago defined as one side of what constitutes the primary effect of traumatic shock, which is to say a shock that exceeds the organism’s capacity to process it. Faced by such traumatic shock, the organism itself “goes into shock,” as our expression has it, damping down its sensitivity. Otherwise, the organism simply would not be able to survive the impact. However, Freud also taught that the other side of the same trauma-effect, the one side of which is such numbing against a shock, is the compulsive need to keep on repeating the shocking experience in one form or another, until eventually the shock wears off, and one finally has to face the reality against which one has numbed oneself until then.

Insofar as faith takes the form of the denial or weakening of the impact of reality, then it too is subject to the same process. That in the face of which faith numbs the believer keeps on repeating itself in one form or another. What such faith denies will not go away. It keeps on coming back, ever more insistently demanding to be addressed. The reality such faith represses keeps on returning, until faith is finally brought to face that reality, however horrible. Then even faith itself is put in crisis and traumatized—a topic I will take up in my next post.

Published in: on March 7, 2016 at 1:13 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Faith in Trauma: Breaking the Spell

My title—“Faith in Trauma”—is ambiguous. It can suggest four different but, as will eventually emerge, tightly interrelated things.

(1) The title can suggest reflection on what part faith plays in surviving a traumatizing situation: the role of faith in withstanding trauma.

(2) “Faith in trauma” can also suggest reflection on trauma befalling faith itself, so to speak—a sort of “crisis of faith” in the face of trauma, in effect: traumatized faith.

(3) Then again, the same phrase can suggest reflection on what remains of faith once it has undergone severe challenge by trauma—what faith as such finally proves to be, once it is reduced or distilled down to its essence by having to confront trauma. Here, we could speak, perhaps, of faith purified by trauma.

(4) Finally, the title can suggest an unusual sort of reflection on what it would be like to place one’s faith “in” trauma itself, as one can speak of placing faith “in” a friend, for example. In that sense “faith in trauma” would means something such as giving oneself over into the trust of trauma itself, actively trusting trauma as one might trust a friend, or “the power of love,” or the like. Accordingly, just as we might call faith in salvation (the faith-filled certainty of being saved) “salvation-faith,” so we might speak here of trauma-faith.

I will say some things about each of those four in turn, in this and succeeding posts.


The Role of Faith in Withstanding Trauma


All other things being equal, the more faith one has, the better are one’s chances of surviving life-threatening situations. It doesn’t really matter that much what one has faith in, just so long as one has it. Regardless of whether the faith is Jewish, Christian, Islamic, Buddhist, Taoist, Confucian, Shintoist, Hindu, or of any other religious or spiritual stripe, what really counts for survival is simply that: to have it. For that matter, faith in the ultimate triumph of communism, capitalism, or the American Way will work just as well as any faith grounded in some religious or spiritual tradition. So long as one really firmly believes that, when all is said and done and whatever is happening is finally over, what one believes in, whatever it may be, will come out on top, then the benefit of believing remains the same.

That even works if one does not believe one will live long enough oneself to see the final triumph of that in which one believes. Indeed, if one is really convinced of the ultimate victory of one’s cause, one may even volunteer to die for that cause oneself, climbing joyfully up to get nailed to the nearest available cross or the equivalent. Such voluntary dying for what one believes in does not in any way diminish the survival-value of one’s faith itself. It bears witness to it: Martyrdom is precisely such witnessing–from martyr, Greek for a “witness.”

No less an authority than Jean Améry, who was no such martyr and who by his own account managed to survive Auschwitz without any faith, bears witness to the utility of faith for survival. In At the Mind’s Limits (translated by Sidney Rosenfeld and Stella P. Rosenfeld, Indiana University Press, 1980) Améry notes (page 12), that he “entered the [Nazi German] prisons and the concentration camps as an agnostic,” and left them the same way, once he was finally liberated. “At no time,” he writes, “could I discover within me the possibility for belief, not even when I lay bound in solitary confinement, knowing that my file was stamped ‘Troop Demoralization,’ and for that reason constantly expecting to be hauled off for execution. Also, I was never bound by a particular political ideology, nor was I ever indebted to one.” Nevertheless, he goes on (pages 12-14):

I must confess that I felt, and still feel, great admiration for both my religiously and politically committed comrades. [. . .] One way or the other, in the decisive moments their political or religious belief was an inestimable help to them [. . .] . Whether they were militant Marxists, sectarian Jehovah’s Witnesses, or practicing Catholics [. . .] their belief or their ideology gave them that firm foothold in the world from which they spiritually unhinged the SS state. [. . .] Both the Christians and the Marxists, who already on the outside had taken a very subjective view of concrete reality, detached themselves from it here too in a way that was both impressive and dismaying. Their kingdom, in any event, was not the Here and Now, but the Tomorrow and Someplace, the very distant Tomorrow of the Christian, glowing in chiliastic light, or the utopian Tomorrow of the Marxists. The grip of the horror reality was weaker where from the start reality had been placed in the framework of an unalterable idea. Hunger was not hunger as such, but the necessary consequence of atheism or of capitalistic decay. A beating or death in the gas chamber was the renewed sufferings of the Lord or a natural political martyrdom. The early Christians had suffered that way, and so had the plagued peasants during the German Peasants’ Revolt [in the 16th century]. Every Christian was a Saint Sebastian and every Marxist a Thomas Münzer.

Published in: on February 29, 2016 at 4:30 pm  Leave a Comment  
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