On revenge

On revenge

“All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event – in the living act, the undoubted deed – there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him.” Captain Ahab in Moby Dick


I will have such revenges on you both,
That all the world shall–I will do such things,–
What they are, yet I know not: but they shall be
The terrors of the earth.
King Lear

At times, thoughts of revenge have driven me mad. Thoughts, but I do not act on them. The thoughts pool like dirty water in my mind. They become a home to disease, and plots to inflict the terrors of the earth on my enemies. But these plots find no actors, know no conspiracies, and drop into the fetid water as no more than bitter letters.

I have borne enough insult, humiliation and loss in my wanderings across the seas of power to dream on revenge. The modern office is a company of strangers, where tragic drama is frowned upon and cynical detachment is preferred. But decisions on jobs and titles and projects and favours are as fateful for soul-making as the adventures of a whaling ship.

Once, after many years of being passed over for promotion, I was subjected by a boss to the silent treatment for weeks on end. It was only broken by a suggestion that I go to some other part of the organisation, where I could be completely forgotten by him. For a few weeks I discussed this exile with the area, but I was unwilling to go because the job did not suit my skills; the new manager I knew I could not work for; and I believed surely I deserved better. At some point, when I still believed I was negotiating the arrangements, I learnt from this new manager, who I was intent never to work for, that I had already been transferred. The paperwork had been signed by my old boss two weeks before, and no-one had even told me. I later learned the new manager had told all her staff months before, before the idea was even put to me, that I would be working there. The plot to use me for their purposes had been hatched without me. The basic dignity afforded to anyone to be involved in decisions about their own work was denied me. I had been traded like a chattel.

This humiliation broke my identity as a professional public servant. It smashed my sense of self.  It led to thoughts of suicide and a deep depression. The world seemed like a great wall of inscrutable malice, seeking to destroy me.  The depression was a war within myself between my own letters of the underworld and an instinct for another life-affirming response. As in Dostoyevsky’s Letters from the Underworld, I immersed myself in a “state of cold, malignant, perpetual rancour” in which I would taunt and worry myself with my own fancies.

“Of those fancies it will be ashamed, yet it will nevertheless remember them all, exaggerate them all, and even imagine to itself things which have never happened, on the mere pretext that one day it may obtain its revenge, and that therefore it must, in the meanwhile, forget nothing.”

Dostoyevsky also anticipated the impotence of my dreams of revenge:

“Or perhaps it will actually embark upon a scheme of revenge; but if it does so the thing will be done only by fits and starts, and from behind a stone, and incognito, and in a manner which makes it clear that the mouse distrusts alike its right to wreak vengeance and the ultimate success of its scheme, since it knows in advance that its poor attempts at retribution will bring upon its own head a hundred times more suffering than will fall to the lot of the person against whom the vengeance is aimed, but upon whom not so much as a scratch is inflicted.” Letters from the Underworld p. 7.

It seemed to me that the injury done to me was too great to fight back, and so I withdrew into a dark night of the soul. Machiavelli said that “Men should be either treated generously or destroyed because they take revenge for slight injuries – for heavy ones they cannot.” So I was both destroyed and unable to take revenge. I only dreamt on the bitter root.

Revenge is barren of itself: it is the dreadful food it feeds on; its delight is murder; its end is despair. Friedrich Schiller

As the months passed the bitter fancies – imagined conspiracies with the court that would undo the courtiers who had undone me – receded. Writing, and not power, would be my salvation. My redemption lay in literature and culture, and not the small prizes of office politics.

Rather than dwell on revenge, I began to mourn the life and dreams I had lost.

I could not give up my life in the oceans of power, but sailed them not in the Pequod, but in The Flying Dutchman.

Image source: Jay Hunter Morris performing as Captain Ahab in San Francisco Opera performance of Moby Dick




Political emotions

I am giving a paper at the end of this week at a seminar run by the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotions, at the University of Melbourne. It is a second venture for me onto the stage of a more academic kind of writing, although the paper is not especially academic. But it is another step towards a new identity as an author, letting go of imprisonment in silent service to a bureaucratic self-image, and sharing my ideas with the wider world.

The conference is about children’s voices in contemporary Australia. My paper looks at how the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in Australia listens to the voices of adults who are giving testimony about childhood abuse, and is called, “The remembered child who speaks of trauma: reflections on the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.”

I think the Royal Commission stages public emotions in a remarkable and transformative way. Indeed, it invents an emotional regime – practices, institutions, forms of expression and expressiveness, to use a term of the historian William Reddy – that is more compassionate and responsive to victims of trauma, at any age.

In this way, I think the Royal Commission is demonstrating, even if it is not explicitly aiming to do so (it may be, I just don’t know), the important role of public staging of political emotions towards creating a just, compassionate society. Martha Nussbaum has described such practices in her works, Political emotions: why love matters for justice (2013) and Hiding from humanity: shame, disgust and the law (2004). I do not really have the time in my paper at the conference to elaborate on or to document these ideas, so I might just say a few things about them here on my blog.

Political emotions come in many forms, and shame and disgust are among the most important aired at the Commission. Nussbaum writes that a just and good polity needs not only to pay attention to reason and logic, but to develop institutional ways of working with all of these emotions.  She writes:

“Such public emotions, frequently intense, have large-scale consequences for the nation’s progress toward its goals. They can give the pursuit of those goals new vigor and depth, but they can also derail that pursuit, introducing or reinforcing divisions, hierarchies, and forms of neglect or obtuseness.” Political Emotions, p 2

So, she argues there are two main tasks of political emotion in liberal societies.

Firstly, political cultures and institutions need to cultivate love and sympathy, and especially develop the strong commitment to worthy projects that are required effort and sacrifice. Such emotions have belonged to all sorts of various identities – the nation, the utopia, the struggle, the faith. In the Royal Commission’s case, it needs to cultivate sympathy for victims, and a sense of belonging all to a commonly traumatised childhood.

Secondly, Nussbaum says political institutions need to hold at bay “tendencies to protect the fragile self by denigrating and subordinating others.” There have been so many examples of such forces breaking the bonds of weak political cultures in the past, and leading to disgust, envy, and shaming others. But it seems to me that the Royal Commission has an especially important role of keeping abuse and the shame it brings for victims, perpetrators and bystanders out of the secret shadows. Is it shame that drives the response of institutions to cover up the failures and abuse by their members? Could it be projective disgust that scalds empathy before it can take hold when leaders of the church are confronted by pictures of the suffering of abuse victims?

Political emotions, as much as reasoned justice, are necessary for a common political culture, in which our practices and discussions reinforce attachment to important norms, (values for which in the end we have our feelings and our intuitions more than our arguments in support) and do not always independently scrutinise logical analysis nor self-interestedly pursue utility maximisation.

And here is maybe what is the great failing of utopian thinking on both the right and the left, although Nussbaum addresses herself to the transcendent rationalism of America’s libertarian heroes (inspired as they are by Ayn Rand’s shrugging away of Atlas’ bearing the burden of the world):

“The libertarian challenge, however, contains a valuable lesson for our project: we must pay attention to the facts of human psychology, insofar as these are at all understood, and we must not ask of people what they cannot deliver, or can deliver only with great strain. The Marriage of Figaro is an important guide because it reminds us to embrace real people as they are, rather than engaging in unrealistic projects that are all too likely to lead, down the road, to a hatred of the actual… A creative reach toward something better is a key feature of most societies that strive for decency and justice, and that striving needs a vision of its goal. Striking the right balance between aspiration and acceptance is one of the most difficult and delicate tasks of the political life, as of the personal. But the right balance cannot be one that erases the longing for justice.” (Political Emotions p 117)

Here, in her embrace of “real people as they are”, Nussbaum echoes some of the best of conservative thinking, as in Oakeshott or Roger Scruton. Whatever our political projects, they must be made of the crooked timber of humanity, and with compassion for our faults and our frailty, our shame, our fears, our tender cares.

And through the emotion of compassion, through the various ways it is realised in our culture and institutions, Nussbaum arrives at the idea of tragic spectatorship, which is so important to the remarkable catharsis of the Royal Commission. Nussbaum writes:

“As they mature, citizens must learn, in effect, to be both tragic and comic spectators of the varied predicaments of life. The tragic perspective gives insight into shared vulnerabilities; the comic perspective (or a comic perspective of a particular sort) embraces the unevenness of human existence with flexibility and mercy, rather than hatred. (Hatred of self is all too often projected outward onto vulnerable others, so attitudes to self are a key element of a good public psychology, however slippery and diffi cult to access.) Beginning with some lasting insights of the ancient Greek tragic and comic poets, I ask how large modern democracies might attempt, indeed have attempted, something analogous” Political Emotions p 21

The Royal Commission into Institutional Response to Child Sexual Abuse is a prime example of a modern liberal democracy enacting such tragic spectatorship, and in the process creating new possibilities to respond to victims of abuse at all ages.