surprised and disillusioned

‘… it seems a good in itself to acknowledge, to have enlarged, one’s sense of how much suffering caused by human wickedness there is in the world we share with others. Someone who is perennially surprised that depravity exists, who continues to feel disillusioned (even incredulous) when confronted with evidence of what humans are capable of inflicting in the way of gruesome, hands-on cruelties upon other humans, has not reached moral or psychological adulthood.’

Thus begins chapter 8 of Susan Sontag’s work Regarding the Pain of Others, a polemic on viewing the suffering of others via art or photographs.

I’ve been struggling with its argument ever since reading it. I mentioned it in conversation with my friend Michael Berry when he said that he was reading a history of the Rape of Nanking and he suggested that perhaps such a belief came about in people who had visited or lived in war zones in the way Sontag had. ‘I think it changes people irrevocably,’ he said.

I am always surprised by human wickedness. As a student of history, as a reader, I cannot help but be aware of what has happened in both the distant and the immediate past. Yet to encounter descriptions of it never ceases to shock me to the core. Does this mean I have yet to reach moral or psychological adulthood? Do I have to witness it myself, in the flesh, for it no longer to affect me thus?

Susie Lindfield writes in the magazine Guernica of the problems associated with the present international belief in the power of Truth and Reconciliation Tribunals. She mentions Jean Améry:

‘writer, résistant, Jew—who was captured by the Gestapo in 1943 and survived (or, as he insisted, did not really survive) Auschwitz and other camps. Améry’s relative anonymity is a shame, for he wrote some of the most original, incisive, and discomfiting essays on torture and genocide ever penned—essays that are, sad to say, still strikingly relevant, and that challenge current ideas about what reconstruction after genocide might look like. Despite the restrained irony of Améry’s voice, his writings accumulate into an accusatory howl.’

Lindfield goes on to talk about Rwanda and what is being asked of the people who survived the genocide there. I invite you to read her essay here. I challenge you not to be deeply wounded by what you read.

I think Sontag is wrong. It is our capacity to be surprised and disillusioned (again and again) which might, just, save us.

Lindfield refers to a series of photographs which are on display here under the title Intended Consequences. It might be that the photographs would be interesting without reading the article first. I would recommend looking at them afterwards.

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