I am not really given to writing about tabloid news items. They are generally worthless. And current events require time to be digested. But recently the appeal trial of Amanda Knox caught my attention. I didn’t really get enticed by the speculation of whether she was innocent or guilty. What interested me more was the way that her case was a metonym for a generation. Or rather that her story shows a gaping hole in the understanding of the world for those coming of age in early 21st Century America.
Amanda Knox was extremely typical of her generation prior to the events surrounding the brutal murder of Meredith Kercher in Perugia Italy in 2007. Raised in a Roman Catholic Home, with a Catholic education, yet also, in the casual syncretism of the times, a student of Yoga, enough so to demonstrate the namaste gesture on several occasions. ( And like many in her generation I would doubt that the mixture of Christian belief and Hindu practice would even register in any way as inconsistent to her.) (Yeah I realize I’m treading on perilous ground even pointing this out.) Yet also in the same flux of the current American climate she wasn’t exactly setting a spiritual tone with any consistency. Her defense for what she was doing that night was smoking hash and having sex with her then boyfriend. And so she was utterly typical in that regard as well even down to watching television later that night. Likewise she posted silly photos of herself on her social networking sites and wrote things for public consumption that should have been private journal entries. Again standard fare. When she found herself embroiled in what was to come, she acted with pretty much the same naivete and groundless positivity that are also the hallmarks of our times in our land. In other words, how many American souls under thirty would have been caught in a similar way by their misunderstanding of the fact that world is still actually a very large place with contrary rules in different places and that there is enough darkness to go around several times over?
And so in the confusion of the original investigation and trial Amanda Knox acted in wildly inappropriate and culturally naïve ways. In America high school and college age girls just plop down on a floor or rug anywhere. They’ve been doing this since the culture radically loosened up in the Sixties. Then comes the yoga and the cartwheels. Actually according to the most astute observers what Amanda was trying to do was to relax, to get her mind off things, a little stretching, various positions. Unfortunately in her simplistic American mode, where therapy is the number one choice for all problems, she misidentified her problem. Feeling better about herself wasn’t the answer to her dilemma. Relieving her own stress wasn’t going to impress the Italian officials scrutinizing her. And if she ever thought People and Us magazines were tacky, she obviously did not ken to the carnivorous nature of the European tabloid beast. Photos of her during her original trial are filled with smiles, funny faces, funky grimaces. It’s almost as if she imagined she were immune and the American consulate would eventually just rescue her from this absurd situation. And so perhaps she acted like the usual entitled American student. Nothing to get hung about, strawberry fields forever. And the full reality of her situation didn’t start to seep in until around the same time she was declared guilty of murder. (At least that’s the perception.)
I didn’t really pay much attention to the court proceedings the first time round. Pretty American girl gets caught in weird Italian murder scene. So? The world is filled with much crazier and darker things. Then a month or so ago I started to notice a few of the photos being released through the various news agencies. I was arrested by the change in Amanda’s expressions. Suddenly she was no longer the average goofy US college student. It wasn’t just the weight loss or skin broken out with worry. It wasn’t merely the dark eyes with the sleepless blue tinge beneath them. The expression had completely altered in some less definable way. I knew what it was. She had been broken.
In 21st Century America brokenness is a state to be avoided at all costs. It suggests losing one’s identity or even one’s mental stability. We prescribe drugs to avoid anything resembling brokenness. The fellow travelers of brokenness, sorrow, depression, grief, et cetera, are to be shunned like a blackening case of bubonic plague. (We have pills for that sort of thing.) There certainly are circumstances where being broken is a terrible thing. Torture, for instance, breaks and doesn’t heal. However, it does not follow that all instances of brokenness are bad. And in fact I would like to suggest that in our feelgood positive American dreamscape, where the disappointments of life are relegated to political rantings, real brokenness is a much needed antidote to the casual oblivion of our hydra-headed selfishness. We are encouraged endlessly to be empowered to follow our dreams, our desires, our hearts. Yet we never seem to recall that power corrupts, that dreams are unreal, our desires can easily be poisonous and our hearts desperately tortuous and impossible to fully know or trust.
Imagine if Amanda Knox had been entangled in a similar mess in a culture even more distant from us than Italy’s. Let’s just move the peg one notch over to Russia. There, sitting on the ground is positively considered unhealthy, especially for women. There American smiles are seen, as they are in France, as extremely suspicious and evidence of a shallow character. And how does their judicial system work??? Any clue whatsoever? And if someone is sent to jail there will we ever see them again? I often talk with twenty-something friends who go traveling to places as distant culturally as Guatemala, Thailand or Vietnam. They come back with wonderful stories. One gets the feeling that the world is their playground to explore. Yet they rarely know anything about these countries before they go. And not much more when they return.
Young Americans frighten me for their ignorance about the customs of the world beyond their borders. They scare me for the collective assumption that as long as you have a little digital electronic device you can just contact home. But you know what? 6,000 miles away is still six thousand miles away. It costs real money to cross that divide. And although that other culture may have Facebook access, beneath it’s 21st Century gloss, it’s still other and deserves real respect. And really, before you go to China you’d better pick a few books and do some serious reading.
But when I looked into the stark images of Amanda Knox during her retrial as she faced being put away for a long, long time I could see a change. The game was over. Life was no longer about the parties and chilling. It was not about trips to mall or about having fun, whatever that means. Living was no longer an entitlement. Suddenly something much more serious was happening. The brokenness was producing the very thing that Dostoevsky said we humans lacked the most: gratitude. I certainly won’t claim to know what really happened in Italy. But I do know this. No psychopath could’ve given her closing statement. But she was wrong in one major degree. She said she was the same person that she was before the trial started. I’m sure she was trying to tell the court that she was the same innocent girl as when she first started. But in fact she was quite far from ever being that naïve American girl again. When the verdict was read there was a momentary confusion of language. Then it became clear that she had indeed been acquitted. And at that moment she broke completely. But the breaking was filled with gratitude. Amanda Knox had been given the possiblity of a new beginning.
I wish that kind of breaking upon all of the confused positive folk of our fearful generation.
Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, after ten years in the gulag and five more in exile, said it best:
It was granted me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience: how a human being becomes evil and how good. In the intoxication of youthful success I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer, and an oppressor. In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. And it was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either–but right through every human heart–and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains…an unuprooted small corner of evil.
Since then I have come to understand the truth of all the religions of the world: They struggle with the evil inside a human being (inside every human being). It is impossible to expel evil from the world in its entirety, but it is possible to constrict it within each person.
All the writers who wrote about prison but who did not themselves serve time there considered it their duty to express sympathy for prisoners and to curse prison. I…have served enough time there. I nourished my soul there, and I say without hesitation:
“Bless you, prison, for having been in my life!”
From the Gulag Archipelago
Part IV, Chapter I; Vol. II The Ascent
(Submitting Oneself to the Text.)
(This is the second half of Carsten Hyatt’s essay.)
At the conclusion of the first installment, I said I wanted to look at different “powers” or rather, different ways a reader may exercise power over the text. First, I think I need to clarify that I’m not primarily interested in doing justice to Umberto Eco’s understanding of Thomas Aquinas, not that it isn’t worth understanding, but that it falls well out of the bounds of this essay. I took Eco’s line about the Summa as a starting point because it was a pithy statement from an incisive reader of the particular attitude in which I was interested.
What might be the advantage of dismantling the structure of a work, such as the Summa? A common reply would be that perhaps there is much to the potential meanings, discoveries that St. Thomas, had he been less of his age, might have encouraged us to seek out by denying his constructive intelligence. The popular (not Eco’s, perhaps,) argument against imposed structure is that it frees the reader to build or uncover (not, necessarily, in the sense of Leviticus 18) a legion of meanings for themselves, which they could not have done if they had restricted themselves to the confines of authorial structure. I do not want to provide a caricature of “reader response” or other hermeneutical theories. The way of reading I am describing need not be explicitly theoretical in motivation nor interested in a simple dismantling of all available frameworks. To oversimplify, I mean any way of reading that desires to retrieve from a work more than they desire to submit to it (‘submit’ not to be taken in the sense of Thom Gunn’s “Continual temptation waits on each/ To renounce his empire of thought and speech/Till he submit his passive faculties to evening…” but in the sense that the Authorized uses the word “subject” in the translation of Romans 13:1 “Subject yourselves to the higher powers.”). My first response to this is that there may be meanings to be had by way of retrieval, but that these would be had at the cost of the meaning available to the reader who is ordered even as the work is ordered and at the cost of meeting the mind of St. Thomas, or any other author, himself.
Perhaps it is best to say that if St. Thomas had wanted “a concluding system” we should let him have it, and those who do not want to prevail upon their readers in such away need not do so. That all works need to be of in the form of the Summa is obviously false. But it is the impetus, more than any specific form, to retreat from ordering the reader in a specific way that is what I am essentially concerned with. First, I think the type of reading I have described as one of retrieval rather than submission is at least implicitly opposed to an authorial ordering of any kind, as it is the very thing that inhibits their retrieval from, or construction of, the text. Secondly, and more importantly for my argument, a way of reading that prefers to take what it likes and is chary of submission is, in the end, in conflict with the nature of writing and reading.
Take another look at Eco’s line about the Summa. His metaphor of “a piece of architecture” for the text is apt, but misleading. By contrasting a building with the loose-leaf version, there is the suggestion that the one is an imposing object, the other is a lighter, approachable, would literally and figuratively be easy to carry. But I find the loose-leaf notion, and what it represents, to objectify the text far more than the alternative. To take from a text what one can or what one will is precisely to treat the text as an object unto itself, as a “piece of architecture” to be dismantled and restructured at will. I do not want to take up the cause of the author against the reader, but I do think how one reads, how one responds to a text reveals what one thinks of the author, the person on the other side of the text. Given this, I would defend a kind of reading that takes the person into full consideration.
Therefore, I take writing to be a form of address and reading its receptive corollary. In that, I would argue that to submit oneself to a work is necessary if there is a person, or persons, to be met within the text. To read a text would therefore require of the reader the same that is required of a hearer: a refusal to interrupt. Instead of objectifying the text, the text is an avenue to the author and to do otherwise is to set oneself in a world of textual objects and few persons. An approach to texts in this way is to submit, actively, to the terms set by speaker. Submission may not be for many a happy term, but I do not want to pretend it is otherwise than to deny oneself, among other things, the right to manipulate the text on ones own terms. One cannot submit naively; no doubt writers, like speakers, perjure themselves. Perjury, however, exists only together with an oath, a binding claim on the speaker’s verity. It has not been shown that the realm of reading and writing, speaking and hearing, is a realm wherein such binding claims to truth exist. I acknowledge that for my view of the submissive reader to be defensible, there must be such a realm.
I cannot defend such a claim here, and so cannot definitively answer that yes, such a realm of truth telling, and so true submission, exists. But let me suggest that the answer to this question of reading and writing, or hearing and speaking, depends in the end on the existence of divine speech and human hearing. A conclusive answer to that question would establish the necessary grounds for assuming that there was at least some speech that, in the words of R.P. Blackmur, “adds to the stock of available reality.” Such a speech would be worthy to be heard, and so to be submitted to in hearing. Such a speech would take place in a realm of binding and loosing. Without such a speech, it is unclear what, if anything, undergirds any faith in speaking and hearing. Perhaps, to do something for the rehabilitation of writing and reading, the question would have to be asked: What is meant by the prophet Jeremiah when he says “every man’s word shall be his burden”?