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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
If April is the cruelest month, is it safe to call October the most dubious? With the recent occupation of Wall Street, our ever-increasing economic peril, and the presidential election on the horizon, we thought we’d give you something to calm your fears–something reassuring and safe. Then we reconsidered. Instead, here’s Nick Flynn’s brilliant, poetic and darkly precise piece from issue 37. Here’s to our political future, whatever it may bring.
(Torture and Bewilderment)
Proteus lives at the bottom of a steep cliff, down a treacherous path, at the edge of the sea. You can see him from the top of the cliff, lolling on a flat rock, staring into the endless nothing of the sea, but to reach him is difficult. You’ve been told that he has the answer to your question, and you are a little desperate to have this question answered. As you make your way down, you must be careful not to dislodge any loose gravel, careful not to cry out when the thorns pierce your feet. You must approach him as quietly as you can, get right up on him, get your hands on him, around his neck. You’ve been told that you have to hold on while you ask him your question, you’ve been told that you can’t let go. As you hold on he will transform into the shape and form of that which most terrifies you in order to get you to release your grip. But if you can hold on, through your fear, he will return to his real form, and answer your question.
(2003) The outcome of the current crisis is already determined—our president assures us of this, the day before we invade Iraq. His certainty, it seems, is one of the traits his admirers are drawn to. The outcome of the current crisis is already determined—through the first few months of the war this phrase became a cynical mantra, I hated carrying it around, muttering it to myself. I hated my self-satisfaction when each act of violence and chaos in Baghdad seemed to prove the president and his certainty wrong. Until I began to wonder if, maybe, violence and chaos were precisely the outcome he intended.
Each disciple of a certain sect of Tibetan Buddhism, I’ve been told, is required to write out three memoirs—one public, one private, and one secret. I find something fascinating in this distinction—public, private, secret. This, in a way, is my attempt at just that. In one sense, it is a memoir of the decision to bring a child into this world after the release of the Abu Ghraib photographs. In this sense, perhaps, it is both public and private. But it also attempts to chronicle my surprise that, after the curtain was pulled back on that particular shadow, many of us, many Americans, even if initially disturbed, were in some way okay with what the photographs captured. It was as if some secret voice inside us was murmuring that what we were seeing enacted, though repugnant, would somehow make us safer, and we just wanted to feel safe. This wasn’t often uttered, but it was certainly part of the air we were breathing, part of the Kool-Aid we were drinking. We know this because essentially nothing happened—no mass outcry rang out, or if it did it simply dissipated by morning. “Not in Our Name” bumper stickers appeared, “Not My President” bumper stickers, but in the end what was done was, in fact, done in our names, and in the end Bush was not only our president but reelected. In a few short months the idea that we, as a nation, might, in some circumstances, be morally required to torture became, in some ways, acceptable.
One form Proteus takes, as you hold onto him, asking your question, as he refuses to answer your question, as he tries to terrify you into loosening your grip, as he tries to terrify you by changing into the shape of that which most terrifies you, one of these terrifying forms that he changes into is a waterfall.
A waterfall? Who’s afraid of a fucken waterfall?
Here’s a secret: I am no better than anyone else (I’m sure there are some who would argue that this is no secret at all). If you don’t know me, and if you were to spend some time with me, wandering the dark neighborhood of my mind, you might be surprised at what you’d stumble over. Or not. This, then, is also an attempt to drag my shadow into the light—in some ways this is the secret part of this memoir. But, in the end, I suppose, I’ve failed. It’s a difficult project—one’s shadow is notoriously, and by definition, resistant to the light. In the end this project is, perhaps, merely a map of my own bewilderment, my bewilderment at waking up with a newborn in my arms as the fine points of waterboarding are debated on public radio.
Fanny Howe writes:
What I have been thinking about, lately, is bewilderment as a way of entering the day as much as the
work . . . .
There is a Muslim prayer that says, “Lord, increase my bewilderment,” and this prayer is both mine and the strange Whoever who goes under the name of “I” in my poems—and under multiple names in my fiction—where error, errancy, and bewilderment are the main forces that signal a story . . . .
Bewilderment breaks open the lock of dualism (it’s this or that) and peers out into space (not this, not that).
Bewilderment as a way of entering the day. The outcome of the current crisis is already determined. It is perhaps not useful to posit bewilderment as the opposite of certainty, the one trumping the other—certainty has its place. This is a work of non-fiction, which by definition is the attempt to posit that something happened, something of consequence. Once we name what actually happened, we can spring off into the realms of the unknown, into the feuding fiefdoms of the imagination and of perception and of faulty memories, and, perhaps, our bewilderment in the face of it all. But it will not change the fact of what happened—the dead will not rise, the city will not rebuild, someone either went to jail or they didn’t. Whatever threshold of the unknown we come to the edge of, whether in dreams or by looking closely at the world until it transforms into something else, it all merely deepens our interpretation of what happened. But what happened, of course, can be bewildering as well. Watching the museums of Baghdad being looted was, for many, bewildering, even knowing that we in the West had been looting third world countries for centuries.
I wrote a memoir (Another Bullshit Night in Suck City), it came out a few years ago, won a prize from the PEN American Center. I was thankful to have my work endorsed by them—PEN is both a literary organization and a political one. Much of PEN’s work is on behalf of writers who have been persecuted by repressive governments—PEN is, clearly, the good guys. The award ceremony was at Lincoln Center, and a writer named Sam Harris also won a prize that night, for his book “The End of Faith,” which was described as an atheist manifesto. Fine by me—I’ve woken up on many a sunny morning feeling like something of an atheist myself, those mornings God was everywhere and thereby completely unnecessary. At the award ceremony we had our photo taken together, shaking hands, smiling.
My memoir was, on one level, about homelessness, but in it I didn’t propose any solutions to the problem. Countless books had already been written that laid out what we as a country could do to solve this problem we’d invented in our lifetime, and yet the problem, year by year, deepened. It also dealt specifically with my father’s years of being homeless—this could be considered the private part of that particular memoir. It had been written over seven years, from a place of obsession, and I’d decided, in my new work, whatever it would turn out to be, to try to write from a place of meditation instead. The years of obsession were taking their toll—obsession, though it can feel like jet fuel, isn’t for the long haul. I wasn’t sure what the process of writing the new work would look like, beyond the fact that it meant I would likely have to meditate. What I didn’t know was that something was already reaching up from the depth of my unconsciousness, its fingers already imperceptibly wrapping around my throat. It was, in retrospect, the glimmer of yet another obsession, which had started a year earlier with the release of the Abu Ghraib photographs. At that moment, in my seemingly bottomless faith in the goodness of humankind, I believed my country would, en masse, go through some sort of soul-searching, some reevaluation of where we had come to, and decide we’d clearly veered down the wrong path—way, way down. As the days and then the weeks passed I got the sinking feeling that not everyone saw us on the wrong path, not at all. A woman I had worked with at the shelter all those years ago, a bona fide salt-of-the-earth type, went a little glassy-eyed when I said what I was working on, and pointed out, softly, that those people wanted to kill us. Which people? I asked.
I heard Sam Harris on the radio a few times after we’d been photographed together, and months later I finally opened his book, by now a New York Times bestseller. This is what I found:
Given what many of us believe about the exigencies of our war on terrorism, the practice of torture, in certain circumstances, would seem to be not only permissible but necessary (p199).
. . . there are, after all, no infants interned at Guantanamo Bay, just rather scrofulous young men, many of whom were caught in the very act of trying to kill our soldiers (p194).
(note: children as young as ten were held at Abu Ghraib, in order to convince their fathers to talk; the youngest prisoner held at Guantanamo was fifteen.)
If there is only one chance in a million that he [Khalid Sheikh Mohammed] will tell us something under torture that will lead to the further dismantling of Al Qaeda, it seems that we should use every means at our disposal to get him talking (p198).
(note: one means Harris proposes is “the strappado,” a version of what we now call a “Palestinian hanging,” which was and possibly still is, in fact, often used at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and the so-called “black sites.”)
As a writer I usually begin with the unknown and then claw my way to some version of coherence (is even that true? I don’t know). Yet as I read Harris I was struck by a rare flash of certainty—clearly a mistake had been made. Anyone should be able to write whatever popped into his little head, but to have PEN endorse it?
I got in contact with PEN. I wrote emails, I wrote letters, I made calls. I told them I was offended to have my name linked with Harris’s, to have been photographed shaking hands with him. Smiling. I asked them to vote on whether to rescind Harris’s award, or to at least write a disclaimer on their website to the effect that by giving this award PEN in no way endorsed the use of torture. I said I was considering giving back my award.
Overnight I became, once again, ob-
Overnight I became a crank.
At the same time, I began emailing Harris, to which he responded—he claims to be a proponent of what he refers to as “civil discourse.” After a little frustrating back and forth, where he argued that no one had yet convinced him of why we shouldn’t be able to torture Muslims or anyone that we felt threatened by, I told him the sheepfucker joke:
A guy is walking with a stranger through his village. He points to the church, See that church, he says, I built those walls with my own hands. But does anyone call me William the Church Builder? No. They walk a little farther, and stop before the school. See that school, William says, I raised the funds to have a new roof put on it, but does anyone call me William the Savior of our School? No. But you fuck one sheep . . .
I pointed out to Sam that there was much to admire in his book, but, as with the poor sheepfucker, when he advocates one little torture . . . I was drifting well outside the realm of civil discourse, but it seemed perverse to privilege civil discourse when advocating torture. When I asked him about his statement that “some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them” (a reference to those who believe in the tenets of Islam), he said only a few people had called him on that (Muslims, I’d bet), and that I wouldn’t like the company I was keeping. I told him the company I kept was, among other things, against us even going to Iraq in the first place. I begged him to get up from Alberto Gonzales’s table and come back over to our side.
At some point our email correspondence ended.
I began watching the television show 24. Jack Bauer tortured a terrorist in the first episode, to find out where a bomb was hidden, but soon he was torturing his girlfriend, soon the president was torturing his chief of staff, soon everyone was torturing everyone, which seemed a likely trajectory, once we’d opened that box.
I began losing sleep. I read that sleep deprivation was an approved tactic for the new American torture doctrine. I read that this doctrine is not, in fact, new at all but carefully devised over the last fifty years by the CIA:
ALFRED McCOY: Well, if you look at the most famous of photographs from Abu Ghraib, of the Iraqi standing on the box, arms extended with a hood over his head and the fake electrical wires from his arms, okay? In that photograph you can see the entire fifty-year history of CIA torture. It’s very simple. He’s hooded for sensory disorientation, and his arms are extended for self-inflicted pain. And those are the two very simple fundamental CIA techniques, developed at enormous cost.
Proteus has always been the one who gets you to sneak up on him, the one who gets you to hold on, the one who wants your hands around his neck, who pretends to be sleeping but is not. He is never asleep, unless you are. He is beside you, as you sneak up on him, as you make your way down, as you step so he will not hear. He hears, he is with you, he is waiting on the rock, he already knows your question, you already know the answer.
In April 2006 the PEN board, presided over by Salman Rushdie, voted to do nothing, to let Harris’s award stand, to uphold the decision of the independent judges—all completely within their rights. Soon after this Rushdie (understandably, perhaps, considering the former fatwa against him) signed onto a petition declaring fundamentalist Islam to be the biggest threat to humanity since the Nazis. This should have been the end of my obsession; I could have given back my award and been done with it. I decided to contact the judges, ask them if they would share with me any discussions that came up after reading Harris’s views on torture. I asked if they agreed that a little torture was necessary, given the world as it is today, or had they simply not read the book that closely. I got mixed responses—one told me that it was inappropriate of me to question their decision; one ignored me; and one said that she didn’t believe Harris was pro-torture at all, that his position is more ambiguous. Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil. I pointed out Harris’s essay, “In Defense of Torture,” which I had sent to each of them with my first note. She wrote back that she could only comment on the citation they had written when they gave him the award. I went back and read the citation, after having heard it read out loud a year before. It included this observation:
Harris analyzes the world with a humanist’s sympathy, but he has no time for those who murder and torture in the name of beliefs based on ancient concepts that are both unbelievable and, more important, unprovable.
It seemed strange for the judges to have invoked torture in a four-sentence citation about a book that was not ostensibly about torture. Maybe they saw Harris as more forward-looking in his views on the need to torture. I emailed the judges. Silence. They had had enough of me. (note: That the judges were three women somehow bewildered me, in much the same way that some of the Abu Ghraib torturers are women bewildered me. Is this what the pioneers of feminism envisioned? As Angela Davis points out, by now the term equal opportunity has been twisted to often simply mean equal access to the instruments of oppression.)
The question, in the end, is not how Proteus knows what most terrifies you, but how it has come to pass that you don’t recognize your own innermost fears. Maybe Proteus is simply another name for “shadow”—the shadow you drag behind you with every step, except when you walk in darkness, when you yourself become the shadow.
My book will be a bestseller for a minute; Harris’s book will remain a bestseller for almost a year (although with a lot of help from someone or some organization willing to pay for several full page color ads in the New York Times).
At some point I read the reviews of The End of Faith: the Chicago Tribune (with no mention of torture) writes that the book has “. . . a pointed sense of humor”; the San Francisco Chronicle (also with no mention of torture) writes, “. . . despite its polemic edge, this is a happy book”; and the
New York Sun (my personal favorite) writes,
“. . . this is a trip down Memory Lane.” A book that advocates the use of torture is a trip down Memory Lane—perhaps an unintentionally accurate description of the secret history of America.
To this day Harris, as far as I know (I asked him earlier this year), remains resolute, certain about our need to torture. The South African artist William Kentridge writes something that speaks to this type of certainty: “To say one needs art, or politics, which incorporates ambiguities and contradictions is not to say that one then stops recognizing and condemning things as evil. However, it might stop one being so utterly convinced of the certainty of one’s own solutions. There needs to be a strong understanding of fallibility and how the very act of certainty or authoritativeness can bring disaster.”
The outcome of the current crisis is already determined.
After the award and the book reviews and the judges’ citation I told my friend Claudia that I was feeling a little nuts, as if I was seeing something that everyone else insisted wasn’t there.
That’s how black people feel all the time, Claudia said with a shrug.
This is the first year everyone says to me, You look different, you look your age. You used to be a pup, one woman says, and now you’re a dog. I’m the same age now that my mother was, the last year she reached, the same age my father was when he entered his first bank and robbed it. I think these things, but I don’t say them. But even thinking them suggests that I imagine life as simply a roomful of boxes—a box marked glass, a box marked papers, a year Magic-Markered on each. Boxes of tax receipts, boxes of old love letters, one year has to be the last year, and then the next year there is no box, no year scrawled on the side.
If asked, sometimes I’ll say I’m writing a memoir of bewilderment, but what I’m really writing about is Proteus, who changes shape as you hold onto him, who changes into the shape of that which most terrifies you, as you ask him your question, as you refuse to let go. The question is often simply a variation of How do I get home?
Which is, perhaps, the secret question of all memoirs.
So here I am; the maniac before me is Proteus. As I hold onto him, as I ask him my question, as I listen for his answer, he transforms—into a dog on a leash, into a man dancing with panties on his head, into a bruise, into a madman, into a waterfall, into a cockroach in a bowl of rice. Into a man strapped in a chair, into thirty men strapped in chairs, refusing to eat, thirty tubes forced down their noses.
So here I am, my fingers tight around Proteus’s neck, asking that same question, over and over, as if the answer exists, inside the maniac, inside the prisoner, inside the beloved, inside my mother, inside my father, inside me, as if the answer is there and just needs to be released.
Proteus, listen, this is what terrifies me—how did I, how will you, turn into this?
Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City won the PEN/Martha Albrand Award, and was shortlisted for France’s Prix Femina. His third collection of poetry, The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands, was released by Graywolf earlier this year.