The Self-Inflicted Wound of the Torturer

In C.S. Lewis’s Of Other Worlds, most of the selections in the book are critical essays, but there a few pieces of fiction included, one of which is a never completed novel that C.S. Lewis meant to write about Menelaus and Helen during and after the Trojan War.  In the excerpt below, Menelaus stops fantasizing about torturing Helen if he regains her.

[H]e wouldn’t torture her.  He saw that was nonsense.  Torture was all very well for getting information; it was no real use for revenge.  All people under torture have the same face and make the same noise.  You lose the person you hated.

I was struck by this passage, since frequently discussions of torture (fictional and nonfictional) treat it as revelatory.  In Firefly‘s “War Stories” Shepherd Book quotes Shan Yu — a fictional warrior whose philosophy informs the actions of that episode’s antagonist.

[Shan Yu] fancied himself quite the warrior poet. Wrote volumes on war, torture, the limits of human endurance. [He wrote] “Live with a man 40 years. Share his house, his meals. Speak on every subject. Then tie him up, and hold him over the volcano’s edge. And on that day, you will finally meet the man.”

The idea that we are most ourselves under stress is prevalent.  Hurt someone badly enough, and every decent drapery will be stripped away, and you’ll meet the authentic self they tried to mask.  See also “It has been said that civilization is twenty-four hours and two meals away from barbarism” (from Good Omens) and the idea that wine and wrath lower inhibitions and reveal identity.  All of this presupposes that anything we do by effort can’t be authentic, when I’d argue that our choice of mask and drapery is the best indication of our character.  It’s quite hard to successfully dress up as Christ, but surely there’s something to be said for our choice of what we’d like to be, if we were strong enough.

So, people who think torture is dehumanizing tend to focus on the experience of the person being tortured.  You can experience and flinch from pain without higher reasoning functions.  The torturer isn’t so much interacting with anything that makes you you, just the base functions that make you a living creature — the need to breath, eat, sleep.  What I find interesting about Lewis’s quote is the way he assumes torture takes a toll on the torturer.

It would cost Menelaus something to try to interact with a tortured Helen.  If he persuaded himself to accept the generic person-in-pain as his wife, it would impoverish his understanding of what a wife was or what a human is.  Someone who uses an inflatable sex doll is better off not trying to convince himself that he’s experiencing the fullness of intercourse, or physical stimulation is all he’ll expect from or ask for when he has a living, thinking partner.

The person being tortured is being treated as inhuman, without regard for human dignity or the particular beauties and wonders of being human.  But if the torturer thinks he can achieve satisfaction by lowering himself and his victim, he is assaulting not only his victim’s humanity but his own idea of humanity, and he will carry that self-inflicted wound with him when he leaves the chamber.

Lewis’s Menelaus saves himself and Helen by recognizing that torture destroys the proper relationship between humans.  And if he wants to be able to repair his bond or sunder it or just ask Helen for an explanation of why she did such violence to their vows, he needs to act within the relationship they share and the fullness of their identity of Menelaus and Helen, husband and wife, two humans — both alike in dignity.

 

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • MeanLizzie

    **but surely there’s something to be said for our choice of what we’d like to be, if we were strong enough.** “Not what thou art, but what thou wouldst be…” I take a lot of consolation in that. Routinely. :-)

  • http://www.facebook.com/Sherrytex Sherry Antonetti

    Thanks for the tip on C.S. Lewis, I’ve not read that work…

  • BrandonUB

    Nice piece of writing Leah!

  • Pingback: The Self-Inflicted Wound of the Torturer - CATHOLIC FEAST - Sync your Soul

  • Mariana Baca

    Have you read Gulag Archipelago — just finished the abridged version recently. Dunno if I have useful comments on torture from that — haven’t mentally synthesized the book enough. But I highly recommend that book given the subject was brought up. If you like books in the vein of “1984″.

    • LeahLibresco

      I have not!

  • TheodoreSeeber

    Fredrick Douglas wrote something similar in _My Bondage, My Freedom_ about the white overseers hired to maintain control over black slaves; they often became slaves themselves to violence, and were also quite often divorced even as they were splitting up black families to prevent rebellion.

  • Tom

    Claiming that all our moral and social developments are lies and heart we are still barbarians or cowards or what have you that are only out to save our own skin is like claiming that all our education is a lie and at heart we are still idiots who don’t know one plus one is two.

  • Rose

    Lewis is on to something here, since many torturers will go on to suffer from PTSD.

    http://weekendamerica.publicradio.org/display/web/2008/10/18/torturers

    I don’t think we really have a ‘true self’. The way we act depends on who we’re with and what the environment and the circumstances are like. Alcohol dampens the functioning of the frontal lobes, which is your self-control centre. So, it’s not really true that how you act when drunk is ‘the real you’. In many ways ‘the real you’ is being suppressed and confused by the drink. Stress can have a similar effect. It causes people to do things they would never normally do. If you spend 99% of your life acting one way and 1% acting a different way, why would the one percent be your real self? Surely statistically it would be the opposite.

    In many ways the things we choose to do by effort are the most human of our lives, in the sense that most animals cannot ‘choose’ in any meaningful way to try to do something, or be some way. But if you torture an animal it will cry out and struggle and do many of the things a tortured human might, just out of instinct. …and now I feel a little sick.

  • Roki

    Perhaps what (dis)stress reveals is how deep one’s chosen behavior runs, how strong it is, how much it tolerates before it breaks and is reduced to inhumanity.

    This is not in any way an attempt to justify torture; the argument that torture dehumanizes both torturer and victim holds plenty of water in my book. It is only an attempt to see what might be true in the aphorisms that we are “most ourselves” or “reveal our true nature” in crisis.

  • mrmandias

    The best discussion of this I know is in Lewis’ Pilgrim’s Regress, where the Pilgrim is being held captive by the Spirit of the Age.

  • Cam

    “All of this presupposes that anything we do by effort can’t be authentic, when I’d argue that our choice of mask and drapery is the best indication of our character…surely there’s something to be said for our choice of what we’d like to be, if we were strong enough.”

    I can’t tell here if you’re accepting the mask-vs-authentic-self dichotomy or rejecting it. You could say that who we desire to be is a measurable and real part of our true character, that’s the ‘something to be said’, awesome. But then when you say we choose a mask, you’re implicitly accepting that wanting to be something is not the same as being something (if it were, it wouldn’t be a mask) and that’s really all that’s being presupposed.

    Further, the desire to have one virtue may be a produced by a different virtue.
    If I desire to be compassionate, that desire may stem from compassion. If I desire to not be lazy, that desire could stem from compassion also, rather than from whatever virtue is the opposite of laziness (you can tell i’m not into virtue ethics). So desiring to not be lazy or choosing to adopt a mask of non-laziness would say nothing at all about my real self’s non-laziness.

    “You can experience and flinch from pain without higher reasoning functions. The torturer isn’t so much interacting with anything that makes you you, just the base functions that make you a living creature — the need to breath, eat, sleep.”

    In short: humans are magical, the biological sciences are a lie, and it’s okay to torture animals because they’re not magical. Have I got the subtexts right?

    I can’t think of support for your claim that torture (even taking an unrealistically narrow view of torture as only physical pain) doesn’t interact with our magical selves, just our meaty selves. I guess it depends what you mean by ‘interact’. Can’t the torturer get at our magical functions via our base functions? How could denying a prisoner food fail to affect their higher functions, if eg fasting is spiritually transformative?

    “generic person-in-pain….”
    I believe that response to pain, especially psychological response, is individual, or rather no less individual than anything else about a person. A ‘happy person vs a pained person’ is not analogous to a ‘real person vs a sex doll’. CS Lewis’ opinions about how people react to pain (‘All people under torture have the same face and make the same noise.’) aren’t scientific fact, and you shouldn’t take them as such.

    “…without regard for human dignity or the particular beauties and wonders of being human.”
    But does torture do this more than normal violence, or violence with other purposes?

    “But if the torturer thinks he can achieve satisfaction by lowering himself and his victim, he is assaulting not only his victim’s humanity but his own idea of humanity, and he will carry that self-inflicted wound with him when he leaves the chamber.”
    It’s kind of counterintuitive that having a diminished view of humanity reduces a torturer’s ability to gain satisfaction from causing suffering.

  • grok87

    Nice post Leah.

    There is some torturing going on today in today’s reading from Acts.

    http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/051013.cfm

    “But when Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews rose up together against Paul and brought him to the tribunal, saying, ‘This man is inducing people to worship God contrary to the law.’ When Paul was about to reply, Gallio spoke to the Jews, ‘If it were a matter of some crime or malicious fraud, I should with reason hear the complaint of you Jews; but since it is a question of arguments over doctrine and titles and your own law, see to it yourselves. I do not wish to be a judge of such matters.’ And he drove them away from the tribunal. They all seized Sosthenes, the synagogue official, and BEAT HIM in full view of the tribunal. But none of this was of concern to Gallio.”

    I must admit I don’t really completely know what is going on here. One gets the sense that the synagogue was divided between the Jews who where on Paul’s side (Christianity) and those who were not (traditional Judaism) and perhaps Sosthenes was either on Paul’s side or unwilling to throw him out of the synagogue.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sosthenes

    One gets the sense of a community that is deeply divided by the new “followers of the way”, sort of like the revolutionary war period in the US, when I have heard it said 1/3 of the population was pro-independence, 1/3 was pro-Tory and 1/3 was undecided. There was lots of violence and torture going on at that time too- tar and feathering for example…Perhaps torture is more likely to happen in communities that are deeply divided than one’s where someone/some group is firmly in charge…

  • Pingback: Stories I’ve Found, 5/17/2013 | homiliesandstraythoughts


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X