May 24, 2018

Domestic Violence, Améry, and Tagore

Random thoughts upon re-reading Améry 


In At the Mind's Limits, Jean Améry begins by investigating the point of the intellect and the experience of the intellectual in harsh circumstances. He then moves on to torture, homelessness, and resentment. He's snarky, aggressive, and invariably spot on. Much of what Améry says mirrors the experience of domestic violence, I suspect, although I doubt that that ever crossed Améry's mind : it was the Holocaust that he was writing of.

A passage in which he admits to not knowing what dignity is particularly struck me:

"I must confess that I don't know exactly what that is: human dignity. One person thinks he loses it when he finds himself in circumstances that make it impossible for him to take a daily bath. Another believes he loses it when he must speak to an official in something other than his native language. In one instance human dignity is bound to a certain physical convenience, in the other to the right of free speech, in still another perhaps to..."

I don't know what having dignity is but I'm quite certain that being dignified in most circumstances means ensuring that others are not made to feel uncomfortable by one's forcing them to contend with how far from the ideal they are especially when one faces injustice oneself and they are complicit in the infliction of violence through their silence. (So much for the wonders of dignity!)

A daughter recently had a beautiful essay published in tribute to her mother who had once been married to a prominent Indian lawyer who had abused her. It spoke of a time before cell phones but it made me think of how the essay entirely aside, even today, being well-placed doesn't necessarily ensure that a woman facing domestic abuse won't bleed to death on her living room floor. It reminded me that the tale of the "rich" abused woman who's up against a richer man finding herself without aid worth mentioning is nowhere near new. And it made me think of dignity and beauty.

Tagore had once examined beauty through the lens of Romantic poetry  Keats, Shelley, and Wordsworth  and Advaita Hindu philosophy. The latter, he had apparently explained in a letter to a European person saying: “The first stage towards freedom is the Shantam, the true peace, which can be attained by subduing self; the next stage is the Shivam, the true goodness, which is the activity of the Soul when the self is subdued. And then the Advaitam, the love, the oneness with all and with god.” And, in the essay (entitled The Poet's Religion), he highlighted that life must be 'a continual process of synthesis, and not of additions' if our activities are to avoid 'the insane aspect of the eternally unfinished'.

"What is the truth of this world?" Tagore asked, answering his own question stating:

"It is not in the masses of substance, not in the number of things, but in their relatedness, which neither can be counted, nor measured, nor abstracted. [....] What is constantly before us, claiming our attention, is not the kitchen, but the feast; not the anatomy of the world, but its countenance. There is the dancing ring of seasons; the elusive play of lights and shadows, of wind and water; the many-coloured wings of erratic life flitting between birth and death. The importance of these does not lie in their existence as mere facts, but in their language of harmony, the mother-tongue of our own soul, through which they are communicated to us.
[....]
[I]f beauty were mere accident, a rent in the eternal fabric of things, then it would hurt, would be defeated by the antagonism of facts. Beauty is no phantasy, it has the everlasting meaning of reality. The facts that cause despondence and gloom are mere mist, and when through the mist beauty breaks out in momentary gleams, we realise that Peace is true and not conflict, Love is true and not hatred; and Truth is the One, not the disjointed multitude. We realise that Creation is the perpetual harmony between the infinite ideal of perfection and the eternal continuity of its realisation; that so long as there is no absolute separation between the positive ideal and the material obstacle to its attainment, we need not be afraid of suffering and loss. This is the poet's religion.
[….]
This great world, where it is a creation, an expression of the infinite — where its morning sings of joy to the newly awakened life, and its evening stars sing to the traveller, weary and worn, of the triumph of life in a new birth across death,— has its call for us. The call has ever roused the creator in man, and urged him to reveal the truth, to reveal the Infinite in himself. It is ever claiming from us, in our own creations, co-operation with God, reminding us of our divine nature, which finds itself in freedom of spirit. Our society exists to remind us, through its various voices, that the ultimate truth in man is not in his intellect or his possessions; it is in his illumination of mind, in his extension of sympathy across all barriers of caste and colour; in his recognition of the world, not merely as a storehouse of power, but as a habitation of man's spirit, with its eternal music of beauty and its inner light of the divine presence."

What that means isn't always entirely clear in terms of what it takes to make the world a better place. There was a time when I'd thought that it was no bad thing that most men can be bribed to do what is right with the promise or hope of career enhancement or some other inducement. Because doing what is right counts whatever the circumstances, I'd imagined. But I'm increasingly beginning to think doing what it right is not enough unless one's personal life mirrors one's public politics. The lawyer who supports women's education but leaves his wife at risk of death or the lawyer who, half a century later and half a world away, advocates anti-violence legislation only to be violent at home is replaceable. The cost of supporting a person who has no legitimate claim to anyone's support simply because one celebrates their politics is both high and unnecessary.

Améry had pointed out that as humans, when we are in trouble, we are conditioned to expect help and we usually receive it though, of course, not when one is in the clutches of the state and the state is malignant. There is no help for an abused woman either when she are in the clutches of a man who has the power of the state over her supported by a patriarchal society, his own aura of reasonableness, and his claim to power within the state. To her, he is the state and he is malignant.