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At the Ottoline Club

David Mitchell | May 17, 2017

“Torture and Fiction”, a talk given at NCH on 28th March 2017 by Dr Catherine Brown, Senior Lecturer in English and Head of the English Faculty

Those present were: Dr. Catherine Brown, Dr. Olly Ayers (Faculty of Politics & International Relations), Dr. Ioannis Votsis (Faculty of Philosophy), Dr. Dave Rampton (Faculty of Politics & International Relations), Dr. Charlotte Grant (Faculty of English), Dr. Suzannah Lipscomb (Faculty of History), Dr. Daniel Swift (Faculty of English), Dr. Peter Maber (Faculty of English), Dr. Robert Craig (Faculty of Law), Dr. Mike Peacey (Faculty of Economics), Dr. George Zouros (Faculty of Economics), Dr. Marianna Koli (Faculty of Economics), Dr. Sebastian Ille (Faculty of Economics) and Dr. David Mitchell (Faculty of Philosophy).

In the United States and some of its allies, the years since 2001 have seen major changes in policy and attitudes regarding torture. Torture has been more openly advocated, and its mode of representation in various media has decidedly altered. Catherine’s current writing, impelled by these changes, considers the manifold relations between torture and fiction. Fiction in the narrow sense, as a genre, can greatly aid moral perception, but it can also lie, or sustain what are fictions in a broader sense – Catherine mentioned the ubiquitous ‘ticking time bomb’ scenario. Untruth can also be the product of torture, on the part of the victim as on that of the perpetrator; and so on. Catherine’s talk thus illustrated, with many powerful examples, a use of readings of fiction to drive an extended moral reflection on torture, considering first some relations between torture and Christianity and then turning to torture’s political setting today.

Taking a lead from Ivan Karamazov’s fable of the Grand Inquisitor, Catherine sketched an idea of the devil’s having a second role or guise within some conceptions of Christianity, besides that of the malevolent torturer in Hell: he can also be the sponsor of a ‘utilitarian’ practice of torture, which shoulders the burden of guilt for the sake of worthy ends. She connected this thought with that of some of the characters in The Crucible, and quoted kindred passages from Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. The theme of means supposedly sanctioned by ends she then carried over into the other section of the talk, which particularly discussed Henri Alleg’s 1957 memoir of being tortured in Algeria, and the fictions of Coetzee, Golding and Orwell.

Catherine’s other main thesis concerning religion was that Christianity’s spiritual power is of a distinctive kind among the world’s religions because its god is tortured to death. This feature is on the one hand capable of transmuting the experience of extreme suffering for a believer, and on the other makes meditation upon suffering central to the religion liturgically, practically and even architecturally. This side of the talk was taken up in discussion by Robert and Suzie among others. Robert put forward the view that A Clockwork Orange is to a great extent a novel about Christianity, readily agreeing in dialogue with Catherine that this was to see the issues in a somewhat Nietzschean frame. Suzie, besides registering a note of dissent on the theology, posed from the historian’s point of view some questions about Catherine’s method in working with fiction, particularly fiction with a centuries-old setting such as The Crucible has, and declared an eagerness to see the further applications of this method in due course.

The politics is at the heart of Catherine’s concerns. In writing about torture, she proceeds under a definition of it as carried out by state or quasi-state agencies. She also for her purposes sets aside the infliction of purely mental suffering, partly because she sees fiction as capable of being especially revealing as regards what happens to mind and body together and in their mutual relationship. But at the same time the changes in official definitions of torture are of great importance for the history of its human significance. The twentieth century witnessed a broadening of the received usage, a broadening which some advocates of the ‘war on terror’ have attempted to reverse. Dave referred to the British government’s response to the insurgency in Sri Lanka in 1971 as an instance of restraints being overthrown, and Robert noted the relevance of the history of habeas corpus in British colonies and dominions. Catherine mentioned Israel as having been quite egregious, especially at a certain period, as regards avowal of the use of torture. She also offered some conjectures as to the reasons for the contrasts between the public discourse in France up to the present day concerning torture in Algeria, a discourse of denial and deprecation, and that in the US since 2001. The television series 24 openly defends the use of torture, and while this is a fairly crude production, the movie Zero Dark Thirty, made in collaboration with the CIA, is more sophisticated and insinuating and, in its apparent but faux balance, all the more sinister.

Near the end of a searching and very informative discussion, we returned to a statement Catherine had made right at the beginning, that torture is ‘the greatest evil’. She had made it clear she takes an absolutist position on the morality of torture; was calling it the greatest evil the same thing? No. It is the worst thing anyone can experience, thus something unparalleled to suffer, but in terms of attributing moral evil to persons, there is by contrast much room for dispute: is the real torturer the one who commands it or the one who executes the command? Torture itself, however, the perhaps complex act, is always beyond the pale, and so in a sense ought it to be to discuss whether this is so, as Žižek maintains. In studying and discussing it, said Catherine, one runs a real risk of a dulling of sensitivity. For some at least of us who heard her talk, however, the feeling was that she gave great hope of a sensitive and proper treatment of this dark subject.

David Mitchell

Senior Lecturer in Philosophy