Wednesday, June 03, 2009


For reasons just slightly beyond my grasp, I keep finding nestled underneath my "entertainments" the leviathan of torture. For example, the last two pieces I read in the New Yorker (on vacation in paradise no less) were about Rwanda fifteen years after genocide and the lingering psychological damage of solitary confinement in America's maximum security prisons.

And when I have a Netflix movie drop into the mailbox, and it turns out to be Liliana Cavani's The Night Porter, about an Nazi concentration camp survivor and sex slave encountering her master/ tormentor in a Viennese hotel, thus re-igniting their relationship 15 years on.

Giving myself over to such torture, I also tried watching Dennis Hopper in Mad Dog Morgan, which similarly depicts situations in an Australian jail in 19th century. Only, I couldn't get past Dennis Hopper all strung-out, jittery and gulping down great quantities of opium smoke while also trying to pull off an Irish brogue. Insufferable.


And I just finished reading Lawrence Wechsler's A Miracle, A Universe, a harrowing yet rewarding read about how societies in Brazil and Uruguay grappled with the specter of torture and punishment after decades under brutal military dictatorships. Not only can you learn just when to drink your own urine (within an hour after the uric crystals sink to the bottom of the tin can) but also learn about atypical torture techniques in Brazil, such as "cockroaches inserted in the anus, being forced to ingest large quantities of salt and then denied water for several days, being forced to drink one's own urine." Presumably, it's after that first hour has passed.

Attending a dinner party in Montevideo, Wechsler notes that one guest describes how such torture ultimately shuts down the society at large: "Our own lives became increasingly constricted. The process of self-censorship was incredibly insidious: it wasn't just that you stopped talking about certain things with other people -- you stopped thinking them yourself. Your internal dialogue just dried up."

Torture becomes less the punishment of a specific individual and more for the society surrounding that person. In almost every instance, it seeks to shred the social fabric instead. Wechsler quotes Elaine Scarry's The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World, noting that "the civilian public unintentionally allies itself with the torturer." It becomes a matter of inxile and introjection, being trapped within your own body and suffering "the destruction of the personhood of a person," transforming from subject into object.


A painter friend visited me just last week, about to relocate out west, and offered up a recent painting of his that he has yet to unload. It gobbles up an entire wall and it's a glowing, instantly eerie thing. Its subject is a non-descript tin shed erected at Abu Ghraib. The viewer might fail to grasp what truly happened behind its flimsy walls yet it somehow knows. I politely demur.