I don’t plan to see Django Unchained, in part because it’s not easy for me to get to the movies, but mostly because I’m not that interested in the revenge fantasy aspect of the film. Ta-Nehisi Coates is not planning to see it either, and has a smart, provocative post about this decision:
I’m not very interested in watching some black dude slaughter a bunch of white people, so much as I am interested in why that never actually happened, and what that says. I like art that begins in the disturbing truth of things and then proceeds to ask the questions which history can’t.
Among those truths, for me, is the relative lack of appetite for revenge among slaves and freedmen. The great slaughter which white supremacists were always claiming to be around the corner, was never actually in the minds of slaves and freedman. What they wanted most was peace.
Slave revenge has the luxury of making slavery primarily about white people. It is a luxury that the black rebels of antebellum America had little use for. Uppermost in their minds was not ensuring that white slavers got what was coming, but the preservation and security of their particular black families. Their husbands and wives were not objects to be avenged, but actual whole people whose welfare was more important than payback I so longed to see.
It was almost as though history was refusing to give me what I wanted. And I have come to believe that right there is the thing–the tension in historical art is so much about what we want from the past and the past actually gives.
That right there is a profound point.
To go back for a sec: I’m not interested in revenge fantasies in large part because I’m susceptible to the cathartic pleasures involved in vengeance. I’ve thought for years that I need to see Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” series, but I have not allowed myself, in large part because I’m pretty sure I would cheer Harry on when he blows away criminals extrajudicially. A decade ago, when an abused altar boy kneecapped the Baltimore priest who had allegedly abused him, my thought was: Good, the SOB deserved it. I regret that. The SOB did, in some sense, deserve it, but it is corrupting for me to think so; that instinct is something that I should overcome. As longtime readers know, I was shaken up by thinking about how my revenge instinct corrupted my ability to think clearly about 9/11 and what the US response should be.
To be clear, I’m not talking about justice or necessity, either of which could require exacting payback. I’m talking about taking pleasure in vengeance. I’m a lot more interested in individuals or communities who decide not to seek vengeance, but rather peace, forgiveness, reconciliation. Ten, twelve years ago, if I had heard someone say that, my instinct would have been to think of them as a squish. It seems to me now, though, that mercy can be a far more courageous choice than justice.
How do people who have every right to expect and exact suffering from their victimizers find it within themselves to forswear it? To me that’s a far more interesting topic for artistic exploration and moral contemplation than vengeance. I’m not saying that vengeance isn’t an appropriate subject for art — hello, Odyssey! — only that I resist these stories. I want you to hurt like I do, to quote a Randy Newman line, is a deeply human sentiment, but for me, it’s a trap. And most people I’ve known who have built much of their character around victimization and vengefulness have made themselves sick and disabled.
TNC’s point about the instrumentality of historical art — and, I suppose, in any historical narrative — is a powerful one. I’m once again thinking about Rebecca West’s monumental 1930s Balkan travelogue, Black Lamb And Grey Falcon. Reading that book, you can see how Balkan history, as overstuffed with fertile rot as a compost pile, provides narrative details to justify just about anything your tribe wishes to think about itself, and to do.
In this respect, I think Barry Lopez, in his Fresh Air interview yesterday, in which he talked about being sexually molested as a child, is onto something:
“I’ve basically been silent about this all of my adult life, and one of the things that precipitated my decision to write the story. … I wrote this piece before the Sandusky thing [the Penn State sex abuse scandal] broke so that it wasn’t the newspaper story that compelled me to do something — I had become impatient with the cast of newspaper articles that suggested that in the legal pursuit of pedophiles what young men and women were most interested in was winning a financial judgment or in punishing, seeking vengeance. And it struck me that that was the last thing, really, you’d be interested in as somebody who had been serially molested. What had been taken from you was a sense of self-worth and dignity, and the only way you can get those things back is in open, unjudged relationships with other people, and then you … have a chance to develop again a sense of self-worth. … So what you really want, in the simplest terms, is for somebody to believe what happened, to take you at face value and not to manipulate you in a courtroom, for example, to seek justice.”
What a difficult position to find one’s way to: to be able to say “this happened,” not as a precursor to an act of justice or vengeance, but as a precursor to an act of regaining one’s stolen dignity. By being able to do so outside of a context of vengeance, the victim, or his heirs, thereby hands the victimizer, or his heirs, an opening to regain the dignity that they (or their forbears) threw away.
This is not, I hasten to add, to say that criminals ought not to be held accountable in a court of law for their deeds. No society could survive without some mechanism for ensuring justice. I’m talking about TNC’s general point about history, guilt, and art. Court proceedings may inflict just punishment on criminals, but do not expiate the historical, emotional, psychological, and social sin committed with the crime.