Victims and Values: A History and a Theory of Suffering

Victims and Values: A History and a Theory of Suffering

Victims and Values: A History and a Theory of Suffering

Victims and Values: A History and a Theory of Suffering

Synopsis

This book conducts a timely inquiry into contemporary conscience and politics. It examines fundamental ambiguities, dichotomies, and contradictions that we experience about the worth of our own suffering and the suffering of others. In particular, it analyzes how victims make a powerful claim upon contemporary conscience and public debate. Amato focuses his work on empathy and reason, hoping that each person will be able to take some of the suffering of others and still remain able to relate to his to own suffering instead of giving in to resignation or despair.

Excerpt

On a hot summer morning, a prisoner hears himself condemned to death. He spends the next few weeks in the condemned cell, hoping for reprieve, but learns that there will not be any. On his last day, he is driven across Paris in an open cart, to his execution. Victor Hugo published Le Dernier Jour d'un condamné (The Last Day of a Condemned Man) in 1829, a tale of the sufferings of a man who hopes to avoid death, then learns he cannot do so and cries out against the injustice of having to die so young, so painfully: "They say it doesn't hurt. Have they ever put themselves in the place of the person who is there?"

"They" are the judge, the jury, the crowd who will watch him die. (The last public execution in France took place in 1939.) In the last resort, "they" are society, ready to punish, torture, inflict pain. It is society that Hugo addresses, hoping to inspire horror of the death penalty. In 1818, at age 16, he had passed, in a public square, a young woman being branded for "domestic theft." Her dreadful scream, when the red hot iron bit into her flesh, stayed with him. In 1820, two years later, chance made him cross the path of a murderer being led to the guillotine. It was Louvel, who had stabbed the heir to the throne of France. The horror and the pity of it shook him to the core. In his first novel, published when he was 21 years old, the demonic bandit, Han the Icelander, and his executioner, would be presented as equally murderous. In 1834, the story of Claude Gueux, whom injustice drives to murder and hence to death, a less elaborate forerunner of Jean Valjean in Les Misérables (1862), stated Hugo's case. It is misery that leads . . .

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