Tortured Logic. (in Cold Type)

By Wilentz, Amy | The Nation, December 9, 2002 | Go to article overview

Tortured Logic. (in Cold Type)


Wilentz, Amy, The Nation


The current Salmagundi (Summer-Fall 2002) has a section on what it calls "Femicons" (the category includes articles on Emma Goldman, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath and Willa Cather); but before that comes a stunning "Letter from Paris" by the writer and philosopher Tzvetan Todorov, on the French use of torture during the Algerian War.

Really a review of the French television program and book by Patrick Rotman called L'ennemi intime ("Intimate Enemy"), Todorov's essay examines the root causes of the torture, including the demonization of the enemy, the youthfulness of the French recruits and their isolation in Algeria. He also points out that neither "culture, education, accumulated wisdom ... nor ... religion ... provides efficient protection" for an individual against the possibility of becoming a torturer.

The French Army worked hard to develop a political rationalization for the systematic torture of Algerian rebels, a rationalization that will be of interest to anyone who has followed the Israeli courts' legitimization of forms of physical abuse of prisoners in certain situations. A hypothetical case always cited is that of the captured bomber who has killed once and set other bombs to go off shortly. Do you "question him politely" or "torture him so as to uncover and disarm the bombs"? Todorov says this time-honored defense of torture is specious. First, "the bomber caught between bombings is rare indeed." Second, he writes, the argument involves at its core the "principle that torture was necessary to win the war." Yet torture was practiced, and the war lost.

So, Todorov asks, what was the necessity? His explanations of why humans torture, when torture has never been shown to be efficacious, are revealing. Is it the beast in man? No, comes the response. He argues instead that it is "the convinced, resolute and active minority" that carries along the "passive, indecisive majority.... Fanatics and sadists act out; others let things happen, torn between a flabby indignation and secret satisfaction." Todorov is a keen observer of human behavior--he calls torture a "civilized" phenomenon.

Rochelle Gurstein's review/essay on Emma Goldman is a lot of fun, and for that we can thank both Goldman, whose letters to her lover Ben Reitman are the subject here, and Gurstein, who is level-headed and fair-minded and above all filled with empathy when considering the torturous, melodramatic affair that was, as Goldman described it, "the greatest tragedy of my life." A piece by Regina Janes on the iconization of Virginia Woolf is also worth reading if you can get through the many, many sentences meant to be zippy, like this one: "Now appearing everywhere, in a theatre near you, is the only current contender for femme Shakespeare, feminist icon extraordinaire, Virginia Woolf."

Astro Boys

* I am still wondering why Giant Robot is called that. It's an Asian "pop culture" magazine published out of LA ("Asian pop culture and beyond" is its motto), filled with oddities and--speaking of icons--icons. …

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