Our own Jodi Dean has produced some fascinating ruminations on cruelty, to which I only want to add a brief speculative note. So far, Jodi has described cruelty as a displacement onto others of the vulnerability one feels in oneself; i.e., I am strong, I am pure; but the [blacks-Jews-terrorists-Arabs-poor-ad infinitum] are weak and dirty and deserve to be scourged. I agree with this definition, and wonder how it accommodates the oft-noted connection between aestheticism and cruelty, a frequent subject both of literature and of literary criticism that purports to be moral (and that generally, with varying degrees of subtlety, occupies a political space at the convergence of traditional liberal ethics and neoliberal or neoconservative ideology).
James’s Gilbert Osmond, Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert act with something of the cruelty of young children. Now children are proverbially cruel very much in Jodi’s sense—they fear that someone will notice their own peculiarities, so they strike out at whatever target for mockery suggests itself in another. But this is grade school stuff; I’m interested in the callousness of the very young, the three, four and five-year-old insensitivity arising from curiosity. I vividly remember, when I was about four, stepping on another child’s hand simply to see what the result would be. This kind of experimentation is a species of aestheticism, and perhaps of science as well, and maybe it gives us a hint of how aesthetics and science are related in their commitment to the constant observation and testing of the world, the mixing and remixing of its constituents. Very young children are still strangers to the world; they don’t quite know how it works and haven’t yet the capacity to build up a nexus of attachments that would on their own terms commit them to some behaviors and prohibit others.
This position of strangeness is reserved in society for the artist; he or she looks at the world through other eyes, shows it to us as if new, defamiliarizes it. So one story goes, but the story the moralizing critics tell extrapolates from this: they say that the lesson we learn from James or Nabokov is that cruelty arises from a failure of this strangeness, this curiosity. Cruelty is what happens when you feel too at home in your world and can’t estrange yourself enough to see how you would feel if you were Dolores Haze or Verena Tarrant or whoever. Aestheticism is at once the problem—a Humbert is preoccupied with the beauty of his obsession, his desire and its fulfillment—and the solution—if only this power to notice and reproduce beauty could be redirected so that the object of desire becomes a subject in the observer’s eyes. This is a position I myself have put forward and it is, I think, naïve (and also probably a naïve reading of James or Nabokov, but let’s leave that). It makes too much and too little of curiosity, of strangeness. There is no moral guarantee in a free investigation. If I step on his hand, it might hurt him, but that’s a chance I’ll have to take in the interests of finding out how these things work, or with what intricacy and complication they work. This is precisely an experiment with his subjectivity, just as Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay is an experiment in subjectivity, a curiosity about how other people feel. This is not a point that would be lost on at least James if not Nabokov (a writer I don’t quite trust), and when self-styled liberal critics start talking about necessary connections between free inquiry and empathy, or even between empathy and kindness, I start to understand the frequent complaint about non-artists who talk about art and also the too-infrequent complaint about the sheltered who are always calling down bombs on the invisible unsheltered a world away in the name of freedom—and that’s a point not even Orwell missed. I mean this as much as a rebuke to my past self as to anyone else. Torture is science and it is art, whether perverted or true I can’t say now. But it’s also the cruelty that Jodi has defined for us, for what is the strangeness of the observer of the world but a denial of his or her own relation to it?
I’m aware of how close that is to what the moralizing critics have already said and what I am trying to deny. I’m not trying to do away with empathy or curiosity and I don’t yet believe, if ever I will, that the face is the ultimate ethical trap. The neoliberal strain in literary criticism (Wood, Amis, Hitchens, et al) must be repudiated carefully, so as not to damage the tools, which are not necessarily the problem. The use made of them is the problem. Maybe this too is unbearable naiveté, an inauspicious beginning for my part in this long Sunday. But if Monday truly recedes infinitely, then we can only imagine it through Sunday’s eyes.