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Whence came human rights?

Caleb Crain, responding to a brief review by Gordon S. Wood in the Times, ponders a thesis that Wood seems unconvinced by, an argument that the novel was instrumental in instilling in Western society the value of human rights. “Wouldn’t the spread of literacy into even one’s private pleasures,” Crain asks, “count as a powerful socioeconomic change?” He then adds, in contrast to television’s and film’s ability to put viewers on the side of torturers, “I can’t think of a vividly imagined torture scene in written fiction where the reader sides with the torturer.”

Limiting “written fiction” to novels as Crain does, I can’t think of any scenes like that, either, though I must admit that there are many more novels than I’ve read that might prove the thesis wrong—if Scooter Libby could write of the raping of prepubescent girls by bears, surely there can be a torturer-friendly novel somewhere. It was no accident that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century abolitionists saw the novel as a chance to argue for the humanity of slaves: not only did it allow them to marshall narratives that could invoke their readers’ pity and emphasize the similarities among people, but also they had readers that invited such emotions into their lives; indeed, they read novels to have their heartstrings plucked. Crain’s shorthand reference to literacy is not about a widespread literacy; rather, it is a particular kind of literacy that predicates reading with enthusiastic, emotional response to the text. Look no farther than Frankenstein to see all of the early potential a novel had for asserting that human rights are necessary and vital. The monster, with a profound desire for justice and an inspiring capacity for reason, insists that Frankenstein recognize him, and his insistence is so strong that, when the man begs, “Remove yourself from my sight,” the monster does so not by leaving, but by covering the doctor’s eyes with his hand. Even blindness reveals what is true.

There are, however, examples of short fictions with scenes of torture that, if they don’t celebrate the subject, treat it ambiguously. Montressor’s maniacal laughter as he chains Fortunato into the catacombs is horrible, but horror at the actor’s deed doesn’t at the same time automatically create sympathy for the acted-upon. The horror is in the scene itself, as is the awe at the conniving brilliance of the plot. The American gothic tradition in general relies upon an ambiguity in violence that might or might not be commonly understood as an invocation of the dark potential in all human beings. True, it does often push the perpetrator of violence to the edge of society and/or sanity (Think Edgar Huntly weilding his tomahawk only in the wilds of Norwalk; or the very idea that Bret Easton Ellis’ serial killer must be American psycho); doing so might fabricate sufficient distance between readers and characters to supply readers the perspective they need to know whom to sympathize with and why. If so, I suppose that becomes the point: assuming that novels teach readers how to read novels, then something in the reading of them invites the sympathy so very necessary to reading them correctly. Perhaps it is the particular notion that even those in novels may not be trusted; perhaps it is the act of accepting a preface’s recommendation for how to read at face value.

Crain’s playing with the notion that novels caused human rights is a fun exercise, but even Frankenstein’s monster learned his humanism from Paradise Lost, Plutarch’s Lives, and The Sorrows of Young Werter. Each had for him special meaning; he ascribed to them the birth of his refinement, though his soul already felt and saw. Ultimately, I suspect that when it comes to identifying what came first, human rights or novels, it’s turtles—turtles all the way down.

 

Comments

I like your point about how, when a character becomes a torturer or killer, readers lose touch with him, or he at least drifts out of narrative focus (e.g., Edgar Huntly). But maybe it’s just that the reader loses touch with the sadistic part of him, because one sort of likes Highsmith’s Ripley, and one even roots for him, though I don’t think one is rooting for the part of him that’s a killer, but the part of him that’s lost, envious, and fearful. But, um, turtles?

Point well taken. Half of a Yellow Sun takes that tack. Ugwu, after having been conscripted into the Biafran army, participates in a gang rape. It’s the novel’s nadir, particularly since to that point Ugwu’s dependable in his goodness. The rape is both awful and understandable at once, and it’s in spite of it that one hopes Ugwu can be redeemed. The scene’s not entirely in keeping with the theme of the outright violent hero, but it does illustrate what you say very well.

It occurred to me just now that Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God might be good to reread in light of the construct of a hero who’s both bad and unsympathetic, but it’s been some while since I read it first, so my memory may fool me.

As to the turtles, I was thinking of that parable of the woman who confronted a scientist by claiming the world sits on the back of a giant turtle. The scientist countered, “And what does the turtle stand on?”

You’re very clever, young man,” said the old lady, “but it’s turtles all the way down!

I meant, in other words, that in such a case as this one can argue origins for exactly as long as one has the patience to continue arguing them. Shorthand, though, is only good so long as someone else understands it!

Aha. My education continues; thanks!