Bystander lives and Swimming Upstream

December 31, 2012

“Though are all destined from birth to endure violence, the realm of circumstances closes their minds to this truth. The strong is never perfectly strong nor the weak perfectly weak, but neither knows this. They believe they are different species; the weak man does not consider himself like the strong, nor is he regarded as such.” – Simone Weil on the Iliad

“Who is the lamb and who is the knife?”

In her essay The Iliad, or the Poem of Force, Simone Weil says of Homer’s epic, “the abasement of the soul under [the coercion of force] is neither disguised, nor mitigated by facile pity, nor held up to scorn.” For her it is a prefiguring of the Greek gospels, in that the unredeemed tragic heroes of Greece share with the great redemption story the idea of an essential relationship between human misery, justice and love.

“Whoever fails to grasp that every human soul is subject to changing fortune and necessity can neither regard as peers nor love as himself those separated from him by the chasm of chance. The diverse restrictions that weigh on men give birth to the illusion of discrete species incapable of communicating. It is impossible to love and to be just unless one understands the realm of force and knows enough not to respect it.”

Yet Baudelaire observes that when admonished “that one must love, without grimacing, the poor, the wretched, the misshapen, the idiot, so that with your charity you may roll out a triumphal carpet for Jesus, when he passes,” the damned always reply, “I do not want to!”

Baudelaire’s poem “The Rebel” proceeds with an allegory, in which a poet feels so profoundly threatened by the moral condemnation of his own stinginess which he perceives in the fierce gaze of an old beggar who approaches him for money, that he assaults the beggar and brutalizes him mercilessly.

At last the badly injured old man retaliates with similar violence, to which the self-satisfied instigator responds, “Sir, you are my equal!

The dramatization sounds extreme, but the sentiment is not unconventional. If you tell someone you’re being victimized, they ask why you haven’t tried hard enough to defend yourself. If you tell someone you have been victimized and will never put up with it again, they ask why you don’t try harder to show the other person understanding.

This double-bind enforced by bystanders to safeguard their own right to a sense of complacency about the problems of others isn’t even considered an instance of victim-blaming. I think of it as an indignity ultimatum. That to fall to begging, you must abandon the dignities of personhood that entail living up to the expectation that each individual pull his or her own weight. I think it is this indignity ultimatum that the poet assaults as an affront to the human spirit, particularly acute at the dawn of an era that takes the conceits of the ego to preposterous extremes, “industrial-scale” vanities of human freedom to defy the whims of fate.

Perhaps, to be accepted as you are, you must accept love without conditioning it on a proof like instrumental assistance or rescue from your present circumstances.

“Could I have saved you? Would that’ve betrayed you?”

When you recoil from help offered with pity, you are not forgetting your sense of self-preservation. When they relate to your needs as pitiful, those who show you kindness today may just shrug you off as a casualty of the world’s pervasive cruelties tomorrow.

Their efforts to help will often be self-serving token gestures, too quick and indifferently prepared to do you good, in a hurry to get you off their conscience and out of mind – as when in 3:10 to Yuma, Dan Evans says of the veterans’ disability pension he received for his leg, “they paid me to walk away.”

Family violence victims are often accused of trying too hard to please, because nothing was ever good enough for their abuser. That’s nonsense. They have to try harder to be liked outside the home because it’s no use trying to impress their tormentors, and that leaves a void only others can fill. Including a vulnerability to unmet basic needs in the area of instrumental support, considering one of the most common (and least-acknowledged) reasons for not leaving an abuser is acute economic dependency.

In other words, the alternative is often homelessness.

(Somehow commentators have gotten it into their heads that there is a “domestic violence cycle” in which the sticking point for “why doesn’t she leave him?” is “the awesome make-up sex” instead.)

All this leads me, in a round about way, to what I took away from Craig Horner’s inconspicuous performance in the Australian feature film Swimming Upstream, starring Jesse Spencer, Geoffrey Rush and Judy Davis. The film is about an Olympic athlete’s experience growing up in the family of a blue-collar resumed alcoholic with a violent temper. You can find the Seeker in this movie if you look closely, but he plays a young man usually glimpsed only in the background.

Micro-aggressions are usually singled out as specific avoidable behaviors that broadcast discriminatory attitudes in what people can now agree are socially inappropriate ways. Swimming Upstream is a remarkable film for the dramatization of everyday hostilities in domestic life that are more sustainable than we want them to be, largely because of the way they blend into other imperfections of the banal, instead of announcing themselves in stronger language.

Catharsis for an audience of drama doesn’t have to be mediated by a highly theatrical ritual of purification.

“See you had a lot of moments that didn’t last forever
Now you in this corner tryna put it together”

Pulling back your more extreme emotions, the wreckage of your most personal and tightly-held hopes and dreams, dragging the mundane details of your deepest thwarted desires into the harsh light of day, and so returning them to the realm of the banal, suddenly makes it easier to move past what you thought you could never forgive or forget.

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