A number of times, some of which I hardly remember, all of which I try to forget, I left an apartment where I had a sexual encounter and things had happened that made me feel violated. Though I had also felt lust, or pretended to—the difference between being and pretending is not always easy to gauge. Perhaps I had wanted not to want, and the lust came from feeling myself outside myself, from the lewdness of ceasing to be an agent. Was I giving him the impression that I wanted it? Did I want it? Perhaps there are two selves in me: one wants, the other doesn’t. Perhaps there are more than two.
Even if I mostly adhere to my perplexed disjunction, I can see why claiming a grievance can be empowering. It marks the moment when self-doubt subsides. No. I did not want it. The clarity of grievance constitutes a Cartesian moment; a new, unified and resolute subject emerges. In completely negating the event, I own myself. I was wronged, therefore I am.
An unlikely philosopher of the current avalanche of social-media grievances is a North African Catholic bishop who lived over 1,500 years ago. When Augustine of Hippo completed the City of God in 426, he meant his book to console Christians over the Sack of Rome by the “Barbarians” sixteen years earlier. The Germanic Visigoths had occupied the center of the declining empire for three days, plundering its lavish basilicas and temples. Imagine that Osama bin Laden, instead of toppling the World Trade Center, had wrapped it in his black banners and broadcast worldwide from Times Square—for 72 hours.
Less than a century earlier, the Romans declared Christianity the official religion of the Empire, bowing to its growing grassroots popularity. Following the Sack of Rome in 410, the Roman aristocracy, some of which was still pagan, tried to capitalize on the colossal humiliation of the Christians: the empire used to be great and Christianity is to blame for its disaster. Only by returning to the old gods could Rome be made great again.
In response, Augustine, the foremost Christian intellectual of the time, took up the mantle of defending the predominant yet struggling ideology. During the Sack of Rome, Christian women had been “defiled,” and one question Augustine asked was how violent rape could be the reward for their evangelical righteousness. As is often the case, a woman was a proxy for men’s politics. The reputation of the defiled women had to be recovered. If the Christian woman could be saved, perhaps there was still hope for Christian Rome, too.
Augustine’s solution was nothing short of brilliant. The title of Chapter 16 of Book 1 of City of God reads: “Violation of chastity, without the will’s consent, cannot pollute the character.” He writes: “If that will continues unshaken and steadfast, whatever anyone else does with the body or to the body, involves no blame to the sufferer.” Rather than console the women for their defilement, lament the evil of the barbarians or vow revenge, Augustine strikes at the very premise of the situation: it’s not that those women should not have been defiled; they were not defiled. Not really. Only their bodies were.
The Christian woman, then, is not her body. In essence she is only her mind. Her body is a denizen of the Earthly City, fraught with confusion, violence and sin. But her mind is a member of the City of God. Nothing can reach her at that site of moral purity and epistemic clarity. She knows what she wants and, more importantly, what she doesn’t want. The corpus, implicated by the terrestrial city, is just a prop. Necessary as it is for our ephemeral organic life, it can be disowned at will.
With this conceptual trick, Augustine christened an idea that defined an era: the mind and the body are separate. You are only what your mind consents to. If Augustine’s words make sense for us—and I believe they do, at least to me—it is because we are still part of the same intellectual era. In this sense, we are all Christians.
Augustine’s theoretical conceit had a silent victim, a woman named Lucretia. She lived almost a thousand years before Augustine mentioned her in his magnum opus, accusing her of being “excessively eager for honor.” The wife of a Roman aristocrat, Lucretia was sexually assaulted by the king’s son. In the Renaissance paintings of Artemisia Gentileschi and Titian, she is being raped under the threat of a dagger. Lucas Cranach the Elder shows her again with a dagger, but now in her hand, held against her slightly swollen belly, on the verge of suicide. Another painting portrays a man displaying Lucretia’s corpse in public, vowing to obey her last command to revenge her assault. That man, Lucius Junius Brutus, was the first consul of the Roman republic. The rapist’s father was the last king of Rome. Lucretia’s rape and suicide triggered a revolution.
Lucretia was a problem for Augustine’s neat theory. She was a chaste woman with a pure mind who seemed to have punished herself for the violence inflicted on her body as if the guilt was hers too. If she committed suicide, it seemed to imply that the defiled Christian women should follow suit. This might explain why Augustine confronts sexual violence early on in his monumental book. In a culture still commemorating a rape and a suicide as its mythical beginning, he recognized that such violence could foretell an imminent end.
Augustine’s first hypothesis raises a disturbing scenario. Perhaps Lucretia “was so enticed by her own desire that she consented to the act.” A pagan woman, she did not possess the firmness of mind that citizenship in the City of God bestows.
But his ultimate verdict is subtler. Augustine is wary of charging Lucretia with adultery; he gives her the benefit of the doubt. The problem was not in her attitude within the carnal act but in her retroactive response to it, in failing to mentally own or, rather, disown it. Even if Lucretia was convinced of her innocence, as a pagan woman “she could not display her pure conscience to the world.” Craving earthly repute, she had “to exhibit her punishment before human eyes as a proof of her state of mind”—hence her suicide. Christian rape survivors, however, unlike their pagan forebears, need not trouble themselves with the suspicions of the terrestrial community: “They have the glory of chastity within them, the testimony of their conscience. They have this in the sight of God.”
Augustine’s City of God is a fantasy of an ultimate tribunal, where an omniscient judge, the divine Father, grants an absolute affirmation to the sufferer’s grievance. The same fantasy that exonerates defiled Christian women, however, cannot but indict Lucretia’s suicide. Even if not implicated by the intercourse, she isblameworthy for not disowning her body. Her suicide marks her sinking even lower in earthly sin. In the blessedness of the afterlife there is no room for such weak souls, all too intertwined with their bodies and the suspicious gazes of others.
Lucretia remains voiceless in Augustine’s benevolent yet blind narrative but she, at least, bears a name. The other multiple rape survivors remain both nameless and unheard. Could those anonymous fifth-century “Christian women” ever really renounce their materiality, even if they firmly believed they ought to, in line with the bishop’s theory? Could withdrawing consent make one’s mind any less convoluted with one’s corporeal memories? Shame is a phantom pain.
Perhaps this is precisely what Lucretia had known, and Augustine didn’t. The unnamed Christian women may have known this, too. We don’t own a body, not least one we can disown at will. We are embodied. The distinction between mind and body does not spell out a separation but a troubled union, one whose inner conflicts only serve to bring the parties closer, like two spouses whose frequent quarrels are the ultimate proof of their love.
It is easy to declare the separation. Augustine, speaking in his capacity as the intellectual patriarch, could pretend to have done so once and for all. (In the personal narrative of his other great work, Confessions, he reveals a more vulnerable, less decisive side.) But the women he writes about had to exonerate themselves morning and night. Every passing memory, a fleeting shameful reminder would elicit, yet again, the act of disavowal: I did not consent. But doesn’t every instance of this anxious repetition only lay bare the futility of disavowal?
Given this predicament, it is worth dwelling on the Lucretian alternative. Lucretia was wronged not only by the man who raped her but also by a world, a certain politics—a society and a system in which a strong man, the son of a king, could force himself on a woman he fancied. Lucretia’s response to her rape was not to escape into a comforting and imaginary divine city, but to demand change in the only world she knew. Her suicide was an act of sacrifice, of supreme agency, which gave birth to the Roman republic.
Augustine was right: she cared about the gazes of her earthly community and the suspicious thoughts they betrayed. Indeed, she wanted to prove something. But what she wanted to prove was less her alleged purity than it was the universality of her impurity. If she was polluted, it was because the world she shared with the others was polluted. She was as bad as any, as good as nobody. Contrary to Augustine’s recommendation to the violated women, the trauma did not make Lucretia want to disappear from the world. Her highly performative death, painstakingly planned to the last detail, reinforced her ultimate, everlasting message, which still reverberates in our earthly history more than 2,500 years later.
And yet, we have to acknowledge a disconcerting implication of Lucretia’s legacy. If it is a world that wronged her, not only a specific man, and if she was part of this world, then she was implicated in her own violation. Up to a point, she was a chief beneficiary of the political system that destroyed her, the system that she in turn helped destroy. The shame was hers, too.
The willingness of a woman—in the year 510 bce or today—to take responsibility for her rape may strike us as ludicrous. I do not read Lucretia’s legacy as removing the slightest fault from her rapist. The question her legacy raises is not whether she was a victim, or whether I was a victim, or whether her rapist—or any rapist—should be severely punished. The answer to that question is clear: yes. The question, rather, is what we are called to do beyond punishment. Proclaiming a grievance is comforting, even necessary, but one’s responsibility for the process of healing, which is both personal and social, does not end there.
A while ago, I was told by a mutual acquaintance that a man I had sex with had felt that I was too violent with him. I was surprised by this revelation. I remembered he had asked me to be “aggressive.” And I was, twice in a row; the second time only because I felt that I hadn’t performed well enough the first time. There was some awkward sense of duty. In a shared fantasy of power and violence, someone was called to take up the mantle of being the man. I played my part; he played his.
Looking back, I can see that this late disclosure had a dramatic impact on my sexual trajectory. I stopped being a top and became almost exclusively a bottom, one who would sometimes take the opposite role in the fantasy that I had (over-)played as a top. Faced with the reality—and ongoing prospects—of being a perpetrator, I made the morally safe choice: I took the risk of being a victim. It is a risk that occasionally materializes, and yet one I prefer to the pitfalls of guilt.
If my victim took to social media, he would probably get a good—and not unjustified—measure of enthusiastic support. Were I at all famous the comments and media accounts would cite my first name only—as if I were “Kevin” or “Woody” or “Aziz”—overly personal and completely generic at the same time.
I could, in response, apologize, or keep silent, and then—exile. I’d remove myself from public view for a year or ten. This would most likely be the advice of a shrewd PR agent, the kind that Woody, Harvey or Kevin must have. Even if I’m sure I don’t have any legal liability, apology might still be the right response. While Twitter has the habit of confounding the judicial and intimate spheres, it is worth recalling that we often apologize to friends even if we didn’t mean to hurt them. Our actions tend to betray aggressions that our minds initially deny.
A Twitter apology, however, would teach the audience for which it was performed next to nothing about the vicissitudes of gender and power that shaped my sexual mismatch, and set the terms for numerous others.
Having been socialized as a straight man—suppressing my homosexual desire to the point of oblivion—I’ve learned to treat sex as little but a performance, a dramatization of a role dictated by the obscure entity we sometimes call society. Even now, as a full-fledged, self-conscious homosexual, I still experience sex, at least part of the time, as playing along to a script. It is a source of both pleasure and pain, including the peculiar dialectic between victimhood and aggression that this essay recounts. I think, or hope, that this personal trajectory is not only personal; that my personal plight derives from a collective predicament. I want to know the truth about the system that made me who I am, about the world that implicated me in guilt, shame and pleasure alike. It feels like the only viable route to less guilt and new, less guilt-inducing, pleasures.
I was thinking about my complicated position in the grind of sexual warfare when Netflix released two new Dave Chappelle specials. In the single most serious moment of his #MeToo-related monologue, Chappelle invokes a profound political alternative to both Augustinian self-righteousness and Lucretian violent revolution. “The end of apartheid,” he says, “should have been a fucking bloodbath by any metric in human history. And it wasn’t.”
Rather than only conducting tribunals, the leaders of the newly democratic (and predominantly black) South Africa established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In public forums, individuals of all races were invited to narrate their actions during the decades-long apartheid. Many of those individuals—most (but not all) white men—did evil. Yet the evil, Chappelle claims, was derivative: “If the system is corrupt, then the people who adhere to the system, and are incentivized by that system, are not criminals. They are victims.”
In order to genuinely leave the system behind, it can’t simply be annihilated, set in Lucretian flames. The point was to understand it. This meant coming to terms with the evil of the collective and with the ways it prompted individuals to play their vicious roles. Like most political truths, this truth was messy and contextual, a truth where perpetrators for some are potential victims of others. The committees did not condone the deeds, but they did offer amnesty. Its bestowal was dependent on fuzzy concepts like the seriousness of the crime, its circumstances, and the breadth and depth of the truth that was told by the culprit—nothing as clear-cut as a typical tweeted verdict.
Granted, suggesting that perpetrators are “victims of the system,” like Chappelle did, brings them dangerously close to their (proper) victims. And it can appear as a kneejerk reaction, the kind of platitude that is never and always true. But the South African example belies Chappelle’s unhappy formulation. Talking about the world, rather than only about criminals, need not exonerate the latter. But it is, ironically, the only way to bring the necessary specificity and personal engagement to our conversation about justice.
Unlike in the tribunals, or sometimes on Twitter, a spectator of a Truth and Reconciliation proceeding does not watch the spectacle from a moral and psychological distance, pitying the victims, hating the culprits, and altogether happy that he’s not there. A witness from the outside remains un-affected, and if he has a skeleton in his closet (and who doesn’t?), he may try to hide it deeper lest they come after him too. But if the justice process is not about providing bottom-line verdicts, but about an open-ended investigation of the truth, if it connects with collective memories and accommodates specific histories and personal dilemmas, it can pull the spectator in. The public Truth and Reconciliation can facilitate personal and interpersonal truth and reconciliation.
I’ve been, like most people, both a victim and a perpetrator, sometimes at the same time. Had I only said, as a victim, I did not consent, I would have transcended my implication in the world that wronged me. I would have pretended to be beyond shame, failing to understand the reasons why again and again I find myself playing a shameful role in a script I did not write. Had all I said, as a perpetrator, was I apologize, I’d buy my individual, ephemeral peace of mind at the price of letting others play the guilty role I had renounced.
But in the City of God, there are neither victims nor perpetrators. Victims are purified of evil, transcending the sinfulness of the Earthly City by an austere accusation; perpetrators are exiled, either for good or—if their PR agent had penned an especially artful apology—with the possibility of parole. Our heavenly citizens imagine that a whole history—a history that shaped the bodies and desires of even the most righteous among us—can be left behind in an act of mind, a public renunciation, a poignant tweet. After all, it is so very easy to edit Kevin Spacey out of a Ridley Scott film.
Jewish as I am, I was hoping to find my own alternative to Augustine in the Yom Kippur confession. “For the sins we have committed before you under compulsion or willingly,” the community pleads, “God of pardon, pardon us, forgive us, atone for us.”
As in Augustine’s image, God is the judge and addressee of the speech act, but the plea is not for His acknowledgement that we never consented to the misfortunes inflicted on our bodies or that our evildoers are barbaric. It is in first-person plural that we ask for forgiveness, but this need not mean that victims are as guilty as their perpetrators, or at all. It does mean that membership in an earthly, imperfect community calls for the generous art of extending responsibility—for the deeds of others, the collective history that made them possible, and the (hopefully better) future that we are doomed to share.
The exegetical artifice may not be enough to dispel the hovering suspicion of victim blaming. But Judaism is many things, including the shiva, the seven-day period when Jewish families mourn their dead. As a child, I loathed following my parents to the occasional nichum aveilim, the ritual of comforting the mourners. The scene would strike me as an orchestrated lie. The sins of the deceased, now portrayed as a modern-day saint, would be all but forgotten, and sometimes even turned into an egocentric claim to victimhood. Deaf to the solemnity of the ritual, I’d listen to my parents recite the obvious clichés, like everybody else, and cringe. It was the truththat I wanted.
In the synagogue on Yom Kippur, we are all sinful; in the shiva each and every one of us is righteous, a victim even. It sounds like the beginning of a tedious Talmudic polemic. Rather than trying to work out this opposition, perhaps the Jewish alternative—or at least my Jewish alternative—is that reconciliation between the spheres is neither necessary nor desirable.
At least a decade has passed since I visited my last shiva. After I emigrated, I was relieved from observing the steady pendulum of family deaths. I think I’ve become more forgiving with time, if only because, to paraphrase the Talmud, I’ve accumulated my own basket of reptiles on my back. As I learned in another Jewish sphere, my psychoanalyst’s couch in Manhattan, reptiles are necessary for some ecosystems, but I still think it’s only natural to want to hide them in most times and places, especially when we are dead.
In February, when a prominent Israeli artist, Boaz Arad, committed suicide after an array of #MeToo accusations, a shiva became a yardstick for my evolution. As a teacher at an elite art school in the Nineties, Arad was intimately involved with a number of female students. He was also a dear friend and mentor to many people. After his death, one of Arad’s former students expressed his sorrow in a Facebook post. He said that social media was “the only place where I could share my grief with friends from high school.” The writer was immediately blamed for “erasing Arad’s crimes, ignoring his victims.” The comments demanded that he balance his grief with condemnation lest he become “part of a campaign to silence further Me Too revelations.”
Outside social media—in what we still call real life—we are rarely expected to provide such conclusive, balanced judgments about people and deeds. I commented: if the writer “were speaking at Boaz Arad’s shiva, a reference to Arad’s sins and victims would be unnecessary and even rude. This would hardly imply that he doesn’t recognize these sins and victims. Charity in some spheres doesn’t preclude judgment in others. Only on Facebook are all spheres mingled.” Is the writer “a public figure,” committed to stating the unbiased truth?
Under pressure, the writer—who was also close with some of Arad’s victims—ended up editing his post and acknowledged the immense pain Arad had caused. “I realized that Facebook was not a shiva,” he told me. I had to agree: “And you probably are a public figure.”
Over the centuries, Jewish sages have found creative ways to downplay the concept of parrhesia, the public sphere. In Greek, from which the Hebrew word is derived, parrhesia was not a sphere but an act of proclaiming the truth in public—not the partial and contextual beliefs that we entertain in private but the objective and general truth that applies to all. Not long before Augustine’s time, in the works of Seneca and other Roman writers, parrhesia takes on the sense of proclaiming a specific sort of truth, the truth that a person discloses about himself, a precursor of the Catholic confession. If we are all Christian, as I suggested above, it is also because we still desire this conclusive truth. Is “Woody” a child molester or a brilliant, if tired, filmmaker? Am I a victim or a perpetrator? Is “Kevin” gay, bisexual or a pedophile?
The shift in meaning in Hebrew conceals a dramatic reorientation. The Jewish parrhesia has little to do with the truth. It is one sphere among others. As Ido Harari writes in the Israeli magazine Eretz Ha’emori, according to a prominent rabbi, the late Ovadia Yosef, one could violate the Shabbat in public and, as long as he doesn’t cry it in the face of his fellows, count as a full-fledged member of an Orthodox community. His violations can remain “closeted,” as it were—not unlike a closeted gay celebrity, but without the expectation of an ultimate revelation of the truth, a coming-out scene. He is a Shabbat violator to some people and in some spheres of life, and a good Jew for others and in other spheres. There is no bird’s-eye view from which we can reconcile the two.
It is no coincidence that Kevin Spacey’s self-outing was simultaneous with the disclosure of his #MeToo disgrace—and not only for PR reasons. Both express the notion that there is a conclusive truth about Kevin, a truth that can and should be proclaimed in broad daylight. I’m the intended public for this Christian-style parrhesia, the silent audience to the truth about a man I’ve never met and never will.
Closer to home, the social-media frenzy following Arad’s suicide, culminating in front-page headlines in Israel’s top newspapers, had thrown me back to my own high school days. Located in a nondescript and depressed suburb of Tel Aviv, my school was just a few miles from the famed school where Arad taught but worlds apart in the grid of economic class and cultural prestige. Like fellow students in my school, I was trained to be the mute audience for the scandals and achievements of others. And now, all over again, despite two decades having passed, I felt like a faceless public for them, the public figures.
So after my brief intervention in their Facebook frenzy, a rebellious streak has taken over. I refuse to comment on the scandal. I know neither the alleged perpetrator nor his probable victims. The requirement to opine from afar makes me feel like a North Korean subject, weeping or smiling the tears and grins of a remote other.
This is not an excuse for inaction. It describes a program both personal and political. I’ll explore my traumas and infractions with my own lovers, friends, analyst, even with my victims—just not with reflected light from distant celestial bodies, in a heavenly city of which I am not a member. In refusing to judge strangers I also refuse a conclusive judgment of myself. Did I want it? Did he? First I need to know: Who is asking? And why?
Art credit: Rachel Stern