Exploring the Need for Forgiveness
“Why,” a friend asks, “do you feel compelled to write about forgiveness?”
Indeed, why? I am left stammering into the phone. I stammer because I have
no ready explanation for the hold this subject has on me. I have been mulling
it so long, I have simply lost track of its origins. I search for beginnings,
come up only with reasons why the subject of forgiveness is not an obvious
choice for me. What is my personal relation to the subject? I have never
been raped, abused, betrayed, abandoned; I have no one in my own life I
need to forgive. Nor, though I have my share of human imperfections and
flaws, am I aware of any wrong I have committed so grievous that it nags
my conscience, and for which I crave forgiveness. Neither I, nor any one
in my family, or even anyone I know, is a Holocaust survivor. As a child
in America, I was not victimized by racial or religious hatred. Nothing
in my own direct experience, in other words, leads me to this subject.
I hang up the phone, I am left trying to explain to myself where
my preoccupation with forgiveness came from, why I have been collecting
newspaper stories, magazine articles, books, quotations, poems for years
now. We in the western world are, inescapably, inheritors of a Judeo-Christian
legacy which makes pronouncements, adopts attitudes, formulates regulations,
about forgiveness. But only to the degree that I partake by osmosis in
this tradition, is a religious background responsible for my engagement.
I was raised in a home without a bible, without Sunday school, without
religious training, education or observance. Not until I went to college
and had a course in “The Bible as Literature” had I even read what for
me have remained stories. So, I fail to account for my stake here; it remains
unaccountable to me. Not only what compels me, but how I can contribute
to the subject. For me at this time, only an urgent feeling that I must
communicate my sense of its importance.
With strong feelings of frustration, even sadness, I consign my carton
of material on forgiveness to the attic. For now, I am assailed by too
many questions, by the complexity, permutations, irresolutions, subtleties,
contradictions surrounding the subject which waylay any attempt at generalization
or prescription. How to find a way in? No theologian, politician, psychiatrist,
I have my feeling of urgency, but no professional language in which to
couch it. I am back to excavating the origins of my commitment in the hope
that I will discover in the digging an approach of my own.
It is 1938, I am ten years old. I am sneaking off to the movies with another
girl instead of going to a camp reunion.
On a sunny afternoon, we are headed for the Schuyler theater, just three
blocks from home, showing Don Ameche and Carmen Miranda in a musical comedy,
perhaps Down Argentina Way? I have only been to the movies once
before, with my parents, (thought in these media-laden days that seems
incredible). The news comes on first, black and white Pathe News, and suddenly
in the dark I am seeing Japanese soldiers with bayonets climbing through
peasants’ windows in China or Manchuria, some far place I don’t know about,
thrusting their steel blades through the sleeping figures. Impaling sleeping
people. I still remember it sixty years later; the Japanese soldiers were
wearing puttees and high-laced boots. I force my friend to leave before
the movie starts. At ten, without knowing the word for it, I became a pacifist,
pretentious though that statement sounds. I am one still, and all the wars
I have lived through have strengthened that belief. There are those who
claim forgiveness perpetuates or condones evil, weakens the weak and strengthens
the already powerful. A critic as formidable as Cynthia Ozick subscribes
to this view. But I would object that war, the ultimate consequence of
non-forgiveness, weakens everyone.
It is 1939, World War II. Every single evening before dinner my parents
listen with solemnity to Raymond Gram Swing and the news. My father is
too old to serve in the army, I have one sister and no brothers, not even
an uncle in the service. We have no family in Europe. But the Second World
War remains etched, incised, engraved on my mind. It was my fearsome entry
into political consciousness. Not until the Vietnam War did I ever again
follow political events so closely. I am eleven. We are sitting in deck
chairs we have carried to the park, and listening to the news in the daytime.
Paris has fallen. Is my mother crying over the recent death of her seldom-seen
brother, or is it this latest catastrophe that prompts her tears? Grief
in the summer air. Again, it is a sunny Sunday, so my father is with us.
Back inside, he begins to stick pins in a map of the world tracing the
progress of each battle from that day till the war’s end. I write a poem
about Britain left alone against the enemy: “Horatio, come and hold the
bridge a second time. . . .” Patiotism and war—is there a necessary connection?
Is war, this war, a necessary evil? Did it have to come to this? This question,
planted now, haunts me as I grow up. In high school I learn about the background
of today: World War I, the Treaty of Versailles, Weimar Republic, German
inflation. What would the result have been if forgiveness rather than punishment
had been extended twenty-five years before? The information about World
War II death camps hasn’t come out yet, but the newspapers are clogged
with pictures of countries, a horrifying tally. Blackout, fear. The unpredictable
I am sixteen, staying with a friend and her family at Lake Placid, idyllic,
summer. Someone comes in with a newspaper announcing the bombing of Hiroshima,
pictures of the cloud on page one, particulars of incineration inside.
I go up to the guest room where my bed is. For the next ten years I don’t
read the newspaper. I am too ignorant to know all the philosophers since
time began who have tried to reason their way around evil, who have come
up with Satan, with a Manichean heresy. I see a world in which nothing
is too horrible to happen. Guilt attacks me, my country did this. No arguments
about a swifter conclusion to the war convince me this is justifiable.
I feel it on my conscience—hold to non-violence.
I am a protester during the Vietnam War. I do nothing significant, don’t
get arrested, I lick envelopes, write letters, send telegrams, march, like
thousands of others. I am still a pacifist, but now, popular sentiment
is with me. A college teacher now, I find my views adopted in my students’
slogan of the ’Sixties, “Make Love Not War.” I see a world in which men
kill each other without volition, without knowing why, in which the Hemingway
words—glory, honor, patriotism—discredited in World War I are retreaded.
Which is the war to end all wars? Decades later post-traumatic stress syndrome
enters the general vocabulary. War forces me to think most seriously about
courage, heroics, and the conquering hero. I am married, I have children.
What sort of world will receive them? I refuse to buy my son a toy gun.
This is larger than pacifism; I begin to reflect on what peacetime values
are and fail to be. Soon I will locate many of these values in the women’s
movement growing in the 1960s. My own search for order, harmony, non-violence,
co-existence is to become the overt or covert theme of my writing.
I write a book on the crime novel.1 What
profound need in us does it satisfy? Why have I been an avid, if selective
life-long reader? Because of its archetypal organization of evil and innocence.
The most cogent discussion of the profound chord the mystery novel strikes,
I find in W. H. Auden’s essay, “The Guilty Vicarage,” in which he names
murder as unique—the one irrevocable, irremediable crime. He analyses the
crime narrative as a trajectory from innocence through innocence violated
to evil expunged and innocence restored. He chose the vicarage as the closed
society in which the outsider, the evil one, can be detected, the guilty
one cast out. This is our emotional catharsis, our satisfaction. The clever
solution to the puzzle, the cerebration, provide additional pleasure but
their appeal is more fleeting, less visceral. The restoration is what we
long for in real life, where evil is no longer identifiable and containable—or
even an anachronism. My fascination is with that innocent state, I realize,
a permutation of pastoral, with roots in the Edenic myth. (Characteristically,
the Golden Age classic mystery novel is set in such a rural background.)
In such a world, relationship is possible, forgiveness is a possible choice.
That choice posits a code in which violence is condemned. More recently,
with the breakdown of class hierarchy, the acknowledgment of social responsibility
in the formation of the individual, post-Freudian understandings of the
psyche, the psychology of the criminal has been foregrounded. The mystery
story is shifting from plot-driven to character-driven in ways that bring
it closer to the serious novel and further from formulaic entertainment.
To understand all is to forgive all?
In 1980 I am one of a small group of women academics who found The Alliance
of Independent Scholars in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A book about the academy2
grew from the sixty odd narratives of these women’s experience disclosed
in interviews we conducted, issues confronting them in their academic and
personal lives. It analyzed the reasons women hit the glass ceiling, examined
unequal practices, injustices which impeded advancement. But the equally
important task of the book was to describe the values—a cooperative, collaborative,
contextual style of working, both in their research and their departmental
relations—these women held that conflicted with the status quo, and
which they, and I, did not want to relinquish. These values were less
articulated, more deeply lying, but just as significant a reason women
wound up as “outsiders in the sacred grove.” Most importantly from the
standpoint of forgiveness, the interviewees emphasized the whole life,
the inseparability of private and public roles. I was only to realize afterwards
that these personal narratives linked feminism and forgiveness for me.
I began to think about their interrelatedness. Who has not experienced
the necessity for forgiveness in a personal life? The public life guards
turf, saves face, functions through hierarchy, forgiveness doesn’t enter
that scene. So I and my co-author looked beyond the goal of equal pay,
education, opportunity, though it was far from achieved, and spoke to the
charge of changing values. This requires a sizeable educative process.
Will men forgive women for claiming a public voice and a public role? Will
women forgive each other for privilege bestowed by race, class, and ethnicity?
Will women and men share the ethic of forgiveness necessary for peaceful
co-existence in the workplace as well as the family? The search for a society
and a heroine to advance these values would eventually lead me on to an
extended exploration of what I want from a contemporary heroine. Pacifism
was my first relation to forgiveness; feminism my second.
I start with my recurrent vision of peace, (so hard to image except negatively
as the absence of war), of harmony in the world. So for the sake of easy
visualization, I go back to pre-lapsarian times, the Garden of Eden, man
one with nature, pre-verbal communion, the music of the spheres, orderly,
and whole. I am editing a book of poems3
from all over the world about the relationships between human beings and
other creatures as part of this obsessive vision of co-existence that swims
before my eyes. I delineate categories of relation, write essays describing
them, collect contemporary poems that illustrate what is timeless and what
we mourn as a Golden Age. A time before forgiveness was necessary. Did
that other time ever exist? Or is our own sense of discord so acute that
we create a myth to comfort ourselves? I don’t believe in original sin,
the snake, the forbidden fruit as sexual knowledge. I don’t believe our
life is a God-ordained punishment. But the garden remains—a vision which
coincidentally has gained support from the new sciences of ecology and
environmental studies. And how will we fashion our lives there if
we succeed in conserving the planet? How are we to exist now, now that
Cain has slain Abel, without doing violence to one another? Now is the
operative world. Forgiveness only makes sense in a temporal dimension,
because it is dynamic, it effects changes.
Before we were strangers we were connected. In the same year, 1989, I publish
a book of poetry with this title4; on the
cover four figures from a Giacometti sculpture stride across a square,
completely heedless of each other, figures of estrangement. I think of
Wordsworth, “man’s inhumanity to man.” How do we co-exist? Forgiveness
is essential; it is a metaphor that establishes a relation that wasn’t
there before, a span thrown out to build a bridge. Then the people in the
square can look at each other, may even walk together. On Yom Kippur, the
holiest day of the Jewish calendar, at the beginning of the New Year, the
liturgy cautions us, “For sins against God, the Day of Atonement brings
no forgiveness until one has become reconciled with one’s neighbor.”
I have had an ill-defined but lasting attraction to Christianity. I have
never acted upon it. I don’t have religious faith of any description, only
hope, and I hope, charity. Indeed, I am skeptically afraid of “uplift,”
of “easy grace.” It is the symbology that draws me, I know. Particularly
the New Testament, which in the Crucifixion dramatizes the supreme act
of forgiveness. Jesus, when asked by a disciple how many times one must
forgive, gave the answer: “Seventy times seven.” In other words, forever.
Both Judaism and Christianity teach forgiveness. I am moved too by the
parable of the Prodigal Son in the Old Testament, forgiven by his father.
Buddhism teaches non-violence and compassion for all creatures.
But as a non-believer, where does that leave me? I must believe, for the
worth-whileness of my own life, that I can cultivate spiritual values,
create an internal region of spirituality without an institution, a religious
orthodoxy. To achieve forgiveness, need we be inside a doctrine, invoking
the name of God? If we believe with Nietzsche that God is dead, or at least
“taking a leave,” as the concentration camp saying went, can we see the
continuous task of a lifetime as inspiriting ourselves, cherishing values
which include forgiveness? Volumes have been written about collective guilt,
about reconciliation and atonement, repentance. I am not a moral philosopher.
But I believe that like understanding, forgiveness comes from the heart
as well as the head. And in the words of Dith Pran, survivor of the killing
fields of Cambodia, “the key to forgiveness is understanding.”
It is 1990; I am grappling with a difficult book which will take me four
years to write. I am trying to come to terms with my by now unshakeable
conviction that the western hero, as he has descended to us in epic and
tragedy, and survives in such degraded forms as G. I. Joe dolls, is a destructive
figure. I am looking for a feminist heroinic paradigm who will be different,
who will have different values, some of which were formulated in Women
of Academe.5 I begin by describing what
I would have our society abjure: the hero’s sense of extraordinariness
which grants him license; his fanaticism, which leads to violence; his
over-inflated pride and territoriality; his rigidity which can’t negotiate
or compromise. Not losing face. The warrior-hero as savior. “Wrathful Achilles.”
By now you, the reader, as well as I, begin to recognize my obsessive subjects.
I wind up in a place completely new to me. and unexpected: examining feminist
utopias, the one place where feminist values are projected onto an entire
society. This is a new way to look at Eden. These are my values. Though
I don’t want to wait for the improbably existence of a utopia, these fables
bring to life a moral vision. In this odd place, many of the pre-conditions
of forgiveness inhere: the recognition of “otherness”; the indictment of
war and violence; extended kinship; the replacement of hierarchy by partnership
in the private world and responsive short-term leadership in the public
world; the assumption of the wholeness of nature and our place within it.
My preoccupations with gender and forgiveness intersect once again.
In the same year as Ordinary Heroines I publish the next volume
of poetry, Leaving Eden.6 Still hoping
a forward step will spring from a backward glance. No utopian colony has
ever survived its experiment. Human nature is not ideal, far from perfect.
That is precisely why forgiveness is necessary for survival. We are, as
I put it in the title poem, “always and continually leaving Eden,” which
existed before Cain slew Abel, “before we tasted murder, mortality.” In
this common experience of exile, what choice have we but to forgive each
other? Both head and heart are educable enough to cultivate some modest
I complete my next poetry manuscript7 which
draws heavily, for the first time in my own work, upon scientific imagery
and vocabulary. Still, it is my old theme which sparks this new sequence:
the harmony of the spheres, the music of the spheres. This idea, so persistent
in us, handed down through philosophy, early science, religion, (all fundamentally
tackling the same questions), of an established and benign order arching
over us. A way to see things whole, supervening our human experience of
fragmentation, unrelatedness, disjunction. Perhaps this is merely a juvenile
hankering after a moral Unified Field Theory? A purpose we could induce
from an aesthetic? For me, it is more than aesthetics. Maybe it is a spiritual
map. Because such beauty, beyond anything I can understand or encompass,
arouses wonder. I feel both humbled and exalted simultaneously. I am not
talking at all about a truly religious “loss of self,” but a change in
the weight of the ego. Being both more and less, greater as part of the
wonder of this universe, less an important event in its evolution, grants
me the generosity to harbor forgiveness. Pacifism was my first path to
forgiveness; feminism my second; creating an internal region of spiritual
values, my third.
I am finally at bedrock, attempting a book directly and exclusively about
forgiveness. I am doing this against my own instincts as a writer and against
the seasoned judgment of my friends. The very word puts people off. It
sounds mushy. Is there any moral/philosophical center to the question of
forgiveness? And if not mushy, maybe pietistic. As if you need to be superhuman,
self-abnegating to the point of self-destruction. No. I want to de-sanctify
it, take it out of the temple, bring it into the agora. “It [forgiveness],”
as Bishop Tutu affirmed, “is practical politics.”
To do this, I turn to what I know best—literature. I decided to select
for discussion individual expressions of forgiveness, as they have been
created for us in poetry and fiction, captured in memoir and essay. Each
selection presents a different aspect of the theme, perhaps even poses
a different question: Do we need to forget in order to forgive? Are there
crimes too great, i. e., murder, to allow forgiveness? (Is the answer to
this culturally defined?) Must forgiveness be exercised person to person,
or can it be more abstract, e.g., can a head of state apologize in the
name of his nation? President Clinton to the nation, the Japanese Prime
Minister to the Korean “comfort women,” or to Americans for the bombing
of Pearl Harbor? Does forgiveness belong to the wronged one alone? And
so on, day come and day go. I turn the prism round to catch the glints
from many sides. In this way, I aim to speak in more than my own voice,
to give breadth and scope to the depiction of forgiveness, since no great
literature, even when it is not didactic, exists that doesn’t teach us
something about ourselves, about how to be in the world.
In the century that has witnessed the Holocaust, the killing fields of
Cambodia, Vietnam, Rwanda, Bosnia, Ireland, Israel, religious belief has
quite understandably declined. At the same time, general acknowledgment
of the importance of forgiveness has grown markedly in our time, as a result
of this past, of collective guilt. But still, we have no ritual observances
for this, no tradition-honored channels or language, no symbols for its
expression. The faculty of imagination, of creativity can help us here;
the very word needs to be refreshened.
It is all the more important to find a way toward spiritual values. Nelson
Mandela, after sixteen years in jail at the behest of the government, invited
Botha, former head of the apartheid state which imprisoned him, to his
own inauguration as the first African President of South Africa. Japanese
schoolchildren folded origami cranes and sent them flying as a symbol of
peace at the commemoration ceremony of Hiroshima. In ordinary life, mothers
and fathers come forth asking that forgiveness be granted to the murderers
of their children.
I dedicate this book to the next generation, recalling to us and to them
the words of Hannah Arendt, “The only antidote to the irreversibility of
history is the faculty of forgiveness.” I come upon her phrase the “faculty
of forgiveness” with delight, since I have already declared my belief in
“educability.” A “faculty,” my dictionary tells me, is “an ability, natural
or acquired, for a particular kind of action.” We are not perfect,
but we are educable. We can acquire this faculty of forgiveness. Whether
we think of forgiveness between people or between nations, familial or
political, the survival of both our material and spiritual lives depends
upon it. As Bishop Tutu knows from the depth of his experience, “Without
it [forgiveness] there is no future.”
By Nadya Aisenberg:
1. A Common Spring:
Crime Novel and Classic, Popular Press (Bowling Green University Press),
2. Women of Academe:
Outsiders in the Sacred Grove. University of Massachusetts Press, 1989.
Co-authored with Mona Harrington.
3. We Animals:
Poems of Our World. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1989.
4. Before We Were
Strangers. London: Forest Press, 1989.
5. Ordinary Heroines:
Transforming the Male Myth. New York: Continuum Publishing, 1995.
6. Leaving Eden.
London, Forest Books, 1995.
Ireland, Salmon Press, forthcoming.
Copyright © 1999 by Nadya Aisenberg.
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