Sunday, October 18, 2009

Forgiveness and the Scent of a Violet


I'm thinking about forgiveness tonight. I wonder what it means and whether it's possible. I've thought about it before, talked about it with my students in the context of collective tragedies. It's an idea that distresses me, one over which I have been known to agonize as I consider, at times, asking someone for forgiveness, and at others being asked for forgiveness.

What if we cannot forget?

Forgiveness--at least, what we understand to be forgiveness--can occur only in the
case of two people. One person who is wronged has the option, or the opportunity, to forgive the person who violated the friendship (or acquaintance or relationship) in some way. I cannot, in other words, forgive the woman who spoke unkindly to my sister; only my sister can forgive that woman.

It is in this sense that, in Judaism, the only unforgiveable sin is that of murder. Why? Because the person who has the grievance is no longer here to offer forgiveness. This is, of course, why all of the talk that surfaced in the post-1945 years about Jews needing to "forgive" the Nazis for atrocities they committed during the Holocaust is ridiculous. The witnesses to these atrocities--the drowned, as both Primo Levi and Giorgio Agamben would say--are absent.

I have
found that it is so easy to talk about forgiveness in this context--in the great big context that trumps all others. There is a formula: perpetrator + no victim = no forgiveness. It is not so simple when it comes to, well, the simpler things--the daily betrayals that we enact and receive, sometimes without thinking twice.

When I was very young, I remember reading out of some book of sweet little sayings that I had discovered in one of my mother's
bookcases. I remember coming across one little saying that seemed to speak to my unsophisticated little self: "Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that crushes it." I loved that saying for some reason. I took a pair of scissors and, when my mother wasn't looking, snipped that little passage right out of her book, pressing my neat little paper square of wisdom between the pages of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, which I was also reading at the time.

I named my favorite doll Violet. The one who has been crushed. One day I looked at Violet, the homemade rag doll, and I took those same scissors and cut off all of her mahogany yarn hair. I cut it down to the scalp. And then I laid down next to her and took a nap, yearning for her sweetness.

As I grew older, I remember time and time again finding that little square of paper in various books. Each time I discovered it, I would move it to a new book, never understanding why I kept it. The last time I disovered it, I was in my senior year of college. Suddenly my eyes took in its silliness, and I felt embarrassed about having loved those words for so many years. I had saved it because of the sweetness I had perceived in it--I could virtually smell that crushed flower's scent in my nostrils.

Did it give me some unconscious license to metaphorically smash others, expecting that they would reward me with sweetness?

But there is no sweetness in betrayal, nor in the forgiveness of betrayal. And yet we are compelled to make everything sweet. We don't want to consider that the heel that crushes the violet will keep walking,
smashing everything it comes into contact with, until the sweet scent of forgiveness is no longer discernable.

If this thought becomes debilitating, I revert to thinking about forgiveness in the context of responsibility
, something that we see emerge throughout the Talmud. Is it my responsibility to forgive someone who betrays me? And what if I betray someone else--is it their responsibility to forgive me if I am penitent? And if they don't? Must I forgive their incapacities? One wonders how many layers make up the bittersweet bread of forgiveness.
And, of course, one also wonders what happens to love in all of this.

5 comments:

Ira said...

I have some thoughts on the topic I'd like to share once I've arranged them a little, but I wanted to write immediately to say how beautiful I find this. Exceptional, Monica: the violet crushed in the words, they releasing its scent, but not without withholding something.

Monica said...

Thanks, Ira...

Ira said...

So, you know that I love it. But: I'm also unconvinced.

In particular, the lines, "Forgiveness--at least, what we understand to be forgiveness--can occur only in the case of two people. One person who is wronged has the option, or the opportunity, to forgive the person who violated the friendship (or acquaintance or relationship) in some way. I cannot, in other words, forgive the woman who spoke unkindly to my sister; only my sister can forgive that woman."

I can't forgive the unkind speech for my sister, it's true, but I can forgive the unkind speech, and I can definitely forgive the woman.

Where I have been wounded, there I may forgive.

There are no shortage of instances where, in my identification with another, I am wounded--not 'on their behalf,' or via some quasi-intellectual construct like 'in solidarity with,' but because I am also them. Teresa Brennan offers a good intellectual justification for this, which has felt to me intuitively true for a long time, as I imagine it does to others, in The Transmission of Affect.

I'm not all of another, of course, and so I can't forgive my sister's wounding for my sister. I can only forgive my own wounding within the space of hers. There remains, without question, much that is unforgiven. But that which remains unforgiven has not been mine to forgive. In this case, as you say, it is my sister's. If my sister, let it not be so, should die in a plane crash later this year, no doubt she will not have forgiven that woman. But even this, which wounds me--in experiencing the depth of her woundedness, so much greater than I knew when first I forgave--I can forgive the woman.

I'm not sure whether one always should forgive; that seems another matter. And, as I hope I've said clearly, I don't mean to suggest that the forgiveness of a third in some ways cancels out the wounding of one member of the dyad (though in certain cases it perhaps does go some way to doing so). But there is no question in my mind that all the forgiveness that is mine to give is possible.

Having said that with such certainty, where I think matters get trickier and the boundaries of possibility get blurry is with regard to self-forgiveness. I can never be, in this instant, precisely the me of another instant, who was wounded by the me of still another instant. I can, it would seem, only ever approach self-forgiveness asymptotically. I forgive my self-wounding in being also the me of that other instant, but there is a remainder that cannot be forgiven. I suspect it is from this particular remainder that we derive the affective charge of our emphasis on remainders elsewhere.

I don't, by the way, find forgiveness sweet--and I like your shift away from the helpless release of beauty to the question of responsibility. When, indeed, are we responsible to forgive the other? Is it every time we find ourselves able to respond because we too have been wounded and because we are able, to borrow a term from current psychoanalytic theory, to 'mentalize' our wounding - to be simultaneously both wounded and containing of that wounding? Or are there crimes that we might forgive, but shouldn't? Might this latter space be love's arena?

Monica said...

But that's just it, Ira--I can only forgive someone when I have been wounded. In the hypothetical case of my sister, it is she who has been wounded. I may feel indignation for her wounds, but that does not mean that I can forgive the person who has transgressed against her.

Don't you agree? I think this is why I'm searching for another word besides "forgiveness"--something that allows the third party to take part in it, I guess.

Okay, now I might contradict myself. I don't know Teresa Brennan at all, but I'm going to go out and look at this book you mention. If I am also the other, then I suppose it makes sense that your grievance is also my grievance. But when I consider the other, I tend to think of him/her in the context of Levinas's asymmetrical construction. I am not also the other, here; instead, I am more like a hostage to the other. His/her rights supersede my own. So, following this logic, to claim the right to forgive the transgressions committed against the other is an attempt to hijack the rights of the Other? Maybe? And what happens to responsibility here? I want to know what Brennan does with responsibility, if anything.

Yes, yes, I agree with you that there are things, which, remaining unforgiven by others, are never ours to forgive.

Can you clarify what you mean here: "But even this, which wounds me--in experiencing the depth of her woundedness, so much greater than I knew when first I forgave--I can forgive the woman."

About forgiving oneself...I think that's an entirely different arena. I think it's more about therapy than responsibility...

No, forgiveness is not sweet. When it's sweet, or when it feels sweet...it's something else, something more self-serving, I think.

I think I'm going to go back and look at Derrida's "On Forgiveness." Maybe there's something there...

Monica said...

Oh, and sorry for the scattered thoughts. I'm just now recovering from my afflictions....