Bach's Suite for Solo Cello: Bourrée (Paris, 1962)
When I die I want to turn into a cello. Or maybe I could be buried inside a cello. The sound comes from somewhere just below the heart but works its way up through the heart. It is as if the base of your spine were a tree and the tree were singing.
Far-fetched. I might have put that better years ago, in 'Metro';
...The wind is scrabbling at the glass - perhaps
The trees are waiting to be let in.
The branches say nothing
Expressing only an incoherent thirst
For music, a music so violent and awful
That it can only leave them waving their arms.
Imagine the cellos sprouting dark green tongues
And moaning softly of their lot; their past
Of growing, cutting, hewing, shaping
To this one point of supreme helplessness.
What's eating them? And yet it's good to be eaten,
To become the food of passion and to feel
The stomach rise in suicidal independence...
I think that's still all right. A little risky at the very end maybe. Suicidal independence? Hmm. Maybe...
Sunday mornings is when dad rings for our weekly part-Hungarian, part-English conversation. The idea is to make it entirely Hungarian but occasionally English creeps in. At times it takes over. He was telling me about the Nicky Campbell panel discussion programme he had just been watching on TV. This time one of the subjects was torture and he wanted to discuss it with me.
I don't think he quite knew what he thought, though when he told me that everyone cheered the woman who declared in ringing tones that there should never be any torture anywhere, he felt a slight unease. Maybe the cheer came too easily for him. Another panellist wondered what the woman might say if her own child's life could only be saved by torturing someone.
I said what I would normally say. The question assumes too much. It assumes that people speak the truth under torture, not simply what the torturers want to hear. In that way it is ineffective.
Yes, but morally?
What I think, and sometimes say, is that if anyone harmed my children I would want to rend them slowly limb from limb. I don't think I could tell myself not to feel something I do in fact feel. But feeling is complex, so, at the same time, I would want to be restrained, because I have a certain awareness that if my individual act were to be repeated every time someone felt like exacting revenge, life would be hell. States act partly as intermediaries or proxies for plaintiffs, partly as impersonal keepers of order. I am satisfied, for these purposes, to be assimilated into the body of the state. That is to say after I have calmed down. Or before it even happens.
That's because my personal feeling is not to be confused with the obligations of the state. I recognise the distancing the state affords as a form of benefit. While wanting to exact full and painful revenge on the offender on a personal level, I wouldn't want the state to embody my passion since passion, by its very nature, peaks and fluctuates. The state should be less subject to fluctuation in its judgments: it should take a longer view. (Hence my feeling that all knee-jerk legislation is wrong and harmful.) Beyond that, there is something particularly awful, I personally feel, about state execution. I would not wish the state to act with the deliberation I lack in my passion as executioner on my behalf. Nor would I want the state to inflict the pain I might want to inflict. Basically I want the state to act humanely in such ways I consider to be humane. I want the state to agree with me of course, but not all the time.
That's the easy part.
The difficult, complex part is defining what level of suffering it is appropriate for a state to inflict. Prison is loss of liberty. We accept that. We do not accept state corporal punishment now, and we have long rejected torture.
So what constitutes torture? When you sit in a dark room and are given third-degree in a police cell, meaning someone shouts at you while shining a light in your eyes? When your interrogators insult you? When they are sarcastic to you? When they make you stand in a corner and write a hundred lines? When they keep you awake? When they strip you naked? When they strip you naked and make you stand before people whose presence acutely embarrasses you? When they slap you? When they beat you? When they waterboard you? When they put you on the rack? When they light a bonfire under you?
The photographs of Lynndie England at Abu Ghraib, were certainly humiliating and brutal. Are humiliation and brutality the same as torture? The 1984 UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment states:
.. that no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment...
which derives from:
the inherent dignity of the human person
The terms used are briefly defined as:
Torture: existence of a specific purpose plus intentional infliction of severe suffering or pain;
Cruel or inhuman treatment: no specific purpose, significant level of suffering or pain inflicted;
Outrages upon personal dignity: no specific purpose, significant level of humiliation or degradation.
So there are three distinct categories. The term torture is given a fuller definition in the UN Convention above, like this:
For the purposes of this Convention, the term "torture" means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.
There may not seem much point, in ordinary debate, in quibbling about where outrages on personal dignity shade into cruel or inhumane treatment and, finally, torture. The key concept is: the inherent dignity of the human person. I am, of course, deeply sceptical about how many of the states that have signed up to the Convention observe it in this spirit, but I am very much for the spirit. Though that's not difficult either. It's always easier to be for the spirit of something.
My own list above is simply a haphazard collection of actions taken against individuals by people in authority. The book I have just finished reading - a quite marvellous book, The White King, by the Hungarian novelist György Dragomán - is soaked through with brutality, particularly the kind of brutality states inflict on individuals, teachers inflict on children, but also the kind children inflict on each other.
When I was at school I myself was on the receiving end of some acts of brutality, none of which would be tolerated today. I wouldn't however call it torture. Being publicly slippered? Caned? What if it hadn't happened at a London school but at Abu Ghraib? What if it happened now? Surely it would come under one of the three definitions? Yes, but that's now. It was part of the currency of life then.
I expect that, in popular debate, 'torture' does now expand to cover all three areas of mistreatment. It's part of the rhetorical drive of our era, something we have learned from advertisements and other forms of propaganda, and it makes it easier to cheer full-heartedly when someone condemns it.
Cheering, like booing, is easy, was my father's hunch, and I share it. I deeply distrust those moments when everyone feels thoroughly righteous. They are nearly always the points at which we start burning people. And that's torture.