In this highly individualistic age, it is probably safe to assume about every victim what Tolstoy at the beginning of Anna Karenina assumes about every unhappy family: that each is unhappy in his or her own way. This could mean that to think about victimization now is to be overwhelmed with an infinite variety, the prospect of which can be a good deal less attractive than Cleopatra’s infinite variety was to Marc Anthony. We have been made so conscious of the victims among us that it is possible to feel discriminated against and therefore victimized if we cannot see ourselves and induce others to see us as authentic victims. Even happy families, which for Tolstoy are all alike in their happiness, may be even more alike as breeding grounds for that victimizing assault on the self we know as codependency, especially as it is defined by Melody Beattie’s best-selling Codependent No More.
If the varieties of victimization really were infinite, the subject would, of course, be a hard one to talk about and act on, and humans would have to endure one another the way families endure eccentric relatives at Christmas time. We avoid this grim possibility by classifying victims in terms of gender, race, sibling relationship, institutional situation, physical or mental impairment, etc. But it may be useful to reduce this taxonomy by concentrating on the different styles with which victims come to our attention.
To begin with, self-conscious victims tend understandably to be seriously engaged if not downright embattled people who understand themselves and address the world in an adversarial and reductive style that anticipates quick results. It is at its most striking when it proposes not a measured reconsideration of received opinion but a total and morally mandated reversal of it. In the present environment its model is popular expose literature that employs a hyped-up style as a means of liberating the public from its victimization by misinformation or no information at all. The gay activist group “Outpost,” for instance, imitates this model when it exposes the homosexuality of celebrities who in their preference for the silence of the closet have not only made life more burdensome for those outside it but have cheated the public out of the information it is entitled to.
The strength of exposé style is its ability to exploit the public’s inclination to identify newsworthiness, truth, liberation, and entertainment with reversals of established valuation. In her brilliant 1991 Jefferson Lecture, “Of Heroes, Villains, and Valets” (reprinted in the June 1991 Commentary ), Gertrude Himmelfarb spells out the cultural consequences of the reversal of values implied by Hegel’s famous remark that “No man is a hero to his valet.” Here the valet has become the central figure in a reductionist’s exposé that for Himmelfarb points to a new history and a new biography in which the discriminated against and victimized are disemburdened “of the very idea of greatness.” One consequence is the writing of history “from below” with its “exclusion or belittling of subjects—great figures, great events, great ideas—which actually determine the course of history for all people.” This reversal Professor Himmelfarb sees at work in the now familiar attacks on the “canon,” that victimizing institution dominated by “dead white males.” One reaction is a feminist “counter-canon” that shares with other counter-canons a rejection of the idea “that there are truths that transcend race, gender, and class, and that all people, even ordinary people, can share in such truths and be elevated by them.”
All social and moral codes, of course, can be seen as victimizing institutions that represent the throttling hold of the dead hand of the past, and so constitute emergency situations that activate a reductive adversarial style. The result, as political scientist Jean Bethke Elshtain points out in “Feminism and Politics” (Partisan Review, Spring 1990), is that the subject of gender is all too often treated with “categorical rigidities and rhetorical overkill” that lock opponents inside a charmed circle of righteously and dogmatically indignant simplifiers. To them, Elshtain opposes “those feminist writers and scholars who refuse to join the circle, who retain their independence of mind and thought” and thus “in the long run better serve any feminism worth its salt.” The same thing could be said of those feminists who objected to the obscuring simplifications of rape in Susan Brownmiller’s Against Our Will, or more recently to what Lori Dickstein has called the relentless haranguing of Andrea Dworkin’s attack on sexist atrocities in Letters From the War Zone.
It is to be expected that the adversarial style of the proclaimed victim will be severely reductive. Victims see themselves in a situation so unnatural, immoral, and exigent that liberation is impossible unless victimizers accept without qualification the victims’ perspective and style. The victimizer’s reduction of the victim to a position far below his or her deserts is itself seen to be the consequence of an extreme and canonically sanctified adversarial style that has no ground to stand on when its tradition-sanctioned reductions have been revealed. So the victim can quite righteously aspire to a complete reversal of canonical arrangements: valet becomes equal to hero, perhaps even reduces hero to the valethood that the reversal reveals to have been the truth about him to begin with.
Something like this reversal is in mind when a black professor claims that blacks are racially superior to whites because the latter lack the melanin that makes black skin, or when school reformers propose curriculum changes that “instill pride and self-esteem in black children” by presenting Africa as the birthplace of Western civilization. This is no less an ambitious reversal of canonical arrangements than that we find in Marx’s elevation of the lowly proletariat in The Communist Manifesto, in Charles Reich’s glorification of the rock and drug-bemused hippie in The Greening of America, or in R. Buckminster Fuller’s prediction that by the twenty-first century women “will have taken over management of spaceship earth.”
To the British poet Robert Graves the latter reversal would have meant the triumphant return of the White Goddess and the permanent subordination of the victimizing patriarchy, but it would be bad news for those male liberation groups that gather for ritual sweats and drumbeat dances in primitive camp-outs. In the short run, of course, the Fuller-Graves glorified sexism, no less than the resurgent masculinity of Sam Keen’s Fire in the Belly and Robert Bly’s Iron John or the Afrocentric cultural theories, may promise a great bonus of self-esteem for established victim groups and empower their adversarial styles. But the problem is the damage done to the victims when they discover that their anticipations of an improved future are based less on fact than the momentary needs of propaganda. “It is simply irresponsible,” Andrew Hacker has observed, “to tell children of an underclass that their salvation lies in flights of rhetoric.” One can imagine the consequences for the blacks and their sympathizers in the pre-Civil War South if they had taken the word of southern rhetoricians like George Fitzhugh that their condition was far superior to those “free” whites in the North who were enslaved victims to a ruthless capitalism.
There is, of course, nothing unnatural about the reductiveness of an adversarial style. Any style expresses a choice among possible styles and is therefore to some extent or other reductive, though it need not deny the validity of styles not chosen. But for people like Jacques Lacan, human utterance, however styled, is by virtue of its inescapable reductiveness fundamentally untrustworthy and precedes all other forms of victimization. Our only chance for liberation from the deceptions of language is an unremitting deconstructive effort, paradoxically through language itself. In the meantime (and especially in a democracy) the victim has the advantage of an established expectation that a reductive adversarial style, unnuanced though it may be, is the authentic sign of victimization: people who really hurt are expected to scream, not whimper or undercut their suffering selfhood with dainty ironies. This is why historicizing efforts to quiet or slow down the victim by putting him in the larger picture are so offensive to him. Such tactics are to be expected from the duplicitous and power-motivated patriarchy of reason; the bottom line is that he hurts now and wants justice now at the expense of whatever canonical reversals. His style may only aggravate his sense of victimization, but embattled engagement leads him to believe that style is his best weapon and that to modify it is to make dangerous concessions to the victimizer, an idea so well epitomized by the gay group “Act Up.” Besides, the self-exacerbation of adversarial style keeps the victim’s attention and energy concentrated for action.
Society for its part—motivated no doubt as much by prudence as respect for the First Amendment—has learned that if the victim is forbidden to speak his mind, however reductively, in the public marketplace, the enforced silence may drive him subversively underground and perhaps to violent action. With freedom of speech so broadly interpreted as it is, there is of course no guarantee victims will be satisfied with mere speech, any more than gay liberationists were when they attacked St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, or Los Angeles ghetto dwellers were when they tried to burn down the environment they identified with their victimization. Still it is very easy to believe—indeed, in the interest of public peace of mind it is even necessary to believe—that no matter what its style, talk is cheap in the sense that it is an inexpensive way out of tense social and political situations. As commonly understood now, the implied promise of the First Amendment (itself part of a revolutionary rejection of valethood) is that in the long run all will be well, and perhaps victimization will be no more, if all parties are permitted to speak out in whatever style they prefer.
Now as always, this expectation is complicated by the linguistic and social dialects of hyperbole. Hyperbole is an extreme case of reductionism in which one effectively (and not always consciously) gives away a lot to gain a little, that wasted lot being justified by an apparent emergency situation. Hyperbole hopes for true believers who will accept its wastefulness as part of privileged discourse, not as a deformation of consciousness in which pressing momentary needs have trapped one into giving too much away. Thus victimized hyperbolizers like the Irish Republican Army or the Muslim Hezbollah party demonstrate an epistemological and ideological clarity of purpose that is both intimidating and enviable in its appropriation of the high moral ground.
Hyperbolizers are especially likely to become violently engaged with opposing epistemologies and ideologies because they tend to conceive the latter in counter-hyperbolic terms. The French Revolution’s firebrand St. Just had no doubt that the Old Regime’s position, being absolutely corrupt, was absolutely unprivileged, so that, as the historian Eugen Weber remarks, “means inexcusable in the support of tyranny were legitimized by defense of liberty.” Indeed, hyperbole quite normally dictates the response of counter-hyperbole, as can be seen in Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae. Up to a point, Paglia is on Himmelfarb’s side in defense of the established canon and in her hostility to feminist theorists like Susan Sontag, Germaine Greer, and Kate Millet, to say nothing of those French troublemakers (“termites”) Lacan, Foucault, and Derrida. But she comes on in a style pitched as reductively high as that of her opposition. Lacan, she says, “is a tyrant who must be driven from our shores,” and the thought that he has seduced “congenial female professors” leads her to exclaim: “Let’s dump the French in Boston Harbor and let them swim home.”
No doubt, for many of Ms. Paglia’s readers the witty immoderation of her style gives her an advantage over lower-keyed and more discriminating critics like Himmelfarb and Elshtain, especially since the latter are not able, as Paglia is, to work an admiration for Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, and Madonna into their critical programs. Paglia’s problem as an engaged social critic, however, is how to survive the discounting impulse that is the normal cybernetic reaction to hyperbolic statement. Humans being by nature hyperbolizers, it follows that the problem of growing up anywhere is inseparable from the search for the rate at which the excesses of the enveloping culture must be discounted if one is not to be victimized by them. As we know, in a media-exacerbated capitalist democracy this means that advertisers and politicians, no less than literary artists, prophets, and public scolds, must take into account the public’s discounting impulse as they attempt to establish privileged positions safe from all discounting. If the result at one extreme is a hermeneutics of suspicion that threatens the integrity of self and society, at the other it is a diehard, if implicit, utopianism that expects a remorseless discounting to arrive at a clarity impervious to all discounting—which is of course the condition of any successful totalitarian system.
The victim suffers from the repetitiveness of his condition, but the repetitiveness that really threatens him is that of the discounting process itself, which is the means the public uses to lower the din of conflicting claims to its attention. In this circumstance victims, having found themselves in the breakup of previously unquestioned valuing systems, begin to sound alike as they multiply, caricature one another in extremes of adversarial style, and threaten to cancel one another out as they put too much strain on the economy of public sympathy. A victim these days is in the best possible position to discover that he or she may be threatened most by other categories of victims. Thus dreams of a grand rainbow coalition of victims can flounder in the discovery that common victimhood is not an adequate unifier: not when some victims are convinced that their own victimization is more exigent and authentic than that of others. Indeed, the image of Black Lib, Gay Lib, Fem Lib, Men’s Lib, and Native American Lib marching shoulder-to-shoulder into a victimless future suggests a new Coxey’s Army in which one component after another loses heart and defects as it discovers that its own cause is being discounted in the common effort. So a media-hyped society multiplies victims with a generous hand, but at the same time, with a survivalist’s cunning, uses that multiplication as a means of ignoring those victims most deserving of assistance.
And then there is the discounting and defusing effect when victimization is transmuted into the forms of public entertainment that enlist public sympathy with a prudent hand so that there is always plenty left over for the next talk show or the next rap group’s album that will ride high on Billboard’s pop-album chart as it gives vent to its well-paid rage against a victimizing adult society. In fact, the transmutation of victimization into entertainment might be called the minstrel-show effect, thanks to which a media-rich society discovers that its cornucopia of injustices is biodegradable after all. In proportion as victimization becomes entertainment (as it does, for instance, in the Donahue, Geraldo, Oprah Winfrey, and Sally Jesse Raphael TV shows), the public is subtly encouraged to take the long view in the face of the adversarial posture of the numerous victims: bear with them patiently and they will either go away or we will learn to live comfortably with them, perhaps even discovering that a hidden hand is at work transmuting private victimization into public virtues.
The adversarial style of particular victims, or even of victims in coalition, cannot avoid publicizing victimization itself in a way that can have an unanticipated discounting effect. This is the dilemma of the advertiser who cannot advertise a particular product without advertising the class in which it belongs: an enticing pitch for Coors encourages beer drinking generally. Thus, proclaimed victims by advertising their victimization encourage other victims to discover and proclaim theirs. After “Outpost” vigorously asserts its victimization by forcing gay celebrities out of the closet it is no surprise to learn that there is a Bald Urban Liberation Brigade that attempts to counter the victimizing bias against baldness by revealing the “closet” baldness of apparently hirsute celebrities. Any increase in the company of particular classes of victims may appear to be an advantage: there is strength in numbers. But at the same time the multiplication works against the particular victim’s need to be singular and special (who will take him seriously if he is not?). Worst of all, an increase in the variety of victims risks the discounting discovery of victimization as the general human condition in which heroes are as much to be pitied as valets. In such an expanded definition of victimization the adversarial style of the particular victim may seem irrelevant in anyone but romantic rebels like Nietzsche or E. M. Gioran, whose sense of being meaningfully alive depends on their codependent opposition to any status quo whatever.
The discovery of universal victimization can result in the apathy, cynicism, and despair that prepares a public for the vengeful entertainments of indiscriminate and desecratory violence—novels like Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, for instance, or the extravagant adolescent rages of rock groups like Guns N’ Roses and Metallica. The more traditional and respectable response, however, is the stoic style, which may, of course, be little more than an epicurean’s technique for enduring the reversals of human expectation with a minimum of discomfort, perhaps with the Hemlock Society’s hopeful option of painless suicide. More toughly considered, however, the stoic style, whether we find it in the Greeks Heraclitus and Zeno, the Romans Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, or in the Christians Origen and Tertullian, aims to secure peace of mind by discounting the passion-driven claims of the quotidian and phenomenal world. It characteristically assumes something like Heraclitus’ immutable reason—a structure of moral and physical laws that it is folly to resist or attempt to reform—and even promotes a hopeful laissez-faire expectation that things will work themselves out if we can restrain our impulses to interfere with the canon of nature’s processes. The aim of the wise man, as Marcus Aurelius tells us in his Stoic Code, is to “cease to be whirled around” by distracting external things; for Seneca it is to make oneself invulnerable to what Hamlet calls “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”
For many of us, Hamlet is the prince of victims and his famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy is still one of the best summations of universal victimization that we have. His very quotable malcontentedness with the injustices of the human condition makes him a blood brother to every canon-bashing lib movement. But at the end of the play, when Horatio asks him to forestall the duel with Laertes, he comes on with the style of Seneca and Marcus Aurelius:
Not a whit, we defy augury; there’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ‘tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come; the readiness is all. Since no man knows aught of what he leaves, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be.
If, as some have argued, there is more pagan skepticism than Christian resignation in this statement, it nevertheless continues to compel pagan and Christian with its discounting formula for a world bedeviled by the conflicting adversarial voices of victimization: let be; cease to be whirled about. It is not surprising that repetitions of this stoic aspiration should be found in hyperactive and Faustian American culture. In The Great Gatsby, for instance, this is the desire of the narrator Nick Carraway when he has returned home after the riotous and whirled-about events that are his story. Like Heraclitus, or Horatio Alger’s heroes, for that matter, he “wants the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever.” So in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury as the Compsons are being whirled about passionately we are asked to admire their black retainers, especially Dilsey, without whose capacity to endure there could be no story. Similarly, we are asked to admire Hemingway’s sorely beset heroes because of the stoic invulnerability of their style, thanks to which they are able to endure in their whirled-about environment.
It is character as we see it in the Greco-Roman stoics, Christian ascetics, the medieval knight, the Horatio Alger hero, or the legendary cowboy that gives the individual his or her best chance against the victimization that is the common lot of mankind. It is character that keeps one from being whirled about codependently as Paulo and Francesca are in the “abysmal tempests” of the second circle of Dante’s Inferno. Heraclitus and Marcus Aurelius would have seen the justice of this punishment since the adulterous lovers had “let Desire pull Reason from her throne.” And it is also appropriate that Dante’s guide is Virgil, in whose own philosophy there was more than a little of an intelligent Roman’s stoicism. But now it is not so easy to go along with Dante and Virgil: we are more inclined to accept D. H. Lawrence’s reversal: it is reason, the culture-endorsed euphemism behind which the canonical past does its victimizing work, that has pulled desire from its throne.
Not too long ago, it was the psychedelic drugs that promised to replace character as a defense against both particular and general victimization. It soon became clear that the wistful users had only delivered themselves naked to abysmal tempests. More recently the so-called “smart drugs” (choline, tacrine, amyl nitrate, amino acids, Vasopressin, etc.) have become the character-substitutes of choice. Being psychoactive, not psychedelic, they promise to enhance the operations of the brain so that users are no longer victims of an excess of information. In the hip world of smart drugs there are the usual multicultural and Utopian expectations, among them the assumption that the canon which distinguished between hero and valet will become ancient history, if indeed there is any history left to be ancient in. To judge from Gary Wolf’s report on these matters in the September 1991 Rolling Stone, some smart druggers are such voracious consumers that a skeptic might expect them to end up with the gluttons in the icy rains of Dante’s third circle. In the meantime one can only hope that their intrepid attempts at liberation will not result in the disillusioning rediscovery of ancient victimizations.
As Joseph A. Amato points out in his excellent Victims and Values, in the stoic tradition and in Western Civilization generally, it is never enough to say that victimization and the suffering it entails are unmitigated evils, as they are in the Gnostic and Manichaean dispensations. There is much in the Judeo-Christian cultural ecology that inclines us not only to value suffering but to put it in an ironic context. You cannot, for instance, admire the grace the Hemingway hero displays under pressure without seeing the creative interdependence of the grace and the pressure. A pressure beyond the reach of grace suggests the victims of Dante’s Inferno no less than a pressureless grace suggests the advertiser’s vision of Utopia, the one as appalling as the other is jejune.
In Shakespeare’s King Lear it is the graceful conduct of the artist against the pressure of potentially unmanageable material that results in one of our culture’s most powerful and ironic statements about the ecology of victimization and suffering. At the end Edgar tells the brutally blinded Gloucester, the victimizing father whom he has saved from despair:
Men must endure
Their going hence, even as their coming hither:
Ripeness is all.
This “ripeness,” like Hamlet’s “readiness,” comes hard, and we remember that Edgar in an earlier disguise had identified himself to his father as
A most poor man, made tame to fortune’s blows;
Who, by the art of known and feeling sorrows,
Am pregnant to good pity.
The Gloucester to whom these lines are addressed is the man who has already discovered the truth about his evil son Edmund and his own very culpable gullibility only after he had been blinded, a reversal of expectation he summarizes when he says, “I stumbled when I saw.” The epistemological paradox here—through agony to insight—is of course disturbing to all bargain-basement New Age psychologies in which clear vision, achieved by smart drugs or however, comes as easily as leaves drop from trees.
Equally disturbing now is the ambiguous relation between power and victimization in the play. Given the competition among victims and their access to the media, it is easier than ever to define victimization reductively as lack of power and to assume that an unqualified liberation will always follow empowerment. But empowerment (it is a familiar stoic and Judeo-Christian theme) can, and routinely does, give one the power to victimize others as an effective means of defining one’s own liberation. This is what happens in the play as Edmund, released to power by his mendacity from the victimization of his illegitimacy, uses his new power to victimize his legitimate half-brother Edgar and becomes for a while the exuberantly empowered confederate of the evil forces that oppose the restoration of legitimate order in the kingdom. Lear himself is a victim of the absolute power that has kept him from learning the truth about himself and about those “Poor naked wretches” whose pathetic powerlessness he discovers only after he has been driven disempowered into the stormy heath. The play of course does not make the reductive point that all power is evil (which would leave in question its own power to make the point) but that power divorced from good pity is worse than powerlessness. In this respect Lear avoids the inconsistency of some contemporary victims, who aspire to the power that will liberate them even as they believe (perhaps having read too much Foucault) that all power is evil. At the same time it is quite possible that, being victims in a secular society, their thinking about power will be further complicated by the identification of power with pleasure, so that lawsuits seeking compensation for an impairment of the capacity to enjoy life (“hedonic damages”) will seem both logical and moral.
As he begins to experience the agonies of his victimization, Lear is convinced that he is “more sinned against than sinning”—thus placing himself, as victims so often do, in a comfortable moral universe where it is possible for someone, at least someone else, to be guilty of something. It is probably psychologically impossible to be a self-aware victim without assuming such a morality, which is no doubt why victim groups generally come on with an old-fashioned moral absoluteness that itself implies the need of a time-honored canonical moral establishment in which, as Himmelfarb says, even ordinary people can share and be elevated by. A climate of skepticism and relativism is congenial for victims only insofar as they can imagine its replacement by a conservative and enduring arrangement in which they will continue not to be victims—and in which, perhaps, their victimizers will continue to be punished. But even the most absolute of victims have the problem of forgetting that they live in a society inclined to believe that the assignment of guilt to anyone depends on a lack of information about human motivation. To know all may be to eliminate the invidious distinction between victim and victimizer, valet and her0—but perhaps at the risk of merging them in an entropic symbiosis more reminiscent of Dante’s second circle than anticipatory of a multicultural one world.
In the ironic perspective of the play it is easy to imagine that Lear like the rest of us suffers from, and as long as he is alive will continue to suffer from, general victimization. Our Everyman, he is beholden to and victimized by nature no less than by nurture. He could not choose his parentage, time and place of birth, genetic and psychologic makeup. Whatever inner self he was finally able to realize had to be realized in a time-bound context in which autonomy was always limited and precarious. Given his historical moment, he was spared the post-romantic anxieties of self-nurturing that go along with the dogma that a true inner self, to say nothing of a cosmic self, can be discovered and nurtured only in an adversarial relation to all that is the not-self. In the latter instance, and in accord with Foucault’s doctrine, he would have had to invent himself against the restraints of canonical thinking much as Hemingway achieves style against the adversary pressure of environment. In such a relationship there is a potential insatiability, so that victims multiply in the interests of the nurturing. Shakespeare’s Iago is a perfect anticipation of the insatiable self for whom self-realization is codependent on an endless diet of victims. For such a self the greatest disaster would be a refinement in the fires of suffering that would leave him, like Edgar, pregnant to good pity. Like Edmund, he misses that fate, only to become, like Edmund, a victim of success.
But a skeptical environment that rejects self-nurturing as understood in the traditional canon can turn out to be a victimizer of the self by denying its ontological reality. Among the influential deniers is one of Ms. Paglia’s French termites, Jacques Lacan. For him selfhood is one of those baubles constructed by language, which can yield truth only when it is deconstructed, and the unconscious out of which the so-called self emerges is also structured like a language. Insofar as the anxieties of the adversarial self are a significant element in the pathology of modern victimization, Lacan comes on like a perverse analyst who cures his patient by taking from him what he has been led to believe is most precious and then leaving him stranded in the spooky Disneyland of his unconscious. In fact, if Lacan’s Écrits were more widely read by those convinced of their victimization they might be forced to so interpret their unconscious that they could be victims no more, or victims only of adversaries they never anticipated and cannot handle. In such circumstances they might yearn for the moral clarities of the old canons in which there had been a self to esteem, however victimized. In the meantime, one may wonder how safe Lacan’s own truth is from an infinite regress of continuing deconstructions in pursuit of an ultimate victim and an ultimate victimizer—call it a relentless search for a real needle in an artificial haystack.
Certainly in the enterprises of postmodernism and poststructuralism there is a stoic aspiration not to be whirled about in the carnival of phenomenal life. At the same time both are vulnerable to the stoic temptation to make apathy a prime virtue: let the mad world go its irresistible way. Now as always stoic apathy is a prescription for one kind of total freedom: freedom from the drag of the past, the moil of the present, the anxiety of the future—freedom even from the compulsion to invent a fictive self. The philosopher Leszek Kolakowski has identified this kind of freedom as a modern chimera “which would grant man total freedom from tradition or all pre-existing sense” but ends up suspending him “in a darkness where all things are regarded with equal indifference.”
In this darkness particular victims have no chance: they are as indiscriminately lost in the general victimization as are the denizens of Dante’s Inferno and must take whatever comfort they can from the multiplication of their company. They may pity themselves, but the self-pity of the victimized can help to make victimization a dangerously comfortable and even privileged condition in which the demand for pity and empowerment knows no limit. Kolakowski’s chimera discourages a consciousness of limits, which means that it discourages an ironic style that recognizes the finiteness of the human condition. “Religious tradition,” he says, “has taught us to limit ourselves, to place a distance between our needs and our wants.” It is apparent enough that Himmelfarb is aware of the importance of keeping that distance. In King Lear, the failure to keep it is what multiplies the victims and makes the tragedy. It is a lack of irony that keeps us from distinguishing between particular and general victimization so that particular victims are over-symbolized, encouraged in their excesses of adversarial style, and prepared for the disillusionment and vengefulness that follow when liberation falls short of Utopian expectations.
But irony alone will not serve the needs of justice. Its distancing all too often has the discounting effect of stoic apathy at its worst: it disposes of injustice by turning it into sophisticated entertainment. Only that irony serves justice that makes it possible to recognize Kolakowski’s chimera for what it is while remaining pregnant to Edgar’s good pity.
John P. Sisk, a frequent contributor to First Things, is Professor Emeritus of English at Gonzaga University.
Photo by Elio Santos on Unsplash. Image cropped.