We’ve now all had a chance to sit and get to know our Polanski-related rage for a few weeks. Things are simmering down, though there have been a few developments, the latest one to break my heart being that Emma Thompson signed The Petition. There go my fantasies of her beating on the signatories with an umbrella, mouth set in firm disapproval.
The whole thing has left me with a profound sense of exhaustion. Though, truth be told, I am not, in some ways, nearly as angry with Polanski as I feel I should be. In the last couple of years, I have had a lot harder time signing up for rage-fests against individual rapists. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not about to launch into some mealymouthed remarks about the Holocaust and forgiveness and time and what the victim wants and “oh I loved Chinatown.” (I didn’t, anyway.) I do think Polanski’s background is relevant, but not to the question of responsibility per se. I think it is relevant insofar as it reveals profound suffering cannot guarantee recognition of the humanity of others. I guess we already knew that, but it’s a thing we don’t talk about because it’s so much easier to throw people in jail and forget about them. If only they were the aberrations we pretend they are.
No, it’s the rest of the Polanski-supporting world I really can’t stand. I’m mad at them because they are artists, and because silly thing that I am, I expect more of artists.
The explanation for that is complicated, but here goes: when I was fourteen or so, a friend of mine who was getting into spirituality asked me what my religion was. I was raised in the United Church of Canada, which is not so much of a spiritual organization as it is a community one, and after a moment of thought, I told her: “I think my religion is art.” Pretentious? Yes. But in a way it continues to ring true. To me there is something richer about a good movie or novel or painting that just doesn’t exist in abstract thought and philosophy. When the end of the world comes and I am on the run from my impending doom, I will trade all my philosophy books and Bible and Bhagavad Gita and, hell, even my MacKinnon, for copies of Fugitive Pieces and Synecdoche, New York and Six Feet Under.
These treasured stories are the things that remind me the universe is large and funny and tragic and ultimately worth being in even when I am at war with it. They are the things that speak across ages and oceans. I read East of Eden a few months back and was shocked at how familiar Steinbeck sounded; the experience of that one book made him a person instead of a Name To Be Capitalized, a plaque on the wall, something to name one’s cat to impress one’s friends.
I talk a big game about gulfs of experience. I believe in them too, of course. I just think we can get overly enthusiastic about our ability to bridge them. But I am still enough of a universalist to think we ought to be able to be touched by each others’ suffering. A moment of recognition can make up for a lot of mistakes – you can be Don Draper, primo misogynist number one, helping Peggy Olsen by telling her, “You’ll be shocked how much this never happened,” and for that second you are in the trenches with us, and what an important second it is, too. I think of artists as trying to recreate these moments, of getting down in the dirt with the rest of us, trying to know – and to tell others – what it felt like.
But whatever comes next, I’m going to remember this Polanski episode as a crucible for my feeble romanticism about what artists do. I think I’ve forgotten that my love of a work involves leaps of faith for me, but not necessarily for its creator. Because you know what bothered me most about The Petition? It was the incredible lack of imagination on the part of its signatories. It was the fact that they wanted to vote on a situation they didn’t fully understand, and even worse, that they wanted to pretend that said commitment was just a function of their Love Of The Arts. I’ve never understood the high-mindedness of this sort of thing, as though art had some purpose above and beyond its creator and audience – as if it were, in a sense, above humanity. As though it were something separate and apart from our responsibility to each other.
See, to put it very bluntly, I always liked creative work best when it is noting that the World Is Complicated – but I never thought that the complication ought to operate in favour of those who harm other people. I never thought that was what this entire enterprise of telling each other stories was about. I thought we were doing it because it kept us from getting too far away from each other.
I thought we were doing it because of sentences like this one, by Jenny Diski in the London Review of Books,
I was neither dazzled nor drugged into sex when I was 14 – I was embarrassed into it.
Rape is only four letters, one small syllable, and yet it is one of the hardest words to coax from your lips when you need it most.
Or the hundreds of other examples I could cite to the people who signed that petition if I thought it was, in the smallest way, worth my time.
What is it about this kind of testimony that the signatories of The Petition find unimportant? In my imaginary dialogues with them I know they will tell me that I am being polemical, that it was a long time ago, that this is a political witch-hunt that ratifies American puritanism. To which I am all too tempted to reply: that’s so easy to say when it didn’t happen to you. It’s so easy to rationalize not treating the subject with the seriousness it deserves.
And that’s all I want really. I don’t care if Polanski goes free. I really don’t. I would happily let him live out his life in luxury if I could trade his freedom for a culture in which it is unquestionable that youth and fear are reasons enough for men not to sleep with you, let alone penetrate and sodomize you after you said no. I would trade his freedom for a culture that imagined itself in the young woman’s place before it even got around to thinking about him. I would do it in a heartbeat. Because even if he is tried and found guilty and locked up forever, the rest of us get to live in a world where people find it appropriate to set out their opposition to such “incidents” and “episodes.” And that, that is the thing that makes me want to find my own chalet in the mountains and disappear into exile. That is the thing that makes it feel like all the feminist blogging and the victim’s crisis centers and the demonstrations and the mass liberation movements in the world will never change a damn thing. There will always be a Petition someone can justify signing, and it will keep sweeping the rest of the world under the rug, leaving only traces of what happened for the rest of us to excavate.