Not a review of Twelve Years a Slave.

February 23, 2014 § Leave a comment

I seldom go to the cinema. Most of the local multiplex’s films may be in English but that doesn’t override their tediousness. Easily influenced that I am, I seek advice. I rarely read or listen to a review by Mark Kermode without being desperate to either see the film or avoid it like the plague.
I have just read his review of 12 Years a Slave. As always a thoughtful, provocative critique that impels me towards the box office. Yet something holds me back, what is it? What could be more compelling than the brilliantly told story of a fine man, brought down but not cowed? A man whose wisdom and resilience enables him to triumph over the obscenity of slavery.
Kermode describes Solomon Thorthup, the hero of the story, as an educated man, a free man, a family man, a musician. Somehow all these admirable attributes make the tragedy of his twelve years a slave all the greater. Therein lays my problem.
We invariably sift the victims of misfortune, abuse, injustice into the deserving and the undeserving. Why is Northrup’s slavery more notable that of the other millions of slaves who spent their short harsh lives in ignoble anonymity? Is it because his education, family, musical talents and general all-round good-guyness made him less deserving of slavery?
In the same way that the noble are undeserving of slavery, so too the slothful ignoble poor are undeserving of sympathy. From the woman who “got what she asked for” to the “cheeky kaffir” of apartheid South Africa, some victims are clearly more deserving of their fate than others. Are they?
From Shakespeare to Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with the Amber eyes there is a powerful literary and artistic tradition of portraying the tragedy of the great, the noble, the worthy brought low. There is an equal tradition of celebrating those whose noble spirit enables them to triumph in the face of their losses and their despair.
I’ve just brought my car back from being serviced in a small town called Echt. While I was waiting I wandered into town and looked around the church. Echt is pleasant enough but I’m sure that even its most loyal residents would acknowledge that it has few claims to fame. Perhaps it is best known as the town where Edith Stein lived in a Carmelite monastery for four years before being captured by the Nazis and sent to her death in Auschwitz.
Dr Edith Stein was a remarkable woman who was born in Germany to a Jewish family. Already a successful academic, she converted to the Catholic faith in 1922, eventually becoming a Carmelite nun and adopting the religious name Sister Teresa Benedicta. Edith Stein and her sister were taken on the streets of Echt and murdered because they were Jewish. She is regarded as a martyr by the Catholic Church and was canonised in 1989.
Reading the tragic history of Edith Stein, particularly the Catholic narrative, there is an unfortunate underlying message. Sixty million people died during the Second World War, there were over five million Jews murdered, a million Roma, hundreds of thousands of handicapped people and countless gays and other “social deviants”. The Nazis murdered up to twenty million civilians. And Edith Stein. The implicit message in her canonisation is that it was terrible that so many died but Edith Stein really didn’t deserve to die.
Would it really diminish Edith Stein’s death if every victim of the Nazis was considered as equally tragic? The poor, the illiterate, the helpless, the hopeless, the cowards and the ignoble were also victims. Why is it that our heroes always have to be heroes?
Many years ago I took the overnight train from Townsville in Northern Queensland to Brisbane. On the way down I read the autobiography of the Yugoslavian partisan leader and dissident Milovan Djilas. As remarkable in his own way as Edith Stein or Solomon Thorthup, yet what stood out for me wasn’t his own courage but the fact that he judged everybody on their courage. It did not matter whether it was a sixteen year old boy, a pregnant woman or a party apparatchik of longstanding. If a comrade was captured by the Ustase, the Chetniks or the Nazis, the only way they were judged by Djilas was on how well they withstood torture.
The train from Townsville to Brisbane was ancient, wooden slatted seats, no air conditioning, windows rusted shut. A restaurant car, don’t be silly! The journey South was tortuous. Arriving in Brisbane I would have readily confessed to anything from voting for Malcolm Fraser to a fondness for Renee and Renato.
Courage like nobility, wealth, intelligence, resourcefulness and resilience are not qualities which are somehow miraculously bestowed on the worthy. They are qualities that are acquired in a variety of, sometimes, random ways. Should those who did not acquire these qualities be doubly penalised by being seen as unworthy and undeserving? Is the sixteen year old boy who cried for his mother and only withstood torture up to the point the electrodes appeared less worthy than the hardened partisan who died under torture? Is the illiterate slave who learned to be helpless to survive the beatings and humiliations of slavery less worthy than Solomon Thorthup whose background and experience taught him to be optimistic and resilient in the face of savagery and humiliation?
In 2005 the British government pardoned 306 British soldiers who were shot at dawn during World War One. The Soloman Thorthups, the Edith Steins and the Milovan Djilases deserve our admiration, but can we also build quiet monuments for those who survived, or indeed died, using their only resources, eking out whatever little courage and resilience they had. And if they did survive being forced to live with the shame of society’s condemnation? Like the 306 British soldiers who broke at the limits of their endurance, can we remember with respect and understanding the Uncle Toms, the Zonderkommando, the women of Paris who sacrificed their bodies to feed their children and the coward, who in the wrong circumstances, lurks within all of us?

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