Monday, July 2, 2007

Torture: A Perverse Mysticism

Here's the thing about torture: it's a perversion, a caricature, a horrific parody, of reality. It takes the ordinary world in which you and I live and it turns it upside down. In the process, it's not only human beings that get tortured. Intimacy gets tortured too. So does language. Truth. Morality. Democracy. The natural world. Collective memory.

Shockingly, the noblest spiritual aspirations of humans, found in spiritual traditions across the globe, are likewise parodied and perverted by torture. Torture has its own perverse mysticism.
Mystical traditions encourage practitioners to strip away illusion and self-deception in order to discover who they really are. The Trappist monk Thomas Merton, for example, distinguished in his writings on mysticism between the "true" self and the "false" self. The false self, Merton said, is composed of layers of cultural conditioning, subjectivisms, temperamental dispositions, egoisms, habits, and social and personal delusions that we frequently associate with the word "personality." Personality, who we are on the surface, is obviously important. But we ought not to identify ourselves totally with it. Underneath it, insists Merton, is the true self: the likeness of the Divine with which we're born, and which constitutes our real identity. This is who we essentially are, he says, although our grasp of this truth is all too frequently blocked because we fail to dig deeper in our self-understanding than personality.
The distinction between true and false self is embraced to one extent or another by all mystical traditions. In order to help aspirants liberate themselves from delusion, mystical schools teach various spiritual disciplines, all of which aim at the annihilation of the false self--or "spiritual poverty," as it's sometimes called--so that awareness of the true self can be attained. The various yogas, meditative and contemplative techniques, solitude and silence, prayerful service to others: these are some of the methods by which Buddhists, Hindus, Taoists, Hassids, Christians, and Sufis spiritually discipline themselves. Moreover, most mystical traditions stress the importance of gurus--teachers or mentors. Spiritual discipline or ascesis undertaken without guidance is cautioned against as useless or even harmful.
The twentieth-century French mystic Simone Weil calls the disciplined spiritual annihilation of false self "decreation." Decreation is the process of making something created (the contingent personality) pass into the uncreated (the innate likeness of eternal God). She contrasts it with "destruction," the process of making something created pass into "nothingness," and calls it a "blameworthy substitute" for decreation. By "nothingness," Weil seems to mean the reduction of a human being into the status of an inert object. This can be done most obviously through killing, which instantly transforms a person into a corpse-thing. But it can also be done by torture. Torture is a destructive parody of decreation.
In previous posts (here, here, here, here, and here), I've explored the ways in which torture aims at the "malformation" of its victims. The torturer is a perverse spiritual guide or guru whose goal is to lead the torture victim to "truth" and "freedom." "Just tell us what you know. Unburden yourself. Free yourself from the secrets that are causing you so much grief." The "ascesis" through which this perverse freedom is attained--an ascesis in which the torturer-guru is a master--is physical and psychological torment: the brutal stripping away of the self, layer by layer, until the victim loses all sense of time and place, self-identity, trust in other humans and in existence itself. "There is no God, no you, no way out--no liberation--except total oblivion."
Step by step, the victim-initiate is led deeper into the mystery of torture, ever closer to that vanishing point in which the self destructs and is replaced by nothingness. The torturer-guru is too experienced to rush things. He knows that the spiritual discipline he practices must proceed gradually, lest it be too much too soon for the victim. Better to destruct by killing the soul than the body. Body death is clumsy. But soul-death--ah, soul-death, utter destruction: this perverse mockery of the mystical annihilation of self is the masterpiece toward which he aims. So with every new "interrogation," the pain is ratcheted up a bit until eventually all that's left is a human caricature, a shell, a nothingness, an unself.
"You're a fucking piece of shit. You're nothing. You're dead." The mantra of the torturer, proclaiming the nirvana of the destroyed, the destiny of the tortured.
Merton speaks about true and false self throughout his entire corpus. A good introduction is James Martin's recent Becoming Who You Are: Insights on the True Self from Thomas Merton and Other Saints. Weil discusses decreation and destruction especially in Grace and Gravity. Photo credit: Davis Lisboa, Fragmented Self Portrait, 2000.