Casual Cruelty

I have been thinking about casual cruelty. Not the person who will not date you because you weigh a hair too much, though that too is included, but the manner in which we live.

While, on the one hand, I’m not sure I have a handle on injury—what it is, where it happens, to whom it happens—particularly at a time when injury seems so ubiquitous (are there more people to be injured, more people willing to name injury, are we more responsive to claims of injury, is redress not the single most important issue of our time), I feel more able to name cruelty.

Is such naming an acknowledgment of intimacy, of familiarity, akin to detecting cumin in lentils? (I borrow the comparison from Teju, though cumin might be more my palate than his.) Perhaps, though, it is this naming that makes cruelty casual. Casual like dressing in pyjamas.

There is a weight to certain similes. Here, that one’s most comfortable mode of being is that of cruelty. We are able to name cruelty because it is recognizable, the shadowy face that haunts our reflective surfaces.

For years I have resisted thinking of Hitler as inhuman—or inhumane. Hitler, of course, is a metonym (this spatial relationship being more apt, I think, than synecdoche) for evil. Perhaps it is trite to acknowledge that his sins might lurk in my own soul. Certainly it is naïve to imagine that we (a gesture of inclusion) cannot surpass his worst excesses.

And we do.

Sotto voce—I have worried about the singularity of the holocaust in the western imaginary, and I continue to do so. Once I would have asked what this imaginary effaces. Now, I am, I think, less naïve. As long as we can say nothing equals the gas chambers, cruelty remains casual. We might be indifferent, live within limits.

I started to write on evil, spurred, in part, by Teju’s posting on Coetzee. I find that I have returned to a before, a time before his posting, to an idea that has been bouncing around in the wake of my reading Bound to Violence and Graceland and Wizard of the Crow.

I imagine an elaborate ritual where I serve as a make-up artist to evil. Perhaps to my own face.

4 thoughts on “Casual Cruelty

  1. I am fanatically devoted to cumin. And cloves. And turmeric.

    I, too, think about casual cruelty all the time (not casually)–and I’m with you in constantly questioning the singularity of the Holocaust.

    Those who insist on it–on the uniqueness of the event–do so from the sheer horror. But, from my point of view, it’s also because they want to remain in a sentimental idea of human nature.

    “Never again” does not exist. The mixture of humiliation and murder is happening all the time, quite literally so. It’s happening even as I type these words. It’s happening en masse even as I type these words. Ask the Sudanese man whose eyes were scooped out of his head last week.

  2. Your musings on sage and basil suggested you might be less amenable to woodier spices. I have yet to find a use for tumeric or cloves, the latter because I never learned how to make the heavily spiced rice we call pilau.

    I am trying to think on how to write about kindness. Cruelty and evil seem to be much easier to diagnose, talk about, even sexy to contemplate (I’m never indifferent to the lures of the unconscious.)

    Kindness, though. That’s far more difficult to envision or practice, conceptually and practically. We will see if I can conjure something.

  3. All that talk of sage and marjoram was to illustrate my distance from them. I do my best work in the curry range: peppercorns, mustard seed, cumin, dried chilies. My soul is mostly Northern, a lot of my spiritual geography involves ice, but my tongue is shamelessly tropical.

    How do we write about kindness? I don’t know. By setting it like a gem in a setting of velvety callousness?

    I was filled with a great feeling of love last night, love for all my fellow artists, especially writers, a mystical Agape kind of love. It’s all gone now though. A good night’s sleep does wonders.

  4. Love is a little elusive. Kindness seems like such a wonderful and impractical thing–but it might be the easiest thing (virtue?) to practice. I am too literal to imagine practicing love, apart from in some kama sutra/get nailed on the cross way (here, the importance of s/m to my social imaginary).

    But kindness. More than just a feeling.

    In preparation for my move home, I am trying to restrict my palate to spices and herbs I can find easily. Of course, I simply need to raid the indian stores for more. But, even at my best, I have little talent for the complexities of mixing spices. I fear my kikuyu heritage of mostly bland food, flavored with salt, but relying mostly on “natural” flavors, has crippled me. We shall see.

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