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twisted morality

Laura Alexander TWISTED MORALITY - June 2018

Highsmith’s Heroes and the 26-Hour Moralist

Written by Laura Alexander, Staff Writer

The police in the small town of Los Alamos, New Mexico, worried briefly in 1974 about a man seen prowling in the dark, night after night, the red glow of his cigarette floating along the back streets. He would pace for hours, heading nowhere in the starlight that hammers down through the thin air of the mesas. The police were not the only ones to wonder. At the national laboratory some physicists had learned that their newest colleague was experimenting with twenty-six hour days, which meant that his waking schedule would slowly roll in and out of phase with theirs.

Chaos, James Gleick

People’s actions have an internal consistency that can almost add up to a moral system. Consider Genet and Dostoyevsky, who constantly return to the morality of one’s actions being judged internally, where the greatest punishment is shame, where its opposites are honor and pride. Shame that can attack you, physically like heartburn, years after the act, shame you can learn to masochistically enjoy. And, most importantly, shame that isn’t distributed in proportion with, in the eyes of the world, are your biggest sins.

So it is with the men that Patricia Highsmith uses as her heroes, especially of her most famous, Tom Ripley from the novel The Talented Mr. Ripley. When Highsmith’s heroes ever feel a drive to do ‘the right thing’ it is in the way a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day. That story about the mathematician (Mitchell Feigenbaum) who decided to live on a 26 hour sleep cycles and cycled in and out of sync with everyone else, is very like what Highsmith’s characters do morally.

Their guide is the construction of this internal logic, the threading of these deeply individual networks of values, motivations, principles, desires, memories, that hides in plain sight because most of the time is doesn’t lead to any action so particularly extreme. Except when it suddenly does. In The Thief’s Journal Genet takes pride in his triumvirate of anti-virtues; treachery, theft and homosexuality. “There is a relationship among them which, though not always apparent, at least, so it seems to me, recognizes a kind of vascular exchange between my taste for betrayal and theft and my loves.” Vascular – related to the blood vessels, the arteries and veins of the circulatory system of the body. That is, something self-enclosed, something that must only be consistent with itself to survive. This is true of all theories, whether they’re ideas of moral philosophy or the standard model of particle physics. It’s also true of these networks of values and morals which could be called a ‘self’.

In The Talented Mr. Ripley, we get to watch the construction of a ‘self’ taking place. We follow Ripley over the course of five books, though between the end of The Talented Mr. Ripley and the beginning of Ripley Underground a lot has happened – he’s consolidated his fortune, got married, settled down in a country house in France – his character is in place and fully formed by the end of the first. We see him first as a drifter, a formless mass of vague malevolence and resentment. Over the course of the book, Ripley acquires what we might call a self – the things he will do and the things he will not do and the reasons for them. All this adds up to a unified personality that he doesn’t have at the beginning. Can we break down how he does this? Perhaps. In three points.

Photo by Srikanta Hu

First, Ripley superficially finds his self, by becoming an expat who can live in luxury; to be alone it helps to be foreign and self-sufficient. Ripley makes himself a sauntering, loping, slouching, rootless cosmopolitanism – I like these words very much, like the way of moving they suggest, both physically and metaphorically. The term ‘rootless cosmopolitan’, was originally used by the Stalinist regime against Jewish intellectuals as in ‘a rootless cosmopolitanism which is deeplessly repulsive and inimical to Soviet man’, that is repulsive to the great healthy mass of heroic workers. There are certain props that set the scene again and again, the trappings of Highsmith that make her so deliciously filmable. The sun, certain types of clothes, foreign languages, cigarettes, drinks. To what extent are these just visual tropes that Highsmith gets a kick out of and to what extent are they necessary for this kind of solitude? I have had something approaching this kind of solitude while penniless, but Ripley’s incapable of it.

Second, by trying on, and ultimately discarding, the identity of another, Dickie Greenleaf, who he first admires and envies, maybe even lusts for. Within 60 pages Ripley has murdered Dickie, and assumed his identity. There are resonances in the relationship between Ripley and Dickie with a particular kind of relationship between two men that shows up all over literature. We could call it the relationship between the charmer and the narrator. It’s a specifically male relationship, tinged with queer desire that’s never allowed to be exactly vocalised, between the inspiring figure who represents some more exciting way of being in the world, and the quieter friend who will eventually tell their story. A kind of murder through resentment seems sometimes to be inherent in all these relationships, even if it’s mostly metaphorical. The charismatic charmer must always be eliminated somehow in the end so that the shy narrator’s voice can be heard. Each version of the narrator begins to find flaws in the charmer, see the shallowness of their glamour and resent them always being the center of attention in what should be the narrator’s story. The train of thought that eventually leads to a murder in a boat begins with Ripley beginning to suspect he could live Dickie’s life better himself, that Dickie is not taking as much advantage as Ripley could of his privileges of wealth, of good looks, of charm. Even from when they first meet Ripley resents the fact that Dickie is a ‘lousy amateur painter’, finds himself ‘waiting for something profound and original from Dickie’ With Ripley’s murder and identity theft, Highsmith takes the dynamic to its logical conclusion. By the end of The Talented Mr Ripley, however, Ripley must discard Dickie’s identity and go back to living under his own papers, but with a self that has emerged crystallised from the experience of being someone else.

Third, and most importantly, by the act of committing murder. The key word here is committing, not murder. This is an act committed in knowledge of one’s total freedom, in which the culprit takes responsibility. Not responsibility in the sense of owning up and accepting the consequences but an interior responsibility that of not disowning the act, of facing up to the fact that you can’t ‘be pardon’d and retain the offence’.

The idea that such an act changes a person forever is an old existentialist theme. When I was younger I felt like I understood it because I felt I’d never made a decision and didn’t have a self. Now I’ve made decisions and have a self, and as a consequence I understand this idea less. It may or may not be true of life in general, but it does seem to be true for the kind of man made hero in a Highsmith book, and these actions are violent in nature (they don’t have to be). There are acts of violence that are sudden and life-altering, committed consciously but not exactly premeditated (less than three short pages sit between Ripley’s first thought of killing Dickie and him striking of the first blow), and since their culprits have no intention of taking the penalty for their actions, they come to live with the knowledge of their crimes without hypocrisy. This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.

There are other elements that push Ripley to become a full character by the end of the first book, but these three are most important. In all three aloneness is crucial, the changes that take place cannot even be communicated, let alone shared with others. Ripley’s actions take place under those special conditions of aloneness where one’s ‘self’ stops being reflected. That’s when internal moral consistency becomes the thing. Highsmith’s heroes live with one foot in this world of moral self-sufficiency and one in the real world, where there are bills to be paid, high-quality suits to be bought, and an image to be kept up.

Highsmith’s heroes are still able to live in this real world, even in the most high-class social world. Instead of forgetting all about it, or glorying in their renouncement of it they take pleasure in drifting through it, and sometimes out of it.

For all the social connections he eventually develops, Ripley’s character exists in isolation, revealed in full only to the reader through Highsmith’s close third person. Ripley is not like anyone else morally, his way of seeing the world appears similar to the majority enough to be able to hide, while his otherness lies just far enough below the surface to be ignored by everyone, even his wife (who doesn’t know or pretends not to know he’s a criminal).

The heroes of Patricia Highsmith who follow closely behind Ripley, are always alone. Entirely, metaphysically alone. For them, human contact only makes sense at the most trivial level or on the grand existential level of the internal emotional logic. The whole fun of a Highsmith book is that these conundrums are played out under the veneer of pulp.

Jurek Wotzel TWISTED MORALITY - June 2018

How Israel Got This Way

Written by Jurek Wötzel, Head Writer

While US and Israeli officials celebrated the opening of the new US embassy in Jerusalem, one of the most violent protests of the past years took place a few dozen miles away, in Palestine. It was part of a greater wave of protests this year in relation to the March of Return. Palestinian officials say that in the past seven weeks, about 100 have been killed by the Israeli Defense Forces and a few thousand injured. Now, Palestinians have asked for an official ICC investigation into the occurrences at the Israeli border since 2014.

At the subsequent UN Human Rights Council session, Spain, Belgium and Slovenia voted together with 26 other countries in favor of the investigation, while 14 countries abstained, among them Germany and Britain. Only Australia and the United States voted against. Israel’s reaction to this was to immediately summon the Belgian, Spanish and Slovenian ambassadors to the foreign ministry.

In the West, the political divide over the Israel-Palestine conflict runs across the whole political spectrum. From right to left, there is disagreement about the responsibilities of the two conflicting parties, as well as potential peace-building. Staunch Israel defenders argue that Israel must be protected as a refuge for the historically oppressed Jewish people and as the center of stability in the Middle East. Critical voices complain about human rights abuses. Following the recent killings, the UN rapporteur for human rights in occupied Palestine issued a statement asserting that this “blatant excessive use of force […] must come to an end” and that those in charge must be held accountable.

History matters for present-day politics. It gives us a lens through which we can judge the legitimacy of political action. The particular histories of most European countries, involving colonialism and genocide obligate, Europeans to find ways of rehabilitation. In the same line of argumentation, Israel’s present-day politics should be conscious of how the state came about.

The idea of Jewish settlement in Palestine was an essential part of Zionist ideology of the 19th century. It had in part sprung out of the realization that even the liberal turn would not bring about a conflict-free coexistence of the Christian majorities and Jewish minorities in Europe. Theodor Herzl in 1896 formulated this idea in his work “Der Judenstaat” (“The Jewish State”) and became the main figure of the movement. Thus, the seeds of eventual Jewish settlement in Palestine were planted at the end of the 19th century. Under the influence of British Zionist lobbyists, the British first promised Palestinian land to Jewish settlers in the 1917 Balfour declaration. In 1922, Palestine fell under British rule as a result of a League of Nations agreement the British Mandate for Palestine. Subsequently, the imperial rulers facilitated Jewish settlement in Palestine, causing the social fabric to change drastically: in 1918, 10% of the population residing in Palestinian lands was Jewish, by 1945, it was 30%.

During the British mandate, Jewish settlers, the ‘Yishuv,’ were increasingly given more rights to self-determination. Roads, schools, and hospitals were built in previously uncultivated, desert-like lands. The increase of Jewish presence both in numbers and quality was often met with Arab violence. Groups of Jews were massacred, shops were looted, property destroyed, finally culminating in the Arab revolt of 1936.

The reaction of the British was to put an end to Jewish immigration – at a time when the Nazis started mass persecution of Jews in Germany. In Palestine, extreme Jewish nationalist underground militias such as the Lehi and Irgun gained influence, demonstrating increasing Zionist radicalization. Several attacks on British officials, and the bombing of the King-David Hotel in 1946, killing 91, led the British to give up on Palestine.

Photo by Rob Bye

The 40s were a decade that made history. Freshly founded following the end of WWII, the UN was charged with solving the civil conflict in Palestine and in resolution 181 it split the territory into a Palestinian and an Israeli part. For Europeans, a Jewish-majority state seemed to be the perfect way to finally emancipate the Jewish people, centuries of anti-semitic persecution had culminated in the annihilation of six million Jews by the Nazis. In 1948, when the British had fully retreated, Israel declared its independence and an Arab coalition of six states immediately declared war.

During the first Arab-Israeli war, al-nakba (the catastrophe) saw a mass exodus of Palestinians. 700,000 Palestinians fled because they were dispelled or wanted to escape the violence. An important trigger: the extreme brutality of the Irgun and Lehi, or Stern Gang, which were obsessively anti-Arab. In the infamous Deir Yassin massacre, for instance, about 100 Palestinian civilians were killed, raped, and cut into body parts. Since then, the UN officially demands Israel to grant these Palestinians the right to return to their homes, which has not yet been realized even to this day. At the time of al-nakba, Anti-Jewish violence in other Arab states led to the immigration of roughly 750,000 Jews to Israel.

Israel finally won the war with the support of both the US and the Soviet Union, extending its 1947 borders by taking roughly 40% of the designated Palestinian lands. This resulted in a massive growth of anti-semitism in the Arab world.

The Zionist project was not destined to result in the violent ouster of Palestinians. Early settlement in uncultivated lands was not bound to create conflict. In fact, many Zionists believed in the possibility to share the land and live at peace with the Arab neighbors. Extreme views as they were held by Irgun and Lehi were not the norm. And before the 1970s, Israeli governments tended to condemn further settlement in Palestinian lands. But when the right-wing Likud party, which Netanyahu is currently chairman of, came to power, all this changed. It has continuously dominated. Israeli politics and has supported the push of ultra-orthodox Jews to further settle in the West Bank.

Likud is far away from appropriate historical awareness. Settlements into Palestinian land are continuing, and the opening of the US embassy demonstrates further consolidation of the purely Jewish character of the area. In Israeli political discourse, it is emphasized that Israel ought to remain a Jewish-majority state – defying potential Palestinian emancipation at its root.

Even worse are the apartheid-like conditions in which the Palestinians find themselves. Palestinians occupy a second-class citizen position, not even having Israeli nationality. Human Rights Watch criticizes the preferential treatment of Israelis in the West Bank as well as the restriction of movement of people and goods in and out of the Gaza strip. Palestinians face employment barriers, travel bans, significantly worse access to education, and social discrimination. In addition, forced displacement continues as Israelis are further settling in Palestinian territory with the help of the Israeli government. Approximately 600 people have been displaced in the West Bank in 2017 alone.

Israel’s government officials defend their treatment of Palestinians by pointing out the anti-semitism of Hamas and other Palestinian movements. Hamas is openly anti-semitic in that it suspects a Jewish world conspiracy and has called for killing Jews worldwide. Often, reports of Palestinians wanting to simply do “Whatever is possible, to kill, throw stones” appear in Western newspapers. Radical Palestinian organizations also regularly fire rockets into the Israeli mainland, which are mostly ineffectual because of the Iron Dome defense system, but this gives rise to the impression that Israel is constantly under attack and is solely acting in its right of self-defense.

Yet, no state’s right to self-defense justifies human rights breaches as are happening in Israel. Indeed, next to open Palestinian hostility, Israel is also still officially at war with many Arab countries, only Egypt, Jordan, and just recently Saudi-Arabia have agreed on peace treaties. As the US, Russia or China must be criticized for their rights violations, so must be Israel. As Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, the United States, Turkey, you name it, must learn to deal with their violent histories, so must Israel. And it must do so soon, since that violent history is not over yet, but still expresses itself every day.


June 2018 – Twisted Morality

Dear Infected,

Since the 1940’s people suffering from extreme epilepsy have undergone a surgical procedure called corpus callosotomy, to disrupt the electrical signals traveling between the hemispheres of the brain, which results in a condition commonly known as split brain. The defining characteristic of people with this condition is that they can only talk about what their left side experiences, because it’s controlled by the half of the brain responsible for speech, yet each hand can independently draw what that half of the body has seen. When asked why their right hand drew what it did, they either don’t know or make up a justification.

The prevailing theory is that severing the brain leads to the development of two distinct personalities, but another theory is that the other personality was always there. Unable to communicate the silent personality simply resigns itself to going along for the ride. So here’s an infectious idea to kick off the June issue: What if you are not just you? If you’ve seen Get Out you can imagine this scenario, and how terrifying it would be.

But even more horrifying is the thought that this other personality isn’t without some influence over our personality. That might give an answer why normal-seeming people randomly snap. Or how others exhibit a split personality doing horrible things daily, yet justify to themselves that they are good people.

Thankfully, a recent study gives hope that this isn’t happening inside of us, but still, this idea serves as an introduction to Pandemic’s June issue, Twisted Morality.

We look forward to hearing from you (both of you)!

The Pandemic Team