Ambrose Bierce and The Man Without Illusions

Several weeks ago, The Nation ran a review-essay about Ambrose Bierce.  A few days before happening on this piece, I’d my old Dover Thrift Edition collection of Bierce’s Civil War stories, a paperback I’d bought for a dollar in 1996 and had been meaning to read ever since.  I was interested in the reviewer’s remarks about one of those stories in particular:

In another powerful story, “The Affair at Coulter’s Notch,” Bierce writes of a face-off between two batteries of well-fortified Confederate cannons, twelve in total, and a single Union cannon crew led by Captain Coulter. Coulter’s crew is forced into an open notch and ordered to engage in a firefight just because a general in the field wants to see if the stories of Coulter’s bravery are true. Though Coulter hesitates, he follows the order. He and his crew wheel one cannon out to the notch and commence firing. Soon the twelve Confederate cannons respond and the two sides are lost in the thunderous explosions and enormous clouds of artillery smoke. Each time one of Coulter’s cannons is destroyed, his crew wheels a new one up to the notch so the fight can continue. Eventually the Union officers ride up to the notch to check on Coulter and his men:

Within that defile, barely broad enough for a single gun, were piled the wrecks of no fewer than four. They had noted the silencing of only the last one disabled—there had been a lack of men to replace it quickly with another. The debris lay on both sides of the road; the men had managed to keep an open way between, through which the fifth piece was now firing. The men?—they looked like demons of the pit! All were hatless, all stripped to the waist, their reeking skins black with blotches of powder and spattered with gouts of blood. They worked like madmen, with rammer and cartridge, lever and lanyard. They set their swollen shoulders and bleeding hands against the wheels at each recoil and heaved the heavy gun back to its place. There were no commands; in that awful environment of whooping shot, exploding shells, shrieking fragments of iron, and flying splinters of wood, none could have been heard. Officers, if officers there were, were indistinguishable; all worked together—each while he lasted—governed by the eye. When the gun was sponged, it was loaded; when loaded, aimed and fired. The colonel observed something new to his military experience—something horrible and unnatural: the gun was bleeding at the mouth! In temporary default of water, the man sponging had dipped his sponge into a pool of comrade’s blood.

The cannon drooling blood is certainly a memorable image, and as I read the story I was sure it would be the detail that stayed with me.  By the end, however, even that horror has been put into the shade.  At first we think that Captain Coulter’s commanding officer sent him to that desperately exposed position and ordered him to shell the house opposite simply because he “wants to see if the stories of Coulter’s bravery are true.”  Then one officer tells another that Coulter was a southerner who had left his family behind Confederate lines to join the Union army.  He goes on to report a rumor that the commander had led an occupying force that patroled the area where Coulter’s family was.  This rumor held that the commander had made advances to Coulter’s wife.  She rebuffed him, and the officer wonders if that was why the commander put Coulter in such danger.  By the end of the story, even this grotesque idea is shown to be short of the full horror of the situation. 

The Nation‘s reviewer quotes Bierce’s definition of “realism” from The Devil’s Dictionary as “The art of depicting nature as it is seen by toads.”  This quote is at the center of a little disquisition on Bierce’s use of improbable events in his fiction.  The last two paragraphs of the review sum this disquisition up:

Bierce often resorted to horror, whether grisly war stories or even supernatural tales, but he didn’t do this to avoid writing about reality; he used the genre to confront the truths of his day—the monstrosity of battle, the terror of extinction.

Read Bierce and try not to think of soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Read Bierce and consider the ways “probability” can be a poor test; sometimes realism just fails. Every era needs a genre through which it understands itself. We are living in the age of the uncanny once again. Time to testify.

This point is very close to something that came to my mind while I was reading that collection of Bierce’s Civil War stories.  The stories are full of wildly improbable events; random shots fired at distant enemies can be relied upon to kill the gunners’ fathers, brothers, wives.  Bierce presents these freak occurrences not to undercut the sense of his stories’ reality, but to emphasize their truthfulness.   

What truth does Bierce want us to think fills his stories?  I think it is the same truth that was publicized almost two decades ago, when a hit movie was advertised with an image of a Marine colonel shouting “You can’t handle the truth!”  Even though the movie passed through theaters in 1992,  a Google search for “You can’t handle the truth” restricted to results that went up this week draws over 16,000 hits.  I wonder if the resonance of that line and the power of Bierce’s stories don’t combine to show that there is an idea at large in American culture of truth as something necessarily violent, of war as the ultimate truth.  If so, the colonel in the movie and the highly decorated Civil War veteran Bierce would both figure as men with a privileged access to truth, as warriors who had seen the heart of battle. 

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What is forgiveness? What is not forgiveness?

A friend said that she’d been having nightmares.  She knew why.  It was the birthday of a man who had been important to her.  He treated her brutally, viciously.  Years after their last encounter, years after his death, she is still finding more ways that his abuse has hurt her.  Each discovery of another complication hits her like a fresh injury.  It’s as if he is still attacking her.  She asked what forgiveness would look like in a situation like hers.  What would it mean, exactly, for her to forgive him?

I didn’t get to know her until after this man was dead.  I don’t know the first thing about their relationship.  So the only answer I could possibly offer to her question would be a purely abstract one.  Since I have no background in psychology, that abstract answer would not be grounded in science.  I don’t want to babble, but maybe I can come up with something helpful to say.   

Often when we think of forgiveness, we think of a single event, a single act that resolves a conflict once and for all.  That clearly isn’t possible for someone in the situation  my friend finds herself in.  She never knows when she will find another wound.  So whatever forgiveness is for her, it can’t be a single act.  It has to be an ongoing process.    

In the course of the conversation, a famous line from Hannah More came up: “Forgiveness is the economy of the heart… Forgiveness saves the expense of anger, the cost of hatred, the waste of spirits.”  If an abstract discussion of the nature of forgiveness would be helpful, perhaps we could use that line as a test.  In the first place, More (or the character in her play) seems to be saying that forgiveness benefits the forgiver.  That makes sense of my friend’s interest in the idea of forgiving the man who hurt her.  He’s dead, after all; what she does won’t affect him one way or the other. 

Second, to qualify as forgiveness my friend would have to save herself  “the expense of anger, the cost of hatred, the waste of spirits.”   The story of a once-for-all act of forgiveness can end with this savings.  An ongoing process in which a person copes with one loss after another sounds like it would be a very demanding thing to keep going.  Could it also be “the economy of the heart” in More’s sense?            

I wondered what else one could say, again at the abstract level available to those of us who weren’t there and don’t know what happened between my friend and the man who wronged her.  My near-total ignorance of psychological science keeps me from forming an intelligent opinion about the theories of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, but it doesn’t keep me from thinking of her terminology, no more than my ignorance of what happened to my friend keeps me from trying to come up with something helpful to say to her about it. 

You may or may not remember Kübler-Ross’ name, but I suspect you’ve heard of one of her ideas.  In her 1969 book On Death and Dying, Kübler-Ross analyzed the process of grieving into five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.   

“Acceptance” was Kübler-Ross’ term for the period when a person facing an irreversible loss has dissolved all the aggressions and fantasies that have driven his or her first reactions to the loss.  This is a quiet period in which the person comes to terms with the new reality and prepares to make the most of it.  This would seem to fit Hannah More’s description of forgiveness. 

It strikes me that three of the other stages might be mistaken for forgiveness.  Denial, bargaining, and depression might all leave a person calm while someone who has done him or her wrong goes unpunished.  But they do not meet Hannah More’s test.  While they may not involve anger or hatred, they do restrict the person’s emotional and cognitive life.  If a person tries to stay in one of those stages longer than necessary, it will not represent the economy of the heart, but a vast and ever-growing expense. 

Kübler-Ross did not regard the first four stages as disposable; one cannot go directly to acceptance of a major loss.  There are inner battles everyone who suffers an irreversible loss must fight.  Those battles may not always come according to the plan of campaign the five stages of grief model lays out, but to believe that one can simply come to peace with an irreversible loss without going through such battles is to engage in magical thinking.  

If we identify forgiveness as a function of acceptance, then we can see that injunctions to forgive can get in the way of growth towards forgiveness.  A person who believes that s/he must grant forgiveness immediately might try to stay in denial rather than deal with anger, or might turn his or her aggression inward and plunge ever deeper into depression. 

So, if my friend has to go through the whole grieving process every time she finds another wound, her “ongoing process” of forgiveness is going to be a way of life.