Regarding the Pain of Others

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Prison Rooms: Just £150 per Night

In the Visitor’s Room of a prison in Oxford, at the table next to me, a middle-aged man in a turquoise shirt sips a cocktail through a straw; his face scrunches up with pleasure. The woman he is with leans in to whisper in his ear. He opens his eyes and catches me looking at him and I look down at the menu I’m holding. Three courses on Christmas Day will be £85.

This building was used to incarcerate and sometimes execute people until it was sold by the council in 1996 for £9,000 to Malmaison, a hotel chain. Today it is worth around £30 million.

For the last 10 years the Visitor’s Room has been a bar area where couples like the one next to me come to enjoy themselves. I look across again and they are kissing. She strokes his belly with the backs of her fingers.

The Malmaison Oxford embraces the history of the building; incarceration is the brand image. Cell walls have been knocked down to make larger rooms, though the original cell door has been kept in some instances. In the lobby a screen plays films and TV shows set in prison. The shelves are ornamented with the metal trays that inmates ate their meals from—and still eat their meals from in still existing prisons. It’s like visiting the London Dungeon, only you’re less likely to see groups of children on school trips. In my room, a letter greeted me headed “ENJOY YOUR PORRIDGE.”

At the Malmaison Oxford, prison gentrification is in.

‘Do any of the former inmates ever come back?’ I say.

‘One man recently,’ says the receptionist.

‘To look inside his old cell?’

‘He wasn’t a guest. I just took him around the grounds.’

‘Was he angry? Did he get upset?’

‘Oh no. It was a very special day.’

In his essay “Sex in Hotels,” Geoff Dyer describes how hotels can make the consequences of your actions invisible. A man can cheat on his wife or do an illicit deal in a hotel and afterwards someone will come in to change the sheets and make everything look as it was before. Dyer writes that hotels, especially luxury hotels, allow guests to feel “morally weightless” in this way. But the Malmaison Oxford is different. It sells the opposite of weightlessness to its guests; customers acquire that hefty feeling of being on top.

I say this because of things like the hotel’s boss Chris Steadman telling a local newspaper “I’d never been to a prison before coming here… But if this is what it’s about, you can send me down for a long stretch.” The hotel website says “Be sure to stop by our neon-lit bar, where the only clink is the sound of glasses as you raise a toast with our cunning cocktails.” I see guests chortling at these sorts of jokes during my stay. It’s a laughter reminiscent of the entertainment of 19th-century freak shows or public school teenagers guffawing at their own wit for throwing a “chav” party.

Like Dyer I can see how regular expensive hotels allow smooth materialism and cleanliness to stand in for goodness. This is what makes it easier for a man to cheat on his wife whilst forgetting the wrongness of it. However the Malmaison Oxford experience makes it impossible for guests to forget that whilst some lives are lived in confinement, as a guest you get to have what you want.

The message is gleefully clear: others get punished; you get rewards.

In one corner of the basement is a restaurant serving Cherry and Vanilla Creme Brûlée. In the other corner is a prison cell that hasn’t been converted into a hotel room. It is less than half the size of my hotel room. It contains a bunk and single bed and so holds three in total. A prisoner’s daily timetable is written in 19th-century style font on a plaque on the wall and there are leaflets for the nearby Oxford Castle. The museum-like presentation of the cell means hotel guests would be forgiven for thinking that the incarceration of people belonged to antiquity. As if a cell identical to this one isn’t musty with the agitation of three men at a prison just some 20 miles away.

I keep asking myself how it is that this place hasn’t been challenged by someone. This is Oxford after all, a place where even the moral pioneers like Peter Tatchell get no-platformed for not being radical enough. So why has no one protested this place?

Of course, the answer to this question is depressingly easy to answer. People can enjoy graceful weekends in a prison hotel because most people do not really know about prison, and even if they do, it is a part of the world they are happy to forget, either because they believe prisoners deserve to be where they are or they find prisons to be one of those grim necessities, like sewers, that they don’t want to linger on.

But there is something extra the Malmaison has that allows it to stand so invincibly in the middle of Oxford. I’m reminded of what Oscar Wilde wrote in “Reading Prison” (just some 25 miles away from here) about the difficulty of people understanding what it was like for him to be incarcerated:
“…the dreadful thing about modernity was that it put tragedy into the raiment of comedy, so that the great realities seemed commonplace or grotesque or lacking in style.”
Amongst the soft linings of the Malmaison, style is key to the relegating of tragedy. Style is what helps guests enjoy the frisson of a prison hotel whilst forgetting the reality of prison itself.

Prints of Elvis’s Jailhouse Rock, Johnny Cash’s At San Quintin and Steve McQueen’s The Great Escape are framed throughout the building. The corridors have moody black and white photos of prison wings; one is of a pair of hands tightening around bars from inside a cell. There is style in what has been altered: acoustic padding lines the ceiling of the former house blocks to take away the institutional echo that would be too evocative for an escapist weekend. It’s the style of this place that exempts it from moral challenge.

Standing in that cell, with the old fashioned font on the text, the 2016 story of Osvaldas Pagirys comes to mind. He was arrested for stealing sweets and sent to Wandsworth prison (60 miles away from the Malmaison). Three months later, when he was 18 years old, he hanged himself. Although hangings used to take place at the Malmaison Oxford, to mention Osvaldas Pagirys wouldn’t fit here, in the same way that trainers don’t fit with a cocktail dress. It would mean that one had transgressed into inelegance. By force of room service and velvet cushions on the bed, the Malmaison Oxford is a once-prison that has made prison a vulgar subject.

I speak with a woman who works in the bar. She tells me that when the building was being extended and they were digging the foundations they found skeletons in the ground that were thought to be the bones of prisoners who had been executed here.

I ask ‘Has there ever been any trouble here? Has anyone ever come by and protested?’

‘What do you mean?’ she says.

‘Do people ever come in and complain about the theme of the prison? I mean the theme of the hotel.’

‘We had one group who visited a while back.’

‘What did they do?’

‘They were looking to open another prison hotel somewhere else. But theirs fell through.’

‘So were they protesting?’

‘No. This is still only one of two prison hotels in the world. The other one is in America.’

Maybe the American prison hotel the staff member in the bar was referring to was the Liberty Hotel in Boston. In fact, there are many prisons-turned-hotels in the world; in the Netherlands and Turkey and Sweden and Germany, to name a few. The fact that there is one in America seems congruent with the fact that prisons are a lucrative business in the U.S. If companies can make money by incarcerating people then why shouldn’t hotels get excited about jailhouses too?

In the U.K., the current shape of things is different. The current government’s austerity budget has created understaffing issues in prison. Combine this with a tough-on-crime policy that has led to overcrowded jails (the prison population has doubled in the U.K. without the amount of spaces growing in tandem; single cells have become double cells and double cells have become triple cells). Thus there is not enough security staff and too many prisoners. That goes some way to explaining the riots at HMP Birmingham last year.

The Malmaison’s rooms are priced from £150 to £465 per night. In one of the most expensive rooms is framed art work of tally lines, the type inmates would use to track the number of days they had been inside. On top of the tallies is perched a bird—“bird” being East London slang for prison sentence.

A sum as big as £465 brings to mind John Healy’s vagrant memoirs The Grass Arena. Like so many of Britain’s underclass, prison was a refuge for him. He describes being held in HMP Pentonville (less than 60 miles away from the Malmaison Oxford) and feeling reluctant to leave when a friend a bought him out of jail before the end of his sentence:
“Sometimes you have only been given seven days’ nick and you are just about getting the drink out of your system and begging to get a good sleep and rest, when someone buys you out and you don’t want to go. But once the fine is paid you’re out on the street again. The fourteen days’ lay-down in prison for drunken fines is the only restful bed winos get; saves lives, really.”
“You don’t want to go.” I wonder if the brand designers at the Malmaison Oxford had read Healy when on the website they chose to advertise a suite by saying “This is a room you won’t want to break away from.”

With princely indulgence, I lay in my Malmasion bed eating chocolate from the minibar. I am positioned to know exactly what Jean Genet was getting at in The Thief’s Journal when he said “Prison offers the same sense of security to the convict as does a royal palace to a king’s guest.” I flick through late-night television channels. At this hour, each program bristles with the possibility of sex and violence. It would not go against my setting were I to feel titillated. Both hotels and prisons are loaded with sexual tension. In the Malmaison arousal is over-determined.

In prison, it’s not just the awaiting of a conjugal visit or forbidden homoeroticism that makes up the sexual ambience. In his letters to Norman Mailer, Jack Henry Abbott wrote that after taking beatings from the guards:
“I was so constantly and arbitrarily attacked in my cell there, after a while my desire for physical relief was so powerful and all-pervading that when the guards would finally leave off the attack and exit my cell, I would sometimes achieve an erection out of despair and pain. I have on those occasions had to masturbate to relieve myself, but not masturbate with any vision in my mind, my imagination. The pure psychical act of caressing the penis after numberless exposures to attack is enough. It is entirely a physical thing, entirely involuntary.”
With Abbott at the back of my mind, I think back to the couple I saw back in the bar earlier that evening, her stroking his belly with the backs of her fingers.

‘How young were the children that used to be incarcerated in my room?’ I say.

’Women and children,’ the receptionist says. ‘When prisoners gave birth.’

‘What if the mothers were to be executed?’

‘Don’t worry sir, hangings only took place in the part of the building that’s now used as the staff area.’

The receptionist and I go on having exchanges like this. Me trying to make her morally uncomfortable and her trying to ensure I, as a paying guest, am comfortable. Talking to her brings to mind an idea from Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others:
“Someone who is perennially surprised that depravity exists, who continues to feel disillusioned (even incredulous) when confronting evidence of what humans are capable of inflicting in the way of gruesome, hands on cruelties upon other humans, has not reached moral or psychological adulthood.”
As I try to emphasize words like “execution” and “child prisoner,” I’m met by the receptionist’s implacable smile.  After a few minutes of  her immovable hospitality my anger starts to take on an indeterminate status to me. Am I just being petulant? Am I acting like a moody adolescent?

The receptionist is so relentlessly convivial to me that I start to doubt my own criticisms of this hotel. Do I just need to become less incredulous at the insensitivity of Malmaison? The other guests and staff don’t have a problem with the idea of a prison hotel. It’s me that’s the odd one out. Does the fact that I find this place cruel speak of my immature constitution?

The receptionist goes on smiling. This hotel is so blithe about jail that it could almost be taken for some kind of authority on the subject.

Image Credit: Flickr/Neil Conway.

Fellow Creatures: Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams

In the opening to Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell describes an Italian militiaman he meets in Barcelona, “a tough-looking youth of twenty-five or six, with reddish-yellow hair and powerful shoulders.” The militiaman is trying to read a map one of the officers has unrolled across a table, but the militiaman doesn’t know how to read a map. When someone makes a remark that reveals Orwell is a foreigner, the militiaman turns to Orwell and questions him:

I answered in my bad Spanish: “No, Inglés. Y tú?”


As we went out he stepped across the room and gripped my hand very hard. Queer, the affection you can feel for a stranger! It was as though his spirit and mine had momentarily succeeded in bridging the gulf of language and tradition and meeting in utter intimacy. I hoped he liked me as well as I liked him. But I also knew that to retain my first impression of him I must not see him again; and needless to say I never did see him again. One was always making contacts of that kind in Spain.
Leslie Jamison’s new collection of essays, The Empathy Exams, demonstrates the kind of connection Orwell describes: she manages to bridge that “gulf of language and tradition” and meet her subjects “in utter intimacy” like Orwell does, whether they’re imprisoned long-distance runners, sufferers from a possibly imaginary disease, or writers living in some of the most violent places in Mexico.

Every day, news reports on drone strikes, healthcare, and domestic surveillance show us that how we view each other isn’t an issue that’s been settled. In an early essay, “Devil’s Bait,” Jamison visits a conference for people with a condition known as Morgellons disease, which causes “sores, itching, fatigue, pain, and something called formication, the sensation of crawling insects.” A distinct feature of the condition is the appearance of “strange fibers emerging from underneath the skin.” The most distinct feature of the condition, however, is that it might not be a condition at all. The CDC thinks that Morgellons is an example of what’s known as a “delusional infestation” — meaning it might just be in people’s heads.

For a book about pain, empathy, and illness, Susan Sontag — author of such classic texts as Illness as Metaphor and Regarding the Pain of Others — should be a touchstone, and she is. Sontag pops up in essay after essay, like a methodological whack-a-mole. But while Sontag’s writings seem to drill from one level of analysis to the next, Jamison’s work functions more like an archeologist’s brush, exposing the layers of narrative and critique until a larger picture becomes visible.

Jamison is the author of a novel, The Gin Closet, which showcased her gift for lyrical prose and creating nuanced relationships between her characters. The Empathy Exams, like previous winners of Graywolf’s Nonfiction Prize, such as Eula Biss’s Notes from No Man’s Land and Kevin Young’s The Grey Album, isn’t just a collection of personal essays. Jamison uses the narrative and the critical together to interrogate the idea of empathy itself. Seemingly disparate essays on a grueling ultra-marathon in Tennessee, the notion of sentimentality, and the wrongly convicted West Memphis Three work together to probe at empathy from multiple angles. The collection’s first essay, “The Empathy Exams” details Jamison’s time as a medical actor:
My job is medical actor, which means I play sick. I get paid by the hour. Medical students guess my maladies. I’m called a standardized patient, which means I act toward the norms set for my disorders. I’m standardized-lingo SP for short. I’m fluent in the symptoms of preeclampsia and asthma and appendicitis. I play a mom whose baby has blue lips.
Even in seemingly small word choices, we can see Jamison unpacking the notion of pain. She’s “fluent” in her diseases; illness isn’t a binary, but a spectrum with degrees of mastery. Some of the medical students examining Jamison get nervous, while others “rattle through the checklist for depression like a list of things they need to get at the grocery store.” Her descriptions are clear and direct — the kind of prose that Orwell practiced and admired.

“Other students seem to understand that empathy is always perched precariously between gift and invasion,” Jamison notes. Throughout the book, we can see that she also negotiates this balance, such as when she talks to the attendees at the Morgellons conference. Jamison’s empathy, too, is perched between gift and invasion, but her perch helps her make sharp observations about how people respond to pain and how people respond to other people’s pain.

At the end of “Devil’s Bait,” Jamison explores the ambiguity she feels about her trip to the Morgellons conference:
I went to Austin because I wanted to be a different kind of listener than the kind these patients had known: doctors winking at their residents, friends biting their lips, skeptics smiling in smug bewilderment. But wanting to be different doesn’t make you so. Paul told me his crazy-ass symptoms and I didn’t believe him. Or at least, I didn’t believe him the way he wanted to be believed. I didn’t believe there were parasites laying thousands of eggs under his skin, but I did believe he hurt like there were. Which was typical. I was typical. In writing this essay, how am I doing something he wouldn’t understand as betrayal? I want to say, I heard you. To say, I pass no verdicts. But I can’t say these things to him. So instead I say this: I think he can heal. I hope he does.
Leslie Jamison is a different kind of listener. She’s one willing to implicate herself and ask the tough questions about her (and our) capacity to understand each other. Jamison sees her subjects as similar to herself, but — even more importantly — she’s aware that she’s seeing her subjects as similar to herself. That bit of intellectual maneuvering lets her both experience empathy and examine it at the same time.

Orwell refused to shoot a half-dressed enemy soldier trying to hold his pants up as he ran. “I had come here to shoot at ‘Fascists,’” he wrote in “Looking Back on the Spanish War,” “but a man who is holding up his trousers isn’t a ‘Fascist,’ he is visibly a fellow-creature, similar to yourself, and you don’t feel like shooting at him.” In The Empathy Exams, Jamison’s essays do a rare thing: they show us — in many ways — what empathy means. They show us how we become, as Orwell wrote, “fellow-creatures.”

Battle of the Heavyweights: Errol Morris vs. Susan Sontag

Book lovers love to watch two heavyweights slug it out. Bloodshed, though not necessary, is always welcome. Think of Paul Verlaine shooting his lover, Arthur Rimbaud, in the wrist. Think of Norman Mailer head-butting Gore Vidal for lumping Mailer with Henry Miller and Charles Manson as the misogynistic troika “3-M.” Or, less bloodily, think of Truman Capote hissing that Jack Kerouac’s writing was mere “typing.” Or Mary McCarthy claiming that every word Lillian Hellman wrote was a lie, including “and” and “the.” Or Richard Ford spitting on Colson Whitehead over his negative review of Ford’s A Multitude of Sins. Yes, we all love a good smackdown, regardless of the body fluids involved.

So naturally I was delighted that Errol Morris opens his absorbing new book, Believing Is Seeing (Observations On the Mysteries of Photography), with an uppercut to Susan Sontag’s jaw. (I should say unprotected jaw since Sontag, who died in 2004, will have a hard time delivering a counter-punch.) The uppercut by Morris (who is no relation) was triggered by a photograph – more accurately, by a pair of photographs – taken by the British photographer Roger Fenton during the Crimean War in 1855. One picture, devoid of people, shows a road curving between two hills and a ditch beside the road that’s littered with cannonballs. In the other picture, also devoid of people and taken from the same vantage point, the road is peppered with cannonballs; it is much more evocative of the horrors of war and is, rightly, the more famous picture. But which picture was taken first? For Morris, who urges readers to approach his sumptuously illustrated book as “a collection of mystery stories,” the answer is both ambiguous and hugely important. The reason Sontag gets Morris’ blood up is that she made the assumption in her last book, 2003’s Regarding the Pain of Others, that the cannonballs-on-the-road picture was taken second, thereby implying that Fenton posed the picture to heighten its impact.

Here are the two sentences by Sontag that threw Morris into a swivet:
Not surprisingly, many of the canonical images of early war photography turn out to have been staged, or to have had their subjects tampered with. After reaching the much-shelled valley approaching Sebastopol in his horse-drawn darkroom, Fenton made two exposures from the same tripod position: in the first version of the celebrated photo he was to call “The Valley of the Shadow of Death” (despite the title, it was not across this landscape that the Light Brigade made its doomed charge), the cannonballs are thick on the ground to the left of the road, but before taking the second picture – the one that is always reproduced – he oversaw the scattering of cannonballs on the road itself.
This assumption prompts Morris to ask:
How did Sontag know the sequence of the photographs? …Presumably, there had to be some additional information that allowed the photographs to be ordered: before and after. If this is the basis for her claim that the second photograph was staged, shouldn’t she offer some evidence? …This raises a question that greatly interests me: why people accept claims of posing, fakery and alteration rather than looking at the data…  Isn’t Sontag’s theory something like this?
These questions send Morris off on an exhaustive quest that is by turns bewitching, boring, frustrating, and fascinating. He operates under the belief, one I share, that if you dig up enough facts you will eventually approach something resembling truth. (Which is very different from saying that facts equal truth.) Morris travels to Sebastopol, he walks the road Fenton walked, he even locates a Crimean War-vintage cannonball to study how sunlight and shadow play on its surface. The remainder of the book is devoted to similar investigations into the ambiguity and meaning of photographs from Abu Ghraib, the Dust Bowl, Iwo Jima, Lebanon, and the battle of Gettysburg.

But it all spins around those two Fenton photographs. As Morris writes:
All of the central issues of photography that I address in this book of essays – questions of posing, photo fakery, reading the intention of the photographer from the image itself, questions about what a photograph means and how it relates to the world it photographs – are contained in these twin Fenton photographs.
As Morris’ investigations unfold, I sometimes found myself thinking that this guy has way too much time and money on his hands (including, presumably, some of that $500,000 grant he got from the MacArthur Foundation). But in the end, I wound up admiring Morris for his doggedness. If more prosecutors and police investigators were this rigorous, we would have far fewer innocent people on Death Row; and if more reporters and editors were this thorough, our news would be less tainted with factual errors and outright lies. In the end, Morris reminded me that all art springs from some kind of obsession. His obsessions lead him to some intriguing insights. The central one is stated in the book’s title:
What we see is not independent of our beliefs. Photos provide evidence, but no shortcut to reality. It is often said that seeing is believing. But we do not form our beliefs on the basis of what we see; rather, what we see is often determined by our beliefs. Believing is seeing, not the other way around.
It won’t spoil much to reveal that Morris’ painstaking investigation into the provenance of the Fenton photographs forces him to admit that Sontag was right all along – the picture with the cannonballs in the ditch was taken first, then someone scattered the cannonballs on the road for the second, more famous shot. (Presumably, someone had removed the cannonballs from the road before Fenton arrived on the scene and took his first shot.) What’s far more interesting than these facts is what Morris does with them. “The change in the photographs suggest that Fenton may have moved the cannonballs for aesthetic or other reasons,” Morris writes. “But we can never know for sure. And even if Sontag is right, namely, that Fenton moved the cannonballs to telegraph the horrors of war, what’s so bad about that? Why does moralizing about ‘posing’ take precedence – moral precedence – over moralizing about the carnage of war? Is purism of the photography police blinding them to the human tragedy the cannonballs represent?”

Saying that Susan Sontag belongs to “the photography police” is hitting below the belt. It was only after I finished reading Believing Is Seeing and went back to Sontag’s writings on photography that I began to see that Errol Morris, this dogged seeker of truth, had been less than fully truthful. But before we revisit Sontag, we need to drop in on Robert McNamara.

My introduction to Errol Morris’ work was The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara, which won the Academy Award for the best documentary movie of 2003. (Lesson # 7: “Belief and seeing are both often wrong.”) I was drawn to the movie for reasons that were familial, political, and professional.

First, the family connection. My father worked in the Ford Motor Company’s public relations department in the 1950s, when “Whiz Kid” Bob McNamara was rising toward the presidency of the company. My father saw McNamara frequently at the office but only occasionally at social gatherings because McNamara had little use for anything that distracted him from work. He lived in Ann Arbor, urbane home to the University of Michigan, far from the insular suburban enclaves favored by most Detroit auto executives. McNamara promoted small, fuel-efficient cars and auto safety – two farsighted propositions with zero profit potential. With his watered hair and rimless spectacles, with his radical ideas and iron faith in the power of numbers, McNamara was, according to my father and many others, a fish out of water in booming post-war Detroit.

One night my father came home from a cocktail party and told me a story I will never forget. Bob McNamara had showed up at the party, unexpectedly, and while most of the men gathered in one corner doing what Detroit car guys do – talking cars and sports while drinking the hard stuff – cold fish McNamara stood alone across the room. (Though my father didn’t say so, I’ve always pictured McNamara drinking a tall ginger ale.) After noticing that McNamara was soon surrounded by women, my father drifted over to eavesdrop. The women were listening, rapt, as McNamara recounted how he’d spent his summer vacation hiking in Utah. Few Detroit car guys in the ’50s had been to Utah, and I doubt that any of them had ever gone hiking. That story about how McNamara could mesmerize the ladies stayed with me in the coming years, after he went off to Washington and became Secretary of Defense and led us into the nightmare of the Vietnam War. That story forced me to remember that there was a complex human being – outdoorsman, raconteur, something of a ladies’ man – behind the icy mask.

Politically, I was opposed to the war while it was being fought, and I was determined not to take part in it. I had no desire to step on a land mine and get my legs blown off, of course, but on a deeper level I sensed, even as a teenager, that the Domino Theory was a load of horseshit. And to paraphrase our most eloquent draft resister, no Viet Cong ever called me honky. Vietnamese communists posed no threat to America, as I saw it, and Americans had no more business killing Vietnamese people than the French did. I was not going to go there to kill and/or be killed just because Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, and Richard Nixon thought I should. The thing that saved me one-way bus fare to Canada was a lucky high number (#176) in the draft lottery in 1971, the year I turned 18.

When I went to see The Fog of War in 2003, my father’s story about that long-ago Detroit cocktail party was very much on my mind. I remember hoping that the movie would give us a three-dimensional McNamara – a man who had some visionary ideas, a man who could charm the ladies, a truly brilliant iconoclast – and not the cardboard monster so often served up by the media. Cardboard is not worth despising. To my delight, the movie delivers a complex human being. It shows McNamara pushing against the Detroit status quo for auto safety and small, fuel-efficient cars. It shows him fighting back tears when he recounts touring Arlington National Cemetery in November of 1963, trying to pick out a site for President John F. Kennedy’s grave. It shows that he was a dedicated civil servant who took a massive pay cut when he left Detroit for Washington, and that he was tortured by the consequences of his disastrous decisions as Secretary of Defense.

But Morris doesn’t let McNamara off the hook. For me the most unforgettable moment in the movie had nothing to do with the Vietnam War. It came when McNamara was describing his work crunching numbers – flight times, gallons of fuel, pounds of ordnance, abort ratios – for the fire-bombing raids on Japanese cities during the final months of the Second World War, under the command of bellicose Maj. Gen. Curtis LeMay. “In a single night we burned to death one hundred thousand Japanese civilians in Tokyo – men, women, and children,” McNamara says, blinking, as though still astonished by the memory. “LeMay said if we’d lost the war we would all have been prosecuted as war criminals. And I think he’s right! He, and I’d say I, were behaving as war criminals. LeMay recognized that what he was doing would be thought immoral, if his side had lost. But what makes it immoral if you lose, and not immoral if you win?”

Those words still stun me. The man had believed since 1945 that he was a war criminal – and yet he was capable of doing what he did in Vietnam!

Professionally, McNamara and I crossed paths as writers, in an oblique way, in early 1996. I had just sold my second novel, All Souls’ Day, the story of a former Navy Seal who took part in some dark missions along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, then settled in Bangkok after his discharge. Eventually he gets drawn back to Saigon during the C.I.A.-backed coup that culminated in the assassination of South Vietnam’s president, Ngo Dinh Diem, by his own troops on Nov. 2, 1963 (also known as All Souls’ Day, or the Day of the Dead). Three weeks later, President Kennedy was assassinated. My novel implied that this was the fork in the road, the moment when we should have cut our losses and gotten out of an unwinnable war.

A few weeks before I sold the novel (and a year before it appeared in bookstores), McNamara had published his memoir In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. Most reviewers seized on McNamara’s tepid apology for the bloody fiasco he’d engineered – “We were wrong, terribly wrong” – but the book resonated with me for a very different reason. McNamara made what was, to me, another stunning admission: “I believe we could and should have withdrawn from Vietnam either in late 1963 amid the turmoil following the Diem assassination, or in late 1964 or early 1965 in the face of increasing political and military weakness in South Vietnam.” Robert McNamara, of all people, had vindicated in advance the premise of my fictional enterprise. I felt something I can only describe as queasy glee.

My high opinion of The Fog of War bred high expectations for Believing is Seeing, and, as I’ve said, there is much in the book to admire. But Morris’ remark about “the photography police” gnawed at me. A second reading of Sontag’s writings on photography led me to the conclusion that Morris is not only a low-blow artist, he’s also less than completely truthful, which is a fatal flaw for someone on such a lofty quest for truth.

Roger Fenton was the first war photographer. Sent to the Crimea in early 1855 at the instigation of Prince Albert, Fenton was a lackey of the British government and the avatar of what we have come to call spin doctors. “Acknowledging the need to counteract the alarming printed accounts of the unanticipated risks and privations endured by the British soldiers dispatched there the previous year,” Sontag writes in Regarding the Pain of Others, “the government had invited a well-known professional photographer to give another, more positive impression of the increasingly unpopular war.” It was a botched war in dire need of some good publicity; it was the Great War sixty years before the Great War; it was Vietnam a century before Vietnam.

Sontag continues in this derisive vein: “Under instructions from the War Office not to photograph the dead, the maimed, or the ill, and precluded from photographing most other subjects by the cumbersome technology of picture-taking, Fenton went about rendering the war as a dignified all-male group outing.” Until, that is, he came upon the Valley of the Shadow of Death and all those cannonballs beside the road. Sontag calls Fenton’s photograph of the cannonballs on the road “a portrait of absence, of death without the dead,” adding that “it is the only photograph he took that would not have needed to be staged.” And yet it was staged! But – and here’s the crux of the matter – that staging made no difference to Sontag, just as it makes no difference to Morris. “With time,” she concludes, “many staged photographs turn back into historical evidence, albeit of an impure kind – like most historical evidence.” Believing Is Seeing, for whatever reason, neglects to mention this crucial conclusion.

Though Morris erred here, I think he is right to chide Sontag for declining to use photographs to illustrate her writings on photography. (The German writer W.G. Sebald solved this problem by including photographs in his books but shrewdly leaving out captions, forcing the reader to do the work of integrating the images and the prose.)

Delineating their differences should not overshadow the fact that Morris and Sontag see eye to eye on many questions. The slippery nature of photographs as factual evidence, for instance. In her seminal 1977 book On Photography, Sontag wrote, “Photographs, which cannot themselves explain anything, are inexhaustible invitations to deduction, speculation and fantasy.” Compare that with Morris’ claim that every photograph “should be a constant reminder – not of how photographs can be true or false – but of how we can make false inferences from a photograph.” He adds that every photograph’s tenuous claim to factuality has been greatly weakened by new technology, such as Photoshop. To his credit, he embraces this development as a spur to heightened vigilance and skepticism. Morris and Sontag also agree that posing is not necessarily deception, and that every photograph is, in a sense, staged because of the photographer’s decisions on how to frame the shot, when to release the shutter, how to crop the resulting print.  Sontag takes this a step further, though, noting the “spasm of chagrin” that arises whenever people discover that a supposedly candid picture was staged. “What is odd,” she writes, “is not that so many of the iconic news photos of the past, including some of the best-remembered pictures from the Second World War, appear to have been staged. (What is odd) is that we are surprised to learn they were staged, and always disappointed.”

She’s thinking less about Roger Fenton here than about Robert Capa and Robert Doisneau: the former’s photograph of a Republican soldier in the act of falling from a fatal gunshot wound during the Spanish Civil War; and the latter’s 1950 photograph “Kiss by the Hotel de Ville,” which shows a young couple kissing, apparently spontaneously, on a Paris street. Sontag was aware that the authenticity of Capa’s photograph had come under question in the 1970s, but she was more interested in its jarring context than its dubious content. (The full-page picture was published in Life magazine in 1937, she notes, opposite a full-page ad for Vitalis hair tonic.) It wasn’t until five years after Sontag’s death that a Spanish researcher proved, beyond a doubt, that “Falling Soldier” was staged. The picture is formally titled “Death of a Loyalist Militiaman, Cerro Muriano, Cordoba Front, Spain, Sept. 5, 1936.” But the researcher determined that the picture was taken not at Cerro Muriano, just north of Cordoba, but near the town of Espejo, about 35 miles away. Capa was in Espejo in early September 1936 – but no fighting took place there until later in the month. So the researcher, José Manuel Suspesrregui, concluded that “the ‘Falling Soldier’ photo is staged, as are all the others in the series taken on that front.”

But “Falling Soldier” is such a treasured image in the anti-fascist pantheon that when an exhibition of Capa’s photographs opened in Barcelona in 2009, the culture minister in Spain’s socialist government felt the need to defend it through some linguistic contortions. “Art is always manipulation,” he said, “from the moment you point a camera in one direction and not another.” Agreed, but Morris cuts to the heart of the matter: “Posing is not necessarily deception. Deception is deception.” And no matter how you try to spin it, “Falling Soldier” is a deception, not because it was posed but because the death it claims to document was not real. Yes, people died in that fashion during that war, but no one died on that day in that place. As Sontag rightly stated it, “The point of ‘The Death of a Republican Soldier’ is that it is a real moment, captured fortuitously; it loses all value should the falling soldier turn out to have been performing for Capa’s camera.”

As for “The Kiss,” Doisneau finally admitted in 1992 that he had paid two young lovers (who happened to be aspiring actors) to repeat their kiss at various Paris locations four decades earlier. After the truth came out, the woman in the picture, Francoise Delbart, proclaimed, “The photo was posed. But the kiss was real.”

And that, our two heavyweights would agree, is all that matters.


Image credits:
Fenton, “Valley of the Shadow of Death” with road cleared of cannonballs via Wikimedia Commons
Fenton, “Valley of the Shadow of Death” with road full of cannonballs via Wikimedia Commons
Robert Doisneau, “Kiss by the Hotel de Ville” via Masters of Photography

Books in the News

Some things I’ve noticed today:This review of a new biography of one the founding fathers of fantasy and science fiction, H. P. Lovecraft. What’s interesting about this bio is that it is done in the form of a graphic novel, a fitting medium in which to describe the life of a visionary. Lovecraft was almost a movie before it was adapted by Keith Giffen from a script by Hans Rodinoff and illustrated by Enrique Breccia.Great capsule reviews at the Christian Science Monitor of the nominees for National Book Critics Circle awards in the criticism category, “far and away the most intimidating [category].” The nominees are Gritos by Dagoberto Gilb, Songbook by Nick Hornby, Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling by Ross King, River of Shadows by Rebecca Solnit, and Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag. The winners are announced on March 4th in New York.And a group reads all of Shakespeare in one day, which reminded me of this awesome big ticket item.

Surprise Me!