Fictions of Torture (forthcoming)

Fictions of Torture will explore the relationship between physical torture and fiction in various senses of that word, in literature of the last century and a half. It investigates the two-way interaction between torture and its representation; imagination is shown as both participating in and challenging the infliction of pain and its representation. The book therefore intervenes simultaneously in two debates: ethical and political discussion concerning the justifiability of torture, and literary critical and philosophical discussion concerning the position of the body in language and literature. Pain is approached both politically, and as a phenomenon which is ambiguously paradigmatic of the body per se, and of the enigmatic relationship between body and mind.

Since 2001 there has been a sharp increase in the practice, debate concerning, and level of acceptability of the practice and representation of, torture by and to Americans and Britons. Over the last decade a hundred and nine books have been published in English concerning either torture in general, or American or British involvement in torture in particular; of these only three concern literature. Of these one concerns torture in Classical texts, one concerns Early Modern texts, and the third is a book of poetry. My book, concerning modern literature, would therefore fill a gap which currently exists in the consideration of fictional torture in the light of twenty-first century events and discourse. It is based on the assumptions that representations of torture may reinforce, subvert, or transform readers’ attitudes towards what is represented; victims may be reduced by depiction to literary convention, or else accorded agonized subjectivity; narratives may be aligned with the inflictors of pain or the afflicted; and that literary criticism assumes a peculiar ethical responsibility in distinguishing between them. It is hoped that this book will equip readers and viewers to respond self-consciously, critically, and sensitively, to fictional depictions of inflicted pain, and in this way will make a small intervention in what might but should not be called a ‘War on Torture’. Slavoj Žižek has argued that ‘the mere introduction of torture as a legitimate topic allows us to entertain the idea while retaining a pure conscience’, and an analogous argument might be applied to the discussion of torture in fiction. However, I would argue that the current trend towards the legitimization of torture in practice and representation requires an articulate response which does not just devise a strategy of resisting the readings invited by certain kinds of texts on the basis of abstract moral arguments, but derives strategies from certain other texts, which deal with the same subject in more complex and responsible ways.

Fiction is the book’s governing concept; it is taken in its opposition to both fact and truth. The literature concerned is overwhelmingly prose fiction – including Dickens, Poe, Kipling, Rider Haggard, Conrad, Koestler, Orwell, and Coetzee. A few playwrights are also included (for example, Ibsen, Weiss, and Dorfman), and the variable of genre is acknowledged to be rich with implication for my discussions; all the plays concerned, however, also have strong verbal dimensions. I concentrate on English literature as my own area of specialism, and as pertaining to a country with a peculiar history of recent involvement in torture. However, many of the scenarios described in British texts involve other countries, torture being estranged as the of other cultures, or of Britons in a foreign (often colonial) context. This fact argues for the inclusion not just of postcolonial texts, such as Coetzee’s, but of the works of other Europeans, such as the three playwrights mentioned, and Dostoevskii, Solzhenitsyn, Kafka, and Lartéguy (quoted in the original and translation). Film will be mentioned in the introduction – particularly the Fox television series 24 of 2001-10 – but this medium is largely beyond the scope and concentration of the book. The period concerned is the last century and a half, which is my own period of specialism, and post-dates the criminalization of torture of freemen in most cases in most of the countries concerned. Thus broad-ranging, this is not and does not aim to be an exhaustive study – or even a survey. Its purpose is to analyse texts which I believe to demonstrate a range of perspectives on torture, and degrees of aesthetic and philosophical sophistication. The definition of torture, for the purpose of inclusion, is physical abuse deliberately inflicted in an official or quasi-official context of internment, in order to serve an end beyond the gratification of the torturer; mental suffering is included insofar as it pertains to such abuse.

Throughout the book, fictional and actual torture are related to one another, and the distinction and relationship between the two is continuously theorized. The actual torture considered is mainly recent, and accessed through the testimonies of survivors, and accounts of journalists, investigators, human rights workers, and lawyers. The book is organized by theme rather than chronology, genre, culture, or implied ethics; certain texts will be discussed in several chapters, and the heuristic mode of comparative oscillation between pairs of comparable but contrasting texts is frequently used.