"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Amanda Berry, Kaspar Hauser, And Titus Andronicus

One of Werner Herzog’s first and very best films is The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, a true story of a Bavarian child who was chained up in a cellar and never saw the light of day until twenty years later and for no explained reason was set free, taught a few words by his captor, and left in the public square in Nuremberg.  He could not walk because he was always manacled and shackled to the floor. He could not talk because he was neither taught nor exposed to any other human being.  He knew nothing of life, society, or the natural world.  For over twenty years he only ate, slept, and played with his one toy, an iron horse.

Gradually the young man learns to speak and negotiate his way through his new world.  He is delighted with simple things, innocently frank about what he sees, has a sense of humor and a pure kindness.  After a number of years after he has become adjusted and accustomed to family and social life, he is unexplainably murdered. Neither the historical record nor Herzog suggest why he was imprisoned in the first place, why he was released, or why he was killed.  The movie in the director’s vision is less about depravity than about innocence and the loss of it.

Amanda Berry was kidnapped at 14 and tied up in a cellar for ten years; and early reports are that she has not matured much beyond that age.  How could she have?  She like Kaspar Hauser was denied human contact other than the two other girls abducted with her and her captor.  Even if she was allowed to watch television she could only have surmised what the real life depicted by actors was. She could draw on the experiences of her childhood, but matching that with her captivity, the character of her captor, and the fantasy world of Hollywood must have produced a social and emotional retardation from which it will be very difficult to emerge.

The story of Kaspar Hauser as told by Herzog, however, suggests that we are all more resilient and adaptable than one might think.  We can come back from horrible, isolated, and impossibly cruel imprisonment and move on. 

A Tale of Two Cities relates the story of another man living without hope and within the narrow four walls of his cell in the Bastille. Dr. Manette has lived alone in the tower for 18 years and when he is finally released he is, in Dickens’ words “recalled to life”. After his release and finally rejoining his daughter, Lucy, Manette slowly returns to the man that he was.  Although severe crises – of which there are many in the story – make him regress to the shoemaking that kept him sane during his long imprisonment; he overcomes these periods of psychological debility and heroically forces himself to once again be a courageous, heroic man.

What distinguishes the torture of Dr. Manette from that of Kaspar Hauser and Amanda Berry is that Manette was imprisoned for political reasons.  That is, his jailors had what was for the time an ‘acceptable’ motive.  In their eyes Manette represented a threat, and only because of his popularity as a citizen of France he was not beheaded like thousands of others during The Terror.   Kaspar Hauser was chained to his cellar floor for no reason.  His captor benefitted from him in no way, took no sexual advantage of him, and – at least in the movie version of the story – was merely an animal to be fed once a day.

Amanda was imprisoned to be her captor’s sex slave; and the barbarity of the situation has few parallels.  It is hard to imagine a young girl of fourteen, chained to the floor, and raped repeatedly, often, and consistently.  The accused could have frequented young prostitutes and had the same sex; so if he shackled and raped her to save money, his actions are even more abominable and perverse. 

Trafficking is very much in the news these days, and young girls are sold into involuntary servitude for money all the time.  In some cases they are bought from poor families.  In others the girls themselves are seduced by the promise of a better life.  In still others, they are abducted and intimidated.  As inhuman as trafficking is, it is still understandable.  Young men and women in Africa not that long ago were abducted and kept as slaves by rival tribes as a matter of course until a good price could be had for them; and forcible abduction and slavery were common since the earliest days of civilization.

Yet the incarceration and abuse of the Cleveland girls is many times more abhorrent.  At least slaves had their own lives, were treated badly but not necessarily inhumanely.  They were both labor and capital and figured in the local economy.  Slavery in the American South was no different.  Although the inhumanity of the institution can never be condoned, the practice of slavery was not always a brutal, dehumanizing terror.  The enslavement of Amanda and the other girls was.

What can we take from this experience? One lesson, learned over and over again, is that there seems no bottom to the depths of human depravity.  Whenever we think that we have seen the most brutal, unexplainable, unconscionable, inhuman act; another is discovered.  What makes this depravity worse is that it is unexplainable.  We can assume that horrible acts will always occur, but we are never any closer to an explanation of why we are capable of them? Can they possibly only be the results of a particularly twisted and perverted childhood? Dysfunctional families? An indifferent society?

Shakespeare was as profoundly interested in this question as anyone; and many of his most compelling characters are villainous and evil.  Goneril and Regan have no redeeming values as they methodically strip their father of his wealth, dignity and sanity. Iago is the closest to pure evil of any of Shakespeare’s characters because he has only the flimsiest pretense for bringing down Othello.  He has no reason except for delighting in the total destruction of the man. Iago does not simply kill Othello. He makes him die a slow and agonizing psychological and then physical death.  Dionyza (Pericles) plots to have Pericles’ daughter, Marina murdered only because she is more beautiful and alluring than her own daughter.

The most evil of all Shakespeare’s creations, however, has to be Tamora, the Amazon Queen in Titus Andronicus.  She hates Titus to such a degree that she incites her sons to rape his daughter, Lavinia, and then has them cut out her tongue and cut off her hands so that she will be unable to tell who did it.  She, in effect, is trapped in the worst prison of all – herself.

Admittedly, Titus Andronicus is not considered a good play, and its grand guignol special effects (chopping up and baking the evil sons of Tamora in a pie and serving it to her) do not endear it to critics.  Shakespeare may have been trying to finally shed the influence of his contemporary, Marlowe whose plays, such as Tamburlaine were as violent as they come.  In any case, Shakespeare was again dealing with the nature of evil, but never came to any conclusions other than gratuitous, heinous violence was part of human nature.

We will have to wait for more information to emerge about this case; but it is unlikely that any explanation of reason or motive will satisfy.  We, like Shakespeare and Herzog, will only have to keep wondering.

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