Poetry Porch: Forgiveness


Introduction: Exploring the Need for Forgiveness

by Nadya Aisenberg

Scene 1
         “Why,” a friend asks, “do you feel compelled to write about forgiveness?” Indeed, why? I am left stammering into the phone. I stammer because I have no ready explanation for the hold this subject has on me. I have been mulling it so long, I have simply lost track of its origins. I search for beginnings, come up only with reasons why the subject of forgiveness is not an obvious choice for me. What is my personal relation to the subject? I have never been raped, abused, betrayed, abandoned; I have no one in my own life I need to forgive. Nor, though I have my share of human imperfections and flaws, am I aware of any wrong I have committed so grievous that it nags my conscience, and for which I crave forgiveness. Neither I, nor any one in my family, or even anyone I know, is a Holocaust survivor. As a child in America, I was not victimized by racial or religious hatred. Nothing in my own direct experience, in other words, leads me to this subject.
        When I hang up the phone, I am left trying to explain to myself where my preoccupation with forgiveness came from, why I have been collecting newspaper stories, magazine articles, books, quotations, poems for years now. We in the western world are, inescapably, inheritors of a Judeo-Christian legacy which makes pronouncements, adopts attitudes, formulates regulations, about forgiveness. But only to the degree that I partake by osmosis in this tradition, is a religious background responsible for my engagement. I was raised in a home without a bible, without Sunday school, without religious training, education or observance. Not until I went to college and had a course in “The Bible as Literature” had I even read what for me have remained stories. So, I fail to account for my stake here; it remains unaccountable to me. Not only what compels me, but how I can contribute to the subject. For me at this time, only an urgent feeling that I must communicate my sense of its importance.
         With strong feelings of frustration, even sadness, I consign my carton of material on forgiveness to the attic. For now, I am assailed by too many questions, by the complexity, permutations, irresolutions, subtleties, contradictions surrounding the subject which waylay any attempt at generalization or prescription. How to find a way in? No theologian, politician, psychiatrist, I have my feeling of urgency, but no professional language in which to couch it. I am back to excavating the origins of my commitment in the hope that I will discover in the digging an approach of my own.

Scene 2
         It is 1938, I am ten years old. I am sneaking off to the movies with another girl instead of going to a camp reunion.
         On a sunny afternoon, we are headed for the Schuyler theater, just three blocks from home, showing Don Ameche and Carmen Miranda in a musical comedy, perhaps Down Argentina Way? I have only been to the movies once before, with my parents, (thought in these media-laden days that seems incredible). The news comes on first, black and white Pathe News, and suddenly in the dark I am seeing Japanese soldiers with bayonets climbing through peasants’ windows in China or Manchuria, some far place I don’t know about, thrusting their steel blades through the sleeping figures. Impaling sleeping people. I still remember it sixty years later; the Japanese soldiers were wearing puttees and high-laced boots. I force my friend to leave before the movie starts. At ten, without knowing the word for it, I became a pacifist, pretentious though that statement sounds. I am one still, and all the wars I have lived through have strengthened that belief. There are those who claim forgiveness perpetuates or condones evil, weakens the weak and strengthens the already powerful. A critic as formidable as Cynthia Ozick subscribes to this view. But I would object that war, the ultimate consequence of non-forgiveness, weakens everyone.

Scene 3
         It is 1939, World War II. Every single evening before dinner my parents listen with solemnity to Raymond Gram Swing and the news. My father is too old to serve in the army, I have one sister and no brothers, not even an uncle in the service. We have no family in Europe. But the Second World War remains etched, incised, engraved on my mind. It was my fearsome entry into political consciousness. Not until the Vietnam War did I ever again follow political events so closely. I am eleven. We are sitting in deck chairs we have carried to the park, and listening to the news in the daytime. Paris has fallen. Is my mother crying over the recent death of her seldom-seen brother, or is it this latest catastrophe that prompts her tears? Grief in the summer air. Again, it is a sunny Sunday, so my father is with us. Back inside, he begins to stick pins in a map of the world tracing the progress of each battle from that day till the war’s end. I write a poem about Britain left alone against the enemy: “Horatio, come and hold the bridge a second time. . . .” Patiotism and war—is there a necessary connection? Is war, this war, a necessary evil? Did it have to come to this? This question, planted now, haunts me as I grow up. In high school I learn about the background of today: World War I, the Treaty of Versailles, Weimar Republic, German inflation. What would the result have been if forgiveness rather than punishment had been extended twenty-five years before? The information about World War II death camps hasn’t come out yet, but the newspapers are clogged with pictures of countries, a horrifying tally. Blackout, fear. The unpredictable final outcome.

Scene 4
         I am sixteen, staying with a friend and her family at Lake Placid, idyllic, summer. Someone comes in with a newspaper announcing the bombing of Hiroshima, pictures of the cloud on page one, particulars of incineration inside. I go up to the guest room where my bed is. For the next ten years I don’t read the newspaper. I am too ignorant to know all the philosophers since time began who have tried to reason their way around evil, who have come up with Satan, with a Manichean heresy. I see a world in which nothing is too horrible to happen. Guilt attacks me, my country did this. No arguments about a swifter conclusion to the war convince me this is justifiable. I feel it on my conscience—hold to non-violence.

Scene 5
         I am a protester during the Vietnam War. I do nothing significant, don’t get arrested, I lick envelopes, write letters, send telegrams, march, like thousands of others. I am still a pacifist, but now, popular sentiment is with me. A college teacher now, I find my views adopted in my students’ slogan of the ’Sixties, “Make Love Not War.” I see a world in which men kill each other without volition, without knowing why, in which the Hemingway words—glory, honor, patriotism—discredited in World War I are retreaded. Which is the war to end all wars? Decades later post-traumatic stress syndrome enters the general vocabulary. War forces me to think most seriously about courage, heroics, and the conquering hero. I am married, I have children. What sort of world will receive them? I refuse to buy my son a toy gun. This is larger than pacifism; I begin to reflect on what peacetime values are and fail to be. Soon I will locate many of these values in the women’s movement growing in the 1960s. My own search for order, harmony, non-violence, co-existence is to become the overt or covert theme of my writing.
         I write a book on the crime novel.1 What profound need in us does it satisfy? Why have I been an avid, if selective life-long reader? Because of its archetypal organization of evil and innocence. The most cogent discussion of the profound chord the mystery novel strikes, I find in W. H. Auden’s essay, “The Guilty Vicarage,” in which he names murder as unique—the one irrevocable, irremediable crime. He analyses the crime narrative as a trajectory from innocence through innocence violated to evil expunged and innocence restored. He chose the vicarage as the closed society in which the outsider, the evil one, can be detected, the guilty one cast out. This is our emotional catharsis, our satisfaction. The clever solution to the puzzle, the cerebration, provide additional pleasure but their appeal is more fleeting, less visceral. The restoration is what we long for in real life, where evil is no longer identifiable and containable—or even an anachronism. My fascination is with that innocent state, I realize, a permutation of pastoral, with roots in the Edenic myth. (Characteristically, the Golden Age classic mystery novel is set in such a rural background.) In such a world, relationship is possible, forgiveness is a possible choice. That choice posits a code in which violence is condemned. More recently, with the breakdown of class hierarchy, the acknowledgment of social responsibility in the formation of the individual, post-Freudian understandings of the psyche, the psychology of the criminal has been foregrounded. The mystery story is shifting from plot-driven to character-driven in ways that bring it closer to the serious novel and further from formulaic entertainment. To understand all is to forgive all?

Scene 6
         In 1980 I am one of a small group of women academics who found The Alliance of Independent Scholars in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A book about the academy2 grew from the sixty odd narratives of these women’s experience disclosed in interviews we conducted, issues confronting them in their academic and personal lives. It analyzed the reasons women hit the glass ceiling, examined unequal practices, injustices which impeded advancement. But the equally important task of the book was to describe the values—a cooperative, collaborative, contextual style of working, both in their research and their departmental relations—these women held that conflicted with the status quo, and which they, and I, did not want to relinquish. These values were less articulated, more deeply lying, but just as significant a reason women wound up as “outsiders in the sacred grove.” Most importantly from the standpoint of forgiveness, the interviewees emphasized the whole life, the inseparability of private and public roles. I was only to realize afterwards that these personal narratives linked feminism and forgiveness for me. I began to think about their interrelatedness. Who has not experienced the necessity for forgiveness in a personal life? The public life guards turf, saves face, functions through hierarchy, forgiveness doesn’t enter that scene. So I and my co-author looked beyond the goal of equal pay, education, opportunity, though it was far from achieved, and spoke to the charge of changing values. This requires a sizeable educative process. Will men forgive women for claiming a public voice and a public role? Will women forgive each other for privilege bestowed by race, class, and ethnicity? Will women and men share the ethic of forgiveness necessary for peaceful co-existence in the workplace as well as the family? The search for a society and a heroine to advance these values would eventually lead me on to an extended exploration of what I want from a contemporary heroine. Pacifism was my first relation to forgiveness; feminism my second.

Scene 7
         I start with my recurrent vision of peace, (so hard to image except negatively as the absence of war), of harmony in the world. So for the sake of easy visualization, I go back to pre-lapsarian times, the Garden of Eden, man one with nature, pre-verbal communion, the music of the spheres, orderly, and whole. I am editing a book of poems3 from all over the world about the relationships between human beings and other creatures as part of this obsessive vision of co-existence that swims before my eyes. I delineate categories of relation, write essays describing them, collect contemporary poems that illustrate what is timeless and what we mourn as a Golden Age. A time before forgiveness was necessary. Did that other time ever exist? Or is our own sense of discord so acute that we create a myth to comfort ourselves? I don’t believe in original sin, the snake, the forbidden fruit as sexual knowledge. I don’t believe our life is a God-ordained punishment. But the garden remains—a vision which coincidentally has gained support from the new sciences of ecology and environmental studies. And how will we fashion our lives there if we succeed in conserving the planet? How are we to exist now, now that Cain has slain Abel, without doing violence to one another? Now is the operative world. Forgiveness only makes sense in a temporal dimension, because it is dynamic, it effects changes.

Scene 8
         Before we were strangers we were connected. In the same year, 1989, I publish a book of poetry with this title4; on the cover four figures from a Giacometti sculpture stride across a square, completely heedless of each other, figures of estrangement. I think of Wordsworth, “man’s inhumanity to man.” How do we co-exist? Forgiveness is essential; it is a metaphor that establishes a relation that wasn’t there before, a span thrown out to build a bridge. Then the people in the square can look at each other, may even walk together. On Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, at the beginning of the New Year, the liturgy cautions us, “For sins against God, the Day of Atonement brings no forgiveness until one has become reconciled with one’s neighbor.”
         I have had an ill-defined but lasting attraction to Christianity. I have never acted upon it. I don’t have religious faith of any description, only hope, and I hope, charity. Indeed, I am skeptically afraid of “uplift,” of “easy grace.” It is the symbology that draws me, I know. Particularly the New Testament, which in the Crucifixion dramatizes the supreme act of forgiveness. Jesus, when asked by a disciple how many times one must forgive, gave the answer: “Seventy times seven.” In other words, forever. Both Judaism and Christianity teach forgiveness. I am moved too by the parable of the Prodigal Son in the Old Testament, forgiven by his father. Buddhism teaches non-violence and compassion for all creatures.
         But as a non-believer, where does that leave me? I must believe, for the worth-whileness of my own life, that I can cultivate spiritual values, create an internal region of spirituality without an institution, a religious orthodoxy. To achieve forgiveness, need we be inside a doctrine, invoking the name of God? If we believe with Nietzsche that God is dead, or at least “taking a leave,” as the concentration camp saying went, can we see the continuous task of a lifetime as inspiriting ourselves, cherishing values which include forgiveness? Volumes have been written about collective guilt, about reconciliation and atonement, repentance. I am not a moral philosopher. But I believe that like understanding, forgiveness comes from the heart as well as the head. And in the words of Dith Pran, survivor of the killing fields of Cambodia, “the key to forgiveness is understanding.”

Scene 9
         It is 1990; I am grappling with a difficult book which will take me four years to write. I am trying to come to terms with my by now unshakeable conviction that the western hero, as he has descended to us in epic and tragedy, and survives in such degraded forms as G. I. Joe dolls, is a destructive figure. I am looking for a feminist heroinic paradigm who will be different, who will have different values, some of which were formulated in Women of Academe.5 I begin by describing what I would have our society abjure: the hero’s sense of extraordinariness which grants him license; his fanaticism, which leads to violence; his over-inflated pride and territoriality; his rigidity which can’t negotiate or compromise. Not losing face. The warrior-hero as savior. “Wrathful Achilles.” By now you, the reader, as well as I, begin to recognize my obsessive subjects.
         I wind up in a place completely new to me. and unexpected: examining feminist utopias, the one place where feminist values are projected onto an entire society. This is a new way to look at Eden. These are my values. Though I don’t want to wait for the improbably existence of a utopia, these fables bring to life a moral vision. In this odd place, many of the pre-conditions of forgiveness inhere: the recognition of “otherness”; the indictment of war and violence; extended kinship; the replacement of hierarchy by partnership in the private world and responsive short-term leadership in the public world; the assumption of the wholeness of nature and our place within it. My preoccupations with gender and forgiveness intersect once again.

Scene 10
         In the same year as Ordinary Heroines I publish the next volume of poetry, Leaving Eden.6 Still hoping a forward step will spring from a backward glance. No utopian colony has ever survived its experiment. Human nature is not ideal, far from perfect. That is precisely why forgiveness is necessary for survival. We are, as I put it in the title poem, “always and continually leaving Eden,” which existed before Cain slew Abel, “before we tasted murder, mortality.” In this common experience of exile, what choice have we but to forgive each other? Both head and heart are educable enough to cultivate some modest garden.

Scene 11
         I complete my next poetry manuscript7 which draws heavily, for the first time in my own work, upon scientific imagery and vocabulary. Still, it is my old theme which sparks this new sequence: the harmony of the spheres, the music of the spheres. This idea, so persistent in us, handed down through philosophy, early science, religion, (all fundamentally tackling the same questions), of an established and benign order arching over us. A way to see things whole, supervening our human experience of fragmentation, unrelatedness, disjunction. Perhaps this is merely a juvenile hankering after a moral Unified Field Theory? A purpose we could induce from an aesthetic? For me, it is more than aesthetics. Maybe it is a spiritual map. Because such beauty, beyond anything I can understand or encompass, arouses wonder. I feel both humbled and exalted simultaneously. I am not talking at all about a truly religious “loss of self,” but a change in the weight of the ego. Being both more and less, greater as part of the wonder of this universe, less an important event in its evolution, grants me the generosity to harbor forgiveness. Pacifism was my first path to forgiveness; feminism my second; creating an internal region of spiritual values, my third.

Scene 12
         I am finally at bedrock, attempting a book directly and exclusively about forgiveness. I am doing this against my own instincts as a writer and against the seasoned judgment of my friends. The very word puts people off. It sounds mushy. Is there any moral/philosophical center to the question of forgiveness? And if not mushy, maybe pietistic. As if you need to be superhuman, self-abnegating to the point of self-destruction. No. I want to de-sanctify it, take it out of the temple, bring it into the agora. “It [forgiveness],” as Bishop Tutu affirmed, “is practical politics.”
         To do this, I turn to what I know best—literature. I decided to select for discussion individual expressions of forgiveness, as they have been created for us in poetry and fiction, captured in memoir and essay. Each selection presents a different aspect of the theme, perhaps even poses a different question: Do we need to forget in order to forgive? Are there crimes too great, i. e., murder, to allow forgiveness? (Is the answer to this culturally defined?) Must forgiveness be exercised person to person, or can it be more abstract, e.g., can a head of state apologize in the name of his nation? President Clinton to the nation, the Japanese Prime Minister to the Korean “comfort women,” or to Americans for the bombing of Pearl Harbor? Does forgiveness belong to the wronged one alone? And so on, day come and day go. I turn the prism round to catch the glints from many sides. In this way, I aim to speak in more than my own voice, to give breadth and scope to the depiction of forgiveness, since no great literature, even when it is not didactic, exists that doesn’t teach us something about ourselves, about how to be in the world.
         In the century that has witnessed the Holocaust, the killing fields of Cambodia, Vietnam, Rwanda, Bosnia, Ireland, Israel, religious belief has quite understandably declined. At the same time, general acknowledgment of the importance of forgiveness has grown markedly in our time, as a result of this past, of collective guilt. But still, we have no ritual observances for this, no tradition-honored channels or language, no symbols for its expression. The faculty of imagination, of creativity can help us here; the very word needs to be refreshened.
         It is all the more important to find a way toward spiritual values. Nelson Mandela, after sixteen years in jail at the behest of the government, invited Botha, former head of the apartheid state which imprisoned him, to his own inauguration as the first African President of South Africa. Japanese schoolchildren folded origami cranes and sent them flying as a symbol of peace at the commemoration ceremony of Hiroshima. In ordinary life, mothers and fathers come forth asking that forgiveness be granted to the murderers of their children.
         I dedicate this book to the next generation, recalling to us and to them the words of Hannah Arendt, “The only antidote to the irreversibility of history is the faculty of forgiveness.” I come upon her phrase the “faculty of forgiveness” with delight, since I have already declared my belief in “educability.” A “faculty,” my dictionary tells me, is “an ability, natural or acquired, for a particular kind of action.” We are not perfect, but we are educable. We can acquire this faculty of forgiveness. Whether we think of forgiveness between people or between nations, familial or political, the survival of both our material and spiritual lives depends upon it. As Bishop Tutu knows from the depth of his experience, “Without it [forgiveness] there is no future.”

By Nadya Aisenberg:
1. A Common Spring: Crime Novel and Classic, Popular Press (Bowling Green University Press), 1979.
2. Women of Academe: Outsiders in the Sacred Grove. University of Massachusetts Press, 1989. Co-authored with Mona Harrington.
3. We Animals: Poems of Our World. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1989.
4. Before We Were Strangers. London: Forest Press, 1989.
5. Ordinary Heroines: Transforming the Male Myth. New York: Continuum Publishing, 1995.
6. Leaving Eden. London, Forest Books, 1995.
7. Measures. Ireland, Salmon Press, forthcoming.

Copyright © 1999 by Nadya Aisenberg. 

Return to beginning.