How did we get from an arrest on a 30-year-old bench warrant to the airing of emotionally charged personal experience as the basis for judging "l'affaire Polanski"? I plead guilty to having been drawn in, but I do think it is time for the mind to overcome feeling.
Let me replay what has happened in my neighborhood of the blogosphere. About a week ago, novelist Helen DeWitt posted on her blog Paperpools an excerpt from an opinion piece by one Jenny Diski in the London Review of Books concerning the Polanski rape charge.*
Diski admits to the same initial yawning ennui I felt when Polanski was arrested. Then, a coterie of self-important intellectual celebrities (oxymoron intended) signed a petition arguing that "good sense, as well as honour" required the release of Polanski, citing, as the proverbial kitchen sink, the film director's alleged suffering under the Nazis and the Soviets in Poland.
Merely appealing to Godwin's Law (aka Godwin's Rule of Nazi Analogies), namely, that the first person to call another a Nazi automatically loses the argument, would have served Diski well. Bernard-Henri Lévy, the author of the missive, is a well-known, attention-seeking buffoon who won't accept mere foolishness when total lunacy can be had.
But no. Diski had to regale us with a blow by blow narrative of her own experience of being raped. Perhaps the article brought some cathartic relief to the writer, but you have to wonder what demons still lurk in Diski's mind to provoke this pornographic act of self-exposure.
What appalling desensitization has occurred in Western society that Diski feels justified in recounting every gory detail of her violation to get a showstopping reaction?
I know rape. I understand it. I don't need to know what orifices were involved to feel horrified by it. You will have to trust me here because I will not add my personal detritus to the blogosphere.
Indeed, abandoning all good sense, perhaps under the influence of Diski's boundary smashing, I replied on DeWitt's blog with a comment that described an equally illegal and heart-rending experience of my own abandonment -- albeit without Diski's gusto for clinical detail -- only to be met with derision by someone who didn't even bother to read carefully.**
I'm not interested in a contest to decide who is more victimized. Diski apparently has a column in a well-known British periodical and has not, that I can tell, spent her life on a grate or in a slum in Latin America. Neither have I. We both had terrible experiences while young, but we are also both lucky far beyond what either deserves.
My point is that, while what happened to Diski inspires sympathy (not so Diski's lurid retelling), should the feelings of someone who experienced such a thing be the chief basis on which judgment is rendered by a civilized society?
Or should the rule of law and the development of moral philosophy spring from a somewhat more detached, less self-interested, source?
We have courts of law and rules for due process precisely because society rejects the lex talionis and judgment by the aggrieved as uncivilized. We accept empirical observation and logical discourse as sources of, at a minimum, approximate truth. We know we can express them in universal terms that, while never entirely devoid of subjectivity, fairly distinguish their a priori biases from their findings.
Such conventions do not arise out of disdain for sentimentality or nonrational discourse -- not, at least, on my part -- but because feeling, intuition, nonlinear thought and the like are all ineffable and extremely subjective, to the point that it is impossible to separate conclusions from prejudice.
This is why feelings and experiences cannot be called upon to serve as a basis for deciding what to do with Polanski, or to enunciate principles.
* WARNING: the texts are graphic and raw. If you insist, read the blog here and Diski's piece here.
** As the immortal Felix Unger once taught, "when you ASSUME, you make an ASS out of U and ME." See the exchange at the bottom of this page.