Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

20 October 2011

A Prayer, Perhaps

As flippant as I occasionally am about violence, it is a huge part of my life. I spend my days reading about violence and thinking about violence, and (increasingly) my nights dreaming about it. Currently, I am teaching a course on Violence, Ethics & Representation at FSU. I have assigned theatre pieces to my students that I think approach violence in interesting ways, and we have spent so far – and will spend in the weeks to come – many hours discussing the ways violence is represented and how the theatre can ethically represent violence, genocide, torture, atrocity.

This week was designed to be part of a module about ritualistic drama for our contemporary moment. Without really thinking about this other connection, I assigned two plays about genocide: Cecilia Parkert's play Witness about the genocide during the 1990s in Srebrenica, and Erik Ehn's play Maria Kizito about the Rwandan genocide (also in the 1990s).

Today we spoke in class about Maria Kizito and I asked my students to talk about the end of the play. Near the play's close, Maria Kizito, a nun who was responsible for the deaths of seven thousand people, speaks the following prayer/elegy:

I have done what I was told. I have been told wrong things.
I have imagined terrible things.
I have behaved as if the world and my imagination were real, as real as each other.
I have straddled wealth; walked over the dead.
I have failed to envy the dead.
I have treated the past as if it were real, instead of the past.
I have hidden in fear instead of hiding in God.
This century is a few centuries long.
This century is an account of holes.
This century is a hill, no matter which way you walk: downhill.
This century is an abdominal wall too weak to hold up the intestines.
This century is skin carved instead of stone,
stone carved instead of soil,
soil carved instead of soul,
soul butchered instead of sacrifice,
sacrifice offered rather than known,
knowledge rather than heaven,
heaven rather than God,
God idolized rather than God,
God rather than God.

I was glad I had asked one of the students to read it, because I couldn't get through it without crying.

I said in class that this piece of the play seems to me to be a kind of vision of the ways in which we fall short of what we ought to do, a series of images that depict our inability to make the world into the kind of place it could be. And I see it, too, as a kind of apology, a mourning but also a repentance for what we have made of our humanity. This century is a few centuries long. I am sorry if this is a little bleak for a Thursday, but I have been spending a lot of time with the worst of human behavior and it is weighing very heavily on me these days.