Sorry: the present state of apology

Marina Warner
7 November 2002

The theme of ‘apology’ is in the air: governments are saying it to former colonial subjects, or to political prisoners in post-dictatorships; former terrorists to their targets; banks and businesses to looted or polluted clients; churches and cults to victims of abuse. Why are they doing it? In her approach to today’s latest ‘political enthusiasm’, we accompany Marina Warner – novelist, critic, and subversive anatomist of myth and the collective subconscious – on a sparkling tour of the literature of apology over twenty-five centuries. This article is the first in a series of six published on openDemocracy.

Marina Warner at the opening of the Metamorphing exhibition which she has curated at the Science Museum, London

In the wake of the September 11 attack, I had an email from Eileen Wanquet, a teacher of English literature on the island of La Reunion, which is in the Indian Ocean but is still a department of France. In it she wrote, ‘I’ve been worrying about why people don’t seem to learn from what happens. And in spite of all the literature which is almost prophetic…I’ve been thinking about how literature works, and how it is not politics.’

What Eileen wrote struck me with peculiar force because I was thinking about the increasing role of apology, especially public apology as it is embodied in writings of different kinds – in order to throw light, if possible, on what it means for the many distempered areas of the past and the present where human rights are violated.

As we go, if you come with me, we shall meet beckoning figures, as if travelling on some allegorical map of a pilgrim’s progress. Of course, there are well-known companions of any such road: Hypocrisy, Evasion, Excuses and Lies. But starting with Confession we shall meet less familiar figures: Regret, Remorse, Recognition, Retraction, Responsibility, Repentance, and then, towards the end of the journey, perhaps, Vindication, Expiation/Atonement, Placation, Reconciliation – flanked by two pairs of twins, Reform and Redress and Reparation and Restitution, with the angel of Redemption hovering above.

Pride, Arrogancy, Self-conceit, Worldly-glory

The prefix that recurs so frequently in these words denotes that these states of mind arise in response to a prior act or event. They are made in relation to an object, which then bears back on the subject; an Apology is in this sense an agreement – a compact between different parties, not a lone initiative. I’ll be coming back later to this recursive recombining and mutual self-fashioning.

I am going to look at four scenes in literature which illuminate states that seem to me to follow upon one another in the act of apology as a relationship.

First, the existence of an injustice, testified by the sufferer. For this, I am going to take the figure of Io from Aeschylus’s magnificent study in suffering, Prometheus Bound.

Secondly, the apologist, the one who accepts responsibility – or takes the blame – and speaks of regret and – it is implied – pledges reform and redress. Here my principal subject will be St Augustine who speaks through his Confessions.

Thirdly, the response of the apologee – the person to whom the avowal of guilt is made. Here I’ll look at The Marriage of Figaro, and play the exquisite music of forgiveness and reconciliation in the last act.

J.M.Coetzee ‘Disgust’
“He walks on, turns back, passes Captain Dorego’s a second time. The three are seated at a table in the window. For an instant, through the glass, Soraya’s eyes meet his. He has always been a man of the city, at home amid the flux of bodies where eros stalks and glances flash like arrows. But this glance between himself and Soraya he regrets at once. (p.6) Isaacs accepts Lurie's apology but states,' We are all sorry when we are found out. The question is what lesson have we learned? The question is, what are we going to do now that we are sorry?'

The fourth, and final scene, a look at what the future may hold, which comes from Gillian Slovo’s most recent novel, Red Dust, a popular, accessible page-turner and best-seller that vividly explores the issues raised by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa.

The Commission asked people to tell their stories. It proposed – and seemed to reach – a revolutionary form of trying to achieve some kind of peace and settlement in a country that had been torn by internal strife. It offered amnesty to all crimes committed in pursuit of political ends, with the significant exception of rape, as we shall see, provided these were admitted. Slovo’s book also constitutes a challenge to J.M. Coetzee’s bitter pessimism, in his allegory of post-apartheid retributive and redistributive justice, the Booker prize winning, controversial novel Disgrace.

But before I turn to these four scenes, a quick overview of the present state of apology. It is a growing field. Apology has become a political enthusiasm. It began before the current, distinctly unapologetic administration in Washington. It is likely to grow strongly after it; not least thanks to vocabulary of good and evil with which President Bush has moralised his presentation of grand strategy.

Bill Clinton apologised to many groups, including ex-prisoners who were used in human experiments over syphilis; he apologised to the victims of the civil conflict in Rwanda, many of whom he might have saved; and he apologised to El Salvador for American policies that were not his responsibility.

The Queen of the United Kingdom formally apologised to the Maoris in New Zealand for the acts of Crown authorities in violating the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi by engaging in subsequent acts of dispossession of their lands in New Zealand; and she apologised in India for the massacre of Amritsar in 1919. Tony Blair has followed suit, and apologised for the Irish famine.

South African Catholic pamphlet

The Pope has apologised on nearly a hundred different occasions. At a special Mass for the Millennium, he bundled up 2000 years of Church injustice into one comprehensive plea for forgiveness and purification. He invoked crimes against Jews, women, minorities, in general, and some historical episodes in particular, such as the Crusades and the Inquisition. After invoking each category, what he actually said was, ‘We forgive and ask forgiveness’.

He did not mention the complicity of the Vatican with Fascism, in Italy and in Germany, and he left out any plea for the treatment meted out to homosexuals. So while his acknowledgement of the Church’s guilt and his repentance were convincing to some and warmly welcomed, they did not go far enough for others.

Among the many bitter issues, past and present, in which victims, survivors or their descendants are demanding apology, are some very serious, large questions of the historical past. In Australia, the government has refused to apologise to the Aborigines for their oppression during the colonial era, though it has done so to those called ‘the stolen generation’, who were forcibly separated in infancy from their parents to be brought up in white homes. In Japan, the ‘comfort women’ conscripted during the Second World War, have not accepted the conditional apology, which is all they have so far been offered. In America, a campaign is growing for an apology for slavery.

This last almost destroyed the United Nations (UN) conference in Durban last year, when Britain, alone among EU countries, refused to agree to apologise, and argued for – and eventually negotiated – a strong statement of regret and repudiation instead.

I’m very uneasy about the currents that carry this spate of apology forward. To be anecdotal, the word ‘Sorry’ is almost my way of saying, ‘Hello’. It’s probably the word I habitually use most often – sometimes as a way of hailing a waiter, or, even, I’m not beyond saying it when someone treads on my foot. There may be a class aspect to this, of a certain upbringing and a liberal conscience. (Saying sorry can be a way of life.) More seriously, I want to give my support to acts – verbal utterances – which represent revulsion against wrongdoing, to accept that to forgive and forget is the better part, and to acknowledge the enchanting power of language to bring about changes in the air – aery nothings, however insubstantial, are aery somethings too. As Hippolita says in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a story made up of immaterial words can make a permanent impression, can ‘grow to something of great constancy.’

Kim Hak Sun: the first Korean woman to give public testimony in 1991 to her life as a comfort woman for the Japanese Imperial Army

But, but, but. The personal is political, yes, but maybe that is the problem – the feminist slogan has won an extraordinary victory and is now being appropriated by jealous power. It is not just that other, different groups want their sorrows recognised in a language of compassion. The Lords of Creation also want to show adherence to it, by accepting a vicarious guilt and expressing their sorrow for it.

It is easy enough for them to find the opportunity. As Meursault comments wryly to himself in The Outsider by Albert Camus, ‘In any case, you’re always partly to blame.’ But what are we to make of self-inculpation for events in the past? Should an existential model of subjectivity encompass the structure of human rights? Should politics be personalised to this extent?

I feel I’m getting in very deep here, but I want to find out why I laughed a hollow laugh when I arrived in San Francisco the day that the Archbishop of California was apologising to all those who had been abused as children by nuns and priests. The thought of Blair shucking off the inconvenient complications of Britain’s role in Ireland by saying he was sorry also made me snort; and I want to shake the Pope, frail as he is, when he says he forgives and asks for forgiveness – from God – for 2000 years of sins of the Church against women. Yes, well, what you are you doing about us now?

When it concerns the sins of the past, official apology unites two different forms of speech, both of them deeply intertwined with ideas about self-examination, and self-disclosure – with, in short, ways of remembering oneself. The first is theological and sacramental, the language of repentance and atonement. The second is psychoanalytic: the practice of the ‘talking cure’ and the psychotherapy group meeting to help relieve bereavement, mental distress, and the victims of abuse.

“…after forty years, the whole rationale of the Soviet Alliance is beginning to fall apart. The key event I think was in 1970, when Willy Brandt went to Warsaw. The sight of a German leader, kneeling in expiation for the crimes of the wartime period, is a sight which no Pole, I think, would ever forget”. (Norman Davies, in Michael Charlton ed., The Eagle and the Small Birds, 1984)

Thus, public apologies made by leaders of world affairs cast them in priestly roles; Tony Blair is not directly implicated in the acts for which he has apologised, nor is Clinton. Indeed, they show themselves rather more reluctant to apologise when they are directly involved. Their verbal retractions are magical, sacramental acts, designed to ease and soothe and purge hatred and grudge. Such apologies are like religious rituals that exorcise demons. The purpose in the present, with respect to potential supporters, is to generate the identification that comes with the shared experience of healing, however momentary.

Such apologies differ from public statements of responsibility and regret made by those involved directly to those injured. Neither the priestly discourses nor the curing is juridical or political in the traditional sense. But as politics becomes increasingly presidential, and as presidential politics becomes increasingly priestly, it is important to evaluate the change not just dismiss it, for all its cynicism. As Roy L. Brooks writes in his book of essays, When Sorry Isn’t Enough, ‘what is happening (in the age of apology) is more complex than “contrition chic” or the “canonization of sentimentality”.’

In the wake of the Second World War, the possibility of healing grief and easing social conflicts through speech acts, through rites of mourning and expiation, through an evolved, secular verbal magic, has passed into the public arena all over the world.

Many tributaries, very tricky to navigate, flow from this main current of public avowals and disavowals; not least, must an apology lead to reparation, if it is to be to be at all meaningful? That is, without a subsequent act of reparation or restitution, can it be fully constituted as an apology? Or is the performance of a speech act something that itself makes change? Is it the soft answer that turneth away wrath? Is the recognition of wrongdoing sufficient? As Wole Soyinka asked, ‘Is knowledge on its own of lasting effect?’

Or is an apology necessarily in and of itself a plea for forgiveness, which reaches completion only if and when that pardon is granted?

An Irishman's Diary
By Kevin Myers, Irish Timid, 4/1/01
"Amnesia has been one of the great enabling factors in the cycle of troubles over the years. Amnesia liberates from consequence, conferring innocence on the guilty, and banishing the slaughtered dead to a permanent exile from popular memory. So it is not spiteful or revanchist to remember. It is morally necessary. It is the guard against a fresh infestation of violence"

The sacrament of penance in Roman Catholic rite sets out three stages. First, there is Contrition. Then, if it is sincere, Absolution will be granted. But, thirdly, Penance has to be performed by the confessor in order to make the absolution take.

Already we are starting to see that the framework of public apology is intricate, combining issues of language, religion and gender. In several languages, the word apology does not exist independently of the word for forgiveness. In Ibo, as spoken in Nigeria, to apologise is to ask for a pardon: biko gbaghala mm means please forgive me. In French, je vous demande pardon, and likewise the Italian, mi scusi, differ from the English ‘I’m sorry’. French has je suis désolée. But it lacks the formality of what is a normal phrase in English conversation, ‘I apologise’. The distinction between this and the personal ‘forgive me’ is not available. (However, French does have pardon, which contains the admission of fault, while the weaker phrase for regret, je m’excuse, includes a hint of a reason for the act – an excuse. As the French also say, Qui s’accuse s’excuse – to accuse oneself is to excuse oneself.)

Mary Magdalen
The Penitent Magdalen by Titian:
Penance suits women

Sorry is associated with a gender. When I asked a friend of mine, the writer Jonathan Keates, who is also an English teacher (at a central London boys’ secondary school), if he ever asked his pupils to apologise to one another, he told me, that on some occasions, he had done so, and it cost boys dearly to do so, because, as he put it, ‘it’s a girly thing’. This is also my impression – and I think the scenes I am going to explore will help us understand why.

The religious background is also very influential of people’s attitudes and expectations. It is significant that the Catholic sacrament, if all the conditions are met, shrives the penitent of the sins that have been confessed and lifts guilt from the wrongdoer. Puritan or Protestant guilt, by contrast, cannot be shed by mere contrition or even subsequent acts of penance. This may underpin the difference between papal acts of apology, and the consequences of apologies in the USA and in Anglican England. Perhaps along with the fact that in the birthplace of making gains through the insurance market there is a fear of the consequences that could follow public apology – demands for reparation and monetary damages along the model of an insurance claim. But there are other reasons too.

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