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Does Guilt Matter?

[Pablo Picasso, [Pablo Picasso, "Guernica," 1937]

This contribution shall deal with a number of topics having in common an emotion, a biblical story, and a painter. Its challenging title is not meant to exhaust the issue but rather to raise questions about the place individual and social “guilt” hold in a set of symbolic or real cases. For this purpose, I have chosen to begin with culturalism, then move to question the relevance of the orientalist couple guilt/shame; investigate the place of the story of David and Goliath in the Arab and Islamic traditions; show what Caravaggio and Picasso might have in common; and conclude with a few notes on guilt in a civil war, the Lebanese case.

I. Culturalism as a Grand Narrative

Post-modernists pretend to be against all grand narratives. They have nevertheless raised one to the realm of a grand narrative: Culture (Eagleton: 2002, 17-18). Let me call this Culturalism, an interpretation of life, social phenomena, and the behavior of men according to immutable essences and sole identities usually grounded in religion and language. Its founding fathers in geopolitics, Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington, attributed to communities and collectivities cultural essences and singular identities, which always implied hierarchies, distinctions and inequalities, as in Huntington’s uniqueness of the West, the West and the Rest and so on. What qualities one possesses, others necessarily lack.

Dominique Moisi’s book on the geopolitics of emotions (Moisi: 2009) is a good example of how emotions define cultures, or better become cultures, as he emphasizes the role of emotions and feelings in shaping international politics. The aim of the author is to provide an alternative theory to that of the previous role attributed to ideologies. However, as the author posits that China and India are characterized by a “culture of hope,” he invalidates his theory from the start, as “hope” in this case is not presented as the cause of what the author calls the “extraordinary economic accomplishments” of both countries, but is given as its result. To the Middle Eastern states is attributed the “culture of humiliation” explained by the region’s historical decline, its role as a political tool for western goals, and by the creation and expansion of the state of Israel. This culture of humiliation is the matrix for the rise of terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism.

Assuming that humiliation is the moving emotion in that region, how do we explain that this same “culture of humiliation” suddenly produces, not more terrorism and religious fundamentalism, but a wave of anti-authoritarian popular democratic movements sweeping the Middle East, in the wake of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, from Algeria to Yemen and from Jordan to Libya and Bahrain, not excluding Iran? Are we witnessing the sudden birth of another culture or just discovering that cultures should not be taken or dealt with that lightly?

Be that as it may, Moisi, no doubt under the impact of the post 9/11 fixation on terrorism, attributes to the West a “culture of fear,” but explains it by the European fear of regression and America’s fear of losing its role as superpower. Strangely enough, a “theory” of international relations leaves the rest of the world unclassified in terms of “culture” or “emotion.” Those are the “hard cases” that do not fit the culturalist straight jacket and are simply dropped from the theory. I am talking about the remaining countries of Asia, Iran, Israel, Russia, Australia, and the two continents of Africa and Latin America.

Another version of Culturalism associated with neo-liberalism and globalization has it that you can inculcate to the “other” some of your cultural characteristics, you being the West, of course. You can call this approach the over-the-counter “takeaway culturalism” that maintains that “cultures,” in terms of dominant values, emotions and moods, can be transmitted by means of education, training, and advocacy.

The Arab world has been a great consumer of such packaged “cultures” over the past two decades. The question of democracy, the interpretation of its absence, and its relationship to Islam tops the list of the agenda. But let us leave this problematic at rest for now, as the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions have simply turned upside down almost all its assumptions and presumptions in a devastatingly novel and imaginative way.

Let me just mention one specimen of such cultural artifacts served to Arab consumers. Numerous workshops have been teaching Arab youth the “culture of optimism” after a survey among 300 Egyptian young people (out of a population of 85 million) discovered that 90% of them confessed they were more pessimistic than optimistic. It was also discovered that the Jordanian male has a culture of “frowning,” hence his need for workshops to preach “hope” and “joy.” You can also inculcate to Arab youth the “culture of leadership,” in order to join the world of those who finally “made it.” For that purpose, you might be encouraged to join something called the Young Arab Leaders, and by leaders is meant upward mobile businessmen in their thirties and forties. A Lebanese political camp could thus enlist the services of the international advertising agency Saatchi and Saatchi to organize a political campaign under the slogan of “we love life” and to propagate the “culture of life” against its adversary who is supposed to glorify the “culture of death.” The said adversary, Hizb Allah for that matter, did respond by the glorification of the “culture of resistance.”  This very dubious term refers to the Shiite tradition of sacrifice modeled on the life and death of Imam Hussein, implying the exclusivity of this “culture” in the armed resistance to Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon.

II. Guilt Culture and Shame Culture

I wish here to engage with the orientalist notion that juxtaposes western guilt culture to eastern shame culture. The difference between the two is supposed to shape the uneven natures and dynamics that privilege western guilt culture, of course. Ronald Sharp speaks of “the seduction of guilt” that leads to the acquisition of new knowledge and orients the “guilty” towards the future (Sharp: 2010). Such notions about the cultural superiority of the “guilty” have led a Lebanese journalist to suggest that we inject the “shame”-obsessed Arab societies with some western civilizing “guilt” (Saghieh: 2010).

This binary division is here qualified as “orientalist” because it implies not only an assumed cultural superiority but also partakes in such characteristics of orientalism as essentialization, generalization, and stereotyping. It is also the product of a comparative gaze cast from a modernizing and individualist West to a traditional and transitional East reduced to immutable patriarchy and tribalism.

The guilt/shame issue can be looked at as arising from two approaches: religious and historical.

The frequent references to the story of Adam and Eve and the original sin as the founding myth of guilt seems to me quite self-defeating. Adam and Eve did indeed feel guilty because they ate the forbidden fruit. But the story of the fall is likewise a story of shame, as Adam and Eve were ashamed of their nudity.

Now this requires two reminders. First, Islam shares in the story of Adam and Eve. Second, Islam has an important “guilt” tradition in the ritual of ‘Ashura, observed mainly by its Shiite sect, to reenact the tragedy of the slain imam al-Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, who rebelled against the Ommayad caliphate, and was killed with his family in Karbala (present day Iraq). ‘Ashura is a ritual of symbolic and physical flagellation and self-inflicted wounds, practiced by believers as self-punishment for the historical guilt of having reneged on Hussein and left him to fight alone.

The other version of the western guilt culture is associated with the effects of the Holocaust in the post World War II period. I will content myself here with the note that the relationship between the Holocaust and guilt has recently given rise to revisionist authors who now associate the  concentration camp experience with shame rather than guilt. A critical discussion of the reasons for this shift over the past forty years can be found in Ruth Leys, From Guilt to Shame (Leys: 2007). Giorgio Agamben, prominent among the revisionists, interprets the story of Adam and Eve and the original sin by the “shame” rather than the “guilt” code: shame of being human, shame of the camp, shame of the fact that what should not have happened did happen, and the shame “we” endure because of our basic nudity (Leys: 2007, 171-173).

III. David and Goliath: Roles Reversed

Despite the fact that it is mentioned in the Qur’an, the biblical story of David and Goliath (Jalout in Arabic) does not enjoy a pronounced presence in the Arab-Islamic tradition. Frequently referred to in the context of the struggle against injustice, it has not enjoyed the many brilliant variations and interpretations woven around the story of Joseph in Arabic and Persian classical literature.

Nevertheless, contemporary Arabs have experienced another version of the story, as one of the founding myths (and a continuing propaganda item) of the state of Israel, soon to take hold of the Euro-American imagery. According to this politicization of the story, the state of Israel appears as the practically defenseless David compared to a demographically overwhelming and militarily all-powerful Arab Goliath, ever threatening the existence of Israel.

The legend hardly matched historical reality. We know now – “we” here means whoever cares to know – that the Zionist armies in 1947-48 were not only not comparable to the practically unarmed population of Palestine, but they were also and mainly more numerous, better equipped and militarily more powerful than the concerted Arab armies put together. According to a CIA report in July 1948, the forces of the Israeli “David” mustered more than double the numbers of troops of the eight Arab “Goliaths” combined, that is the armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab irregulars of the Salvation Army: some 110,600 Jewish Zionist troops against 46,800 Arab troops. It should be added that the Zionist leadership, as well as its American overlords, had no doubt about the outcome of the war and the victory of the Zionist armies (Gendzier: 2009, 41).

At times, myths play strange tricks on those who invent them. With time, a troubling reversal of roles occurred and severely affected the veracity of the David/Goliath identification. It became quite difficult to convince people of a David-Israel fighting a successful war against the formidable Goliath of Gaza, or a David-Israeli army bravely slaying a Goliath in the form of the Freedom Flotilla.

[Image from unknown archive]

But most importantly, the reversal of roles was more exemplified by the Palestinian intifadas in which the sling of David passed to the hands of stone-throwing Palestinian boys.

[Image from the Associated Press]

That raised a serious PR/media problem. Let’s take a haphazard reaction, say from Australia. Here is Michelle Rojas-Tai from the Israel education organization StandWithUs addressing a meeting in Sydney on the role of words and images in shaping world opinion. She asked: “How do you challenge the image of a small (Palestinian) boy throwing stone at an (Israeli) tank? How do we turn that around?” (Shalev: 2010).

[Image from unknown archive]

The reference to David and Goliath in the title is here to emphasize that the question is: how do we turn around the Mirkava into a David and the sling-carrying Palestinian boy into a … Goliath? Education is about turning things around, it seems. Not an easy task. It becomes even more difficult when Israel-David is incapable of defeating Goliath, as was the case in the July 2006 war against Lebanon.

Nevertheless, with additional effort and shots of western guilt culture, the educational “turning around” operation might work. It is working.


[Image from unknown archive]

IV. When Picasso Meets Caravaggio

As you know, in Caravaggio’s series of paintings on the theme of David and Goliath, the relationship between the paintings and the painter’s life is not given from the beginning. In the 1599 version, the young David is modeled upon the young painter himself. No change occurs in another version in 1607 painted after the painter had committed homicide, whereas in the later and final version of 1610, David, still modeled on the portrait of the young Caravaggio, is seen lifting up the severed head of Goliath, who now bears a strong resemblance to the older Caravaggio.

[Caravaggio: David and Goliath, 1610]

The painting can be seen as an admission of guilt and an attempt to gain absolution. But the guilty here is graphically punished by death. The irony of the scene is that the younger Caravaggio has beheaded the older Caravaggio. Here too we find a “turning around” of the story. This inversion of roles and responsibilities opens a totally different interpretation of the painter’s message than the mere use of the biblical story as a pretext for a painting, as the character is interchangeably perpetrator and victim.

This idea of this perpetrator/victim “double,” as René Girard would call it, brings me to Pablo Picasso and the Lebanese civil war.

[Picasso, Guernica, 1937]

In 1987 I published in Arabic a book under the title Guernica-Beirut- A Picasso Mural/An Arab City in War. The book has three interrelated themes. One was to simply recount to the Lebanese the story of another civil war between a republican camp and a fascist camp doubled by a foreign military intervention, a situation not dissimilar to that of Lebanon at war since 1975 that started as a duel between a camp seeking socio-political reforms and one defending the status quo, while both protagonists soon managed to draw the Palestine Liberation Organization, Syria, and Israel into the conflict. The bulk of Guernica-Beirut, however, is a multidisciplinary and multilayered analysis of Picasso’s masterpiece, put in the context of the Spanish master’s artistic production from the declaration of the Spanish republic to the end of World War II. The third and last section is a variation on the theme of life imitating art by juxtaposing details from Picasso’s Guernica with scenes from the Lebanese wars, with special emphasis on the Israeli invasion and the siege of Beirut in 1982.

The grid I chose to “read” Picasso’s masterpiece with was mainly visual: to cast a gaze upon it from eyes that had witnessed a civil war. The fact that the different stages of the composition of Guernica were preserved allows us to follow the mutation of a painting from a representation of the destruction of the Basque town of Guernica by German warplanes, to the glorification of resistance to Fascism, and finally to a vibrant denunciation of the tragedy and horrors of war.

On the stage is played a tragedy. The scene is one of carnage but the enemy/perpetrator of the massacre does not figure in it. It is present in the bodies of its victims: the wounded crumbling horse, the mother with the dead child, the broken body of the fighter, like a broken statue of an antique warrior dispersed on the floor, its severed arm still clutching his broken sword; next to it survives a delicate flower.

The point I want to make here is to draw attention to Picasso’s often used technique of condensation: in Guernica, perpetrator and victim are condensed into one. This is graphically emphasized in the case of two secondary characters. The body of the Falling Woman, on the right side of the painting, is fused with the stub of a burning beam. With some complicity, if you know that the town of Guernica was bombarded, you could figure her as an airplane. The Bird, at the far back on the left, is slain with an instrument that very much resembles its wing.

[Picasso, detail from Guernica]

But the main hero of this tragedy is the Bull. Usually symbolizing the enemy to be fought and killed in the bullfight, it figures here as the symbol of everlasting Spain, to which all the characters of the tragedy appeal in search of help, strength, and salvation.

[Picasso, detail from Guernica]

V. What Use Is Guilt in Civil Wars?

The question of this conference got me thinking about the few traces of guilt in the Lebanese wars. We have by now collected a number of direct confessions by militiamen who killed during the different wars, meaning not only fought. One striking question that was repeated in those interviews: Would you do it again, given the same circumstances? Most of the militiamen in their testimonies repeatedly answered in the affirmative.

Surely the most interesting of the confessions is that of As`ad Chaftary, who was the security chief of the strongest Lebanese militia, the (Christian) Lebanese Forces (LF). Before the war ended in 1989, Chaftary left for Switzerland, from where he sent to the press a short mea culpa asking all his compatriots who suffered from his acts to pardon him. Repentant Chaftary (a Catholic, by the way) later came back to Lebanon and created his own NGO for justice and reconciliation. Most of what he has to say about his experience is to be found in a famous interview he gave to the daily Al-Hayat. Among the many acts of torture, kidnapping, assassinations, and planting of car bombs he confessed to having committed was that he had envisaged, with Bashir Gemayel, the leader of the LF, to poison the water conduits that run from the Christian Eastern part of Beirut to its Western Muslim part. The aim: to reduce the number of Muslims in the country.

The astounding thing about Chaftary’s confessions is that they hardly provoked any reaction or comment. I can only think of two out of many possible interpretations for this. One is the prevalent amnesia. The other is the horror of the confession itself, which could only be interpreted along sectarian lines in a country bled white by a sectarian war of fifteen years. A young Muslim living in West Beirut, reading this confession, would surmise that, not one Christian, but THE Christians are plotting, or are liable to go back to plotting, to poison him/her and his/her community.

Guilt forms part of the wider issue of memory in this post-trauma situation. I would like to distinguish between three mental processes related to trauma: 1) amnesia as a failure of memory and/or a form of repression of memory that follows the same logic of substitution and displacement as in the individual psyche: less important events and narrative replaces the more important ones; secondary causes take the place of primary ones; 2) memory; and 3) forgetting.

A naïve juxtaposition between memory and oblivion/ forgetfulness posits the one against the other. Marc Augé in a rich essay entitled L’oubli (Augé: 2004, 20-25), reminds us of the opposite: oblivion is but “a component of memory itself.” One does not remember everything and one does not forget everything. That means that one is always forgetting. More importantly, Augé maintains that repression of memory – i.e. amnesia – does not apply to the event, to the remembrance, or to the isolated trace in our brains as such; amnesia severs the connections between memories or traces. Here is where the question of amnesia and causality meet, as we shall see in a moment.

Why remember a civil war? The “simple” answer: in order to avoid another one. But for the answer not to become simplistic, one has to define what to remember and what to forget: events or causes, fragments and traces, or links and relations.

To answer these questions, we better have a look at two mechanisms of post-civil war Lebanon: officialized amnesia and amnesty.

Officialized amnesia is a process that exploits a general tendency among the survivors of the wars in order to repress memory in the service of vested interests in power and money. The alliance of businessmen and warlords that took over power after the war was especially keen to block any discussion of the question: Could the war have been averted? Presenting the war as an obvious fatality, with all the allusions to “conspiracies,” was the way to simply kill the question.

There is another reason for officialized amnesia: the need to rebuild the Lebanon economic, social, and political system on the same bases as before the war: sectarian sharing of power and an unbridled free trade economy based on finance and trade. The mechanisms share in common either imposing taboos or severing links between event and time periods.

Economically, the new Lebanon symbolized by the reconstruction of downtown Beirut has been presented as a simple return to the pre-war “golden age” of sectarian coexistence and economic prosperity. That begged another question that needed suppression: If the situation in pre-war Lebanon was such a “golden age,” why did the war occur in the first place?

In order to break any causal link between the pre-war period and the war itself, the war is presented as “the war of others’ or the war “for the others” over Lebanese territory. Both formulas absolve the Lebanese at large from any guilt, responsibility, or accountability for the war. The “others” are to blame: you can fill the blank with your own scapegoat. Here is where the “shame” element creeps in: the war tarnishes the reputation of Lebanon and the Lebanese in the outside world. By absolving them of any role in their wars, it is assumed that a new virginity can be constructed for their business reputation.

The amnesty law of 1989 took care of accountability and punishment concerning the warlords who had become the country’s new rulers and imposed the legal stamp on the innocence of the Lebanese in their wars. All criminal acts perpetrated from April 1975 to the end of 1989 were amnestied. The law contained an additional aberration to further humiliate the hundred thousand victims of the war, not to speak of the wounded, the handicapped, and the thousands of disappeared. It made exception of the death of a dozen politicians or religious dignitaries killed during that period; those crimes – called “crimes against the security of the State” – are still liable to persecution. In other words, if you had killed a few hundred innocent civilians in a massacre you are not liable to prosecution, but if you had killed, or attempted to kill, a politician or a religious dignitary, you are still liable to be prosecuted.

In answer to the above, let me suggest this formula: The obligation of memory and the need for forgetfulness.

Presently, the process of remembrance is focused mainly on war as violence, guilt included. That has been the main activity of most of the NGOs concerned with memory and violence. What is suggested in opposition to that is reconstructing the memory of causes.

Memory is urgently needed. But it is a memory that remembers causes and reconstitutes those links and relations between events, causes, and effects and periods of time that amnesia had shattered. Once enough distance has been taken from the trauma, the war can be narrated as a past rather than permanently being reenacted, individually and socially, in the present.

And here precisely is the role of forgetting. We owe to Ernest Renan an interesting equation: a nation is built upon shared memories as well as shared oblivions. In the case of Lebanon, the horrors of the war, the killings, the vendettas, massacres, the different forms of violence, physical, ritual, or symbolic, “had better been forgotten,” to use Renan’s words concerning the massacre of Saint-Barthélemy, the massacres of the Midi region against the Protestants in the 13th century (Renan: 1992, 41-42).

But let me insist: we can only forget what we remember. A Memory of Forgetfulness is the title of Mahmoud Darwish’s memoir of the Israeli siege of Beirut in the summer 1982. The title says it all for our concerns: you can willfully forget only what you remember, that is what you have recuperated from oblivion and amnesia. You can also choose to forgive. That is if the idea is for people to continue living together. An Arab proverb informs us that man is called insan because he is nasin, oblivious. Forgetfulness can be constructive, even human.

[An earlier version of this essay was first presented at the “Guilt II” conference, Kate Hamburger Institute, Bonn, 16-17 February 2011]


Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz. The Witness and the Archive (New York: 1999)

Marc Augé, Oblivion (Minneapolis: 2004)

Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope (Cambridge, 1986)

Terry Eagleton, The Meaning of Life (Oxford: 2007)

Sigmund Freud, Psychopathology of Everyday Life (London: 1914)

René Girard, Le bouc émissaire (Paris: 1982)

René Girard, La violence et le sacré (Paris: 1972)

Sudhir Kakar, “The Many faces of Guilt”, Guilt conference I, Kate Hamburger Kolleg (Bonn: November 2010)

Ruth Leys, From Guilt to Shame-Auschwitz and After (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2007)

Dominique Moissi, The Geopolitics of Emotion. (New York: 2009)

Ernest Renan, Quest ce qu’une nation? (Paris: 1992)      

Elly Shalev, “David and Goliath – Israel and the Media”, JWire, August 20, 2010.

Ronald Sharp, “Guilt Vision and the Seduction of Knowledge”, Guilt conference I, Kate Hamburger Kolleg, Bonn November 2010.

Fawwaz Traboulsi, Ghernika-Bayrut (Guernica-Beirut- A Picasso Mural/An Arab City in War), (Beirut: 1987).

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