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Atonement and Forgiveness

It had the potential to turn into a show trial, and his publicist — correctly, I thought — refused to put the designer through that. Galliano’s trial should be over. Now it’s time for him to get out the scissors. And ribbons.

Ingrid Sischy on the designer John Galliano

Yesterday I made a mistake in my Bradbury Reading. The normal scheduled reading was “The Choice of Amyntas” by Somerset Maugham, but read the story after it in my Maugham collection, Daisy, by accident . I also skipped the next essay in Nothing is Lost, the collection of Ingrid Sischy essays I have been reading. That was intentional. Today is a day of driving twelve hours. I pre-select shorter pieces to read when that happens.

The mistake is fortuitous. Both the story and the essay deal with individuals paying the price for their sins. Both focus a good deal on forgiveness, but forgiven and denied, and in the essay, atonement.

Errors, mistakes, sins, and all the other forms of misdeeds seem to rule the news these days. That is no surprise. There is not only the obvious reason of “if it bleeds it leads”. Negative self-talk about themselves dominates many people’s thoughts. Most of us enjoy negative open talk about others. After all, I started this post calling my reading a mistake.

It is the mistake that would have disrupted the entire Bradbury Challenge reading in the past. I have started the reading portion, to read a story, poem, and essay a day for a 1000 days more than once. Until the current effort, if I missed one day I started over.

Can you do anything beyond basic bodily functions a 1000 days in a row without fail? I judged myself a failure for not doing so even on a fourth try. It was only when I forgave myself and to count any day, since my last start of the project back on January 12, 2018. I have missed more days than I have read, given I am only on day 311 of 1000. Forgiving myself the prior failures was crucial to doing this. I doubt I would ever have reached my current streak of 58 days (as of Monday) had I not given myself such grace.

That grace was not free. One, like many people I do not like myself much. More important, to my mind, was the requirement I change something about the project or myself to allow the forgiveness. Here it was something I learned from Scott Adams, to think in terms of systems, not goals. I no longer have a goal of reading a story, a poem, and an essay a day for 1000 days. I am creating a system, a habit, of doing so. The stronger the habit gets, the greater the chance the count will take care of itself.

In her essay, Galliano in the Wilderness Sischy profiles the designer John Galliano. Written in 2013, she built it on his first interview since two incidents of racist insults during two separate rage incidents fueled by drugs and alcohol destroyed the designer’s career. When the incidents happened he was the head designer at Dior and his own eponymous fashion company. That Dior fired him the day after a video of one of the incidents surfaced, just four days after the other occurred, is unsurprising.

The fashion label that bore his name also fired him.

As she wrote the article, he was attempting to get a foot in the door and return to fashion. The quote at the top of this piece was her closing argument that we should allow him to return. She had started with the videoed incident and in between covered Galliano’s work at atonement. There were two incidents in the atonement that almost brought tears.

One was Kate Moss’s father’s speech at the model’s wedding where he included among his thanks Galliano’s designing of her wedding dress. Moss had discussed his designing it while he was still at Dior. Because he was her friend she asked him to do so while he was in rehab. Galliano was afraid he’d snubbed at the wedding. After the thanks he received a standing ovation. If someone else caused it, you are allowed to upstanding the bride at her own wedding.

The other was his reception when he was taken to a synagogue by Jonathan Newhouse, then CEO of Conde Nast, prior to all the events a professional contact, but not a friend. Galliano’s remarks had been anti-semtic. The pull quote from the video is

But I love Hitler. People like you would be dead today. Your mothers, your forefathers, would all be fucking gassed, and fucking dead.

John Galliano

I suspect there is no amount of rehab, personal work with rabbis, and study of history nor personal history the opposite of what I said that would create in me the stones to go to a synagogue after that one. Yet he did all the work in the first part and had the second, so Newhouse invited him. The reception was positive and, given the service included a young man’s Bar Mitzvah, he attended the the celebratory luncheon.

I have covered all these details because I want it to be clear both what Galliano and done and that he had tried to do more than the typical apology. He had tried to atone. The effort at atonement, a common part of dealing with addiction, speaks about Galliano.

How that atonement was received speaks very little about Galliano. Instead it speaks about those who knew him and, in a larger sense, all of us and our culture.

Sischy asked Newhouse why he entered a dialog about Galliano’s remarks, made during blackouts and something no one could remember outside of them, which lead to Newhouse taking Galliano to synagogue. I think an extensive quote from Newhouse’s answer is appropriate, emphasis is mine.

He has actively looked for meaningful ways to make amends. In the throes of disease and despair, at his lowest point, he restorted to a school-yard racist taunt. Must he pay his entire life for this mistake? I asked the chief rabbi in Britain what to do about John. He said if someone who does wrong sincerely wants to atone, then we have to welcome this. My focus is not on his moral behavior but on my own. A person I care about was lost, sick, and in trouble. What kind of friend would I be if I turned my back on him?

Jonathan Newhouse to Ingrid Sischy

In the Lord’s Prayer Christians ask God to “forgive us our tresAnd forgive us our trespasses, As we forgive them that trespass against us.” It is not an injunction for blanket forgiveness, but to forgive us as we forgive others. Newhouse’s forgiveness was not an unconditional thing given without thought. It was a thoughtful thing given after atonement.

I would like to answer Newhouse’s question, though.

The friend he would is too common today. That said, I don’t think friend is the operative word. Still, that refusal to reach out to someone who is doing the work of atonement and has for some time is very modern.

We talk a lot these days about cancel culture. It is nothing but the latest Western twist on an old idea. Commenters often compare it to Maoist struggle session. The struggle session, though, predates Mao in communist circles. The show trials in Moscow are a variant, as is the CPUSA did to Albert Maltz in 1946 with his forced confession and auto-da-fé.

It is wrong to attribute them to just communists. Yes, the specific form seems to belong to communists, but the public humiliation even while repentance and atonement are on offer is a common human experience. The struggle session is just a fine honed form.

It is the more primitive form, ostracizing and disowning, that is the center of the Maugham story. A respectable middle class daughter elopes with a calvary officer and is disowned, In the beginning only her mother and brother do so. They bully her father when the daughter writes wishing to return home. They even burn letters so the father cannot see them. At one point the son goes to her, claiming to be representing her father, and forbids contact.

The daughter swears vengeance, which she gets by living well.

The daughter, now living well, recovers her reputation among the neighbors who reject the family for disowning her.

In failing to recognize genuine efforts at atonement, accept them, and aid their continuance, the mother and the son destroy not the prodigal daughter.

They destroy themselves.

As a culture we are destroying people, often for things done a decade earlier. With the new embrace of ideas like “white fragility” and demands whites atone not for what they have done, but what they did in the past we destroy ourselves. When atonement serves no purpose to puff up those who sit in judgment and spur them to harsher judgment atonement ends.

The form of this inherent in predestination in Calvinism is a core part of my move from my mixed Presbyterian and Baptist upbringing to Eastern Orthodoxy. If one realizes not that one is Elect, but that one is not, what is the value of trying to live in a Christlike manner. The Father, having rejected you before birth, offers you nothing but scorn.

Over my life the general culture has moved from a blanket “you must forgive everything”, often abusing the Sermon on the Mount to justify it, to “you must forgive nothing”. We have gone from not judging at all to failing to see if the dogs are tame and if it is swine we are dealing with.

Daisy, Maugham’s prodigal daughter, provides for her family in their failure, but does not reconcile, even with her father. Instead, she fears that even her successful husband will cease to love her. Galliano is now the head designer at Maison Martin Margiela.

I take heart that of the two stories of sin, attempted atonement, and forgiveness given or delayed, the one that is fiction is the one I wish the world to reject. Let us make reality better than fiction.


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