The Plight of Pompilia
If you’ve not yet had the pleasure, Anthony Esolen’s (characteristically) outstanding book, Ironies of Faith: The Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature (ISI Books, 2007), should rush to the top of your reading list. I often recommend the opening essay, “To Be Pompilia, Not the Fisc: Browning and the Irony of Humility,” to ministerial and theological students. It is a meditation on Robert Browning’s long poem The Ring and the Book, a stunning, unnerving lesson in the ethics of reading — texts, persons, situations, anything. Esolen’s essay on Browning’s poem is on my mind today as I reflect on another recent story about Saeed and Naghmeh Abedini. More on that shortly.
As Esolen masterfully explains, Browning’s poem exposes a great and chronic human weakness: our laughably tragic inability to read others accurately. In this strange tale we discover that this inability is seldom due to a lack of sufficient information, as we all would wish, but to something more sinister: pride.
Set in seventeenth-century Italy, the poem weaves together the lives and (mis)fortunes of figures both religious and comical. Pompilia, purchased in secret as a baby by Violente, the childless wife of Pietro, is pushed to marry young and well in order to secure financial stability for the house and prevent discovery of the family secret. Guido–as Esolen says, “no priest but enough of a cleric to claim ecclesiastical privilege”–proves suitable enough in the eyes of Violente and Pietro, despite a wide rage of physical and moral deficiencies. Taking Pompilia as his own, the greedily ambitious Guido thinks he has married up. In fact he has been tricked, Pompilia’s family’s wealth proving far more mirage than reality. The sting of bitter disappointment leads him to torment Violente and Pietro, driving them to Rome, leaving young Pompilia alone to suffer at the hands of the monster, Guido.
In time her parents return, seeking revenge on Guido in the only form available to them: they tell him Pompilia is not in fact their daughter, and therefore he has no claim to her dowry. Furious, Guido falsely accuses Pompilia of being an adulteress, and takes steps to lure her into questionable relations with other men, including a local priest, Giuseppe Caponsacchi. But Caponsacchi, having only seen lovely Pompilia once and from a distance, resists the ploy and Guido is foiled.
What, then, of Pompilia? She pleads for help, first with the governor, then with the archbishop, but to no avail. Finally she turns to her only remaining hope: Caponsacchi, and sees in him, finally, a true man. He rescues her, hiding her away in Rome where he looks after her, but Guido finds them. The coward Guido is met by valiant Caponsacchi, sword in hand, ready to protect Pompilia. But Guido’s men pin down Caponsacchi’s arms, and it is Pompilia who grabs the sword and moves toward Guido. Guido flees from the girl and to the courts, where the verdict is the non-verdict of the stalemate, and justice is delayed.
Guido learns soon after this that Pompilia has borne his child but named him after a recently canonized saint, providing no link to Guido. Insulted and outraged, Guido, ironically assuming the name “Caponsacchi” to gain entry to the family home, murders Pompilia’s parents and injures her with a dozen stabs. Now the real trial in the story takes place, and Browning’s message becomes clear. Esolen writes,
The priest and Guido testify; and Browning provides us with the ‘opinions’ of the half of Rome that is for Guido, and of the half of Rome that is for Pompilia, and also of what he calls ‘Tertium Quid,’ the sophisticates who see more keenly, so they think, than does either side of the rabble. We are likewise presented with the trial preparations of the prosecutor (the grandly titled Fisc) and the defense attorney–worldly men, not exactly bad and not exactly good, full of themselves, and cutting a partly comic figure in their pretending to know everything.
These words recall Esolen’s description of the governor and archbishop, whom Pompilia had earlier entreated without effect: “But they are worldly men and cronies of her husband. They know better. They wink at the wickedness and tell her to go home. They have no ears to hear.”
They have no ears to hear. But this is not only true of the characters in the story: it is Browning’s question to the reader. Do you have ears to hear? The story surges forward, stage by stage, through further tragicomical scenes of human beings thinking they know, but not knowing, and showing themselves the fools for it. And with each overconfident read, the tentacles reach, the net spreads, and Pompilia withers.
Browning’s vivid description of the poisonous swirl of “knowing” confidently yet wrongly is compelling for its familiarity. The devolution at the heart of Pompilia’s social relations and the members of her religious community is common to all tormenting dramas like hers. Incriminating appearances are enough for the simple-minded; skewed and incomplete trial arguments satisfy others; “where there is smoke there must be fire” is the ignorant thinking of many; “it takes two to tango” is the assumption of most; and the ultimate legal stalemate satisfies no one. The prosecutor (the eminent Fisc) and the defense attorney are, says Esolen, “worldly men, not exactly bad and not exactly good, full of themselves and cutting a partly comic figure in their pretending to know everything.” They have no ears to hear. Guido is convicted, sentenced to death, and appeals to the pope, Innocent XII. Reflecting at the end of his days upon his many years of ministry, wondering what fruit, if any, will come from his labors, the pope sees through the layers of Guido to the surly, sinister, seditious snake beneath, and sends him to his death.
Only the priest Caponsacchi and the dying Pope emerge as wise from the widespread rubble of slanderous, cancerous, and ultimately murderous folly in the story. They are exposed as wise by their relationship to the purity of simple, suffering, quiet, notoriously scandalous yet innocent Pompilia herself. The end of Pompilia is resurrection, at least in part, in the form of her ironic vindication through the luminous virtue of her lonely yet truly wise supporters. The end of the foolishly confident accusers and the cooly neutral “Tertium Quid” is, for the reader, shame.
Browning’s tale teaches readers, in a most disconcerting way, about the contortions of wicked dishonesty, the mixed-up realities of a seldom black-and-white world, and the difficulties for any one person to read another person rightly.
To pile on, Browning subtly yet irresistibly pushes us to acknowledge the folly of our own all-too-confident judgments, and the moral catastrophe of flawed, hasty conclusions. Yet he will not leave us even there. The poem depends on our appreciation of one great moral lesson above all others: darker than simply “getting it wrong” is moving others to do so as well. The Ring and the Book is more than a warning against impatient folly in judgment. With a series of interlinked baited hooks, the reader is led into complicity. The reader hears often from the ignorant yet confident know-it-alls, and listens in on apparently sensible and pious discourse that imagines every “rational” possibility yet never assumes the place of Pompilia (it is only sensible to think they must both be at fault to some degree, believes the “Tertium Quid”). The poem ruthlessly treats the thinking, interpreting, assuming reader as, for far too long, always potentially and probably complicit in the folly, which is itself a stirring indictment of those who lead the way to folly for others.
To Be Naghmeh, and Not Only Saeed
This brings me back to the Abedini situation, one which troubles many, as it should. The story has been told and retold now, and with evident continuing public interest. Persecuted preacher in an Iranian prison, the prayers of the saints, the release of the martyr, the homecoming, the stunning marital abuse allegations, the moral trickiness of reporting the “rest” of the story. But this only makes it easier to forget, dangerously, that this is not merely a story; for Naghmeh, it is a reality. The asterisk by Saeed Abedini’s name concerns a person, not a minor detail. Exactly what reality is impossible for blog and newspaper readers to know with the kind of certainty easily found among pundits and would-be trial judges. Yet for this very reason, among innumerable others, the storyteller must be wildly conscientious in telling the tale.
The question to ask is simple. Does the storyteller give us ears to hear? Yes, invariably, but to hear whom?
In our last post on this evolving saga, instead of providing a verdict of our own, we deliberately drew attention to the way the story has often been told thus far. This remains our concern. We may put the matter this way. Since the disclosure of the marital abuse allegations, the public identity of Saeed Abedini commended in print and online has persistently been one with a center and a circumference: at the center, the near-martyr and imprisoned, persecuted preacher in a hostile foreign land. At the circumference, the accused and–in at least one legal context, the admitted–wife-abuser whose wife remains afraid of him. This remains the public Saeed Abedini. Center, and circumference.
And the center has held thus far. Perceptive observers of the western evangelical machine are not surprised that the center of the Abedini portrait remains his identity as imprisoned, faithful preacher. The American evangelical soundtrack has long been Bonnie Tyler’s, “I Need A Hero,” after all, and we have found a candidate who fits the profile of what we most admire in a Christian. The public evangelical sense of familiarity with and affection for Dietrich Bonhoeffer speaks, at least partly, to the same hero-longing.
But here is the rub for the journalist, the commentator, the writer. A story only works to the extent the reader is successfully invited into a degree of sympathy with one or more characters (or none, as sympathy either with the author or the anonymous observer). Reading the stories that continue to flow regarding the Abedini situation, this is what we discover: In the myriad choices made about names to use, titles to include, headlines adopted to capture attention, details to proportionate, and on and on and on, writers continue to link the reader with Saeed, and not with Naghmeh. Browning’s Pompilia reminds us, though, that these choices have moral status.
In the Abedini case it’s a costly move, prompting hard questions. When it’s a story like this, when the stakes are this high if we get it wrong, what kind of reader should Christian storytellers want to create? One who identifies with Pompilia, or with the Fisc? The Ring and the Book is a clarion call to ask hard questions about our storytelling. Are we certain of the real Saeed Abedini center, and of the circumference? Might it be that the allegations are true, and that what we thought was the circumference proves to be the center? Should we sound like we are justly confident? What is the cost of being wrong, not only for us, but for Naghmeh, who may prove to be a Pompilia in this dark tale?
The Christianity Today Interview
On April 24, Christianity Today published an interview with Saeed. In some ways it escapes the criticisms inherent to the foregoing. In other ways, however, it illustrates our concerns.
Firstly, to the considerable credit of the interviewer, Katelyn Beaty (CT print managing editor), “the topic” is not avoided as it has been in other outlets. Mr. Abedini is asked about the status of his marriage, what he means by “false accusations” in light of his 2007 guilty plea of misdemeanor domestic assault, and if he has anything of which to repent in his marriage.
Secondly, the interview is printed as a series of questions with Mr. Abedini’s apparently unpolished and unedited responses. This encourages readers’ confidence that we have access to his genuine reactions. But out of 18 questions, I see only six that clearly concern the specter of spousal abuse. The six questions are these:
What is the status of your and Naghmeh’s marriage?
You said “false accusations.” Does that mean you are saying that Naghmeh’s accusations are false?
Can you talk about the misdemeanor domestic assault charge in 2007? You pled guilty to that, and that suggests there was at least one instance of marital abuse.
You don’t remember going to court in 2007?
Did you go to jail in 2007?
Is there anything you need to repent of in your marriage?
The opening question of the interview asks Mr. Abedini what life has been like for him since prison. Another question asked in the flow of the six pertaining to the abuse allegations, but not included in them, focuses on whether Mr. Abedini feels more support out of jail than when he was in. These two early questions lead the reader to join with the interviewer on the path of interest in how Mr. Abedini feels.
The question regarding felt support prompts Mr. Abedini to describe the abuse allegations as a matter of great confusion: his longtime praying supporters are now justly confused about the man they’ve been praying for, and the churches around the world who rejoiced at the news of his release are confused as well. Mr. Abedini attributes this confusion completely to Satan’s mission of ending Gospel proclamation and killing Christian joy at Saeed’s release. (As an aside, despite what some have suggested, it does not appear that Mr. Abedini clearly attributed his wife’s allegations themselves to Satan. In the flow of his remarks, connecting Satan to the resulting confusion appears to be more in view.) The remaining interview questions explore Mr. Abedini’s thoughts on the living conditions of his imprisonment, his contacts with family during his imprisonment, his perseverance, the future of Christianity, and revival. The impression left for the reader is that it was no longer possible to ignore the abuse allegations, and so they were fronted in the interview, and yet the important material continues to be the inspiring stories of Christian heroism and hope for evangelical renewal in the world. Center, and circumference.
Thirdly, the interview is mysteriously titled, “The CT Interview: Saeed Abedini Answers Abuse Allegations.” “Answers”? Mr. Abedini does no such thing. “Addresses” may have been slightly more accurate, “denies” much more so; either option certainly would not have suggested a definitive response the way “answers” does. From the printed title, the reader should expect that the article puts all those pesky abuse concerns to rest, when in fact the concerns are given precious little weight. As another blog noted,
What both fascinated and horrified me about the Christianity Today interview is the title, ‘The CT Interview: Saeed Abedini Answers Abuse Allegations.’ Saeed simply denies all allegations, attributes them to Satan… and the interviewer apparently assumes that Abedini is telling the truth. He’s a Christian hero, after all.
Lastly, then, we must ask of Naghmeh in this interview. Literarily and personally, as a character in the real world depicted by this exchange, where is she? She is not in the story’s details so much as in the air, the environment, the world that the interview commends. There is no mention of an attempt to interview Naghmeh, no exploration of what her experience or feelings may be, no interest in what her own hopes for evangelical renewal may entail. (Perhaps, after all, they would include hope for greater church and public support for abused spouses of professing Christians.) When the story is told the way the CT interview tells it, with whom is the reader led to identify? Is the reader expected to “know” that this abuse allegation “stuff” is, yes, out there, but almost certainly not as serious as it’s made out to be?
At least this much seems clear. In accounts like this, we readers are repeatedly invited to an imaginary table where we sit with Saeed but not with Naghmeh. If writers allowed for the possibility that the reality behind the allegations is that serious, thereby at least withholding judgment until more is known, would they tell this story the same way? Would they continue to tell a story of asterisked heroism, or would it become asterisked spousal abuse?
To be sure, there remains a Christian hero in the story being told, and it is not Naghmeh. The intractable, stubborn challenge for the reader, the listener, the observer of these stories is that human pride that pretends, always, to “know” what’s really going on here, and thus in figuring out how to read this ongoing saga, and all others, as Pompilia, not the Fisc.