Saturday 14 March 2009
Deborah Orr: Apologies change nothing
Unlike a huge list of others – from Prime Minister Gordon Brown to Haringey social services head Sharon Shoesmith, from disgraced banker Fred Goodwin to child-killer Sean Mercer – Bernard Madoff has at least apologised. "I'm deeply sorry and ashamed for my crimes," he said after pleading guilty to the biggest fraud in history this week. "I am painfully aware that I have hurt many people."
But who believes him? Not his victims, two of whom are not around to accept his words of contrition, because they have killed themselves. Anyway, who would accept the word of a man who has been lying through his teeth for years on end? Madoff, quite clearly, is sorry only that he got caught.
There's a world of difference between saying sorry and being sorry, and in the rush to demand apologies this is sometimes forgotten. However dreadful those who don't express sorrow when they ought to may seem, they don't compound their errors by mouthing the empty words that propriety demands and expecting people to be grateful.
When the eponymous anti-hero of Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray saw that his portrait was showing the signs of debauchery that were missing from his own face, he rushed out to do some charity work. Certain that he'd be able to discern the agreeable fruits of his new-found piety in his painted expression, he was horrified to observe instead the sneer of hypocrisy on his lips. Madoff is no different to Gray.
Madoff's apology came with a plea. He asked that he should be allowed to carry on living in his penthouse, on bail, until he was sentenced. But if he imagines that he will be treated more kindly because he has uttered the appropriate words for a man in his position, he is mistaken. Madoff's lack of regret is quite obvious to discern, because if he were truly sorry he would attempt to right some of his wrongs.
Instead, he is content to pretend that the $65bn he has taken from individuals and from charities has simply disappeared. Yet his wife took $15.5n from the accounts of his companies in the days before he was arrested, and his prosecutors also claim that he abused the conditions of his bail by trying to post $1m in watches and jewellery to relatives and associates. Full co-operation in recovering some of the assets he stole is the only sort of apology Madoff can reasonably make. But he is not willing to do that. Instead, perversely, he may even see some heroism in his present actions, as they protect the financial interests of the others who benefited from his crime along with him. What a creep.
The apotheosis of contrition is, of course, John Profumo, the Conservative MP who resigned in 1963 after lying to the House of Commons about his short affair a couple of years before with Christine Keeler. Details of the affair had been brought to the House in the first place, because it was trumped up, speciously, as a threat to national security.
Profumo lied only to protect an aspect of his private life that he was ashamed of. But he won respect because he never attempted to justify himself in that way, and dedicated himself to charitable work for the rest of his life. The catch is that Profumo reacted impeccably to his downfall because he was scrupulous in the first place in his understanding of right and wrong. Only that kind of person can make an apology and mean it. Mainly, demands for apologies are directed at people who are not, unfortunately, in the position to make them with sincerity.
Through art, a prisoner's humanity is restored
I'd been told by another artist, Jason Schulman, that Marc Quinn had made a sculpture based on one of the torture photographs released from Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. Schulman had said it was an astounding piece. But seeing is believing, and the work that Quinn has created is shockingly moving and expressive.
Quinn calls the life-size bronze sculpture Mirage, pictured, and it is clear that the reference is to those who inflict torture, and their own delusions. In placing a hood over their victim's head, and cloaking his body, they had tried to obliterate his victim's humanity. But the humanity of this figure, his vulnerability, and his fragility, is so manifest and so plain. If humanity has been stripped, it is from the people who did this to him.
Quinn wanted to return the notorious image to three dimensions from the moment that he first saw it, and started making sketches from the blurred, abstracted image right away. Eventually, he started working with a model, perfecting the pose, adding the hood, the blanket, the wires, and casting a mould in fibreglass from life. He wanted the reproduction to be as close as possible to the original.
In the round, the perversity of the torture becomes clearer than it was in the photograph. By placing this man on a small box, and telling him that if he fell off it he would be electrocuted, his tormentors obliged him to stand tall and straight, with immense dignity, and to hold out his arms in a position that could not fail to summon the idea of supplication. His torturers, unwittingly, dictated that this man should adopt a Christ-like pose, and stand as the embodiment of acceptance or forgiveness, whatever else he may have felt in his head or his heart. The attempts for the torturers to dehumanise their victim became what should have been a rebuke to them – a reminder of the story of Christ, on whose teachings their own nation's value system is supposed to reside.
Quinn's work has always explored the vulnerability of the human body, and he hopes that his sculpture captures human vulnerability at a particularly dark and confused moment in history. "Torture doesn't even work," Quinn says with disgust, "and can only ever be prompted by the hatred of something in themselves that torturers feel."
Mirage will be shown in Salzburg in May. It is scheduled for display in London next March
What larks at Hitchcock's dinners
Dr Tom Stafford, a psychologist from Sheffield University, has found that a cup of tea or coffee really does taste better when you drink it from your favourite cup.
But this theory doesn't apply only to tea. The chef Heston Blumenthal did some experiments with Charles Spence, a multi-sensory-perception psychologist at Oxford, and found that oysters tasted better eaten from their shell than from other receptacles. Alfred Hitchcock used to like holding dinner parties and filtering the light during the early part of a meal. Some way through proceedings, the old jester would adjust the light, so that his guests could see that their omelette was blue and not the lemon colour they'd assumed it to be. If the revelation prompted vomiting, he'd enjoy himself all the more. But I think we can guess, despite the food-poisoning scare at his Fat Duck restaurant, that Blumenthal is no Hitchcock.
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