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  • Solitary Confinement: Social Death and Its Afterlives by Lisa Guenther
  • Jeffrey M. Perl (bio)
Lisa Guenther, Solitary Confinement: Social Death and Its Afterlives
(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), 321 pp.

Hell exists, but it may be empty — to this idea of Hans Urs von Balthasar, the Catholic theologian, a Buddhist lama might reply: “Yes, but heaven too is empty; so is the world; and so are you and I.” Sometimes I wonder whether hell and paradise might be a single place or dimension and whether how one feels, when alive, about placid contemplation conditions how one finds the afterlife: a state of bliss for some, hell on wheels for others. I mention this speculation because Guenther’s book on solitary confinement is subtitled Death and Its Afterlives, and what she takes to be infernal conditions — life alone in a cell, cut off from madmen and monsters — might be heaven to a Zen adept or a Christian hermit. I would have thought, too, that solitary confinement would appeal to anyone, behind bars, who preferred not to be beaten, knifed, or sexually molested. It is only a prejudice, perhaps a phobia, that could lead one to choose malign company over one’s own. This point seems too obvious to need making, but apparently it is not.

Less obvious, more remarkable, are the terms in which the terror of being alone is framed here. Guenther describes as “social death” what a sādhu of India would understand as mokṣa, which is the opposite of incarceration. The Sanskrit means “liberation” or “release,” or even “salvation,” and denotes the elimination of obstacles to peace and enlightenment. One of those obstacles is the delusion of selfhood or “own-being” (as svabhāva is usually translated). Solitary confinement, according to Guenther, threatens “the most basic sense of identity.” “Deprived [End Page 331] of meaningful human interaction,” she elaborates, “healthy prisoners become unhinged. They see things that do not exist, and they fail to see things that do. . . . Their sense of their own bodies . . . erodes.” For the Buddhist, any threat to an epistemic chimera like “identity” is a step on the path to enlightenment (for it is seeing things, any things at all, that is the main problem of humankind). Solitaries are forced “to rely on the isolated resources of their own subjectivity”: Guenther’s book depicts as torture what others would call “meditation” — and actually, if a convict can read, intersubjectivity of a higher order is available to the solitary than to prisoners who rely on constant interaction with one another. Still, because the solitary is socially dead, his or her “words and deeds” are “of no account”; these “no longer count as lives that matter.” Solitaries come to see themselves accurately, in other words, for even the Buddha’s words and deeds are empty. It was that realization, after all, that made him the Buddha. So we may conclude that, while prisoners living lives in common are enchained, those in solitary confinement, as Guenther finds herself saying, are “condemned, in a sense, to be free.”

Jeffrey M. Perl

Jeffrey M. Perl’s books include Skepticism and Modern Enmity: Before and after Eliot; The Tradition of Return: The Implicit History of Modern Literature; and Peace and Mind: Civilian Scholarship from “Common Knowledge.” The founder and editor of Common Knowledge, he taught for many years at Columbia University and at the University of Texas and is now professor of English literature at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, as well as a member, at Durham University in England, of the Center for Humanities Innovation.



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