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expressions of remorse by public figures steps toward healing,
or are they acts of cathartic self-indulgence?
of an Apology
on the 1997 presidential apology for the syphilis study at Tuskegee
An image of the stained-glass
window at the cathedral of Soissons.
full text of Lucas Carpenter's "Apology for an Apology"
full text of the interview with Frans de Waal
full text of Elizabeth Pastan's "King Philip Augustus's
Stained-glass Apology at Soissons"
Academic Exchange September
1999 Contents Page
How does a medieval French
king apologize to bride and country? The answer may lie in a
twenty-two-foot-high stained-glass window in the Gothic cathedral
of Soissons in northeastern France. According to Associate Professor
of Art History Elizabeth Pastan, the window's creation suggests
that a complex combination of sacred and political meaning imbues
an act of atonement with symbolic power. The Academic Exchange
asked Pastan and several other scholars to offer their viewpoints
on the nature and meaning of "apology."
Pastan's story begins with King Philip Augustus of France, whose
initial repudiation of his third wife, Ingebourg of Denmark,
was blamed for the famines, fires, and floods then raging across
the land. Pope Innocent III told the bishop of France that the
natural disasters were God's punishment for the king's actions.
He put the churches of France under interdict to force Philip
to reunite with his bride. Finally, a council in Soissons officially
reinstated the queen in 1201, around the time Philip gave a stained-glass
window depicting the Tree of Jesse, a genealogical map of Jesus'
lineage based on Isaiah 1:11, to Soissons Cathedral.
Pastan says art historians have recently interpreted the window
as a stained-glass apology from the king. The prominent position
of the Tree of Jesse window between depictions of the Last Judgment
and the Fall from Eden suggests that it was an expiatory gift.
"The window functions on several levels--as biblical subject,
royal allusion, and, as art historian Madeline Caviness argues,
a political commentary," Pastan says. "The power of
its statement would in fact be enhanced by the indirectness or
allusive nature of its message."
Professor of Psychology Frans de Waal, who studies peacemaking
in non-human primates, would perhaps point to the king's implied
submissiveness as significant in his gift. "I would look
at apology as a temporary submission," he says. "Normally,
submission is shown by lower ranking individuals; it signals
that they're afraid or seek to appease the dominant. Human apologies
use signs of submission but are not strictly bound by the hierarchy
(although apologies do also in our species come a lot more difficult
to dominants than to subordinates)."
DeWaal distinguishes an "apology" from "reconciliation,"
which may not necessarily imply submission. He has observed primates
embrace and kiss, have intercourse, or groom after a fight. "Many
animals survive through cooperation," he says. "In
order to maintain cooperative relationships despite occasional
conflict, some way of repairing relationships is needed. Many
animals are far too smart to simply 'forget' what happened between
them, so they need a more active process of repair. It involves
a complex psychology that we often assume to be uniquely human.
But I believe it's much more ancient than we assume."
That fundamental cooperation for survival has found powerful
expression as human cultural value, according to Oxford College
Professor of English Lucas Carpenter. Carpenter argues that in
a recent memoir, In Retrospect, Robert S. McNamara, US
Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War, offers "an
apology for what many might term his complicity in the death
and suffering inflicted in the course of the war."
McNamara writes that makers of US policy in Vietnam knew they
were misguided, yet they chose to continue the war rather than
admit they were wrong. "In Retrospect is an eloquent
and presumably sincere apology for his role in helping determine
the tragic course of America's only lost war," says Carpenter,
who is teaching a graduate seminar in US literature of the Vietnam
War at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium this year
on a Fulbright grant. "There is, of course, no means by
which the war's many victims could collectively express a public
forgiveness, even if they were so inclined, but his moral standing
in the public eye can only be enhanced by the appearance of In
Retrospect. It validates and affirms our cultural maxim that
the acknowledgment of responsibility and expression of remorse
for harmful or otherwise erroneous actions indicates courage
and honor in the apologist and will probably be viewed as at
least token compensation for the damage done."