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Study for Obedience

A study of obedience, in the most formal sense, could call to mind the series of experiments conducted by social psychologist Stanley Milgram at Yale University in the 1960s, which examined the likelihood of participants knowingly causing harm to others when deferring to the commands of an authority figure. As intended, the experiments drew conclusions about what might’ve enabled so many to carry out, or cooperate with, the Nazi Party’s persecutions. In her second novel Study for Obedience, released this summer by Knopf Canada, Montreal-born and Scotland-based author Sarah Bernstein mulls over similar ideas—but the phrasing of the title suggests that obedience isn’t being studied, it’s being pursued as an objective.

The book’s narrator, an unnamed young woman who moves into her eldest brother’s house in a remote northern country to help keep it in order after his wife leaves him, is the one committed to this study for obedience. Reared by her family to reject her own desires and yield to the expectations of others, she was taught from childhood that her judgments should not be trusted due to her “essentially barbarous nature that needed to be controlled.” As her stream of consciousness rushes rhythmically through the prose, both effusive and carefully poised, the narrator recalls the insults and abuse that still plague her self-perception: teachers referring to her “plodding” manner of moving through the world as “a kind of idiot impenetrability,” her siblings encouraging her “to suppress any hint of ambition or even self-love as it arose.” 

While we learn that the eldest brother was largely responsible for instilling a sense of inferiority in the narrator at a young age, we also see her, as an adult, conveniently overlooking his worst traits and supporting him to minimize the fallouts. She doesn’t know the specifics of what he does for a living, but defends his being “engaged in some perfectly reasonable, if slightly perverse, business dealings,” and excuses his shady signs of chauvinism and misogyny. Here is where Bernstein starts to position the narrator’s passivity as something to interrogate. “This is obviously a problem,” Bernstein explains over email, “because the position of victimhood is contingent, it's not absolute, and it also doesn't preclude one's ability to victimise. It doesn't grant a person innocence, and it also doesn't require innocence as a precondition.”

These categories of guilt and innocence, victim and perpetrator, are further complicated through the novel’s central drama, which unfolds subtly between the narrator and the people who inhabit the small town near where her brother lives. At first, the narrator keeps to herself, revelling in the opportunity to roam the surrounding woods and interact with nature on its own terms: “I saw the grass grow, I saw it growing, I saw the green changing, noticed the new heights reached by the branches. I paid such close attention.” But for all the romanticism of these pastoral moments, the reader gets a sense that the narrator’s praise of retreat and silent contemplation extends from her preference for avoiding the difficult work of social existence.

“Like speech,” Bernstein says, “silence too can be an enactment of power, in the sense that it might constitute a refusal to engage using the terms of language made available to us. We might think of it as being related in one way to [the narrator’s] obsessive form of obedience, usually a passive trait, taking on a kind of power … depending on the context, it can also constitute a form of abdication of moral responsibility.”

The narrator anticipates “something terrible” will happen as retribution for her seclusion and what she sees as her inherent faults, but also because she understands herself as belonging to a people whose history has been constrained by “the way each new catastrophe sat in the last, as if it had already happened and would go on happening.” While the novel doesn’t explicitly identify them as the Jewish people, occasional references are made to the narrator’s Jewish heritage through darkly comic vignettes: a memory of being “briefly popular” in school when she held hands with the great-nephew of a famed writer of Holocaust memoir, “a sort of community celebrity”; a grandfather who “had an anticipatory view of his own life that did not end in the usual ailments that cropped up in the lore of our people, such as cholera, such as fanaticism, such as the pogroms.” The legacy of her people’s persecution hangs over the narrator’s relationship to the townspeople in the unnamed country “where [her] ancestors were born and whence they had fled.”

Once she finally leaves her brother’s property, the narrator’s met by the town’s residents with varying degrees of fear, suspicion and hostility: upon entering the cafe all its patrons fall silent, cease to eat their food and quickly flash crosses with their fingers. The best explanation the narrator can surmise for this treatment is that the townspeople bear the weight of a certain guilt for their ancestors’ complicity in the tragedy that befell her people, and the narrator imagines herself to be exhuming that discomfort: “My presence violated some crucial and unspoken rule, which I thought now had to do with narrative, the right of a people to preserve the stories they told about themselves and their own history.”

This perspective helps the narrator parse some meaning among the town’s foreignness, the inscrutability of its people and their language, which she doesn’t speak; but the molds of identity that she readily embraces also have a limiting rigidity to them, including the one about her own people. “It's something she feels has been passed down to her,” says Bernstein. “This is the story, as she has understood it, that her people have told about themselves. It also comes from the way she understands herself in the present, as someone who is acted upon, rather than someone who acts, in the world.” What Bernstein so deftly sets up is a book throughout which the reader continuously turns over the question of just how much the narrator shapes her circumstances, how much her outlook precludes her changing them, while simultaneously holding the knowledge that she and her people have been dogged by sustained forms of mistreatment. 

It’s the very nature of what the narrator takes to be her inherited fate—described by Bernstein as recursive, due to how “it sees the past and the horizon of the future as a series of incipient catastrophes that will inevitably result in [the Jewish people’s] annihilation”—that keeps the novel moving in confounding loops, since a deterministic view of history bumps up against the possibility that one might change it. The narrator’s potential misinterpretations notwithstanding, it’s clear that she does give rise to an unusual amount of paranoia in the townspeople; a current of xenophobia could be a potential reason for it, but the narrator struggles to reach across the “unthinkable abyss of history” to consider alternative ways of viewing the place and its people. So, she must remain on the outside, “a kind of spectral presence hovering at the edges of the life of the town,” a force opposite the “mustering of ill will” she senses “pressing at the edges of my brother’s property,” silent “because language, I felt, was no longer at our disposal,” only capable of further entrenching guilt. In these tensions lies the narrative’s recursiveness, which, according to Bernstein, “circles around a kind of absent centre, suggest[ing] that the truth [the narrator] is looking for is not so absolute.”

Given these themes, one might consider there to have been an ironic disconnect between Study for Obedience winning this year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize and what occurred at the award ceremony in November. Protestors interrupted the event to call attention to the fact that Scotiabank is the largest foreign shareholder in Elbit Systems, an Israeli arms manufacturer. The protestors were booed by attendees, swiftly removed by security and then detained for hours by police. More than 1,500 Canadian writers, including Bernstein, later signed an open letter in support of the protestors, calling for the charges against them to be dropped and for literary institutions “to be loud where our governments and news outlets have been silent: to call for a ceasefire; to express condemnation for the collective punishment of Palestinians and the war crimes being enacted by the Israeli government.”

When asked what she made of the response to the protestors, Berstein firmly echoes the letter’s statements and traces the dangers of silence as explored in her book: “The protestors at the Giller ceremony helped to point out how all of this concerns us directly, how we are connected to violence happening at a distance via the circulation of capital, and how therefore we might feel some responsibility to act in whatever limited way we can to help put a stop to it. I’m afraid of what it means when a society decides to criminalize protest.”

While she expresses that she isn’t interested in criticizing the “split-second responses” of the ceremony’s attendees—especially since she wasn’t in attendance herself, and has been finding value in a stance recently espoused by Naomi Klein that we “ought to be soft on people and hard on institutions”—she goes on to outline the current predicament in the arts that necessitates acts of protest: “In the UK, the government has slashed arts funding over the past decade or so, so that we find ourselves in a situation where literary festivals and prizes are funded in whole or in part by banks or hedge funds whose investments include, for example, defense contractors or fossil fuel companies. Why wouldn’t we encourage our arts institutions to ask their funders to divest? All of this is to say that I think that literature lives in the world. It is not separate from it—how can it be? Its material is the world.” 

In Study for Obedience, the narrator often reflects on her coming up short, because “[s]o much was refused in advance.” She’s right to keep in mind how much remains unknowable and how many gaps remain unbridgeable. But her belief that speech can no longer be untangled from power or used to oppose it, that she must thus withdraw from the world and contemplate a language solely her own, never seems to hold up against the facts of her story: that she went to the country of her ancestors who were “never meant to survive,” that she sought to respect the land she knew she couldn’t fully understand and that she found herself drawn into the town, hoping for a way to relate to these people “whose history I knew was so entwined with mine.” At times she comes up short, but the book is her testament that she tried to oppose the power of history and the history of power. ⁂

Noah Ciubotaru is a culture writer and recent Maisonneuve intern, born and living in Montreal.