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Gabriella Turnaturi's Betrayals: The Unpredictability of Human Relations [3 September, 2008]

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By Gabriella Turnaturi; University of Chicago Press; 145 pages

When it was revealed that John Edwards had an affair with Rielle Hunter, the consequences were swift.  Now, the career of one of the more promising U.S.  politicians—among the recent few to discuss poverty and inequality—may have been abruptly ended.  Maritial or sexual infidelity is seen as the definition of and the worst kind of betrayal, as if romantic love were the only relationship that needs protection.

Gabriella Turnaturi’s insightful and compelling book, titled Betrayals: The Unpredictability of Human Relations,points out that romantic/sexual infidelity is only one kind among many, and that betrayal exists in everyday contexts.  She writes about the ways in which betrayal emanates from and reorganizes social relations, about how “Betrayal affects the geography of the positions that subjects assume within a relationship, producing shifts that are not only emotional but that affect identities as well, thus leading to a redrawing of maps.”

Turnaturi looks at various kinds of betrayal: between friends, between citizens and their nations, between prophets and their acolytes, between rulers and subjects.  Of the latter two, she chooses Christ and Judas and Elizabeth I and the Earl of Essex as examples.

Despite this attention to such well-known figures, Turnaturi doesn’t render betrayal a mythic act but uses their stories to demonstrate its everyday nature.  Betrayalsis a welcome relief from our cultural fixation on the notion of betrayal as something that is strictly interpersonal and a character flaw.  Instead, Turnaturi shows, through her study of various treatises on the subject and observations, that betrayal is a quotidian indication of the entanglement of power and emotions.

In the case of Judas, she examines the acolyte’s betrayal of Christ in the context of what it enables for Christian mythology: “But precisely why must Christ be betrayed? Probably it is because being betrayed, undergoing an experience that is both so painful and so common, makes Jesus a man like all men.”

In the case of Elizabeth I and the Earl of Essex, Turnaturi explores the context of the relationship between a female ruler and her much younger courtier.  This section sometimes reads like a breathless evocation of a “great love story,” but it has insights into the role of power and betrayal between two people inhabiting a world where traditional gender hierarchies were overturned, however briefly.

The last chapter, about Internet betrayal, is the least interesting.  Turnaturi contemplates the kinds of infidelity enabled by the anonymity granted by the Web, and which allows spouses to engage in amorous encounters.  She also considers the betrayal of consumers by hackers who misuse private and financial information.  Here Turnaturi betrays, as it were, her moralistic blanket condemnation of betrayal.

Turnaturi turns her back on the more interesting contribution of her own book—that betrayal shouldn”t be reduced to the emotional, pathological, and affective but considered within an infinite web of relations, many of which are not interpersonal.

It would have been more interesting for her to consider that the act of betrayal itself might be a necessary and enriching experience.  As anyone who’s been involved with involved people will tell you, the possibility of betrayal is sometimes the only thing that keeps a relationship going whether between the betrayers or between spouses and partners.  Nonetheless, this is an illuminating study that provides an intellectual history and context for a concept that has been overburdened with emotion.

Originally published in Windy City Times, 3 September, 2008

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