I survive the degradation that has become America -- a land that exalts itself as a bastion of freedom and liberty while it tortures human beings, stripped of their rights, in offshore penal colonies, a land that wages wars defined under international law as criminal wars of aggression, a land that turns its back on its poor, its weak, its mentally ill, in a relentless drive to embrace totalitarian capitalism -- because I read books. I have 5,000 of them. They line every wall of my house. And I do not own a television.
I survive the gradual, and I now fear inevitable, disintegration of our democracy because great literature and poetry, great philosophy and theology, the great works of history, remind me that there were other ages of collapse and despotism. They remind me that through it all men and women of conscience endured and communicated, at least with each other, and that it is possible to refuse to participate in the process of self-annihilation, even if this means we are pushed to the margins of society. They remind me, as the poet W.H. Auden wrote, that "ironic points of light flash out wherever the Just exchange their messages." And if you tire, as all who can think critically must, of the empty cant and hypocrisy of John McCain and Barack Obama, of the simplistic and intellectually deadening epistemology of television and the consumer age, you can retreat to your library. Books were my salvation during the wars and conflicts I covered for two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, Africa, the Middle East and the Balkans. They are my salvation now. The fundamental questions about the meaning, or meaninglessness, of our existence are laid bare when we sink to the lowest depths. And it is those depths that Homer, Euripides, William Shakespeare, Fyodor Dostoevsky, George Eliot, Joseph Conrad, Marcel Proust, Vasily Grossman, George Orwell, Albert Camus and Flannery O'Connor understood.
"The practice of art isn't to make a living," Kurt Vonnegut said. "It's to make your soul grow."
The historian Will Durant calculated that there have been only 29 years in all of human history during which a war was not under way somewhere. Rather than being aberrations, war and tyranny expose a side of human nature that is masked by the often unacknowledged constraints that glue society together. Our cultivated conventions and little lies of civility lull us into a refined and idealistic view of ourselves. But look at our last two decades-2 million dead in the war in Afghanistan, 1.5 million dead in the fighting in Sudan, some 800,000 butchered in the 90-day slaughter of Tutsis and moderate Hutus by soldiers and militias directed by the Hutu government in Rwanda, a half-million dead in Angola, a quarter of a million dead in Bosnia, 200,000 dead in Guatemala, 150,000 dead in Liberia, a quarter of a million dead in Burundi, 75,000 dead in Algeria, at least 600,000 dead in Iraq and untold tens of thousands lost in the border conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea, the fighting in Colombia, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Chechnya, Sri Lanka, southeastern Turkey, Sierra Leone, Northern Ireland, Kosovo. Civil war, brutality, ideological intolerance, conspiracy and murderous repression are the daily fare for all but the privileged few in the industrialized world.
"The gallows," the gravediggers in "Hamlet" aptly remind us, "is built stronger than the church."
I have little connection, however, with academics. Most professors of literature, who read the same books I read, who study the same authors, are to literature what forensic medicine is to the human body. These academics seem to spend more time sucking the life out of books than absorbing the profound truths the authors struggle to communicate. Perhaps it is because academics, sheltered in their gardens of privilege, often have hyper-developed intellects and the emotional maturity of 12-year-olds. Perhaps it is because they fear the awful revelations in front of them, truths that, deeply understood, would demand they fight back. It is easier to eviscerate the form, the style and the structure with textual analysis and ignore the passionate call for our common humanity.
"As long as reading is for us the instigator whose magic keys have opened the door to those dwelling-places deep within us that we would not have known how to enter, its role in our lives is salutary," Proust wrote. "It becomes dangerous, on the other hand, when, instead of awakening us to the personal life of the mind, reading tends to take its place. ..."
Although Shakespeare's Jack Falstaff is a coward, a liar and a cheat, although he embodies all the scourges of human frailty Henry V rejects, I delight more in Falstaff's address to himself in the Boar's Head Tavern, where he at least admits to serving to his own hedonism, than I do in Henry's heroic call to arms before Agincourt. Falstaff personifies a lust for life and the mockery of heaven and hell, of the crown and all other instruments of authority. He disdains history, honor and glory. Falstaff is a much more accurate picture of the common soldier who wants to save his own hide and finds little in the rhetoric of officers who urge him into danger. Prince Hal is a hero and defeats Percy while Falstaff pretends to be a corpse. But Falstaff embodies the basic desires we all have. He is baser than most. He lacks the essential comradeship necessary among soldiers, but he clings to life in a way a soldier under fire can sympathize with. It is to the ale houses and the taverns, not the court, that these soldiers return when the war is done. Jack Falstaff's selfish lust for pleasure hurts few, while Henry's selfish lust for power leaves corpses strewn across muddy battlefields. And while we have been saturated with the rhetoric of Henry V this past July 4 holiday we would be better off listening to the truth spoken by Falstaff.
There is a moment in "Henry IV, Part I," when Falstaff leads his motley band of followers to the place where the army has assembled. Lined up behind him are cripples and beggars, all in rags, because those with influence and money, like George W. Bush, evade military service. Prince Hal looks askance at the pathetic collection before him, but Falstaff says, "Tut, tut, good enough to toss, food for powder, food for powder. They'll fill a pit as well as better. Tush, man, mortal men, mortal men."
I have seen the pits in the torpid heat in El Salvador, the arid valleys in northern Iraq and the forested slopes in Bosnia. Falstaff is right. Despite the promises never to forget the sacrifices of the dead, of those crippled and maimed by war, the loss and suffering eventually become superfluous. The pain is relegated to the pages of dusty books, the corridors of poorly funded VA hospitals, and sustained by grieving families who still visit the headstone of a man or woman who died too young. This will be the fate of our dead and wounded from Iraq and Afghanistan. It is the fate of all those who go to war. We honor them only in the abstract. The causes that drove the nation to war, and for which they gave their lives, are soon forgotten, replaced by new ones that are equally absurd.
Stratis Myrivilis in his novel "Life in the Tomb" makes this point:
"A few years from now, I told him," Myrvilis wrote nearly a century ago, "perhaps others would be killing each other for anti-nationalist ideals. Then they would laugh at our own killings just as we had laughed at those of the Byzantines. These others would indulge in mutual slaughter with the same enthusiasm, though their ideals were new. Warfare under the entirely fresh banners would be just as disgraceful as always. They might even rip out each other's guts then with religious zeal, claiming that they were 'fighting to end all fighting.' But they too would be followed by still others who would laugh at them with the same gusto."
Patriotic duty and the disease of nationalism lure us to deny our common humanity. Yet to pursue, in the broadest sense, what is human, what is moral, in the midst of conflict or under the heel of the totalitarian state is often a form of self-destruction. And while Shakespeare, Proust and Conrad meditate on success, they honor the nobility of failure, knowing that there is more to how a life is lived than what it achieves. Lear and Richard II gain knowledge only as they are pushed down the ladder, as they are stripped of power and the illusions which power makes possible.
Late one night, unable to sleep during the war in El Salvador, I picked up "Macbeth." It was not a calculated decision. I had come that day from a village where about a dozen people had been murdered by the death squads, their thumbs tied behind their backs with wire and their throats slit.
I had read the play before as a student. Now it took on a new, electric force. A thirst for power at the cost of human life was no longer an abstraction. It had become part of my own experience.
I came upon Lady Macduff's speech, made when the murderers, sent by Macbeth, arrive to kill her and her small children. "Whither should I fly?" she asks.
I have done no harm. But I remember now I am in this earthly world, where to do harm Is often laudable, to do good sometime Accounted dangerous folly.
Those words seized me like Furies and cried out for the dead I had seen lined up that day in a dusty market square, and the dead I would see later: the 3,000 children killed in Sarajevo, the dead in unmarked mass graves in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, Sudan, Algeria, El Salvador, the dead who are my own, who carried notebooks, cameras and a vanquished idealism into war and never returned. Of course resistance is usually folly, of course power exercised with ruthlessness will win, of course force easily snuffs out gentleness, compassion and decency. In the end, all we can cling to is each other.
Thucydides, knowing that Athens was doomed in the war with Sparta, consoled himself with the belief that his city's artistic and intellectual achievements would in the coming centuries overshadow raw Spartan militarism. Beauty and knowledge could, ultimately, triumph over power. But we may not live to see such a triumph. And on this weekend of collective exaltation I did not attend fireworks or hang a flag outside my house. I did not participate in rituals designed to hide from ourselves who we have become. I read the "Eclogues" by Virgil. These poems were written during Rome's brutal civil war. They consoled me in their wisdom and despair. Virgil understood that the words of a poet were no match for war. He understood that the chant of the crowd urges nearly all to collective madness, and yet he wrote with the hope that there were some among his readers who might continue, even when faced with defeat, to sing his hymns of compassion.
... sed carmina tantum nostra valent, Lycida, tela inter Martia, quantum Chaonias dicunt aquila veniente columbas.
...but songs of ours Avail among the War-God's weapons, Lycidas, As much as Chaonian doves, they say, when the eagle comes.