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I’m having one of those inward days, a combination of reading Viktor Frankl’s recollections of his time in Nazi concentration camps, and listening to Franz Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” quartet while driving to pick up my granddaughter at high school.

Music can conjure up whole worlds and philosophies: Thought doesn’t necessarily come in words. 

It isn’t the words or the title to the lied that Schubert wrote based on the poem by Matthias Claudius, but the music itself, opening with a unison fortissimo D in all four instruments, a triplet figure C-B-flat-A, over a constant D bass, resolving to an open fifth, with D still in the bass and a G in the viola and second violin. It is loud, it is oppressive, it is hollow, with no third to define whether it is in minor or major. It is the sound of an empty universe. One of the most powerful openings to any quartet ever, and one that can rip your heart out (Link here). 

There are two other powerful pieces of music that use the open chord, with no third to define it. Both produce that sense of universal hollowness: The Tragic Overture of Brahms and Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantaisie. They press down on your emotions. And so the “Death and the Maiden.”

That, and the Frankl book and the specter of Auschwitz, turn on the Weltschmerz current, full voltage. One becomes intolerably aware of suffering, heartbreak, death, war, famine, loss, hatred, divorce, the death of children, fear, dread, oppression, disease, injustice, crime, humiliation — and one’s own finity.

And with my teenage granddaughter in the car, we talk of cheerier things, but there hangs over the conversation that Lebensleid. I remember when I was her age, and the pangs of emotion that exploded in my adolescent heart. My emotions seemed so big, so important. Nothing could be more overwhelming than the pains of a teenager. But when I look back, I realize how self-involved that suffering was. I wore all of myself on my sleeve.

But an entire life has passed, and the mortifications have accrued, the losses have piled high, the debilities have increased, and the world has gotten no better. I watched a film made in Hiroshima a few days after the surrender, and could hardly miss the similarity of the devastation to the nightly footage from Syria or Yemen. Rubble flat on the ground from horizon to horizon. And when you know what old books tell and that no better can be had, know why an old man should sob and weep.

The Weltschmerz of a young Werther rings false, a player playing a part, assuming a self-importance not earned. But as an old man, the suffering isn’t mine, it is the world’s; I see it and my heart cracks wide. So much lost, so much vanished, so many deaths, so many things left unsaid or undone for fears, valid and phantasmal. It weighs heavy.

This comes with having lived. It is simply experience. It piles beside a life like the gray, sooty snow plowed off a winter road. And the worst — the absolutely worst — is that there is no way to convey this sense to another person, let alone to a young person you might wish, out of love, to help avoid those thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. You can tell them as best you can, and they can nod their heads, believing they have understood, but unless they have actually lived through these things, they  cannot fully grasp them. It is all “book learning.”

I will carry to my grave — as will everyone else on this planet in their own time — all the experience I have lived through and suffered or enjoyed. It cannot be conveyed from one sensibility to another. Bits and pieces, yes, but the vast preponderance will evaporate, only to learned the hard way once again by generation after generation.

So, the granddaughters will experience heartbreak, perhaps divorce, illness, disruption, disappointment and the death of those they love as they have already suffered that of their grandmother. It will all build up the backpressure of Schmerz in their own lives, leaving them to sorrow over their own inability to use that experience to protect those they love.

It is no wonder the innocent young look at us with such pity. 

Detroit 1967

Detroit 1967

beatles-1967-avedonIt was 1967 and 10,000 people gather in New York City for the Central Park “Be-In,” the oil tanker Torrey Canyon runs aground off the coast of Britain, Charles Manson is released from prison (although he requested to allowed to stay), Israel fights the Six Day War, anti-war rallies and protests are held around the country, Elvis and Priscilla are married, anti-miscegenation laws are declared unconstitutional, China tests its hydrogen bomb, there are riots in Newark, NJ, Minneapolis, Detroit, and Washington DC (many people die), Che Guevara is captured and killed, Allen Ginsberg attempts to “levitate” the Pentagon, Sen. Eugene McCarthy announces his candidacy for president, challenging LBJ — who is counting “how many kids” he killed today. And the Beatles release Sgt. Pepper, Magical Mystery Tour and the single, All You Need is Love.

It was 1967, the “Summer of Love.” The Nobel Peace Prize was not awarded that year.

Be-in

Be-in

It was 1967 and I was young and idealistic, that is to say, an idiot, and I had a warm relationship with the dean of my college. Warm is perhaps the wrong word. Heated is more precise; I despised him. Do I need to say I was a sophomore?

che guevara deadI was an activist student. I protested the Vietnam War, I published the underground newspaper (the “KMRIA Journal,” named after a passage in James Joyce’s Ulysses), I rankled under many of the restrictions placed by the college on its students. Why was there only a single African-American student and no African-American faculty, when the dining-hall staff was almost entirely Black? It was a Quaker college, after all, and should be more progressive.

I spent many an hour in the dean’s office making demands. There was so much wrong with the world and with the college, and I and my generation knew how to fix things. It was time to end the core curriculum, I told my dean. Who needs to learn a foreign language? Why should I be forced to take a math course when I was an English major?

Then, there was the school’s responsibility in loco parentis. We were all adults, I averred, why should the school prohibit women from traveling off campus unaccompanied? Why should they be forced to wear dresses to dinner, and the men suits and ties? Women were not allowed to smoke “in transit,” meaning, they could puff a ciggie in the parlor, or when standing still outside, but not walking. Who makes this stuff up? The rules seemed especially peculiar for women.

One young woman had been expelled for spending the weekend with her basketball star boyfriend. He, on the other hand, was merely scolded. “Double standard!” I yelled at the poor dean. And what was wrong with the two of them taking a trip together? Hypocrisy, I claimed. Hypocrisy. (I had some self-interest here, having spent some time away on trips with my college girlfriend. The difference: We hadn’t been caught).

Me, "the freak years"

Me, “the freak years”

And then, there was Jerry. A class younger than me, Jerry was a charismatic young hippie who bought Romilar cough syrup by the six-pack. A small group of students, including me, were “freaks” on campus, with long hair, bell-bottom jeans, and an uncontained contempt for the buzz-cut, patriotic, church-going straight-arrows of the campus.

For a time in my sophomore year, we became a foursome: my girlfriend, KC, and me; and Jerry and his pan-pneumatic girlfriend, Carol the Barrel. There was cough syrup, marijuana, and gin and Sprite, drunk in the Quaker graveyard, where we poured libations to the grave slab of poet Randall Jarrell.

Jerry had lived a terrible life, he said. His father was a retired Army colonel and now belonged to a religious cult. His father and his brother regularly beat Jerry and sometimes locked him in his room, for up to a week at a time. His mother was also beaten, he said. Getting away to college was salvation. Jerry told us stories about the cult, which wasn’t exactly a Christian sect, but some offshoot, that glorified patriarchal power and the dominion of fatherhood over all his family. Paterfamilias, he called it, modeled on the ancient Roman family structure. “Power of life and death over all of them,” Jerry said.

One day, in his dorm room, Jerry showed me his needle. “I shoot heroin,” he told me. “Don’t let anyone know.” The hypodermic syringe was one of the old-fashioned sort, made from glass and stainless steel, and kept in a velvet-lined box. I wasn’t ready to dive into narcotics.

There was this sliver of time when drug-taking was not merely recreational, at least for the more serious among us. Beer was recreational. Alcohol was the drug for getting a buzz. But smoking weed was — again, for this brief time — sacral. Under the influence of Timothy Leary, drugs were to be used to uncover “alternative realities,” and discover the secrets of the universe. To use drugs simply to get high seemed shallow and unworthy. (We were serious prigs, in our own way.)

hypodemic syringeThe idea of heroin seemed beyond that. It was dangerous. It was criminal in a way we would never consider marijuana. Jerry was the first junkie I ever knew.

One day, Jerry came to my room with a frightened eyes. “My brother is coming,” he said. “They are going to take me and force me back to the cult. I need to hide.”

I told him he could stay in my room for the while. I went to see the dean. I explained Jerry’s situation to him and asked for help. The dean looked disturbed but told me, everything was OK. There was no problem. “Yes,” I said. “There is.”

For the next several weeks, Jerry had the look of a deer in the headlights, and there were phone calls from his father, and I made more visits to the dean. He had to do something, I told him. At each visit, the dean told me to stop worrying. It began to feel as if the dean were part of the conspiracy.

Between moving Jerry from room to room, avoiding calls, hiding out in the woods one day when Jerry’s brother came to get him (he eventually left without Jerry), and my expostulating with the dean and finding new hideouts for Jerry, my schoolwork was suffering, and we were all a little jittery. This felt big.

It came to a climax when I went to the dean’s office and threatened to call the police. The dean — who held cards I knew nothing about — sat me down and said, “There are things I shouldn’t tell you. It’s illegal to discuss another student. There are privacy issues. But you need to understand Jerry is a very disturbed young man.”

“But, his father wants to kidnap him,” I said.

“No, his father is coming to take him back to the hospital.”

“What hospital?”

1967 Artist Bob Masse. Grateful Dead“Jerry was here provisionally; he had been committed to Butner for several years. They thought he was getting better, but he wasn’t.”

“What do you mean?” I was sideswiped. You mean Jerry had been lying? Making it all up? He had been diagnosed as schizophrenic after an episode in high school. (It was a popular diagnosis back then; nowadays, he would more likely have been called bipolar. That is our popular diagnosis.)

The dean showed me a manila folder with medical records. Physicians’ notices, letters back and forth, even a note from his high school principal.

“What about the needle?”

“Jerry is diabetic,” the dean said. “He takes insulin.”

There is nothing so deflating as punctured indignation. My high horse was a rocking horse. I was flashing cap pistols.

I met Jerry’s brother, who came to take him back home. He seemed as reasonable a human as I could imagine.

“Thank you for caring about Jerry,” he said. “We love Jerry, but he needs help.” There was no cult; there was no abuse.

Later that day, I watched Jerry get in the car with his brother and drive off. I never saw him again.

alexandria-quartetA few years later, I had the glint of recognition when I read through Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. The first of four books tells of a doomed love affair as told by an British writer, Darley. The second tells the same story from the point of view of a friend, in possession of more information, so we learn that Darley completely misunderstood everything that has happened to him. The third volume retells the story from the omniscient point of view and we discover that both the previous books were wrong and everything we had come to understand was partial, often totally misguided, and dark with ignorance. (The fourth book, Clea, takes the story past the narrative of the first three books).

The four novels hit me with the force of a brick to the parietal bone: I recognized the syndrome.

Soon after reading the novels, I went through a tortured relationship with a woman I was crazy about (“The only thing blonder than your hair is the sun,” I told her). She ran hot and cold in a way I could never understand, sometimes libidinous, sometimes antsy and standoffish. She finally broke it off with me. I moved away from the city to hibernate (not unlike Darley in Justine), and only found out when I accidentally bumped into her decades later that she had been sexually assaulted by a boss at work, and had gone through a difficult and traumatic trial and had been unable to come to terms with love or sex for years afterward. I did not know what drama had played out behind the scenes of our stumbling courtship.

Rashomon posterOne could liken it to Kurosawa’s film, Rashomon, except that the movie tells each version of the single story through the self-interest of the parties doing the telling. It is not merely a case of the reality being larger than the parts, but of each person lying to make himself (and herself) look good.

What I am talking about, instead, is the fact that we can never know the wider context, the whole story. We can see some sliver of the world through the chink in our psyches called our senses.

And I am not concerned here with conspiracy theories: That someone is withholding the key facts we need to know and balefully controlling the course of history. If we don’t know the full story of the Kennedy assassination, it isn’t because some cabal is secretly pulling the strings, but because reality is too complex, too messy, too variegated and too ornery to stuff neatly into a poke. If there were a cabal, even they wouldn’t have all the facts.

We are each in a dark hole, with only a little light from above. We peer out at the daylight and can see a few people staring down from the rim. We make relationships, we imagine the world, we tell ourselves stories. But we never have a sure grasp on the whole. The dark whole.

It is why the scariest thing I know is the profession of certainty. Only the ignorant make such a claim.

jacob-bronowski-bbcI am reminded of a chapter in a book by the late Jacob Bronowski, who wrote in his Ascent of Man about the evils of certainty.

After an explanation of Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, Bronowski brings the reader to Auschwitz and shows us a lake bottom muddy with the ashes of those killed there.

For Bronowski, the uncertainty is not merely about electrons, but about all knowledge. Uncertainty breeds humility, he said; certainty breeds arrogance.

“Look for yourself,” he wrote. “This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave.”

That test in reality means that all knowledge is provisional. And there is always some data that we don’t yet know. Every wife, every girlfriend, every husband, son, confederate, colleague, nemesis, enemy, is a world contained, filled with complexities we will never fully know.

Humility is the only sane response.

treblinka sign

I’m wearing a virtual foam collar around my brain stem, suffering from a kind of whiplash, having finished one book, so devastating and depressing, and having begun another so invigorating and life-affirming — really, brain-affirming — that my poor psyche feels like Faye Dunaway in Chinatown, slapped back and forth by Jack Nicholson.

I recommend both.

The first is a recounting of the inhumanity humanity deals to itself; it is a tale of humankind seen not as individuals, but as an aggregate of categories. The second is a memoir of humans seen as individuals, with all their flaws and foibles. It is the macro view vs. the micro view.

The most distressing thing is that we all have to live in both worlds; we have our families and friends, but we also cannot escape the things our governments, our religions and our employers do in our name.

bloodlandsThe first book is Bloodlands, by Timothy Snyder, which recasts the central story of World War II — really from 1933 to 1948 — in a way which finally makes sense to me, and is a needed antidote for all the triumphalist D-Day feel-goodism you are weighed down by in endless TV documentaries about the war.

We are too often deluded into thinking that World War II was a time in which America waged a “good war” against Nazism and won. I had always found this view indefensible, simple minded and ultimately jingoistic. The U.S. certainly had its part to play — and I don’t mean to denigrate the sacrifice of our soldiers, sailors and those on the homefront —  but when I looked at the figures, it was hard to reconcile the idea that we were the major player when our war dead totaled half a million but the Soviet Union’s dead exceeded 12 million. Either they were terrible soldiers and ours were magnificently efficient, or the real war was not in Normandy, but in the Eastern Front.

But even my own prejudice about the war really being between Germany and Russia turns out to be a gross simplification.

The book is an accounting of all the dying that took place in the shifting-border areas between Germany and Russia — the areas that were sometimes Poland, sometimes Ukraine, Belarus and parts of the Baltic states, Romania and Hungary — death caused by the political choices and policies first of Stalin in the Soviet Union and then Hitler in Germany.Jew_Killings_in_Ivangorod_(1942)

By the accounting of the author, they are culpable in the deaths of 14 million civilians. This is above and beyond the military deaths caused by the war itself. This was the deliberate starvation of Ukrainian farmers in the 1933, the “Great Terror” of 1938, in which Stalin wiped out his political enemies, rivals and phantoms of his paranoia, followed by the mass shootings in occupied Poland from 1939 to 1941, the starvation policy used by the Germans on 3.1 million Soviet prisoners of war and the intended extermination of Jews by Germans from 1941 to 1945. It is a dismal story of humanity’s inhumanity. These were not accidental deaths, but deaths of central planning and political purpose.

The overwhelming bulk of death during those years took place between the so-called Molotov-Ribbentrop line that divided pre-war Poland in half, and the eastern borders of Ukraine and Belarus.

Snyder footnotes the exact counts, often village by village, with anecdotal horror stories of those shot, burned, gassed and garroted. One hardly turns the pages without choking and weeping.

From Snyder’s view, the war in Europe was not merely one between Nazi Germany and the Communist Soviet Union, but rather one in which Hitler and Stalin colluded in first wiping Poland off the map, splitting it between them in 1939 (the aforesaid Molotov-Ribbentrop line), and then, when Hitler’s plan to evict all the Poles and Jews from what was formerly western Poland got bogged down in difficulty (the plan to deport them all to the east, vaguely somewhere in the Soviet Union, perhaps Kazakhstan was nixed by Stalin), it turned into a plan to murder them all.

It should be noted that in Russia, the official dates of World War II are 1941 to 1945. They don’t acknowledge the invasion of Poland by Germany on Sept. 1, 1939 as the start of the war, because they were equally culpable in that dissolution of the state of Poland. But they start the conflict in 1941, when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. Except, of course, that Hitler didn’t first invade the Soviet Union. He invaded what used to be eastern Poland, on the other side of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line, but had since been declared to be part of the Soviet Union — the formerly Polish part. For Stalin it made no difference that this was formerly Poland; now it was de facto part of his Soviet Union.

When Hitler’s army failed to take Moscow quickly, as his Blitzkrieg model had planned, the war turned into a protracted and mass slaughter of German and Soviet armies.

While we in the West call World War II “the good war,” in Russia they remember it as the Great Patriotic War, but in reality the whole thing should be called the Soviet-German war over the dismemberment of Poland.

To that bloody conflict, D-Day, Sicily, North Africa, Dunkirk, the Battle of Brittain were all basically a side-show. Our propaganda portrayed Hitler as seeking “world domination,” but that was never more than a comic-book arch-villain sort of plot. France and England were brought into the war because they had a defense treaty with Poland. Hitler would have preferred to avoid war with England and France. His beef was with Stalin over the land he wanted in Poland for German expansion — primarily to provide farming land and food for an expanding and industrialized Germany. Having to deal with England and France in the west was a pesky bother to him.

(The war in the Pacific, which happened concurrently, can be seen as primarily a separate war, beginning with Japanese invasions of Manchuria and China in the 1930s and ending after the war in Europe. The Pacific war was essentially America’s war, unlike the war in Europe.)

Back to the book: What makes it so dismal is not just the magnitude of the statistics — how many million shot in the back of the head here, so many million run through the death camps there — but the documented stories of individual deaths, or whole villages prisoned in churches that were then burned down, or men required to dig pits the length of two football fields, and then told to lie down in the graves, where they were shot, and layered like lasagne with another pile of bodies, shot, and another, and another, then covered up with dirt.

One fears turning the page in Bloodlands to find more starvation, more cold-blooded planning of mass murder, more mothers torn from their babies, more husbands worked to death in labor camps, while their parents were shipped off to Treblinka or Chelmno.

We too often think of the concentration camps as the place of the Holocaust, but Snyder makes clear that as many Jews were killed by bullets as by gas, and that the version of camp death we most often think of — say Auschwitz or Buchenwald — were not actually death camps, but rather holding camps in which death was a too-common byproduct. The real death camps were small facilities with no barracks, just changing rooms. The victims arrived by train, stripped of clothing and possessions and were herded directly into gas chambers where internal combustion engines piped carbon monoxide in, killing all in about 20 minutes of terror, and then the corpses were carried out an burned in huge pyres, kept fired up like so many charcoal grills. Treblinka was built exclusively to empty out the Warsaw ghetto. When that was accomplished, Treblinka was closed down. The extermination camp at Chelmno did the same thing for the Jews of the Lodz ghetto. The industrialized purposefulness of such factories is all the more chilling. deportation to treblinka 1942

We tend to think of Hitler’s atrocities as being 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust. And in terms of ethnic cleansing, it is one of the most ghastly in human history, but the suffering was also spread out in the period Snyder covers, from so-called kulaks in Ukraine to Polish officers massacred after the division of Poland in 1939, to dissidents and potential dissidents in the Soviet Union. Some 60 million people died in those years from political violence, less than half of them were military. That was 3 percent of the world’s population at the time.

One of the arguments one hears from the so-called Holocaust deniers, is that the Shoah was simply too vast to be believed. No humans could possibly have exterminated that many people in that short a time. Yes, they say, Hitler had anti-Semitic policies and maybe a few were killed, but the vast numbers were not believable. One has to laugh at this argument, not only in the face of Snyder’s careful accounting, but in the long view of history, and the slaughter of conquered peoples from the dawn of time. The Holocaust was not a singular event, but something like the standard order of things. This is what people do to each other, over and over and over. One must remember the wholesale extermination of city populations by Genghis Khan, the pyramids of skulls of Tamerlane. The slaughter of Cathars in the 13th century, or earlier, of the Wu Hu in China in the Fourth Century. One voice echoes through history: Carthago delenda est. So, ethnic cleansing continues in our own time, whether in Rwanda or Sudan or Cambodia.

I have gone on is rather more length than I had intended. The book is overwhelming, the pessimism it engenders is oppressive. I do not hope for a brighter future; I cannot knowing the lessons of history.

But I can put the book down when finished, and pick up another, one that gives me as much pleasure as Bloodlands gives me pain.

And here’s where the whiplash may hit you, too.

trilogyBecause the next tome I picked up was H.L. Mencken’s three autobiographical books, published as a single volume by the Library of America. I cannot convey to you quite the pleasure to be had by reading Mencken. His writing is full of the vigor and intellectual energy of a man in love with life and in love with the way language can convey that love.

It is not that everything is wonderful in Mencken’s life, but rather that the failings of human existence — seen as the acts of individuals, rather than classes of people — are at bottom so entertaining.

It is particularly his volume on his early newspaper work that fills me with joy. Newspaper Days covers the years from about 1899 to 1906, and lets me know that journalism hadn’t changed much from his day to mine (that it is now nearly extinct is another sorrow I feel).

Just as I dreaded each new chapter in Bloodlands, I check to see how many more pages I have left of Mencken and dread instead the final page, when my pleasure will come to its end. Prejudices

The Library of America had previously published his six series of  Prejudices, which were collected essays, always a joy to read, even when what he says might be outrageous and, well, prejudiced. At bottom, Mencken is clear-eyed and unbowed, and we value his fellowship, even in print, as we might value it sitting on a barstool next to him, sharing banter over a foamy beer. You might not agree with Mencken’s opinions, but they were always magnificently expressed, in a kind of journalistic language raised to the level of poetry.

I have his three volume The American Language, which is about as entertaining a scholarly book as you could find. Thorough, amused and amusing, it is indispensable.

The best way I can convey to you the qualities of Mencken’s writing, and of his mind, is to quote him. Here is a section from Newspaper Days, in which he talks about the artists employed back at the turn of the century to illustrate newspaper stories, before the days when photographs could be easily reproduced. As editor, he had to deal with their eccentricities.

After a few anecdotes about artists getting themselves into trouble and drink, he reminds us that:

“The cops of those days, in so far as they were aware of artists at all, accepted them at their own valuation, and thus regarded them with suspicion. If they were not actually on the level of water-front crimps, dope-pedlars and piano-players in houses of shame, they at least belonged somewhere south of sporty doctors, professional bondsmen and handbooks [obsolete slang clarification: bookies]. This attitude once cost an artist of my acquaintance his liberty for three weeks, though he was innocent of any misdemeanor. On a cold Winter night he and his girl lifted four or five ash-boxes, made a roaring wood-fire in the fireplace of his fourth-floor studio, and settled down to listen to a phonograph, then a novelty in the world. The glare of the blaze, shinning red through the cobwebbed windows, led a rookie cop to assume that the house was afire, and he turned in an alarm. When the firemen came roaring up, only to discover that the fire was in a fireplace, the poor cop sought to cover his chagrin by collaring the artist, and charging him with contributing to the delinquency of a minor. There was, of course, no truth in this, for the lady was nearly forty years old and had served at least two terms in a reformatory for soliciting on the street, but the lieutenant at the station-house, on learning that the culprit was an artist, ordered him locked up for investigation and he had been in the cooler three weeks before his girl managed to round up a committee of social-minded saloonkeepers to demand his release. The cops finally let him go with a warning, and for the rest of that Winter no artist in Baltimore dared to make a fire.”

mencken 3The book moves forward with speed and irony, full of vivid expressions and entertaining stories. Mencken recalls cops and judges, editors and pressmen, drummers for patent medicines and press agents of dubious veracity, kindly murderers and scapegrace yobs of all descriptions, many of which Mencken counted as his special angels of the kind of humanity he most valued. He detested all cant and corporate or governmental doublethink, and anyone who would put life into a file cabinet alphabetically.

It is the pleasure of coming across his book after reading Bloodlands that restores the oxygen to a world otherwise noisome with the mephitic stench of death. And reminds us that it is a grace that we live in a world of individuals rather than in the statistical world of categories and proscription lists. Grace is what keeps us alive.

burned at the stake

“What’s wrong with belief?” she asked. ”I have been a Christian for many years, and my faith has given me great comfort.” 

That’s fine, I told her. I have no problem with that. I, myself, am a lapsed atheist: same non-belief, but no interest in the rituals of atheism. I don’t care to proselytize. 

She took exception, she said, to something I had written about political art. I had said that bad political art came as much from the Christian right as from the Marxist left. 

She got me to admit that I had been using hasty polemicist’s shorthand when indicting the Christian right. And she’s correct. For one thing, I’m hard pressed to name any art at all currently made by the religious right. They don’t make art, they criticize it. It is the conservative’s impotence that he can only react, never create. 

For another thing, the Christian right seems to me less a religious than a political faction. The items on its agenda are not notably Christian — at least not from the Christ who advocated poverty and humility — but rather free-market and male-dominated conservatism wearing the imprimatur of authority — a kind of soup made up of half-baked doctrine floating in a broth of testosterone. 

So, it wasn’t Christianity at all that I was indicting, and I should have left the term out of the story. I have no quarrel with Christians. 

Yet, there is something about a certain persuasion of Christian that worries me. And that thing that worries me is the same thing that worries many of us about the Muslim fundamentalism that bombs airplanes or the Hindu fundamentalism that killed Mohandas Gandhi. 

Because it isn’t really Christians who scare me, it is believers. 

I have always made a distinction between faith and belief. Faith is a comfort, and it is a willingness to let pass from one’s heart the angst, rancor and jealousy and recognize that there is something greater in the universe. And further, you are willing to give up control to something greater. 

In some ways, this is only common sense. 

The power you think you have is only illusory in the first place. You cannot control whether you will die, for instance, or whether you will go bald. That is the kind of power you must be willing to give over to the universe that gave you birth. It doesn’t much matter if you name that power Jehovah, Allah or the Void. On this point, the atheist and the Christian can come together. 

Belief, on the other hand, requires an agenda, a dogma, a list of specific things you must accept as ultimately true. Faith is generalized, belief is specific. 

And it is those specifics that have caused all the trouble. 

For human beings are willing to believe the most astonishing things. And what is worse, they are willing to act on them and impose them on their neighbor. It matters not whether you are Savonarola or Madalyn Murray O’Hair. 

Belief is the very devil. It is not a willingness to recognize one’s ultimate powerlessness in a universe that is an overwhelming mystery; it is rather the arrogant assertion that there is only one right way and what is more, you know that right way and everyone else had better start wearing your uniform and marching in step. 

What I should have written, if I had had the time and space, is that the root of evil is certainty. If there is a Satan, he is certainty. 

Certainty gave us Torquemada and the Spanish Inquisition.

The wheel of the inquisition

It gave us Hitler, gave us Pol Pot. Certainty justified slavery and permitted white Americans to believe that the only good Indian was a dead Indian. 

Certainty destroyed the temples of Tibet and the churches of Moscow. 

We live in a world beset with certainty. It killed Serbs and Croats, Turks and Greeks, Tamil and Hindu. It kills abortion clinic doctors and it kills Oklahoma City government workers and Boston marathoners. 

When people die because someone believes an income tax is unconstitutional, you know something is desperately wrong somewhere. 

The bottom line is: There is a world of difference between being willing to die for your beliefs and being willing to kill for them. 

I am reminded of a chapter in a book by the late Jacob Bronowski, who wrote in his Ascent of Man about the difference between knowledge and certainty. 

jacob bronowski-bbc

After a clear-minded explanation of the uncertainty principle of physicist Werner Heisenberg, Bronowski brings the reader to Auschwitz and shows us a lake bottom — muddy with the ashes of those killed there. 

Heisenberg formulated a theory that explained why if you can measure how fast an electron is traveling, you cannot measure where it is, and if you measure its location, you can no longer measure its speed. It is an expression of the ultimate ambiguity of knowledge. In science, all conclusions are provisional. 

Bronowski extrapolates that it is not just electrons for which that is true, but for all knowledge. Uncertainty breeds humility. Certainty breeds arrogance. 

We shouldn’t need Heisenberg to tell us that all knowledge is uncertain. 

uncertainty formula

”Look for yourself,” he writes. ”This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave.”