Thursday, May 03, 2007

Hm. Well, I thought this was a fully-formed idea until just now when I tried to start writing about it. But maybe it's worth sketching out some of the pieces now, I don't know.

I keep the New York Review of Books in the john, and read it every time I take a crap. I've recently read a couple articles that deal with private life under communism in different ways. One of them excerpts heavily from diaries of the party faithful in Stalin's Russia; the other excerpts from poems by a guy (Zbigniew Herbert) whose family escaped Poland in 1944, after living under Stalin and then Hitler. When reading the former, I was struck with the way the diarists dealt with the unfathomable -- in this case the unfathomable cruelty being practiced by their beloved party -- by placing it in the context of the inevitability of history: "You will understand everything," one of them says of the Great Terror, "only when the purpose of all that is taking place has become clear to you." In other words, have faith. Don't expect this to make sense. Just believe.

I found that remarkable because of its clear parallel in religious faith. Not being a particularly religious guy myself -- or, more accurately, not having ever been part of a religious community -- I might have it all wrong. But I've felt for years that... well, let's start with this: I believe that doing things that don't make sense is a requirement for survival as a human. Because, ultimately, nothing makes sense. You have to be able, at some point, to take a leap and say "I'm going to believe that this is the thing to do just because I am. I'm not going to ask anything more of this." If you don't do that, you'll end up going nuts. And so clearly I think that religion has the capacity to fill this role. It's all the more powerful when you accept that it simply makes no sense. When you're doing a ritual with no meaning at all.

Hm. Yeah. See, it's not a fully formed thought. Perhaps the real point isn't that you do it knowing it has no meaning, but that you do it accepting that you don't understand the meaning. But you believe that someone or something else -- be it God, or Stalin, or the priest, or the universe -- is working through you.

Well, that clearly needs some more thought. But here's the other ingredient. In the second article I read, about the poet Zbigniew Herbert, I was struck by the closing stanza of his disturbing poem about Russian emigres:

This parable is told by Nicholas
who understands historical necessities
in order to terrify me i.e. to convince me

I think this -- this idea of "historical necessities / in order to terrify me i.e. to convince me" -- is exactly what we've seen played out in the past several years, in the way the case was made for war in Iraq. The idea is to terrify people with the idea that something is inevitable. And to then convince them that it is a historical necessity that they go along with your plan, which ultimately makes no sense.

Yo, this is sad. I have to go -- I have to leave for work soon and I need to get showered and dressed, etc. So this idea is going to go unfinished. Not that it was ultimately going to be finished. Call it a work in progress. I have faith that it will be completed one day, by someone.

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