‘About Suffering They Were Never Wrong’

Just before the dawn of the bloodiest century, Mark Twain conducted ‘scientific experiments’ in the London Zoological Gardens in which he contrasted the characteristics of the so-called ‘lower animals’ with those of human beings. His observations led him to renounce his allegiance to the Darwinian theory of evolution as the ascent of human beings from lower animals. Instead, he discovered a truer theory, that of the descent of human beings from the higher animals. He writes: ‘Of all the animals, man is the only one that is cruel. He is the only one that inflicts pain for the pleasure of doing it. It is a trait that is not known to the higher animals…Man is the cruel Animal. He is alone in that distinction.’ [1]

During a recent trip to Israel, I visited Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem. Most of my time was spent walking through the galleries of the Holocaust History Museum, which tells the story of the Jews who lived and died under the Nazi regime. The museum recounts two species of inhumanity (or what Twain thinks is actually the human distinctive). The first is the cruelty of commission, the systematically engineered slaughter of over 6 million Jews. The second is cruelty of omission. This manifested itself in the willful ignorance and cold indifference that enabled the Holocaust.

Who can say which is the greater evil – the perpetrator or the enabler? In the end, the two seem inseparable. As Rabbi Abraham Heschel points out: ‘Few are guilty, but all are responsible. If we admit that the individual is in some measure conditioned or affected by the spirit of society, an individual’s crime discloses society’s corruption. In a community not indifferent to suffering, uncompromisingly impatient with cruelty and falsehood, continually concerned for God and everyman, crime would be infrequent rather than common.’ [2]

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Witnessing the monstrosity of the Holocaust–both the murderers and the society which made the murderers a possibility–raises all sorts of important and impossible questions. The enduring one for me is this: what is one to do after witnessing the horrors we humans are capable of inflicting on one another? This essay is my attempt at an answer.

The Holocaust validates Twain: man is the cruel animal. And yet, humans are also the only animals that write poetry (we are a tragedy and a glory and the former is only possible because of the latter). As is often the case when feeling in the dark for a way to make sense of the farthest edges of life – the vaulted joys and bottomless afflictions – we humans appeal to poetry to express our loss for words and to discover a road that might leads us forward.

While in Yad Vashem, a poem was not far from my mind. That poem was W.H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts,” a poem I have spent a good deal of time meditating on over the years. Auden wrote the poem after a visit to the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique in Brussels. He visited near the end of 1938, right on the brink of WWII when ‘it was a tense time in Belgium and the world. Madness was afoot in Europe, and many, including Auden, sensed the imminent outbreak of a great conflagration.’ [3] The poem is inspired by two paintings of Pieter Brueghel the Elder in the museum’s collection: “The Census at Bethlehem” (1566) and “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” (ca. 1590-1595).

In the poem, Auden comments on human suffering and our inhuman indifference to it through the lens of a scene from the Gospel of Luke and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The poem and the paintings are masterpieces of suffering and our indifference; for this reason, they deserve our attention.

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Though it goes unnamed, the first stanza is about Brueghel’s “The Census at Bethlehem.” In this painting, the biblical story of Joseph and Mary’s journey to Bethlehem for the census is transposed into a Dutch village landscape, reminiscent of a Martin Handford crowd-scene so full of people going about their daily lives that it is a challenge to locate the Holy Family.

If you take the time, however, you will see Joseph leading the donkey upon which his pregnant wife, Mary, is riding. Jesus was coming to his own and his own did not receive him; in fact, nobody seems to notice. Though some may be pining for the miraculous birth, Auden notes that ‘there always must be / Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating / On a pond at the edge of the wood.’

Ours is, after all, a dog eat dog world. It is a world ‘Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse / Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.’ We do not countenance being bothered by the needs of others when we are trying to get ourselves counted.

In the second stanza, Auden directs our gaze to The Fall of Icarus. Here, the indifference to suffering is all the more spectacular. This painting depicts the tragic end to the ingenuous escape of Icarus from captivity via wings his father Daedalus invented. As told by the Roman poet, Ovid, Icarus does not heed his father’s advice – he flies too close to the sun and his wings, a construction of feathers held together by beeswax, melt. Icarus falls like a meteor from the sky, plummeting to his death in the sea.

The Fall of Icarus

Brueghel paints three characters mentioned by Ovid – a ploughman, a shepherd and a fisherman – all at varying degrees of proximity to the drowning Icarus. Despite the spectacle, each one is wholly unconcerned, averting their eyes from the drowning Icarus. Auden highlights the ploughman noting ‘how everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may / Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry, / But for him it was not an important failure.’

While wandering the galleries and grounds in Yad Vashem, I was confronted with stories of savagery and selfishness, of unimaginable cruelty met with equally unimaginable indifference. But Yad Vashem also bore witness to beautiful, heroic acts of humanity. There were a few bright lights, including the honoring of non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust called ‘The Righteous Among the Nations.’

When witnessing the stark contrast between the perpetrators of cruelty and those who stood against injustice at great risk, it is natural for the mind to wonder which we would be. If we are honest, I think most of us like to think that were we in Dachau or in Warsaw or in Paris we would have resisted. We would have been counted among The Righteous Among the Nations who risked much to save some. But I do not think this is true. And the reason I do not think this is true is because we find ourselves in a similar situation.

The world continues to be full to the brim and overflowing with pain, suffering and loss in large part caused by humans. In the face of this you have but to ask yourself: what am I doing right now, at great personal cost and risk, to fight against cruelty and ameliorate suffering? The greatest indication that we would live lives of radical, self-giving love in the future is if we are living lives of radical, self-giving love in the present.

The world continues to be full to the brim and overflowing with pain, suffering and loss in large part caused by humans. In the face of this you have but to ask yourself: what am I doing right now, at great personal cost and risk, to fight against cruelty and ameliorate suffering? The greatest indication that we would live lives of radical, self-giving love in the future is if we are living lives of radical, self-giving love in the present. If you are not acting now, you most likely would not have acted then and will not in the future: ‘Those who kept silent yesterday will remain silent tomorrow.’ [4]

A statue at Yad Vashem of Janusz Korczak, a man who cared for orphans during the Holocaust at great personal cost to himself. ©Kevin Antlitz

We prefer to think we would not be like them, the cruel ones. But the terrifying reality – I am ashamed to write – is that most of us are no better than the worst of them. We would probably be just like that expensive delicate ship that Auden mentions in the Brueghel’s painting. That ship that saw a man suffering and in distress but ‘had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on by.’

This, at least, seems to be what Benjamin Ferencz, the last living Nuremberg prosecutor seems to think. Mr. Ferencz has spent a lifetime peering into our collective heart of darkness. In a recent interview, this is what he wants the world to know: ‘Now I will tell you something very profound, which I have learned after many years. War makes murderers out of otherwise decent people.’ [5] In each one of us lies the capacity to be both the perpetrator and the enabler of unimaginable expressions of cruelty.

Of course, we are also capable of unimaginable expressions of love, generosity and kindness. But will we become devils or saints? In which direction are we moving today?

In The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn captures the bi-polar possibilities of good and evil within every human heart. He is worth quoting at length.

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? During the life of any heart this line keeps changing place; sometimes it is squeezed one way by exuberant evil and sometimes it shifts to allow enough space for good to flourish. One and the same human being is, at various ages, under various circumstances, a totally different human being. At times he is close to being a devil, at times to sainthood. But his name doesn’t change, and to that name we ascribe the whole lot, good and evil. [6]

Solzhenitsyn’s insight into the human heart sheds light on our capacity for both good and evil. Much depends on our context and the choices we make, not so much in the grand, dramatic moments of life but in the small decisions that become habits and over time develop us into particular characters.

Still, we are left with the question: what is one to do? Well, one thing we cannot do is nothing. The other thing we cannot do is everything.

As the Russian Orthodox saint, Theophan the Recluse advises, the first thing to do is banish all plans about ‘multi-beneficial, all embracing, common-to-all-humanity activity.’ It simply makes no sense to say you are a lover of humankind if you care not for your neighbor. He goes on to write: ‘Just exactly what is to be done? Nothing in particular, just that which presents itself to each one according to the circumstances of his life, and which is demanded by the individual events with which each of us meets. That is all.’ [7]

One need not look far or wait long – brokenness is all around.

 

 

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[1] Mark Twain, What is Man? And Other Philosophical Writings, p. 84
[2] Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets (New York: Perennial Classics, 2001), 19.
[3] Scott Horton, “Auden’s Musée des Beaux Arts,” Browsings: The Harper’s blog, 30 Nov 2008.
[4] Elie Wisel, Night, transl. Marison Wisel (New York: Hill and Wang, 2006), xiii.
[5] Benjamin Ferencz, Interview with Leslie Stahl, 60 Minutes, CBS, WCBS, 7 May 2017.
[6] Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation (New York: HarperPerennial, 2007), 75.
[7] St. Theophan the Recluse, The Spiritual Life and How to Be Attuned to It, transl. Alexandra Dockham (Safford: St. Paisius Serbian Orthodox Monastery, 2003), 89.

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