All Rivers Run to the Sea by Elie Wiesel

“Last night I saw my father in a dream.”

Born in the town of Sighet, Romania in the Carpathian Mountains in 1928, Wiesel’s family of six was part of a thriving Jewish community. During World War II, murmurs of Jewish persecution by the Germans reached the town, but the villagers doubted the rumors and discounted anything they heard.  Even with the German occupation of the town on March 19, 1944, the Germans behaved correctly and no one was disturbed.  Months before their arrival, a man called “Moshe the Beadle” arrived in town with talk of his escape and stories of atrocities, yet his words fell like a barely noticeable rain:

“Messenger of the dead, he shouted his testimony from the rooftops and delivered it in silence, but either way no one would listen.  People turned their backs so as not to see his eyes, as though fearing to glimpse a truth that held his past and our future in his steely grip.  People tried, in vain, to make him doubt his own reason and his own memory, to accept that he had survived for nothing —– indeed, to regret having survived.”

Their own housekeeper, Maria, tried to convince the family time and again to seek refuge with her at her house in the mountains, but they were reluctant to abandon their Jewish community, still believing that all would be well.  Even when they were imprisioned in the ghetto, she would sneak through the barbed wire barricades to bring them food.  She figures prominently in Wiesel’s memory:

“I think of Maria often, with affection and gratitude.  And with wonder as well.  This simple, uneducated woman stood taller than the city’s intellectuals, dignitaries, and clergy.  My father had many acquaintances and even friends in the Christian community, but not one of them showed the strength of character of this peasant woman.  Of what value was their faith, their education, their social postion, if it aroused neither conscience nor compassion …. It was a simple and devout Christian woman who saved the town’s honor.”

Wiesel doesn’t examine in depth his time in the concentration camp —– his book, Night, describes this ordeal —- rather he shares questions which he had before and after the nightmare.  Why didn’t Jews in other countries do more for their suffering brothers? Why were there not more bombings to stop the transport of Jews?  Why did the world watch as six million Jews were exterminated?  There is a poignancy to the fate of the town of Sighet, as the Third Reich was already in disarray, and Hitler knew that his fight for world dominance had ended, yet he was determined to exterminate the Jewish people, making the deportation of Jews a priority over military convoys.

Wiesel comments on the Jewish passivity during the Holocaust:

“Today, as I write this, I think of all those who chided us for our passivity, our resignation, during the war.  ‘Why didn’t you resist?’  What about the Germans?  What accounts for their obsequious cowardice before foreigners after their defeat?  There were endless rumors about parents who sold their wives and daughters to the first American soldier for a pair of nylons, former high-ranking Wehmacht officers who would shine shoes for any corporal, bankrupt merchants who fought over cigarette butts flicked into the road by drunken solders.  Their strength was gone, their power dissipated, their arrogance a memory.  Yesterday’s supermen had become subhuman.  But no, I don’t like either of those terms, superman or subhuman; both victors and vanquished are no more, no less, than human beings.”

“Jewish avengers were few in number, their thirst for vengeance brief ……. the Jews, for metaphysical and ethical reasons rooted in their history, chose another path.  Later, this absence of violence among the survivors, this absence of vengefulness on the part of the victims toward their former hangmen and torturers was widely discussed.  Of course, the setting was a Germany barely able to breathe under the weight of its ashes, a nation humiliated as few have ever been.”

Yet within the tragic fate of so many of his people, Wiesel observed the quiet resolution and courageous determination that his fellow Jews exemplified.

“With hindsight I realize that it was in the ghetto that I truly began to love the Jews of my town.  Throughout the ordeal they maintained their dignity as human beings and as Jews.  Imprisoned, reduced to sub-human status, they showed themselves still capable of spiritual greatness.  Against the enemy they stood as one, affirming their faith in their faith.”

With the death of both of his parents in the camps, after his release Wiesel went to France where, under the children’s rescue society, he began schooling and reconnected with his Jewish religious roots.  He rather naively began his journalistic career working for a Yiddish news weekly funded by the Igrun, an Israeli resistance group.  Eventually, he found himself in New York as a foreign correspondent, and finally became a U.S. citizen.  He recounts his meetings with political dignitaries and writers such as Golda Meir, Ben-Gurion, Saul Lieberman, Yitzhak Rabin, Hannah Arendt, etc., as his travels took him between France, the U.S. and Israel.   Through his experiences, we get a first-hand view of Israel’s fight for independence in 1947, to its struggles up to the Six Day War with Egypt in 1967.

About claims that he renounced his faith, Wiesel responds:

“There is a passage in Night  — recounting the hanging of a young Jewish boy — that has given rise to an interpretation bordering on blasphemy.  Theorists of the idea that “God is dead” have used my words unfairly as justification of their rejection of faith.  But if Nietzsche could cry out to the old man in the forest that God is dead, the Jew in me cannot.  I have never renounced my faith in God.  I have risen against His justice, protested His silence and sometimes His absence, but my anger rises up within faith and not outside it ……. my Talmudist master Rabbi Saul Lieberman has pointed out another way to look at it.  One can — and must — love God.  One can challenge Him and even be angry with Him, but one must also pity Him.  ‘Do you know which of all the characters in the Bible is most tragic?’ he asked me.  ‘It is God, blessed be His name, God whose creatures so often disappoint and betray Him.’  He showed me ….. God wept, His tears fell upon His people and His creation, as if to say, What have you done to my work? …… Perhaps God shed more tears in the time of Treblinka, Majdanek, and Auschwitz, and one may therefore invoke His name not only with indignation but also with sadness and compassion.”

Yet throughout this book, the tragedy of his people lives within him, their suffering and memory never far from the surface of his thoughts.  It is as if their legacy lives inside him and his soul needs to shout their story.

“To write is to plumb the unfathomable depths of being.  Writing lies within the domain of mystery. The place between any two words is vaster than the distance between heaven and earth.  To bridge it you must close your eyes and leap.  A Hasidic tradition tells us that in the Torah the white spaces, too, are God-given.  Ultimately, to write is an act of faith.”

I really loved his biography, as Wiesel is very honest and forthright, yet we see compassion and understanding, not only for Jews, but for Germans and Arabs as well. There is no resonance of hatred in Wiesel’s narrative, only a cry for understanding.  He does not want vengeance, and not necessarily even justice, but more a soul-searching to prevent another atrocity such as the Holocaust, which would give some sort of meaning to the tragedy.  Wiesel tells his story with a quiet strength, offering questions that perhaps have no answers, but always has the Jewish plight speaking from both light and shadows.  Ultimately, a good part of life is made up of questions without answers and perhaps Wiesel exemplifies best how to live in that tension, and also to use it for good.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X (As Told to Alex Haley)

“When my mother was pregnant with me, she told me later, a party of hooded Ku Klux Klan riders galloped up to our home in Omaha, Nebraska, one night.”

Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little on May 19, 1925.  He was the fourth of seven children, his father being an outspoken Baptist speaker.  The family relocated to Lansing, Michigan where they were targets of attacks of the Black Legion, a racist group led by whites.  Before Malcolm’s seventh birthday, his father was killed in a streetcar accident, but rumours of the Black Legion’s involvement were rife.  When a relationship with a man she was dating deteriorated, Malcolm’s mother had a breakdown and was placed in a mental asylum where she remained for 24 years.  At fourteen, he began to get involved in all sorts of illegal activity, from gambling, hustling, drug dealing, racketeering, pimping, etc in New York City.  He became a thug and a criminal, hanging out at music halls and smoking “reefers”, living a wild life on the edge:

“Looking back, I think I really was at least slightly out of my mind.  I viewed narcotics as most people regard food.  I wore my guns as today I wear my neckties.  Deep down I actually believed that after living as fully as humanly possible, one should then die violently.  I expected then, as I still expect today, to die at any time.  But then, I think I deliberately invited death in many, sometimes insane ways.”

Finally at 20 years old, an attempted robbery landed the young man in prison, where he finally discovered through one of his brothers, the “natural religion of the black man”, the Nation of Islam.  Through their prophet Elijah Muhammed, a new history of the black man was revealed:  600 years ago everyone was black but a “Mr. Yacub”, a scientist with a large head decided to break the peace.  Exiled to Patmos (the same island were the Apostle John lived when he wrote Revelations), Yacub, embittered towards Allah, made a race of “bleached-out white people” through his followers.  In two hundred years the black people were eliminated, two hundred more and the brown people followed, then two hundred each for the red people and the yellow people (yes, the math doesn’t add up, but I’m just repeating the story).  The new white people were like animals, walking on all fours and living in trees and it was two hundred years before they returned to civilization and made it a living hell.  All the black people’s problems stemmed from this “devil white race”.  History had been completely rewritten by the white man.  X also figured out that because the King James Bible was considered the ultimate in English and the King had poets write it, Shakespeare must have written it.  So in Malcolm X’s mind, King James used the alias of Shakespeare and wrote the Bible to “enslave the world”.   And thus, Malcolm X began to correspond with his siblings & Elijah Muhammend, read any book he could to support his position and to recruit for the NOI (Nation of Islam).  He was successful with converting some followers, but the majority thought their tenants strange, to say the least, and rejected his overtures.

Malcolm X before a press
conference (1954)
source Wikipedia

Malcolm X despised the white race, but he also showed extreme antipathy towards the black elite, or any black person who did not agree with him, calling them brainwashed by the white people, including Martin Luther King, Jr. whom he labelled a puppet of the white establishment.

“Why you should hear those Negroes attack me, trying to justify, or forgive the white man’s crimes!  These Negroes are people who bring me nearest to breaking one of my principal rules which is never to let myself become over-emotional and angry.  Why, sometimes I’ve felt I ought to jump down off that stand and get physical with some of those brainwashed white man’s tools, parrots, puppets.”

Yet with his evangelizing, NOI numbers slowly grew.  His met his wife, Sister Betty X, at his temple and after they were married, she became a good Muslim wife to him, caring for their children and supporting his ministry.  When questioned about his religious philosophy and its proclivity for spreading hatred, the people questioning him would immediately become “breathing living devils” and X would immediately go on the attack, claiming the white man was in no moral position to accuse anyone else of hatred, or he would accuse them of attacking his people because they were black.  As an artist might work in oils, Malcolm X worked in logical fallacies, painting his rhetorical and philosophical landscapes with circular reasoning, ad hominem attacks, red herrings, appeals to fear, tu quoque, and the straw man.

After years of working as Elijah Mohammed’s front man and “minister”, Malcolm X began to act more independently.  Praise was always given to Mohammed, but there were suspicions that his actions were not always pleasing to his superior and that the NOI head resented his subordinate’s popularity.  When Mohammed was accused of sexual impropriety with NOI secretaries, a serious breach of the rules of Islam, Malcolm X attempted to justify his behaviour.  However, with Malcolm X releasing inappropriate comments after John Kennedy’s assassination, in spite of a NOI ban on commenting, the leader felt X had become too independent and prohibited his public speaking for 90 days.  Malcolm X finally left the organization, founding Muslim Mosque, Inc. and in 1964 made a pilgrimmage to Mecca where he was astounded to see believers of all colours. It was the beginning of a change within the charismatic leader and when he returned to the States, there was tone moderation in some of his discourses.

“Yes —- I wrote a letter from Mecca.  You’re asking me ‘Didn’t you say that now you accept white men as brother?’  Well, my answer is that in the Muslim World, I saw, I felt, and I wrote home how my thinking was broadened!  Just as I wrote, I shared true, brotherly love with many white-complexioned Muslims who never gave a single thought to the race, or to the complexion, of another Muslim …….  In the past, yes, I have made sweeping indictments of all white people.  I never will be guilty of that again — as I know now that some white people are truly sincere, that some truly are capable of being brotherly toward a black man.  The true Islam has shown me that a blanket indictment of all white people is as wrong as when whites make blanket indictments against black ….. (it) was the first time I ever had been able to think clearly about the basic divisions of white people in America, and how their attitudes and their motives related to, and affected Negroes.”

He finally saw that it wasn’t “the American white man who is a racist, but … the American political, economic, and social atmosphere that automatically nourished a racist psychology in the white man.” His inclusion now did not only cross the boundaries of race but also religion and political philosophy.  Suddenly Malcolm X began to get an inkling that his previous experiences which formed his views might have been based on ignorance, and he strove for a change.  Finally, we see a man struggling with new ideas that perhaps are trying to kick the old ones aside, as he tried to merge his new identity with the old one.  And we get a glimpse of some perhaps insightful self-examination:

“For the freedom of my 22 million black brothers and sisters here in America, I do beliee that I have fought the best that I knew how, and the best that I could, with the short-comings that I have had.  I know that my shortcomings are many.”

Malcolm X defends his house
Photo from Ebony magazine
source Wikipedia

In spite of his new outlook and more moderate thinking, Malcolm X’s rhetoric did not noticably change, other than the added sprinkling of more impartial comments.  It would have been interesting to see where this new-wakening would have taken him but it was not to be.  He knew his time was running out, as his divide with NOI had stirred a pot of vipers.

“Every morning when I wake up, now, I regard it as having another borrowed day.  In any city, wherever I go, making speeches, holding meetings of my organization, or attending to other business, black men are watching every move I make, awaiting their chance to kill me.  I have said publicly many times that I know that they have their orders.  Anyone who chooses not to believe wht I am saying doesn’t know the Muslims in the Nation of Islam …..  each day I live as if I am already dead …..”

In an epilogue added by Alex Haley, we learn of Malcolm X’s demise.  At a conference in Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom, while addressing the Organization of Afro-American unity, Malcolm X was shot multiple times by three men rushing the stage.  He was pronounced dead shortly after arriving at the hospital with 21 bullet holes in his body. The three men, Nation of Islam members, were arrested and imprisoned for his murder.

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This book is brutally appalling and without encouragement from Ruth, I would probably not have finished it.  The vicious hatred and counter-disease of racial prejudice was so palpable it was nearly unbearable, being very similar to Hilter’s discourses in Mein Kampf.  Personally, while I could never condone hatred, I could at least understand animosity against a person who had perpetrated an horrible act against him.  But I couldn’t understand the savage hatred against people who had never done a thing to him but only shared the same colour of skin as those who had oppressed his people.  As I read his speeches and invectives, I did not feel like Malcolm X was speaking for his people; he was simply mentally creating a situation that he wanted to believe and acted on it, his own philosophy being more important than the people he was trying to vindicate.  It was only in the latter part of the book that his views began to be adjusted, and it would have been interesting to learn if they would have become even more moderate and inclusive with time.  Sadly, we will now never know.

The most interesting part of the biography was the epilogue written by Alex Haley. Through him we get a sense of Malcolm X, a man who was distrustful of everyone around him, including himself.  Even his friends were seen a partial enemies and his whole life was spent like a hunted animal, either from his own internal expectations, or real threatening circumstances.  Constant drama surrounded X and he appeared to need to feed on it, as one would food for sustenance.  His moods would swing from jubilant to sullen and back again.  Haley had often to lead and coax the black leader to tell about himself, luring him away frominstead of resorting to diatribes against whomever he felt conflicted with him or his views.  Yet even with the often unbalanced raving tirades and untenable attacks, there is no doubt Malcolm X had a compelling magnetism that garnered attention.

The violence through which Malcolm X lived and appeared to advocate, did not only culminate in his death but resonated throughout his family.  In 1995, his daughter Qubilah was arrested and tried for plotting the murder of Louis Farrakhan, then the leader of the Nation of Islam whom she felt bore the responsibility for her father’s murder.  Two years later, her twelve-year-old son set fire to his grandmother’s house (Betty, Malcolm X’s wife) which caused burns to over 80% of her body and caused her death.  In his 28th year he was found beaten to death in Mexico.

Perhaps Malcolm X did give a type of pride to black Americans but the stain of violence he contributed and left in his wake cannot be seen as a value to anyone as far as I’m concerned.  If those who are advocates for the oppressed act exactly the same as the oppressors, no one benefits and the prejudices and hatred are simply perpetuated.  If it is simply a matter of anger and revenge, we learn nothing.

Hunger of Memory by Richard Rodriguez

“I have taken Caliban’s advice.  I have stolen their books.  I will have run of this isle.”

With the first sentence, in his allusion to Shakespeare’s, The Tempest, Richard Rodriguez sets the tone for his memoir, depicting his life as the son of Mexican immigrants.  Is he a monster, an outcast who will use his adversaries’ own weapons to gain power, an identity, and a place in the kingdom?

An avid reader from a very early age, Rodriguez was what he called a “scholarship boy,” earning accolades for his intellect throughout his formative years.  He received his Bachelor of Arts, Master’s Degree and was pursing his Ph.D. when he dropped out of academia to pursue other avenues, finally working as a teacher, a journalist and a writer.  His biography, Hunger of Memory traces the paths of his journey, which took him from the life of an immigrant to his integration as an American citizen.

Each chapter is an essay, as Rodriguez first spoke of his childhood in Sacramento, California, and the beginnings of his education.  As child of Mexican immigrants, as soon as he left his parent’s home to attend school, the institution exerted expectations that slowly began to separate him from the culture from which he had grown, and therefore, his parents.  He recalls with clarity all the differences between the world he knew as a young child and his new American educational existence, from the competing sounds of English and Spanish, to the contrasting experiences between his home life and his life outside his family circle.  Yet Rodriguez’s observations of the transformation of the immigrant led him to criticize the tendency of schools to promote bilingual education so students were able to keep connected to their culture.  Instead, he states that the mere fact that the connection needed to be maintained, already implied that it was lost, and in Rodriguez’s eyes, it was irrevocably irretrievable.  Proponents of bilingual schooling wanted at the same time to help students to gain skills to ensure their public success, but they also wanted to give students an individual identity apart from the public success.  Rodriguez maintained that you cannot have it both ways.  By helping an immigrant maintain a bilingual immigrant status, one merely reinforced the feeling of public separateness, preventing the immigrant from accepting and conforming to his situation.  He is unable to find his public identity.

Downtown Sacramento
source Wikipedia

Rodriguez also explored the challenges of being a “scholarship boy”.  The praise that was earned through his admirable scholastic performances, became like a drug, although he made the ordinary classmates surrounding him uneasy.  He acquired the facts, but not the ability to use them.  However, he continued on, using education to re-shape his life.  It is yet another emphasis of the differences between his old culture and the new.

Raised as a practicing Catholic, church was a integral part of Rodriguez’s life, yet in this area too, he laments the shift in its cultural existence.  Rather than the ceremonial church that he was raised in, worshiping as one with other believes, the church shifted to a more Protestant model, “modernized … demythologized, deflated.”  In the church, too, he went from a private experience within a public group, to a more communal celebration that curiously left him feeling more isolated.

“I miss that high ceremony.  I am saddened by inappropriate music about which it is damning enough to say that it is not good enough, and not even the best of its authentic kind — folk, pop, quasi-religious Broadway show tunes.  I miss the old trappings — trappings that disclosed a different reality ……”

“In the abandoned Latin service it was the priest alone who spoke the affirmation of faith.  It was the priest who said, ‘Credo ….,” using the first person singular.  The differences between the old service and the new can be summarized in this change.  At the old mass, the priest’s Credo (I believe) complexly reminded the congregation of the fact that each person stands before God as an individual, implying at the same time — because the priest could join all voices in his —- the union of believers, the consolation of communal faith.  The listener was assured of his membership in the Church; he was not alone before God.  (The Church would assist him.)  By translating credo into the English first person plural, we believe, the Church no longer reminds the listener that he is alone …… We believe.  We believe.  This assurance is necessary because, in a sense, it no longer is true ….. 

……  I would protest this simplification of the liturgy if I could.  I would protest as well the diminished sense of the sacred in churches today.  I would protest the use of folk music and the hand-holding.  Finally, I cannot.  I suspect the reason I despise the new liturgy is because it is mine ….”

In spite of his dislike of the new practices, curiously, Rodriguez takes responsibility for his part in their development.  Once again, public obligation is emphasized in this philosophy.

source Amazon

The last couple of essays were on Rodriguez’s struggle with his colour, or “complexion”, and lastly his final years of schooling.  He vehemently protested again affirmative action, or the preferrential treatment he was given as a minority student.  The benefits he, and other minorities, received were not in keeping with the spirit of the assistance; he was not in need  —- the disadvantaged Americans where those who were poorly schooled in elementary and high school, many not even reaching the realms of higher education. While he spoke out against it at the time, he still partook in its benefits. Here, he asks for forgiveness from “those many persons whose absence from higher education permitted me to be classed as a minority student.”

Finally, he revealed his struggles with his memoir, dreading the disapproval of his parents.  Rodriguez had learned to live a public life, but the private life of his upbringing, still conflicted with his reality.  On one hand, he appeared to have a yearning for what he had lost, and it wasn’t clear if the value of what he had gained overrode it. A feeling of collision and urgency were always within the pages, the dichotomy of living in the tension of what we call “life”.

Journal of a Solitude by May Sarton

“Begin here.”

Introducing Journal of a Solitude, another out-of-order book for my WEM Biographies Project.  I’m finding the remaining biographies heavy on U.S. content, and being a Canadian I wasn’t at all familiar with May Sarton.  Born in Belgium, when German troops invaded the country, Sarton’s family fled to England, then to Boston, Massachusetts.  As a writer, she wrote a number of novels, poems and memoirs, mostly a commentary on her life and experiences on aging, friendship, depression, lesbianism, doubt, failure, the simple pleasures of life, and other personal musings.

Published in 1973, Journal of a Solitude is a response to her novel Plant Dreaming Deep.  Sarton stated that in the latter novel, people felt that in her they had found an intimate friend, but with Journal, she attempted to shatter that image and produce a reality of herself that was stark and intense, yet honest.  Sarton’s initial description holds a sincere, startling, simple candor:

“I am an ornery character, often hard to get along with.  The things I cannot stand, that make me flare up like a cat making a fat tail, are pretentiousness, smugness, the coarse grain that often show itself in turn of phrase.  I hate vulgarity, coarseness of soul.  I hate small talk with a passionate hatred.  Why?  I suppose because any meeting with another human being is collision for me now.  It is always expensive, and I will not waste my time.  It is never a waste of time to be outdoors, and never a waste of time to lie down and rest even for a couple of hours.  It is then that images float up and then that I plan my work.  But it is a waste of time to see people who have only a social surface to show.  I will make every effort to find out the real person, but if I can’t, then I am upset and cross.  Time wasted is poison.”

 

“…. I am an impossible creature, set apart by a temperament I have never learned to use as it could be used, thrown off by a word, a glance, a rainy day, or one drink too many.  My need to be alone is balanced against my fear of what will happen when suddenly I enter the huge empty silence if I cannot find support there.  I go up to Heaven and down to Hell in an hour, and keep alive only by imposing upon myself inexorable routines.  I write too many letters and too few poems.  It may be outwardly silent here but in the back of my mind is a clamor of human voices, too many needs, hopes, fears ….”

 

The Common, Nelson, New Hampshire, 1914
source Wikipedia

Sarton’s journal covers one year and gives the reader a warm, intimate view into her life in rural Nelson, New Hampshire.  As she paints her life with words, her thoughts go deep, exposing the beauty around her but also the turmoil inside her:

“I think of these pages as a way of doing that.  For a long time now, every meeting with another human being has been a collision.  I feel too much, sense too much, am exhausted by the reverberations after even the simplest conversation.  But the deep collision is and has been with my unregenerate, tormenting, and tormented self.  I have written every poem, every novel, for the same purpose —- to find out what I think, to know where I stand.  I am unable to become what I see.  I feel like an inadequate machine, a machine that breaks down at crucial moments, grinds to a dreadful halt, ‘won’t go,’ or, even worse, explodes in some innocent person’s face.”

In spite of her success as a writer, depression haunted Sarton; it was a companion that she could not seem to shake and she admits to thoughts of suicide:

“Cracking open the inner world again, writing even a couple of pages, threw me back into depression, not made easier by the weather, two gloomy days of darkness and rain.  I was attacked by a storm of tears, those tears that appear to be related to frustration, to buried anger, and come upon me without warning ………”

Yet, in spite of the adversity of her regular despondency, Sarton managed to decorate her life and the pages of her book with stories of the death of a friend, her bird, the battles with the neighbourhood racoons and her intense love of gardening.  The tales resonated with insight, as Sarton was always examining life.  Even the letter of a twelve-year-old girl, produced a philosophical rumination:

“In the mail a letter from a twelve-year-old child, enclosing poems, her mother having psuhed her to ask my opinion.  This child does really look at things, and I can write something helpful, I think.  But it is troubling how many people expect applause, recognition, when they have not even begun to learn an art or a craft.  Instant success is the order of the day; ‘I want it now!’  I wonder whether this is not part of our corruption by machines.  Machines do thing very quickly and outside the natural rhythm of life, and we are indignant if a car doesn’t start at first try.  So the few things that we still do, such as cooking (though there are TV dinners!), knitting, gardening, anything at all that cannot be hurried, have a very particular value.”

While Sarton lived in solitude, she at times travelled for speaking engagements and in each place she received something to ponder, whether it was the struggle of women, the advent of materialism, or the sometimes suffocating pressure that life laid upon her in the form of human contact. The journal skips along from day to day, emotion to emotion, task to task, her reflections personal, yet one senses a soul reaching out for something just beyond its grasp.  I’ve read numerous works on religious contemplative living, and each has been rich with a vibrancy that is quite startling contrasted with the starkness of their existence.  Sarton’s journal reverses this observation; her existence is filled with what she craves — writing, gardening, solitude —- yet, her inner soul lacks peace.

 

While Journal of a Solitude was a mildly enjoyable book for me, I can’t say that I’m going to rush out and read another by Sarton.  Even though, there was intimacy in her words, I never really grew to know her, perhaps because she didn’t seem to know herself.  The searching quality of the work brought a type of disquiet, and while I had empathy for her struggles, there was a melody of despair that hovered around her and echoed long after the book was done.  Life was an unconquerable bête noire for Sarton, ever present and often discouraging.  Which was all rather sad.

In this book, there is an enlightening reference to Virginia Woolf, of whom Sarton was familiar, perhaps illustrating the unusual temperaments of authors such as herself:

“When I was young and knew Virginia Woolf slightly, I learned something that startled me — that a person may be ultrasensitive and not warm.  She was intensely curious and plied one with questions, teasing, charming questions that made the young person glow at being even for a moment the object of her attention.  But I did feel at times as though I were ‘a specimen American young poet’ to be absorbed and filed away in the novelist’s store of vicarious experience.  Then one had also the daring sense that anything could be said, the sense of freedom that was surely one of the keys to the Bloomsbury ethos, a shared secret amusement at human folly or pretensions.  She was immensely kind to have seen me for at least one tea, as she did for some years whenever I was in England, but in all that time I never felt warmth, and this was startling.”

Why are so many artists tortured souls?  Is it because of the solitude they need to hone their skills, and the lack of human contact diminishes their souls?  With their art, are they sharing of themselves, giving of themselves and therefore becoming less?  The act of creation should be life-giving to both the giver and receiver, yet in many cases, why does one seem to benefit and the other is hindered?  Or have I asked the unanswerable question?  Sarton didn’t know the answer and I believe this question was one of many that haunted her through her long yet productive life.

 

Born Again by Charles W. Colson

My WEM Biographies Project has been thrown out of order by my library who doesn’t carry most of the other titles, so I’ve been forced to wait for them on inter-library loans.  Which means that I have no idea when they are going to arrive or which is going to arrive first.  After two months, the first book has arrived, Born Again by Charles W. Colson.

Colson occupied a position high-up in the United States government, serving as Special Counsel to Richard Nixon during Nixon’s years in the presidency.  Named as one of the Watergate Seven, he was tried and sentenced to one to three years in prison.  His autobiography is a story of his rise and fall, and finally his rise again to a higher calling.

Colson briefly covers his early life as a U.S. Marine, his education, and the opening of his law practice in Massachusetts, then quickly moves to his initiation into politics and his service to President Nixon.  Called Nixon’s “Hatchet Man”, he was quoted as saying that he’d walk over his own grandmother to get the job done.  Yet at the time, Colson saw these qualities as necessary in the political world.  Using an “ends justifies the means” mentality, he felt that he was helping the president build a world of peace and safety.  Ironically, with those altruistic sentiments, came an anger and intolerance against anyone with different opinions:

“….. a Holy War was declared against the enemy — those who opposed the noble goals we sought of peace and stability in the world.  They who differed with us, whatever their motives, must be vanquished.  The seeds of destruction were by now already sown — not in them but in us.”

Colson shows how good intentions, however noble, can be corrupted without the values of a higher authority than man himself.

Watergate Complex
source Wikipedia

With Colson assisting in Nixon’s re-election yet not planning to stay on into the second administration, on June 17, 1972, a security guard discovered five men inside the National Democratic Commitee offices in the Watergate Complex.  As the story leaked, a bugging system had been installed in the offices by Nixon’s men. Although Colson had nothing to do with this “scandal”, being Nixon’s henchman, he immediately began to take the heat.

Yet even before Watergate broke, Colson was having a crisis of conscience over his behaviour and the accepted unscrupulous behaviour of others in this political machine. His mind became opened to the immorality rampant in Washington and he strove to reconcile it with his moral principles.  When Watergate hit, his turmoil increased:

“In the whole sordid Watergate struggle, the Weicker episode (a senator who told him he wanted to break his nose) for me was the most unpleasant; being falsely accused before millions on national TV, then coming almost to blows with a United States senator.  I was used to playing as rough as the next guy, but Watergate was creating a madness I had never witnessed in twenty years in Washington, reducing political morality to the level of bayonet warfare ……… The feeling of empitness was back as well, the questions about myself, my purpose, what my life was all about …. ” (p.118)

Curiously at this time, he began to meet Christians, including Doe Coe, Harold Hughes, Graham B. Purcell, Jr. and Al Quie, congressmen and senators who were part of the political machine, understood the mess but managed to live with integrity and morality within the turmoil.  These “brothers” were both Republican and Democrat, and yet party polarity meant nothing to them, as their bond was formed based on the common love of Christ.

In a nationally syndicated column, reporter Nick Thimmesch wrote of the growing prayer meetings:

 ” ….. spurred by Watergate ….. They meet in each other’s homes ….. they meet at Pryer Breakfasts, they converse on the phone ….. a Brotherhood in belief …. there are many here and more are forming ….. I am not about to say that virtue and nobility are about to envelop the nation’s Capital — this is a tough, hard town.  But Watergate has created a great introspection, especially about personal values and this underground prayer movement can provide some peace, and a better sense of direction to many afflicted with spiritual malaise… ” (p. 204)

Nixon announces release of edited transcripts of
the Watergate tapes
source Wikipedia

While Colson stuck by the president, professing both of their innocence, with the release of Watergate transcripts, it became apparent that the president knew more than Colson suspected.  While Colson had been urging exposure for those involved, behind closed doors Nixon was stonewalling the investigators.  Among other regrets, Colson felt that the transcripts showed Nixon at his worst, instead of the complex man he was, a man who was passionate about his country, altruistic, and industrious, yet with faults that were all too common within political culture.  The transcripts, however, appeared to vindicate Colson.  Even the prosecutor finally acknowledged to the press:

“Colson’s alleged roles in the cover-up and burglary would have been more difficult to prove than those of the other alleged conspirators …… because this man was outside the main stream of the overt acts.”  (p. 260)

Finally, with Colson’s indictment, on his lawyer’s advice he pleaded not-guilty, but took the fifth amendment, yet this plea did not assuage Colson’s conscience nor align with his new-found Christian belief.  While he was not party to the Watergate affair, he was complicit in a break-in 10 months earlier, a break-in of a psychiatrist’s office to search for information on Daniel Ellsberg, a military analyst,  planning to use the data as a smear tactic against him; Ellsberg was suspected of leaking Pentagon Papers to the New York Times.  Burdened with his part in this particular campaign, Colson, with the support and prayer of his new friends, decided to tell the truth.  It was a shocking decision from a man who, if he’d kept silent, would likely have been acquitted and could have gone on to live a very comfortable existence.  However, Colson had been reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship and was convicted by these words:

“The first step which follows Christ’s call cuts the disciple off from his previous existence.  The call to follow at once produces a new situation.  To stay in the old situation makes discipleship impossible.” (p. 242)

Colson’s resolution, not only sent his lawyers into fits but came with a cost.  However, the new life he discovered held infinity more success and contentment and freedom than his old life had supplied.

On June 21, 1974, Colson was sentenced to one to three years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

White House Special Counsel Chuck Colson
source Wikipedia

Sent originally to Fort Holabird prison, where he was needed as a witness, Colson spent most of his sentence at Maxwell Correctional Facility in Alabama.  Initially, while the experience was foreign and unsettling, while reading his Bible, Colson noticed a beauty and wonder in the words, understanding the Trinity in a deeper sense and with a personal message woven within it:

“Just as God felt necessary to become man to help His children, could it be that I had to become a prisoner the better to understand suffering and deprivations?  If God chose to come to earth to know us better as brothers, then maybe God’s plan for me was to be in prison as a sinner, and to know men there as one of them.  Could I ever understand the horrors of prison life by visiting a prison?  The voice inside of me answered: Of course not.  No one could understand this life without being a part of it, feeling the anxieties, knowing the helplessness, living in desolation.  On a tiny scale, it was the lesson of Jesus coming to us.”

Colson began to see his incarceration as an opportunity to reach out and help people. He began immediately to connect with the inmates, meeting with some to pray, helping others with their letters to gain parole, and even helping smuggle dye into the facility to dye some coats prison-brown so the prisoners would not have to freeze during the winter (Later, he regretted this breaking of the rules, an evidence of his old habit of manipulating situations).  Colson had true empathy for these men, many some of who were imprisoned due to mischance, or harsh sentencing.  Through his love and caring for the prisoners around him, he began to change some of their outlooks and behaviour, and when he was released from prison seven months later, there were many whom he’d call “friend”.

Colson on one of his prison visits
photo courtesy of martyangelo.com

While the book ends with Colson’s release, his interactions with inmates didn’t end there.  Having an enormous heart for their plight and the struggles they faced, he began Prison Fellowship, an organization that grew to become the nation’s largest, helping both prisoners and their families.  In the epilogue of the book based on a study done at the University of Pennsylvannia, Colson reveals that when comparing the inmates who have gone through his program with the general prison populous, only 8% of the his prisoners reoffended within 2 years, compared with 20% of prisoners from the control group and 50% nationwide.  With these very impressive statistics, I found some online controversy about them, complaints that of the 177 people in Colson’s study group, that only the 75 people who graduated were used for the study, skewing the figures to his advantage.  These complaints appear inconsistent with the purpose of the study.  The intent of the study was to show the re-offending figures of Prison Fellowship graduates compared to the standard prisoner.  To use prisoners who didn’t fully complete the program would be senseless and not within the study’s parameters.  The report as is, does show that if a prisoner stays in the Prison Fellowship program and completes it, he has much better chance of returning to society, becoming a useful member of it, and living a fulfilling life.

Some reviews (and even the introduction to Colson’s book) claim that the main focus of the book is Colson’s conversion and not the Watergate scandal, which isn’t quite accurate.  While I won’t argue with the verb “focus,” practically most of the book relates Colson’s political career, and with perhaps ¼ covering the period of his incarceration, the book ending right after his release.  However, I do think that the back-story is imperative to build and explain his journey from a cut-throat politician to a committed Christian with not only a love for his fellow man, but a desire to put that love in action to better the lives of others.

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein

“I was born in San Francisco, California.”

Gertrude Stein was a Jewish-American writer who lived in France for over 40 years, becoming an intrinsic part of the Parisian art world in the early 1900s. Part of an avant garde artistic movement that thumbed its nose at past artistic structure, she was intimate with artists, both painters and writers, such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Juan Gris, George Braque, Guillaume Appolonaire, Henri Rousseau, Ernest Hemingway, Mildred Aldrich  and many others, who were frequent visitors to her 27 rue de Fleurus location.  She attempted her own literary movement, writing many works that were deemed “incomprehensible”, but received a small following.  Her autobiography is perhaps a more gentle exposure to her “art”.

Portrait of Gertrude Stein (1906)
Pablo Picasso
source Wikiart

Although Stein presents this biography as being about her longtime companion, Alice B. Toklas, in fact it is Stein, speaking with the voice of Toklas about her own life and experiences.  She briefly chronicles her early life, then moves directly to France, going into great detail about her life there, yet revealing little about herself.  Her style is mostly observation and there is little depth to her words.  It is a matter of, “this happened, and that happened, and this happened,” without there being much of an internal interaction with occurrences, or an outward reaction to them.  The book was all about Stein, but on the other hand it wasn’t, and I never felt that I came to know much about the woman at all.  Of course, I now know about all the important people she knew and all about her writings, but it’s more like skating on top of a lake instead of diving right into it; you see a reflection that has echoes of reality, but somehow reality itself escapes you.

Nevertheless the book had some interesting information on the artists living in Paris during Stein’s residence there:

“The Matisses had had a hard time.  Matisse had come to Paris as a young man to study pharmacy.  His people were small grain merchants in the north of France.  He had become interested in painting, had begun copying the Poussins at the Louvre and become a painter fairly without the consent of his people who however continued to allow him the very small monthly sum he had had as a student …..”

And interesting things to say about different nationalities:

Americans and Spaniards

“Americans, so Gertrude Stein says, are like spaniards, they are abstract and cruel.  They are not brutal, they are cruel.  They have no close contact with the earth such as most europeans have.  Their materialism is not the materialism of existence, of possession, it is the materialism of action and abstraction. And so cubism is spanish …..”

Germans

“Gertrude Stein used to get furious when the english all talked about german organization.  She used to insist that the germans had no organisation, they had method but no organisation.  Don’t you understand the difference, she used to say angrily, any two americans, any twenty americans, any millions of americans can organise themselves to do something but germans cannot organise themselves to do anything, they can formulate a method and this method can be put upon them but that isn’t organisation.  The germans, she used to insist, are not modern, they are a backward people who have had a method of what we conceive as organisation, can’t you see.  They cannot therefore possibly win this war because they are not modern.”

French

“The french are so accustomed to revolutions, they have had so many, that when anything happens they immediately think and say, revolution.  Indeed Gertrude Stein once said rather impatiently to some french soldiers when they said something about a revolution, you are silly, you have had one perfectly good revolution and several not quite so good ones; for an intelligent people it seem to me foolish to be always thinking of repeating yourselves.  They looked very sheepish and said, bien sur mademoiselle, in other words, sure you’re right….”

There is always an underlying humour touched with a seriousness in her narrative; although life is somber business, one must not take it too seriously.

Stein with Ernest Hemingway’s son, Jack (1924)
source Wikipedia

Stein definitely has both fans and critics.  One enthusiast, Mabel Dodge, an American art patron, wrote, “In Gertrude Stein’s writing every word lives, apart from concept, it is so rhythmical and cadenced that if we read it aloud and receive it as pure sound, it is like a kind of sensuous music.”

However, Stein’s brother, who apparently had the eye of an art connoisseur and amassed an impressive collection of paintings, called the biography “a farrago of lies,” Hemingway declared it, “a damned pitiful book,” and critic F.W. Dupree denounced “Steinese” as being “gnomic, repetitive, illogical, sparsely punctuated …… a scandal and a delight, lending itself equally to derisory parody and fierce denunciation.”  

Perhaps the truth lies in the battlefield between the two factions, and American writer Sherwood Anderson, found the median between the two, saying, “As for Stein, I do not think her too important.  I do think she had an important thing to do, not for the public, but for the artist who happens to work with words for his material.”

Stein’s signature

The Story of My Experiments With Truth by Mohandas K. Gandhi

“The Gandhis belong to the Bania caste and seem to have been originally grocers.”

Encouraged by friends and colleagues to share the history of his movement, Gandhi began his autobiography as weekly installments which were published in his journal, Navjivan, and also, Young India.  Writing in jail, Gandhi wanted to communicate spiritual and moral truth that he has discovered through personal experiments and he shares the impetus for his search:

“But one thing took deep root in me — the conviction that morality is the basis of things, and that truth is the substance of all morality.  Truth became my sole objective.  It began to grow in magnitude every day, and my definition of it also has been ever widening.”

As many other biographers have done, Gandhi begins his narrative with his childhood, sharing his many childish misdemeanors such as smoking, drinking, stealing, etc.  Married at the age of thirteen, Gandhi condemns this practice, characterizing his desire for his wife as lust, feeling in bondage to his passions, which he laters frees himself from:

” …… (I) realized that the wife is not the husband’s bondslave, but his companion and helpmate, and an equal partner in all his joys and sorrows —- as free as the husband to choose her own path ….”

Gandhi in South Africa
source Wikipedia

As a young man, Gandhi travelled to England to study to become a lawyer.  Upon returning to India, and being bored with his opportunities, he accepted the position of legal advisor on a large law suit in South Africa. With regard to his vocation, Gandhi had sharp insights, and with a moral bent, turned a perhaps mistrusted profession into a respected appointment:

“I realized that the true function of a lawyer was to unite parties riven asunder.  The lesson was so indelibly burnt into me that a large part of my time during the twenty years of my practice as a lawyer was occupied in bringing about private compromises of hundreds of cases.  I lost nothing thereby — not even money, certainly not my soul.”

“The symbol of a Court of justice is a pair of scales held evenly by an impartial and blind but sagacious woman.  Fate has purposely made her blind, in order that she may not judge a person from his exterior but from his intrinsic worth.”

In spite of being an unimposing figure, Gandhi’s greatness came not only from his desire for unity among people and serving the poor, but also his unique ability to see situations from a different perspective.  What the world would see as a weakness, Gandhi often saw as a strength:

“I must say that, beyond occasionally exposing me to laughter, my constitutional shyness has been no disadvantage whatever. In fact, I can see that, on the contrary, it has been all to my advantage.  My hesitancy in speech, which was once an annoyance, is now a pleasure.  Its greatest truth has been that it has taught me the economy of words.  I have naturally formed the habit of restraining my thoughts ……. Experience has taught me that silence is part of the spiritual discipline of a votary of truth ……..  My shyness has been in reality my shield and buckler.  It has allowed me to grow.  It has helped me in my discernment of truth.”


With his Christian and Muslim friends, he noted the differences, but instead of attempting to erase those differences, he chose to celebrate them, focusing on the positive aspects that those differences brought to light:

“Yet even differences prove helpful, where there is tolerance, charity and truth.”

His work in South Africa spanned decades, as he fought for the rights of the Indians there, after encountering race prejudice himself.  Many of his political views became entrenched with his South African experiences, and his religious views grew as well.  He became known for the employment of satyagraha, or non-violent protest and elucidates how it played out in his life.  The reader follows Gandhi through the Boer War and into World War I and his return to life in India.  He began to see the detriment of British colonial rule and worked hard to make his country ready for the independence that he foresaw.

His humility and his concern for his fellow-man resonate from the pages, his wisdom bringing unique insight.

“Man and his deed are two distinct things.  Whereas a good deed should call forth approbation and a wicked deed disapprobation, the doer of the deed, whether good or wicked always deserves respect or pity as the case may be.  ‘Hate the sin and not the sinner’ is a precept which, though easy enough to understand, is rarely practised, and that is why the poison of hatred spreads in the world …………. It is quite proper to resist and attack a system, but to resist and attack its author is tantamount to resisting and attacking oneself.  For we are all tarred with the same brush, and are children of one and the same Creator, and as such the divine powers within us are infinite.  To slight a single human being is to slight those divine powers, and thus to harm not only that being but with him the whole world.”

His desire for truth through the restoration of broken relationships and systems resonated throughout his work and his life.

What really spoke to me in this biography is that Gandhi, in spite of claiming a natural affinity with all races, also worked hard to develop traits within himself that would foster unity, empathy, patience and love towards others.  While it was a conviction within himself to cultivate positive behaviour, it was done with great effort and sometimes at a cost.  It is a tragic irony that Gandhi’s life came to and end with an act of violence, but perhaps the man himself would turn that perception on its head and simply say that it was further evidence of our need of the very thing which, at times, seems out of reach.  Yet as long as we are striving for peace, it is perhaps the striving that truly matters.

“I have found by experience that man makes his plans to be often upset by God, but, at the same time where the ultimate goal is the search of truth, no matter how a man’s plans are frustrated, the issue is never injurious and often better than anticipated.”

Mein Kampf by Adolf Hilter

“Today I consider it my good fortune that Fate designated Braunau on the Inn as the place of my birth.”

Written in 1925, Hitler crafted his biography while serving time in a German prison for his political crimes during his Putsch, or coup attempt of the Nazi party, in November 1923. Apparently he wanted to title his work Viereinhalb Jahre (des Kampes) gegen Lüge, Dummheit und Feigheit, or Four and a Half Years (of Struggle) Against Lies, Stupidity and Cowardice.  His publisher wisely got him to shorten the title to Mein Kampf (My Struggle).

Hitler first covers the period of his childhood, and then moves to his years in Vienna, where he initially aspired to be an artist, but after a number of discouragements, began to focus more on the political sphere of the city.  As early as chapter 3, we see that certain aspects of his ideology are already strongly rooted:

Chapter 3

  • No man should take an active part in politics before 30
  • Leaders who change their mind or admit their previously held views to be wrong, give up their leadership qualities and become political “bedbugs” who hang onto their positions only for personal gain, seeing every new movement or every man greater than themselves as a threat.
  • The German-Austrian is the only person who has benefited Austria in various social and political settings — he also disparages Negros in this diatribe
  • Social Democracy contributed to the de-Germanization of the State of Austria
  • the Austrian parliament is undignified because all the political members do not speak German, “a gesticulating mass, speaking in all keys.”
  • Democracy of the West forsters Marxism and is a universal plague
  • Regrets that with the parliamentary system, that no one is held responsible for any decisions

The Alter Hof in Munich (1914)
Adolf Hitler
source Wikipedia

After Chapter 3, I gave up my note taking.  Hitler is, if nothing else, repetitive, and his increasing virulent hatred towards anyone or anything Jewish, was hard to stomach.  It was educational to learn that his anti-Semitism was shared by others at the time, and he was influenced by anti-Semitic organizations.  Much of his book is a thesis against them, with Hitler providing supporting evidence for the Jews being dirty, liars, sneaky, dishonest, culturally bankrupt, dangerous, avaricious, etc.  They were, in effect, social parasites and, in Hitler’s eyes, entirely expendable.  In fact, he felt the superior races duty-bound to rid the world of their inferior presence.

As for political ideologies, Hitler eschewed both Marxism, which he saw as a tool of the Jews, and Socialism.  For him, the democracy of the West was actually the forerunner of Marxism.  Yet Hitler invented his own style of Democracy.  The “true German democracy” consists of one leader who “take(s) over fully all responsibility for what he does or does not do.  There will be no voting by a majority on single questions, but only the decision of the individual who backs it with his life and all he has.”  Rather scary, don’t you think?  One perfect individual, perhaps? Who would judge this individual?  Who would hold him accountable?  A recipe for disaster, I’d say.

Learning from other statesmen, whom he admired, Hitler strove to give Germany an ideology that the common people would ascribe to and be willing to defend to the death.  Hitler himself said, Every attempt at fighting a view of life by means of force will finally fail, unless the fight against it represents the form of an attack for the sake of a new spiritual direction.  Only in the struggle of two views of life with each other can the weapon of brute force, used continuously and ruthlessly, bring about the decision in favor of the side it supports.”

Hitler as a soldier during WWI
source Wikipedia

Of Hitler’s participation in World War I, my book’s notes have the following to say:  “Concerning his military record, the following facts are known; that he served as a messenger between regimental headquarters and the the front; that he was a good soldier who refused to the very end to join in criticism of the way things were being run; that his temperament made his commanding officer doubt the wisdom of promoting him to any sort of non-commissioned rank above that of corporal; and that he occupies a modest but honorable place in the history of the Regiment List, to which he belonged.  The particular exploit for which he received the Iron Cross is shrouded in secrecy, but most biogrpahers agree that there was no reason why it should have been awarded.”

There is a interesting chapter on war propaganda ….. how it has been used effectively and ineffectively and Hitler’s proposed fine-tuning of it.  He felt that during WWI, the German methods were simply too sophisticated and failed to concentrate on appealing to popular emotion.  Hitler believed that the most important tactic was to ascertain what would invoke the support of the masses.

On Nation and Race, Hitler observed that no other animal in nature cross mates; finches mate with finches, foxes with foxes, etc. so therefore why should humans?  Cross mating simply weakens the race.  Once he sorted out the races, he turned to Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” ideology, in that the stronger weed out the weaker (ie. kill them), until the strongest is on top.  It’s quite bizarre logic, because Germany lost WWI and therefore should have been considered the weaker race, but Hitler has a myriad of excuses for their loss.

Munich Marienplatz during the Beer Hall Putsch
source Wikipedia

The book also gives a chilling account of how ordinary people can get caught up in evil.  Of Hitler’s putsch of 1923 (his attempt to seize power in Munich), my book’s notes say, “The Hitler putsch of 1923 made the (Nazi) Party more popular in the city than it had been before.  When the Nazis drove dissenters — or imaginary dissenters —- from their meetings with cudgels, their audiences grew larger.  Few people in Germany were at the bottom anti-Semitic, but the joy large number felt in promises of blood curdling treatment to be meted out to the helpless minority made them responsive to the suggestion.  Smashing windows and street fighting were relied upon to win the crowd.  The propagandists encouraged them all.  ‘We shall reach our goal,’ declared Goebbels, ‘when we have the courage to laugh as we destroy, as we smash, whatever was sacred to us as tradition, as education, as friendship and as human affection.’  In the Vienna of March, 1938, ordinary citizens who had hitherto gone about peacefully, confessed to a strange delight in the sufferings visited upon the Jewish group.”  This description was one of the most chilling parts of the book for me.  I cannot imagine human beings, not only wanting to enact such suffering on others, but enjoying it as well.

I started this read this biography, with great anticipation, hoping to gain some insight into the mind of one of the most villainous characters in modern history. Yet, as I read, I soon realized that it was going to be difficult to understand someone who was mad, if you are not mad yourself.  The narrative became a strange compilation of rather astute and insightful commentary, often hidden and mixed in amongst his mad ravings and bizarre ideas.  Hitler makes mostly nonsense, but with a sprinkling of rather astute sense, the combination making some of his accounts strangely compelling.  It’s rather alarming.  Yet his rambling diatribes and racist invective soon began to become wearing and while I didn’t fall asleep like Ruth, I quickly developed a distaste for much of what he had to say.  As an historical document, it was moderately interesting, but as for my attempt for a personal connection with Hitler, that was a complete fail.  And I must say, that it was a very pleasant fail.  Personally, I was very glad to say goodbye to Adolf Hitler.

With regard to the translation of my edition, it is an annotated and unexpurgated edition sponsored by a number of people including Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Published in 1939, after the First World War, yet just at the beginning of the second one, the perspective it offers with regard to the annotations is indeed a unique one, and very valuable to understanding the mindset of the times.  I cannot see an official translator noted, but it is published by Houghton Mifflin, in case anyone wants to search it out.

Ecce Homo by Friedrich Nietzsche

Ecce Homo

Ecce Homo: “In view of the fact that I will shortly have to confront humanity with the heaviest demand ever made of it, it seems to me essential to say who I am.”

I feel somewhat exhausted.  Approaching Ecce Homo with something akin to trepidation, it’s been proven that my expectations are often very accurate. Nietzsche was certainly a trial, but I’m glad that I read Ecce Homo, my first exposure to this singular German philosopher.  Wow, Nietzsche would hate that description.  He despised Germans and felt philosophy was a fraud.  In any case, he didn’t like most things, so any way I described him, I’d be in danger of his patronizing, scathing invective.

Ecce Homo, or How One Becomes What One Is (Wie Man Wird, Was Man Ist) was the last book that Nietzsche wrote before his death and gives insight into the man, his ideas and his works.  The words “Ecce Homo” are taken from the words Pontius Pilate used when he delivered Jesus, scourged and bleeding, to a riotous crowd right before he was taken to be crucified.  Nietzsche hated Christianity because he felt that it was the mechanism for the function of society and, therefore, was responsible for everything that was wrong with it.

Yet while the book gives enlightenment, it does so from Nietzsche’s perspective, words coming from a man who already seemed in the throes of the mental illness that would bring about his death.  It’s certainly helpful to see it in this light.

 

Ecce Homo
Ecce Homo (1558-60)
Titian
source Wikipedia

Why I Am So Wise

Nietzsche is better than everyone else in the world.  He is so incredibly wise and we are such small, insignificant beings compared to him, with nothing in particular to add to the benefit of humanity, that he can hardly stand to be in our presence.  Lest you think I’m being too hard on him, let Nietzsche speak for himself:

” ….. I have an instinct for cleanliness that is utterly uncanny in its senstivity, which means that I can physiologically detect —- smell —- the proximity or (what am I saying?) the innermost aspect, the ‘innards’ of every soul …… I am already conscious of the large amount of concealed dirt at the bottom of many a nature, perhaps occasioned by bad blood but whitewashed over by upbringing. ……. natures like this which are unconducive to my cleanliness feel the circumspection of my digust on their part, too; it does not make them smell any more pleasant ……. impure conditions are the death of me ………. This makes dealing with people quite a trial to my patience; my humaneness consists not in sympathizing with someone, but in putting up with the fact that I sympathize with them …… My humaneness is a constant self-overcoming …….”

Ecce Homo
Ecce Homo (1964-67)
Salvador Dali
source Wikiart

There is more blather stating that compassion, rather than being a virtue, is a weakness, and he references his work, Zarathustra, for proof (in this I believe Nietzsche misses making the distinction between false compassion and true compassion); and labelling rudeness as one of the foremost virtues (again, he muddles benevolent frankness with lack of resolution and fortitude to deal with issues).

He announces his penchant for war, or attack, and lists his rules of war:

  1. He attacks only causes which are victorious
  2. He attacks causes only when there are no allies to be found
  3. He never attacks people
  4. He attacks things only when all personal disagreement is ruled out

He claims that he can attack causes with impunity, and that there are no hard feelings from the victim, yet in his next chapter he states, “May I make bold as to intimate one last trait of my nature which causes me no little trouble in my dealings with people?,” indicating that his relationships are not so harmonious as he’d like to believe.

Why I Am So Clever

I seriously asked myself if I really wanted to know why Nietzsche thought himself so clever, but, foolish me, I decided to keep on reading.

Nietzsche lists the reasons for his cleverness at the beginning of this section:

  • he has not squandered himself
  • he has no personal experience with true religious difficulties
  • he is entirely at a loss to know how sinful he is supposed to be

Higher educations causes one to lose sight of realities and Nietzsche then begins to take pot-shots at the German education system, which regresses to insulting German culinary tradition.  How we got there, I’m uncertain.  He then conducts a detailed investigation into:

  • nutrition
  • place
  • climate
  • relaxation

Within these four topics, Nietzsche likens reading to letting an alien climb over your wall; claims he reads the same books because he is opposed to new books by instinct; states everywhere that Germany extends, it ruins culture; that we are all afraid of truth; and that Wagner to him, is like hashish.  It sounds bizarre and, quite frankly, is, but there are certainly some interesting ideas in Nietzsche’s convoluted onslaught of aberrant thought.

He claims that he now cannot avoid the question how to become what you are, but then digresses, and I can’t find anywhere where he answers it.

And asked why he concentrates so much on the small issues of above, Nietzsche alleges that to-date everything that man had deemed important is, in fact, lies because we have searched for divinity in human nature.  We must start relearning and therefore, we must begin with the basics.

Why I Write Such Good Books

“I am one thing, my writings are another.”

Nietzsche is resigned to the fact that no one will be able to understand his writing, feeling no ill-will towards anyone for their lack of intellect.

” …. in other words experiencing —- six sentences of it [Zarathustra] raises you up to a higher level of mortals than ‘modern’ men could ever reach ….”

Some day, there will be universities dedicated to understanding his works.  No one has experienced what Nietzsche has, and therefore is it not understandable that no one can comprehend his genius? Oh here, let me allow Nietzsche to speak for himself:

“I know my prerogatives as a writer to some extent; in certain cases I even have evidence of how much it ‘ruins’ people’s taste if they get used to my writings.  They simply can no longer stand other books, least of all philosophy books.  It is an unparalleled distrinction to step into this noble and delicate world — for which you must not on any account be a German; ultimately it is a distinction you need to have earned …… I come from the heights to which no bird has yet flown, I know abysses into which no foot has yet strayed.  I have been told it is not possible to let a book of mine out of one’s hands —- that I even disturb sleep …… There is definitely no prouder and at the same time more refined kind of book: here and there they achieve the highest thing that can be achieved on earth, cynicism; you must tackle them with the most delicate fingers as well as with the bravest fists.”

The birth of tragedy

Nietzsche then outlines each of his books, spending most of his time lauding their brilliance, mentioning the few geniuses who have enjoyed them, and condemning everyone who disliked them.

The Birth of Tragedy:  “It is politically indifferent  —– ‘un-German’ in today’s parlance —- it smells offensively Hegelian, and in just a few phrases it is tainted with the doleful scent of Schopenhauer.  An ‘idea’ — the Dionysian/Apollonian opposition —- translated into metaphysics, history itself as the development of this ‘idea’; in tragedy the opposition sublated to become a unity form this point of view things that had never looked each other in the face before suddenly juxtaposed, illuminated, and understood in the light of each other …..”

the untimelies

The Untimelies: The Untimelies can also be translated as “Thoughts out of Season”, “Unmodern Observations” or “Unfashionable Observations”.  In this writing, Nietzsche draws his rapier and launches four attacks:

First, an attack on the German education system.  I found that this was the first time I actually agreed with Nietzsche.  He purported that there was no evidence at all that Germany’s military success was a result of their education.  The school system in America is apparently an offshoot of this Prussia model.  I found an interesting article about it here.  One of my favourite authors, John Taylor Gatto, talks about this model in his book, The Underground History of American Education.  I highly recommend it.

The second attack is titled, On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life.  Nietzsche warns of the dangers of “our kind of scientific endeavour, what there is in it that gnaws away at life and poisons it —- life made ill by this dehumanized machinery and mechanism, by the ‘impersonality’ of the worker, by the false economy of the ‘division of labour’.  The end, culture, is lost — the means, modern scientific endeavour, barbarizes ….”  Hmmm ….. is it possible that I might again agree with Nietzsche?  That would be just too weird.

The third and fourth Untemelies, titled Schopenhauer as Educator and Richard Wagner in Bayreuth, give an impression of “a higher conception of culture, towards the restoration of the concept ‘culture'” in which two images are set, having the highest contempt for everything around them that is synonymous with the present culture.  I doubt that I’d side with him here.

Nietzsche appears to take great joy in upsetting everyone around him.

human all too human

Human, All Too Human: With Two Continuations:

Subtitled A Book For Free Spirits, Nietzsche claims in this writing that he liberated himself from idealism and is “a spirit that has become free, that has seized possession of itself again.”

I wasn’t quite clear as to what exactly this work was about, due to Nietzsche’s ambiguity and his habit of digression, but it appears that he mentions things favourable to Voltaire, and addresses his break with Richard Wagner.  Why am I not surprised that he extols the thoughts of Voltaire?

The work apparently evolved out of some mental crisis that Nietzsche experienced during the Bayreuth Festival when he felt a “profound sense of alienation” and went off into the forest before being coaxed back by his sister.

daybreak

Daybreak: Thoughts on Morality as Prejudice

Nietzsche states that this book commenced his war against morality.  Again, Nietzsche commends his work and genius, rather than getting to the meat of his ideas.

“Even now, if I encounter the book by chance, practically every sentence becomes a tip with which I can pull up something incomparable from the depths once again: its whole hide quivers with the tender shudders of recollection ….”

But finally Nietzsche gets to a description of what he believes is its value:

“In a revaluation of all values, in freeing himself from all moral values, in saying ‘yes’ to and placing trust in everything that has hitherto been forbidden, despised, condemned.  This yes-saying book pours out its light, its love, its delicacy over nothing but bad things, it gives them back their ‘soul’, their good conscience, the lofty right and prerogative of existence.”

Good grief!  You want to counter this statement but where do you start?  Does he think that there have been no societies that have tried to live without morality?  Is this morality-proper or Nietzsche’s type of morality?  Can one truly escape some sort of morality?

the gay science

The Gay Science:  This title is developed out of the Provençal expression which is used to describe the technical skill of writing poetry, as Nietzsche describes it, “almost every sentence here profundity and mischief go tenderly hand in hand.”  The quality of the Provençal style shows “unity of singer, knight, and free thinker which distinguishes the marvellous early culture of the Provençal people from all ambiguous cultures ….”

thus spoke zarathustra

Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book For Everybody and Nobody:  Again, it’s best for Nietzsche to describe this, in his often lovely prose ~ what it means, however, one is often left wondering ….

“Aphorisms quivering with passion; eloquence become music; lightning-bolts hurled on ahead towards hitherto unguessed-at futures.  The mightiest power of analogy that has yet existed is feeble fooling compared to this return of language to its natural state of figurativeness —- And how Zarathustra descends and says the kindest things to everyone!  How he tackles even his adversaries, the priests, with delicate hands and suffers from them with them!  —- Here man is overcome at every moment; the concept of ‘overman’ has become the highest reality here — everything that has hitherto been called great about man lies at an infinite distance below him.  The halcyon tone, the light feet, the omnipresence of malice and high spirits and everything else that is typical of the type Zarathustra has never been dreamed of as essential to greatness.  Precisely in this extent of space, in this ability to access what is opposed, Zarathustra feels himself to be the highest of all species of being; and when we hear how he defines it, we will dispense with searching for his like.”

I won’t sport with your intelligence in continuing to relate just how much more knowledgable and astute Zarathustra (and therefore, Nietzsche) is than you will ever be.

beyond good and evil

Beyond Good and Evil:  If Nietzsche doesn’t catch any “fish” with his works, what could that mean? The cause?  Is it perhaps because his arguments don’t make sense or people can’t relate to his delivery?  No!  According to Nietzsche, it means that there simply weren’t any fish to be caught.

This book is “a critique of modernity, not excluding the modern sciences, the modern arts, even modern politics, together with pointers towards an opposing type, as unmodern as possible, a noble, yes-saying type ….. refinement in form, in intention, in the art of silence is in the foreground; psychology is handled with avowed harshness and cruelty —- the books is devoid of any good-natured word …..”

 

geneology of morals

Genealogy of Morals: A Polemic:  

A book of three essays:

  1. the psychology of Christianity
  2. the psychology of conscience
  3. where the immense power of the ascetic ideal springs from

This actually sounds somewhat interesting to me.

 

twilight of the idols

Twilight of the Idols: How to Philosophize with a Hammer:

Nietzsche recommends starting with this work.  It’s a short book but “there is nothing richer in substance, more independent, more subversive —- more wicked …”

Nietzsche is the first to have “the yard-stick of truths in his hand.”  He is the evangelist to truth, and everyone was lost before him.

the wagner case

The Wagner Case: A Musician’s Problem:  To read this properly, you need to feel as though music is the history of your own suffering.  I think that this writing deals with his split from his friend, Richard Wagner, a well-known German composer, but Nietzsche launches a scathing invective against, I’m assuming, the ideals that Wagner supported.  He castigates Germans for many things, wrapping up his ire in their great cultural crimes.  He attacks Martin Luther along with Leibniz and Kant.  In fact, Germans have “robbed Europe of its meaning, its reason…”  

Why I Am A Destiny

Nietzsche is terrified that one day he will be called holy.  But, he admits, his “truth is terrifying, for lies were called truth so far.  —- Revaluation of all values: that is my formula for the highest act of self-reflection on the part of humanity, which has become flesh and genius in me.  My lot wills it that I must be the first decent human being, that I know I stand in opposition to the hypocrisy of millennia ….. I was the first to discover the truth, by being the first to sense — smell — the lie as a lie …..   My genius is in my nostrils.”

What follows is more exaltation of evil and lying, and conversely Nietzsche advocates war against the good, benevolent, the beneficent, and Christian morality.  More invectives against Christianity follow, the content of which makes me wonder if Nietzsche really had an issue with Christ, or simply with the way Christianity had been presented to him.  In any case, it really doesn’t matter.  At this point Nietzsche had drained me, and I predict that I’d have an issue reading any work longer than this book of his, which is only 138 pages. He signed this work  ~ Dionysus against the crucified one ~  Nietzsche aligned himself with the early Greek philosophers and thought of himself as a modern-day Dionysus.

bacchus
Bacchus (or Dionysus – 1596)
Caravaggio
source Wikiart

Never mind Dionysus —– Nietzsche is the consummate Narcissus.  He placed himself in the position of God; everything was measured by his own thoughts and emotions, and judged accordingly.  Since he was so much above everything and everyone, is it any surprise that all fall short of his ideal? Perhaps that is nothing, and for a great philosopher is understandable.  Yet the contempt and the disparagement that he exhibits towards nearly everyone, not only severely undermines much of his philosophy, but also twists his ideas into a mass of writhing snakes where one is at a loss to find the proper head and tail to each.

I found some of Nietzsche’s ideas fascinating, but as soon as I started to read his arguments that developed those ideas, he often lost my interest.  Not only were his disputations littered with self-praise, ambiguity and circumlocution, he often didn’t make sense, or perhaps I should say that, in this book, his explanations didn’t go far enough.  He also spoke from a very ethnocentric point-of-view.  Although he believed that he borrowed ideas from the ancient Greeks, almost everything he criticized was German, and everything he wanted to fix related to German society.  I’m not sure how well some of his arguments would hold up in other countries, but my brain is too done to wonder about this ——- no, my brain is not tired because it explored wonderfully deep amazing thoughts; it’s tired as if it’s had to put up with a recalcitrant child for the last couple of weeks.  And so ends my first experience with Nietzsche.

I am quite enjoying my WEM Project.  It’s forced me to read some books that I probably wouldn’t have touched otherwise.  I didn’t particularly enjoy Nietzsche but look at the length of my review!  He at least inspired something, even though it wasn’t admiration.

 

reading the biographies

 

Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington

“I was born a slave on a plantation in Franklin County, Virginia.”

This was my third book on slavery in succession that I’ve read for my WEM Project.  The Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and the Narrative of the Life and Times of Frederick Douglass were the first two, and while I enjoyed the history and information I gleaned on a subject of which I know little (I plead ignorance on the basis of being Canadian), I really did not feel touched by either book as a whole.  Really, I wondered if there was something wrong with me.  Yes, I felt sympathy for the plight of the slaves; just the thought of being owned and having stripped from you the many things that make one human, was horrifying.  The degradation and the suffering generated disgust. Yet there was something missing, for me at least.

In my Frederick Douglass review, Cirtnecce made a comment, and suddenly my mind opened up and I had it; the reason why I was left rather cold by the other two books.  This was my response to her:

What I’ve missed from these books so far, is a way to move forward in a human way. You can speak about practicalities and reason and that’s useful, but if one tries simply to protect one segment of the population or to legislate people’s behaviour, it almost seems as if nothing has truly changed. I’d love to read something that communicates ideas of how to make changes in the hearts and minds of people; imo, that’s the way to effect true change.”

That was it!  I was looking for a book that would precipitate a transformation, and in Booker T. Washington’s biography, I received more than I could ever hope for!

Washington briefly chronicled his experiences as a slave during the Civil War, where he gained his freedom through emancipation at the approximate age of ten.  Eventually he made his way to the Hampton Institute, earned an education through hard work, and because of his perserverance and a solid work ethic, Washington was chosen to become the first leading teacher of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, a school formed to promote the higher education of blacks in Confederate States.  Washington’s biography offers an in-depth history of his creation and formation of Tuskegee, which Washington built not only with his hands, but his rather creative mind and intellect.

This book is a fascinating portrait of not only a man who rose above slavery, but conquered the demons that it bred, to see a way forward for blacks and whites to live, not just in harmony, but in cooperation with each other to make a better community and a better world.  In spite of the racial prejudices he encountered, Washington never responded in anger, preferring to examine the issues and problems that caused the prejudice, and to respond in a way that was beneficial for both blacks and whites.  He never viewed himself as a victim and in his gracious and measured responses, won accolades and respect on each side of the divide, narrowing it with his quiet, yet determined, demeanour.

There are so many wonderful quotes in this book that I hardly know where to start.  I’m going to choose to concentrate mostly on the Tuskegee school, since it was such a large part of Washington’s life and therefore his existence, and it really exemplified his philosophy for social change in a manner that was visual and effective.

Tuskegee Univeristy Panorama (1916)
source Wikipedia

Washington structured the Tuskegee school not only to promote learning but to entrench something possibly even more valuable …… hard work.  The students were given preference, not only because of their academic abilities, but their willingness to work hard.

“No student no matter how much money he may be able to command, is permitted to go through school without doing manual labour …….  From the beginning, at Tuskegee, I was determined to have the students do not only the agricultural and domestic work, but to have them erect their own buildings.  My plan was to have them, while performing this service, taught the latest and best methods of labour, so that the school would not only get the benefit of their efforts, but the students themselves would be taught to see, not only utility in labour, but beauty and dignity; would be taught, in fact, how to lift labour up from mere drudgery and toil, and would learn to love work for its own sake.  My plan was not to teach them to work in the old way, bt to show them how to make the forces of nature —– air, water, steam, electricity, horse-power —- assist them in their labour …………  Mistakes I knew would be made, but these mistakes would teach us valuable lessons for the future.”

The Oaks – Washington’s home
on Tuskegee campus
source Wikipedia

However, while work and academia were important, Washington did not neglect the spiritual growth of his students including services and prayer, using a non-denominational model.  I know little about the times in this respect, but I can imagine that this was a revolutionary way of structuring an academic institution:

“If no other consideration had convinced me of the value of the Christian life, the Christlike work which the Church of all denominations in America has done during the last thirty-five years for the elevation of the black man would have made me a Christian.  In a large degree it has been the pennies, the nickles, and the dimes which have come from the Sunday-schools, the Christian Endeavour societies, and the missionary societies, as well as from the church proper that have helped to elevate the negro at so rapid a rate.”

And paramount to anything, Washington exemplifies forgiveness:

“It is now long ago that I learned this lesson from General Armstrong, and resolved that I would permit no man, no matter what is colour might be, to narrow and degrade my soul by making me hate him.  With God’s help, I believe that I have completely rid myself of any ill feeling toward the Southern white man for any wrong that me hay have inflicted upon my race.  I am made to feel just as happy now when I am rendering service to Southern white men as when the service is rendered to a member of my own race.  I pity from the bottom of my heart any individual who is so unfortunate as to get into the habit of holding race prejudice.”

“I early learned that it is a hard matter to convert an individual by abusing him, and that this is more often accomplished by giving credit for all the praiseworthy actions performed than by calling attention alone to all the evil done.”

History class at Tuskegee Institute 1902
source Wikipedia

Washington rather fell into public speaking, feeling that it was more important “to do things than merely to talk about doing them.”  He first went north with his friend and mentor, General Armstrong,  a white educator dedicated to the education of blacks and a founder of the Hampton Institute, and spoke at a series of public meetings.  In 1895, Washington was asked to speak at the Atlanta Exposition, an important exposition to showcase products and new technologies.  His speech was received with accolades from both whites and blacks alike, and afterwards, Washington became a highly sought after speaker about the benefits raising black ingenuity, hard work and resourcefulness to the level of white America.  He promoted the improvement of race relations where blacks and whites both stood on level ground.  There is a fascinating section of the book where Washington expounds on his manner of public speaking and it includes some gems of advice:

” ……. It seems to me that there is rarely such a combination of mental and physical delight in any effort as that which comes to a public speaker when he feels that he has a great audience completely within his control.  There is a thread of sympathy and oneness that connects a public speaker with his audience, that is just as strong as though it was something tangible and visible  …… I never tell an anecdote simply for the sake to telling one ……  I believe that one always does himself and his audience an injustice when he speaks merely for the sake of speaking.  I do not believe that one should speak unless, deep down in his heart, he feels convinced that he has a message to deliver …..”

At the close of the book, Washington first gives a schedule for his Tuskegee school which is rather interesting from the view of posterity:

5 am.          Rising bell
5:50            Warning breakfast bell
6 am.          Breakfast bell
6:20            Breakfast over
6:20 – 6:50 Rooms are cleaned
6:50            Work bell
7:30            Morning study hour
8:20            Morning and school bell 
8:25            Inspection of young men’s toilets
8:40            Devotional exercises in chapel
8:55            Five minutes in the daily news
9 am.          Class work begins
12 pm.        Class work closes
12:15          Dinner
1 pm.          Work bell
1:30            Class work begins
3:30            Class work ends
5:30            Bell to “knock off” work
6 pm.          Supper
7:10            Evening prayers
7:30            Evening study hours
8:45            Evening study hour closes
9:20            Warning retiring bell
9:30            Retiring bell

And his teaching philosophy, while appearing relatively simple, is designed to have far-reaching results.  Washington strove to empower his students, not only academically, but to give them skills to serve them well in life.

“In our industrial teaching we keep three things in mind:  first, that the student shall be so educated that he shall be enabled to meet conditions as they exist now, in the part of the South where he lives —– in a word, to be able to do the thing which the world wants done; second, that every student who graduates from the school shall have enough skill, coupled with intelligence and moral character, to enable him to make a living for himself and others; third, to send every graduate out feeling and knowing that labour is dignified and beautiful —- to make each one love labour instead of trying to escape it.”

During this time, the Tuskegee school had so many applicants that they were forced to turn away half and could only supply one half of the graduates that were requested.  A huge accomplishment from twenty years ago when Washington started the school from sweat, common sense, an empathy for all people, and a firm belief in industry.

A final quote by Washington which I think encompasses much of his philosophy:

“Before the end of the year, I think I began to learn that those who are happiest are those who do the most for others.  This lesson I have tried to carry with me ever since.”