WN: Chris Hedges is amongst my favourite writers on these themes. My main disappointment has always been his denial of the historical Resurrection of Jesus. The evidence does not compel such a conclusion1. I believe his general tone of hopelessness in much of his otherwise brilliant writing has a joyous counterpoint he is missing out on! I explore this with reference to close relatives who are as hopelessly lost–in this case in extreme anger against Christianity and the Church. On their logic, just as soon dismiss the entire human race! (Something I reference in the preface to my “Rwanda Dispatches“.) I consciously choose hope and joy:
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God.For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (Romans 5:1 – 11)
Indeed, this hope has not disappointed, rather has underwritten buoyant joy and an overall sense of well-being–for untold and told multiplied millions–including me!
The 17th-century mathematician, Blaise Pascal (“the most brilliant mind of the past millennium”–Einstein) in his famous discussion, “The Wager,” wrote:
“God is, or He is not.” But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. There is an infinite chaos which separated us. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up… Which will you choose then? Let us see. Since you must choose, let us see which interests you least. You have two things to lose, the true and the good; and two things to stake, your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness; and your nature has two things to shun, error and misery. Your reason is no more shocked in choosing one rather than the other, since you must of necessity choose… But your happiness? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is… If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.
Let us see. Since there is an equal risk of gain and of loss, if you had only to gain two lives, instead of one, you might still wager. But if there were three lives to gain, you would have to play (since you are under the necessity of playing), and you would be imprudent, when you are forced to play, not to chance your life to gain three at a game where there is an equal risk of loss and gain. But there is an eternity of life and happiness.2
The article highlighted below is fascinating with reference to war, literature, truth-telling, and more.
When I returned to the United States after two decades overseas covering wars and other conflicts as a reporter, I searched out Samuel Hynes at Princeton. Sam, who had been a Marine Corps pilot in World War II, had taught literature at the university and was one of the most important contemporary writers on war. He grasped that war is always about betrayal, betrayal of the young by the old, of soldiers and Marines and others by politicians and of idealists by cynics.
We ended up living on the same street and became close friends. We were orphaned by our experiences in war and by our grounding, in the electronic age, in the world of print—two prisms through which we interpreted reality. We spoke in a shorthand filled with literary references and with a visceral understanding of the capacity for human depravity and violence. In war, Sam wrote, “we learn that elements of our nature as human beings we thought were immutable can be diminished or destroyed, and that the human heart may be colder and crueler than our experience has shown us.” Even humor is different, he noted, “because it is full of death.”
In his books, Sam, who died at 95 earlier this month, chronicled the culture of war and its effects on young men who went in search of adventure and glory in the military and came home maimed and disillusioned. His works included “The Soldiers’ Tale: Bearing Witness to Modern War,” “A War Imagined: The First World War and English Culture,” “The Unsubstantial Air: American Fliers in the First World War,” “On War and Writing,” “The Auden Generation: Literature and Politics in England in the 1930s” and a memoir of his time as a combat pilot in the South Pacific, “Flights of Passage: Reflections of a World War II Aviator.”
No doubt our wartime experiences contributed to our politics. Sam was a New Deal Democrat. He believed in the promise of America. I spent years chronicling the atrocities and crimes of the American Empire in Latin America, the Middle East and Africa and had grown to despise the architects of imperialism who dominate the two ruling political parties and the capitalists, war industry executives and racists behind them. Sam was as ferociously stubborn as I am. When our conversations dealt with race, capitalism and empire, it was as if FDR had invited the Wobblies to lunch. But then, neither of us relenting, we would go back to literature—William Shakespeare, much of which he could quote from memory, Thomas Hardy, George Eliot, whose novel “Middlemarch” he considered a masterpiece, Rebecca West, William Butler Yeats or Auden. I failed, although I tried repeatedly, to convince him that “Moby-Dick” was the greatest American novel. He never succeeded in getting me to read Anthony Trollope. He was engrossed in a book by the British novelist Penelope Lively in the days before his death. He asked his grandson Sam Preston to read Yeats’ poem “Sailing to Byzantium,” an evocation of loss and death, at his funeral service. The third stanza reads:
O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
His writing was a savage assault on the myth of war. His book “The Auden Generation” was important to him because it chronicled a time “when artists and intellectuals were anti-war.” He may have been a former Marine Corps major with a Distinguished Flying Cross who carried out 78 combat missions in a torpedo bombing squadron in the Caroline Islands and Okinawa, but his literary hero, Auden, was a pacifist.
“In matters of war, cautionary literature and the evidence of experience do not change many minds or alter many romantic expectations,” Sam wrote. “Every new generation will respond anew to war’s great seduction—not to the uniforms and the parades but to the chance to be where the danger is, where men are fighting. War brings to any society its electric, exhilarating atmosphere, and young men rush to join in it, however grim the stories of war they have read and accepted as truth. Every generation, it seems, must learn its own lessons from its own war, because every war is different and is fought by different ignorant young men.”
Combat, he knew, creates an unbridgeable gulf between those who have been to war and those at home who spout wartime slogans and believe in national virtues that the battlefield has exposed as lies.
“War turns landscape into anti-landscape, and everything in that landscape into grotesque, broken, useless rubbish—including human limbs,” he wrote in “The Soldiers’ Tale,” a book I read while covering the war in Bosnia. “Reading soldiers’ accounts of Shiloh or Waterloo, Ladysmith or the Argonne or Huế, we see with estranged eyes. These lives are nothing like ours, and these places are like nothing we could possibly find in our familiar civilian world. War, we see, is not a place we could travel to.”
“The Soldiers’ Tale” is a brilliant chronicle of the luring of naive young men yearning for adventure into the maw of violence, and the callous indifference of a military machine and a state that grind them up. Echoing Primo Levi’s warning about “the annihilation of the humanity in men, before the other dying happens,” Sam decried the abstract hatred that “made a people forget their humanity in war, make their enemy inhuman.” He castigated the official lies told to wage wars and the deceptions of mass culture used to ennoble war. He saw war as “an activity in which men become the food of predatory animals, in which rats and cats and pigs eat people, even people eat people. In war every kind of monstrosity is possible.” He understood that the Holocaust was so dangerous because it was not unique. “Human beings have always destroyed other human beings for ethnic, ideological, and religious reasons (and out of pure sadism too). The history of the world since the Holocaust has proven that point over and over; in Cambodia, Uganda, Bosnia, Rwanda. Murder is human.”
He despaired of his physical decline, especially given an athletic prowess that kept him riding his bicycle and playing tennis into his late 80s. One recent afternoon, though he had to grip my arm as we slowly made our way around the block, he recited for me from memory the conclusion of Samuel Beckett’s novel “The Unnamable”:
… you must go on, that’s all I know, they’re going to stop, I know that well, I can feel it, they’re going to abandon me, it will be the silence, for a moment, a good few moments, or it will be mine, the lasting one, I can’t go on, you must go on, I’ll go on, you must say words, as long as there are any, until they find me, until they say me, strange pain, strange sin, you must go on, perhaps it’s done already, perhaps they have said me already, perhaps they have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my story, that would surprise me, if it opens, it will be I, it will be the silence, where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.
As he lay dying, he grasped my hand and said, “We will always be friends.” He paused. “You know what I mean.”
“Poetry is not concerned with telling people what to do, but with extending our knowledge of good and evil,” Auden wrote. That was Sam’s mission: extending our knowledge of good and evil. He condemned what Auden called
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street,
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police,
We must love one another or die.
Sam, who lost his wife in 2008, spent his evenings reading. I would return home late at night from New York and see the comforting glow of his reading lamp through his living room window. I would ring his doorbell the next day. He would come down the stairs from his study, where in the months before his death he was writing a book, titled “Older Than Lear,” on his electric typewriter. We would plunge once again into the world of books, what the poet John Keats called “the realms of gold.”
Sam’s reading lamp is now dark, his house empty, his last book unfinished.
Life is a voyage, a discovery, including the discovery of death. It is about seeking truth, but also about experiencing wonder and awe, the capacity to love. The most fortunate of us make this voyage with someone with whom we share an intellectual and emotional affinity. Suffering and danger, as J. Glenn Gray, another great writer on war, wrote, does not create friendship. It creates its opposite, comradeship. Friends are not comrades. They do not revel in death and self-sacrifice the way comrades do. Friendship—and most of us, if we are honest, must admit we have only one or two real friends and some of us have none—is about descending to depths beyond articulation, gaining through the insights of the friend greater self-awareness and self-possession. The death of a friend is bitter and painful because it leaves us more alone, diminished. We lose a part of ourselves. Friendship is the most potent antidote to the trauma of war. “Its true domain is peace,” Gray wrote of friendship, “only peace.”
Please click on: Saying Goodbye to Sam
- See on this my “Easter Song: Keith Green, and Reflections on the Resurrection.“
- There is a brilliant discussion of Pascal’s Wager in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The article concludes with: “Pascal’s Wager is a watershed in the philosophy of religion. As we have seen, it is also a great deal more besides.”