Mefistopheles: No Lord, I believe that, as always, everything is in a rotten state. —Goethe, Faust, Prologue in Heaven
A few years after Kafka’s death, Milena, the woman he had loved so dearly, was taken away by the Nazis and sent to a concentration camp. Suddenly life seemed to have become its reverse: not death, which is a conclusion, but a mad and meaningless state of brutal suffering, brought on through no visible fault and serving no visible end. To attempt to survive this nightmare, a friend of Milena devised a method: she would resort to the books she had read, stored in her memory. Among the texts she forced herself to remember was a short story by Maxim Gorki, "A Man Is Born."
The story tells how a young boy, strolling one day along the shores of the Black Sea, comes upon a peasant woman shrieking in pain. The woman is pregnant; she has fled the famine of her birthplace and now, terrified and alone, she is about to give birth. In spite of her protests, the boy assists her. He bathes the newborn child in the sea, makes a fire and prepares tea. At the end of the story, the boy and the peasant woman follow a group of other peasants: with one arm, the boy supports the mother; in the other he carries the baby.
Gorki’s story became, for Milena’s friend, a paradise, a small safe place into which she could retreat from the daily horror. It did not lend meaning to her plight; it did not explain or justify it; it didn’t even offer her hope for the future. It simply existed as a point of balance, reminding her of the light at a time of dark catastrophe.
Catastrophe: a sudden and violent change, something terrible and incomprehensible. When the Roman hordes, following Cato’s dictum, razed the city of Carthage and strew salt over the rubble; when the Vandals sacked Rome in 455, leaving the great metropolis in ruins; when the first Christian crusaders entered the cities of North Africa and, after slaughtering the men, women and children, set fire to the libraries; when the Catholic kings of Spain expelled from their territories the cultures of the Arabs and the Jews, and the Rabbi of Toledo threw up to heaven the keys of the ark for safekeeping until a happier time; when Pizarro executed the welcoming Atahualpa and effectively destroyed the Inca civilization; when the first slave was sold on the American continent; when large numbers of Native Americans were deliberately contaminated with smallpox-infected blankets by European settlers (in what must count as the world’s first biological warfare); when the soldiers in the trenches of World War I drowned in mud and toxic gases in their attempt to obey impossible orders; when the inhabitants of Hiroshima saw the skin fly off their bodies under the great yellow cloud in the sky; when the Kurdish population was attacked with poisonous weapons; when thousands of men and women were hunted down with machetes in Rwanda; and last September, when suicide planes struck the twin towers of Manhattan, leaving New York to join the mourning cities of Madrid, Belfast, Jerusalem, Bogotá and countless other victims of terrorist attacks—in all of these catastrophes, the survivors may have sought in a book, as did Milena’s friend, some respite from grief and some reassurance of sanity.
For a reader, this may be the essential, perhaps the only justification for literature: that the madness of the world will not take us over completely although it invades our cellars, as the Brazilian novelist Machado de Assis pointed out, and then softly takes over the dining room, the living room, the whole house. The poet Joseph Brodsky, imprisoned in Siberia, found it in the verse of W. H. Auden. For Reinaldo Arenas, locked away in Castro’s prisons, it was in the Aeneid; for Oscar Wilde, at Reading Gaol, in the words of Christ; for Haroldo Conti, tortured by the Argentinian military, in the novels of Dickens. When the world becomes incomprehensible, we seek a place in which comprehension, or faith in comprehension, has been set down in words.
On Tuesday, September 11, having heard the unbelievable news, I opened Chateaubriand’s Memoires d’outre tombe, written several decades after the French Revolution, and came across the following: "The Revolution would have carried me along, had it not begun with murder: I saw the first head carried at the end of a pike and I drew back. Murder will never be in my eyes an object of admiration or an argument for freedom; I know nothing more servile, more despicable, more cowardly, more narrow-minded than a terrorist." Across the centuries, Chateaubriand speaks to me of my own time and place.
Every act of terror protests its own justification. It is said that before ordering each new atrocity, Robespierre would ask, "In the name of what?" But every human being knows, intimately, that no act of terror can be justified. The constant cruelty of the world—and also, in spite of everything, its daily miracles of beauty, kindness and compassion—bewilder us because they spring up with no justification, like the miracle of rain, as God explains to Job, falling "where no man is. " The primordial quality of the universe seems to be absolute gratuitousness. André Breton, attempting to push the creative act as far as possible outside the confines of the rational mind, to free it from prejudices and conventions, outrageously suggested, in the second Surrealist Manifesto of 1930, that "the simplest Surrealist act consists of dashing down into the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd. " He meant the action to exist only in the sphere of the unrestrained imagination. He was writing about literature; reality co-opted his writing.
Of all of this we are aware, as we are also aware of the old truisms: that violence breeds violence, that all power is abusive, that fanaticism of any kind is the enemy of reason, that propaganda is propaganda even when it purports to rally us against iniquity, that war is never glorious except in the eyes of the victors, who believe that God is on the side of their armies. This is why we read, and why in moments of darkness we return to books: to find words for what we already know.