Tuesday, May 31, 2011

On the culture of killing

...an excerpt from...
The Plague
by Albert Camus

'I've tried to dwell on my start in life, since for me it really was the start of...everything. I came to grips with poverty when I was eighteen, after an easy life till then. I tried all sorts of jobs, and I didn't do too badly. But my real interest in life was the death penalty; I wanted to square accounts with that poor blind "owl" on the dock. So I became an agitator as they say. I didn't want to be pestiferous, that's all. To my mind, the social order round me was based on the death-sentence, and by fighting the established order I'd be fighting against murder. That was my view, others had told me so, and I still think that this belief of mine was substantially true. I joined forces with a group of people I then liked, and indeed have never ceased to lie. I spent many years in close co-operation with them, and there's not a country in Europe in whose struggles I haven't played a part. But that's another story.

'Needless to say, I knew that we, too, on occasion, passed sentences of death. But I was told that these few deaths were inevitable for the building up of a new world in which murder would cease to be. That also was true up to a point—and maybe I'm not capable of standing fast where that order of truths is concerned. Whatever the explanation, I hesitated. But then I remembered that miserable "owl" on the dock, and it enabled me to keep on. Until the day when I was present at an execution—it was in Hungary—and exactly the same dazed horror that I'd experienced as a youngster made everything reel before my eyes.

'Have you ever seen a man shot by firing-squad? No, of course not; the spectators are hand-picked and it's like a private party, you need an invitation. The result is that you've gleaned your ideas about it from books and pictures. A post, a blindfolded man, some soldiers in the offing. But the real thing isn't a bit like that. Do you know that the firing-squad stands only a yard and a half from the condemned man? Do you know that if the victim took two steps forward his chest would touch the rifles? Do you know that, at this short range, the soldiers concentrate their big bullets into a hole into which you could thrust your fist? No, you didn't know all that; those are things that are never spoken of. For the plague-stricken their peace of mind is more important than a human life. Decent folks must be allowed to sleep easy o' nights, mustn't they? Really it would be shockingly bad taste to linger on such details, that's common knowledge. But personally I've never been able to sleep well since then. The bad taste remained in my mouth and I've kept lingering on the details, brooding over them.

'And thus I came to understand that I, anyhow, had had plague through all those long years in which, paradoxically enough, I'd believed with all my soul that I was fighting it. I learned that I had had an indirect hand in the deaths of thousands of people; that I'd even brought about their deaths by approving of acts and principles which would only end that way. Others did not seem embarrassed by such thoughts, or anyhow never voiced them of their own accord. But I was different; what I'd come to know stuck in my gorge. I was with them and yet I was alone. When I spoke of these matters they told me not to be so squeamish; I should remember what great issues were at stake. And they advanced arguments, often quite impressive ones, to make me swallow what none the less I couldn't bring myself to stomach. I replied that the most eminent of the plague-stricken, the men who wear red robes, also have excellent arguments to justify what they do, and once I admitted the arguments of necessity and force majeure put forward by the less eminent, I couldn't reject those of the eminent. To which they retorted that the surest way of playing the game of the red robes was to leave to them the monopoly of the death penalty. My reply to this was that, if you gave in once, there was no reason for not continuing to give in. It seems to be that history has borne me out; today there's a sort of competition who will kill the most. They're all mad-crazy over murder and they couldn't stop killing men even if they wanted to.

‘In any case, my concern was not with arguments. It was with the poor “owl”; with that foul procedure whereby dirty mouths stinking of plague told a fettered man that he was going to die, and scientifically arranged things so that he should die, after nights and nights of mental torture while he waited to be murdered in cold blood. My concern was with that hole, big as a fist, in a man’s chest. And I told myself that meanwhile, so far anyhow as I was concerned, nothing in the world would induce me to accept any argument that justified such butcheries. Yes, I chose to be blindly obstinate, pending the day when I could see my way more clearly.

‘I’m still of the same mind. For many years I’ve been ashamed, mortally ashamed, of having been, even with the best intentions, even at many removes, a murderer in my turn. As time went on I merely learned that even those who were better than the rest could not keep themselves nowadays from killing or letting others kill, because such is the logic by which they live; and that we can’t stir a finger in this world without the risk of bringing death to somebody. Yes, I’ve been ashamed ever since; I have realized that we all have the plague, and I have lost my peace. And today I am still trying to find it; still trying to understand all those others and not to be the mortal enemy of anyone. I only know that one must do what one can to cease being plague-stricken, and that’s the only way in which we can hope for some peace or, failing that, a decent death. This, and only this, can bring relief to men and, if not save them, at least do them the least harm possible and even, sometimes, a little good. So that is why I resolved to have no truck with anything which, directly or indirectly, for good reasons or for bad, brings death to anyone, or justified others’ putting him to death.

‘That, too, is why this epidemic has taught me nothing new, except that I must fight it at your side. I know positively—yes, Rieux, I can say I know the world inside out, as you may see—that each of us has the plague within him; no one, no one on earth, is free from it. And I know, too, that we must keep endless watch on ourselves lest in a careless moment we breathe in somebody’s face and fasten the infection on him. What’s natural is the microbe. All the rest—health, integrity, purity (if you like)—is the product of the human will, of a vigilance that must never falter. The good man, the man who infects hardly anyone, is the man who has the fewest lapses of tension of the mind, to avoid such lapses. Yes, Rieux, it’s a wearing business, being plague-stricken. But it’s still more wearing to refuse to be it. That’s why everybody in the world today looks so tired; everyone is more or less sick of plague. But that is also why some of us, those who want to get the plague out of their systems, feel such desperate weariness, a weariness from which nothing remains to set us free, except death.

‘Pending that release, I know I have no place in the world of today; once I’d definitely refused to kill, I doomed myself to an exile that can never end. I leave it to others to “make history.” I know, too, that I’m not qualified to pass judgment on those others. There’s something lacking in my mental make-up, and its lack prevents me from being a rational murderer. So it’s a deficiency, not a superiority. But, as things are, I’m willing to be as I am; I’ve learnt modesty. All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences. That may sound simple to the point of childishness; I can’t judge if it’s simple, but I know it’s true. You see, I’d heard such quantities of arguments, which very nearly turned my head, and turned other people’s heads enough to make them approve of murder; and I’d come to realize that all our troubles spring from our failure to use plain, clean-cut language. So I resolved always to speak—and to act—quite clearly, as this was the only way of setting myself on the right track. That’s why I say there are pestilences and there are victims, no more than that. If, by making that statement, I, too, become a carrier of the plague-germ, at least I don’t do it willfully. I try, in short, to be an innocent murderer. You see, I’ve no great ambitions.

‘I grant we should add a third category: that of the true healers. But it’s a fact one doesn’t come across many of them, and anyhow it must be a hard vocation. That’s why I decided to take, in every predicament, the victim’s side—so as to reduce the damage done. Amongst them I can at least try to discovery how one attains to the third category; in other words, to peace. ‘

Tarrou was swinging his leg, tapping the terrace lightly with his heal, as he concluded. After a short silence the doctor [Rieux] raised himself a little in his chair and asked if Tarrou had an idea of the path to follow for attaining peace.

‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘The path of sympathy.’

Two ambulances were clanging in the distance. The dispersed shouts they had been hearing off and on drew together on the outskirts of the town, near the stony hill, and presently there was a sound like a gun-shot. Then silence fell again. Rieux counted two flashes of the revolving light. The breeze freshened and a gust coming from the sea filled the air for a moment with the smell of brine. And at the same time they clearly heard the low sound of waves lapping the foot of the cliffs.

‘It comes to this,’ Tarrou said almost casually, ‘what interests me is learning how to become a saint.’

‘But you don’t believe in God.’

‘Exactly. Can one be a saint without God? –that’s the problem, in fact the only problem, I’m up against today.’

A sudden blaze sprang up above the place the shouts had come from and, stemming the wind-stream, a rumour of many voices came to their ears. The blaze died down almost at once, leaving behind it only a dull red glow. Then in a break of the wind they distinctly heard some strident yells and the discharge of a gun, followed by the roar of an angry crowd. Tarrou stood up and listened, but nothing more could be heard.

'Another skirmish at the gates, I suppose.'

'Well, it's over now,' Rieux said.

Tarrou said in a low voice that it was never over, and there would be more victims, because that was in the order of things.

'Perhaps,' the doctor answered. 'But, you know, I feel more fellowship with the defeated than with saints. Heroism and sanctity don't really appeal to me, I imagine. What interests me is—being a man.’

‘Yes, we’re both after the same thing, but I’m less ambitious.’

Rieux supposed Tarrou was jesting and turned to him with a smile. But, faintly lit by the dim radiance falling from the sky, the face he saw was sad and earnest. There was another gust of wind and Rieux felt it warm on his skin. Tarrou gave himself a little shake.

‘Do you know,’ he said, ‘what we now should do for friendship’s sake?’

‘Anything you like, Tarrou.’

‘Go for a swim. It’s one of these harmless pleasures that even a saint-to-be can indulge in, don’t you agree?’ Rieux smiled again, and Tarrou continued: ‘Really it’s too damn silly living only in and for the plague. Of course a man should fight for the victims, but, if he ceases caring for anything outside that, what’s the use of his fighting?’

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

It made my day

After giving my name (Luke) to the Asian barista who took my order in a cafe recently, I received this:

It was possibly the greatest moment of my life. A classic stereotype made manifest in an entirely new context. I wouldn't have expected that it would somehow show itself in written form, but, there you have it. It reminded me of when I was traveling on a train in China and heard someone singing "Sweet Home Arabama" (which actually happened, and was also hilarious).

Before the Law

...as published in...
The Trial
by Franz Kafka

Before the law sits a gatekeeper. To this gatekeeper comes a man from the country who asks to gain entry into the law. But the gatekeeper says that he cannot grant him entry at the moment. The man thinks about it and then asks if he will be allowed to come in sometime later on. “It is possible,” says the gatekeeper, “but not now.” The gate to the law stands open, as always, and the gatekeeper walks to the side, so the man bends over in order to see through the gate into the inside. When the gatekeeper notices that, he laughs and says: “If it tempts you so much, try going inside in spite of my prohibition. But take note. I am powerful. And I am only the most lowly gatekeeper. But from room to room stand gatekeepers, each more powerful than the other. I cannot endure even one glimpse of the third.” The man from the country has not expected such difficulties: the law should always be accessible for everyone, he thinks, but as he now looks more closely at the gatekeeper in his fur coat, at his large pointed nose and his long, thin, black Tartar’s beard, he decides that it would be better to wait until he gets permission to go inside. The gatekeeper gives him a stool and allows him to sit down at the side in front of the gate. There he sits for days and years. He makes many attempts to be let in, and he wears the gatekeeper out with his requests. The gatekeeper often interrogates him briefly, questioning him about his homeland and many other things, but they are indifferent questions, the kind great men put, and at the end he always tells him once more that he cannot let him inside yet. The man, who has equipped himself with many things for his journey, spends everything, no matter how valuable, to win over the gatekeeper. The latter takes it all but, as he does so, says, “I am taking this only so that you do not think you have failed to do anything.” During the many years the man observes the gatekeeper almost continuously. He forgets the other gatekeepers, and this first one seems to him the only obstacle for entry into the law. He curses the unlucky circumstance, in the first years thoughtlessly and out loud; later, as he grows old, he only mumbles to himself. He becomes childish and, since in the long years studying the gatekeeper he has also come to know the fleas in his fur collar, he even asks the fleas to help him persuade the gatekeeper. Finally his eyesight grows weak, and he does not know whether things are really darker around him or whether his eyes are merely deceiving him. But he recognizes now in the darkness an illumination which breaks inextinguishably out of the gateway to the law. Now he no longer has much time to live. Before his death he gathers in his head all his experiences of the entire time up into one question which he has not yet put to the gatekeeper. He waves to him, since he can no longer lift up his stiffening body. The gatekeeper has to bend way down to him, for the great difference has changed things considerably to the disadvantage of the man. “What do you still want to know now?” asks the gatekeeper. “You are insatiable.” “Everyone strives after the law,” says the man, “so how is that in these many years no one except me has requested entry?” The gatekeeper sees that the man is already dying and, in order to reach his diminishing sense of hearing, he shouts at him, “Here no one else can gain entry, since this entrance was assigned only to you. I’m going now to close it.”

Note: Though The Trial was not published until after Kafka's death, Before the Law was published in his lifetime. I just couldn't find the original date.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

The riddles of life and death

...an excerpt from...
The Death of Ivan Ilyich
by Leo Tolstoy

He removed his legs from Gerasim's shoulders, turned sideways onto his arm, and felt sorry for himself. He only waited till Gerasim had gone into the next room and then restrained himself no longer but wept like a child. He wept on account of his helplessness, his terrible loneliness, the cruelty of man, the cruelty of God, and the absence of God.

"Why hast Thou done all this? Why hast Thou brought me here? Why, why dost Thou torment me so terribly?"

He did not expect an answer and wept because there was no answer and could be none. The pain grew more acute again, but he did not stir and did not call. He said to himself: "Go on! Strike me! But what is it for? What have I done to Thee? What is it for?"

Then he grew quiet and not only ceased weeping, but even held his breath and became all attention. It was as though he were listening not to an audible voice, but to the voice of his soul, to the current of thoughts arising within him.

"What do you want?" was the first clear conception capable of being expressed in words, that he heard.

"What do you want? What do you want?" he repeated to himself.

"What do I want? To live and not to suffer," he answered.

Again he listened with such concentrated attention that even his pain did not distract him.

"To live? How?" asked his inner voice.

"Why, to live as I used to--well and pleasantly."

"As you lived before, well and pleasantly?" the voice repeated.

And in his imagination he began to recall the best moments of his pleasant life. But strange to say none of those best moments of his pleasant life now seemed at all what they had seemed then--none of them except his first recollections of childhood. There, in childhood, there had been something really pleasant with which it would be possible to live, if it could return. But the child who had experienced that happiness no longer existed, it was like a recollection of somebody else.

As soon as the period began which had produced the present Ivan Ilyich, all that had then seemed joys now melted away before his sight and turned into something trivial and often nasty.

The further he departed from childhood and the nearer he came to the present the more worthless and doubtful were the joys. This began with the School of Law. A little that was really good was still to be found there--there was light-heartedness, friendship, and hope. But in the upper classes there had already been fewer good moments. Then during the first years of his official career, when he was in the service of the governor, some pleasant moments occurred again: they were the memories of his love for a woman. Then all became confused and there was still less of what was good; later on again there was even less that was good, and the further he went the less there was. His marriage, a mere accident, then the disenchantment that followed it, his wife's bad breath and her sensuality and hypocrisy: then that deadly official life and those preoccupations about money, a year of it, two, ten, twenty, and always the same thing. The longer it lasted the more deadly it became. "It is as if I had been going downhill while I imagined I was going up. And that's really what it was. I was going up in public opinion, but to the same extent life was ebbing away from me. And now it's all over and there's only death.

"Then what does it mean? Why? It can't be that life is so senseless and horrible. But if it really has been so horrible and senseless, why must I die and die in agony? There's something wrong!

"Maybe I didn't live as I ought to have done," it suddenly occurred to him. "But how could that be, when I did everything properly?" he replied, and immediately dismissed from his mind this, the sole solution of all the riddles of life and death, as something quite impossible.

"Then what do you want now? To live? Live how? Live as you lived in the law courts when the usher proclaimed 'The judge is coming!' The judge is coming, the judge!" he repeated to himself. "Here he is, the judge. But I'm not guilty!" he exclaimed angrily. "What is it for?" And he ceased crying, but turning his face to the wall continued to ponder on the same question: Why, and for what purpose, is there all this horror? But however much he pondered, he found no answer. And whenever the thought occurred to him, as it often did, that it all resulted from his not having lived as he ought to have done, he recalled at once the correctness of his whole life and dismissed so strange an idea.