When I was around twelve years old, there was a program on CBC Television called “Pencil Box”. The show wasn’t very good (even for kids’ fare) but it did feature one interesting wrinkle: young viewers could send in a skit or playlet and, if it passed muster, a cast of “professional” actors would stage and perform it.
I watched an episode or two and, as has happened with many writers since time immemorial, decided I could write just as well as some of the material being selected. At the time, I was obsessed with World War II, immersed in William Shirer’s The Rise & Fall of the Third Reich, religiously watching episodes of “The World at War” (narrated by Laurence Olivier) every Sunday afternoon. I decided my piece was going to be an historical mystery and it didn’t take me long to come up with a concept. I scribbled out a draft in a couple of hours, sealed it in an envelope and sent that handwritten version to the show’s producers.
I wish I’d kept a copy.
And I would’ve loved to have seen the look on some poor, underpaid story editor’s face as he scanned the 3-4 page skit.
The plot involved a series of suspicious deaths that seemed connected in some way to a particular field somewhere in central Europe. The inexplicable and unsettling incidents baffle authorities, so they summon a master detective and this Holmes/Dupin type paces about, scrutinizing the ground until he is struck by a notion, does his research and sure enough—
He calls everyone together and announces his brilliant solution. Years before, after the defeat of the Nazis, the area had been used as a dump for some of the waste of war, including (wait for it), numerous canisters of Zyklon-B gas. The canisters were leaking, seaping up through the topsoil, and, voilá, it was those noxious vapors that were sickening and killing the local populace.
Everyone applauds the detective’s extraordinary powers of deductive reasoning, he takes his bows and…Fade Out.
My dramatized detective story wasn’t accepted.
My first submission and my first rejection.
But the note (typed on official “Pencil Box” stationery) was kind, encouraging to send more ideas and stories and perhaps, some day, one of them would make it on to the show. They also enclosed a free pin, which I’ve kept to this day.
Fundamentalists of all stripes yearn for Armageddon, a “great cleansing”, a final accounting that will separate the sinners from the righteous, the forsaken from the saved. Whacked out environmentalists and New Agers look forward with gleeful anticipation to the upheaval and destruction that, according to the Mayan calendar, are due to wreak havoc on great tracts of the planet on or about December 21st, 2012. Weird. Please note: these folks are usually separated by huge, yawning gulfs in terms of their philosophy/ideology and yet here they are pining for the same thing: the wholescale destruction of vast populations of their fellow human beings.
It will start in the Middle East. Ancient scores settled with modern day technology. The Holy Land rendered uninhabitable, reprisals that envelop the world.
Or maybe a dirty bomb in Manhattan.
A meteor from outer space.
Everyone in agreement that mankind is doomed…and deserving of every rotten thing about to happen to us. A pox on our heads!
I find this kind of thinking hateful, a self-loathing pathological in its pure virulence. Both sides are also seemingly allied by their belief in “original sin”—homo sapiens are vile and depraved from birth (and maybe before). We are beyond redemption (most of us) and should pay the ultimate price for rejecting the presence of a higher power (God or Gaia; it amounts to the same thing, right?).
Our crimes against the environment condemn us, no question. We have stripped and burnt and undermined and defaced a substantial segment of our natural world. Our voracious appetites, rampant consumerism and selfishness have also directly contributed to a disproportionate amount of suffering inflicted on the majority of our planetary brothers and sisters. We possess every creature comfort and it is entirely at their expense. There’s a First World because there’s a Third World.
Hey, I get all that.
But I also know that we walked on the moon. Sent down a paper-thin craft, guided by a computer that was little more than a glorified pocket calculator. Got Armstrong and Aldrin to the surface, then brought them back alive. And we’ve dispatched robot probes to just about every planet, even have a vessel on the verge of entering interstellar space…
Think of the books, theater, dance performances, movies, the artwork and architecture we’ve created; the way we’ve related to our environment in positive ways.
Now try to conceive of the complexity of the minds capable of imagining such things. Men and women imbued with gifts and insights which allow them to alter the way the rest of us perceive the universe.
We know of nothing more astonishing or inexplicable than the human brain. It makes the fanciest, state of the art super-computer look like a, well, a soul-less calculating machine. Which is what it is. Sorry, all you geeks out there.
The brain is capable of extraordinary mental leaps and bounds, possessing a muscularity and agility belied by its rather mundane appearance. Two pounds of inanimate tissue containing trillions of nerve endings. Every millimeter interlocked through ever-changing networks of electro-chemical connections. A magnificent feat of engineering. Clever beyond its designer’s wildest dreams.
Maker of horror and holocaust.
Jesus Christ and Buddha.
Of genocide and ethnic cleansing.
…penicillin and Groucho Marx.
Keep screaming and waving your pictures of Kigali and Katyn…meanwhile, I’ll continue my stream of conscious rant/monolog about the Salk Vaccine and the eradication of smallpox.
I will concede there’s strong evidence we’re killers, born and bred.
But we also come equipped with a conscience, a little voice that insists we atone for our wrongs. It allows us to acknowledge the darkness but prohibits us, by specific commandment, from despairing, even in the complete absence of light.
I wasn’t there at Srebrenica
so I couldn’t block the bullets
or curse your executioners
as they cleansed you
out of existence
I wasn’t in Kigali either
to seize all the machetes
scattering the mobs
with my shaming rhetoric
Never made it to Austria
to kill the little corporal
before he was born
I’ve failed you at every turn
spading dirt over your
million separate faces
wiping my brow
before moving on to the
next field (and the next…)
plowed in deep furrows
hemmed with the dead
(February 19, 2012)
Just hit book #50, halfway there and still (barely) maintaining the pace necessary to hit the century mark by the end of the year.
Four or five books of note in the latest batch of reading, including Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (#42) Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands (#46), John Vaillant’s The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance & Survival (#49) and W.G. Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction (#50).
The latter left me especially shaken.
What begins as an investigation into the dearth of postwar literature devoted to the suffering and deprivation endured by German civilians during World War II, gradually metamorphoses into a meditation on the limits of language. Sebald asks if mere words can do justice to the horror of an air raid, the obscenity represented by Auschwitz, the experience of being tortured. Do certain episodes defy and impoverish description and can any re-enactment, however well-crafted and best intentioned, achieve more than verisimilitude and clever artifice?
Sebald cites several artists—Gert Ledig, Jean Amery, Peter Weiss—who eschew decorum, ignore taboos, use their immense talents to conjure sentences that are impossible to ignore, that permanently imprint themselves on our consciousness. It is their authenticity that distinguishes them; these men are first person witnesses, their credentials impeccable. They have determined (sometimes after a long period of silence) that they are going to tell what they have seen without embellishment or elaboration. Their courage and honesty simply will not allow them to go into the darkness without making one last fruitless, valiant attempt to communicate to us things we would rather not know, that we’d rather see safely consigned to history’s back pages.
Ledig et al do their best but, even so, words often fail them and images, still shots of destruction, grotesque tableaux, are often substituted; these come in the form of vivid, descriptive passages, devoid of sentimentality, chillingly matter of fact. They bring to mind the stark, silent, black-and-white footage taken in the death camps. Amery chose the personal essay format to unflinchingly document what it means to be dispossessed, cast out and marked for death by fellow citizens. He refused to hide behind a fictional counterpart or allow a contrived plot line to dilute/adulterate his message.
In the end, Ledig/Amery’s efforts are doomed; even the most enlightened, imaginative reader is incapable of gaining more than an inkling of the physical and spiritual agony that can be inflicted by a well-trained torturer…or visualize what it’s like to enter a crammed air raid shelter after it has suffered a direct hit from a thousand pound bomb. We can only, thank God, experience these things vicariously, secondhand, from the safety of a comfortable arm chair. And, though it might pain bibliophiles to do so, we must acknowledge the paucity of language in the face of such incommunicable pain and loss.
Sometimes only a scream will suffice.
We know we can’t possibly understand what they’ve experienced but we feel, in the depths of what passes for our soul, that we owe it to the victims to at least try. Every single day.
After writing my previous mini-essay, I discovered some wise words from the dean of comparative religion, Huston Smith. This excerpt is from his autobiography, Tales of Wonder, and relates his experiences following the deaths of a beloved daughter and grand-daughter. I revere Mr. Smith and this is why:
“After Karen’s death I had returned to work; after Serena’s, I sat in a dark room, to which eventually I admitted a few friends, not for them to utter words of comfort—what comfort was there?—but for the mute warmth of another presence. Yet when a reporter asked me, ‘Have your tragedies shaken your faith in God?’ I thought it a ridiculous question. What about the Holocaust and all the other catastrophes we know as history? They did not make my own loss less but kept me from imagining that I had suffered a unique vengeance that impugned the idea of God instead of making God more necessary.
Christ said, ‘Blessed are those that mourn’. Had I been living in Jerusalem, I would have joined the mourners grieving and praying at the Wailing Wall. Suffering led the Buddha to enlightenment, and it may cause us, against our will, to grow in compassion, awareness, and possibly eventually peace. In Buddhism monks daily recite the Five remembrances, which are: I will lose my youth, my health, my dear ones and everything I hold dear, and finally lose life itself, by the very nature of my being human. These are bitter reminders that the only thing that continues is the consequences of our action. The fact that all the things we hold dear and love are transient does not mean that we should love them less but—as I do Karen and Serena—love them even more. Suffering, the Buddha said, if it does not diminish love, will transport you to the farther shore.”
I’ve thought long and hard about writing this post, not wishing to exploit the anniversary of 9/11 just so I can have great subject headings for “tag surfers”.
I was doing my morning prayer/meditation–it was six years ago today that the Towers fell so my mind, naturally, began pondering that and I started remembering… and discovered I had vivid recollections of what transpired—
We were in the midst of our morning routine. My wife was out of town on a business trip so it was up to me to make sure my sons’ lunches were made, their homework collected and their milk moustaches wiped off before I sent them to school. Their backpacks and shoes were by the front door, coats on the banister, ready to grab on the way out…I thought I was ready.
As usual, we were listening to CBC Radio, though the reception here isn’t that great. I don’t remember the actual announcement verbatim but Sheila Coles, the regular “Morning Edition” host, came on, sounding a bit baffled, taken aback:
“We’ve just received a report that a plane has struck the World Trade Center in New York…” Details were still sketchy–
By then I had the TV on and was switching back and forth between our two stations, looking for more details. Because even at that point it sounded odd. Out of all of the buildings on the New York skyline, an aircraft had smacked into the Trade Center?
At first there was nothing. I started getting the boys kitted up—and then the story broke wide open and there were interrupted broadcasts, shaken anchors and then the first footage…my God. Those of us who looked on that morning will never forget, we don’t need the commemorative issues and anniversaries. That second plane zooming into frame and then disappearing into one of the most famous, recognizable structures in the western world. Christ, even King Kong had climbed the fucking thing in that terrible 1977 remake.
It was terrorism, no doubt about it. Hatred for our way of life, for our institutions and our hypocrisy. They hated us so that gave us the right to hate them right back. And we did. And do. We find it unforgivable that their tribal squabbles have led to carnage on our shores. We resent being victimized for other people’s historical (and evidently insoluble) conflicts.
Atta and the others were fanatics, monsters. Anyone who claimed otherwise (hello, Bill Maher) in those jingoistic early days quickly paid the price for their ill-considered observations.
Over 50 years of ongoing failure at trying to achieve the partition of Palestine into two equal, independent and viable states. Which has resulted in the largest refugee population in the world, a diaspora that has had a destabilizing factor on the entire region. The plight of the Palestinians is one the greatest single failures of Western diplomacy since World War II. It is the symbol in the Arab world of Western duplicity.
Hate is a powerful force. Look what can be accomplished when it is wielded by a master. Hitler. Stalin. Mao. Hate and its allies intolerance and xenophobia have caused the deaths of tens of millions in the past century…and were unquestionably responsible for those who perished in the Towers, the Pentagon and that field in rural Pennsylvania.
And in the midst of my meditation, a thought: this is what we come to when we reject our spiritual aspects and defy moral absolutes, the kinds of teachings passed down by religious figures and enlightened individuals for thousands of years.
This is what happens when you kill God (figuratively speaking).
I’ll agree with Christopher Hitchens and all the folks who subscribe to The Skeptical Inquirer: religion (man’s truncated version of God’s divine plan) has caused incredible suffering and privation…but I also hasten to point out what happens when you remove God from the equation: our species’ unbridled cruelty and greed (no longer held in check by fear of judgement or operating under divine fiat) running rampant, resulting in mass murder and the subjugation and exploitation of great populations…
God wasn’t responsible for the witch hunts, the Inquisition, World War I and II, Dresden, Hiroshima, the Holocaust, the Cold War, the atrocities of Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Charles Taylor. All were the result of human agents acting on behalf of a small cadre of brutal men. Am I simplifying or is this not historically accurate?
Put it this way: what possible part in God’s great creation could the horrors of Auschwitz play? The “killing fields” of Cambodia. The ghosts of Kigali. It’s ludicrous to suggest unseen hands at work when there is such overwhelming evidence of human culpability. Genocides occur because people are complicit by deed or negligence. Pinning the blame on God won’t wash, philosophically, theologically or any other way you want to look at it.
Every single religion I know of decries senseless bloodshed and counsels some form of tolerant co-existence with neighbours, even rivals and enemies. Each requires a code of conduct from its adherents and demands that they offer safety and shelter to strangers, charity and succor to those in need. None sanction cruel, lawless behavior and there are often stern punishments ordained (either in this life or the next) for those who fail to live up to the highest principles of their belief system.
What happened that day wasn’t divine punishment handed down by the vengeful god of Pat Robertson…and certainly not the true, revealed God (Blessed be His Name) of Mohammed Atta et all. God was not with Atta and his pitiless companions six years ago. He had been driven out by the hate that consumed them, distorting and withering their souls.
God is blameless, not responsible for the schemes of such men. They deny the message of the great scriptures, repudiate His will and desecrate the legacy of the teachers and prophets He has seen fit to send us.
It is God’s will that we flourish and thrive as a species.
If we falter, it is by our choice…and if we fall far enough, our savage natures and stupid indifference will consign us forever to a netherworld of perpetual fear and suspicion.
And even there, I think, God will not forsake us.