Freedom as Fatelessness

FatelessnessI previously commented on Nobel Prizewinner Imre Kertesz’s novel FATELESSNESS in my blog The Holocaust: Not Hell but Human and in my blog Descent into Hell.  The story’s hero is the 14 year old Hungarian Jew Georg Koves and consigned to the Nazi concentration camps where he does survive, minute by minute, never trying to understand the totality of what was happening to himself or others, but always forcing each event into something which still resembled humanity and sanity.    He could not explain it as it was so totally irrational, but he did want to continue living even in the concentration camp.  His embrace of life over death made him see the concentration camp as beautiful, neither hell nor non-existence, but very human, and though horrible still a place to be alive. 

When his elder uncles persist in telling Georg to accept what had occurred as some accident of fate, to forget the horrors as if they had never occurred in order to move on in life,  Georg defies their advice and says his and anyone’s effort to survive was worth remembering and exactly that which not only denies but triumphs over fate.   The freedom to live is far too valuable to disregard or forget.   One  uncle (they were not put into a concentration camp) continues to protest  that in the face of Nazis one could not resist fate:

“But what could we do?” he asked, his face part irate, part affronted.  “Nothing, naturally,” I said, “or rather, anything,” I added, “which would have been just as senseless as doing nothing, yet again and just as naturally.”

For Georg, it was the willingness to take the next step, and then the next – the willingness to carry on which was essential.  It didn’t matter what you did, nothing could change the senselessness of what was occurring.  But it mattered that you bothered to take the next step and continue despite the apparent meaninglessness of what others or you did.  Doing the next thing was in fact choosing freedom over fate, choosing freedom as fatelessness.

On the very day when liberation was announced in the concentration camp, Georg continued to deal with things in the same way which allowed him to survive the horrors – one moment and one event at a time.   As the loud speaker was proclaiming freedom  in all the different languages of the camp George knows it is the same hour when the camp rationed soup was usually doled out.   Georg’s caution continued as he heard the announcement in his native Hungarian:  “However hard I listened, though, all I heard of from him, as from everyone before, was about freedom, but not a single word about or in reference to the missing soup.”  Survival has its own instinctive priorities.

Though Georg is told to forget what happened as soon as he can, he challenges and questions this.  Why should he forget – unless it was all just fate and so meaningless, but if it is meaningless then the suffering is unbearable.  But if freedom exists and things aren’t governed by a mindless fate, then it means everything happens with a meaning and an importance and one can mine the meaning and importance out of the most horrible of conditions.  One is not forced to work-freesee only the “atrocities”  but one can see how people willed to survive against all odds.  This was beautiful.  This zeal for life was chosen – it was not fate, but the freedom of humans to will to survive and to triumph over fate.

“Everyone asks only about the hardships and the ‘atrocities,’ whereas for me perhaps it is that experience which will remain most memorable.  Yes, the next time I am asked, I ought to speak about that, the happiness in the concentration camps.”

So he will not accept the advice to forget, to act as it never happened, to deny what happened.  But neither is he forced to accept it as meaningless and fateful evil, he has the freedom to remember the horrors and discover the meaning and he has the freedom to remember the good in it too – nothing needs be forgotten as if it had never happened, no lie needs to be told to make it more palatable or comprehensible.

“…I now needed to start doing something with that fate, needed to connect it to somewhere or something; after all, I could no longer be satisfied with the notion that it had all been a mistake, blind fortune, some kind of blunder, let alone that had not even happened.    ….   if there is such a thing as freedom, then there is no fate… that is to say, then we ourselves are fate.” 

The American Myth and Its God

Stanley Fish, university professor and NY TIMES editorial columnist in his 3 May 2009 piece, Think Again, offers comment on British critic Terry Eagleton’s new book, “Reason, Faith and Revolution.”    While Fish and Eagleton offer much food for thought, I want to draw attention to and comment on one of Fish’s paragraphs:

…  “The coming kingdom of God, a condition of justice, fellowship, and self-fulfillment far beyond anything that might normally be considered possible or even desirable in the more well-heeled quarters of Oxford and Washington.” Such a condition would not be desirable in Oxford and Washington because, according to Eagleton, the inhabitants of those places are complacently in bondage to the false idols of wealth, power and progress. That is, they feel little of the tragedy and pain of the human condition, but instead “adopt some bright-eyed superstition such as the dream of untrammeled human progress” and put their baseless “trust in the efficacy of a spot of social engineering here and a dose of liberal enlightenment there.”

Oxford and Washington are metaphors for academia (the infallible brainchild and savior of the Enlightenment ideology) and modern political power (for Washington and the U.S. are the progeny of  Enlightenment values).  Eagleton has Oxford and Washington both thralls of “the false idols of wealth, power and progress.”  

That is worth pausing to think about.   For we might ask what is wrong with wealth, power and progress?  Aren’t these in fact the greatest, most virtuous goods which modern Western and particularly American society have spawned?

Eagleton sees them as being false idols and superstitions.  

Just think about the recent world wide economic collapse.    The world’s economy was growing at this unprecedented pace, and the world’s financiers and American politicians were so awed by the growth that they could see it as nothing but human  progress and the triumph of American values.  It was our god/idol which was worshipped by all the powers that be, but who were blind to the fact that it all was a bubble, not founded upon anything solid or real but based in the economics of capitalist psychology.   It felt so good, who cared if it was a delusion?  

It was indeed an intoxicating vision which caused many to become drunk on its seemingly endless powers.  It did turn out to be a false god who could not deliver on its promises.  Read Revelations 18 about Babylon where merchants grew rich on the wealth of her wantonness but whose wealth was lost in one hour as no one buys her cargo anymore.  How quickly we forget when we ignore the Scriptures.  We have been warned but just can’t believe it  would be us and our generation who would be decieved by wealth!   Shouldn’t our much vaunted human progress have saved us from self deception?

It could not resist false Idol of  limitless and infinite wealth expanding and growing throughout the universe.  It was unbridled human progress – trickle down economic wealth was finally dripping down to the lowest levels of society from the ever expanding but vacuous balloon.   Wealth. Power. Progress.  The Trinitarian gods of American idealism and ideologues.

SerpentEdenBut it was a false god, an idol which had forgotten the Genesis mythology of the Fall of humanity, Eden’s clever but deceiving serpent, and the existence of evil in the world.  It was an American paradise, retelling the Genesis story by exorising any mention of a serpent and totally trusting in American ingenuity to complete what Adam and Eve failed to do:  fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over it.

Genesis – that great myth telling us about why life on earth is not paradise – turns out to be a truth about America and Americans as well.   Who’d have guessed?

(In the Lucas Cranach painting that is not John Chapman offering us a tempting but delicious apple!  America’s mythology about itself as paradise excludes the serpent, but in so doing proves the truthfulness of Genesis 3).   America very much belongs to the same earth as the rest of the nations of the world.