Missing words, excess activity

Missing words, excess activity


Everything there was to know about life was in The Brothers Karamazov,

by Feodor Dostoevsky. But that isn't enough any more.

K. Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five


There are two typical remarkable reactions of a person to what he has done or how he has lived his life. The first is to ask oneself a delightful question "How the hell did I do that?". One asks this question when one achieves something not quite so easy. But these are not feats unattainable to the average person – Kurt Vonnegut, for example, recalls how a skilled friend built him a new ell on his house, and after he finished it, "he had me stand next to him outside and look at my new ell from thirty feet away. And then he asked it: “How the hell did I do that?”" (Timequake, chap. 20). The second possible reaction comes from the specifically human quality of not being satisfied with oneself, of not liking oneself. Here, hindsight does not pose a delightful question, but something of an endless challenge: yes, it wasn't and isn't bad, but clearly it could or rather should have been better. And as long as one can, one remakes and improves.

With deep sadness and horror, I wonder what must be going through the minds of soldiers in retrospect, massacring others, often defenceless civilians, razing entire cities to the ground, including apartment buildings, theatres, schools, hospitals and factories. And what about the government that orders the massacres and the people who support them? The thought "How the hell did I do that? " is out of the question, except in a crust of pure irony. Like the delightful question, the endless challenge - next time I must bomb more accurately to destroy more, faster and more efficiently - is excluded unless it comes from the mouth of a man blinded by his transformation into a pure engineer or conqueror. A more human reaction might be pity, mourning or depression, reactions that lack words and one cannot but deeply pity (and harshly, i.e. responsibly condemn) anyone who has to go through this unnameable reflection without words. Anyway, Vonnegut's imagination finds nothing but the words he puts in Hitler's mouth just before he shoots himself: "I never asked to be born in the first place" (chap. 20). And the writer recalls the last words of a Nazi SS captain who couldn't wait to finally die when he was found dying in a barn near bombed-out Dresden just after the war: "I have just wasted the past ten years of my life…" (chap. 35).

Actually, the superficial reaction of brutally criminal people, lack of any excitement or perspective in their reaction, as opposed to those who ask or can ask a delightful question or endless challenge, is only proof that evil never has depth and that it is frighteningly lacking in any serious or elevated thought (as we know from Arendt's description of Eichmann's terrifying thoughtlessness). This has consequences, which succinctly and laconically captured Raimond Gaita (A Common Humanity, 42): "evil can only be understood in the light of the good…, it cannot lucidly be an object of fascination, competing with goodness for our allegiance. " And Simone Weil took it one step further: "Nothing is so beautiful and wonderful, nothing is so continually fresh and surprising, so full of sweet and perpetual ecstasy, as the good. No desert is so dreary, monotonous, and boring as evil. This is the truth about authentic good and evil. With fictional good and evil it is the other way round. Fictional good is boring and flat, while fictional evil is varied and intriguing, attractive, profound, and full of charm." (A Common Humanity, 42)

This conflict between fiction and reality with regard to good and evil perhaps explains one of the experiences we are having today. With the beginning of the mass killings in Ukraine, I have been unable to play table tennis, read novels or watch movies as I have been. Why? It makes sense, one is consumed by news so horrific that it drowns out any otherwise appealing and sensible activities, spoiling the taste for anything otherwise tasty. But we saw above that the problem is deeper than that. The aforementioned activities (e.g., sports, reading, or watching movies), certainly important, for example, for thorough rest and relaxation, were transformed by the outbreak of evil beyond vice not only into something so banal that they lost their meaning (what on earth is there to rest for, what is there to relax for?), but also into something so superior that it conjured up images of a waste of time and a shameful luxury (shouldn't one be helping out somewhere rather than reading here). Mostly, however, the whole, in which they could only make sense, fell apart; suddenly the previous orientation ceased to be valid, it became unclear where right and left, where up and down. We found ourselves beyond the limit of the intelligible world and life.

A more precise answer to the question of why one cannot suddenly just read novels or train in athletics is, it seems to me, offered by the above-quoted distinction between evil, interesting by definition only in fictional form, while boringly banal in real life, and the good characteristic of a remarkable life in real life, whereas in fiction it is mostly ungraspable (similar distinctions bring the whole back into focus and orient one's orientation). Almost live today, we can thus watch remarkable lives striving for good (lives that to not care about and support would mean incomprehensible and unacceptable indifference), and so uninteresting and disgusting evil, crimes and the views associated with them, that watching them is goosebump-inducing, immobilizing, and impossible in the long run, because apart from a kind of momentary mute fascination with the repulsive (Plato, Republic 439e-440a), anything worthy of attention is absent.

Apathy towards games and fiction thus seems to only confirm the distinction between good and evil based on their relationship to reality and fiction. In fact, the ongoing heroic battle has made the transition into the world of games and fiction a dubious one. Moreover, the transition at these moments is paradoxical to the point of being unacceptable, because one thus enters a world where evil becomes more interesting and attractive, and thus contradicts reality, which in turn must be taken literally deadly seriously. But rather than challenging the fictional, the current reduction of human lives and their associated imagination and creation to a struggle here and now testifies to the terrible misery of this time: our misery is precisely that we are deprived of imagination, playfulness, exercise and sport. This leaves only the question of why fictional evil can be interesting and what it actually means for us. In any case, it turns out that reality can still take on a terrible power compared to the world of fiction, even though we know very well that even weapons are, after all, fictional (made up), that so-called reality has often as a model fiction, and that even war had to be first "invented" and declared and the people persuaded to go along with it. And even distinguishing evil from good is not easy. For it also turns out that in reality one cannot exclusively follow either good or evil (as opposed to fictions, where the plot follows mostly either the criminals or their victims, either the detective or the perpetrator, but never both in similar intensity and detail). The two poles form a whole, they belong together, and to see one is always to observe and explain the other at the same time. The aforementioned distinction between two completely different worlds is probably only valid for a concentrated, detailed observation of the life of this or that, and in it then a life pursuing the good does not stand within sight of a life of the worst evil.

In reading Raimond Gaita and his determination of evil beyond vice, another important distinction related to the game and warfare is offered, a distinction that reveals (or rather confirms) what exactly is going on in Ukraine. There are two different war situations, exemplified on the one hand by the Nazi death camp and on the other by the Spanish Civil War. When in the death camp the SS challenged the imprisoned Jews to a football match (A Common Humanity, 48), it was impossible in the ensuing game to talk about the humanization of an otherwise inhuman situation, about the fact that the SS and the prisoners could perceive each other as fellow humans, at least for a while. Gaita recalls the testimony of Primo Levi speaking of "a grotesque parody of it". By contrast, when Orwell describes how, in the (otherwise equally horrific) Civil War between the opposing sides, it was impossible to shoot a man running out of a latrine with his trousers down, it was because he saw in the enemy he had in his sights a fellow human, his trousers down and his flight in them a disarming sign of humanity.

Gaita explains this sudden understanding, and its possibility in general, in "a sense of a common humanity amongst men who know they are caught in a system in which no one is secure from punishment merely because they are innocent". At the football match in Auschwitz, no such thing was possible "because of the morally terrible circumstances surrounding the game…". In the death camps “everything was saturated with their evil”. The same applies to the wartime massacre taking place in Ukraine: if Gaita at the death camps reveals that "any gesture of kindness by the guards, and especially by the SS, seems sullied by the terrible realization of their role in the death camps" (A Common Humanity, 50), the same can be said of the army of people with a "Z" in the ongoing war (wishing, of course, that there were some such gestures of kindness).

Not all war is bad, not all war excludes humanity. And not only because in certain war conflicts it is possible to experience "a sense of a common humanity" even with the enemy. We could even say that certain front experiences potentially awaken humanity (see the solidarity of the shaken in Patočka's Heretical Essays) and certain struggles as liberation lead to humanity. It is therefore impossible to agree wholeheartedly with Étienne Balibar, who says of the war in Ukraine: "It is a war in which even those (among whom I count myself) for whom any war (or any current war) is unacceptable or catastrophic cannot choose to remain passive. For the consequence of passivity would be even worse. So I feel no enthusiasm, but I make a choice: against Putin." (É. Balibar, Avec ses réfugiés, l’Ukraine est déjà entrée en Europe dans les faits) We know from history that experienced, sensible, sensitive and severely tested people do not revel in war, but still enter into it with enthusiasm. The Czech philosopher Božena Komárková, imprisoned by the Nazis, recalls: "We wished for this war because we had already known something even more terrible before it. We wished for it from the day we knew it was inevitable. ...to fight for our honor, for human honor.. (Božena Komárková, Čemu nás naučila válka [What the war taught us]). Our war today is not the same war that Komárková welcomed. I don't know how close our situation is to hers. It is only in the Ukrainian President and many peace-loving people that I see the aforementioned experience of liberation and relief that we have witnessed in the Second World War. It is tragic that this liberation here, in the case of war, is soaked by evil beyond vice, that wishing is combined with wishing for what cannot be wished for.


Tomas Hejduk, 10th May 2022