Thursday, August 12, 2010

Death, prayer, Woolf

Professional atheist Christopher Hitchens is gravely ill with cancer, and is disavowing in advance any "deathbed conversion" he might make, prospectively attributing such to his future debilitation of mind and body. Damon Linker is reminded of a passage from Primo Levi:
I entered the Lager (Auschwitz) as a non-believer, and as a non-believer I was liberated and have lived to this day. Actually, the experience of the Lager with its frightful iniquity confirmed me in my nonbelief. It has prevented me, and still prevents me, from conceiving of any form of providence or transcendent justice. . . . I must nevertheless admit that I experienced (and again only once) the temptation to yield, to seek refuge in prayer. This happened in October 1944, in the one moment in which I lucidly perceived the imminence of death . . . naked and compressed among my naked companions with my personal index card in hand, I was waiting to file past the “commission” that with one glance would decide whether I should go immediately into the gas chamber or was instead strong enough to go on working. For one instance I felt the need to ask for help and asylum; then, despite my anguish, equanimity prevailed; one does not change the rules of the game at the end of the match, nor when you are losing. A prayer under these conditions would have been not only absurd (what rights could I claim? and from whom?) but blasphemous, obscene, laden with the greatest impiety of which a nonbeliever is capable. I rejected the temptation; I knew that otherwise were I to survive, I would have to be ashamed of it.
As Linker notes, this points up a fundamental difference between believers and nonbelievers:
Levi and Hitchens reside in the first camp, believing that they are most themselves when they are healthy and free--at the height of their human powers; whatever they may feel or say (or be tempted to say) in moments of weakness or degradation deserves to be dismissed as inauthentic. But the devout reside in the second camp, insisting that human beings are truest to themselves--most authentic--when they are most vulnerable.
This of course is the distinction Luther made in announcing his "theology of the cross":
It is certain that man must utterly despair of his own ability before he is prepared to receive the grace of Christ.
But what the Levi quote reminded me of was a pre-Auschwitz literary moment in To the Lighthouse, as Mrs Ramsay winds up her knitting before supper and thinks about "losing personality" in one of her spells of being half in love with easeful death, a mood which
... would lift up on it some little phrase or other which had been lying in her mind like that -- "Children don't forget, children don't forget" -- which she would repeat and begin adding to it, It will end, it will end, she said. It will come, it will come, when suddenly she added, We are in the hands of the Lord.

But instantly she was annoyed with herself for saying that. Who had said it? Not she; she had been trapped into saying something she did not mean. * * * What brought her to say that: "We are in the hands of the Lord?" she wondered. The insincerity slipping among the truths roused her, annoyed her. She returned to her knitting again. How could any Lord have made the world? she asked. With her mind she had always seized the fact that there is no reason, order, justice: but suffering, death, the poor. There was no treachery too base for the world to commit; she knew that. No happiness lasted; she knew that.
Now that I think of it, Mrs Ramsay's falling back in her annoyance on the problem of evil cuts into Linker's distinction. The moments which Linker pegs as most authentic from a believer's perspective are precisely those which lead a Mrs Ramsay to disbelieve in the existence of God.

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