Aftershocks

by Leon Wieseltier | January 27, 2010

Think of our new village here as the home of Jesus Christ, not the scene of a disaster,” the Reverend Joseph Lejeune told the smashed souls in a tent city in Port-au-Prince. “Life is not disaster. Life is joy! You don’t have food? Nourish yourself with the Lord. You don’t have water? Drink in the spirit.” One of the aftershocks in Haiti has been the revelation that belief may be immune to experience. The survivors are praying to the author of the destruction. Their metaphysics is their shelter, and I would not deny them their metaphysics as I would not deny them a bed. Yet this is very unVoltairean. Was not God buried in this rubble, as He was buried in all the rubble that preceded it? What happened in Haiti ought to bring philosophy back, except that nothing can bring philosophy back. In an intellectual universe that consists mainly in position-taking, everyone comes away from the enormity with a tingle of validation. The complacence of the theists is matched by the complacence of the atheists. The cocktail-party Karamazovs shake their fists at the live feeds and gleefully pounce on the latest confirmation of their belief in the cruelty of the deity that does not exist. In their scorn for the religious explanation of evil they omit to explain it themselves, except perhaps to extol “lucidity,” which is of course not the beginning of the answer but the beginning of the question. There is nothing analytical or heroic about knowing the facts. And to regard all this suffering as meaningless seems indecent. One can always adopt the standpoint of the cosmos, and in this way detach oneself from the pain and the perplexity, but then one cannot call oneself a humanist. Watching the charnel scenes in Haiti, I wonder, without much mental satisfaction, whether in such circumstances it may not be the highest achievement of the spirit to be stuck. For the relation of belief to experience is a complicated matter, and not only in a catastrophe. It is as foolish to assert that God does not exist because I am unhappy as it is to assert that God does exist because I am happy. In the ruins of Haiti, I do not see how one can be nourished by the presence of the Lord and I do not see how one can be nourished by the absence of the Lord. The earthquake leaves the metaphysical problem where it found it.

 

But the ruins of Haiti may provoke another crisis of another faith. Many commentators rightly noted that the magnitude of the devastation was owed not only to natural causes but also to human causes--to the country’s history of social, political, and economic abjection. Harrowing poverty, corrupt government, broken institutions, shabby infrastructure: those are not divine injustices, they are human ones. (In one of the more notorious sections of his Theodicy, the supreme masterpiece of the justificatory mind, Leibniz remarked that “one single Caligula, one Nero, has caused more evil than an earthquake.”) And America’s interventions, even when they have been for a right end, have often been shifting and thoughtless, a discouraging saga of unintended consequences. In the aftermath of the earthquake, the Obama administration and other governments and the NGOs and the international relief agencies are saying that this time it will be different. The magnanimity of American and other donors, public and private, has certainly been remarkable. The charitable energy, the pulse of compassion, is everywhere. And in one of the greatest hours in the history of human benevolence, as the angels of rescue and relief do their work, there emerged a kind of humanitarian happy talk. “There are great reasons to hope,” Bill Clinton and George W. Bush wrote. “We have a chance to do things better than we once did. … At our best, we can help Haiti become its best.” Ban Ki-Moon observed that “the disaster in Haiti shows once again that even amid the worst devastation, there is always hope,” and cited the millennial goal of eliminating extreme poverty by 2015. Bernard Kouchner declaimed that “stubbornly and fearlessly, we must reach toward hope. … The sad truth is that when everything has been destroyed, anything becomes possible.”

 

I know, I know. What else were they going to say? But something is amiss with this notion of policy as theodicy. For it may well be that anything is not possible. Haiti, like everywhere else, is thick with its past, and it will take more than “a very successful donors conference” (Hillary Clinton’s reassuring example on January 15) or the “development of clean energy” (one of Bill Clinton’s and George W. Bush’s prescriptions on January 17) to break its grip. Hope, like fear, is an easily exploitable emotion; and the disappointment of hope is not significantly different from despair. I am not sure what interests are served by talk of transformation, except the interests of cynics. The Red Cross has my money, but not because I expect to see a new Haiti. I do not. I also do not expect to see a lasting American commitment after the bodies are buried. I would like one, of course; but what I would like is not what counts. What counts is what we know about the inconstancy of men and the intractability of the world. That knowledge does not teach quietism, not at all; but we must learn to distinguish between meliorative action and millennial action. The struggle against suffering should take place soberly, grimly, with what the poet called a heart for any fate, because it sets out from the prior actuality of suffering. It is born disabused, or it is a misunderstanding.

 

I recognize the risk in such an intuition. In demanding too little of the world, we may become complicit with it. Fatalism is always, almost as a matter of definition, self-fulfilling. And yet intelligence must not be blinded by its tears. Tragedy cannot be adequately met with the confidence and the cheerfulness of Leibniz and Bono. This time it will be different. Looking at Haiti, why would anyone not believe it, and why would anyone believe it? We cut our deliverances to the scale of our disasters, but it is never measure for measure: we cannot overtake what the world has done to us, what we have done to ourselves. It is just not the case that the less you believe in God, the more you believe in man. It may be impossible to believe in them both. The short-lived nature of ethical alertness is one of the most rudimentary facts of individual and collective life. So let us quicken to the intervals between our indifferences, because whether or not God exists, we do, and much of the time--though not now, as the planes clog the runways in Port-au-Prince--we are terrible.

Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.

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