In that same period, the Zeligs were moving their residences every three or four months. As committed, underground communist cadres, Al and his wife had been assigned the task of providing safe houses for fugitive radicals who were evading the F.B.I. Each time they moved to a new town, they changed their jobs, their churches and their surnames. And they instructed their impressionable six-year-old son that he had to – several times – falsify his first name. One month, Danny would be Tommy; another month he would be Robert. At first it was a game; later it was simply crazy making.
Ideologically opposed as they were, both Frank Adams and Al Zelig had built their entire identities upon what turned out to be thin veneers of belief. Generations before, both of their families had spurned organized religion. But, as James Hillman taught, all Americans are “psychologically Christian… we are each…like it or not, children of the Biblical God. It is a fact, the essential American fact.”
What does Hillman’s curious statement mean? I interpret it as a lament that in this demythologized world, we are all essentially uninitiated persons who have long forgotten the indigenous capacity to think metaphorically. As such, we tend to use literalized, polarized, “either-or” terminology. We are all monotheists at heart, and our default mode, even as educated liberals, is to fill the holes in our creative imaginations with belief systems of one form or another and to demonize opposing points of view. And it is a simple temptation when we lose faith in one system to quickly replace it with another.
We have been conditioned over the centuries to reduce the multi-layered mystery of world and self to the simplistic dualisms of monotheism: whatever isn’t aligned with our god must necessarily follow his opposite. Here is a clue: if your people consider their story to be literally true and other people’s stories are “myths,” then you and your people are thinking literally. Other mono-words share the brittleness of one correct way: monopoly, monogamy, monolithic, monarchy, monotonous.
As monotheism triumphed, it transformed difference into “otherness,” as a threat to be eliminated. But in our bones, we still have the vestigial memory of an original, creative, animist, pagan imagination that appreciates diversity and welcomes all gods and all emotions, including humor. Hillman insisted, “The Gods don’t require my belief for their existence, nor do I require belief for my experience of their existence.”
So it seems to me that If solutions to our great social and environmental crises emerge, they will originate outside of the monoculture’s arrogantly monocular view, from people on the edges, people who, in Caroline Casey’s words, “…believe nothing; entertain possibilities.”
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind, lose it.
Leave it as a sign to mark the false trail, the way you didn’t go.
– Wendell Berry
The danger – and the opportunity – that belief offers us is to lose it, to lose faith, to become disillusioned. For some of us, as Hillman wrote, this tragic blessing happens through betrayal.
All of the grand, over-arching, ideological mono-liths of our Judeo-Christian tradition, from the Crusades to the Inquisition, to American Puritanism to Nazism to radical Islam have utilized betrayal and the fear of betrayal for their own ends. But perhaps the utopia symbolized by international communism is the saddest story of our past century, where the lives of Frank and Al, and millions of believers like them, intersected. Unfortunately, like all the ideologies that came before, communism accepted the primacy of means over ends, that any crimes whatsoever were acceptable if they furthered the “cause.” Adam Kirsch writes:
By the late nineteen-thirties, Western intellectuals who sympathized with Communism had already proved themselves capable of accepting a great deal of killing in the name of the cause…(They) usually justified Stalinism’s crimes as the necessary price of building a socialist future, and of defending it against a hostile capitalist world. Walter Duranty, the Times’ correspondent in Moscow, excused the three million famine deaths that were caused by the push to collectivize Soviet agriculture, writing that, “to put it brutally—you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.”
The twin shadows of belief are betrayal and martyrdom. Indeed, Christianity became the first religion to make martyrdom a demand of faith. Leonard Shlain put this process into historical context:
Until the Christian martyrs, there does not occur anywhere in the recorded history of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Persia, Greece, India or China a single instance in which a substantial segment of the population accepted torture and death rather than forswear their belief in an ethereal concept.
Even as deeply idealistic men like Frank and Al – communists, anti-communists. socialists, liberals, labor activists, anarchists, fascists, anti-fascists, monarchists, Catholics and poets – were sacrificing themselves on the arid fields of Spain between 1936 and 1939, Stalin’s show trials were destroying thousands, perhaps millions of lives. Their alleged crimes: betrayal of the cause. One of these believers in intellectual orthodoxy was Arthur Koestler, who in his disillusionment would go on to write Darkness At Noon, Dialogue With Death and The God that Failed. Kirsch continues:
Koestler…did not become a Communist “by a process of elimination.” Rather, he compared the experience to a religious conversion. “The whole universe falls into pattern like the stray pieces of a jigsaw puzzle,” he wrote. “There is now an answer to every question.”
Soviet Communism in its heyday served many people around the world as a secular religion. Today, although Marxist ideas and the label “socialist” have been resurgent on the left, the enormous influence once exerted by Communism now seems a distant phenomenon. To its adherents, Communism was not just a party identification but a complete theory of life and history, which dictated both personal and political morality. And it was the conflict between that morality and ordinary moral instincts—which condemned things like lying and killing, which the Party often demanded—that provided the dramatic focus of “Darkness at Noon”…every political creed must eventually face the question of whether noble ends can justify evil means. As Koestler saw, this problem reached its pure form in Communism because its avowed aim was the noblest of all: the permanent abolition of social injustice throughout the world. If this could be achieved, what price would be too high? Maybe a million or ten million people would die today, but if billions would be happy tomorrow wasn’t that worth it? A Communist revolutionary, Koestler writes, “is forever damned to do what he loathes the most: become a butcher in order to stamp out butchery, sacrifice lambs so lambs will no longer be sacrificed.”
Frank’s belief system was no different. He saw close up how anti-communism was as much a system of mass murder as Stalin’s was, but he justified his crimes because of his noble ideals. His politics, like Al’s, had been an all-encompassing faith; psychologically they were no different from other fundamentalists. And each inevitably became disillusioned. Perhaps eventually each of them might have agreed with Koestler: “A harmful truth is better than a useful lie.” But each in his way experienced the dark reality behind his passionate commitment when he felt betrayed by those he had served. I would imagine that they each felt, even in their agnosticism, that God himself had betrayed them.
Part Three of this essay is here.