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Posts Tagged ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’

The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.

The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference.

The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference.

And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.

– Elie Wiesel

The opposite of love, art, faith, and life is apathy: the inability to respond to suffering.

It’s been a while since I taught Wiesel’s autobiography Night, but I remember one sentence more profoundly than any other: “To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.”

Remembering, for Wiesel, as he shared in his 1986 Nobel Prize speech “Hope, Despair, and Memory,” is a “noble and necessary act,” and its rejection “a divine curse, one that would doom us to repeat past disasters, past wars.” In fact, it would be easy to read all of Wiesel’s work as a paean to remembrance: “That is my major preoccupation, the kingdom of memory. I want to protect and enrich that kingdom, glorify that kingdom, and serve it.”

And if we – not just Wiesel – forget, we kill the dead a second time. The failure to remember suffering implicates us in the initial suffering as though we willed it from the beginning.

This theme of indifference – of purposeful (or perhaps only negligent) forgetting – seems to be at the heart of so much that I’ve read lately.

My British Literature students have just finished Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, an account of Stevenson’s work as an African-American attorney in Alabama representing minorities, underprivileged, and the voiceless.

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My students readily admit to not being avid readers, yet so many shared with me that this book opened their eyes in a way that fiction or their history textbooks have not. I was not lecturing them or sharing my beliefs. Instead, Stevenson’s writing – candid and humble – was the subject of our discussions. He writes, “I believe that there are four institutions in American history that have shaped our approach to race and justice but that remain poorly understood.” He names those institutions (slavery, convict leasing, Jim Crow laws, and mass incarceration) and highlights through his stories the lasting effects these institutions have on perpetuating racial injustice. I asked my students to share with me what question they would pose to Bryan were he before them today. One white student wrote, “I don’t think I would ask him a question. Instead, I would tell him that his book completely changed my views and opinions on race and justice. I see the system so differently now and his book has made me want to help all the people who are hopeless in that system. I would want him to know that.” Another African-American, one of the three I teach, wrote, “If Bryan was before me today, I would ask him, besides reading this book and being a lawyer, how do you think I really should go about helping people understand the struggles minorities and poor people go through, because even though they have read the book, at the end of the day it’s a book and they go home to their houses in the suburbs and to private schools with no financial worries.” There were a few students who resented Stevenson’s thesis, arguing that we live in a post-racial society and that remembering our country’s legacy of slavery, disenfranchisement, and marginalization does no one any good. Yet, Stevenson strongly believes otherwise. In both his book and a lecture I attended at The Carter Center last month, he emphasized the need for remembrance, citing the lack of memorials our country has to slavery. I live in Atlanta, where I can walk a mile in any direction and discover a marker chronicling a Civil War event, but I cannot recall one that mentions the institution that precipitated that war. Stevenson, through his organization Equal Justice Initiative, has fought to erect grave markers that share our national stories of lynching and slavery. In an interview, he notes their powerful impact, “I see poor, white rural families and young people of color gathered around these sites having conversations … I think a lot of our contemporary issues are rooted in our failure to talk honestly about the issues that lead up to the problems we have today.” Essentially, he’s arguing, when we choose to forget, we do so at our peril.

In my AP Literature classes, my students have been reading Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. They’ve found Conrad’s novella to be as dense as the fog he encountered on the Congo, but they admit that the difficult undertaking has been worthwhile. I’ve shared excerpts from Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa, which has helped them understand the historical reality behind Conrad’s mystical telling.

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There were in fact many Kurtzes, individuals whose moral bearings shifted geographically. The result: the brutal genocide of half of the Congo’s inhabitants. King Leopold’s name should stand infamously next to Stalin or Hitler’s, but the Congolese were not a literate society so few direct testimonies attest to his atrocities. Moreover, Leopold in an act of extraordinary spin control attempted to destroy the evidence; for eight days in 1908 the furnaces in his kingdom’s headquarters burned at full blast incinerating all the historical archives. Remarkably, his “politics of forgetting” have been largely successful. Even many Belgians are unaware of their country’s legacy.

However, the danger of forgetting (with, as Wiesel attests, its loss of culture, civilization, society, and future) was on my mind most profoundly last week in China where I was chaperoning a group of 18 students. On the plane and in my hotel room at night I read Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, a Rashomon styled story of the Australian POW experience in World War II.

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The novel’s central protagonist Dorrigo Evans is a doctor in the POW camp where, short on medicine and sterile conditions, he administers kindness and compassion as the primary antidote to the horrors inflicted by their Japanese captors. A sympathetic response was apparently so unnatural that Dorrigo is hailed as a hero after the war, status that he finds problematic, especially because he resorts to alcohol and adulterous relationships to soothe his own post-traumatic-stress-disorder. Flanagan wrote the novel to memorialize his father Archie’s experience in a Japanese POW camp on the Burma Death Railway as prisoner #335. Flanagan resisted writing the novel, which took him twelve years to complete. As he explained in an interview, “”I didn’t want to write this book but in the end I couldn’t escape it. If I didn’t write it, I’m not sure I could write another book. I had to deal with things, which could become a stumbling block within me. I had to define them … I felt I carried something within me as a consequence of growing up as a child of the death railway. People come back from cosmic trauma but the wound does not end with them. It passes on to others.” In 2013, he called his 98-year-old father to tell him that he finally completed the novel; later that day, his father died.

It’s particularly ironic then that his protagonist Evans denies the power of memory. In one emotive scene, he and a few other “POW pyre makers” are preparing to burn the bodies of a few soldiers, victims of cholera. Casting all of the dead men’s belongings onto the fire, Bonox Baker hesitates to throw a POW’s sketchbook onto the flames with him, explaining to Evans, “It’s a record. His record. So people in the future would, well, know. Remember.… That people will remember what happened here. To us.” Baker then adds, “Lest we forget.” That phrase, popular after WWI, forms the refrain for Kipling’s poem, “Recessional.” Evans asks Baker if he knows the poem, quoting:

Far-called our navies melt away—

On dune and headland sinks the fire—

Lo, all our pomp of yesterday

Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!

Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,

Lest we forget—lest we forget!

Deriding the power of memory, Evans argues that the poem is actually about forgetting: “Nothing endures. Don’t you see, Bonox? That’s what Kipling meant. Not empires, not memories. We remember nothing. Maybe for a year or two. Maybe most of a life, if we live. Maybe. But then we will die, and who will ever understand any of this? And maybe we remember nothing most of all when we put our hands on our hearts and carry on about not forgetting.”

Of course, Flanagan’s novel itself is a refutation of his protagonist’s contention, but reading the full text of Kipling’s poem, I realize it is too. The poem itself is a prayer to God asking for forgiveness “lest we forget.” The direct object of the phrase is not our soldiers’ sacrifice as it has been appropriated; rather, it is Christ’s sacrifice, which allows redemption through remembrance of those very wounds.

Still, Evans’ words resonate. I learned last week from our Chinese guide that the Great Wall was not honored or valued by the Chinese until tourism dictated such respect. Instead, she said her people had considered it a vast cemetery of lives lost building a fortress. I wonder if the same might be said of the other wonders of the world: the Pyramids, the Coliseum, Stonehenge, Machu Picchu. As Evans stridently reasons regarding the sketchbook, “Who’ll know what these pictures will mean? Who’ll say what they’re of? One man might interpret them as evidence of slavery, another as propaganda. What do the hieroglyphs tells us of what it was like to live under the lash, building the pyramids? Do we talk of that? Do we? No, we talk of the magnificence and majesty of the Egyptians.” He’s certainly right about that. Our memory only endures so far.

In fact, sometimes it doesn’t endure at all. In the novel, one of the hired guards on the Burma Railway Line, a South Korean, recalls that his thirteen-year-old sister had signed up with the Japanese to work as a “comfort woman,” helping nurse soldiers in hospitals. Now that he knows what “comfort women” actually are, he hopes that she is dead.

Historically, they all will be soon. Those who survive are probably in their 90’s, and even though they have testified to the horrors they endured in the forced sexual slavery system created by the Japanese government during the war, their voices – even those embodied at present – have often not been heard or, worse, have been repudiated. Intent on promoting Japan’s image in the world, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2007 claimed that “comfort women” were never forced or tricked into prostitution, and just a few months ago, he took an American textbook published by McGraw Hill to task for this passage: “The Japanese Army forcibly recruited, conscripted and dragooned as many as 200,000 women aged 14 to 20 to serve in military brothels.” Fortunately, journalists and photographers like Hilde Janssen and Jan Banning have exposed Abe’s political deceit, compiling these women’s stories.

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Intent on saving the sketchbook, Baker cries, “Memory is the true justice, sir!” Yet, they lifted the soldier’s corpse on the pyre and laid the sketchbook next to him, lighting the mountain of bamboo. After the service, when they were done and preparing to leave, Evans discovers the sketchbook on the ground, slightly charred but still intact: “Dorrigo Evans picked the sketchbook up and went to toss it back into the fire, but at the last moment changed his mind.”

Lest we forget.

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