Where do you turn in the midst of a world bent on self-annihilation, a world where lives are snuffed out at random? Whom do you reach for to keep from disintegrating under the pressure, the carnage, and the loneliness? Who speaks to you in such trance-like misery?
To a certain extent, no one. All of us who have been in war bear with us memories we would prefer to bury or forget. War has an otherworldliness, a strangeness unlike most other experiences. It is its own culture. It infects everything around it, even humor, which is preoccupied with the grim perversities of smut and death. Such tragedy, such inexplicable cruelty, banishes all vague generalizations about existence and obliterates ideological constructs. The fundamental questions about the meaning, or meaninglessness, of our existence are laid bare when we sink to the lowest depths.
But war is fundamental to the human condition. Will Durant calculated that there have been only twenty-nine years in all of human history during which a war was not underway somewhere. Rather than an aberration, war exposes a side of human nature that is masked by the often unacknowledged coercion and constraints that glue us together. Our cultivated conventions and little lies of civility lull us into a refined and idealistic view of ourselves. "The gallows," the gravediggers in Hamlet aptly remind us, "is built stronger than the church."
From the time I began covering war I have carried with me books that are my refuge. Some of the writers include the obvious: Homer, William Shakespeare, Wilfred Owen, W. H. Auden, T. S. Eliot, George Orwell, Joseph Conrad. Also Marcel Proust, whose In Search of Lost Time carried me for many weeks through the war in Bosnia. All these poets and writers understood the monstrous indifference of nature. They understood the dark forces within us, the Hobbesian universe born out of violence and chaos. Great writing serves as a steady reminder that, among mutable and inconstant human beings, there remain glimpses of redemption, understanding, and compassion—even if these virtues rarely triumph.
Reading great poems, novels, and essays helps us to cope with our own insecurities and uncertainty, allowing us to plunge to the very depths of our inner being, depths that often lie beyond articulation. These writers help us to define ourselves and give words to grief and pain and joy that would otherwise lie beyond our reach. And reading like this saves us from the deadening textual criticism and academic snobbery that overpowers and destroys the heart and soul of great art.
"As long as reading is for us the instigator whose magic keys have opened the door to those dwelling-places deep within us that we would not have known how to enter, its role in our lives is salutary," Proust wrote. "It becomes dangerous, on the other hand, when, instead of awakening us to the personal life of the mind, reading tends to take its place."
Late one night, unable to sleep during the war in El Salvador, I picked up Macbeth. It was not a calculated decision. I had come that day from a village where about a dozen people had been murdered by the death squads, their thumbs tied behind their backs with wire and their throats slit.
The play, read in this light, took on a new power. The thirst for power at the cost of human life was no longer an abstraction. I came upon Macduff 's wife's speech, made when the murderers, sent by Macbeth, arrive to kill her and her small children. "Whither should I fly?" she asks.
I have done no harm. But I remember now
I am in this earthly world, where to do harm
Is often laudable, to do good sometime
Accounted dangerous folly
These words seized me like Furies. They cried out for the dead I had seen lined up that day in a dusty market square, the dead I have seen since: the 3,000 children who were killed in Sarajevo, the dead who lie in unmarked mass graves in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, the Sudan, and Algeria, the dead who are my own, who carried notebooks, cameras, and a vanquished idealism into war and never returned. Of course resistance is usually folly, of course power exercised with ruthlessness will win, of course force easily crushes gentleness, compassion, and decency.
But these words give me a balm to my grief, a momentary solace, a little understanding, as I stumble forward into the void.Originally Published: October 30, 2005
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This prose originally appeared in the January 2005 issue of Poetry magazine