In ‘The New York Review of Books’ for 12/27/09 Ian Buruma reviews a bunch of books about life in France under the German Occupation.
That phenomenon – living under Occupation – has always attracted my attention.
There’s a natural human tendency to want to avoid the largest challenges, the largest ‘insults’ (as the psychologists say) to Our sense of what is right, what is safe, what is normal (however We define that), and what is reliable and predictable.
You couldn’t really get through life unless you filtered out the majority of the sources of anxiety in this booming, buzzing, and not at all ‘secure’ existence that is human life in this vale of tears.
The trick, I suppose, is to filter out the frights that are not immediately relevant, thus leaving yourself free to deal with the causes for concern that pose credible obstacles and threats, whose more or less successful ‘handling’ will yield a little more peace of mind, a little more security and safety and predictability and reliability and even comfort – possibly even ‘happiness’. Or at least a sense of satisfaction deep down that you have met a challenge and have dealt with it well enough, or continue to deal with it well enough.
For yourself and for those others who you can – or by obligation must – include under the umbrella provided by your commitment and your skills.
In a way, a healthy society can be seen as a collection of such umbrellas, kept up and kept functioning, providing together a continuous and relatively effective web of ‘cover’ from the hard rain that always falls on humans, but that at times falls in particularly heavy amounts.
Far too often, I think, humans take an easier and lower road: they simply filter out whatever initially repels or frightens them, settling for a less frightening life experience.
And consequently settling for a less intense life experience and self-experience.
And consequently settling for a less fulfilled life for all the others who won’t fit under such a shrunken umbrella.
And assuaging any further anxieties arising from that trade-off by calling the resulting deformity ‘normal’ and trying to go on from there, on that shrunken basis.
In that sense, the experiences of the French folk under Nazi Occupation are not simply a ‘history’ that happened to ‘other people’ ‘long ago’, but rather they constitute a vivid (not to say always bright) example of what all of Us are do, not simply in facing ‘Nazis’ or ‘evil’ but simply in facing the perennial human challenge – as the Buddhists put it – to Be Yourself in the Present.
You could probably build an entire life around that axial advice: strive always to Be Yourself in the Present.
I’m not going to get mixed up here with Machiavelli’s advice to hide your true self; except to say that Machiavel doesn’t worry enough about the consequences to the development and maintenance of a genuine Self when you spend a lifetime not only hiding it and dissembling other, lower, less genuine sub-selfs, but also have to actively suppress the genuine Self in the process. Machiavelli was giving advice to rulers (and, alas, politicians) not trying to help people actually and genuinely develop their best potentials.
Nor am I going to commit the modern American error of mistaking whatever the hell it is you sorta wanna do with your life (and your ‘self’, something omitted from most current trendy conversations) and what you’d like to do and desire to do, and what your ‘dream’ is (a frakkulous concept that, after the Dems and Teddy K got through with it, should have been buried with him) for what is your Genuine Best Self and what are your Genuine Post Potentials.
The key is to take that Buddhist maxim and then define accurately, both widely and narrowly enough, the parameters of that ‘Self’ and that ‘Present’.
That Present must take into account the full, Vulcan-chess spectrum of Life’s ‘Board’ or – more accurately – Boards: the bottom Board of life as it is when lived at its most primal and obvious and material possibilities, and the next higher Board of life as it can be when it is lived by human Selfs living toward their best potentials and capabilities, and then the highest Board – where the Beyond and its Presences not only exist but interpenetrate the lower Boards, seeking to assist those who are seeking Their assistance.
That Self must take into account the full complexity of an entity designed to ‘play’ that Game on that complex and multiple Board: a Self holding within a spectrum of potentials from the most primal to the most sublime; a Self capable of platforming the mysterious mixture of individual human and profoundly divine spark as that dynamic mixture exists and operates at the very core of the human being (itself a mysterious and profound mix of the material and the spiritual, matter and spirit); a Self capable of operating – with increasing competence, if such is sought – on all the Boards, and is not simply trapped on the basal Board, in all its dark Flatness and queasily insufficient Emptiness.
Which sort of takes the maxim beyond where the Buddhists went with it.
But nowadays – as opposed to the joyful primalities of the Flower Days of the Sixties – not even the Buddhists get much respect.
The new ‘liberal’ is ‘secular’, thoroughly committed to the assurance that ‘religion’ will continually yield to the ‘secular’ as a developing hallmark of ‘post-modernity’ (the ‘moderns’ of the early and mid 20th centuries had incorporated ‘religion’ into national cultural development; the ‘post-moderns’ of the Seventies and onward have dropped ‘religion’ from the list of desirable cultural traits, as they have dropped the Beyond from any list of existing realities).
It is necessary to carry out such ‘creative destruction’ in order to pry open sufficient cultural ‘space’ for a whole lotta things that the Revolutions of the Identities want, but that can’t be squared with any existing religious belief.
This in effect reduces humanity from the sublime if still imperfect awareness of the elegant and powerful and reality of the Three-Board Game to the Flat and reality-challenged strictures of the basal Board. And perhaps also from basal-Board chess to merely checkers. And they call this progress.
Just as the world was starting to shake off the basal and primitive materialism of Communism in the USSR, a basal materialism was taking grip here.
Just as the Communist revolution presented itself as a ‘liberation’ for the people, so too the Revolutions of the Identities over here presented themselves as ‘liberations’ and ‘empowerments’.
Just as the Communist revolution denied the existence of a spiritual and considered religion an enemy yet then demanded a genuinely religious type of belief in its visions, so too the cadres of the Revolutions of the Identities wield their certainties and visions like any other Fundamentalists, whether Bolshevik or religious.
But the human being – under pressure of life’s challenges – can be catalyzed into an awareness of the higher Boards of existence, and this in turn can catalyze the human’s awareness of his/her own spiritual and beyond-material potentials and capacities.
Because they are there.
Because the human has always been designed to participate in this complex and elegant multi-leveled Game, on these multiple Boards where the moves and pieces can interact not only flatly and horizontally, but vertically, and where the Other side – by no means an Opponent – also plays pieces on all the levels.
The secularization thesis fails utterly to take into account this elegant complexity of both Existence and of Human Being, and of human beings. Consequently the thesis, seeking to impose its visions, is by operation of its own terms a regressive phenomenon, ‘deconstructing’ a human progress toward Genuineness and Fullness that had been achieved only painfully and with much blood, sweat, toil, and tears over the course of millennia.
And yet, in this country today, the ‘elite’ line is that secularization is both the wave of the future and the most accurate assessment of Life’s realities and humanity’s possibilities.
The country has been hijacked by secularists (talk about fundamentalistic terrorism!) and then doubly whacked by the responsive fundamentalistic agitations of a religiosity that still doesn’t comprehend the subtle Elegance of the Boards, and is itself limited to the basal Board, although that Board as constantly invaded and over-trodden by legions of fur-feathered, sword-wielding fiery angels whacking whomever is ‘against religion’.
Between the callow elite enablers of secularism with their gaga wish-pictures and demands for the Liberational Paradise and the fiery Fundamentalist angels reproducing the most primitive concepts of how Existence’s highest Spirit operates in the world … it’s enough to give you a new respect for the frightening clarity of Hieronymous Bosch.
Thus to Occupied France.
The greatest challenge in an Occupation is the moral. And in that, the historical Occupation speaks to all human beings.
How much can you ‘go along to get along’ with some Thing – even for the satisfaction of the most basic and urgent physical needs (food, shelter) – before you wind up betraying not only others but your own best Self, before you wind up cooperating with the regressive and primitive?
Of course it was the genius of the early Occupation that the Nazis spun themselves as nothing more than a change of management, and perhaps an improvement actually – given the cacophony and inefficiency of the later Third Republic.
And it was their further genius that they had made themselves sufficiently frightful elsewhere, though keeping up the appearances of respectful bonhomie with the French citizenry, that the French were initially lured – as perhaps any civilized people might first be – into hoping for the best and going-along to get-along.
‘Politics’ since 1918 had become far too polarized to achieve much of anything; much noise, little light, less achievement – and the French were already morally cowed by the ‘clarity’ and ‘simplicity’ of the Nazis’ solution to this problem in post-1919 Germany.
And the Nazis were so ‘sure’ that they were not only the wave of the future but a good and liberating wave as well … how could you not be awed by the presence of such an energetic force?
And Hitler – as diabolic if not more than any of History’s earlier monsters, certainly in the West – did not overtly attack the religiosity of the people: so long as they kept religion confined to ‘religion’ and out of politics, then the Nazis weren’t much exercised about things at all.
But if ‘religion’ started to shade over into a judgment about what was going on outside the church building, if it started to interfere in ‘the political’ … well that was a different thing altogether. There would be consequences. Religion is an opiate, not a catalyzing font of judgment on the things of this basal Board. Religion is private, politics is public – and God help anybody who tried to mix the two.
Thus the French people staggered on.
Some cooperated fully, either because they felt that the Germans actually had found a better way to conduct a nation or because they figured that when the basal Board is so powerful as to seem all that there is, then its rules – however primitive – were the rules of the game now and – as they say now – ‘it is what it is’.
Some were repelled, but could only muster an aesthetic response: so dreadful, really, to have to listen to them gutter and grunt as one is trying to restore one’s sanity by visiting a gallery – it’s a crucifixion to always have a headache!
Some sought consolation and security in the fact that they were not the ones required to wear a yellow star (yet they starved too when Germany began draining France of foodstuffs and raw materials to keep its own Master Volk fed and clothed).
Some took the route of armed resistance (far fewer than later claimed, and many of them Communists).
Some realized that the unleashing of violence in any form was going to undermine an already-threatened human-ness.
Some were stunned by so clear and vivid a spectacle of human primitiveness, either in the German violence – however velvet the glove over the iron hand – or in the capacity for psychological and emotional self-subversions displayed by many of the French.
The Germans were eager to have their regime quickly accepted as ‘normal’ and can any Americans now, except the young or the truly benighted, fail to appreciate government-sponsored crash-programs to establish ‘the new normal’? What was Political Correctness (itself a term borrowed straight from the Communists) except the government-supported effort to prevent public discussion or the public expression of doubt about profoundly and hugely dubious ‘reforms’ that, instead, were to be accepted as ‘normal’ instantly and without question – if you wanted to be considered Correct, and as being one of those who were ‘with it’ and not one of those who ‘just didn’t get it’.
And the Beltway has demonstrated its inability to perform even the most basic of governmental functions, let alone go around trying to re-design the culture and societal foundations themselves.
Indeed, there was a necessary – but so small – Resistance that Americans (and perhaps too many of the French) have never really appreciated: the Resistance not of blowing up trains and bridges, but rather the Resistance to the insidious lure of ‘the new normal’, to the-Germans-are-here-now and it-is-what-it-is.
I’m not calling this a ‘moral Resistance’ – because any violence has to be morally justified if you are not going to destroy your integrity when you cause it.
I’m calling this a Resistance that recognized the Moral: a Resistance that recognized the insidious lure for what it was, and grasped the lethal, leprous consequences to individuals and to their society of embracing it.
Because no entity that participates in the treacherous undertows that beset the basal Board – individual, society, government – can ever completely be relied upon to keep itself free of those treacherous consequences to integrity and the higher human capabilities that define the Human as spirit as well as matter.
For that reason even the most dedicated Resistance fighters, especially as the power of the Germans began to wane, and even DeGaulle himself, distinguished between la France eternelle and that other France, the one that was complicit in the surrendering of French Jewry and enwhored itself to that ‘new normal’, actively, insidiously, treacherously, violently in the widest sense of that term, and to its profound detriment and disgrace.
That was the existential failure of so many in the Occupation.
Twenty years or so later a proponent of Liberation Theology referred to the Church as She and the Church as It – and he was deploying the same insight in considering the Catholic Church: a shining ideal possessed of vibrant and resilient conceptual strengths and visions, and an ‘organization’ heir to all the weaknesses and treacheries and self-betrayals of the basal Board.
Yet the two exist together, since that basal-Board is an essential part of the Game.
That is the remarkable tensiveness of the ‘Vulcan Chess’ vision of the Game: several Boards, interactive, and all essential – giving play out of necessity to the Matter and Spirit of which this entire ‘world’ and all of its inhabitants is composed.
And in this Game, there can be no ‘spectators’.