When in the company of my rationalist friends – that is, those of my friends who display that quality the way a pimp wears his rings – I’m often met with puzzled, maybe disappointed, maybe embarrassed looks when I try to explain my interest in religion. The following is a reply to a friend in a long discussion on the topic, so please forgive the lack of structure and unacknowledged existentialist approach. It was never meant to be an essay, but I’ve found it does an adequate job of expressing why religion, and religious studies, always draws me back. I draw on the Holocaust film “Life Is Beautiful” to help illustrate my point, and so as Episode 2 of Fear & Loathing in the New Jerusalem prepares to plunge into the horrors of Nazi era, I thought I would share it.
To illustrate what I mean, I’ll use a film and a book/film. The first is one of my favorite movies, Life Is Beautiful. I don’t know if you have seen it but, briefly, it is the story of a Jewish man and his family living in Italy during the Second World War. When they are taken up into a concentration camp, he and his son are shuffled off to the men’s camp, separated from their wife and mother. Desperate to shield his son’s innocence, the father cobbles together a story that the entire experience is a game, in which the prisoners and their captors are all willing players, and he goes through increasingly absurd and comical convolutions to keep up the ruse. They were surrounded by horror, and the father of course knew it for what it was, and was terrified, but struggled to keep up his spirits for the sake of his son.
Some people were offended by the film, feeling that it downplayed the real suffering of the Jews during WWII, but I have always felt that they missed the larger point. The film wasn’t about the specific catastrophe faced by the Jews during WWII, but about the general catastrophe of human life. We wake up finding ourselves thrown into a foreign environment that is certainly dangerous, often hostile, and largely out of our control. Putting together how we got here has so far been a mostly wasted effort. We watch helplessly as all the things we dare to care about are snatched away from us, and we are deformed at birth with the knowledge of impermanence. Worst of all, we are cursed with the final absurdity, that we are predisposed to seek meaning, to demand it, and yet to have our search thwarted by the facts of life in time. We are all living in a concentration camp. All our pleasures and joys are derived from the games we play, and from the moments we share with the other players. Some people protested that the film sent the wrong message, that showing people finding joyful moments in their suffering is akin to telling slaves to find happiness in their oppression. If all the prisoners had participated in the game, they may have partially mitigated their suffering, but they would not have done the truly necessary thing, which is to resist and, hopefully, overthrow the oppressive situation. And I suppose that might be true in the narrow example of the Holocaust prisoners, but when one widens one’s focus to view the concentration camp of the world, one sees that there are no guards to attack, and that the order cannot be overthrown. The ones we mistake for guards are merely capos, enjoying greater privileges but prisoners marching toward the same fate. Our games are all we have.
I look at this as being one of the most important aspects of our religions. The world is terrifying in its vastness and apparent unconcern for the things that are most important to us. Far from being simple ignorance or some kind of sad joke played on the weak and pathetic, our games are among the most noble and beautiful of human inventions. They are a flowering of life and an insistent refusal to give in to nihilism and hopelessness.
Now, of course this doesn’t mean that religion is all cotton candy. The prisoners have found a way to live under difficult conditions, even discovering a modicum of peace and meaning, in the suffering and loss imposed by the conditions of the camp, and when suddenly some people come along who begin to question the validity of the game itself, who complain that their role in the game is not satisfactory and that perhaps things should be shaken up or thrown out altogether, the prisoners often react with swift viciousness. Or else they are confronted with other prisoners who are playing their own game, breaking the spell and causing the illusion to lose its grip. Suddenly a gas chamber is just a gas chamber again. Or else, while joyfully participating in their game, they are confronted with skeptics who have come to say, “Why are you people lying to yourselves? There is no game! Those guards are just guards, and you just pitiful prisoners. There are no consequences for failure, or prizes for winning… no punishment for breaking the rules, for indeed there are not even any rules! Do not be ignorant slaves to these conventions that have no basis in the reality of your situation! Instead shuffle from meal to meal waiting to die – or don’t, it doesn’t matter!” Those who have come to enjoy or depend upon the game typically set upon these interlopers like rabid red blood cells, for they feel, rightly, that these others are a threat to everything that has held them together through the daily onslaught of horror and loss. (That the complaints of the skeptic, or the excluded one, or the player of another game, might be justified is of little importance. For what is justice outside the context of the game? What is justice when life is nothing more than a brief meaningless interval standing between two points of oblivion, and filled mostly with food gathering and awkward attempts at reproduction?) Furthermore, the participants in the game are terrified, sometimes deranged (or all we all deranged, only some of us in ways safely common to others?) and are a rough cross-sample of the race as a whole. Just as in football there are dirty players who go for the knees when the referee isn’t looking, all human games are infested with those who are looking for an outlet for aggressive tendencies or the totalitarian impulse.
The other movie I wanted to mention is The Road, based on a book of the same name by Cormac McCarthy. The Road takes place in an apocalyptic near future. It is never said what has transpired, but you get the idea that there has been a nuclear exchange, a volcanic eruption, or an asteroid impact. The cause doesn’t matter; the effect is that a full-blown nuclear winter has occurred as a result of the pollution and damage to the atmosphere, and the earth is dying. Perhaps ten years after the catastrophe, all the plants and animals are dead, and the humans that remain are living out the days of what is, by all appearances, the last generation of man by roving around searching for whatever canned foods and other resources might still be found, trying to keep warm during the frigid nights, and avoiding packs of cannibals searching for the only live meat still to be found.
The main character of the book is known only as The Man, and he travels through this dead and ashen world with his young son, known only as The Boy. Their goal is to make it to The Coast. There is no particular reason to believe that the coast will bear more benefit than any other place, but the quest nonetheless provides them with a compass, and a purpose that structures their days and gives reason and context to their struggles. During the story, we learn that The Man has inculcated in his son the idea that they are “carrying the fire”, and that they must persist, and defend themselves, and refuse to give up hope because, perhaps alone, they are “carrying the fire” through this dark, featureless world. All around them are people who have given up their humanity, or have had it beaten out of them by trauma and deprivation. This is what they must never do, and a main driver of the story is the struggle of The Man losing his grip on his own humanity as he fights to protect the life and innocence of his son.
McCarthy was always a writer of dark tales, most obviously in his masterpiece Blood Meridian, one of the great works of post-WWII fiction. All of his books were saturated with this same idea of the world as a wasteland, and of man’s common reversion to barbarism under the circumstances. It was only in The Road, written late in his life, after the birth of his first son (he didn’t have any children until his son was born in his 50s), that a glimmer of hope appeared in one of his wasteland worlds. Now, the nature of his world did not change… it is suffering, deprivation, brutality, loss, thwarted attempts to construct systems of meaning. Yet for the first time, there is a flicker of light in the darkness. Suddenly it becomes possible to find joy and meaning among the ashes of a dying world through the love of the father and son, as McCarthy writes “each the other’s world entire”. Suddenly, the daily suffering, even the most banal and abject, might be redeemed through a moment of closeness with another human being. But it is not the mere blood relationship of The Man and The Boy that brings about this closeness. In one of the more horrifying of the book’s scenes, a group of starving people cannibalize an infant, a meal shared by the child’s own mother. It is the idea of “carrying the fire”, the goal of getting to The Coast, and everything other than blood, food, and base survival that bring about the experience of love and joy that allows them to persist as Father and Son, as Human Beings, rather than just as bipedal animals who happen to be able to speak and work with concepts.
As with Life Is Beautiful, it’s best when the world of McCarthy’s story is extrapolated into a metaphor for our own world. Sure, the great catastrophe has not happened yet. But it will. Before long, everyone here will be gone. Our monuments will have crumbled into dust, the pages of our art and literature will have rotted away, our languages and histories will be forgotten… consider the fate of the countless tribes and peoples, each with rich and meaningful collective stories and individual lives, who are simply lost to history. We are all Ozymandius, except one day there will not even be anyone around to read our bold inscriptions. Even if we achieve immortality through science, the sun will eventually explode. Even if we escape the solar system, other suns will die out as well. Though the outer trappings of life have been revolutionized, the basic character of living on the wheel of time cannot be altered. I find our battle to fend off hopelessness, the steadfast refusal to give in to nihilism, and the ingenious attempts to construct meaning systems out of whatever broken materials we find at hand, to be the greatest nobility of which mankind is capable. Religion is not the only way, but it is one of those ways. Do we make a mess of it? Of course. We make a mess of everything. We have no idea what we’re doing and I wouldn’t believe us capable of doing anything at all if we hadn’t already achieved so much… I’m surprised we survived our descent from the trees without falling and killing ourselves. Half the time, in our attempt to keep the game going, we become agents of the very blind nihilistic forces we were seeking to overcome. I am not one who seeks to obfuscate or downplay the destructive or negative aspects of the history of religion. In fact, the MartyrMade Podcast is going to be disproportionately interested in our malfunctions, drawn, as I am, to failures, lost causes, and all things broken. It’s just that I revere the spirit of the attempt, whether or not the attempt can ever be ultimately successful.
I’ve seen it written that the Nazis, torturers of the soul as much as the body, would compel their prisoners to engage in pointless activities to break their will to resist. Resist what? What more can be taken from an undesirable in a Nazi camp? The Nazis, not content with total power over their captives’ persons, sought to dig out the secret kernel from the heart each one. But this inaccessible possession cannot be got at through force. It can only be given away, surrendered, tossed off by an owner who has traded his last hope for the strange peace of nihilism. For this, the Nazis weapons were boredom, futility, and degradation. Every skilled torturer knows that a direct attack often strengthens the will of the victim, the struggle itself giving them a welcome purpose, a brief memory of who they are. And so the Nazis would frequently cause prisoners to perform Sisyphean labors, such as digging massive holes only to see them refilled at day’s end. For many could understand and come to terms with being outmatched and overpowered by the weapons and organization of the Nazi state. But to be subject to daily absurdities, mockeries of meaning, denials of even the dignity of murder, this drove many poor prisoners to the edge of sanity.
Perhaps my essay here only describes the response of the Fool, but I’m not convinced that the Fool is not possessed of a deeper wisdom which eludes my rationalist friends. Is the suicide, or the grim and stoic sufferer, a nobler creature than the one who invents a game to play? What sort of figure is the Fool who thanks the Nazi for handing him a shovel and giving him another chance to dig a hole? Who focuses on ensuring that the hole’s interior is a proper prism with vertical sides, and misses a bit of invaluable sleep plotting how he will dig a better hole tomorrow? Who rushes out to work, rallying his fellow diggers by betting imaginary stakes that his hole will be the best? Probably he would be shot, as we tend to shoot or hang or crucify all the best game players. But, although I don’t say it for sure, I wonder if this Fool would be any less ridiculous than the rest of us, who spend the energy we can divert from digging to instead use trying to escape a prison without fences. His life is a joke, it amounts to nothing! But jokes which finally amount to nothing are the essence of play. Life is a disaster, but when disaster can grabbed with both hands and a full heart, life is so beautiful.