by Sam Bright
Perhaps the most daunting gift I received this Christmas was Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate. Consciously echoing Tolstoy’s War and Peace, this tome runs to some 855 pages. There is a short passage from this long book that I would like to share with you. It is one which speaks to the heart, and calls for a moment of reflection.
To set the scene. The ‘Old Bolshevik’ Mostovsky is detained in a German prison camp, alongside Italian peasants, Croat shepherds, Germans who had sought to flee the impositions of National Socialism and, of course, other Russian communists. From amongst the later, the Old Bolshevik often finds himself speaking with the ‘holy fool’, Ikonnikov. This ‘strange man’ is considered by his prison-fellows to be ‘dubious and untrustworthy’; yet he proves also to be a fount of profundity, as seen in what follows.
The ideas of this dirty, ragged old man were a strange hotchpotch. He professed a belief in an absurd theory of morality that – in his own words – ‘transcended class’.
“Where acts of violence are committed,” he explained to Mostovsky, “sorrow reigns and blood must flow. I saw the sufferings of the peasantry with my own eyes – and yet collectivization was carried out in the name of Good. I don’t believe in your “Good”. I believe in human kindness”
“So you want us to be horrified when Hitler and Himmler are strung up on the gallows in the name of Good? You can count me out!”
“You ask Hitler,” said Ikonnikov, “and he’ll tell you that even this camp was set up in the name of Good.”
Strange and dubious this man may be, but how far do we trust the accepted normality? Our idols and icons focus our eyes on the Good of beauty, the Good of wealth, the Good of material gains. We thirst for success; yet in success, the rich find not satisfaction but greater thirst to be quenched. Our politicians speak of other Goods: the free market, the welfare state, liberties, left, right, centre. Religious and secular morality place demands on our conscience, demands that may conflict and tear at our souls.
In the name of the Good, Beveridge presaged the free healthcare that, in the name of the Good, the Tea Party seek to dismantle. In the name of the Good we invaded Iraq, and in the name of the Good we condemn our politicians as war criminals. In the name of the Good we built capitalism, and in the name of the Good we wish to bring it to its knees.
Belief in the Good is inherent in humanity. The Good may be religious, it may be moral, it may be individualistic or selfish. In common is the act of belief; difference arises in the creed believed.
Amidst these discordant demands on ourselves as Good people, there is one unifying thread that can make its pacifying way through every Good. That is the belief of the madman and the simpleton; the belief not in a complex code or unrealistically demanding dogma, but in a basic human impulse. A belief that if surrendered to, if the guiding principle of our daily interactions and grand political schemes, could see an end to greed and hunger, and banish the bullets from the sky.
My hope for the New Year is that we, our families, our political and cultural leaders alike, can share the ‘holy fool’s’ belief; that like Ikonnikov, we can give force to the principle of Human Kindness.