Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Message in a Bottle.

Recently, I had the opportunity to take some time off and catch up with some reading. One of the books that I had meant to read, based on snippet of it which I had found on the internet, was Cold Friday by Whittaker Chambers.

Chambers is chiefly remembered for the Hiss spy trial and his book Witness. After his death he was quickly forgotten, except by the curmudgeonly right whom I felt never real got to grips with the full extent of his intelligence.  He became, much like Stalin's victims, a footnote of history, an unfortunate product of his time.  Whilst recent scholarship has been more sympathetic to his memory,  the common conception of him is that of a morally flawed and unattractive man.

This public image of him was first forged during the Hiss case where his unsavory past and pudgy countenance was in start contrast to graceful and impeccable Hiss. Even with Hiss's conviction, which vindicated Chambers,  I still get the impression that Chambers was the overall loser of the trial. High friends in Government wanted to vindicate Hiss, as did the majority of the media and the majority of the right type of people. Chambers may have won the battle but he seemed to have lost the war,  and a certain odium pertained to Him afterwards amongst "polite society". Though Chambers was a gifted writer, post Hiss case, he fell on financially difficult times and relative obscurity, as did his message. He died in 1961. Cold Friday was a collection of his letters and incomplete works which, after being published, received lukewarm reviews. Pearls before swine.

His writings are easily dismissed as particular to the circumstances of the now distant Cold War and yet they are not. The Cold War was but one manifestation of the great metaphysical battle which has engulfed the West over the last one hundred years. We are still in the midst of this battle and are living in a dark age of man, darkening ever further as the left accedes.  Reading Cold Friday, the message that keeps coming through is that the West is dying, as it has been cut off from the source of its vitality.

The population of the West with people from Islamic lands, Multiculturalism, Moral Relativism, Socialism and all the other pernicious ideologies of our times are symptoms of the disease, not the disease itself. Just as a human infected with the AIDS virus succumbs to infections that it would normally repel with ease, so is the West unable to combat its current multiple pathologies due to a fundamental weakness of its being.

And the source of the weakness according to Chambers was in a rejection of God which lead to an indifference to truth. It's the same conclusion which Solzhenitsyn came to sitting in the Gulag and it's the conclusion I've come to as well. I have taken this position, not because of any religious fundamentalism, or brainwashing, it's because when you follow the dots backwards, trying to understanding how we got into the current mess, it's the only logical conclusion. Even Orwell, who was no friend of religion, over time began to doubt in the purely materialistic understanding of the universe.  Reason, not faith is what forms this diagnosis.

Chambers' value is in the fact that he was able to lucidly see the nature of this battle as he was a combatant for both sides, but more importantly he was a able to penetrate past appearance to the underlying reality of the thing. His savage attack on Ayn Rand, Big Sister Is Watching You, was a classic example. His gift, so to speak, is that he could see the reality of things clearly.

His lurch to the left was driven in part by the injustices and dysfunction of the old world,  entrenched cultural concepts which were corroding the very fabric of the society that they were meant to uphold.  The leftist solution was initially seen as a tonic and only belatedly did a few realise it was a fatal poison. He was a man who saw the solution for what it was and came back from "hell without empty hands." His writings then, were an attempt to warn his fellow man of the dangers he was drifting towards and of the misery that would follow. He was a lone prophet in the intellectual wilderness of the modern West.

Over the next few posts I plan to put up some excerpts from his book (I believe that it qualifies as fair use) and perhaps discuss some of the points he mentions. Once again, I would urge my readers to go buy the book.

As his son left the farm to register for the draft he wrote:
It seemed to me as I watched him leave that the most important thing I could do for him was to report for him how his father had viewed certain aspects of our reality, what I believed the forces of reality to be, and how I saw their origins and development, which pulverized individual men, and caught peoples, like shovelfuls of corn in a hammermill. My book should be something like what past ages used to call an enchiridion -a little dagger to arm him against the swarming night, a little dagger that might help him to cut his way among the enemies and perplexities of his life. I meant no formidable treatise, for which I felt no competence. What I had in mind was a little book to which he could turn in doubt or trouble, when he could no longer come to me, and catch again his father's voice saying: "This is how it happened to me, these are the conclusions I drew from past experience. This is how experience seemed to teach me that a man should act, this is what a man is and should be against the scale of reality." My reward, never known by men, could be that he might one day say, "In the main, you spoke to me wisely."

I have put off the task too long. Few tasks have been so difficult as to begin this book. How many times I have sat down at my desk to begin it, and have then got up again with that slight feeling of nausea that I have sometimes known in testifying publicly or in much of Witness which is, I suppose, the penalty that the body pays when the will overdrives the nerves. At the root of that feeling is the sense of hopelessness which besets most of those who have sought to carry on the struggle in our time. It can be put in a simple question: Since acts have done so little good, what possible good can more words do? Linked with this feeling is another that goes even deeper. It is the sense of a limit beyond which a man may not wish to drive himself. The effort of recollection forces me to turn back to horrors which no man can come through and live from day to day without putting out of his mind-not by a conscious effort but by that mercy of the mind which sinks what is too heavy to be borne into the grace of forgetfulness. To probe the scar risks each time reopening the wound. One of the best Latin tags says that perhaps at some future time it will be pleasant to remember these things. They can be remembered only in a turmoil of spirit that pushes the mind towards a longing for annihilation.

But the greatest difficulty in writing this book is something else. It lies at the point where the book itself is a parting much more final than my son's walking up a path. I write consciously in the belief that this is probably the last effort of the kind that I shall make, a kind of summary testament, a backward reading of what I have learned from experience to this point. I am haunted by the need for truth, the fear of error, at the point of life when truth has become the one consuming need, since nothing else has real worth. My son must read this as the effort at truth, knowing that I could wish for him only what is good and true.

I have a sense of leaving my son, that chapter by chapter puts us farther apart as if he were a figure compelled to watch from a shore another receding in a little boat.

Time is running out on me. I am rushing on to sixty. This is old age. Of importance, here,
chiefly because, if I do not get my meaning down on paper, I shall die with Witness as my
whole meaning. It is not my whole meaning. . . .

Cold Friday, Whittaker Chambers [Ed: My highlighting]