A Reasonable Madness
A Jewish family sits around the dinner table of their fourth story flat, the father speaks of the latest news, the sons, daughters and mother listen intently and with great trepidation. Outside, there is an acute silence, strange for this day of the week; indeed, an aberration for any night of the week. The cobblestone streets reverberate not even a cricket’s song, nor a bat’s wild flap, nor the sound of upset babe, nor lover’s quarrel, nor anything of creation. Only a gravity well of heavy night, pulling inwards, ever inwards towards the ground, towards the grave.
The father slurps his soup out of a tin bowl and with unadorned wares, utilitarian, issued en masse. He speaks of things getting better. Then, from a distance not far, they hear the screeching of tires, the angry atop the cobblestone. All faces around the table look at one another, eyes wide as saucers, mouths agape in fear of what is to come. No words are spoken until when the motor car rages around the bend of their street, squealing in agony as the petrol is combusted in flame and six uniformed soldiers come to a sudden halt in between their building and the one across the way.
Lights in all the flats abruptly start to be put out, windows go dark one after another and one of the sons whispers to everyone, “turn the lights off, quickly!” The room is immersed in dark as the family moves to the window and looks down at the soldiers escaping the vehicle, slamming the doors and stomping to the entrance of the building across the way. They burst inside and all that can be heard is the hard heel of their boots making their way up the stairs as lights in the stairwell come on successively. The soldiers are shouting something in their language as they climb and come to a stop at the fourth floor.
The window across the way to the fourth floor flat is open and the Jewish family can see what is happening inside. The soldiers kick in the door, turn on the light, and another Jewish family, like theirs, is sitting around the dinner table. They at once look at the soldiers. The uniformed men take position around the table as one officer shouts in his language, the family comprehends and all stand up immediately. At the head of the table, next to the father of the family, an infirm grandfather cannot rise and is immobile in his wheelchair. The officer shouts at him to stand, but he cannot. The officer screams at him to stand, but the elderly man’s body will not allow him. The officer motions to two men who maneuver around the grandfather and his wheelchair. They unlock the brake and wheel him onto the balcony, the old man looks around helplessly, his family in shock and horror cannot act, the Jewish family in the window look on. Once on the balcony, the soldiers lift the man in his wheelchair and set him on the railing. Without delay, they tip him over and he falls headlong, four stories onto the cobblestone.
The onlooking family erupts into shouts of disbelief in their darkened room. The mother crouches in agony for the horror just witnessed. The soldiers across the way turn to the rest of the family around the table and shout at them to go downstairs. They rush them into the street, line them up, and shout at them again. All the family, mostly young men, start to run in the opposite direction of the soldiers. The uniformed men take aim with their Luger P08 semi automatic pistols and fire at their backs. They fall one at a time, except for one boy who makes it to the ghetto wall. He tries to scale it, but a soldier takes careful aim, it is about a 50 yard distance, and with a shot ends the scrambling boy’s life.
The soldiers stomp back to their vehicle, arrange themselves inside, slam the doors and screech away. One of the men shot is not dead and begging for help lying on his back. The vehicle makes no attempt to swerve and crushes his legs as it rages down the cobblestone, over the other dead bodies, and around the corner from where it came. All is quiet again, except for the wailing.
This is German occupied Warsaw, Poland. It is director Roman Polanski’s vision of the atrocities committed at the hands of the Nazi’s against the Polish Jews in 2003’s The Pianist. This is but one scene, yet the whole film contains these gut wrenching anecdotes of the successive segregation, humiliation, terrorizing and murder of the Jews by the soldiers of the Third Reich.
It has been said many times, and I have even heard it recently from the pulpit by way of an illustration, that the acts of violence and genocide perpetrated against the Jews of Europe in World War II were senseless. That is, they had no logical or reasonable foundation. This opinion, while it might make us feel better, or help us to understand why it happened, is false. On the contrary, the systematic extermination of the Jews by the Nazi regime had at its foundation a very reasonable and logical explanation.
The only tenable explanation is that the Nazis had discovered and accepted a philosophical system of ultimate logic and reason, one that is especially expressed in the writings of Nietzsche. One that saw the death of God in The Gay Science, one that had the idea of the “Overman” at its heart in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. It was a logic that, in the absence of God, saw the end of a foundational consciousness and the devaluation of life itself so that the Overman could take what he saw fit. The only logical conclusion to the death of God, as Nietzsche and his commentators saw it, was the death of morality also.
The Germans of the Third Reich may have had their own reading, even a superficial reading, of Nietzsche. The point is not that their reading was correct, but that the logical groundwork had been laid for the logical extermination of a people. It was not senseless, it made perfect sense to the Nazis. If morality is open to definition by a culture, if it is relative, if natural selection is the only absolute in the universe, then naturally the stronger should survive, should conquer, while the weak die off, or are exterminated. Is it any wonder that the Optimism so prevalent during the height of Modernism died after the end of the World Wars? It finally saw that progress does not necessarily mean progress for the betterment of mankind, that progress defined mutually exclusive from an absolute morality is destined to see the mass graves of the world filled to the brim and the bonfires of carcass pyres reach to the heavens.
Even so, while it can be demonstrated that the Nazis acted out of a philosophy of pure reasonableness according to philosophical systems of the day, that does not mean that their actions were sane. Such a statement presupposes that reason alone is akin to sanity. But, the end of Modernism was the end of reason alone. It was the death of the optimism of the logical outcome, that the arc of history would curve towards rightness propelled onward by empiricism. Hitler was a maniac precisely because he was a logician to the exclusion of its counterweight.
G. K. Chesterton says it this way in Orthodoxy,
Let us begin, then, with the mad-house; from this evil and fantastic inn let us set forth on our intellectual journey. Now, if we are to glance at the philosophy of sanity, the first thing to do in the matter is to blot out one big and common mistake. There is a notion adrift everywhere that imagination, especially mystical imagination, is dangerous to man’s mental balance. Poets are commonly spoken of as psychologically unreliable; and generally there is a vague association between wreathing laurels in your hair and sticking straws in it. Facts and history utterly contradict this view. Most of the very great poets have been not only sane, but extremely business-like; and if Shakespeare ever really held horses, it was because he was much the safest man to hold them. Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom. I am not, as will be seen, in any sense attacking logic: I only say that this danger does lie in logic, not imagination.
Chesterton explains that for the madman, the pure logician, he has lost those sane affections of the heart. The carelessness of a child that is displayed in the nonsensical play of imagination: blowing bubbles in your drink, whistling as you walk, or being quick to laugh at the absurd. He is quick to categorize, but incapable to empathize. And, it is precisely the reason of the heart that Chesterton is speaking of when he talks about imagination.
It may be ironic for me to cite Berkhof here, but I will do so, because while the subject of Systematic Theology is a logical one, the great irony of it lay in the fact that it seeks to explicate and categorizing the Mystery of all mysteries: the doctrines of the Christian faith. Thus, in doing so, and in recognizing as we will see in the following excerpt, that when one honestly approaches those doctrines in their fullest expression, one is immediately confronted with the purest form of both logic and imagination. Here, Berkhof speaks of the origins of Religion having their seat not in the intellect, not in the will, not in the feelings of man, but in the heart:
The only correct view is that religion has its seat in the heart. Some might be inclined to regard this position as identical with the preceding one, since the word ‘heart’ may denote the seat of the affections and passions in the life of man, in distinction from the intellect and will…But, the word ‘heart’ is also used in a far more general sense, and may denote even the entire personality of man as capable of being influenced or moved. It is so employed, when it is said that a man loves with all his heart.
Thus, as Berkhof says later,
It is the central organ of the soul, and has sometimes been called ‘the workshop of the soul.’ Religion is rooted in the image of God in man, and that image is central. It reveals itself in the whole man with all his talents and powers…Man must love God with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his mind…Thus religion embraces the entire man with all his thoughts and feeling and volitions. It has its seat in the heart, where all the faculties of the human soul are seen in their unity.
The heart is a mysterious organ. It testifies to us by way of intuition – we know something to be true because we can “feel it in our heart.” And yet, it is the easiest part of the human consciousness to ignore. It can be overridden by overwhelming forces of intellect and nature. The heart can be explained away, just as Ebenezer Scrooge tried to do whilst the ghost of Marley labored up the stairs, his chains rattling and threatening to break violently into Scrooge’s cynical world. Luckily for Scrooge, the spirit of his friend would not be warded by a rational litany. He was saved by the mysterious and inexplicable.
What must happen in the heart of a man to murder without hesitation? To view a mass of people as cattle, not as souls? To be able to watch the horror of stagnate, dark, windowless cargo holds being stuffed with people, to be taken to die in labor camps as a workforce for a war machine? It must be something of a hardening, as a desensitization of the heart. One does not speak of a hardening of mind, but of a hardening of heart. We might witness the deterioration of one’s mind into madness, and we call it rightly pathology, but what of the descent of one’s heart into apathy – into hatred of both God and man?
What did Chesterton see as the answer to the insanity of reason alone? William Edgar says it well in his Reasons of the Heart, calling the sensitizing of the heart in one anecdotal instance an “aesthetic surprise”, it is “mystical” and an “intrusion” into our daily walk of life. These occur not in supernatural ways, e.g. lighting bolts from the sky, but in the the practice of the ostensibly mundane. In his chapter titled “Initial Barriers”, Edgar explains different people and their sensitization of the heart which led them to faith. While these transformations take place in the daily walks of life, that is not to say that the cause for the phenomena was not supernatural in origin, only that they experienced it in life. Edgar thus agrees with Chesterton when the latter says about his journey to faith:
There was something personal in the world, as in a work of art; whatever it meant it meant violently.
The Pianist shows us horrors conducted at the hands of mad men who were faithful to their logic. Who did not love mystery, and therefore did not love Orthodoxy, and were incapable of loving God. It shows us a pragmatism that reaches from Berlin like a claw to its neighbors and eviscerates them with the talon of perfect reason. The Nazis saw the violence in the world as a brutal, natural, evolutionary violence – one to be fueled by them as Overman. Not as Chesterton saw it, which was a pentecostal and mystical violence of God active in the world; one that is ultimately trinitarian in nature (a nature that defies purely logical explanation). The violence of God seeks to unrest the heart from its fortress of solitude and awaken it to the mysterious Gospel: God made flesh and that, in the end, it is the only reasonable solution to the reasonableness of human intellect alone.
In discovering this sensitization of the heart, we find at once reason and mystery, logic and imagination held in perfect balance with one another. The blood spilled atop Golgotha helps us to interpret the mass graves of Auschwitz. It provides not a reason, but the reason.
Only upon experiencing an awakening to this, as Chesterton had, may we fully understand Pascal when he says,
We know the truth not only through our reason, but also through our heart…The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.