October 11, 2009

"the conflict had to be fought in grime and terror"

From Ralph de Toledano's A Friend Remembers Whittaker Chambers:

...Few understood the Old Testament evocations of what he wrote in Witness. "Political freedom is a political reading of the Bible." But the word when uttered takes flight and lodges in hearts that are otherwise occupied. He looked to a God of Mercy, but when the sword was brandished, it was to a God of Justice that he bent...

...I had known several men who had come out of the dark world of the Communist underground, but what I learned from them was little more than names, dates, and places. What Whittaker Chambers imparted was a sense of meaning and dimension — a sense not of Good-and-Evil, but of Good-in-Evil. He gave the names, dates, and places, but he invested his account with their tragic reality. I understood, as he talked, what was at stake in the Hiss case — not only for him but for me as well. It is impossible to express why I was so moved and so involved. I was hearing of conspiracies and activities about which I knew, but they were set in the context of history and personal travail.

For Whittaker Chambers, history was a living tapestry in which past and present were interwoven with a lurking future. He would speak of the French Revolution, of the marching Kronstadt sailors, of Lenin and Stalin and the cellars of the Lubyanka, of the Cromwellian mobs and the shattering blow to Western civilization in the First World War, of Soviet spymasters and the Nazi-Soviet pact all in one voice — as if it were all happening now, an unwinding newsreel. He measured the conflict as one between men like himself and like the Communist who declared with equal determination, "Embrace the Butcher but change the world" — Bertolt Brecht's searing line. And he separated both from those who dawdled with reason and escaped from commitment. He also accepted the terrible and humbling fact that the conflict had to be fought in grime and terror, leaving their taint on those who fought it.

"Is dirt nice? Is death nice? Above all is dying nice?" he wrote me much later. "And, in the end, we must ask, is God nice? I doubt it." And again, "A man's special truth is in the end all there is in him. And with that he must be content though life give him no more, though man give him nothing." For he was convinced in his last years that his witness was "all for nothing, that nothing has been gained except the misery of others, that it was the tale of the end and not of the beginning. . . . You cannot save what cannot save itself." He stood, in those days, like Jeremiah in the solitary city, his feet treading the scrolls. And yet to the very end, when he wrote and burned and burned and wrote again the pages of a book that was not to be finished, he never dismissed the imperatives of history that demanded the defeat of the pundits and the paleographers. It is an imperative of the heart, and his great heart knew it....

Posted by John Weidner at October 11, 2009 11:13 PM
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