May 25, 2007

History & Violence

Interesting New Yorker article on Lincoln and whether “Now he belongs to the ages” or "Now he belongs to the angels" was said (accounts differ) by his friend Edwin Stanton at his deathbed:
Stanton was weeping, Lincoln had just died, the room was overwhelmed, whatever he said was broken by a sob—the sob, in a sense, is the story. History is not an agreed-on fiction but what gets made in a crowded room; what is said isn’t what’s heard, and what is heard isn’t what gets repeated. Civilization is an agreement to keep people from shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theatre, but the moments we call historical occur when there is a fire in a crowded theatre; and then we all try to remember afterward when we heard it, and if we ever really smelled smoke, and who went first, and what they said. The indeterminacy is built into the emotion of the moment. The past is so often unknowable not because it is befogged now but because it was befogged then, too, back when it was still the present. If we had been there listening, we still might not have been able to determine exactly what Stanton said. All we know for sure is that everyone was weeping, and the room was full.
There was also some interesting thoughts about Lincoln's near obsession with the words of Claudius in Hamlet:
That cannot be; since I am still possess’d
Of those effects for which I did the murder,
My crown, mine own ambition and my queen.
May one be pardon’d and retain the offence?
In the corrupted currents of this world
Offence’s gilded hand may shove by justice,
And oft ’tis seen the wicked prize itself
Buys out the law: but ’tis not so above;
There is no shuffling, there the action lies
In his true nature; and we ourselves compell’d,
Even to the teeth and forehead of our faults,
To give in evidence. What then? what rests?
Try what repentance can: what can it not?
Yet what can it when one can not repent?
O wretched state! O bosom black as death!
O limed soul, that, struggling to be free,
Art more engaged! Help, angels! Make assay!
There’s no reason to believe that Lincoln “identified” with Claudius, or thought his own conduct evil. But he shuddered to think what his ambition, together with his principles, had helped make happen. He recognized and understood the pain of one who, believing himself, as Claudius does, to be essentially good and capable of salvation, knows that he is covered with blood—one who, having chosen to take on the weight and worry of the world, knows that he has done it and, like Macbeth, too, cannot be free of its guilt: Help, angels! Make assay!

What makes Lincoln still seem noble, to use an old-fashioned word, is that he had not a guilty sense of remorse but a tragic sense of responsibility. He believed that what he was doing was right; he knew that what he was doing was dealing death to the undeserving (knowledge that must have been doubled at the Soldiers’ Home as the bodies were brought to be buried week after week). If Lincoln truly has something in common with Jesus, it is that he is the model of a charismatic ethical intelligence who was also a calm dealer of punishment on a vast scale: Some to my right and some to my left . . .

Lincoln exemplifies the problem of liberal violence: the disjunction between the purity of our motives (as they appear to the liberal) and the force of our violence (as it is experienced by the victim). The reality of his faith in his beloved rule of reason, and the constant presence of his magnanimous and winning character, doesn’t preclude his engagement in mass killing. The corrupted currents of the world. (That other autodidact Midwesterner Harry Truman also turned to “Hamlet” to find words to expiate his blood-guilt, underlining at the end of a book about the atomic bomb a long quote from the last act of “Hamlet” that begins, “Let me speak to the yet unknowing world / How these things came about: So shall you hear / Of carnal, bloody and unnatural acts / Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters, / Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause . . . And, in this upshot, purposes mistook / Fall’n on the inventors’ heads.”)

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