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A PERSONAL VIEW of WAR via The English Patient

Written by: critical (on, for a political studies course.

APR 97

. . . the bombs were dropped in Japan, so it feels like the end of

the world. From now on I believe the personal will forever be at war
with the public. If we can rationalize this we can rationalize anything

I believe this quotation from The English Patient to be the key to the moral

doctrine of thoughtful, self-authority within Michael Ondaatje’s Novel. This

doctrine is revealed by a powerful and personal ‘moment’ brought about by an

important event in one way or another for all of the characters within this

narrative. This ‘moment’ is the point at which we become aware of this ability we

have to rationalize anything. Kip’s ‘moment’ begins when he learns of the bombing

of Japan:

American, French, I don’t care. When you start bombing the brown
races of the world, you’re an Englishman (287).

And Hana’s moment occurs while she sweats and toils over the bodies of the

I know death now, David, I know all the smells, I know how to divert
them from agony. When to give the quick jolt of morphine in a major
vein. The saline solution. To make them empty their bowels before
they die. Every damn general should have had my job. Every damn
general. It should have been a prerequisite for any river crossing. I
could never believe in all those services they gave for the dead. Their
vulgar rhetoric. How dare they! How dare they talk like that about a
human being dying (84).
Almsay’s ‘moment’ no doubt came long before the English denied him a jeep to

rescue his love. He had learned to love the desert and its ability to wipe away the

lines of nations. Clearly Madox had been transformed by his ‘moment’ when he shot

himself through the heart during a pro-war mass in his community church.

Caravaggio clearly has passed through this experience as well and always sees his

life-circumstance through this ‘moment’, an experience that is like a tinted lens, as

we can see from what he says to Hana and Kip:

“Why are you not smarter? It’s only the rich who can’t afford to be
smart. They’re compromised. They got locked years ago into
privilege. They have to protect their belongings. No one is meaner
than the rich. Trust me. But they have to follow the rules of their
shitty civilised world. They declare war, they have honour, and they
can’t leave. But you two. We three. We’re free (123).

The English Patient is devoid of moralizing about nations. Rather, it focuses

upon the moral quandary of war in general. It has an interestingly unique view on

World War II, with not a single reference to the Nazis or war-crimes. Unlike

other novels this one is not concerned with the modern preoccupation of

recollecting history by cursing the loser and acclaiming the winner, it is not

concerned with denouncing the Germans nor is it wrapped up in rationalizing the

bombing of Japan. This is indeed a description of history to which we are not

accustomed, through the eyes of individual experiences not the experiences of

countries, the events are not staged by armies and generals but by people whose

lives are irrevocably altered.

This field of moral narrative is a burgeoning young field, but its roots go

back many centuries. It is a fairly recent phenomena indicative of the modern age

in which moral doctrines are described and delimited in only abstract notions and

concepts. Ondaatje’s novel is a hearkening back to older times when morality was

something contained within a legend or a myth, not dry abstract universal concepts,

meant to justly govern the whole gamut of human interactions. Kant is one such

moral philosopher. His maxims are meant to be universal. Many traditional

interpretations of his moral doctrine show that his system is incapable of dealing

with simple dilemmas. For example, Kant’s system is usually interpreted as

containing maxims prohibiting lying. Thus, the Dutch citizen harbouring a Jewish

family in her attic would be required to tell the truth if asked, “are there any Jews

in your house”. The consequence of adhering to Kant’s system would be to condemn

the Jewish family to death, naturally this runs counter intuitive to most of us, but

it is an interesting example of the way universal principles can play havoc on our

‘sense’ of justice.
Our ‘sense’ of justice seems to be a very key element of what moral systems

we adopt, as individuals anyway. Certainly logic must play into this ‘sense’ but

perhaps only to the extent that the doctrine being investigated must be based in

the reality of cause and effect. That is we should not have moral doctrines that

claim 2 + 2 = 5. Nor should we place the value of bundles of sticks above the lives

of humans. In logic we use abstract symbols to represent propositions and

arguments. Often when logicians are stuck, a proof leads them to absurd

conclusions no matter how often they examine and reexamine the terms and

symbols of the arguments, the best solution is to translate the symbols into plain

language and the solution or the problem becomes obvious. We have an intuitive

understanding of arguments that do not readily extend to high levels of

abstraction. Consider the following discussion on the marriage between moral

intuition and theory by James Rachels in Applied Ethics: A Reader (hereafter AE):

It is one of the great virtues of John Rawls work that this

methodological issue is out in the open. Rawls explicitly endorses the
idea of using one’s moral intuition as check-points for testing the
acceptability of theory. Moral theory, he has said, is like linguistics.
Just as a linguistic theory should reflect the competent speaker’s
sense of grammaticalness, a moral theory should reflect the
competent moral judge’s sense of rightness (AE 114).

This strong position held by Rawls is not always readily applicable and perhaps for

convenience he tends at times to ‘back off a bit’. The weaker sense of this position
involves a sort of “reflective equilibrium” with the theoretical pronouncements,

whatever that means (AE 114). Rachels point in this discussion is that oft times

theory is plagued with what he calls “Moorean Insulation”. Whereby a set of first-

order beliefs are held to be absolutely true and the starting point of knowledge

(let us call this ‘safe’ philosophy for the sake of brevity). This is a quotation from

his book again:

Those who do philosophy safe proceed in such a way that their first-
order beliefs are never called into doubt. They begin with the
assumption that they know a great many (first-order) things to be
true, and for them, philosophical thinking involves (only?) A search
for principles and theories that would justify and explain what they
already know. Those who do philosophy with risk, on the other hand,
expose their first-order beliefs to the perils of thought. Everything
is up for grabs. Any belief may have to be rejected, if reasons are
found against it; and one cannot say, in advance, what reasons might
turn up for doubting what beliefs (AE 112).

Clearly this is a problem. We cannot reasonably theorize while holding our

initial assumptions, superstitions and myths to be absolute. On the other hand it is

impossible to carry out an enquiry without a first principle that is by definition

unjustified. Attempts to justify a first principle leads to an infinitely regressive

circle of further and further assumptions that are not justified -- that isn’t much

of a choice (AE 116).

And here we come back to ‘sense’ again. The moral philosopher must choose

some first principle that seems self-evident but as I have said without any
justification. Take the example of Utilitarians: they have chosen the principle of

action for the maximum happiness and minimum suffering for sentient beings.

Unfortunately for the utilitarians we do appear to have need for, that is, there

appears to exist other self-evident duties -- why chose this one? At this point

Rachels introduces a theory of beliefs called the “web of belief” (118).

If we think of our moral system as forming part of the web of belief,

it is clear, . . . that there is no firm correlation between what is near
the center and what is on the fringes, on the one hand, and the
difference between particular moral beliefs and general moral
principles on the other hand. Some of our moral judgments about
particular cases are near the center of the web. . . . And some of our
general principles are also near the center: for example, that causing
pain is wrong. But there are also both general principles and
particular judgments that are nearer the fringes - for example, the
particular judgment that Reagan’s people should not have swapped
arms for hostages is not nearly so certain as the judgment that
Manson’s people acted wrongly . . . (my emphasis, AE 118-9).

What this web of beliefs does for us is allow the intermingling of various moral

principles with moral beliefs that were previously only linked to a competing

(perhaps incommensurable) moral principle. Thus the grounding or justification of

moral principles has “ . . . more to do with showing that one’s total set of beliefs

form a consistent and satisfying whole than with proving that one’s ultimate

principles are true” (AE 120).

What will this web do for Caravaggio? Rationalization is still possible,

perhaps rationalizing ‘anything’ would be even easier with a complex interwoven

system of beliefs and principles. Who could make sense of it all? Our heroes in

the novel are not convinced. Everywhere I look I see people experiencing this same

‘moment’. Cynical attitudes are ubiquitous save perhaps on the evening news. What

should happen if this attitude spreads to the bulk of the population as it appears to

be doing (one does not need a war to experience this ‘moment’)? And even if wars

are essential for this transformation of values there are plenty to go around.

The solution, I think, is in the final chapter of this novel where Kip is happily

well adjusted in his homeland surrounded by people he loves in the company of

those he chooses to be with. He has discovered, understood or uncovered his

needs, his desires, that which he truly wants and those things which bother, annoy

and enrage him. By knowing himself he has found a way to live, happily

(affirmatively), even in a world where anything can be rationalized. This is what

Schopenhauer calls the ‘Acquired Character’ and he says of it:

We obtain this only in life, through contact with the world, and it is
this we speak of when anyone is praised as a person who has
character, . . . although a man is always the same, he does not always
understand himself, but often fails to recognize himself until he has
acquired some degree of real self-knowledge (WWR sect 55 p 305).

Kip has this sort of character, he was picked by the Major and his wife because his

character would allow him to deal with bombs critically. Defusing a bomb is no

simple mechanical task. It involves understanding the designer of the device

(189,192). Lord Suffold, and also Kip by implication, was described as autodidactic,

meaning self taught but also morally instructive. All of these personas have a

strongly developed mode of Schopenhauer’s ‘acquired character’ this is what gives

them the resolve to experience their individual ‘moments’. It is through the

individuals development of their own character that they can achieve a spiritual

and moral self-authority. Nietzsche (you cannot really speak about Nietzsche

without Schopenhauer) has an idea very much like Rachels’ web, it is called the veil

of Maya. This veil contains all of our perceptions, thoughts and concepts, these

are all illusory. Picture a world that is constantly becoming not being. Forces are

the smallest components of objects, not atoms. Beings then are a mere equilibrium

of forces which appear concrete to us but are always changing, ebbing and flowing.

Truth would clearly be a dynamic vector of forces just like all other beings, but

without matter to ground it in corporeal form. Thus, truth is something which you

can attain perhaps but by the time you have grasped it, it has already changed.

This is Nietzsche’s veil of Maya. We merely impose static representations upon a

world of constant flux. All is flux all is interpretation of the dynamic as something


Nietzsche also said that God is dead, so there is no one to whom we can

appeal for our truths. There are many symbols of the death of God in this novel,
including the death of the ‘Holy Trinity’. This is the nickname for the group

consisting of Lord Suffolk, his wife, and his assistant. They died because a bomb

they tried to defuse turned out to be of a clever design, very difficult to diffuse.

This is a metaphor for the death of God at the hands of rationality (191, 178). The

scarecrow in Hana’s garden is made from a crucifix. Christian morality is here used

for more practical and seemingly more effective purposes. Instead of scaring

people away from sin it is used for scaring crows from eating grain (207). And

finally when Kip hides his phosphorous watch in the cupboard that holds a saint so

Hana does not detect him in the dark. The Saints are as dead and blind as statues


Thus clearly Nietzsche has a different interpretation of the world from

Rachels but these both amount to the same thing, truth is unattainable. For

Nietzsche this means accepting the ‘moment’ which all of the characters of our

novel have experienced, and using that personal experience to realize, morality is

not absolute. Our norms are not absolute nor do our laws come down from heaven

as eternal truth. To live peacefully and safely with others we must have

regulations and norms of conduct but there is no reason to believe these norms

appeal to the truth, that they are the universal moral values. They are merely

practical principles to facilitate civilisation.

For Nietzsche, everything is interpretation. Hence the importance of self-

authority and ‘acquired character’:

Will to truth is a making firm, a making true and durable an abolition

of the false character of things, a reinterpretation of it into beings.
“Truth” is therefore not something there, that might be found or
discovered -- but something that must be created and that gives a
name to a process, or rather to a will to overcome that has in itself no
end -- introducing truth, as a processus in infinitum, an active
determining -- not a becoming-conscious of something that is in itself
firm and determined. It is a word for the “will to power” (my
emphasis; Will to Power sect 552).

In a world in which all is interpretation, the way you go about interpreting facts,

knowledge and truth are infinitely important. Nietzsche attempts to give the

individual the authority and the strength to undertake this personal interpretive

process, through self-knowledge. All of Ondaatje’s characters to one degree or

another have discovered that truth is interpretive, only Kip has made the final step

toward self-knowledge and the empowerment that this discovery can bestow. At

the end of the novel Kip reflects on his own journey of self-knowledge and wonders

if his friends have found this bestowing virtue -- so do I.

This is a world in which we must take personal authority for our actions and

spiritual moral values. We must interpret the world and our past so that it

becomes livable and joyful. This doctrine of self-authority is embodied in Kip.

There is no point in trying to find a rational doctrine that is the truth all that can
be done is to accept the inevitable, live our lives joyfully and without truth. We

must realize ‘we can rationalize’ anything and constantly remain on guard against


Moral philosophy does not work on a global or national scale, it only works on

the level of the personal. Caravaggio would say, this is because the world of

politics is not concerned with morality it is concerned with governance and wealth.

Attempts to universalize moral action do not allow for the multiplicity of human

engagements and interactions. This means, moral doctrines only work on the level

of individuals. What is needed is a means of giving individuals, like Kip, authority

over themselves and tools for introspection to know themselves. Nietzsche's

philosophy is intended to be just this as we can see when we look at the title of one

of his books, Ecce Home: How One Becomes What One Is. By reliance upon the

self with a healthy dose of introspection and spiritual self-authority perhaps one

day we can enjoy collectives, in which understanding and consensus rule not truth

and politics.

Ondaatje, Michael., The English Patient, Vintage Books Canada Edition 1993,

Rachels, James., “Moral Philosophy as a Subversive Activity” in Applied Ethics: A

Reader, Winkler, Earl R. & Coombs, Jerrold R. (eds), Blackwell Pub., 1993,
Cambridge USA.

Nietzsche, Friedrich., The Will To Power, Ed. W. Kaufmann, Trans. W. Kaufmann &
R.J. Hollingdale, Vintage Books Edition 1968, New York.

Nietzsche, Friedrich., The Gay Science, Trans. W. Kaufmann, Vintage Books Edition
1974, New York.

Nietzsche, Friedrich., Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Trans. R.J. Hollingdale, Penguin

Books 1969, England.

Nietzsche, Friedrich., Ecce Homo, Trans. R.J. Hollingdale, Penguin Books 1992,

Nietzsche, Friedrich., Beyond Good and Evil, Trans. R.J. Hollingdale, Penguin Books
1990, England.