A PERSONAL VIEW of WAR via The English Patient Written by: critical (on Scribd.
com), 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 (292). 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 wounded: 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 firstorder 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 firstorder 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 static. 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 (221). 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 selfauthority 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 this. 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.
Bibliography Ondaatje, Michael., The English Patient, Vintage Books Canada Edition 1993, Toronto. 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, England. Nietzsche, Friedrich., Beyond Good and Evil, Trans. R.J. Hollingdale, Penguin Books 1990, England.