Thursday, July 09, 2009

`The Arithmetic of Compassion'

Stalin is widely assumed to have said “The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic,” though scholars can’t agree on the authenticity of the quotation. Its Wildean cynicism has always seemed too mannered, too polished, for the thug from Georgia, and who can imagine the “one man” whose demise Stalin might have honored as tragedy?

Morbid fascination led to me recall Stalin’s quip. I visited a Communist blog, which led me to another, and another, into a moral vortex. The technical quality of the writing varied, from rabid to academically congealed to eerily civilized and grammatically correct, but the themes remained consistent: Capitalism, imperialism, the United States and Israel -- bad; Marx, Muslims, the proletariat, sometimes Lenin, sometimes Mao, one time Stalin – good. I’m not as naïve as I was a few years ago but the experience was like learning the smallpox bacillus had spontaneously reappeared in the human population. The nadir, or one of the deeper nadirs, came when a self-described Marxist-Leninist mutated Stalin’s formulation and said the death of “Palestinian civilians” was a “tragedy” and the death of Israelis was a “necessity.”

A man who knew the blessings of the worker’s paradise first-hand, whose life was cut short by it, was Zbigniew Herbert, who at least had the satisfaction of outliving the Soviet Union. I wonder if he had Stalin’s one-liner in mind when he wrote “Mr Cogito Reads the Newspaper” (translated by John and Bogdana Carpenter):

“On the front page
a report of the killing of 120 soldiers

“the war lasted a long time
you could get used to it

“close alongside
the news of a sensational crime
with a portrait of the murderer

“the eye of Mr Cogito
slips indifferently
over the soldiers’ hecatomb
to plunge with delight
into the description of everyday horror

“a thirty-year-old farm labourer
under the stress of nervous depression
killed his wife
and two small children

“it is described with precision
the course of the murder
the position of the bodies
and other details

“for 120 dead
you search on a map in vain

“too great a distance
covers them like a jungle

“they don’t speak to the imagination
there are too many of them
the numeral zero at the end
changes them into an abstraction

“a subject for meditation:
the arithmetic of compassion”

It sounds like a grotesque joke: How many Israeli deaths does it take for a Marxist-Leninist to calculate “the arithmetic of compassion?”

1 comment:

D. G. Myers said...

How many Israeli deaths does it take for a Marxist-Leninist to calculate “the arithmetic of compassion?”

This much is sure. Six million would not be sufficient.