In 1938, the year of the Moscow show trials, the Anschluss, Munich and Kristallnacht, Clifton Fadiman asked twenty-one “intellectuals” – his word – to articulate their beliefs. The result was I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Certain Eminent Men and Women of Our Time (Simon and Schuster, 1939). The book is an elaboration of an earlier volume, Living Philosophies (1931). Among the worthies responding in I Believe are W.H. Auden (who was soon to write of the waning “low dishonest decade”), George Santayana (who eschews the question of belief entirely and substitutes a twenty-page autobiography; he was then working on Persons and Places), and Jacques Maritain. Also on hand are Pearl Buck and James Thurber. Here is a sample of the former’s wisdom: “For myself, I choose life anyhow, anywhere. Whatever my mood or circumstance, I know I choose life.” Brave words, worthy of a Nobel laureate.
The straightest talk in the book is Rebecca West’s. In 1936-1938, West had made three visits to Yugoslavia and now was working on her masterwork, the 1,100-page Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941). The volume is part travel book, part personal revelation, part meditation on history at the brink of World War II, and remains compulsively rereadable. Of how many travel writers can we say the same? Patrick Leigh Fermor, of course, and Evelyn Waugh, but few others. In her contribution to I Believe, West says some foolish things, and carries on long-windedly about geophysical and sexual politics, but most of her thinking is mordantly cant-free:
“If we do not regard as sacred our own joys and the joys of others, we open the door and let into life the ugliest attribute of the human race, which is cruelty. I believe this vice to be as much of a shame and a doom to humanity as the original sin of the theologians; and I believe it to be the root of all other vices…Hatred necessarily precedes love in human experience.”
One wonders how Pearl Buck took her book-mate’s words. In her report on the Nuremburg trials collected in A Train of Powder (1955), West writes: “'The Nazis were maniacs who plastered history with the cruelty which is a waste product of man’s moral nature, as maniacs on a smaller scale plaster their bodies and their clothes with their excreta.”