I give up. I’ve devoted my life to trying to understand something about how human beings work, how we think, how we feel, who we are, who we could be. But I give up. It’s time to admit it is simply beyond my reach.
Today I dragged myself through the Topography of Terror, an exhibit near the Berlin Wall tracing the horror year by year of the Nazi reign. 12 years of unfathomable human suffering and pain caused by living, breathing human beings in the grip of some collective madness, but acting as if it was all necessary and good for the homeland. And at the end, a few of the monsters got their just desserts, but others got away, changed their names and were photographed watering their gardens as if nothing had happened. It just unfathomable the sheer numbers murdered, tortured and imprisoned and equally unfathomable the sheer numbers who helped it happen and the sheer numbers who kept silent and equally unfathomable how damned organized it was, spread out over so much territory with such careful record-keeping. And again, lest the reader feel some comfort in blaming it all on the Germans, it was no different than King Leopold’s handiwork in the Congo or the American organized slave trade or the Japanese invasion of China nor…well, it’s a long list.
But tonight I cleansed myself by listening to Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion and that’s when I gave up. How someone some 70 miles south of Berlin and 200 years before the rise of the Third Reich, someone speaking the same language and probably eating some of the same food and drinking some of the same beer as the Nazis could produce something of such heartbreaking beauty, something that even the angels would admire, something that would justify the claim that we have evolved higher than the mosquito, simply boggles the mind. How could someone like Bach be a member of the same species as Hitler and Himmler and Heydrich and Eichmann and Klaus Barbie, the long, long list of heartless butchers merrily slashing their way through the countryside with year after year of a devastation that would make the most terrifying rabid gorilla and cold-hearted viper blush with shame. Unfathomable.
One takes our capacity for ordered pattern and puts notes together that sing their way into the deep corners of our soul and tell us that there is order and beauty and meaning in this life. Another takes the same capacity to make lists of people to be put to death in chambers designed perfectly for their job, taking away both life and hope for meaning. One takes the heart’s capacity to feel, to exult, to hurt, to share pain and sorrow, to share joy and happiness and exercises it in music’s gymnasium. Another builds barbed wire around it, purposefully shuts it down to reach some ideal of duty, closes its ears to the cries of the suffering and tells it stories that allows for sleep at night. One takes the body’s capacity for eloquence and disciplines it daily on the fingerboard of the cello or strings of the guitar or keys on the piano. The other reduces it to goose-stepping, arm-raising, order-signing and trigger-pulling. Both these creatures are called human beings. But should they be? Might we create new categories like two-legged leeches or mustached parasites or walking hyenas? Or is that too insulting to animals who have no choices as to identity?
And to make in yet more maddeningly unfathomable, there were Nazi officers that would shed a tear listening to Bach just before arranging the prisoners in the firing squad. Oh, to thicken the plot a bit more, these folks went to church and were given support and blessings by the various churches, the ministers and priests who were guardians of the Gospel of Christian love and brotherhood consenting to mass extermination. Posting this on Good Friday, just thought I’d mention it.
I have to pretend I understand enough about humans to teach children and try to raise them toward Bach and away from Hitler, toward John Coltrane and away from Andrew Jackson, all of whom reside in potential form inside each and every one of us. But who made us like this? And why? Will someone please explain?