Thursday, March 13, 2008

Nicholson Baker Looks At WWII

If you followed some of my links in the previous post you won't be surprised to hear that Nicholson Baker is the kind of man who revels in details.

What you might not have noticed, because it was buried rather deeply in there, is that the man is a pacifist. OK, some of my best friends are pacifists ... well, actually, I can't think of any at the moment, but were I to come across one I suppose we could hit it off alright if we were careful. In this country, where our neighbors dance on the roofs or in the streets when compatriots of theirs murder our civilians in cold blood, and come election time a majority of them vote for parties that stridently say we have to disappear - well, pacifists are a bit hard to come by. But still.

Some times being a pacifist does require a bit of moral gymnastics. The article I'm about to link to opens with the story that Mahatma Gandhi, the top pacifist of all times, admitted he would be willing to sacrifice hundreds or even thousands of lives in order to reach his goals -a statement I find so oxymoronic as to demolish the entire system. I assume, however, that that hypothetical pacifist friend of mine would tell me that so long as the thousands are offering their lives willingly, and only their own lives without, say, in any way negatively impinging on the lives of their parents, siblings, children or loved ones, well, that's their right, and it's better they should die than that they should kill their killers. I suppose this would count as a moral discussion neither side could ever "win" because there's no way to determine what the objective higher morality is.

Actually, I don't agree with that statement, I think there is a way to determine the higher morality, but let's leave that for another day.

So far the discussion has been of morality. When we move into history, however, there are cases where the discussion simply falls apart. Just like there is no way one could construe that slavery is a subjective topic, which cases can be made for or against, so there are some - rather rare - cases when the need to fight in order to end a greater evil cannot really be talked away. The war against Nazism was certainly such a case.

To Baker's credit, he understands this, which is why he has written a book about WWII from the perspective of a pacifist, titled Human Smoke. The reviewer at the New York Times tears it apart. I have no intention of reading the book unless I'm granted an extra lifespan to read everything remotely interesting, because its thesis seems too much a waste of my time.

I am however interested in what the reviewer describes as Baker's method: stringing together a long list of details and vignettes. Here, Baker is on to something very fundamental - and my time for blogging today has run out. More on this some other time.

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