Put sorcerer’s apprentices in charge and they’ll drown the world in chaos.


The problem with sorcerer’s apprentices is that they think they’re acting as “good guys.”  They don’t mean to cause harm, but they do.  They’re in over their heads, playing with powerful weapons they don’t know how to use.  If you’re not familiar with this story, here is a link to a clip from Walt Disney’s 1940 film Fantasia.  The music was written by Paul Dukas as a symphonic poem he called a “Scherzo after a ballad by Goethe,” who told the legend in verse.

When his boss goes out of the room, Mickey Mouse puts on the sorcerer’s hat and orders a broom to do the apprentice’s job of carrying heavy buckets of water to a large cistern.  Once he’s gotten the broom started, Mickey falls asleep on the sorcerer’s chair, dreaming of commanding the stars to move and turning back storm-tossed oceans.  He wakes up floundering in water as his broom continues to pour buckets into the overflowing cistern.  When he can’t stop the flow of buckets, the apprentice chops the broom up with an ax.  The pieces of the broom turn into hundreds of other brooms all carrying buckets into the room now full of water to the ceiling.  Only when the sorcerer reappears can the madness be stopped.

Some sorcerer’s apprentices released a proposed Federal budget today; however, we don’t need cautionary fables to interpret what is going on in Washington D.C.  There are real life historical parallels, the most enlightening of which may not be the ones comparing the current administration to certain 20th century historical villains.  We might find more insight by looking back to the time before the Civil War in the United States, a time when partisanship over fundamental principles took us over the edge into the abyss of a rupture in our national community.

Other countries have seen civil war follow periods of extremely partisan politics.  As I mentioned in a recent post, I have been reading some of the works of Tzvetan Todorov, who passed away last month. In his account of the events in Saint-Amand on and after D-Day, A French Tragedy: Scenes of Civil War, Summer 1944. Todorov frames the situation as a civil war.

The German occupation of France did not unite the French people, but rather led to an armed fight among the political factions that had clashed throughout the 1930s. On one hand there were Frenchmen who joined the German SS and the Milice, the right-wing militia formed to defeat the Resistance. On the other were the armed cells of the Resistance, themselves divided by political factions, mainly Gaullist and Communist.

Todorov’s book tells the story of some members of the French Resistance who planned, despite orders to the contrary, to seize the town of Saint-Amand as soon as they received news of the Normandy invasion. French initiative meant more to them than the lives of innocent French people caught up in their quixotic adventure.

For Todorov, the Resistance leaders who briefly seized Saint-Amand were “Sorcerer’s apprentices … who unleashed forces they could no longer control.” These forces led to events that followed as if they “were already programmed to happen.”  In broad outline, leaving out many nuances and details, the story went: Resistance takes town. Imprisons members of Milice and wife of Milice leader. Resistance flees to the woods taking prisoners, who become hostages, with Milice leader’s wife held elsewhere. Vichy regime takes hostages. Community leaders try to mediate to save both sets of hostages. Resistance unit hangs Milice prisoners in the woods to evade capture by German units closing in on them. In retaliation Milice rounds up and kills local Jews.

The process of how these events follow on each other, as Todorov sees it, is more moral than cause-and-effect.

This interdependence of episodes is not only narrative; it extends as well to the moral value of the actions. Nothing is more common in real life than unrewarded good and unpunished evil. In this case, everything corresponds: good with good, evil with evil, even though the episode occurring second is not the effect of a cause but rather the symbolic counterpart of the first.

Todorov lists correspondences such as the assassination of a Milice leader and the murder of women hostages; the hanging of the captured Milice and the massacre of the Jews; the takeover of Saint-Amand and the decimation of a company of Resistance fighters six weeks later.

As will emerge in these blog posts about goodness and hope, Todorov’s own methods also seem at times to work more through rhetorical correspondences than systematic links. His preference for “symbolic counterpart” over cause-and-effect to explain the tragedy of Saint-Amand raises questions in my mind about his skepticism concerning goodness.  This skepticism is based on a cause-and-effect framework, as expressed in this passage from his obituary.

In the interview in Le Monde, Mr. Todorov said he was skeptical of the concept of good, preferring simple kindness. He cited the Soviet novelist Vasily Grossman, the author of the World War II masterpiece “Life and Fate,” as someone “for whom evil mostly comes from those who want to impose good on others.”’

Despite such generalizations, Todorov’s thinking on morality seems to emerge more from his reflections on individual cases than on any over-arching system.

In the context of today’s divisive debates it is interesting to note that Todorov does not merely dismiss the Milice and the Nazis as “evil” and leave it at that. He analyzes individuals and their individual actions to explore the moral complexities involved.

He begins by distinguishing between “pure victims” like the Jews of Guerry, who were killed “for what they are, not for what they do,” and others who “act, make choices, enjoy their freedom, and exercise their will. It is therefore they who are subject to moral judgement.”

Todorov proceeds to judge, case by case. First, he contrasts the Milice thug Lecussan, who initiated the round-up of the Jews, with Bout de L’An, the Milice leader whose wife was taken hostage. Lecussan was a “convinced totalitarian,” who regarded certain people as “total enemies” who must be eliminated. In putting these ideas into practice, Lecussan did not act as a sadist, but as “the logical product of a system.” He “shows where it can lead to consider life as a battle, to think that not all human beings are endowed with the same dignity.”

How to judge Bout de l’An seems less clear because he was mostly trying to do what he could to free his wife. Nevertheless, he was responsible for torturing hostages and for putting Lecussan in charge precisely because he would act brutally.

Similarly, the Resistance actors are not simply “good.” Their motives and behaviors are also complicated.  Like Bout de l’An, the Resistance leader “Francois” played with people’s lives by putting principle over people. He also saw “existence as one big power struggle,” and was “too ready to sacrifice [10,000] human beings (the civilian population of Saint-Amand) for the benefit of his principles.” Both of them also failed to look out for the fighters under their command.

The other Resistance leaders, Blanchard and Van Gaver, decided to take over Saint-Amand because they believed “that to safeguard national dignity the country’s native sons must liberate the nation themselves.” They knew that once the Allies landed, France would eventually be liberated, but not by French forces alone. Todorov defends their aims as public spirited, as building a community’s image of itself that will affect how people behave. Yet  “the acts that take place in the public sphere, such as taking over and occupying a town, cannot be judged exclusively in terms of the intentions that motivated them.”

Political action, he argues, is governed not just by “ethics of conviction,” but also by the “ethics of responsibility.” Political action must be judged by results, not just motives. For Todorov the criterion for such acts is: “in full knowledge of the facts, can I be sure that the good that should ensue from this will be greater than the bad that can come from it?” He makes this criterion sound simple, but moral philosophers have tied themselves in knots for centuries over questions about consequences as a standard for judging actions.  I think Todorov can sustain this simple French clarity because he is so focused on making the actor pay attention to his responsibility for his actions.  As the apprentices yielding great power in Washington today will learn, “If you break it, you own it.”

Todorov applies the same criterion to “terrorist” acts that invite reprisals: “are they worth the cost?” For instance, when the Resistance executed a Milice spy, ten hostages were executed.

In this light, Todorov concludes, the whole seizure of Saint-Amand fails to pass muster. “Though justified from the perspective of … the motivations that led to it, this action is not justified … by its foreseeable consequences.” Enemy forces were much too strong for the Resistance to hold an “open town.”  “Whether they want to or not, the resisters leave the civilian population hostage: it is the [‘good guys”] who act and the civilian population that suffers the consequences.”  You don’t have to compare the current administration to “bad guys” to fault what they’re doing.

In calling the Resistance leaders in Saint-Amand “sorcerer’s apprentices” Todorov judges them to have failed as leaders. “In situations like this it must be expected that there will be elements that will escape all control; the unforeseeable must be foreseen.”  Unintended consequences are no excuse.  Van Gaver and Blanchard compounded their original failure by not trying to correct their error, nor trying to save the hostages on both sides.

In the larger civilian population, Todorov finds two attitudes:

(1)       “waiting passively for fate to strike its blows, … taking refuge in oneself, in resignation, or indifference; … hoping that better times will come; … even taking occasional advantage of the misfortune of others”

(2)       “while remaining a member of this peace-loving population, one takes action and … personal initiatives. One thereby refuses … merely to wait for things to fall back into place and for the wind to change direction; one refuses always to obey and to be transformed into a serf for an indefinite period. Yet despite all this, one does not seek to change the social order.”

Todorov calls the characters in this story who fall into the second group “antiheroic heroes.” These include the mayor, the mediators, the bishop, the peasant who sheltered a surviving Jew, the prisoners who chose to stay “rather than have their comrades risk death,” the Jewish mothers “who preferred to die like childless women rather than endanger the lives of their little ones.”

These “antiheroic heroes” did not have a better political agenda. Rather

it is just that for them, human beings, their lives and their dignity are superior to political agendas, whatever they may be. They act as advocates for those in need of help, and they intercede on behalf of the potential victims. This does not dispense with the necessity of having an agenda but brings to it a necessary complement without which all politics risks becoming inhuman.

The actions of these “antiheroic heroes”

were in no way extraordinary (that is why they could then return to everyday life without too much difficulty): rather than exceptional courage, they demanded a faith in man—you must have some faith in man if you are going to start acting all over again, day after day—and an intimate awareness of the community of men. Each one of them understood that he could not live happily if misfortune struck those beside him.

Heroes may be needed in historical moments. “But it is throughout the course of their existence that human communities need carriers of these humble, everyday virtues.”  The Federal budget proposed today was composed by ideologues who value their political agendas over the lives and dignity of human beings.  Todorov sees “glimmers of hope” in the presence of “humble, everyday virtues” in the “tragic history of the liberation of Saint-Amand ….”  I tend to see his “glimmer of hope” as just another rhetorical flourish in the story of a past French tragedy. In the American tragedy unfolding today, what will carry us through is better described in Todorov’s phrases: “an intimate awareness of the community of men,” and the understanding that we cannot live happily if misfortune strikes those beside us.


Leave a Reply

(*) Required, Your email will not be published

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.