In the incident from Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad related in the last post, a group of Russian soldiers on their way to battle in the city encounter civilian refugees fleeing the city. One mother with three little girls struggles under the weight of all the things she has brought with them on their flight. Seeing this, one of the soldiers asks how she thinks she’s going to make it to her destination with all that stuff on her back and around her shoulders.
When she replies that without any money, these are all she has to sell or trade to get food for her daughters, the soldier responds harshly that she’s being greedy. “People weigh themselves down with clutter, and then they can’t bear to throw it away.” This line caught my attention because I was in the middle of donating and discarding all the stuff I couldn’t bring from Princeton to Philadelphia. I was getting rid of perfectly good things that might serve some purpose in the future, just like the soldier who had thrown away his gas mask “because it was hurting his shoulder.”
“You’re an idiot,” retorts the woman in a “distant and lifeless” voice.
Then, out of nowhere, the soldier gives the woman a large piece of bread from his knapsack, which she shares entirely with her daughters. Another soldier comments, “That’s mothers for you.”
If the soldier’s kindly sharing of his bread seemed surprising in the context of their hostile exchange of insults (greed, idiot), the next actions of the daughters shatter any warm feelings of Christian charity that might have arisen in the reader. The three little girls eat their bread and then proceed to beat up a smaller, three year old boy to steal the dirty carrot he is eating. As they go “on their way again, mincing along on their slim legs,” their victim just sits on the ground and watches. Another soldier bookends the comment about self-sacrificing mothers, with the laconic “And that’s solidarity for you.”
As I said, this scene caught my attention because of the way the soldier’s comment spoke to my reluctance to part with things. Having re-read the scene, however, I can now see how Grossman captures one of the main themes and lessons of his two volume work in this short scene.
In the next volume, Life and Fate, we meet a Ikonnikov, a death camp inmate whom his fellow Russians call “a holy fool” and a “preacher of senseless kindness.” Ikonnikov leaves behind an essay with an Old Bolshevik Mostovskoy, who had argued with and about Ikonnikov, whom he did not trust. Upon reading Ikonnikov’s essay, “the confusion and depression that gripped him seemed heavier than any physical suffering.” Not only had Mostovskoy been wrong to suspect Ikonnikov, his heart ached to think that he had shared “the same contempt” for “this holy fool” as the Nazi whose interrogations torment him every night.
Ikonnikov’s teaching of “senseless kindness” challenges and shames both the Bolshevik and the Nazi. Ikonnikov argues that both aim to impose a “concept of the good” on others, a concept that in their view justifies the evils they inflict. Ikonnikov writes:
… whenever we see the dawn of an eternal good that will never be overcome by evil…, the blood of old people and children is always shed. Not only men, but even God himself is powerless to lessen this evil.
Many years ago I read Susan Neiman’s comprehensive survey of modern attempts at theodicy, Evil in Modern Thought. In its classical forms, theodicy addressed Job’s problem of how a good God could allow evil. Neiman summarizes Hannah Arendt’s attempt to reformulate
the task that might replace theodicy. How can life itself be justified without justifying the evils that call it into question?
When I finished Neiman, I was dissatisfied with her conclusions. It seemed to me that she had missed the lesson in her many examples of modern evils: most of them were caused by people who acted in the name of some good they wanted to establish in this world.
So, thirteen years later I jumped up on reading in Tzetvan Todorov’s 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.”’
Todorov used the Sorcerer’s Apprentice to expand on this idea in his analysis of a French Resistance action that led to the massacre of Jews. In my mind the current administration in Washington is full of Sorcerer’s Apprentices, incompetents acting in the name of their vision of the good.
Ikonnikov’s solution to the “problem of Good” is “senseless kindness,” “stupid kindness.” Exactly the kindness of the soldier who shared his bread with the mother who had just called him an “idiot.”
It is the kindness that has mercy on a tarantula that has bitten a child. A mad, blind kindness. [… But] as I lost faith in the good, I began to lose faith even in kindness. … Kindness is powerful only while it is powerless. If Man tries to give it power, it dims, fades away, loses itself, vanishes.
Usurov’s sarcastic crack that the behavior of the three little bullies demonstrates “solidarity” pithily illustrates how acting together to use power in pursuit of the good (food for three starving little refugees) results in an evil.
I think that Grossman is too good a writer to have concocted this incident as a parable to illustrate Ikonnivkov’s doctrines. Rather their beliefs just come through in this incident. They both truly believe that we humans inherently act kindly and do badly when we use power in the name of some good.
One final thought. The senseless, stupid aspect of acting kindly means to avoid the fallacy of thinking that we’re in control and are really capable of imposing of our idea of Goodness on others and on our world. I’ve called this Sophie’s Fallacy.