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On Being Human - Short Version

The Gods Remain book cover

I mentioned in "Oidipous: Devotee of Apollon" that Oedipus had been locked in an underground chamber to protect the rest of the world from his pollution. At a certain point it was decided that this was not adequate, that he had to be driven from Theban territory altogether. He was blind, he was so feeble that he could do almost nothing for himself. Of all his friends, of all his children, only his daughter, Antigone, was willing to help him. She walked slowly mile after mile on the hot dusty road, or in the freezing rain, one step at a time with a frail old man who could barely walk. No one would help them, no one would even let them stop and rest for long. Everyone was afraid of the pollution.

Antigone was not. There was no fear, no hardship and no amount of suffering that could make her leave her father's side. And with her help he reached the place where he was able to fulfill his destiny, where he deliberately walked into the afterworld, and where he purified the whole countryside around him. Now she was back home in Thebes. Her brother Polynakes had led an army, including Amphiaraos, against Thebes to recover the throne from her brother Eteokles. The army was defeated, and Polynakes and Eteokles had killed each other in single combat. Her Uncle Kreon was ruling the country, and Kreon decreed that Eteokles the defender of his country was to be buried with all possible honors, but the traitor Polynakes was to be left for the stray dogs to eat. Furthermore, anyone caught trying to bury him would be put to death.

Antigone had already spent many months in continual pain, because her father had needed her. Now it was over, and she had come home to marry Kreon’s son, Haemon. Haemon was a fine and good man who loved her more than himself, it was time to settle down to a happy life devoted to her children. There is nothing to indicate that Antigone favored one of her brothers over the other. It was just that Eteokles was being sent off to the afterworld with his body intact, protected, and honored as a king, whereas Polynakes, not being buried, would be unable to enter the afterworld at all. The ragged shreds of his body would wander the world forever, in the wrong place, in eternal pain, and eternally bearing the marks of his humiliation. And there was no one to protect him but Antigone.

She wasn't strong enough to drag his big body to a place of safety, and she couldn't dig a hole big enough to bury him. All she could do was sprinkle enough soft earth over him to bury him ritually and send him to the afterworld, but there was little point in that. It was only luck that prevented the men assigned to guard him from seeing her, and when they saw what she had done they quickly brushed the earth away. They heard her scream when she returned and found him unburied again, and they arrested her and took her to Kreon. There was never any real chance that she could have succeeded in saving her brother.

Kreon was her Uncle, he had known her since she had been a little girl. Even now she couldn't have been over nineteen. She did not offer explanations for what she had done, she did not offer reasons why she should be let off. She only said that she was right, that she had done the right thing, and that the Gods knew it. She did not ask for justice, she did not expect justice.

She received none. She was led to an underground chamber and sealed over. Like her father, she walked living into the afterworld.

During Antigone’s hearing, Haemon had told his father, with enormous tact, that there were people in the streets who were saying that Antigone’s act was Holy, and that it ought to be respected.

Kreon was angry and insulted. His son was discussing his authority, and that was too much like questioning it. Antigone had broken the law of the state, and only obedience saves the state form destruction; disobedience is sin. Haemon objected to this, and Kreon threatened to kill Antigone there on the spot.

Everyone had doubts about what Kreon was doing, but no one dared say it openly except Haemon. Finally a Holy man and seer whom everyone respected, said that Kreon had done wrong and that the consequences would be terrible. Kreon wavered, and then he asked the city elders for advice. He was advised to fly to Antigone's tomb and unseal it before it was too late.

He flew, and found the chamber unsealed, Haemon had gotten there first. Kreon found him sobbing, his arms around Antigone's dead body. Haemon thrust his sword at Kreon, but through his tears he missed. Then he turned the sword on himself and fell on it. When Kreon's wife found out what had happened to her son, she hanged herself from the rafters of her bedroom.

As I said in "Gods Jadar," all these cycles go back to the time when the people who would become the Greeks and the people who would become the Germanic peoples shared the same literature. That would have been before the time when Greek-speaking peoples first entered the Greek peninsula, the time before the Bronze Age, the "Copper Age," 3,000 to 2,300 BC. We can see fairly clearly from this surviving literature what these people were like. They may well have been familiar with elaborate intellectual systems and a cyclical idea of time— they lived at the same time as the Megalithic peoples. But they did not concern themselves with the cosmic, the universal and the abstract so much as with that which can be immediately and individually perceived. If there was a cycle, then all the emphasis was placed on the part of the cycle that would involve utter destruction, and that was never far away. "Certainly the druids say that day will come again, and that is our battle cry. But we who are gathered around this fire will never see it. We will die in the darkness when the fire dwindles. Long before sunrise."

These were not pious people. They tended to assume that the things that made life good and worthwhile and even possible existed because of their own effort. The only light they had was the light they made, when that went out there was nothing else. Then the natural order of things would take over, and that would be darkness. They recognized few virtues other than courage and personal loyalty, but these could be carried far beyond anything that would be considered reasonable or even sane.

* * *

Actions such as those of Antigone are usually associated with the concept of "heroism," and that is certainly one valid way of looking at them. We are not looking at them that way here, but still, the word "hero" suggests itself rather loudly so we had better give it serious consideration.

Let's look at a few "heroes." In the eleventh book of the Iliad, Agamemnon fought God in order to protect his people, did he feel heroic then? Afterwards he probably did for he was a vain man, but at the time he would have been much too busy. People inside burning houses for example, are generally too busy to fantasize. He had ample time to fantasize before the battle, but his fantasies ran more to how all his people were going to die without honor in an alien country and how a metal spearhead feels when it passes through one's belly.

Did Achilleus feel heroic? Was he thinking of what an attractive picture he made? He was actually a little too busy wishing that he had never been born.

Did Oidipous feel heroic? After he killed the monster, everyone thought he was a hero and the savior of his people and he thought so too. He no doubt presented a very noble picture, "every inch a king," etc. Then the truth came to light and his pretty picture shattered, and he saw the face of a deeper truth and a much more terrible monster than the one he had killed. Had he faltered before this second monster, he might well have indulged in pleasant fantasies about himself. He did not falter.

Did Antigone feel heroic? She was aware that her action was admirable. But what was that beside the withered flowers of her bridal wreath and the suffocating darkness that awaited her, and above all, beside the eternal torment that awaited her brother. Another woman might have been more concerned with the image she projected than with what she actually was, which would soon be dead. Antigone was not that woman.

Let's take a more modern example. George Orwell contracted tuberculosis while he was writing the novel, 1984. He had to stop all strenuous activity, including writing, and spend seven months in a hospital. It wasn't certain that he would recover, but finally he did, and he resumed work on 1984. The tuberculosis returned. He had finished the rough draft some time before, but there was still some revising to do and the manuscript was patched and chaotic. No typist would be able to deal with it without extensive instructions from Orwell. He was living in a remote part of Scotland at that point, and he was unable to arrange for a typist to go out there and work with him. Of course there were no typists available locally.

There were no doctors either. He had a choice. He could stop working again, go to a hospital, rest, be treated, and have a reasonably good chance of recovery. If he did indeed recover, he could in that case finish the book. But if the treatment failed and he did not recover, 1984 would remain a jumbled mess of papers, comprehensible to no one living, it would never be finished. If he kept working until the book was finished, his chances of recovery would be slight.

I assume that nearly everyone has at least a rough idea of what 1984 is about. It is about what Maoist China would have been if it had been less idealistic, it is about what the Soviet Union under Stalin would have been had it been more efficient, it is about what Germany would have been if it had won the Second World War, and it is about what the United States would be if it were controlled by a cartel of corporations with no elected government to oppose them.

If such a cartel did assume complete control here, an actor would be assigned the role of Big Brother, some form of fundamentalist Christianity would become the state religion and would provide doctrine, and official statements would include the word "democracy" in every other sentence. Such a society would be presented as our only protection against the spiritual and physical forces that threaten us. Such were the societies of Maoist China, Stalinist Russia and of 1984. As Orwell pointed out in another work, a fully totalitarian society is necessarily a theocracy. 1984 is not about any particular political system, it is about evil and the form that evil takes in a modern, highly organized society.

I wrote the above in 1986, please notice where we are now. We are also in a condition of permanent war (as of 2006). The war has been created by our ruling elite and by our news media, and it is specifically designed never to end. The more intelligent among us are aware that the purpose of the "war" is to award our ruling elite (actually an international elite) more and more complete control over all money, property and power and to transform the rest of us into helpless, ignorant, obedient peons.

What only Orwell understands is that the only way that an elite can completely accomplish this is to eliminate our humanity. Human beings will always be full of surprises, and as long as we remain human, the elite can never be completely certain of getting what they want, and their wills can never be sufficiently godlike. We have lost much of our humanity already, and if the people who currently control a great proportion of what we hear and see have anything to say about it, we will lose the rest.

Evil is not an alien thing, it is quite often a question of being normal and conforming to "our values," it is quite often called "God" or something equivalent to that, and it is quite often the subject of prayer. Such was the society of 1984. No one who is part of such a society considers that what they believe in may be evil, they always think of themselves as Normal, as Good People, as "true Americans." If their hatred is correct, if their fear is correct, if their compulsions are correct, if their obedience is correct, if their greed is correct, then they think they are exactly what they should be. What people lack, in a totalitarian society such as ours is becoming, is perception— contact with the real world outside their own desires or the desires of those who rule them. Being human has nothing to do with desire, it has nothing to do with what anyone wants. If you are something that wants and you are nothing more, then everything human is just in your way. In a totalitarian society, being inhuman is the whole point.

No one who understands George Orwell would have had any doubt about what he was going to do. He kept working for three months after he should have been in a hospital. As a result he died, as a result 1984 was finished, as a result the world is slightly less evil and we all have a slightly better chance.

What he did was heroic by his own standards, he said, "Women face childbed and the scrubbing brush, revolutionaries keep their mouths shut in the torture chamber, battleships go down with their guns firing while their decks are awash." He knew that one last shot would probably cost him his life and he thought it would be futile, he thought the novel was a failure. It wouldn't have been his first failure. He had a reputation as an essayist and a gonzo journalist, but except for Animal Farm all of his novels, though brilliantly written, had been both flawed and commercially unsuccessful.

He was quite surprised when the reviews of 1984 were favorable; he lived just long enough to read those first reviews. Middle-aged, chronically ill George Orwell, resting, trying to gather enough strength to type another page, trying to stop coughing long enough to think about a difficult passage, no one would mistake him for an Achilleus. And he did not feel like an Achilleus. The letters he wrote at the time and the tone and conclusion of 1984 itself make it quite clear that he felt sick and defeated. The concept of heroism is generally most valid when applied to someone else or to something that one has done in the past. If someone had suggested to George Orwell that he was being heroic, he probably would have thought it funny.

But there was no question about what he was going to do. He thought that the blow he was striking was futile, he thought 1984 was a failure. But that was the best that he could do, and he would do it. He did not go to the hospital, he stayed and finished 1984 and he gave his life for it. The point was not how he felt or how he saw himself but what he was.

People are worth something—not to the extent that they are connected with something else but to the extent that they are human. I do not see the point in an immortal, invulnerable, Godlike life spent in front of a television set or with one's head full of comforting fantasies. There is something in us that is not empty, and that something is always found beyond the limits of our effective control, beyond the limits of our egos, and certainly beyond the limits of all the pleasant, heroic fantasies we might have about ourselves. Our humanity is not found in our dreams or in their fulfillment; everything worth the name "Sacred," including our humanity, is found here in this painful, unsatisfactory world and nowhere else. One can say that Orwell made the "heroic choice." That is valid as far as it goes, but it does not adequately express the importance of what he did. Orwell's action can be heroic if you like, but more to the point, it is unambiguously, uncompromisingly human. He was simply being human.

Orwell summed up his attitude quite well as he was dying and writing 1984: "The object was not to stay alive, but to stay human." And indeed, when they manage to rouse from their usual stupor, human beings frequently act as Orwell did, usually with hardly anyone noticing and in ways that may or may not present an impressive picture. The old legends, such as that of Antigone, represent people acting in a certain manner. These legendary actions are impressive and fairly obvious, necessarily so. The reality they express is often neither. But people will continue to act in this manner regardless of who notices or cares, and in the face of futility and certain defeat.