Writers have been holding up a mirror to the world for many centuries, showing the world the face it chooses not to see.
The great Yiddish master of prose, Sholom Aleichem, exposed the powerlessness of Jews in eastern Europe before World War II; Emile Zola in France, and Charles Dickens in England, wrote about the living conditions of the impoverished underclass and raised consciousness in their countries; Mark Twain explored racism in the United States.
Before those writers, the great French Enlightenment thinker, Voltaire, wrote a short story titled Micromégas (meaning BigSmall) in which he imagines an encounter between gigantic space aliens and Earthlings, patterned on Jonathan Swift’s satire, Gulliver’s Travels. His focus was on people’s overblown ego and the disastrous consequences.
The story records the shock the giants experience when they discover the “puny” humans. They delight at human intellect but are dismayed by their folly. Earth is described as a molehill, infinitesimally small, and people as atoms and mites in a “miserable state of so near nothingness.”
In spite of Earth’s comparative lack of consequence in the vast universe, the aliens are astounded to learn that humans have forever waged war on one another: “battles that allow a vanquisher to take a village only to lose it later.”
In a final touch of irony, the story concludes with the aliens leaving behind a book in which people “would see the point of everything.” When they open the book, they see nothing but blank pages, meaning that people are incapable of learning and understanding anything but their own limited vision.
Voltaire understood in the 1750s what science has confirmed only recently: we are part of a vast galaxy called the Milky Way. There appear to be more than two million galaxies, each containing billions of stars. The universe, as Voltaire foresaw, is beyond human comprehension and Earth is a spot of dust in this endless continuum.
In a similar vein, the English poet, Percy Shelley, in his famous poem “Ozymandias,” tells of a traveler from an “antique land” who witnesses the relic of a statue of a formerly great king. The words on the pedestal read: “Look on my works, ye Mighty and despair.” The poem ends with a stark image that makes a mockery of the inscription: “Nothing beside remains. Round the decay/Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare/The lone and level sands stretch far away.” The poet vividly illustrates that the boastful striving for glory and power is ill-fated foolishness.
Human folly exists not only in the powerful. The French existentialist writer, Albert Camus, wrote La Peste (The Plague), a novel ostensibly about a plague that overtakes France, which is actually a metaphor for the Nazi occupation during World War II.
In a speech delivered at Columbia University after the war, he condemned hatred and indifference as “symptoms” of the madness that gripped the world: “And it’s too easy simply to accuse Hitler and say that the snake has been destroyed, the venom gone. Because we know perfectly well that the venom is not gone, that each of us carries it in our own hearts.” It isn’t only kings like Ozymandias in the distant past who seek dominion over others. The dark desire is ever-present, as it resides within us in all eras.
In these works, the authors warn that when human beings seek only prestige and power, the outcome is destruction. Not all striving is bad, however, and the Mishna (Avot 5:17) teaches that there are arguments “for the sake of Heaven,” and those that are not for Heaven. In the former, people on each side listen openly and honestly to the other because the purpose is to find the truth. Conflict will always be a part of human life, but there is a way to argue that is civil and humble. Sadly, it is too often abandoned or ignored because each side thinks that it is the arbiter of truth and the other is the enemy.
The Persian poet, Rumi, wrote: “Beyond right and wrong, there is an empty field. I’ll meet you there.” A meeting place has always existed where people with very different views can meet and talk. But to get there, one must be willing to set aside the ego that results in quarrels, grudges, ideologies and anger. It requires an acknowledgment that being right is less important than generosity of spirit and the desire to work for everyone’s best interests. Compromise isn’t weakness, it’s strength, and truth is not the exclusive domain of any one person or group. Tragically, Rumi’s field is “empty” because, throughout human history, people have been too rigidly locked in their own worldview to tread the short distance to get there. The fact that the field still remains empty is a stark rebuke to us all.■
The writer is distinguished professor emeritus and founder of the Jewish Studies program at the University of Waterloo