Out of the dungeon

Curiously enough, it was walking about the streets of Moscow in the early thirties that I first began to ponder upon what freedom meant, and what rights, if any, were vested in us just by virtue of belonging to the human race—what is called, heaven knows why, homo sapiens. I was doing a stint there at the time as correspondent for the old Manchester Guardian, then in the heyday of its reputation as the mouthpiece of the liberal mind at its brightest and best. Already I had come to realize, I must say with some inward anguish, the fraudulence of all the hopes I had entertained of finding in the USSR a free, brotherly, prosperous, and peaceable society in process of being set up under the auspices of a dictatorship of the proletariat. Instead, I was confronted with authoritarian government carried to a pitch far exceeding, for instance, the Brithish Raj in India, my only previous experience of the kind.

I spent a lot of time perambulating the Moscow streets and rubbing shoulders with the Muscovites similarly bent, this being the only unsupervised, unprogrammed contact with them permissible to foreigners. These were the beneficiaries under the Revolution. In principle, their freedom and human rights were specifically and everlastingly guaranteed; in practice they had neither freedom nor rights other than to read and think and believe and do whatever those set in authority over them considered appropriate. I found their anonymous presence oddly fascinating, and even appealing, aloof and remote as they were; so wrapped up in themselves, and, at the same time, a collectivity rather than a collection of separate individuals as in other towns I had known, like London or Paris. Mingling with them, I had a queer sort of almost mystical certainty which remains with me still, that as they were, so we were all fated to be. In them, for those with eyes to see, might be discerned the fearful symmetry of things to come.

It was not at all, let me hasten to add, that I envisaged the realization of the Marxist apocalypse of a triumphant proletariat taking over power and establishing themselves everywhere in authority for evermore; the final fulfillment of the promise in the Magnificat of the mighty being put down from their seats and the humble and meek exalted, of the hungry being filled with good things and the rich sent empty away. No, the feeling I had was something else; a sense that a phase of history was coming to an end, that Man struggling to be free, with rights pertaining to his individual status, was going to give place to Man as part of a collectivity, a tiny digit in a huge total, and that in Moscow this new arrangement was being tried out and could be observed. There, as it seemed to me, a new serfdom was taking shape which would set a pattern for the future. Thenceforth I have never doubted that a key to our present discontents is simply that the burden of being free has come to seem too heavy to be borne, and that, consciously or unconsciously, willfully or under duress, the prevailing disposition is to lay it down. In a famous scene in Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, the Chief Inquisitor turns away the returned Christ because he brings with him, as he had before, the dreaded gift of freedom. Governments, as it seems to me, whatever their ideology, are going to show themselves of a like mind with the Chief Inquisitor.

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This view was reinforced by the truly extraordinary antics of visiting West European and American intellectuals for whom Moscow in the thirties was a place of pilgrimage, as Peking is today to their heirs and successors. They arrived there, an unending procession, ranging from famous figures like a Bernard Shaw, a Julian Huxley, an André Gide, a Lincoln Steffans, to crazed clergymen who could not keep away from the anti-God museums, drivelling dons, an occasional eccentric millionaire, miscellaneous actual or aspiring intelligentsia of every sort and condition, all concerned to do obeisance to a regime which, in its practice if not in its theory, represented everything they purported to abhor, but which nonetheless, they insisted, held out the prospect of enlarging human freedom and enhancing human rights for all mankind. The credulity with which they accepted at its face value whatever their guides handed out to them, provided a spectacle of rare comedy, and I cherish its memory as such. At the same time, it was a portent. If these, who at home were the ardent custodians of human rights and freedom, were so ready, and even eager, when they were in the USSR, to throw them to the Kremlin wolves, what chance was there of defending them when, as they must, they came under attack as our turbulent twentieth century unfolded? Solzhenitsyn has immortalized this tragi-comic scenario, this great betrayal by the Enlightenment’s last legatees, in his hilarious account of an official visit by Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt to a Soviet labor camp where he was incarcerated. At the time I could not, of course, envisage the final irony—that these very intellectuals would provide the style and manner of thinking of the pundits and gurus of the media, especially television, destined to hold the whole Western world in thrall.

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Some fifteen years later I went to Washington, this time as correspondent for a Conservative newspaper, the London Daily Telegraph. In the intervening years there had been another devastating war, ostensibly fought for freedom and human rights, which involved accepting the Red Army as a liberating force, and at the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal American and British judges sitting alongside Russian ones in condemning the defeated Germans for infringing human rights by partitioning Poland, which they had done in collaboration with the Soviet Government under the terms of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, and for using forced labor, which continues to be a permanent feature of life in the USSR—vide The Gulag Archepelago. The Germans were also convicted of infringing human rights by the practice of compulsory sterilization and euthanasia, whose legalization is now being recommended in Western countries on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. Thus it has taken just thirty years to translate a war crime into an exercise in humanity and reinforcement of human rights.

I came to Washington not at all in the ebullient mood of my arrival in Moscow, but even so there was a sense of excitement in venturing into what was still called the New World. Moreover, America at this time had a position of preeminence among other nations in terms of weaponry and wealth unparalleled in modern times. Phrases like “manifest destiny” were again being bandied about, and human rights were very much in, and on, the air, with the Freedom Bell tolling on all appropriate, and sometimes inappropriate, occasions. Roosevelt, for instance, had launched his Four Freedoms, one of which—Freedom from Want—appearing on the almost worthless currency notes circulating in Italy during the allied occupation, caused considerable wry mirth among the local populace. Human rights, likewise, figured in numerous declarations, preambles, statements of intent, and solemn undertakings, as in the proceedings of the United Nations, which had risen, phoenix-style, out of the ashes of the old League of Nations.

No people, it is safe to say, in all history have been so specifically and lavishly certified to be free and in the full enjoyment of all their human rights as the Americans. Yet, I asked myself, were their freedoms and their human rights real or illusory? Certainly, as long as they had money, unlike the Muscovites, they could do as they pleased, read whatever they wanted to read, go wherever they had a mind to. Moreover, thanks to the Supreme Court and other judiciaries, their human rights were constantly being extended, so that they could sleep with whomever they wanted to sleep with, male or female, break a marriage and enter into another just as the fancy took them, choose any one of an ever-increasing variety of television programs, abort an inconvenient birth, stupify themselves with drugs, immerse themselves in porn, and ultimately, if they so wished, just with the aid of a hypodermic syringe or some sleeping tablets, bring their days to an end. All this with the advertisers and the media making straight the way.

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Was it freedom ever burgeoning or a servitude ever more exacting? Human rights or human fantasies? Seeking to answer, I turned to the American motorways as I had in the USSR to the crowded Moscow streets; six lanes a side, and the endless stream of vehicles roaring along in both directions from nowhere to nowhere; the man at the wheel easefully surveying the ever-extending vista of tarmac, a cigarette drooping from his mouth, behind him a suit from the cleaners swinging gently to and fro on its hanger; the radio on, from Muzak to Newzak, and then back to Muzak,drooling tunes followed by drooling news, followed by more drooling tunes, and so on ad infinitum, the whole effect calculated to keep the driver’s mind in a state of vacuity, and so receptive to the advertisements which regularly punctuated both Muzak and Newzak, urging him to eat this, wear this, anoint and perfume himself with this, tone up his bowels with this, and tone down his body-odor with this. Then, as the evening comes on and the tarmac darkens, the neon signs come out; each cluster of homes displaying the basic four—food, drugs, beauty, gas—the four pillars of the American way of life.

Having now looked at two versions of freedom in contemporary terms, and the human rights that go therewith, the one a servitude to an all-powerful state and the other to an all-demanding ego, I turn to what the Apostle Paul called the glorious liberty of the children of God, the only true and lasting freedom there is, and the only basis on which human rights can exist at all and be valid. Words which, as St. Augustine woefully remarked, have a beginning and an end, are inadequate to describe this other freedom, deriving, as it does, from eternity and not from time, and carrying with it human rights as belonging to God’s creation and so participating in his purposes, rather than with reference to any earthly laws or instrument. It was this freedom and these were the human rights that Solzhenitsyn discovered in what were in worldly circumstances, the most abject imaginable—a Soviet prison camp. “It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw,” he writes, “that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating Good and Evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties, but through every human heart and through all human hearts.” And he concludes: “So, bless you, prison, for having been in my life.” Others, we may be sure, in the grisly Gulag Archepelago, will likewise have been discovering freedom and their human rights as beings created by God in his image, while the representatives of governments were appending their signatures to the ludicrous Helsinki Agreement on Human Rights, and afterwards entering into interminable and meaningless discussions in Belgrade as to what the agreement’s terms meant and whether they had been duly observed.

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In the world of the motorways, too, the victims of that other servitude may discover their true freedom and human rights, rejecting all the different allurements of what Pascal called “licking the earth,” and hearing beneath the drooling Muzak and Newzak the clear sweet voice of human brotherhood and companionship with God. Suddenly caught up in the wonder of God’s love flooding the universe, made aware of the stupendous creativity which animates all life, and of our own participation in it—every color brighter, every meaning clearer, every shape more shapely, every word written and spoken more coherent. Above all, every human face, all human companionship, all human encounters recognizably a family affair; the animals, too, flying, prowling, burrowing, all their diverse cries and grunts and bellowing and the majestic hill-tops, the gaunt rocks giving their blessed shade, and the rivers making their way to the sea—all irradiated with the same new glory. This is freedom—the sense of belonging to God’s creation; these are our human rights—to participate in the realization of his purposes for it.

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No people have been so lavishly certified to be free and in the full enjoyment of all their human rights as the Americans.

It is like coming to after an anaesthetic; reconnecting with reality after being enmeshed in fantasy, picking out familiar shapes and faces with delighted recognition. There is a kind of vision expressing this which has often come to me; an adaptation, I dare say, of Plato’s famous image of the shadows in the cave. I find myself imprisoned in the tiny dungeon of my ego, fettered and bound hand and foot with the appetites of the flesh and the will, unable to move or to see. Then I notice that light is somehow filtering in, and I become aware that there is a window through which I can look out. Looking out, I see the vast expanses of eternity bathed in the light of God’s universal love. The window focuses this light as the Incarnation focused God’s love, thereby miraculously bringing it within the dimensions of time, and procuring my release. My bonds and fetters fall away; I break out of the tiny dungeon of my ego like a butterfly out of its crysalis. I am free.

One of the many pleasures of old age is to become ever more sharply aware of the many mercies and blessings God showers upon us. Almost every day I discover new ones. What joy, for instance, to be confronted with power and authority in disarray in all their guises everywhere! How reassuring and diverting to find all our egotistic pursuits being made to seem derisory! As the quest for money, by the presses that print more and more of it, and the Arab sheiks into whose artless hands more and more of it falls. As carnality, by erotomania and porn, the reductio ad absurdum of sex, and accompanying sterility rites and inexorable drift into impotence. As celebrity, by the media which bestow it so lavishly on auto-cued newsreaders, cinematic beauty queens, miming pop stars and grunting prize-fighters. As knowledge, by sociology and kindred studies, with their computers, public opinion polls and other devices for making false deductions from incorrect data. I could go on and on; if C.S. Lewis were alive today, he would, I feel sure, have Screwtape complaining to his lord and master, Old Nick himself, that there was scarcely one plausible vice left on the calendar.

Again, how thankful we should be that the two rival prospectuses for a man-made kingdom of heaven on earth, the Soviet model based on power and privation, and the American one based on affluence and self-indulgence, both come to look ever more unconvincing. Sixty years of what is called social engineering in the USSR and its satellite countries have only served to provide the most promising scope since the Dark Ages for proclaiming the good news of the Christian revelation. As for the pursuit of happiness—with the media to promote it and an ever-rising Gross National Product to finance it—still the psychiatric wards are overflowing and the roads to the East teeming with bearded and bra-less drop-outs who resolutely refuse to join in. Just supposing, I have often reflected, God had handed over the gruesome task of exploding Marx’s turgid dialectics by attempting to implement them to the Germans and the Japanese instead of the Russians and the Chinese, how immeasurably worse our present plight would be. Likewise, if he had entrusted the British rather than the Americans with wealth and nuclear power abounding.

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The other day the very charming and holy Archbishop of Los Angeles, Cardinal Manning, was kind enough to refer to me publicly as a prophet. I wanted to adapt the words of Amos when he was similarly categorized: “I am no prophet, nor am I a prophet’s son; I am an herdsman, a gatherer of sycamore plants, and the Lord took me as I followed my flock,” and say: “I am no prophet, I am a journalist, a collector of news stories, and the Lord took me as I sat at my typewriter.” If, however, I were to venture upon an essay in prophecy, it would be this—whatever may happen to the nightmare utopias of the twentieth century, whether they mutually destroy one another or, metaphorically speaking, fall into one another’s arms, however deep the darkness that may fall upon our world, of one thing we may be certain; in some forgotten jungle a naked savage will feel impelled to daub a stone with colored mud and prostrate himself before it, thereby opening yet another chapter in man’s everlasting and indefatigable quest for God, making one more humble acknowledgment of the mystery of his existence and his destiny.

D. Bruce Lockerbie is chairman of the Fine Arts department at The Stony Brook School, Stony Brook, New York. This article is taken from his 1976 lectures on Christian Life and Thought, delivered at Conservative Baptist Theological Seminary in Denver, Colorado.

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