Rebecca West on Survival, the Redemption of Suffering, and the Life-Saving Will to Keep Walking the Road to Ourselves
“If during the next million generations there is but one human being born in every generation who will not cease to inquire into the nature of his fate, even while it strips and bludgeons him, some day we shall read the riddle of our universe.”
By Maria Popova
In a 1928 letter to her sister, Virginia Woolf described the great English writer Rebecca West (December 21, 1892–March 15, 1983) as “hard as nails, very distrustful, and no beauty … a cross between a charwoman and a gipsy, but as tenacious as a terrier, with flashing eyes, very shabby, rather dirty nails, immense vitality, bad taste, suspicion of intellectuals, and great intelligence.” (Because Woolf regarded her with such amused admiration, she was pleased when West lauded Orlando as “a poetic masterpiece of the first rank” in her New York Herald Tribune review later that year.)
It was this great and rugged intellect that West poured into Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (public library) — her remarkable 1941 account of her three visits to Yugoslavia. Published at the peak of WWII and exploring a country made by WWI, the book accomplished with unparalleled poignancy West’s aim of revealing “the past side by side with the present it created.”
While recovering from surgery in an English hospital in the fall of 1934, West heard on the radio that Yugoslavia’s King Alexander I had been assassinated — the first monarch of a young country born out of the horrors of WWI, murdered by the same fascist forces that would pave the way for WWII. She recognized instantly, with a sorrowful urgency, that such local crises of inhumanity never exist in isolation from the whole of humanity. A quarter century before Martin Luther King urged us to see that “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality [and] whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly,” West reflected on hearing the radio announcement:
I had to admit that I quite simply and flatly knew nothing at all about the south-eastern corner of Europe … that is to say I know nothing of my own destiny.
And indeed, from West’s regional focus on my native Balkans radiates a larger inquiry into the collective fate of humanity, with all its tragedy and tenaciousness, and the ultimate resilience of the human spirit — nowhere more so than in a passage describing her encounter with a woman on a mountain road in Montenegro. West relays the woman’s response to being asked how she had ended up there, across the country from her hometown of Durmitor:
She laughed a little, lifted her ball of wool to her mouth, sucked the thin thread between her lips, and stood rocking herself, her eyebrows arching in misery. “It is a long story. I am sixty now,” she said. “Before the war I was married over there, by Durmitor. I had a husband whom I liked very much, and I had two children, a son and a daughter. In 1914 my husband was killed by the Austrians. Not in battle. They took him out of our house and shot him. My son went off and was a soldier and was killed, and my daughter and I were sent to a camp. There she died. In the camp it was terrible, many people died. At the end of the war I came out and I was alone. So I married a man twenty years older than myself. I did not like him as I liked my first husband, but he was very kind to me, and I had two children of his. But they both died, as was natural, for he was too old, and I was too old, and also I was weak from the camp. And now my husband is eighty, and he has lost his wits, and he is not kind to me any more. He is angry with everybody; he sits in his house and rages, and I cannot do anything right for him. So I have nothing.”
To the question of where she is headed on that mountain road, the woman responds:
“I am not going anywhere. I am walking about to try to understand why all this has happened. If I had to live, why should my life have been like this? If I walk about up here where it is very high and grand it seems to me I am nearer to understanding it.” She put the ball of wool to her forehead and rubbed it backwards and forwards, while her eyes filled with painful speculation. “Good-bye,” she said, with distracted courtesy, as she moved away, “good-bye.”
With this, West delivers her stroke of genius in revealing the animating force of human existence, that which gives rise to all art and all science and the irrepressible roving curiosity that has given us everything we call culture:
This woman [was] the answer to my doubts. She took her destiny not as the beasts take it, nor as the plants and trees; she not only suffered it, she examined it. As the sword swept down on her through the darkness she threw out her hand and caught the blade as it fell, not caring if she cut her fingers so long as she could question its substance, where it had been forged, and who was the wielder. She wanted to understand … the mystery of process.
I knew that art and science were the instruments of this desire, and this was their sole justification, though in the Western world where I lived I had seen art debauched to ornament and science prostituted to the multiplication of gadgets. I knew that they were descended from man’s primitive necessities, that the cave man who had to hunt the aurochs drew him on the rock-face that he might better understand the aurochs and have fuller fortune in hunting and was the ancestor of all artists, that the nomad who had to watch the length of shadows to know when he should move his herd to the summer pasture was the ancestor of all scientists. But I did not know these things thoroughly with my bowels as well as my mind. I knew them now, when I saw the desire for understanding move this woman. It might have been far otherwise with her, for she had been confined by her people’s past and present to a kind of destiny that might have stunned its victims into an inability to examine it. Nevertheless she desired neither peace nor gold, but simply knowledge of what her life might mean. The instrument used by the hunter and the nomad was not too blunt to turn to finer uses; it was not dismayed by complexity, and it could regard the more stupendous aurochs that range within the mind and measure the diffuse shadows cast by history. And what was more, the human will did not forget its appetite for using it.
In a sentiment that calls to mind Hannah Arendt’s timelessly incisive perspective on the only effective antidote to evil, found in the fact that “one man will always be left alive to tell the story,” West considers the essential quality of spirit which the Montenegrin woman modeled:
If during the next million generations there is but one human being born in every generation who will not cease to inquire into the nature of his fate, even while it strips and bludgeons him, some day we shall read the riddle of our universe. We shall discover what work we have been called to do, and why we cannot do it. If a mine fails to profit by its riches and a church wastes the treasure of its altar, we shall know the cause: we shall find out why we draw the knife across the throat of the black lamb or take its place on the offensive rock, and why we let the grey falcon nest in our bosom, though it buries its beak in our veins. We shall put our own madness in irons.
Complement this particular portion of the densely illuminating Black Lamb and Grey Falcon with Simone Weil on how to make use of our suffering and Viktor Frankl, who was deported to a Nazi concentration camp just after the publication of West’s classic, on the human search for meaning and the key to spiritual survival.