In the tumultuous sixties, as an undergraduate at Harvard (for which I have prayed for forgiveness most of my life), I was disappointed again and again by the common Victorian and early twentieth-century convention of beginning a chapter with lush description and then abandoning it in favor of social interaction, philosophical reflection, and plot development. Nature was treated mainly as a stage direction: “Night. Wind in the pines. Soldiers around a campfire.” Even such details as those were to me more evocative and meaningful than much that followed, dry and disconnected from the universal language of creation that is the grammar and syntax of great art because it is the language given to us in the fullest and deepest measure.
Lasting writers seldom divorce themselves from it, finding its echo at every turn. In so doing they discipline themselves as if in prayer, with almost incanted repetitions in reference to what is real—that is, the universe granted to us by God in all its depth, weight, expanse, color, detail, action, beauty, mystery, and surprise—allowing their thoughts to run both freely and parallel with the truth.
The inseparable substance and beauty of Boris Pasternak’s now rather neglected masterpiece, Doctor Zhivago, have managed to survive in translation. This is a rarity, in that one of the characteristics of great writing is that it cannot be entirely uncoupled from the language with which it is intertwined, any more than the soul can be surgically removed from the body.
Though it would be best not only to know Russian but to have a native appreciation of it, the text of Zhivago is saturated with a universal language intelligible to anyone, regardless of background. It is written in the language, to borrow a phrase from Jefferson, of “nature and nature’s God.”
Zhivago itself is continuously weighted with and refreshed by natural description, color, sound, and metaphors d’éclat. Pasternak and his protagonist exult in these, and this is what sustains them through the violent and senseless times in which they live—because these beauties, some humble, some magnificent, are God himself speaking reassurance of perfection. And if perfection is inviolable and cannot be marred, then in the vast, omnipresent language of nature, the message is everywhere and insistent that evil will be defeated and the prospect of redemption is alive.
In the novel, the moon, snow, flowing water, effulgences of light, the richness of color, the many different moods of the wind, and the sound of music, birds, and horses’ hooves on snow and board and stone are symbols of more things than I can address here. A marvelous, compressed expression of them exists in the David Lean and Robert Bolt movie based on the book. In the wretched cattle car taking the Zhivagos beyond the Urals, Zhivago (played by Omar Sharif), who has lost everything, who knows that he and his family may be imprisoned or executed at any moment, looks through the cracks at a round, almost blindingly bright moon hovering in the frigid, glassy space above the snow, and from this he takes heart and renews his faith. Not only because it is so strikingly beautiful, but because it is majestically inviolable. More comforting than Psalm 23, it is proof that the splendor and perfection of natural law confirm the promise of justice and tranquility.
But in times of madness and violence, intractably endemic to history, is it not simpleminded to find comfort, reassurance, and even victory merely in the notion that the context in which we live operates independently of us, that there are countless blazing galaxies, snowbound forests, and immense seas in an imperturbable work of which the bright and luminous moon that lifted Zhivago was only the tiniest part? All such things are, of course, in more than one sense of the word, a given. Why would contemplating them overcome loss, pain, and defeat? How might devoted envisioning of God’s universe suggest that he is just? First, consider the limits of perception, and then the nature of time.
As we are neither divine nor angels, we are not strong enough to understand, bear, or absorb even a small portion of the gifts and lessons that are showered upon us. Only recently have scientists “confirmed” the rather old notion (treated in modern times as superstition) that things are organized (string theory) beyond the realm of mere probability, and that what was once perceived as more or less a vacuum is in fact filled with the major part of that which exists (dark matter and dark energy). Our perception is so limited that to have the slightest chance of understanding eschatological questions, we must rely upon powers greater than conscious logic. But these powers need not be wielded only on faith, and they are not purely mysterious.
What are our essential limitations other than mortality and the inability to answer the deepest questions with the tools of reason? Anyone who is amazed at and impatient with his own forgetfulness understands that we cannot even begin to do justice to our worldly perception, much less that of spectra we cannot see, scents we cannot smell, magnetism we cannot feel, sounds we cannot hear, and things—either too great or too small—that we cannot see. Let us say that you ride in a train from Paris to Rome. With one glance out the window, you take in such an enormous amount of visual information that in mechanical terms, it would be expressed in terabytes. Wherever you are now, look ahead, and then close your eyes. You can reproduce only the most skeletal detail. After you have watched the passing terrain for ten hours, what you have seen, down to blades of grass and millions of sparkles on a river flowing toward low sun, would, if reproduced in coded form, fill all the libraries in the world a thousand times over.
And yet you have not burst at the seams, because your mind has engaged in the one operation it conducts second to taking in information. It has shed information. Imagine if it had not, and everything you had ever seen, heard, thought, and felt was available to you as if you were staring at it, hearing it, thinking it, or feeling it in the present. Metaphorically, it would be as dense as a black hole and as explosive as a supernova. But as we could hardly tolerate that, we guard and limit our perceptions, unaware of the true density and weight of the world—physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual. Because we are not divine, we must jettison the many burdens we cannot bear.
And yet we do not jettison them completely, for we have the ability to compress, save, and summarize the totality of what we take in. We do this consciously all the time. For example, if you go to Coney Island in July, you will see many thousands of individuals, but you translate that into “It was crowded,” or perhaps into an image of half a mile of beach and boardwalk in a wash of color denoting too many souls to take into account individually. In all forms of discourse—mathematical, logical, rhetorical, emotional—there is conscious compression, reduction, and the substitution of symbols for otherwise discrete quantities.
Unconsciously, we go much further: emotionally, aesthetically, spiritually. These are the areas in which the vastness of the world that we perceive undergoes an alchemy that purifies it into gold. And it is why faith can only be taken on faith, as the vastness of sensations, distillations, compressions, and conclusions in reading the world—the sum total of which is a species of revelation—cannot be teased out mechanistically as if with forensic accounting.
A lovely analogy of how this works is to be found in early nineteenth-century Paris, when the young Delacroix immersed himself in the Louvre, which had been opened as a museum only in 1793. For the first time, it was possible in France for a painter to be overwhelmed by a richness of imagery from many countries and periods, and in the Louvre Delacroix would indulge himself to the point of intoxication. As in anyone perceiving the world itself—such as the scenery between Paris and Rome—he transformed the multiplicity of images, impossible to remember in their detailed specificity, into a higher form, much like the transformation of the revealed world into a higher form of cognition impossible to justify except by faith. He interpreted it thusly: “Memory alone of certain paintings penetrated me with emotion that moved my entire being, even when I did not see them” (emphasis and translation mine). His emotion was the translation of many subjects of observation into a higher order. This is how he learned to paint. He did not learn to paint merely by study any more than man, like a machine, is just the sum of his inputs. For we have the divine gift of being able to transform all that we receive into something unsusceptible to what the French call parfilage, which is the disentangling of golden threads, and as a result of this gift the distinct elements of a golden braid have been fused into a superior unity. (I assume that this pertains to the Triune God, but that is not my bailiwick.)
Other than a saving blindness, an efficient forgetfulness, and the ability to meld immense quantities of thought and sensation into higher orders of conclusion, we have yet another way to deal with (pace Milan Kundera) the unbearable density of existence. That is to spread the shock and weight over time. If it were all compressed into a single, infinitely small instant, for a mortal creature it would be—to borrow an expression from Guys and Dolls—no dice.
We can deal with the density of existence only by living within the illusion of time, which might not exist. I beg your pardon? How is that? Really now. Well, to begin with, of the three elements of time—past, present, and future—every schoolboy after Euclid can make the case that the present does not exist, and is only an illusion of memory and a projection of what is to come, superimposed upon the infinitely small and therefore nonexistent border between past and future. Strike one. If there is no border between past and future, and therefore no distinction between them, then past and future, being one, do not separately exist, strikes two and three. You might think this is just sophistry and illusion, an unsettled but tantalizing phenomenon like a Möbius strip, a Klein bottle, or some other haunting paradox.
And yet, according to the general theory of relativity, every aspect of which since put to the empirical test has proved out, space and time are linked such that it would be theoretically possible to slow and even reverse time were it possible to exceed the speed of light. Think of time on earth as a function of the light traveling from it. At some point in space, the record of the very beginning is still hurtling forward. In our perception, this is a very long expanse.
But now think of it viewed from an infinite perspective. The farther away you get, the shorter the line becomes, until the distance between its origin and its current position disappears into a single point, which as any schoolboy since Euclid can tell you, does not actually exist except as a postulate, a commanded, convenient, and necessary illusion. We can partially grasp the notion and reality of infinity. Mathematicians even have a symbol for it. But if only from an infinite perspective time does not exist, whose perspective is that? For a believer—that is, someone who through no fault or agency of his own has been graced with apprehension of the divine presence, and thus gifted with the faith and tranquility to see him through a hail of atrocities, terrors, and tests—the infinite perspective is, of course, God’s perspective.
And from such a point of view, it all happened, is happening, and will happen, at once. We see motion in a film projected upon a screen, and yet when the film is in the can or the digital code is frozen on the disk, all is still, and perhaps all is bright, with sequence dependent upon a willful process of illusion. And if indeed time is still, there is no contradiction between free will and predestination, no contradiction between God’s omnipotence and man’s ability to make moral choices, because it all happened, is happening, and will happen, at once—just as, in following this, you are traveling along, but the only thing that is moving is your perception. The words are frozen on the page and the essay was finished before you started reading it.
Tests of faith great and small come like horizontal, wind-driven rain. They challenge individuals and whole societies, especially those like ours in sudden decline. Such tests are not experienced by people shielded by the fashion, so much with us late and soon, of nonbelief. Faith comes only where it is welcome. In youth and success it often finds the stony ground of temporal triumph, victory, and health. The drug-like effects of wealth, power, and fame can occupy the space from which a knowing soul is able to see that which otherwise cannot be seen. In failure, old age, and defeat, faith is often the victim of despair for the same reason it is the victim of triumphalism. That is, it is not a tool of this world, and if one is anchored merely to the world, the prospect of floating free of the world must be unimaginable.
The greatest test of faith, success in which one can neither fake nor will, is death, which is not to say that death is the most difficult thing—the most difficult thing being to witness the suffering and death of innocents, especially those one truly loves, especially children. But, like a body drawn into the gravity of the sun, as one approaches one’s own death, the light and heat of great reckoning and absolute transformation of state burn away everything as if in a refiner’s fire, leaving only intense love, joy, and tranquility. I have been close enough to this to get a glimpse.
Seventy years ago, I was born so prematurely that I was not expected to survive the first day, let alone the first year, throughout which (I am told) I spent not one minute without a fever. My prematurity affected my lungs in such a way that I have had pneumonia about a dozen times. Now and then, I was close to being carried off. Spinal meningitis, wound trauma with near-exsanguination, and falling into a crevasse each brought me to the point where I thought there would be no return, as did those attending me. In regard to the illnesses, think ice baths, weeping parents. Each time, in pain or delirium, fully or semi-conscious, shocked or at rest, I felt the most comforting, wonderful presence, a happiness beyond description, a sense of completion, and a sense of joy. Falling into the crevasse, I saw, as if for an eternity but in no more than seconds, galaxies of sun-sparkling particles that followed me after I had smashed through a deceptive crust of hardened snow, the latter phrase a perfect metaphor for what is here asserted. Weightless among a thousand golden stars, I felt neither fear nor regret, but rather the assurance that everything made sense, everything was ultimately just, and all would be redeemed in a perfect, timeless universe, a divine work of art.
Even the art of man—that is, true art rather than mere conceptual busywork—is an effort at fusing those glittering, entrancing truths from which genuine art cannot be separated, with the divine wave that, to use Wordsworth’s wonderful expression, rolls through all things. This in my view is the goal of art, especially music, which I would like to think of as the remnants and echoes of the voice of God. What else can move us so deeply and so far, taking us almost to the divine, in ways that cannot be rationally explained? In lifting us to the edge, art hints at the stasis which is the joining and perfection of all things as their boundaries fall away.
The year that has passed seems suddenly to have awakened many people to the greater tests of faith that have always been and will always be with us. One might ask, in a world unceasingly awash in suffering and death, where these people have been before a stressful presidential election made them rend their garments. But that would be beside the point, which is that for secular panic there is seldom effective secular remedy.
In the life of the United States thus far, we have had a great though imperfect and, in historical perspective, brief respite from tyranny, oppression, and “ignorant armies clash[ing] by night.” Powerful forces from within and without have often been and are now poised to end this. The fundamental inhumanity, regimentation, mechanisms of control and conformity, and ceaseless reductionism inherent in modernism are the fertile seedbed of political tyranny, loss of human dignity, ideological madness, and genocide of the born and unborn. In the triumph and worship of the modern and its unprecedented riches is much ugliness and danger.
The faults and depredations that have rightly led to contemporary anxieties are well known and too many to list here. These are serial tests of faith amid hostility to religious belief and the prospect of growing secular failure and disorder. Though a majority, Christians have in a historically short time assumed the status of a defensive minority. Believing Jews, mainly the Orthodox, have always been a defensive minority. Abrahamic Muslims, due to the violence and ferment in Islam, are put upon from all sides. Modernism and materialism own the secular world as once did the Church. It is not unreasonable to assume that even in the most fertile ground of belief—the developing world—the modernism and materialism so familiar to the West will catch up, and that eventually, religion there, now on the upswing, will decline.
Tests of faith in the absence of persecution are hard to pass, just as benevolent tyrannies are the hardest to overthrow. They have benevolence on their side, with which they rock their subjects to sleep, and if their subjects awaken, they will be met with force. The answer to such things is to trust in God, who will decide all questions. But for Judaism and Christianity, unlike Islam, God has laid down principles that govern even his own actions, and has invited inquiry and exploration. Jews famously argue with God, as well as, of course, with each other and everyone else. But how can you believe that God is omnipotent, and yet wrestle with him? How can you reconcile persecution, defeat, and death with a belief in his benevolence?
Simple acceptance, even if it is demanded as in the test of Abraham, has never been the habit of an argumentative people. I myself come from the Hasidic tradition, in which, paradoxically, the requirement of intense lifelong study to understand the divine, along with close attention to all opportunities of intermediation, exist in perfect harmony with the conviction that God may also speak directly to each person without any intermediation whatsoever, either intellectual or structural. Although seeking God through study may reveal him, study as I see it is more a necessity for understanding and properly and humbly dealing with the lightning bolts of force unleashed within the soul when apprehending him. If life itself requires education, then encounters with that which is deeper and superior to life itself must require even more education.
And as for direct apprehension, if the supervisors of Nassau County, the governor of Texas, AT&T, my high school principal, and Saks Fifth Avenue can send me a message directly, God can’t? Who would deny him except those who deny him entirely?
Jews do not, as de Gaulle regally pronounced, “always come out on top.” Hardly. Had it not been for the Holocaust, conversion, and assimilation, natural growth would mean that current Jewish populations would number perhaps fifty million or more. Now there are not even fifteen million in a world of more than seven billion. Only God knows how many Jews there would be had they not been exiled so often, slaughtered so often, and excluded from so many freedoms and professions. But ultimately this does not disturb our faith.
Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia put it beautifully when he said, “The Church is free even in the worst persecution. She is free even when many of her children desert her. She is free because God does exist, and the Church depends not on numbers or resources but on her fidelity to God’s word.”
Faith in God cannot be assumed like a costume. Rather, it must be apparent and apprehended in its consummate simplicity. The judgment of man is as irrelevant to it as the buzzing of a fly to the explosion of the sun. It transcends all sects, beliefs, and reason. It is the sole permanent truth. Philosophers and theologians have parsed it into many types, but to me there are only two, the faith of wishing and the faith of knowing. The faith of wishing is braver and more of a test, in that it requires hope, and trust in things that cannot be seen. The faith of knowing is to be virtually assaulted by such things for which some merely hope, some project, and others faithfully deny. The faith of knowing is to try to stay on one’s feet in mortal balance while standing as if in a torrent, a whirlwind, a hurricane of perfect light.
During the Passover service there is a song, “Dai-ainu,” meaning, “it was enough for us,” or sufficient. Its meaning and intent are to thank God for all gifts, eliminating them with each verse until none is left but life itself, only the existence of God, which is enough. If one thinks that way, one can pass any test.
When I was young, I could not for the life of me understand the notion of turning the other cheek. As a demonstration of and commitment to moral superiority, yes. But that was it. With the Holocaust as the single most impressive fact of my existence, I was impassioned by the justice and necessity of self-defense. And I still am.
But then, at around forty years of age, I was on a book tour, which is a very stressful thing for a private person. A man roughly the age my father would have been had he lived to that point approached me as I signed books. He slowly shook his head left and right, and said, “How can a young man like you, who writes such wonderful books, possibly be a Republican?”
Granted, it is an unusual combination, but not because it doesn’t make sense. As I am used to debate, there were many things I could have said. I could have been indignant and angry. I could have crushed him in rebuttal and counterattack. But I remembered my father, and, seeing a resemblance, I merely smiled and let him feel that he had gotten the best of me. Then an amazing thing happened, that in all my life I hadn’t understood. A feeling of holiness and humility possessed me. It wasn’t pride or self-satisfaction—I know those sins only too well. It came entirely from without, and was very much like when I was almost dying (or dying and didn’t die). It was not only a protective aura, but what Judaism refers to as kodesh, or holiness, which can only be fully understood once it is experienced. In the code of the samurai it is called shin’bu, “suffering without protest,” accepting mistreatment and injustice when one must, without complaint. It gives rise to holiness just as in turning the other cheek. That quality is a gift given when we surrender our powers of action in recognition of and trust in God.
I am sure that in the Holocaust that is capitalized and in the many that are not, and when even one life is unjustly taken, there were and are those who at the end, in meeting the test of faith, suffer no anguish, not merely in giving themselves over to trust but in giving themselves wholly to love.
Too many times have I imagined what it would be like to be herded into a gas chamber with my family, or to witness, before my own death, the torture and death of my wife and children—the reason for such terrible exercises being only a familiarity with recent history and a recognition of persistent evil. I’m fairly well practiced in this because throughout my life my job, literally, has been to live through my characters, to feel what they feel, to be them as much as possible.
And in the most dire and dreadful situations, as above, when all else fails, when nothing is left and you are powerless and done, the one shield and maker of justice beyond the realm of temporal powers and mortality is love. It is the conqueror of grief, and, somehow, the protector of those whom we care for even in their suffering.
Whence the power of love to conquer even the worst terrors? In its purest form, it is the love of God. But just as Dante could not look directly at God, imperfect mortals are hard pressed to love him directly, for which, presumably, having created the possibility of many forms of intermediation, he forgives us. So one loves those made “in his image,” image not to be taken literally but more deeply. Thus, Dante says, “Beatrice in suso, ed Io in lei guardava.” “Beatrice gazed upward, and I gazed at her.” As Beatrice looks upward, the light of God makes her face apprehensible, and in reflecting off her into Dante’s eyes allows him to love God by loving her.
Love will carry you, if you know it, if you let it, through all tests, through suffering and death. In suffering, it is as if an angel folds his wings to protect you. I know this not because I am a philosopher—you can plainly see that I am not—but only because I have been there. And I report back with no expectation except mockery from those who haven’t, which is perfectly all right if one has learned in life to trust one’s own eyes and listen to one’s own heart.
Mark Helprin, author of Winter’s Tale and A Soldier of the Great War, is a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute.