May The Force Be With You — Not

Richard Holloway gave this talk at the 2005 UK National Conference, "Beyond Good and Evil: the challenge of reconciliation."

With regard to human affairs, not to laugh, not to cry, not to become indignant, but to understand — Spinoza

When I was about nine or ten I had a part-time job as message boy for the local Co-Op grocer’s shop at the top of our street. It was a big store with a work-force of eight, both women and men, though I can’t remember the exact proportion of each. One morning when the shop was quiet an incident occurred which has stayed in my memory. There was a big store room at the back of the shop, with a long table in the middle, used for measuring and bagging, slicing and sorting. On the morning in question there was a conspiratorial buzz among the male members of the staff, who were all drifting towards the store room. I joined them, wondering what was up. It was obvious that, whatever was afoot, the ring leader was the oldest man in the staff, a self-important person who seemed to think himself a cut above the rest of us. When we had all gathered he hushed us to silence, and a few seconds later one of the women workers came into the room, presumably to pick up something for a customer. As soon as she entered, the door was closed, then locked, and the men surrounded her.

The atmosphere, as I remember it, was jokey rather than menacing, and the woman giggled nervously as though she knew what was coming. Mr Self-important gave the signal and the men grabbed the woman and lifted her onto her back on the table. Though she struggled a bit, it still seemed to be more of a lark than a lynching, and she didn’t call out for help. I didn’t exactly know what was going on, but I played a significant part in what happened, because, though she was being held down on her back on the table, her legs were still hanging over the side. Entering the fun, I took hold of her ankles and lifted her legs onto the table, provoking the congratulations of Mr Self-important for my assistance. He then shoved his hand under her skirt and groped her. And it was all over. They let her up, she collected whatever it was she had come for, and the men all went back to work. Nothing was ever said about the incident, and no reference was ever made to it. Feeling unclean and complicit, I stopped working there soon afterwards. Sometimes I would bump into Mr Self-important in the town, out with his family, and I used to wonder what went on in his mind about the incident. I also wondered what got into me, why I did what I did, where it came from, what it was that took over in the store room in that long-gone grocer’s shop in Mitchell Street, Alexandria.

Those were the kind of questions that Blake Morrison also asked himself in his book As If, which explored the murder of little Jamie Bulger and its aftermath. Appalled by the witch hunt of Jamie’s killers, themselves children, he tried to imagine himself into their shoes. And he remembered a teenage party he attended where most of the middle-class boys present queued up to shag – the appropriate word here – an unprotesting girl who was so drunk she could hardly stand up. Where did that come from? What got into them?

Let me offer a third example, this one non-sexual, from Conrad’s novel, Lord Jim. Jim is First Mate on the Patna, a battered old steamer, en route to Mecca with a human cargo of 800 pilgrims. It hits a submerged obstacle and seems about to sink. Leaving the pilgrims to their fate, the ship’s German captain and European officers take to a lifeboat. At first Jim does nothing, viewing the event almost as a spectator; finally he also jumps, and finds himself in the lifeboat. As it turns out the Patna is unharmed, and its Muslim passengers are safely towed towards harbour, but Jim’s life is changed for ever. He tells the inquiry that follows the incident: ‘“I had jumped.” He checked himself, averted his gaze, “...It seems,” he added.’ He is forever haunted by a question he cannot answer: Did he jump? Or was he pushed by events?

In each of these examples a force of some sort has taken over a group of men, with irreversible consequences for them all. What is it? What is the nature of the force that impelled those incidents? In attempting to answer that question I shall make use of a remarkable essay by Simone Weil on The Iliad or Poem of Force. In her essay, through the tragic sensibility of Homer, Weil describes humans in the grip of an energy or force that plays with them the way a cat toys with a helpless mouse it has caught, before killing it more from boredom than need. Here’s her definition of force: ‘To define force – it is that X that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing. Exercised to the limit, it turns man into a thing in the most literal sense: it makes a corpse out of him. Somebody was here, and the next minute there is nobody here at all; this is a spectacle the Iliad never wearies of showing us.’[1]

If force is a mysterious X that turns anybody who is subject to it into a thing, then it is obvious that sex is one of its most powerful instruments or modalities. You get a strong sense of the impersonal, implacable force of sexuality in this cry from Andrea Dworkin’s book, Intercourse: "Inside a person, sexual desire – or need or compulsion – is sometimes experienced as a stigma, as if it marks the person, as if it can be seen; a great aura emanating from the inside; an interior play of light and shadow, vitality and death, wanting and being used up; an identifying mark that is indelible; a badge of desire or experience; a sign that differentiates the individual carrying it, both attracting and repelling others, in the end isolating the marked one, who is destroyed by the intensity and ultimate hopelessness of a sexual calling. The person, made for sex or needing it, devoted to it, marked by it, is a person incarnated restless and wild in the world and defined by fucking: fucking as a vocation or a compulsion or as an unfulfilled desire not gratified by anything social or conventional or conforming. The stigma is not imposed from outside. Instead, it is part of the charge of sexuality: an arrogant and aggressive pride (in the sense of hubris) that has downfall built into it: a pride that leads by its nature – by virtue of its isolating extremity – to self punishment and self destruction, to a wearing down of mind and heart, both numb from the indignity of compulsion. In the electricity of stigma there is a mixture of sexual shamelessness, personal guilt, and a defiance that is unprincipled, not socially meaningful in consequence or intention, determined only by need or desire. Isolation and intensity, panic, restlessness, despair, unbreachable loneliness even, propel the person; the price paid for the obsessed passion is an erosion of innocence: innocence being, in the end, only hope...[2]

This is a theatrically sexual version of what Simone Weil said about force in its modality of aggression or violence: and this is the theme of the Iliad, a poem she describes as a miracle. She writes: ‘Its bitterness is the only justifiable bitterness, for it springs from the subjection of the human spirit to force, that is, in the last analysis, to matter. This subjection is the common lot, although each spirit will bear it differently, in proportion to its own virtue. No one in the Iliad is spared by it, as no one on earth is. No one who succumbs to it is by virtue of this fact regarded with contempt. Whoever, within his own soul and in human relations, escapes the dominion of force is loved but loved sorrowfully, because of the threat of destruction that constantly hangs over him.’[3] The thing to note there is the word matter: ‘all this springs from the subjection of the human spirit to force, that is, in the last analysis, to matter.’ If we are to get any leverage on, any understanding of, the human predicament, we must begin by recognising that we are all in the grip of the sheer gravitational power of the mass or matter of the universe, the force that impels itself implacably through time/space, indifferent to everything that is subjected to its remorseless drive. That is why the scientist Peter Atkins writes: ‘We are children of chaos, and the deep structure of change is decay. At root, there is only corruption and the unstemmable tide of chaos. Gone is purpose; all that is left is direction. This is the bleakness we have to accept as we peer deeply and dispassionately into the heart of the universe.’[4] We can see Atkin’s unstemmable tide at work, and might even have been its victim or perpetrator, in the obsessive power of sexual compulsion: but we see it at its bleakest and most terrifying in battle. Here’s Simone Weil again: ‘This property of force achieves its maximum effectiveness during the clash of arms, in battle, when the tide of the day has turned, and everything is rushing toward a decision. It is not the planning man, the man of strategy, the man acting on the resolution taken, who wins or loses a battle; battles are fought and decided by men deprived of these faculties, men who have undergone a transformation, who have dropped either to the level of inert matter, which is pure passivity, or to the level of blind force, which is pure momentum...The art of war is simply the art of producing such transformations, and its equipment, its processes, even the casualties it inflicts on the enemy, are only means directed towards this end...Yet these transformations are always a mystery; the gods are their authors, the gods who kindle men’s imagination. But however caused, this petrifactive quality of force, twofold always, is essential to its nature... Its power of converting a man into a thing is a double one, and in its application double-edged. To the same degree, though in different fashions, those who use it and those who endure it are turned to stone.’[5] In the current diagnostics of force, especially in its abusive sexual forms, we usually focus our attention on the passive victim who is turned by it into a thing; but Simone Weil wants us to recognise that everyone is petrified by force, everyone is turned to stone by it, especially those who become its active agents.

She is almost as pessimistic as Atkins about the ability of humans to achieve even a temporary transcendence from force; but she is not without hope, though it is a hope based on the possibility of a rare and radical self-knowledge. She goes on: ‘He who does not recognise to what extent shifting fortune and necessity hold in subjection every human spirit, cannot regard as fellow-creatures nor love as he loves himself those whom chance separated from him by an abyss. Only he who has measured the dominion of force, and knows how not to respect it, is capable of love and justice.’[6] Later in this lecture, when I turn to Gitta Sereny’s analysis of the character of the men who followed Hitler, I shall return to the kind of sympathy towards our fellow-creatures that can help us, sometimes, withstand the inexorability of force; but I want to turn immediately to another group, always few in number, who, alone among humans, never show any respect to force.

In a letter she wrote to her parents a couple of weeks before her death in 1943, Simone Weil discussed the fools in Shakespeare. She said: ‘When I saw Lear here, I asked myself how it was possible that the unbearably tragic character of these fools had not been obvious long ago to everyone, including myself. The tragedy is not the sentimental one it is sometimes thought to be; it is this. There is a class of people in this world who have fallen into the lowest degree of humiliation, far below beggary, and who are deprived not only of all social consideration but also, in everybody’s opinion, of the specific human dignity, reason itself – and these are the only people who, in fact, are able to tell the truth. All the others lie. In Lear it is striking. Even Kent and Cordelia attenuate, mitigate, soften, and veil the truth; and unless they are forced to choose between telling it and telling a downright lie, they manoeuvre to evade it. What makes the tragedy extreme is the fact that because the fools possess no academic titles or episcopal dignities and because no one is aware that their sayings deserve the slightest attention – everybody being convinced a priori of the contrary, since they are fools – their expression of the truth is not even listened to. Everybody, including Shakespeare’s readers and audiences for four centuries, is unaware that what they say is true. And not satirically or humorously true, but simply the truth. Pure unadulterated truth – luminous, profound, and essential.’[7] She does not explicitly apply this insight – that only fools speaks the truth and everyone else lies – to the problem of force, but when we bring the insight into play in that context it is illuminating. Most people are bent out of shape by force in its various manifestations. Look at photographs in the papers of people meeting the royals; observe junior cabinet ministers in the presence of the Prime Minister; watch the faithful in the presence of the Pope: their skeletons melt, they become smilingly soft and goofy-looking, they lose moral definition. The force of the visiting presence turns them into things. It is very difficult to resist this effect. Even if you are one of those puritans who are self-righteously resistant to being over-awed, the fact that you are having to put energy into being unimpressed shows that you too have been bent out of shape by force. Only the innocent, only the fool, is unaffected and acts with unselfconscious truthfulness in such situations.

Intriguingly, though this is not the term he uses, Nietzsche had the same insight when he discussed what he called the psychology of the redeemer. In The Antichrist he labelled Jesus an idiot: not an insult, but a reference to the novels of Dostoevsky. I have found this extract from the art historian John Richardson’s Sacred Monsters, Sacred Masters helpful in understanding what Nietzsche was getting at. Richardson is talking about Andy Warhol: ‘Andy was born with an innocence and humility that was impregnable – his Slavic spirituality again – and in this respect was a throwback to that Russian phenomenon the yurodivyi: the simpleton whose quasi divine naïveté supposedly protects him against an inimical world. Russian literature’s most renowned example is Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin...For all that holy fools are supposedly inviolable, they often turn out to be physically at risk, magnets for aggression, like the yurodivyi Nick, who is roughed up in Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. True to form, Andy got shot by a demented feminist.’[8] This offers us a clue to Nietzsche’s meaning. I do not think it works if we think of Jesus as a naïve simpleton; but it does work if we remember Weil’s analysis of the honest fool as one who has fallen into the lowest degree of humiliation, far below beggary, deprived not only of all social consideration but also of the specific human dignity of reason itself. In her essay on the Iliad she said, speaking specifically about Jesus, that even the man who does not wear the armour of the lie cannot experience force without being touched by it to the very soul. While grace can prevent this touch from corrupting him, it cannot spare him the wound. There is no escape for any of us from force, but Jesus belonged to that tiny group of humans who refuse ever to be impressed by it. Though she does not spell it out, the implication is that this kind of foolishness or innocence is an original endowment of being, part of the mysterious grace of the genetic lottery, not something humans can acquire by their own effort. However, there is something we can acquire that may help us to modify the effects of force on our own being; and here I want to turn to the writings of Gitta Sereny, before coming back to Simone Weil in conclusion.

Over the years Sereny wrote a number of powerful books on the problem of evil. One was a celebrated study of the child murderer May Bell; and there were two remarkable books on the impact of Hitler on individual members of his circle. The first of the Nazi books was about Franz Stangl, who had been Kommandant of Treblinka, one of the four extermination camps in German-occupied Poland. Stangl was sentenced to life imprisonment for co-responsibility in the murder of 900,000 people in Treblinka. Her other remarkable book was a study of Albert Speer, the architect of Nazi Germany and Hitler’s right-hand man. In the preface to Into that Darkness, the book about Stangl, she wrote: ‘Over the months of the Nuremberg trials...I felt more and more that we needed to find someone capable of explaining to us how presumably normal human beings had been brought to do what he had done...If it could be achieved, an evaluation of such a person’s background, his childhood, and eventually his adult motivation and reactions, as he saw them, rather than as we wished or prejudged them to be, might teach us to understand better to what extent evil in human beings is created by their genes, and to what extent by their society and environment.’[9]

I do not want to spend too much time on the May Bell book, but it illustrates a phenomenon that is still prominent in the English criminal justice system: the processing of child murderers through the adult court system, which is designed to establish the offending deeds of the child in question not the needs that may have prompted the behaviour. Everyone involved in the investigation of the murder of the two children by May Bell behaved with impeccable carefulness and sympathy, but they were constrained by the force of the system they operated to limit themselves to the establishment of fact related to the murders. She writes: ‘Why did they not reject the theories of evil birth and insist on being informed not that but why an eleven year old child, who had grown up in an ordinary English working class street, in a city with all the facilities of a modern society, in a good school with well trained teachers, should have an irresistible compulsion to kill?’[10] Interestingly, exactly the same sequence of events followed the killing of Jamie Bulger: the same theories of evil seed, the same press hysteria, the same failure to recognise that the child killers were themselves needy children. May Bell and the two boys who killed Jamie Bulger now live under new identities, to save them from a tabloid lynching, though they all seem to have grown into responsible adults. Before I move from this sad story to the horrors of Nazi Germany it will be worth mentioning a statistic that ought to suppress the hysteria that usually accompanies these dreadful events. The phenomenon of children under the age of 14 who kill has been remarkably consistent throughout Europe for a long time: it’s about one case every ten years. It is always distressing when it happens, and always prompts a mood of vengeful hysteria, but there is no evidence that it is on the increase.

Yet, even after reading Sereny’s book May Bell remains an enigma. She was a highly intelligent child with a mentally ill and unstable mother. That in itself does not explain much, but it is significant that in her studies of Stangl and Speer she discovers in both cases a similar denial of love in childhood. Unlike Speer, Stangl was an unremarkable man. Diana Athill worked with Sereny on the book about Stangl, and this is what she said about him in her memoirs: ‘I still think – and often – of how that unremarkable man became a monster as the result of a chain of choices between right and wrong – some of the early ones quite trivial – and the way in which no one he respected intervened in favour of the right, while a number of people he respected (senior officers, a priest, a doctor – his idea of respectability was conventional) behaved as though wrong were right. Chief among them, of course, the Führer. Stangl did not have a strong centre – had probably been deprived of it by a dreary childhood – so he became a creature of the regime. Other people without much centre didn’t – or not to the same extent – so some quality inherent in him (perhaps lack of imagination combined with ambition) must have been evident to those who picked him for his appalling jobs. But it was surely environment rather than genes which made him what he became.’[11] Yes, environment certainly, but the more significant factor, I think, lies in that tell-tale phrase ‘lack of imagination.’ Sereny was allowed to visit Stangl in prison for many hours over six weeks, at the end of which his imagination finally kicked in, he touched the core of his guilt and admitted that he ought not still to be alive. When she next came to the prison to see him she was told he was dead - from heart failure not suicide, though the story persists that he killed himself, having finally understood the depth of his guilt.

When we turn to Speer the picture is more complex. Though he was the only senior Nazi at Nuremberg to plead guilty, and went on to write about what it was like inside the horrors of the Third Reich, her portrait of him is devastating. Speer himself killed no one and felt no enmity, hatred or even dislike for the millions in Eastern Europe, Christians and Jews, who were systematically slaughtered. Sereny says he felt nothing, because there was a dimension in him that was missing, a capacity to feel which his childhood had blotted out, allowing him to experience not love, but only romanticised substitutes for it. (Incidentally, she says there was a strong erotic bond between Speer and Hitler – never sexualised, of course, but hypnotically present all the same). Pity, compassion, sympathy, empathy weren’t part of Speer’s emotional vocabulary. He could feel deeply, but only indirectly – through music or landscape or art. She points out that his feelings could also be aroused through what she calls visual hyperbole. He was the begetter of the great Nazi set pieces, such as the Cathedral of Light, with its flags and thousands of men at attention, motionless like pillars, as well as the rows of blond children, eyes shining, arms stiffly raised. This became beauty to him and - another substitute for love - allowed him to feel.

But the conclusion of his story is that he did finally learn to feel with real authenticity, and to enter, for the first time, the experience of others. He acknowledged his part in Hitler’s madness, and with that honesty came a horrifying realization of what had been done. With that came an overwhelming guilt and a wish for death, yet a fear of execution. A significant contribution to the emotional journey of discovery Speer made in prison was supplied by a remarkable Protestant Pastor called Casalis. Out of all this emerged a different Speer. In a final, generous paragraph Sereny summed him up: ‘This, I feel, had become the real Speer. This was a very serious man who knew more about that bane of our century, Hitler, than anyone else. This was an erudite and solitary man who, recognizing his deficiencies in human relations, had read five thousand books in prison to try to understand the universe and human beings, an effort he succeeded in with his mind but failed in with his heart. Empathy is finally a gift, and cannot be learned, so, essentially, returning into the world after twenty years (in prison), he remained alone. Unforgiven by so many for having served Hitler, he elected to spend the rest of his life in confrontation with this past, unforgiving of himself for having so nearly loved a monster.’[12]

Let me pause before those daunting words: ‘Empathy is finally a gift and cannot be learned,’ and compare them to words we heard earlier from Simone Weil: ‘He who does not recognise to what extent shifting fortune and necessity hold in subjection every human spirit, cannot regard as fellow-creatures nor love as he loves himself those whom chance separated from him by an abyss. Only he who has measured the dominion of force, and knows how not to respect it, is capable of love and justice.’ What can save us from despair or political immobilism is the recognition that we can, after all, measure the dominion of force, especially in its impact on our own lives, and learn not to respect it. We can, by an act of constant radical self-interrogation, measure the way in which force has both acted upon us and acted upon others through us. More profoundly, in an act of sympathetic communion, we can recognise that shifting fortune and necessity hold us all in subjection, and with that understanding can come a passionate identification with others and a refusal, ever, to turn them, either by word or deed, into things. This sympathy, this ability to feel ourselves into the lives of others, is the root of a passionate morality that would rather die than become the instrument of force. And part of that revolt against force is a refusal to hate the enemy, because hatred is yet another manifestation of the petrifactive power of force. I say this, because it is increasingly obvious that much of what humans do in responding to the evil that spreads in the world is itself just another modality of the force that lies behind it. This is particularly the case in our obsession with punishment, both at the criminal justice level and at the level of international power politics.

Nietzsche recognised this syndrome more profoundly than most. He strongly affirmed Goethe’s warning to beware of all those in whom the urge to punish is strong. And in The Genealogy of Morals he said something even more profound: ‘It was in the sphere of legal obligations that the moral conceptual world of “guilt,” “conscience,” “duty,” “sacredness of duty” had its origin: its beginnings were, like the beginnings of everything great on earth, soaked in blood thoroughly and for a long time. And might one not add that, fundamentally, this world has never since lost a certain odour of blood and torture? It was here, too, that that uncanny intertwining of the ideas “guilt and suffering” was first effected—and by now they may well be inseparable. To ask it again: to what extent can suffering balance debts or guilt? To the extent that to make suffer was in the highest degree pleasurable, to the extent that the injured party ex­changed for the loss he had sustained, including the displeasure caused by the loss, an extraordinary counterbalancing pleasure: that of making suffer—a genuine festival...To see others suffer does one good, to make others suffer even more: this is a hard saying but an ancient mighty, human, all-too-human principle...Without cruelty there is no festival: thus the longest and most ancient part of human history teaches – and in punishment there is so much that is festive.[13] And it is force that presides at the feast, turning us all into stone.

But there is something we can do; something that has always being done by the few; something that is now being considered by more of us, as we look on helplessly at the unstemmable tide of chaos. Though it may kill us, we can resist force. If we withstand the momentum of force that drives us to vengeance, punishment, redress, suffering; and move, instead, to an ethic of transformation, astonishing things can happen to both the victims and offenders force has turned to stone. In spite of the cruel chorus that derides the movement towards restorative and transformative justice, we have to show them that it is a costly not a cheap alternative to the vicious circularity of punishment. It calls for a radical understanding of the force that impels us against each other, and the way we make ourselves complicit in its devastating momentum. When practised with sufficient commitment, the ethic of transformative justice can melt the petrifactive impact of force into a communion that opens us to the humanity of the other: no longer a thing; now a creature suffering the same blows of fate as the rest of us. We can refuse to let force divide us against each other. Above all, we can refuse to hate. And we don’t even need an organisation to do it through. All we need to do is make a start. Here, in conclusion, is something else from Goethe:

Until there is commitment, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative, there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues forth from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance which no man could have dreamed would come his way. Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now!


[1] Simone Weil, The Iliad or The Poem of Force from Simone Weil: An Anthology. Grove Press. NY. 1986. p.163.

[2] Andrea Dworkin, Intercourse, Arrow, London, 1987, p.42.

[3] Simone Weil, op.cit., p.191.

[4] Peter Atkins, The Second Law, 1986.

[5] Simone Weil, pp 184, 185.

[6] Simone Weil, p. 192.

[7] Simone Weil, op.cit. pp.1-2.

[8] John Richardson, Sacred Masters, Sacred Monsters. Chapter on Andy Warhol.

[9] Quoted in Diana Athill, Stet, Granta, London, 2001, pp. 70-71.

[10] Gitta Sereny, May Bell.

[11] Athill p.75

[12] Gitta Sereny, Albert Speer, MacMillan 1995, p.719.

[13] Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals. II.6.

Click printer button for printer-friendly version of this article
Registered charity number 1113177
© All Sea of Faith material is licenced under a Creative Commons Licence