Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Hubris of Humankind 8

Chapter three of Straw Dogs is called The Vices of Morality and it is subdivided into fourteen sections.

Section 1: Porcelain and the price of Life:

Gray begins this chapter with a brief account of Bruce Chatwin’s novel Utz. It’s hero or anti-hero Kaspar Utz is a compulsive porcelain collector and silent rebel. Permitted to leave Czechoslovakia each year, he always returns since he cannot take his collection with him. For Kaspar Utz is as much a prisoner of the porcelain as he is of the Communist state.  Gray believes that what marks Utz out from the common run of humankind is his amorality.  Once again he cuts to the point as regards morality by stating:

if… you are honest with yourself, you will find that morality plays a far smaller part in your life than you have been taught that it should.  (Ibid., 88)

Moral philosophy has always been an exercise in make-believe, less realistic in its picture of human life than the average bourgeois novel. (Ibid., 89)

Then he quotes the interesting and harrowing story of the concentration camp inmate, Roman Frister, who allowed another inmate to be executed in his stead. Frister had been raped by a camp guard who took his cap knowing that his victim would be shot the following morning for being without one.  In that way his crime would go undiscovered. He stole another inmate’s cap and thereby avoided execution, while the poor other fellow was shot instead. Gray’s commentary on this sad but all too realistic tale is:

Morality is supposed to be universal and categorical.  But the lesson of Roman Frister’s story is that it is a convenience, to be relied upon only in normal times.  (Ibid., 90)

Section 2: Morality as Superstition:

Morality, Gray informs us, is firmly rooted in the superstition endemic in religion and Western morality can be traced back to the Ten Commandments.  The idea that these laws apply to everyone is a superstition.


Section 3: The Unsanctity of Human Life:

Again a rather gripping title. Gray under this head discusses the matter of slaughter,murder and genocide from our cave ancestors down to today.  On page 91 he cites the total genocide of the indigenous Tasmanians – all brought about, needless to say, by God-fearing Christians.  On the Shoah, Gray observes:

It was not the numbers killed in the Holocaust that make it a crime without parallel.  It was its goal of eradicating an entire culture.  Hitler planned a Museum of Jewish Culture, to be sited in Prague – a Museum of an Extinct People.  (Ibid., 93)

Then, should we need reminding, Gray informs us that between the years 1917 and 1959 over 60 million people were killed in the Soviet Union.  These murders were not concealed: they were public policy.  In Russia, the pursuit of progress had ended in mass murder.  Progress and mass murder run in tandem.


Section 4: Conscience:

Under this heading Gray recounts several examples of racist executions in Georgia, U.S.A. in 1899.  Parents, he tells, sent notes to teachers to excuse their children so they could be present at the executions.  Postcards were sent and even photographs taken to record the entertainment.

The flora of The Burren, Co Clare yet again, June 2008.

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