The Thin Red Line: Grace in the midst of war?, Part 3 of 12

(Continued from Part 2)

3. Witt amongst the Melanesians

We first meet Pvt. Witt dressed in remnants of what had been military fatigues and living in the midst of Melanesian islanders. Melanesian life as presented is idyllic; it is as if the Melanesians were freed from the toils which constitute the goings-on in most lives. Consequently, the most pervasive feature of this life seems to be something akin to the calm other-worldliness which Witt had seen in his mother’s face. It is as if Melanesian life is not just an extension of transcendent calm but a grand enduring manifestation of transcendent reality. Here there is peace – a veritable heaven – on earth. Here life becomes something other than – something more and better than – an incessant chasing after the necessities required just so that life can go on. Freed from all urgency, it is as if life becomes an immersion in the most unadulterated form of being.

This, of course, is a highly romanticized vision of Melanesian life. It is Witt’s perception; it happens to be a mis-perception. For whatever reason, Witt is blind to the presence of anything similar to the relentless this-worldliness which can be presumed to have characterized his life before he came to this island. He is so blind to this-worldliness in Melanesian life that he thinks the Melanesian children never even fight, but a Melanesian mother assures him that they do fight. She also admits to Witt that, despite the fact that he has lived amicably with them, she and her people fear him; despite the fact that Witt has lived amicably with the Melanesians, they do not regard him as one of them.

As it turns out, Witt is AWOL from his army unit, and, given the great significance he had found in the transcendent calm which he had glimpsed in his mother’s last breath, there is reason to suspect that Witt had come to feel (if not quite think) that the thorough this-worldliness of the military had to be escaped in order for the transcendent way of being to come more into his life.

Relative to the military life defined by its sort of this-worldly persistent and demanding tumult, the Melanesian way of life would certainly appear to be other-worldly, but what Witt comes to sense is that the Melanesian other-worldliness is just a different this-worldliness rather than a transcendent other-worldliness. He senses this when, after having immersed himself in its different this-worldliness, he reaches out to the Melanesian mother whose response, as Witt then finds out, cannot help but be shaped by a fearfulness, the presence of which preserves the very sort of remoteness, the very sort of insularity of person that Witt does not expect to be part of the transcendent which he had glimpsed.

What Witt begins to better realize is that the transcendent is not the calm he had realized in his mother’s face; the transcendent is not the calm felt as the lack of urgency which he identified with life on that island. Calm can come of being solitary, but the transcendent which he had glimpsed was something other than – and something ultimately incompatible with – any kind of calm that might come from being utterly alone. In pursuit of the calm he now recalled in his mother’s last breath, Witt had not been seeking the calm of aloneness. He had begun trying to immerse himself into being with the Melanesians because of – as now becomes more apparent to Witt – the unexpressed (even to himself) expectation that the transcendent had something to do with others. In effect, the transcendent was very much the opposite of an aloneness and the stillness which could come of the most extreme aloneness.

Witt had perceived the transcendent in the calm of his mother’s last breath; he thought he had also been perceiving it in the calmness he saw in island life, but what the experience of perceiving the transcendent in the calm of his mother’s last breath had ended up doing was spark in him a rapt realization of the transcendent as the incessant, inescapable, and real “responsibility” which Emmanuel Levinas says we encounter in “the face of the other”.4 It was the face of the other of which Witt became more acutely aware during his time with the Melanesians, and, as the Levinasian responsibility (the response-to-the-other) began to burn in him, it was no longer the calm but something about the very being of others which drew him beyond himself.

The fear to which the Melanesian woman admitted in no way mitigates the responsibility, the responsible, responsive concern which Witt has for the fearful others, and what Witt comes to realize is that the exigencies of military life likewise in no way mitigate this responsibility – this sort of transcendent relationship – about which he now has some awareness. What he also quickly realizes about the transcendent as relationship is that, although fear felt by the other does not alleviate Witt’s responsibility to the other, that fear most certainly does affect how and what that responsibility might make manifest. After all, it was a fear of his own which prevented him from recognizing the presence of the transcendent at the time of his mother’s death. The fullest fruition of Witt’s response to his responsibility towards and for an other person ultimately depends upon the other’s reaction to anything Witt does, including anything he says. But, when fear is present, a person reacts to fear; therefore, so long as Witt is feared by the islanders, what responses they have to him will be reactions to the fear they have of him rather than to Witt himself.

What Witt has come to recognize is that a consequence of fear is that, in addition to blinding, it insulates individuals, and, in insulating individuals, fear is always an impediment to ever fuller manifestation of the transcendent. Having come to this realization, when Witt is returned to his army company, he is determined to fearlessly manifest his responsibility in service to, as he says, “my people”, the men of Charlie Company who – in contradistinction to the Melanesians – already do not fear him.

Continued in Part 4

4 Emmanuel Levinas, God, Death, and Time, Werner Hamacher and David E. Wellbery, eds. (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2000). “I am … a subjectivity … unique, without the possibility of having someone replace me, or in an impossibility of hiding before responsibility which is more grave than the impossibility of escaping from death.” (p. 140) “In the one-for-the-other that is signification and responsibility, there is a certain subjectivity. It is that of a subject unique in its identity, indiscernible from without, and who is not defined by properties or by reference to predicates, but who … is responsible and cannot be replaced. It is to this subject that the neighbor is entrusted, and [the subject’s] identity is formed by way of the impossibility of fleeing in the wake of this responsibility. … This signifies neither intentionality nor a property of the ‘me’ [moi] … It is, on the contrary, as responsibility and in responsibility that the ‘me’ gains its uniqueness.” (pp. 157-158)

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2 Responses to The Thin Red Line: Grace in the midst of war?, Part 3 of 12

  1. Pingback: The Thin Red Line: Grace in the midst of war?, Part 2 of 12 | The Kindly Ones

  2. Pingback: The Thin Red Line: Grace in the midst of war?, Part 4 of 12 | The Kindly Ones

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