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Blindness

[This essay begins with a news story that later proved inaccurate. I don’t think the precise details of the case detract from my basic point, but at the end I detail what is presently known about this particular case.]

A suspected Chinese organ trafficker gouged out the eyes of a 6-year-old boy to steal the corneas for the black market. The boy was playing outside his home in Shanxi province last week when a women kidnapped and drugged him. His parents found him hours later with bloody eye sockets, and the eyeballs were found nearby missing the corneas. The Week, September 6th, 2013

i am not, normally, the sort of person who is given to sudden bursts of emotion. But when I read the above news story, I immediately burst into tears. It may have just now produced the same reaction in you.

By rights, this blog post should end right here. What response can there be but silence and anguish?

But silence must give way to reflection at some point, and when it did for me, that reflection came in the form of three thought-images that now circulate along with the horrific image of that child.

The first was the character of Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov. In the middle of that novel, there is a moment in which Ivan and his brother Alyosha are discussing a series of atrocities that Ivan has been clipping out of newspapers for many years—a congeries of cruelty and heartlessness that is, if such comparisons are even possible, more gruesome even than the incident cited above. The discussion, at first, seems entirely disconnected from the “whodunit” plot that Dostoevsky artfully transforms into a profound existential meditation, but its probing questions come to suffuse the entire novel. What sort of world—and what sort of God—would allow such things? Of this, Ivan darkly says:

Listen: If everyone must suffer in order to buy eternal harmony with their suffering, pray tell me what have children got to do with it? […] Is there in the whole world a being who could and would have the right to forgive? I don’t want harmony, for love of mankind I don’t want it. I want to remain with unrequited suffering. I’d rather remain with my unrequited suffering and my unquenched indignation, even if I am wrong. Besides, they have put too high a price on harmony; we can’t afford to pay so much for admission. And therefore I hasten to return my ticket. And it is my duty, if only as an honest man, to return it as far ahead of time as possible. Which is what I am doing. It’s not that I don’t accept God, Alyosha, I just most respectfully return him the ticket.

The next thought (some time afterward) was my inchoate remembrance of a set of beliefs common to many cultures throughout Africa, but which take powerful form among the people who inhabit the Southeast African region that stretches from Kenya to Mozambique. Among the many beliefs of this ancient culture—which are certainly too rich to detail here—is the idea that a person only fully dies when there is no one left to remember them. For this reason, a certain member of the community might be designated to hold on to this remembrance—a keeper of names and of lives.

The final thought was of a book by the great Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart, who, amid the many awkward attempts at theodicy offered by various clerics in the days following the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami in 2004, offered the following reflection:

When confronted by the sheer savage immensity of worldly suffering—when we see the entire littoral rim of the Indian Ocean strewn with tens of thousands of corpses, a third of them children’s—no Christian is licensed to utter odious banalities about God’s inscrutable counsels or blasphemous suggestions that all this mysteriously serves God’s good ends. We are permitted only to hate death and waste and the imbecile forces of chance that shatter living souls, to believe that creation is in agony in its bonds, to see this world as divided between two kingdoms—knowing all the while that it is only charity that can sustain us against “fate,” and that it must do so until the end of days.

It is certainly legitimate to ask what difference it makes if an English professor—literally half a world away—finds himself musing upon Russian literature, African culture, and Orthodox theology when that boy has lost his sight, not from disease or injury, but by (as the poet Robert Burns once put it) “man’s inhumanity to man.”

But one might also ask where such matters are deeply considered and unfolded. As a legal matter, the case is mostly straightforward. Though “the earth cries out for justice,” the perpetrator, if caught, will presumably be treated according to the rule of law. But nowhere in the law—in any law—is the nature of human suffering addressed. Economics, too, seems powerless to shed any light at all on the matter. That a black market has formed (apparently due to the rarity of voluntary organ donation in Chinese society) is a description; it neither explains nor solves anything at all. Science, to complete the triumvirate of what are deemed sensible and useful activities, can transplant a cornea into a person’s eye. While we cannot blame science for what has happened, neither can science offer any consolation in the face of irreducible human grief.

As it happens, my thoughts have their origin in personal experiences. That I know anything at all about Russian literature is mainly due to the efforts of a high school teacher who introduced me (and who knows how many hundreds of others) to writers who are now constant companions. My highly schematic (and no doubt defective) knowledge of African religion comes from a discussion I had very early on in graduate school with a friend who would go on to become a cultural anthropologist and an expert on Swahili culture. David Bentley Hart, author of one of the most beautiful non-fiction books I’ve ever read [1], is someone I met while in grad school—a friend of a close friend (also, later on, an important theologian) whom I met while studying English across the way from one of the finest Religious Studies programs in the country.

But the common thread here isn’t the group of people I’ve been fortunate to meet over the course of my life. The common thread is the fact that I encountered these people and their ideas within the larger context of the humanities.

It is now common to read defenses of the humanities prompted by declining funding and withering enrollments. Most try to stress the thrill of learning or the excitement of discovery. Pleas are made for why the humanities “matter”—why the study of human culture is important—that range from the utilitarian (hire an English major!) to the self-referential (knowledge for knowledge’s sake . . .). I find myself in sympathy with such arguments (how could I not be?), but I can feel the deadness of their weight in a culture that is questioning the value of the humanities on more basic terms. The humanities are “fun?” The humanities provide “critical thinking skills?” Who needs it?

That little boy needs it, I think—which is to say that we need some place in human culture where we can remember his suffering. His status as a news item will soon fade away; the trafficking in human organs will occupy the public’s attention only until the next disaster. And while we can say absolutely nothing in the face of his parents’ unimaginable anguish, we can challenge ourselves and our students to ask a series of momentous questions: How can we confront “the problem of evil?” How do we grieve (a surprisingly vexed question in a world where grief is often pathologized as a kind of illness requiring “grief counselors”)? Who (or what) is ultimately culpable in such cases? What sort of world do we live in? What, moreover, is “evil,” “grief,” “culpability,” “the human condition?” Who, in the past and in other cultures, have addressed such questions? And finally, how do we go about creating structures and institutions that might relieve—or even prevent—the suffering of children, the poor, the oppressed, and the anguished? Or, to bring that question down to earth where it belongs: How do we become individuals who move through the world with awareness, empathy, and thoughtfulness, and who know how to act upon those dispositions?

The humanities departments of universties are one of the few places where such matters are discussed. In most other environments, people are allowed either to say “How awful!” or to repeat more thoughtful and profound, but still “undebated” statements before returning to business as usual. This is forbidden in an English, History, or Philosophy classroom. The potential effect of such interrogations on students is often profound, and those students—bearing that most effective of class markers, a college degree—will, in various ways, run the world. Yet even without the reasons of pedagogy, research in the humanities is easily justified by the imperative of remembrance. Without remembrance, things—experiences, lives, lessons—truly die.

This is also why we need to recognize as a national emergency the widening gulf between those who have access to university education and those who do not. People need jobs, skills, and other practical things; it is elitist nonsense to suggest otherwise. But equally important is making sure that the people who hold those jobs and possess those skills have intellectual frameworks in which to process both their own lives and the lives of others. Offering those frameworks to as wide and diverse a group as possible is a moral imperative in a world where eyes are stolen from children.

I didn’t need a college degree—let alone a doctorate—to bring forth tears in the face of such terrible realities. But without the humanities, I’m not sure I would have the reference points with which to transform that grief into action. I feel called to compassion by that boy’s plight, but not just any kind of compassion. I feel the kind of compassion that calls me to social justice, the pursuit of peace, and a sense of solidarity with others past and present. It is possible that we will never convict the woman who stole that child’s eyes, but the act itself already convicts us—convicts me—for our possible lack of concern with such matters.

My own convictions, of course, had many sources—religious, familial, cultural—but in only one place were those convictions actively challenged and discussed. You can say all you like about the basic impotence of young people walking around musing about Dostoevsky (and of the institutions that bequeath that idle privilege upon them). My thoughts, certainly, do nothing to assuage another’s grief. But for all that, I think there is an actual answer to the question, “What are you going to do with that?” The answer is that if we approach the matter with care and responsibility, the people who are given such gifts will transform both themselves and the world.


[After I wrote this piece, it came to light that certain details appear not to have been accurate: in particular, the connection to organ trafficking (though it has been suggested that the original story reported on Chinese state television had been altered to avoid embarrassment). The story, as far as we can tell, is that an aunt, with a history of severe mental illness, committed the act and then committed suicide by throwing herself down a well. Despite this confusion, two facts are not in question: that this boy, who is six years old and whose name is Guo Bin, had his eyes gouged out by another human being, and that illegal trafficking in organs “donated” (or used as “collateral”) by those who are desperately poor has been verified by (among other groups) the World Health Organization. While the scale of this activity—illegal in every country throughout the world—is unknown, and myths abound concerning organ donation, one can only greet both aspects of this story with grief, sadness, and (one hopes) reflection, even if the facts themselves are separate in this case. One might add to these horrors the series of unspeakably heartrending incidents of violence and mass killings in recent years that result, at least in part, from lack of health care for those with devastating mental illness.]

[1] I’ve taken the extract above from a widely-circulated piece called “Tremors of Doubt” that David wrote for the Wall Street Journal. The gorgeous, moving prose I refer to is the book that evolved from those early meditations: The Doors of the Sea: Where was God in the Tsunami? If you use the “Look Inside” feature of Amazon, you’ll see what I mean in the first few pages.

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