Courage and the terror of death

Courage and the terror of death

Fatos Lubonja

IN 1979 I WAS RECONVICTED, ALONG WITH TEN OTHER PRISONERS, for membership in a counterrevolutionary organization. Sixteen years were added to my sentence. After an odyssey through punishment cells, I was transferred from the prison camp of Spac to the prison camp of Ballsh. There I was allocated to hut number nine, otherwise known as the geriatric ward, because it contained a large number of elderly men. My neighbor in the next bed to the right happened to be an old man, plump but sturdily built, who introduced himself as Frano Ilia. We exchanged the usual information traded by prisoners meeting for the first time: the length of our sentences and how many years we had served. Frano told me that he had been given 25 years and that he had about 15 left. When I asked him why he had been sentenced, he told me that he was a Catholic priest, that he had been convicted as an agent of the Vatican, and that he had been given a death sentence, later commuted to the 25 years.

After a while, we became friends, to the point that one day, out of curiosity, I asked him about the story of his conviction. He told me that the charge of espionage had been entirely fabricated, but he had nevertheless admitted to it to save his skin. I was then bold enough to put a question that was continually on my mind, but which I would never have put to anybody but a priest:

“Frano,” I said, “I am an atheist and to tell the truth I do not think I would withstand the terror of death, because I see death as the final extinction of my being.”

He stared at me, not understanding what I was driving at. I went on:

“I think that, faced with your choice of admitting to a false charge or being shot, I would not have been able to hold out and I would have given in. But you are a believer. You believe in the next world, and even in going to heaven. Why did you admit to a trumped-up charge? For you, wouldn’t being shot be a short cut to heaven?”

I do not know whether other people had asked him this or whether he had asked himself, but he seemed to have the answer ready:

“Even Christ,” he said, “went to the Garden of Olives before they crucified him, and asked his Father to spare him the suffering of the cross.”

I looked him in the eye and sensed that he did not want me to ask any more questions. (1)

I asked Frano this question because I had just been convicted on bogus charges at a trial that ended with two defendants being shot, and the remainder being sentenced to more than 15 years each. I had seen 10 men there, who had faced with varying degrees of fear and courage the horror of a court in closed session, within the prison, under a threat that had hung over them during months of investigation: either confess to the charge, or die. Some had resisted, and some had been broken, some more and some less than others, some early, and some late. Comparing these different human reactions to fear, I thought of the different resistances of various metals to fire. Some metals melt at low temperatures, and can then be poured and given the desired shape–in our own case, the shape desired by the investigators staging the trial. There are other metals with a higher melting point. But they all have this melting point. Fear, like a terrible fire that arises from the depths of the stomach and the heart, shakes and overwhelms their entire being, which melts at a different temperature, according to its capacity. I sensed that I too had my melting point, and the fear of death had brought me close to it. Then they would cast me in the shape they wanted. I would admit to all the charges laid against me, and perhaps I would leave my friends in a lurch, or accuse them. It seemed to me that only chance had saved me from melting during the investigation–that and the belief that I would not be sentenced to death.

There was one unknown that I had never experienced, although I had come close, and would never wish to come closer. At the end of the trial, I saw my two friends when they faced this unknown, when they were given death sentences, and when we, who were to remain alive, were the first to be taken out of the courtroom. One of the two, Vangjel, stood frozen and shrunken, his face darkened with terror. He fixed his wide-open eyes on me with extraordinary force and concentration. I saw terror and the fear of death in them. I also saw his last wish that we should not forget him, but more than that, it seemed to me that he wanted to pour his life spirit through his eyes into mine, so that his eyes would continue to see through my own. But the face of the second man, Fadil, was much more open, free of tension or any dread of death. He looked Vangjel in the eyes and smiled. It seemed to me that he was looking at him with tenderness and love, as if for a little brother, as if responsible for helping him to finish the road they had started together, and whose most difficult stretch they now faced. This smile and this clarity have remained a riddle to me. So has the contrast between the two when facing death.

Yet neither were believers. Neither of them spoke of God or turned to Him. Neither believed in the soul leaving the body. It was clear that both of them saw death as the end of everything, of body and soul. One of our fellow prisoners had expressed the horror of this double ending during the trial; when threatened with being shot, he replied, “I don’t want to fill my eyes with earth.” Filling your eyes with earth would mean the end of the organs of sight, which more than any other connect you to life. Your eyes would no longer see anything in this world or the next. So I asked Frano. He gave me an answer that pleased me very much, but that left me where I was because I saw that, ultimately, the fear of death had crushed him too. It was the human cry of Christ, as he prayed to his father to “let this cup pass from me,” when “sweat fell to the ground like drops of blood” (Luke). But I was looking for an answer that meant deliverance: Can we human beings achieve the level of courage that banishes the fear of death, and if so, what does it mean?

FEAR AND “US”

When I was arrested for the first time, I was 23 years old. It was not that I did not know what courage and fear were before my arrest; I had seen films and read books with heroes and villains. I also knew that I was in danger of being arrested and that I must not speak because otherwise I would harm a lot of people. When they knocked at my door at five in the morning, I woke up and discovered that I was calm. During the journey, my escorts said they did not know why I was wanted at the Tirana police headquarters.

I entered a room where two investigators were waiting for me, and sensed their coldness. I noticed that they did not offer to shake hands when they told me to sit on a chair opposite them.

“We have brought you here,” they said, “to ask you about your political beliefs.”

“That is a bombshell of a question,” I said.

“It may be a bombshell,” said one of them, who I later learned was the deputy director of state security.

“Like the rest of us,” I said, scared that they might separate me from the flock.

I did not know that they had found my writings, which I had hidden in the attic of my uncle’s house. He had been arrested a few days previously. I tried to take cover in that “us.” But they were there to tell me that I was no longer one of “us,” that I no longer had any right to identify myself as one of them, nor with the communist party, nor with the youth who were following the road dictated by the party’s directions. I was another sort, otherwise known as an enemy of the people. And the place of an enemy was not among “us,” that is the whole of society, but in a separate place: prison.

I then discovered how frightening it is to be divided from “us,” and to become an individual rejected by the group. “The wolf eats the sheep that strays from the flock” was something I had learned as a little boy. During the years, the wolf had grown just as I had, without appearing directly in front of me. Now I was face to face with the wolf on a path where nobody would come to help me. I was very scared.

It was a long journey for this frightened individual to become a person who chooses not to give in to the wolf. The wolf accompanied me on this journey, on a path parallel to mine, and was always ready to attack me. Often I saw his eyes were very close. They were the eyes of death.

I do not know whether I am better prepared now than I was to withstand a confrontation with the wolf, but I have learned something. I have learned that the wolf, when he attacks us, tries to grab our weakest points and our strongest points simultaneously. He latches on to what we share in common as animals, the life instinct, and love for life. However, to defy the wolf and be prepared to take him on, the animal bravery that is within us is not enough; it also requires human courage.

FEAR OF DEATH AND THE LIFE INSTINCT

I learned my most unforgettable lessons on how to defy the wolf during the investigation and trial that ended in death sentences for my two friends, and a second sentence of 16 more years in prison for me, five years after the day when I first met the two investigators in the Tirana police station. I learned how strong the life instinct is when I received the indictment and returned to my cell to read it, finding that I too was among the main candidates for the death sentence.

If someone from outside had been given the chance to come up to the spy hole and peer inside at a creature such as myself, alone in the semidarkness, with three white walls around me, four blankets in a corner of the cell, a small grille that was so high that you could not climb up to see what was happening outside, and a door that opened only three times a day for a trip to the lavatory and to empty the urine bottle, the first thing he would say was that this was such an unsupportable plight that it would be better to kill yourself. I had said this myself.

But now I felt something different. My longing to remain alive was so great and so powerful that this place seemed to me a very fine one, very human, almost dear to me. If only I were to remain alive, I would gladly spend my life here. It was enough if my eyes stayed open, even if they saw only those mute walls and that lusterless light; it was enough if my hands had something to touch, if it was only those filthy planks; it was enough if I felt the pleasure of containing the warmth of my body in those threadbare army blankets, and for my ears to hear noises and the voices of guards. I would accept that kind of life even without the hope of ever being released, and even of one day seeing again my wife and children. If only I did not die. It was the instinct for life that ruled my mind (Lubonja, 1999).

I spent a sleepless night struggling to find the psychological means to accept the possibility of death. It was the primitive brain, that of the inner animal, that made me, goaded as I was by terror of the wolf, to strive to resist the neocortex, which told me that death was a very close prospect, and would have to be met with dignity. These two brains fought a fierce battle inside the same skull until the only compromise they could find was to construct, somewhere in a dark zone between themselves, the hope that I would not be sentenced to death. At that time, it was the only mechanism that worked to preserve the mind from destruction in the clash between the two of them.

For a moment, I realized quite clearly that the isolation, physical suffering, hunger, and blows that the investigators had used to bring me to confess were nothing compared to the terror caused by the fear of death and that there was no greater courage than quelling that fear. The idea of admitting to the charges, which had disgusted me throughout the proceedings, seemed much closer to me because this was how I could sustain the hope of remaining alive (although the investigators were lying when they said that confession was a sign of repentance that would lead to concessions) and also because, by showing yourself to be weak, you could hope to appear innocuous or could arouse feelings of compassion. The shame of humiliation was somehow not as strong as the fear of death. The wolf was attacking the inner animal, which fled in terror from the onslaught of an animal stronger than itself, without the slightest sense of shame or humiliation. You have to flee from the mighty. I was near the melting point.

I pictured courage as a snake inside myself that was trying to attack the fear that was all the rest of me. Fear–that is, my self–tried to fight against this snake that had dared to raise its head from its lair of honor or dignity where it had taken refuge. Fear struck back at the snake, and the snake would slither back and cower, but always try to emerge again. For a moment I understood more clearly why pride appeared to the first man in the form of a serpent (Lubonja, 1996: 98).

I also sensed to the very core that defiance might come from a combative instinct or an outburst of rage, but the need to maintain honor and dignity in the face of humiliation required something stronger than this, and this something stronger would perhaps be the strongest power a human being possesses, but not often shown because fear is something stronger still.

FEAR AND THE LOVE OF LIFE

Yet among us humans, the life instinct, this element that is ruled by our primitive, animal brain and which refuses to admit the idea of death, which is scared of the wolf and flees without shame, is not separate from the other parts of our being. It includes everything that we have managed to become in our lives, and what we want to become in the future. Above all, it includes our love of life, which is the relationship that we create with the things of this world not only through our senses and our body, but through our minds with their entire intellectual capacity, our memory, imagination, and emotional, idealistic, and creative faculties. It includes our relationship with nature, the mountains, the sea, flowers, trees, and rivers, our love for music, literature, and philosophy, for people, our families, our children, and the tasks we have not completed. All these things come together and gather round the instinct of life like the crown of a tree that grows high above its roots, making life more beautiful, but also deepening the pain and terror of its loss. This love of life, or rather these loves, because they are many, all form part of your love for yourself to the point that it might be said that they are part of self-love. Your precious self includes everything. Death means leaving everything behind. During those proceedings, in my cell and in terror of death, I learned that to alleviate this terror, you have to work hard to shed this love of life, and ultimately to shed yourself, and that this is an inhuman task, perhaps the most inhuman task that exists.

I strove to prepare myself for death and in those moments I seemed to want to leave behind all living creatures, to the point that even my own body seemed to become superfluous, remote, and strange. I was seized by a kind of disgust for it, and at these times even the beloved members of my family almost became my enemies (Lubonja, 1996: 105).

But leaving behind your love of life in order to prepare for death, to confront the terrible moment of execution, is not a task for courage, but a task for fear. There were moments when I wished I were mad, not to understand that this moment had come. These were the ways in which the wolf approached, to tear you to pieces. Meanwhile, the love of life resisted this collapse, this denial of itself.

Then there were moments when I began to feel my body as something precious, when I looked at my hands and it seemed almost incredible that they were things of mine that would no longer belong to me. There were also moments when I suffered considerably for my wife’s sake, thinking that after I died she would belong to someone else, while who knew what would happen to my children (Lubonja, 1996: 105).

During this time, I understood that the courage to face death was something different, something that did not deny the love of life. I understood that this love of life, which makes us weak and ready to make humiliating compromises with the wolf, also includes forces that make it difficult to accept the humiliation of the self. The wolf meets resistance in the love of life/yourself because a self that is distorted by humiliation is a self that we do not love, which our education as social beings and our moral judgments do not love, but lead us to feel shame and disgrace.

The courage that is nourished by the love of truth and justice (and of God, for those who believe), cannot be imagined without this ability of the mind to distance itself from the self, and to see the self through the eyes of those who love us or who we want to love us. This love makes us weak, but also gives us the strength to preserve the self, or at least to preserve its memory. One asks again: What leads to the victory of either the weakness or the strength of this love?

COURAGE AND AGE

The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.–MATTHEW

The love of life is a feeling that increases with age. But, alongside aging, certain other processes take place. The animal defiance within us, ready to battle with the unknown, weakens. The flesh is less able to cope with suffering, and the body is less easy to withstand torture. “Plus le corps est faible, plus il commande; plus il est fort, plus il obeit” (The weaker the body, the more it rules; the stronger the body, the more it obeys). (2) Thus, as defiance gradually weakens, courage must come, and grow, to confront the wolf. The young may rush to defy death, but the aged go forward with the courage and faith of the mind. Socrates, who voluntarily drank the cup of death, is an illustration of this. Rodin too portrays this human drama in one of his famous sculptures, the Burghers of Calais. Six citizens of Calais decided to sacrifice their lives to save their city from destruction and their fellow-citizens from death, by surrendering to the king of England. The sculpture catches precisely this moment of heroism, which is experienced differently by the six different characters. The old are portrayed with their heads held high in challenge, or lowered with dignity. The young cast final glances back to the city, as if scared or in regret for their lives that have just begun, and of which they have only known the joys.

In prison, I often thought of this sculpture of Rodin, sometimes thinking how true the sculpture was, or sometimes doubting its truth. I doubted its truth because I had seen many old men weakened by age, and turned cowardly because their bodies could no longer endure suffering. They would tremble when threatened by a guard. Yet I also noticed that they loved life the more with the passage of time, because they perceived its beauty more and more. On the other hand, I also saw young people accomplish acts of heroism, such as escaping from prison, showing unheard of daring, or proudly withstanding torture. Then I would again think that Rodin was right when I saw the opposite happen, when young people were broken and became tools of the secret service, or old men refused to become spies.

Finally, reflection led me to the idea that the defiance we normally think of as coming from the blood is not separate from the courage that comes from the mind. Rousseau’s saying expresses one side of this interdependence, that is, the body’s. But this interdependence has another side, which means that a body can be ruled much better by a will that is tempered by age. This side includes the courage cultivated by the mind, by moral values, and by the self-respect that bolsters the defiance of the body, weakened as it may be by the exhaustion of age.

Courage therefore is something that takes time. Confronting the wolf with defiance cannot be called courage. Courage is the ability to perform with a cool head the same heroic acts we normally carry out when fired by the blood. Defiance comes from instinct and from the impulses of the primitive brain, while courage comes from the ratiocination of the neocortex, from our awareness as social beings, and from the construction of a meaning for life. But can someone have courage if he lacks the defiance of the blood? I have often noticed that someone who lacks defiance also lacks courage. Defiance is like the impetuous flow of a river that has just burst out from its mountain source, while courage is like this same river once it has gathered many waters, gradually broadening and deepening, no longer echoing noisily, but flowing securely in its bed.

COURAGE AND HATRED

A deep feeling of hatred for my oppressors often overwhelmed me in my cell. They had thrown me in prison; kept me there unjustly, and not only that, were unjustly sentencing me again. There were moments when this hatred made me imagine myself committing an act of suicide that would shock my oppressors to the depths of their being. Yet that seemed not to satisfy my hatred, and I would imagine myself as a bomb; I would detonate myself in the midst of the dictator’s inner circle, and destroy them at the same time as myself. I do not know where my spirit found this force, which nevertheless did not last long because it was difficult to live continually with such hatred in your body and mind. But these were moments when you could hurl yourself against the wolf without fear, and leave your spirit in his hands.

It is said that the feeling of hatred arises from a position of inferiority to those we hate, and that hatred is the anger of the weak. It is also said that the greater our power to love, the greater our power to hate. I felt both of these in my own hatred. In fact, this hatred was the obverse of my love of life, projected on those who were preventing me from achieving what I wished to do in this life and from enjoying my natural relationship with the world. This hatred manifested itself like a photographic negative of my love of life, truth, and justice, the negative of everything I aspired to achieve. Does courage have any connection with this feeling of hatred? I say it does, but I also say that courage cannot arise out of hatred. This hatred also involved a deep process of physical and spiritual self-destruction. This hatred also involves fear. “Hatred is the daughter of fear,” Tertullian says in the Apollogeticus, but according to me she is a daughter who rebels against her mother. In fact, this hatred was in opposition to my love of life. But courage strives to preserve the love of life and our spiritual wholeness.

Yet this feeling of hatred was not without a connection with courage, and indeed a strong one, because it also involved a rebellion against the rule of evil. It also involved an extreme rejection of humiliation, to the point of self-destruction. It was the rebellion of an oppressed person whom this feeling, at certain moments, helps to free from the frustrations of fear. This hatred was like yeast, which needs to be added now and again to the ingredients of courage. It was like tempering the steel again, passing it from hot to cold, to keep sharp the blade of courage.

COURAGE AND STOICISM

During the investigation and trial proceedings before my second sentence, during those months when I cohabited in my cell with the fear of death, I also, sometimes, but very rarely, experienced certain states in which the fear of death suddenly left me. It was a kind of intoxication that seemed to come from a special kind of drink, as if a meadow appeared before me, brought to me by my mind as if in a dream, as it journeyed the paths of pain. These were moments of nirvana that came from a stoical acceptance of fate, and by a superior wisdom that discounted all the desires of life. I felt as if liberated from the weight of life and death, as if I had lost all forms of passion and emotion, and above all as if, in shedding this weight, I was also freed from every kind of physical and mental pain. It was in fact a shedding of the love of life, in which the rational weight of the neocortex prevailed over the emotions of the animal brain, as if finding the latter perhaps exhausted. It was not like that shedding, associated with inhuman pain, that I most often experienced, to the point that I was disgusted by my own body. In those moments, I felt a supernatural strength, as if, as I accepted being merged without distinction with the whole, the infinity of the universe was opened before me. It would appear to me that I was the only person who understood what other mortals did not want to understand and believe: that we are nothing but particles of dust in the great universe. With the help of this knowledge, I felt I was more powerful than any other mortal I had known. At such moments, I inevitably thought of the myth that tells how human beings were first part of an immortal whole; but they asked to be divided and become individuals, and God granted this request, but punished them with mortality.

I do not know why, perhaps because of this “curse” of God or perhaps because I was not trained to reach and maintain this state of nirvana (“All men want to be freed from death, but they do not know how to free themselves from life” Lao Tzu) (Malaus, 1960), I could not sustain this higher spiritual state, and indeed was inclined to regard it with suspicion, as a more philosophical form of a denial of life out of fear of confronting pain and death. And so the weight of life soon returned, from whatever depths of the spirit or body where it had taken cover for a few moments, to burden me with the full tragic sense of the moment that I was experiencing. I would understand once again that I had to face up to the wolf with something other than the stoical denial of all passion and a plunge into nirvana. This state was not one of courage, any more than of hatred. Yet, like hatred, this stoical acceptance of fatum with the cool head of someone who is no longer sensible to pain was also a part of courage. Courage perhaps needed a little of this kind of yeast too, but it could not be built on a denial of the love of life.

COURAGE AND HOPE

Quand on a tout perdu/Quand on n’a plus d’espoir/La vie est un opprobre/La mort un devoir, writes Voltaire in one of his poems. These four lines stress four words that are very important for the life and death of a human being: “loss,” “hope,” shame,” and “duty.” In my view, the gravitational center of these four lines lies in the word “hope”. What does it mean to lose everything? Do we have to include the loss of hope in this everything? For Voltaire, the loss of hope was something more than the “loss of everything,” and so he devotes a separate line to it. The loss of hope appears the greatest loss of all: when you lose hope, you also lose the hope of regaining anything. It seems that, by the “loss of everything,” Voltaire implied the loss of honor and dignity, and by the “loss of hope” he implied the loss of any hope of recovering these things. I have not see any conditions more appropriate for such a loss than those in which prisoners were forced to live and grow old in the prisons of a dictatorship that lasted almost half a century, where, after being sentenced once, they would be sentenced again, These prisoners lived in dehumanizing conditions; often they were compelled even to become spies. Yet I saw very few of them commit suicide, which they would have had to do if they had followed Voltaire’s moral advice. The fact that he makes this moral summons also shows that a man, even if he has lost his honor and dignity, may not be able to rise to his “duty” and put an end to his life.

Of course, what “betrays” you is hope. Shame and duty are two moral concepts that arise out of our social being. They may turn out to be different things in different contexts. Something experienced as shame in one social context may not be experienced as shame in another. The same can be said about duty. It is no shame for a Christian to turn the other cheek to someone who strikes him, but for someone who lives with the honor code of blood revenge, this shame can be wiped away only by killing the man who strikes him. Meanwhile, hope is a light that cannot be lit or put out by the resources of reason or of our social being. A man does not lose hope even when he loses dignity and honor, or even when there is no hope. In fact, the resource of hope lies deeper. It inhabits the dark zone between the primitive animal brain, which does not know that it will die and goes through life without the complications that evolution has caused for the animal known as a human being, and the neocortex, this product of evolution that has made us human beings more complex, but also much more fragile, and makes us aware of death, honor, and duty, and thus of the ability to kill ourselves or sacrifice our lives.

In many of the cells of Tirana Prison, where who knows how many people sentenced to death sat waiting for their execution, I found written the letters “SKSKS,” meaning Sa kam shpirt kam shprese: “As long as I have spirit I have hope.” Dum spiro spero. I too scratched this on the wall of the cell where they put me during the proceedings before my second sentence, a cell with freshly painted walls. I wrote it so that I would see it repeatedly, a reminder to me as I paced up and down, but also as a message to others.

When the terror of death gripped me and I tried to calm myself, the only effective way of preserving my mind was to sustain hope, the hope that they would not kill me. I spent most of my time building or sustaining precisely this hope, sometimes piecing it together from the detailed analysis I made of the indictment, to find its weak points, and also persuading myself that the judges, faced with the obvious evidence of fabrication, would not be able to do anything (meanwhile “forgetting” that the they themselves were the authors of the fabrication), and sometimes constructing a hope that something might make the dictator who had given the order for our conviction change his mind, or simply that something might happen. This “was a deeply shaken kind of hope, resembling a small boat tossed in the darkness of a black and stormy sea with a very faint hope of ever reaching harbour” (Lubonja, 1999), yet it was also a boat that was not easily sunk, because it was guided by a beacon that was never extinguished, because it was kept alight by an energy that came from the very fact of being alive.

A VICTIM’S HOPE AND A HERO’S HOPE

My hope was that of a person who had been taken away suddenly, unprepared for this confrontation with death. In contrast to Fadil and Vangjel, I had not challenged death by sending letters against the dictator to the Central Committee, nor had I joined an organization to fight against the state or its leadership, nor had I taken any oath. And so it was hard for me to muster courage. I would die like a dog, without any kind of ideal or any kind of inner glory, but only a victim’s inadequate pride (Lubonja, 1996: 99).

My hope was that of a man who knew he would be convicted in a court in closed session, without the presence of the public (which might have prompted an outburst of pride), in some cubbyhole in the investigator’s office in the presence of a few hangmen who understood nothing about the pride in standing up for justice and truth. It was a kind of hope that reminded you of those cynical maxims of La Rochefoucauld, who wrote that a man’s greatest courage lies in performing alone the kind of heroic act that some might usually accomplish in the presence of many witnesses. My hope was the hope of a victim.

When you think of the Jews who went to the crematoria without any act of rebellion or resistance, or even suicide, one cannot fail to wonder whether, deep down, there comes a moment when we lose a victim’s hope. And is the hope of a victim an adequate foundation on which to build the courage of a hero?

“Courage, like love, needs to be nourished by hope,” says Napoleon in his Maximes et Pensees (Malaus, 1960). It has difficult to conceive of courage without defiance, but even harder for courage to exist without hope. Courage, like hope, stands with its feet planted on the life instinct, with its eyes lifted to the sky of hope. But there is a big difference between the courage of the victim and the courage of the hero. This distinction perhaps lies precisely in the difference between the hope of the victim and the hope of the hero. A victim is compelled to construct hope, after he has fallen into danger, while the hero advances toward danger with hope that he has already created. The courage of someone who voluntarily embarks toward death is something else. He needs much greater hope. Ultimately, the courage of the hero lies in his strength of will to accomplish what we generally call the separation of the spirit from the body, whether in the religious sense or not. A victim has not decided to make this separation, but the hero has set his mind on doing so, in the belief that even if his body dies his spirit will live. A victim strives to the last to keep his spirit and body together, while in the case of the hero his spirit triumphs over the body, which he voluntarily leaves behind. Even in terms of Voltaire’s “duty,” death is invested with strength of will, which arises out of the hope that this action will send an important moral message: that of the triumph of honor and dignity over human wickedness.

I think that a believer must find the separation of the spirit and the body easier. This is why I put this question to Frano, yet he did not find it easy either, perhaps because he had not set out with the intention of self-sacrifice. But he had found a justification for his own weakness in the weakness of the Son of God himself. If the Son of God himself is not a hero, in the sense of someone who goes to his death without fear, then where are these heroes to be found? And, if they exist, what are they: men or supermen?

The heroic superman does exist, but he requires heroic times, heroic examples, and an education in heroism. Yet I am not sure whether what are called heroic times are human times, and whether a product of such an era would be a human being or a monster. I do not know if anyone could live like a human being in such times, and whether he would love life and other human beings. So, I do not know whether it would be human courage that would send such a person to his death, or a special kind of courage, something inhuman or monstrous, a product of inhuman times.

For human courage serves life, not death. I have a stronger belief in a courageous life than in heroic moments of self-sacrifice. A hero is someone for whom, at a certain moment, the defiance of the blood, courage of the mind, love of life, and an ideal join together and make him stronger than the death he faces, even though he feels its terror. Christ is the most human of heroes, because he pressed ahead on his journey with courage, knowing that danger and death lay ahead of him, and yet ultimately he went forward with a tragic view of life. Even at the very end, he did not find it easy to separate the spirit from the body. At the last moment, in Matthew and Mark he calls out “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani” (“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”), and then cries with a loud voice. He dies while maintaining to the end the hope that he will not be forsaken, and with love for life. In Luke, he leaves life with resignation and faith, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit,” and in John he does so with a stoical acceptance of fatum, “It is finished.” In the first three accounts his courage is displayed as a virtue of this world, and therefore inseparable from human weakness. He is on the side of the weak, and so he leaves the keys of paradise with the man who out of fear denied him thrice before the cock crowed–Peter, who later died on the cross.

Translated from the Albanian by John Hodgson.

NOTES

(1.) In the nineties, after the fall of communism in Albania, Frano Ilia became the archbishop of the Albanian Catholic Church, and remained its head until he died in 1997. “It was God’s will.” Thus he was a good Catholic. Yet, for myself, as an atheist, I find it difficult to find such a conclusive formula. I can only say that this essay is dedicated to his memory.

(2.) (J.-J. Rousseau) Emile ou De l’Education.

REFERENCES

Lubonja, F. Ridenimi. Tirana: Botime Pirpjekja, 1996. The Second Sentence. Trans. John Hodgson. New York: Arcade, 1999.

Malaus, Maurice. Dictionnaire des proverbes, sentences et maximes. Paris: Larousse, 1960.

COPYRIGHT 2004 New School for Social Research

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group