In Pray for Brother Alexander, which recently came out in English (see here from Punctum Books), philosopher Constantin Noica recounts one of the irrational moments that took place while he was imprisoned. He was around 50 years old, sharing the cell with a young man, Alec, an athlete, who was part of the national volleyball team. While Alec was in East Berlin for a tournament, a friend told him to go to the other side. He didn’t like it, so he came back. Received well at the beginning, he finally ended up in prison, something that the young man could not make sense of. “It is of no importance” (23), Noica says. The conversation ends between them because Noica is taken to interrogations. He returns to the cell obviously beaten. The young man asks him, “They have beaten you, haven’t they?” (24). Noica confirms, and the young man says, “But it is of no importance, I know” (24). “That’s what I wanted to say: they beat me without a reason.”
The idea of being beaten without reason is scary. It goes against any notion of justice we may have, but it also places you at the mercy of forces over which you have no control, and this must produce fear. Indeed, the young man in the cell gets worried—perhaps his pride of a sportsman, as Noica suggests, is offended by the idea of being hit without being able to react, but it may also be a natural reaction when faced with the irrationality of beings who have power over you. Noica tries to clarify the situation and he says, “I was beaten because I did no want to take a cigarette” (24).
Of course, there is nothing logical about this either, and the young man responds naturally, “are you mocking me?” In fact, Noica was not mocking him. The interrogators wanted to know to whom he gave a book he received from the West—if I am not mistaken, it was Emil Cioran’s Histoire et Utopie, History and Utopia. Believing that if he gives them “a cloud of names” (24), as he says, he would confuse them, he writes down on paper 80-100 names. Noica then realizes his mistake: he assumed rationality from the part of his interrogators. Who would pay attention to so many names that have seen a book, he asked? The communists, apparently, would, and his interrogator writes down carefully all the names he had mentioned. And then he offers Noica a cigarette. Perhaps out of self-disappointment, perhaps because he wanted to show himself and to the investigator that he is not completely defeated and that he is not someone who just gives up his friends because of pressure, he refuses the cigarette.
“Take it or I dislocate you jaw” (25) the officer yells at him. Noica refuses, and the blow comes. To the young man’s surprise, this is when Noica took the cigarette. “But I would have never done this… After he hit me? Never….” (26).
The young man does not accept giving in when faced with lack of rationality. Any kind of craziness in the world must be rejected, he seems to believe, because it is just subhuman to accept it—one would give up one’s own moral dignity. This attitude is shared by many at the beginning of their incarceration. They keep themselves proud before their accusers; it is important for them to show that they have not been broken. They find in this the remaining of their human dignity. With time, many came to believe that this attitude is childish, stemming from innocence. We may liken this difference to the one between the attitudes young and older people have at times toward morality. For the young, things are often black and white. The old see this as resulting from their innocence: when you are young, untried by the sufferings of life, and unconnected with people for whom you feel responsible, you afford to be an idealist. Slowly, you start asking yourself whether your actions make sense in a world in which the suffering of those close to you makes no sense.
Coming back to Alec, the young man in the cell, he changes his tone, perhaps wanting to avoid offending Noica: “You know why you took the cigarette? Because you felt like smoking.” (26).
And Noica says, “My young sportsman is not stupid at all. In a way, he was right. The slaps I god had brought me to reality: nothing made any sense in that moment. I could smoke a cigarette” (26). Nothing has any importance in an absurd story. As Samuel Beckett may say, there is no point to wait for Godot. Within an absurd story, the question whether it is rational or not to oppose communism does no longer make sense. Should one then be pragmatic and follow one’s own interest, giving up one’s ideals? If we answer this way, we reject the line of dissidents who, often sacrificing their lives, opposed the regime. If we go the other way, we claim that we somehow can fix the world, and that there is an importance in refusing an absurd world.
The day of “liberation”:
“With the coat on my arm and with a small bundle of laundry, I come before the commander, who hands me a banknote, the equivalent of around ten bus tickets. I look at the prison commander before I come out of the door. We are both caught in a smile, and I remember William Blake’s verses:
There is a smile of Love
And there is a smile of Deceit,
And there is a smile of smiles
In which these two smiles meet.”