From My Bright Abyss
The Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a radiant moral presence amid the murderous twentieth century, was safe in the United States when Hitler’s intentions began to be made clear. He could have stayed here, could have assumed a prestigious post at Union Theological Seminary and spent his life as a comfortable and influential public intellectual. But the decision was not all that difficult for him: he went back to a disintegrating and dangerous Germany because, as he said, if he did not suffer his country’s destruction, he could not credibly participate in its restoration. He went back because, as he had written earlier, “Only the obedient believe. If we are to believe, we must obey a concrete command.”
For all the modern talk about keeping an author’s work and life separate, all the schoolroom injunctions against mistaking art for autobiography, there are some works that life electrifies with meaning, some sayings only action authenticates. The charge is not always a positive one: Sylvia Plath’s late poems are so disturbing and powerful precisely because she committed the awful act around which they danced. The act is not always a willful one: the Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti, after a long forced march with hundreds of other doomed men, was killed by the Nazis and dumped into a mass grave in 1944. After the war, when his body was exhumed and identified, his wife discovered in his coat pocket a small notebook filled with poems he had written during his last days. Prophetic, apocalyptic, and yet brutally specific, the poems are at once unflinching and uncanny. “The reader approaches these with a certain veneration,” writes the poet and translator George Szirtes, “as though they were more than poems. Slowly, everything assumes a mythic shape and the life embraces the oeuvre so comprehensively that the one disappears in the other.”
Bonhoeffer was a theologian, not an artist (though he did have a gift for the kind of encompassing compression and lucid paradox that are hallmarks of poetry), but the effect is the same:
The important thing today is that we should be able to discern from the fragment of our life how the whole was arranged and planned, and what material it consists of.
For acquired knowledge cannot be divorced from the existence in which it is acquired. The only man who has the right to say that he is justified by grace alone is the man who has left all to follow Christ.
Every real action is of such a kind that no one other than oneself can do it.
It hardly matters whether or not one “agrees” with any of this. The words have an authenticity and authority beyond mere intellectual assertion: they burn with the brave and uncompromising life – and death – that lie behind them.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed at the Flossenbürg concentration camp on April 9, 1945.
Bonhoeffer, after being in prison for a year, still another hard year away from his execution, forging long letters to his friend Eberhard Bethge out of his strong faith, his anxiety, his longing for his fiancée, and terror over the nightly bombings: “There are things more important than self-knowledge.” Yes. An artist who believes this is an artist of faith, even if the faith contains no god.
I often ask myself why a “Christian instinct” often draws me more to the religionless people than to the religious, by which I don’t in the least mean with any evangelizing intention, but, I might almost say, “in brotherhood.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)
Reading Bonhoeffer makes me realize again how small our points of contact with life can be, perhaps even necessarily are, when our truest self finds its emotional and intellectual expression. With all that is going on around Bonhoeffer, and with all the people in his life (he wrote letters to many other people and had close relationships with other prisoners), it is only in the letters to Bethge that his thought really sparks and finds focus. Life is always a question of intensity, and intensity is always a matter of focus. Contemporary despair is to feel the multiplicity of existence with no possibility for expression or release of one’s particular being. I fear sometimes that we are evolving in such a way that the possibilities for these small but intense points of intimacy and expression – poetry, for instance – are not simply vanishing but are becoming no longer felt as necessary pressures.