The experience of war places stresses on the human spirit that can scarcely be imagined in peacetime. Dilemmas that can be largely avoided in time of peace must be faced in a time of war. Concern for one’s own physical safety is often at odds with concern for the wellbeing of one’s countrymen. The dictates of the mind often fight the dictates of the emotions. In such a tug of war situation, where practical and moral factors align themselves in strange and ironic patterns, it is hardly surprising that individuals respond in highly divergent ways. In this paper, the dangers that war poses to the human psyche will be considered and an attempt will be made to account for the some of the variability that can be seen in the way in which individuals respond to these threats.
An examination of two books suggests that certain character traits help inoculate people in time of war, better enabling them to withstand the assaults of war. It also suggests that the absence of certain traits makes people vulnerable when they are placed in threatening circumstances. In examining two literary works: The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis and The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje three character traits that were necessary in order to ensure spiritual survival were clearly shown. These traits were faith, courage, and loyalty. In the course of this paper, special attention will be given to the character traits described above. The significance of their presence or absence in the personalities of a number of literary characters will be considered. In The Screwtape Letters, Lewis’ portrays an anonymous English protagonist struggling to maintain his spiritual integrity against the assaults of temptations of Hell during World War Two. In The English Patient, Ondaatje portrays a group of characters, brought together by their circumstances, reacting to what the author portrays as the tidal wave of war. The importance of faith, courage and loyalty enable Lewis’ character to spiritually survive all the assaults of wartime. The absence of these characteristics cause Ondaatje’s characters to flounder. Faith, courage and loyalty provide a necessary framework for moral thought and action, enabling the soul to survive even under the adverse conditions presented by war.
C.S. Lewis deals extensively with the dangers that war poses to the human psyche. In his wartime work entitled The Screwtape Letters, he presents an essentially hopeful view concerning the ability of the soul to survive the assaults of war. He proposes that having the right perspective is the key to the soul’s survival. Lewis deals with a wide variety of temptations that serve to undermine the integrity of man in his journey through life. All of these temptations assert their power to some degree in peacetime. Yet, their power is often strengthened by the pressures of war.
In The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje presents an entirely different perspective concerning the effects of war on the human psyche. Although he never spells it out, Ondaatje seems to take a fairly deterministic view. The fate of his characters often seems to lie beyond their control. It is almost as if his characters have been struck by a giant tidal wave and are helpless to resist as they are carried away. The reader seldom gets the impression that Ondaatje’s characters have alternatives other than to think and act the way they do. They are presented as victims of circumstances who warrant our compassion but not our judgment. Each leaves the war deeply scarred in the spiritual sense.
In the work of C.S. Lewis, faithfulness to God is the factor that ensures the soul’s survival. Lewis describes the danger of being overwhelmed by “the stream of immediate sense experiences” (Lewis pg.12). A man’s tendency to focus on the immediate and the personal at the expense of the universal threatens his ability to survive in any spiritual sense. When focusing on his own inconvenience, hunger and pain, a man tends to lose sight of broader concerns, such as his spiritual wellbeing and the common good. Faith enables a man to focus on the spiritual and the eternal, to face each day’s trials with commitment and determination and to survive war with his psyche intact.
Lewis grapples with the paradox of war. Lewis argues convincingly that, while some may be destroyed by war, others may actually experience spiritual growth through adversity. Alerted to the finite nature of life and made more conscious of the needs of others, a man’s faith and strength may flourish in ways that he never dreamed possible. Lewis dispels the belief that a long, relatively peaceful or painless life is any guarantee of spiritual survival. He expresses fear for the souls of those who die “in costly nursing homes amid doctors who lie, nurses who lie, friends who lie…promising life to the dying, encouraging the belief that sickness excuses every indulgence, and even …withholding a priest lest is should betray to the sick man his true condition.” (Lewis pg. 32).
During wartime, the need for courage cannot be ignored. Lewis sees courage as “not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means the point of highest reality. A chastity or honesty, or mercy, which yields to danger will be chaste or honest or merciful only on conditions. Pilate was merciful till it became risky” (Lewis pg. 148). Yet, courage must be grounded in faith and resignation to God’s will. Lewis explains how worrying about the future and taking precautions against the dangers of war tend to undermine courage. When a man begins to obsess about all the things he can do to increase his chances of survival, his commitment to doing his duty becomes “honeycombed all through with little unconscious reservations.” In a moment of terror, these reservations will assert themselves and his overriding concern will be physical self-preservation.(Lewis p150). Only by putting his full trust in God can a man avoid the threats to the spirit that uncertainty brings and act courageously under all conditions.
Key characters in The English Patient each possess some of the traits that Lewis deems to be important: Yet each of Ondaatje’s characters displays certain frailties that weaken his chances of spiritual survival. Each of the characters is profoundly influenced by the ‘stream of immediate sense experiences’ that Lewis analyses so vividly in the Screwtape Letters. Each allows the pain and suffering that he has witnessed to destroy any faith he had in God, country or the war effort.
Caravaggio is a man who possesses tremendous courage. In his role as a spy for the Allies, he risks death and torture on a daily basis throughout the war. After being captured by the Germans and having his thumbs cut off by them, he finds his way to a villa in Florence where Hana, a Canadian nurse and daughter of an old friend is caring for
a burned and dying patient. There, he devotes his days to convincing Hana and Kip, the sapper whom Hana loves, to abandon their responsibilities. He urges Hana to leave her dying patient even though there is no one left to care for him. Referring to the Bedoin tribesmen who rescued the burning man, he says, “Those men in the desert were smarter than you. They assumed that he could be useful. So they saved him, but when he was no longer useful, they left him.”(Ondaatje pg. 45) Confiding to Kip, he blames the war on the rich who “ have to follow the rules of their…civilized world. They declare war, they have honour and they can’t leave. But you two. We three. We’re free. How many sappers die? Why aren’t you dead yet? Be irresponsible. Luck runs out.” (Ondaatje p.123) Caravaggio is portrayed as warm, human and very likable. Yet, he is a man who has lost his faith, his loyalty and his confidence.
The English Patient is portrayed as a man of great intellect. He is ‘the wise man’ who sees ‘the greater picture’. Yet, at critical times, he reacts in a manner that is narrow and self-serving. He has an affair with the wife of friend and colleague, a man whom he claims to love. This is portrayed as a natural response of one caught up in a tidal wave of emotion. He blames ‘the war’ for destroying his research, his adopted homeland, and his friendships; yet he makes no credible attempt to come to terms with the terrible events that made war inevitable. He collaborates with the Germans, dooming thousands in the desert to torture and death. He rationalizes his behaviour and abdicates responsibility for his actions by blaming the war on international financial and military interests rather than on Nazi aggression. Yet the English Patient is portrayed as a thoroughly likable victim. Never is it suggested that he is the product of the choices that he himself has made.
Kipp, the Sikh sapper, is a man of tremendous discipline. Charged with the unenviable task of diffusing bombs, he survives against all odds through a combination of resourcefulness and a great ability to concentrate. He possesses many admirable qualities, traits that should have enabled him to withstand the assaults of war with integrity. Yet, Kip never seems to reflect upon the issue of why he is at war until the end when he falls apart . Kip’s wartime relationships with the English are characterised by mutual respect, acceptance and, in several instances, love. Throughout the story, Kip is glued to his radio where he would, no doubt, have heard of the German and Japanese atrocities that were being revealed on a daily basis in 1945. Yet, suddenly, he is swept away with revulsion at the news of the dropping of The Bomb on Hiroshima. He literally blames the English for all of the evils of the world, including the dropping of the bomb. In response to an act that he sees as racist and imperialistic, he abandons his post and all loyalty to the war effort.
Hana, the heroine of the novel, is, in many respects, the noblest of Ondaaje’s characters. After months of sustained and intensive exposure to the pain and suffering of others, she refuses to move on with the Allied troops as they travel north in their occupation of Italy. Instead, she chooses to remain with one horribly burned patient who is too ill to move. Hana’s psyche is deeply damaged by the pain that she has witnessed. She is totally caught up in what Lewis would term ‘the stream of immediate sense experience.’ She is portrayed as half-mad, prone to mania and depression. At times she is completely overwhelmed with her sorrow and sense of helplessness. At other times, she rejoices as the rain drenches her through the gutted roof of the villa that she calls home. She seems to be lacking in religious faith and feels nothing but scorn for the leaders of the Allied war effort. Still, she remains loyal to a cause that goes beyond her own wellbeing. She risks death on a daily basis as she fulfils her duties in a villa that the Germans left full of mines and booby traps. Her devotion to the English Patient and her stubborn refusal to abandon him redeem her. They help compensate for her frailties, giving her something greater than her self to live for during the dreary spring of 1945.
Faith, courage, discipline and loyalty preserve the soul, though not the body of Lewis’ anonymous hero. The absence of one or more of these traits weakens the spiritual immune system of each of Ondaatje’s leading English Patient characters. Carvaggio faces post-war life lacking confidence and faith. Kip returns to India hating the system that he has given his heart and soul for. At best, he can see himself as a helpless pawn, a victim or a fool. At worst, he can see himself as a willing agent of death and destruction. The English Patient, presumably, dies muddled as much by his own rationalisations as by his morphine. He clings to a love that he uses to excuse acts of personal and collective treachery. Hana finds herself in an extremely vulnerable position as she faces her post-war future. She has abandoned any faith that she ever had in God, her country and her civilisation. She has placed all of her faith, trust and loyalty in the hands of her patient and her lover. This has given her something to live for as the war winds to an end. But when these two abandon her, she has no faith in anything but herself to fall back on. She returns to Canada, completely distrustful of human relationships.
Many who have endured the horrors of war may relate to the disillusionment portrayed by Ondaatje’s characters. Many who would never claim to possess the virtues promoted by C.S. Lewis clearly reflect them in the way in which they live their lives. These are the wartime survivors who continue to inspire those who have never endured the horrors of war. These are the survivors who show what it means to live a good life, even under the most adverse conditions.
Lewis, C.S. The Screwtape Letters. Great Britain: Fontana Books, 1942
Ondaatje, Michael. The Engish Patient. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 1996