By Dag Walker
Carl Heisenberg once responded to a hapless physicist offering a gift of mind, some grand theory about the nature of the universe, some gem of sparkling intelligence, with the line, “That is so stupid it isn’t even wrong.” An American opinionator on radio, Mark Levine, is noted as having exclaimed, “That idea is so stupid only an intellectual could believe it.”
Throughout my long and storied life I have heard innumerable times people mumble as they shook their heads saying, “How can anyone that smart be so stupid?” Very likely, each of those comments above could have been rightly directed at me. If they weren’t, it is only because I am too insignificant to pay attention to.
Mark Twain offered excellent advice for those like me, writing, “It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.” Knowing such things seems not to prevent me from expressing any stray idea that wanders across the clear blue skies of my mind as I prance across the mine fields of informed debate, mostly forgetting another interesting point: “That one is entitled to one’s own opinions, but not to one’s own facts.” Mostly it is too hard to practice a bit of normal self-restraint in public. Sometimes I can blame my idiotic outbursts on the fact that I am an old guy and these things come out in spite of me as a result of my brain going soggy in my dotage. Still, I know better, at least on a good day.
What, though, can one say about a highly educated medical doctor who spent years of his life tending to villagers in some of the most remote areas of Liberia in the 1930s, a time of dire want around the world, especially so in some parts of Liberia itself? How can a man who dedicated his younger years to helping the helpless, who was a sensitive and aware human being, throw away his obvious humanity for the sake of a terrible idea?
Doctors, on the whole, are intelligent people. It is a fundamental error, however, to conflate intelligence with intellectuals. Some doctors are also intellectuals, and some intellectuals are thunderously stupid. A Medieval era lens-polisher can be a genius; a Modern era doctor and humanitarian can become a moral idiot.
In the late 18th century, Destutt de Tracy a French philosphe, conceived the idea of “ideology,” According to him, all knowledge could be reduced to templates easily understood according to their forms. The life of the mind was packagable. One could be, with the proper amount and kind of knowledge, an expert in whatever area of thought. One could study an “Ism” to become an “Ist.” This is a highly successful programmed for morons. The “educated idiot.” An ideologue. Shopping in the store of ideas for one’s preferred can of Isms is simple; and within one’s circle, likely to win social, even economic rewards. Conformity is a good thing, to a large degree. It allows for social cohesion and perhaps even something akin to progress, as opposed to the chaos and ruin of rampant individualism and vicious competition in a world of every man for himself and God against all. Conformity can also lead to the worst slavery known to man: the loss of one’s life of the mind. If one’s ideas come from others, one is a slave without a life of one’s own. The open life of the mind, as Epictetus explains so well, is the life of freedom. Even in prison, the man who can think for himself is free. All the riches on earth are worthless if one is a slave to the unconsidered opinions of others. The truly free man is a fearless traveller in the realm of thought. It might well lead one to a miserable life of poverty, exile, to disaster and death, but one may claim victory in the end for having risked all for freedom. Not everyone wins. As Hemingway wrote, “A man can be destroyed without being defeated.” Conversely, a good and decent man can throw it all away in the name of the higher good, closing his heart and mind, even his eyes, to obvious evil.
After that long preamble, (the usual obsessions of a permanent school teacher,) we must ask about the worth of a man who would, in a time of urgent need and the call, turn his back on family, home, and nation for the dubious pursuit of personal freedom of the mind. Who but the most malignant moral perfectionist would abandon his own people in a terrible time of urgent need to seek his own enlightenment? As some clever observer of the human condition wrote, “Perfection is the enemy of the good.” The man seeking perfection might give up humanity, but the good man might sacrifice his freedom for the good of his nation. But, what does the good man do when his nation is evil?
This, I believe, is the moral dilemma the German doctor in Liberia faced in the late 1930s.1. A good man returned to an evil home to aid mindless murderers in their cold and systematic rage to destroy the world and create in its place a perfect order. The Doctor left Liberia and the people there who needed him, too. He chose to aid evil because he could not let go of his loyalties to his own people.
Doctor Junge lived and worked in the Liberian hinterlands during a time when even the best of modern medicine was primitive by current standards. There was nothing one could do to treat, for example, leprosy, contagious and terrible, its sufferers shunned, beaten, cast out from all other men and exiled from human life. For the leper, there was suffering, For the leper there was no hope.
Before Dr. Junge abandoned his patients in Liberia to return to his native land to aid the Nazi regime in their attempts to destroy the world he wrote a book, African Jungle Doctor. Ten Years in Liberia, (1930-1940.) The book is a collection of stories about an isolated and desperate area in the Liberian hinterlands where disease and death were prevalent and mostly untreatable with the medicines and skills of the time and place. The doctor did his best, in some cases doing well, administering what medicines he had, vaccinating many against diseases, treating other problems as only a Modern doctor can. But, against leprosy he was helpless. Thus, to aid and comfort the leprous, he constructed a colony on an island where they could live without fear, even if they lived only among other lepers, forever isolated from family, friends, and their greater kind. They were lepers, feared and shunned by all others. On their island colony they found what peace in life there is to be found among the outcast and the exiled.
The doctor practiced medicine, and he wrote about the heart-break of young lovers. He wrote about the girl who visited the island there and that she fell in love with a young leper. One can imagine the joy the young man felt that finally, in a life without hope, only of agony and despair, he had found love. Thus, he sent the girl away, lest she, too, became afflicted. She left him.
One of my favorite passages in the Bible, a plea to God for grace and mercy from a leper, is Psalm 88.
88 O lord God of my salvation, I have cried day and night before thee:
2 Let my prayer come before thee: incline thine ear unto my cry;
3 For my soul is full of troubles: and my life draweth nigh unto the grave.
4 I am counted with them that go down into the pit: I am as a man that hath no strength:
5 Free among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, whom thou rememberest no more: and they are cut off from thy hand.
6 Thou hast laid me in the lowest pit, in darkness, in the deeps.
7 Thy wrath lieth hard upon me, and thou hast afflicted me with all thy waves. Selah.
8 Thou hast put away mine acquaintance far from me; thou hast made me an abomination unto them: I am shut up, and I cannot come forth.
9 Mine eye mourneth by reason of affliction: Lord, I have called daily upon thee, I have stretched out my hands unto thee.
10 Wilt thou shew wonders to the dead? shall the dead arise and praise thee? Selah.
11 Shall thy lovingkindness be declared in the grave? or thy faithfulness in destruction?
12 Shall thy wonders be known in the dark? and thy righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?
13 But unto thee have I cried, O Lord; and in the morning shall my prayer prevent thee.
14 Lord, why castest thou off my soul? why hidest thou thy face from me?
15 I am afflicted and ready to die from my youth up: while I suffer thy terrors I am distracted.
16 Thy fierce wrath goeth over me; thy terrors have cut me off.
17 They came round about me daily like water; they compassed me about together.
18 Lover and friend hast thou put far from me, and mine acquaintance into darkness.
Doctor Junge created a leper colony that did more than shelter the afflicted from the terror of exile from the common mass of humanity. He created a scene of relative comfort and meaningful existence to a people who otherwise faced a lingering death in despair. The man’s humanitarianism is beyond question. So, too, is his abilities as a writer, as a man able to convey the depths of the humanity of others; who is able to evoke in readers an empathy for those they would never otherwise know or perhaps even know of; whose tales of life and death in the Liberian hinterlands brought to life a foreign people and living individuals. Because of the work of this writer we will know the lives of the dead till the end of literature itself.
We know of the young leper and the young and vital woman who loved him in spite of his condition. We know that he loved her too, so much so that he sent her away to spare her the horrors of his disease. He loved her so much that he sent her away, his last and only hope of love in this life, so that she could live a full life while he had nothing left but pain and loneliness. She left him.
Germany had designs on Liberia for many years, hoping to ensnare the nation and its people in its colonial net, to exploit and render all to nothing for nothing but for the greater glory of Germany even at the cost of destroying humanity and Germany itself in the process. The doctor, facing his moral dilemma, abandoned Liberia and his patients and surrendered to unthinkingness.
Before Doctor Junge left to become part of the war to destroy the world, he wrote his book, his book including the story of the young leper and the girl who loved him. He wrote that the girl returned, that in time she too contracted the dread disease, and the couple remained on the island together.
The doctor, in spite of his inherent decency, failed the ultimate moral test. He could not think beyond the conventions of his time and the rigidities of his own mind. He became a slave of his own self even though he knew the freedom of doomed lovers.
The leper sent outside of the camp, by Gustave Dore
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