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A conversation with Erik Varden: Never allow yourself to be fascinated by evil

In this long conversation with Daniel Capó for THE OBJECTIVE, the Norwegian author inquires about the causes of our moral and cultural crisis, reflects on nihilism and human passions, claims the longing for eternity and tells us about his own faith

Daniel Capó
A conversation with Erik Varden: Never allow yourself to be fascinated by evil
Margot Krebs Neale

The current bishop of Trondheim, the trappist monk Erik Varden (Sarpsbor, 1974), is one of the most original and fascinating thinkers of today. With an exquisite academic and cultural background, Varden’s work looks at the great questions of humanity, from a perspective deeply embedded in the historical and spiritual texture of the human being. His recent book, The Shattering of Loneliness, is a magnificent example of this endeavor. In this long conversation with Daniel Capó, the Norwegian author investigates the causes of our moral and cultural crisis, talks about nihilism and human passions, claims the longing for eternity and tells us about his own faith.

Your biography is the story of a conversion born from contact with suffering – the encounter you had as a child with a tortured man during World War II – and also with beauty – Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony that you heard in your adolescence. Why did ethics and arts lead you to Christianity? I mean, how does the piercing question thrown at us by the victim, and the mysterious articulation of beauty, resonates with a faith that originated two thousand years ago?

I would be inclined to say that it wasn’t so much ethics and arts that led me to Christianity, but that the Christian proclamation reached me through the arts. We must never forget that the Word was made flesh; and that the Word made flesh is the principle by which all things exist. Everything potentially bears witness to the Word. At Pentecost, we are told, everyone in Jerusalem heard the Gospel of Christ’s resurrection proclaimed in their own language. I understand this to mean, not only that the Spirit can communicate in an infinite variety of tongues; but also that it speaks the languages of different sensibilities. It seeks to reach each of us where we can be reached. And in my case, it was the language of music that first opened my mind and my heart to the reality of a proclamation that had never engaged me when I heard it formulated merely through speech.

Your book, The shattering of Loneliness has as its subtitle “On Christian Memory”. Before I start talking about it, I would like to ask you about your own memory with an eye on the famous verse by T. S. Eliot: “In the beginning is my end”. When you dives inside of you, what are your first memories? And in what way do you think these images illuminate, as in a whisper, the rest of your life?

My first memories are not so much memories of events as memories of relationships. I was blessed to be born into family full of love, to be surrounded by kindness, which created its own peace. I’d say the first thing I remember is that peace.

The idea of whispering is important to you. Biblically as well. A long tradition holds that the truth manifests itself in silence or in a low voice, barely perceptible. Do memory and loneliness constitute privileged fields for discovering reality?

When I was growing up I knew a couple, both of them veterinarians, who had a collie, a most intelligent dog. They always whispered commands to it. I remember asking why, and was told: this dog has a sense of hearing that is exceptionally acute. It can pick up sounds we cannot hear. There is no need to shout at it — it would just bring the dog discomfort. This impressed me! I think the same is true, to a large extent, of human beings. We can hear more than we think, but we don’t exercise that ability, for we keep shouting at one another and at ourselves. To a large extent, public discourse is a shouting match, even within the Church, wouldn’t you say? I believe, then, in listening out for whispered words from without and from within, for I desire to notice them, whether I find myself alone or in company.

The first chapter of you book, «Remember that you are dust», helps us to understand the importance of small things. We are small because the human condition is more like the condition of a son rather than that of a father. We are small because we are made of radical fragility. We are small because our hope goes beyond the strict limits of the flesh. Not in vain Genesis tell us that the primordial clay with which God formed Adam was a fertile mud and not a wasteland, that we are all called to bear fruit and that in our being there is a longing for “greater things”. You will insist a lot throughout the book on this notion of longing, which is not entirely coincident with that of desire. I would like to ask you about the distinction between the two. What is the object of our longing? And why is it so important?

My basic contention, which I try to ground both etymologically and theologically, is that longing and desire are two distinct experiences. Desire is rooted in me; I am its subject. When I say: ‘I desire a glass of wine’, it is because I am thirsty for it, because something in me craves it. When I say, ‘I long to go home’, it is because whatever I think of as home draws me, calls out to me. So whereas I am, grammatically speaking, the subject of desire, I am longing’s object. Longing is a relational reality. A person’s longing reveals a lot about him or her; indeed, our longing reveals us to ourselves. So a question I often put to people who have a sense of being stuck in their lives is the following: ‘What do you long for?’

And what do they answer?

Often enough, they don’t know what to answer, but they ascertain that the longing is there; and so a process of discernment can begin. I suspect that the phenomenon of arrested, unacknowledged longing is responsible for much human frustration, even unhappiness. We’re inhabited by an eternal aspiration. It simply won’t be satisfied by what time and space can offer.

Longing calls for love and love arises, above all, from a personal encounter. It is not an idea, nor a system, nor a set of chemical and hormonal reactions, but a truth that comes our way and pulls us out of loneliness. Precisely in the chapter that you dedicate to Lot’s wife in which you discuss the poetry of Anna Akhmatova, you emphasize that, before we become fossilized and lose our lives, we can all be saved by love in the last minute. Saved by love: why is no one able to save himself? Why do we need the mediation of love so as not to fall into nihilism?

Let’s remember, here, that love is neither an intellectual abstraction, not a sentimental feeling. In a certain sense, love isn’t even necessarily an experience. Love is an expression of relationship, which can manifest itself in painful ways, say when the beloved is absent or when we are conscious of having compromised or betrayed love. To be ‘saved by love’ is not to be carried out of misery by an invisible air balloon. It is to realise that my life is not indifferent; that I have something, someone to live for; that it makes sense to carry on forward. Here we touch the tragedy of the story of Lot’s wife, which Akhmatova captures sublimely: suddenly all of her life seemed to be behind her, covered in ashes. There was seemingly nothing left of it — and if that isn’t nihilism, I don’t know what is. For her to be saved by love would be to hear, in the midst of such dereliction, a voice that said to her, ‘Live! You are wanted, needed!’ Alas, she could not hear this voice, so abandoned prospects and was paralysed by retrospect.

Memory appeals in turn to tradition and at the same time to its renewal: in fact, Mnemosyne is the mother of all muses. How do you see the creative tension between old and new in an age like ours that has made novolatry something like a guiding principle?

You are right in calling this tension ‘creative’. To live within it presupposes a sense of gratitude for what is handed on to me, and a sense of being responsible for it. Gratitude and responsibility: two qualities that are being eroded, I’d say, in the world we inhabit, the world we have helped construct. So we must cultivate them, practise them, being like the Gospel steward who knew how to bring forth from his treasury ‘things both old and new’. That image presupposes the patient work of assembling the treasure first.

A quote that we can read in The shattering of Loneliness, maintains that “forgetting is typical of the night”. At the same time, the darkness is inescapable and we all face at some point the double desert of night and oblivion. In any case, I would like to focus on a particular form of this forgetfulness, which seems to me to be very characteristic of today’s cultural fashions: the loss of the memory of the good. In an effort to create a new world, the memory of the victims is sometimes exacerbated, leaving aside the seeds of good that have been sown over the centuries. Why is it that? Why are we, so often, not able to also recognize all the good that has already been done? Don’t you think that a memory incapable of forgiving -or gratitude- supposes a dangerous form of forgetting?

I do, and would express myself even more strongly: I’d call such forgetfulness suicidal, for it cuts me off from the source of life, dragging me into a vortex of death. At one point in my life, I must have been in my early twenties, I was haunted be the sheer scale of evil in the world, but the suffering of the innocent, by the darkness I could recognise in my own heart. One day, I was pouring all this out to a friend, a wise monk. He listened with admirable patience, then, when I came up for breath, intercepted, very calmly: ‘Never allow yourself to be fascinated by evil.’ A weight dropped from my shoulders, from my heart. I could see that I had, in fact, ceded to such fascination, but that I was free to let it go. If only we realised what freedom we possess to elect how we view the world. If only we realised that we are not prisoners of a given worldview or mentality, not prisoners even of our own past, however traumatic and difficult it may have been. To cultivate the remembrance of good is an essential exercise, a kind of ascesis. Intimately connected, of course, with the capacity for gratitude we talked bout earlier.

Along with memory and longing, the other great theme of his book is loneliness. We have constantly talked about her throughout this conversation. I would now like to bring this concept closer to our days. Do you think that there has been a change in general consciousness as a result of the pandemic that we are suffering? How has Covid-19 impacted loneliness and its dialectical opposite, the sharing and the community?

I would tend to be cautious. Of course, we have over the past eighteen months heard a tremendous amount of rhetoric about the importance of community, some of it very noble: rhetoric is not necessarily bad! Various voices have spoken of a new society, even a new humanity, as if the crisis of Covid marked an epochal division. And now? In my own country, Norway, all restrictions were lifted two weeks ago, to the joy and relief of everyone, naturally. We are, as it were, back to normal. And have we been changed? My impression here and now is that society is conspiring in a deliberate exercise of oblivion. It is as if Covid never happened; as if, like Sleeping Beauty, we had simply awakened from an unusually long slumber, fit for a good long binge in the shopping centre. This may just be a first reaction. Perhaps profound reflection will follow later? I tend to be rather sceptical, however, about humankind ability to learn from experience. Solzhenitsyn once said, in a radio speech: ‘Once I used to hope that experience of life could be handed on from nation to nation, and from one person to another, but now I am beginning to have doubts about this. Perhaps everyone is fated to live through every experience himself in order to understand.’ From this point of view, the great question is a personal one, directed at each of us: Do I wish to learn from what others have suffered, to be vulnerable to their pain and so attain, potentially, wisdom? Or does the prospect of wisdom fail to enthuse me?

I am interested in underlining the nuance that you have indicated: «Do I wish to learn from what others have suffered?» In contrast, identity-rooted cultures seem to place all their emphasis on social recognition of their own pain, of their own tragic history, so to speak, instead of listening to the pain of others. Do you think that this ideological tension, that I suspect leads to the atomization of the victimizing experience, is it or can it be fruitful at some point? Can you achieve wisdom by pursuing your own pain?

Some years ago, a friend of mine, a good and learned monk, was having serious knee surgery. He told me he was looking forward to his convalescence. He was going to re-read Evagrius and I don’t know what else: do all sorts of useful things. When I met him a few months later I asked him how he had got on with his programme of self-improvement. He said: ‘It was a flop. I was in such pain. The only thing I could think of was my knee.’ Pain carries an imperative. It requires to be owned, attended to, ideally understood. That has to happen first, there is no way around it, even if it does lead for a while to self-isolation or, as you say, atomisation. But this is only the first stage of healing. Something essential happens when I realise that my pain, for being mine, is not an exclusive pain; if what I have gone through awakens me to compassion with others. Even the most atrocious pain can turn out to have sense if it becomes a pathway to communion. ‘The Son of Man’, we read in the Letter to the Hebrews, ‘learnt obedience from what he suffered, and being made perfect he became a source of salvation for all who obey him’ (5:8f.). We find here a paradigm for our experience, too. My pain can become a source of salvation for others. In Christ, of course. Thereby pain can acquire great dignity — if it frees me instead of imprisoning me.

At the same time, throughout Europe the return of some identity populisms that we believed had been overcome is being accused. The two basic emotions underlying these political movements are, on the one hand, fear and, on the other, resentment, coupled with a general darkening of hope. How does our generation cope with fear and resentment? And where do you see tangible signs of hope?

 I’m not sure any generation has been particularly good at coping with fear and resentment. The challenge is to resist these passions (for that’s what they are) while they’re still formless. Anthony the Great used to counsel his disciples: When a thought comes to you, before you let it into your conscious mind and permit it to start its activities there, ask the thought where it comes from. If it is a good thought, inspired by the God who made this world in perfect kosmos, let it in; if it is an evil thought, inspired by chaos or even by the enemy of good (whom Anthony likened to a kicker-up of dust), refuse it entry. To practise such discernment, I must have a lucid understanding of my vulnerabilities, which are nesting boxes for anxiety. If our world is increasingly in the throes of fear and resentment, it is to a large extent, I believe, because it is such a vulnerable world. We don’t have the courage to admit it, so get on with lashing out at strangers instead. That said, there is also much, obvious good: concrete examples of charity and reconciliation, people who build bridges instead of walls. Were I to give a particular example, I think spontaneously of Barenboim and Said’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, the founding impulse of which — to bring representatives of implacably opposed nations together at another level of discourse, that of music — seems to me a parable for the task of creating a new world order.

My last question is directed at two big words: good and evil. In his correspondence during the interwar years with Carl Schmitt, Ernst Jünger argued that modernity does not suffer so much from the trivialization of good as from a dissolution of evil: since there are no clear evils, a kind of moral fog arises that ends up affecting each and every facet of our lives. The world has changed a lot since the 1930s, but I would like to know your opinion on the role that our ideas of good and evil play in the current problems.

I suppose much depends on whether I think of good and evil as ‘ideas’ or whether I recognise them as somehow substantial, invested with a permanent character. Let me qualify what I have said. Christianity does not believe in a primeval cosmic conflict as if good and evil coexisted on a par. Only the good is original and eternal; only the good will perdure eternally. Evil tends towards non-being and nothingness, towards the destruction of what is. I believe we see many signs, in our times, of such a tendency towards annihilation. Its hallmarks are exhaustion, sadness, despair. Our Lord, meanwhile, came to proclaim this fundamental message: ‘I am Life’. Do I long for life? Do I have a desire to see others live and a resolve to enable life? If not, why not? A great deal hinges on that ‘Why?’.

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