A few years ago, my daughter and I were watching Brian Lamb interview Iris Chang. My daughter was no more a child, but she asked me (and I quite readily agreed) to turn it off for neither of us could bear the graphics and descriptions of the Rape of Nanking. I respected her for that book, for bringing to attention something we all needed to know. But if we could not stand it for those ten minutes on television, how heavy must it be for someone immersed in, writing about, thinking about such things. I assume the suicide comes from all the personal everyday reasons people commit suicide – but in her study, I would have turned from life, too. And perhaps her willingness to face those moments that show us how depraved we can be is a kind of heroism, too. (But I still won’t be able to read what people like Ms. Chang describe.)
9 thoughts on “Iris Chang”
Suicide is one response to immersion in human evil. Providentially, I stumbled on this essay at a critical moment in my personal development. I was pleased to find it online. It points toward another response.
Thanks, Lex. (I feel quite lucky to be in conversations with the blog.) It is heartening and even beautiful.
My sense of the article (and I will need to reread it) is that with complete confinement in which nothing is permissible, man is free; that freedom allows him to hear the voice of his soul and therefore reach transcendence. This article offers an argument for the reality of such mystic moments. And seems yet another affirmation that paradox is at the center of most Christian beliefs. Or, as Donne would say, “for I, except you enthrall me, never shall be free.”
Chang (I assume) was interested in the diaries and journals and reports and photographs of people to whom everything was permissible; in the rape of Nanking as well as in prisoner of war camps, the victimizers were freed from the rules of civilization–ones designed to define the community–and able to listen to the hard, cold voice of their will.
The solace we can find from the essay is real but rather oblique when the focus (as Chang’s was) is on the victimizer rather than the victim.
By blowing her brains out by the side of the road, Iris Chang visited as much tragedy on her husband and 2-year old child as some of the much braver women who actually lived through the Rape of Nanking had to bear. I know depression can be very insidious, but Chang lived what to the outside world seemed like a fairy-tale life, and she squandered it all. She had other important stories that she should have lived to tell.
I don’t know enough about Iris Chang to comment, other than to express sadness. However, many people immerse themselves in the study of evil without becoming suicidal or even depressed. Indeed some people have the opposite reaction: how fortunate I am, how good my life is. A guy I knew used a similar rationale to explain why he listened to blues music. This is not necessarily a spiritual response, though some people express it in spiritual terms. Other people have sincerely spiritual responses to similar stimuli. Still others become depressed. There is an array of responses, but, if anything, human nature tends more towards excessive optimism than excessive pessimism.
I missed ChicagoGrrl’s comment while I was composing my own. She makes a good point.
“My sense of the article (and I will need to reread it) is that with complete confinement in which nothing is permissible, man is free; that freedom allows him to hear the voice of his soul and therefore reach transcendence.”
I haven’t read the linked article, but Ginny’s line brings to mind Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s descrption (“Gulag”, vol. I) of a Soviet mathematician who continued his work on calculations for things like mechanical springs and formulae for volumetric anti-aircraft fire in the death-cell, and also Henry David Thoreau’s metaphysical analysis of prison walls (“Civil Disobedience”).
The common theme here is an individual moral fortitude that nothing can touch.
Billy, read the article. Solzhenitsyn figures prominently.
I can see why the theme was familiar to me.
I have a book describing the experience of one Alexander Dolgun, an American working a routine job in the American embassy in Moscow. In 1948, he was snatched off the street, convicted of completely fabricated charges, and off he went into the machine for twenty-four years.
Along the way, he spent time in Sukhanovka, the most dread of the prisons in the Moscow area. The regime there drove him to very involved calculation of a fairly grisly suicide. (Briefly, it involved crushing his own head with the heavy fold-up steel bed in his cell, which required quite a trick.)
He did not do it, but he doesn’t explain why in the book. That’s because he was in constantly semi-conscious delirium through the end of his time in Sukhanovka, until he was transferred to Butyrka, which was still terrifying, but slack by comparison. He describes asking himself, near the end of Sukhanovka: “If you’ve gone away somewhere, why keep the body living?”
He draws no explicit conclusion in the whole book, but the whole of the story makes it clear that he simply wasn’t constituted to kill himself even when he’d made up his mind to do just that. As he lost his mind, temporarily, something far more primal in his constitution was able to see his body through.
My conclusion: some people just have it, and some don’t.
That’s a good link, Lex. Thanx.
Give the book a try. I think it helps to contemplate what people are capable of. In our current situation in Iraq, it helps to understand how bad things can get, what kind of depravity our troops may face or how they may be tempted to respond.
When people question the professionalism, courage or humanity of US troops, even including the abuse at the Iraq prison, it is comforting to know that – historically and currently – US troops are the gold standard in compassionate battle (not an oxymoron).
It is an outstanding book, go slow, put it down when you must, take a deep breath and pick it up again.
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