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A Life, Chapter 1 (excerpt)

Copyright © The University of Michigan Press 2013. Published with permission.

“You see,” he once said, “even a very small dent may lead to a rift, and a rift may lead to an opening and you may break in through the wall. . . . The interesting thing is, is this a dent which may lead to a rift?” He was speaking of the search for nuclear disarmament. A dent that leads to a rift is needed here also because Dag Hammarskjöld is all but forgotten. His star rises astronomically on special occasions and anniversaries, and declines until the next. Yet his wisdom and methods, and his focused verve in the face of difficulty, offer crucial guidance and inspiration for our time. Secretary-general of the United Nations for more than eight years (1953–61), he endowed the organization with new methods and dignity, and left a vivid written legacy that can speak powerfully to many now who carry public responsibilities or have in mind lives of service in communities large or small. A man of the mid-20th century and of the UN, he is more: a classic figure awaiting clarity of recognition.

A small but global tribe of political scientists, working diplomats, NGO participants, and scholars of literature and religion know the Hammarskjöld legacy well. They are aware of his struggles and achievements as secretary-general; he set the standard. They know the value of his political thought, which is as much an enduring reflection on the human condition as it is a response to specific circumstances. They are reinterpreting his politics, exploring the previously little-known record of his youth and early career in Sweden, gradually publishing his correspondence, and revising translations of Markings. To this audience that knows him well, I promise new perspectives and more than enough unfamiliar documents to reward their attention. A further promise: I will not rehash their work. 

And then there are the Old Believers, men and women for whom their reading of Markings decades ago (and many times since) was a notable event of their lives. A surprise bestseller in the first year or so after its publication in English in 1964, Markings is a spiritual classic of the 20th century. Although it has long since dropped off bestseller lists, it is likely to have a place in the canon of literature to which people far into the future will turn. Like the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, it records the thoughts at quiet moments of an exceptional man engaged at the highest level of responsibility in world affairs. Like the Confessions of St. Augustine, it is an exhaustingly honest exercise in autobiography. And like Pascal’s Pensées, its scope is vast, from unflinching observations of human nature—his own and others’—to moments of transcendent perception surely granted only to those whom the gods love. Markings was deliberately left unpublished in his lifetime; one person knew of it, no one had read it. 

For these Old Believers, Markings is the treasure, and the rest—the immense work at the United Nations, the speeches and public writings ranging over so much of human experience—can be courteously ignored. Their attitude reverses the attitude typical of scholars and diplomats for whom the shattering self-interrogation of the journal, its intimate engagement with issues of faith, hope, and love, and its delight in refined literary expression—all that the Old Believers most care for—tend to mean little. 

There is a third cohort: men and women of a certain age who remember Hammarskjöld with respect but without detail. Some seniors say, “Wasn’t he a mystic? Why do I think that?” Others: “Yes, I remember him. That must date me.” They would have seen covers of Time magazine that carried his portrait—the first, businesslike and direct in 1955 for the 10th anniversary of the United Nations, or perhaps the third, summer 1960, offering an icon-like allegory of the Congo Crisis: Hammarskjöld’s face, softly lit with raised blue eyes, set against a mighty storm in the background. Members of this cohort might also remember something of his courageous handling of the Suez Crisis of 1956–57 and his later struggle with Nikita Khrushchev. And of course they recall his tragic death in an air crash in central Africa, mid-September 1961.

Readers and rememberers of such widely differing ages, interests, and levels of knowledge reflect the fact that Hammarskjöld left a dual legacy. That legacy has been difficult to assimilate. Had he been exclusively the outstanding diplomat and diplomatic thinker of his era, an immensely creative influence on the United Nations when the institution was young, that would have been, so to speak, just fine. Had he been exclusively a religious author, a sensitive explorer of human identity under modern conditions, he might have earned a place beside Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Buber, Thomas Merton and other engaged religious thinkers of our time—and that too would have been fine. But he was both. The record on both sides is powerful. Hammarskjöld’s single act of multidimensional living challenges understanding.

But there is no reason to mistrust altogether how things fall out. Hammarskjöld is a man for this time. What he was, his thought, and his conduct of his high office can and should be an inspiration for our time. But new acts of understanding are needed. We must describe all this, name it, see its pattern, and that process of recovery has begun. A gifted political scientist, Manuel Fröhlich, recently published a study of Hammarskjöld’s political ethics that takes a long step toward integrating the two sides of his legacy, the externally focused statesmanship and the internally directed inquiry into human being. The public life led Fröhlich to Markings; from a point of departure in his university discipline, he set out to see Hammarskjöld whole and to project that larger understanding into today’s global politics. This book takes the opposite course to the middle. It originates in an Old Believer’s decades of familiarity with Markings, followed by curiosity about the ways in which the mind that shaped Markings operated in the world at large. But that curiosity was not wholly random. It was impelled by a question, and led to another question.

Sanctuary and conflict

The first question turns on the notion of sanctuary. Sanctuary is an experience sought and needed in today’s anxious world. It can be found in worship communities that value moments of quiet. It can be found in traditional liturgies—for example, in the spacious flow of Gregorian chant. It can be found in theaters, concert halls, and opera houses where art mirrors experience with love and insight. It belongs also to the meditation hall, now naturalized in the West although its roots are Asian. More than a few of us know the peaceful order of such spaces: the regular rows of cushions, the still figures of men and women seated in meditation, perhaps a sacred image on an altar. What a perfect place and means for learning to be human from the inside out.

But as one of Hammarskjöld’s preferred authors, Hermann Hesse, taught with elegant precision in The Glass Bead Game, sanctuary is tied to the world. Joseph Knecht, leading member of a spiritual elite in Hesse’s secluded fictional province of Castalia, discovers that he must descend into the world to be of service on terms, however humble, that worldly people value. Within days of his arrival he perishes, and the book concludes on that note. Having written an altogether satisfactory masterpiece in the preceding 400 pages, Hesse leaves to us the issue of what happens next. What happens next is crucial.

Many know something of spirituality in the sanctuary of a spiritual community or in their privacy. But what becomes of it, how does it serve and find paths forward when it must return to the world—when it has duties? Does it enrich a man or woman’s dedication to work? Does it strike deep roots in plain things or is it aloof? Does it touch life and allow itself to be touched only because there is no practical alternative? Does it learn from troubled circumstances and difficult people or does it long for the close of business so that it can go off on its own? Is it denatured by stress or does it somehow thrive? Does it make one more clear-sighted and strategic when strategy is needed—or hamper mobility by draping it in holy vestments, in slow ideas? Only Hammarskjöld and a very few others of our era can answer these questions—he best of all.

Hammarskjöld had a sense of sanctuary. He even sponsored the creation of a small sanctuary on the ground floor of United Nations headquarters, the Room of Quiet, for which he wrote a beautiful short statement still available at the entrance. By the time he became secretary-general, he was a man of profound inner life, a veteran of bitter internal wars and hard-won peace revealed in the pages of Markings. He was capable of new and authentic prayer. And during his years at the UN he became a renowned public figure, widely and justly admired for what those close to him described as his “lightning-like” capacity to understand challenging situations, foresee their possible lines of development, take measures, and persevere with agility and tireless attention. Further, what he said in many different forums, from the Security Council and General Assembly to press conferences and addresses worldwide, was an education in itself. There was little he hadn’t thought about.

To approach the dual legacy of Dag Hammarskjöld, we’ll do best to take things as he did, as they come along. We will join him in his diplomatic concerns without a glance toward the exit, toward sanctuary. There was no such glance in him. Long before the popularization of notions about being “here and now”—the value of living in the present—he had made that discovery on his own and ever after strived to stay put, just where he was, looking after present needs. However, when at last he had time for himself and returned to his long exploration of the inner dimensions of experience and the subtleties of literature and the arts, we should follow him there too, even to the edge of what he called “the unheard-of,” where he encountered the sacred or found prayer. His commitment to the work of the United Nations was entire and wholehearted. He gave himself unsparingly. He was made for that. His commitment to an inner path was no less entire. He was made for that. How did these two intersect and reinforce each other? How did Hammarskjöld become able to carry the clarity and poise of the sanctuary into the world? What can be said of his way, without sentimentalizing or dismissing it?  

Here and there in his writings are short versions of the answer to that question as he lived it from day to day. For example, in a letter of 1958 to the Swedish author, Eyvind Johnson, he wrote: “The other day I was forced by a journalist to try to formulate my views on the main requirements of somebody who wishes to contribute to the development of peace and reason. I found no better formulation than this: ‘He must push his awareness to the utmost limit without losing his inner quiet, he must be able to see with the eyes of others from within their personality without losing his own.” But the short version is too short. A book is needed.

No intellectual activity more ruthless

A second question grows out of the first. What is a political education? The question has an old-fashioned ring, as if Henry Adams has risen to ask it. Adams didn’t fail to look at the issue—for example, in an autobiographical passage (written in his characteristic third person) reporting his response as a young man in Washington to turf battles in the administration of President Ulysses Grant. “The selfishness of politics was the earliest of all political education,” he wrote. “Adams had nothing to learn from its study; but the situation struck him as curious—so curious that he devoted years to reflecting upon it.” The need for a political education and the uses of that education once acquired are so evident to some that the question hardly occurs; they just live it. But others, more idealistic or remote, come to it slowly as life thrusts them into positions of influence or leadership. Such people realize they have never deliberately explored the nature of political relationships and purposes, and have failed to construct a point of view. They have an inner compass, but events quickly show that it’s incompletely marked and not always sensitive enough. As well, their maps don’t reach far enough from home. “Here be monsters” starts just offshore. If they intend to serve a community rather than burden it with their inexperience, what do they need to understand? Challenging activities require discipline, but what discipline suits this particular challenge? What is a principled political mind? What is a kind political mind—a mind that recognizes and values kinships? What is a principled and kind political mind that is neither naïve nor irresolute?

Hammarskjöld is again among the few in our era who can answer the question. The education offered by Hammarskjöld won’t appeal to people who entirely mistrust political processes and enter them unwillingly or enter largely for their own benefit. But it is perfectly suited to those who cannot abandon hope for common sense and goodness in the larger community and who for that reason willingly expose themselves to the hazards of political processes. “Politics and diplomacy are no play of will and skill,” Hammarskjöld said to a university audience in 1955, “where results are independent of the character of those engaging in the game. Results are determined not by superficial ability but by the consistency of the actors in their efforts and by the validity of their ideals. Contrary to what seems to be popular belief, there is no intellectual activity which more ruthlessly tests the solidity of a man than politics. Apparently easy successes with the public are possible for a juggler, but lasting results are achieved only by the patient builder.” The education he offers is for patient builders.