About evil (part 3)

Writing or speaking to trusted friends, and in the privacy of his journal, Dag Hammarskjöld recorded his understanding of evil in a more richly personal way than in public talks. About evils encountered in the course of his work as secretary-general, he had a wide range of attitudes: cutting, ironical, witty, coolly observant, combative, sad nearly beyond words. Some of that is evident this week. But there was another dimension, internal. He kept close watch on himself.
About his experience of the United Nations, Hammarskjöld was endlessly interesting. The following two extracts from letters reflect his private impressions, respectively at an early stage when everything was new and during the Suez crisis and its aftermath:

Of [the UN] I somehow cannot tell. It remains too preposterous—both evil and encouraging. The Thousand and One Nights—but the Thousand and One Nights with the Sermon on the Mount as a counterpoint. No, you cannot understand me; this must sound quite mad and still it is true.
(Letter to a friend early in his tenure as secretary-general)

One of the lasting experiences from the last months and weeks is that, with our so-called rising civilization, we do in no way see a decline in the art of lying. The modern media of communication, the modern entanglement of interests all over the world, have opened a door to a paradise for those who fight with words representing mala fide assumptions, false presentations, invidious comments, outright slander—and so on. If I were Hieronymus Bosch, I could paint a beautiful triptych in the colors of Hell and in celebration of this new great Harlot.
(DH letter to Bo Beskow, March 1957)

The Congo crisis of 1960-61 was an out-and-out nightmare. Rumors swirled, of course—including one about which Hammarskjöld’s pungent comment remains on record. Antoine Gizenga was a Congolese political leader loyal to Patrice Lumumba and critical of Hammarskjöld’s role in the Congo. 

The Gizenga campaign included the rumor that Hammarskjöld was working for Belgium because King Baudouin’s mother was a Swedish princess. Hammarskjöld characterized this slander as an ‘illustration of political life in a world of stupidity abused by evil’. (Urquhart, 421n)

Toward the end of his life, when the Congo crisis had worn thin his native optimism, Hammarskjöld was asked by his close friend, the artist Bo Beskow, how he was seeing things. The question was apparently something of a ritual between them. Hammarskjöld’s answer was altogether memorable:

I asked as I used to do on meeting him again, "Do you still have faith in man?" Meaning the individual on his own, not in mobs or masses or political parties. Dag had always up to then answered positively, but this time he looked sad and pensive and he said, "No, I never thought it possible, but lately I have come to understand that there are really evil persons—evil right through—only evil".
(Beskow, 181)

As noted earlier, Hammarskjöld kept close watch on himself. He often enough said in public talks that self-knowledge is crucially important for those—diplomats or others—who wish to contribute to what he called "peace and reason" in the world. In Markings he recorded an insight that requires no commentary:

We can reach the point where it becomes possible for us to recognize and understand Original Sin, that dark counter-center of evil in our nature—that is to say, though it is not our nature, it is of it—that something within us which rejoices when disaster befalls the very cause we are trying to serve, or misfortune overtakes even those whom we love.
    Life in God is not an escape from this, but the way to gain full insight concerning it. It is not our depravity which forces a fictitious religious explanation upon us, but the experience of religious reality which forces the night side out into the light…. (Markings, 149)