Chasing away the dogs

In the spring of 1956, when Hammarskjöld recorded in his private journal the striking aphorism in this entry, he might well have been in the Middle East conducting shuttle diplomacy. The aphorism has the scent of the desert in it, and of the long history of its peoples. The 1948 armistice agreement between Israel and its Arab neighbors had been increasingly ignored: Arab fedayeen guerrilla attacks at borders were answered by Israeli military attacks, and military attacks by fedayeen attacks in a vicious circle promising wider violence. The Security Council sent Hammarskjöld on a mission to restore adherence to the armistice. He did well, he earned the trust of the Egyptian and Israeli leaders, Gamal Abdel Nasser and David Ben-Gurion, and things quieted down. For a few months. Then everything flew apart again in a burst of deception and violence: the Suez Crisis had begun.

Hammarskjöld wrote:

On the field where Ormuzd has challenged Ahriman to battle, he who chases away the dogs is wasting his time. (Markings, 128)

Minds that coin aphorisms are of more than one sort. Some see the details of life in a colorful way, and voilà, the aphorism appears. A quick brush stroke, no great depth, but delicious, true, and witty. Others—this was so for Hammarskjöld—come to highly compressed statement by other routes: they encompass complex experience in a single flash of insight, they prefer simplicity and few words to complexity and many. In Hammarskjöld there was some detectable drive to record a maxim that will serve later as a reminder, a quick way to recall the essence of a lesson learned. Brevity proving that the lesson had been learned.

Who knows what experiences led him to these few words? He was never one to perceive all good on one side of a dispute, all bad on the other, and the Middle East was no exception. His adoption of the ancient Zoroastrian pattern of the eternal struggle between Ormuzd (or Ahura Mazda), the beneficent divinity, and Ahriman, the destructive divinity, is not symbolic shorthand for the protagonists in the dispute he was attempting to resolve. As always, he found positive, creative impulses somewhere in the agendas of all parties—and on this basis sought their recognition of common ground (see earlier entries on the search for common ground).

But in the border violence he must have noticed the handiwork of the two divinities, and a tendency—perhaps his own, perhaps evident in others also—to be distracted by trivial issues when the great issue remained urgent and unresolved. From this perception, so valuable to any participant in political processes, came an unforgettable aphorism.

Somewhere toward the end of that difficult spring of 1956, Hammarskjold recorded another aphorism in the private journal: "Let me read with open eyes the book my days are writing—and learn." (Markings, 131)

Readers who enjoy tramping through the scholarly weeds bordering zones of clarity will want to consider the remarkable etymology of the word used by Hammarskjöld, Ahriman, and the overall translation of the aphorism from Swedish. Where word origins are concerned, Middle-Persian Ahriman is said to derive from Early-Persian "Angra Mainyu." Here is the joy of the thing: Angra is cognate with our "angry", and "mainyu" cognate with our "mind". And so we can hear nearly lost in the depths of the word "Ahriman" this meaning: angry mind. Is it "angry mind" that pushes political processes in unhappy or destructive directions?

Translation issues recur frequently in the standard English version of Markings, created by the great 20th-century poet W.H. Auden, who knew no Swedish, in collaboration with a university scholar, Leif Sjöberg. In this instance, the Sjöberg/Auden translation is a marvel—it evokes worlds of meaning, one wouldn’t want any other words. But it fudges a point or two. Here is the Swedish original:

På den arena där Ormuzd tagit upp kampen med
Ahriman spiller den sin tid som jagar bort hundarna.

A literal translation would be: "In the arena where Ormuzd has taken up the struggle with Ahriman, he who chases away the dogs wastes his time." So it’s an arena, not a field, and the struggle between the gods has already been taken up, it’s not a challenge. And yet… the Sjöberg/Auden translation is beautifully worded, more spacious in its "field" than Hammarskjöld’s "arena", clear and sharp in its use of "challenge". Let’s live with it.