Those of us spoiled to a particular concept of freedom and the fear it’s coming unravelled might be well served to read Papillon once in a while. I didn’t mention it in my review of it here, but I should have: Papillon.
From one perspective the entire book is about freedom of a sort we, confined to our mental boxes containing what freedom is, refuse to acknowledge exists, can exist, for ourselves and those around us. It’s the story by Henri Charriere of his own life, searching and occasionally finding that kind of freedom while trapped in an environment few slaves in history could match for savagery endured. A deliberate, carefully devised savagery imposed by a modern, civilized nation.
A nation, I’ll add, not too unlike our own.
But what I intended to say about Papillon this post is one of the corner-of-the-eye aspects of freedom and Charriere’s finding of it during the most trying of times. Once when he was in solitary confinement so severe as to be intended to drive him insane, to break him, destroy him. Another when he was confined to a boat with other escapees mid-ocean.
These shreds of rhetorical freedom we savor can be unravelled like a wool sweater with a touch of pen to paper. The freedom Charriere describes are immune to confiscation. But they’re the responsibility of each of us to find within ourselves. Nobody’s capable of giving them to us by signing a paper. We can’t win them by force of arms by storming a Bastille, or Winter Palace.
The winds of history are eroding away those easy freedoms written on parchment and signed into some illusion of reality for most of the citizenry. That’s happening and there aren’t any heroes likely to ride in on white horses, nor White Houses to save them.
But we don’t have to allow ourselves the anguish of loss. A piece of each of us lives outside the rules and the rule-makers, the savages, the rapacious Viking kings of government and finance.
Maybe the starting place for finding real freedom requires losing the illusion that Viking kings can give it to us and take it away.
Choose Something Like a Star
by Robert Frost – 1947
O Star (the fairest one in sight),
We grant your loftiness the right
To some obscurity of cloud –
It will not do to say of night,
Since dark is what brings out your light.
Some mystery becomes the proud.
But to be wholly taciturn
In your reserve is not allowed.
Say something to us we can learn
By heart and when alone repeat.
Say something! And it says “I burn.”
But say with what degree of heat.
Talk Fahrenheit, talk Centigrade.
Use language we can comprehend.
Tell us what elements you blend.
It gives us strangely little aid,
But does tell something in the end.
And steadfast as Keats’ Eremite,
Not even stooping from its sphere,
It asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.
It isn’t as though you have a more favorable alternative.