Cold Friday – TIME

TIME

November 6, 1964

Books: Hegel’s Road to Walden
COLD FRIDAY by Whittaker Chambers. 327 pages. Random House. $5.95.

Whittaker Chambers spent his life searching for final answers. Spurred by “the need for truth” and “the fear of error,” his search carried him into what Albert Camus called “those waterless deserts where thought reaches its confines.” After the glaring publicity of the Alger Hiss trial and the 1952 publication of his own confessional autobiography Witness, Chambers withdrew to the seclusion of his Maryland farm. Often his first waking thought was, “Must I live through another day?” This posthumous book, made up of diary excerpts, letters, extended reflections on himself and his time, is the fruit of those years. Edited by Duncan Norton-Taylor, managing editor of FORTUNE, who had been a close friend of Chambers ever since the days he worked at Time Inc., Cold Friday records the despair, illness, and especially the courage of Chambers’ last years.

In Disgrace. Part of Chambers’ loneliness was the fact that he was a philosopher in an unphilosophical nation. He was a Hegelian, seemingly unaware or uncaring that Hegelianism had been in philosophic disgrace for half a century. Hegel believed that history moved in terms of a set of abstract forces said to be in “contradiction.” These, by the workings of another abstraction called the dialectic, would resolve themselves into a great and final synthesis in which man would become perfect within a perfect state. The attractions of such a view of history are, of course, obvious.

But it forced Chambers’ thought processes into a rigid either-or frame that, once accepted, he could never escape—and it led naturally to a trust in Marxism. He was incapable of dealing with ideas as an intellectual game. “For me,” he confessed, “an idea was the starting point of an act.” He entered college in the early ’20s as a sobersided conservative who thought Calvin Coolidge was the greatest Republican since Lincoln, and he left college convinced that the walls of civilization had cracked and were at the toppling point. “I felt that the world was too old,” Chambers wrote, “that it was late in its night, that that night was very dark, man was far from home, he lacked inner strength to make the effort, and, besides, the right way was lost.” It was this deeply felt mood of young man’s pessimism that led him to abandon religion and embrace Communism. To Chambers, “the crux of this matter is the question whether God exists. If God exists, a man cannot be a Communist, which begins with the rejection of God. But if God does not exist, it follows that Communism, or some suitable variant of it, is right.”

No Escape. Despite such entrapping juxtapositions, Chambers finally rejected Communism because it was ineradicably evil, but he wrote: “I have found that the mood of Communism (despite its atrocious features) is a mood of hope, while the West (despite its gracious features) promotes a mood of despair.”

In his letters, he struggled valiantly to define his beliefs, but again paradox overwhelmed him. Chambers wrote to William Buckley, editor of the National Review, that he stood within no orthodoxy, either religious or political, and that he was not a conservative. Chambers added: “I am a man of the Right because I mean to uphold capitalism in its American version. But I claim that capitalism is not, and by its essential nature cannot conceivably be, conservative.” Yet Chambers was struck by the fact that U.S. big businessmen are charmed and impressed by Communist leaders when they meet: “They find that they speak the same language, i.e., the language of power and action stripped of intellectual baggage.” And he noted: “The West believes that man’s destiny is prosperity and an abundance of goods. So does the Politburo.”

This is not to say, he added hastily, that the opposed ideologies are identical, but only that opposites grow alike as they contend for victory. The victory, as it seemed to him to be developing, was something that Hegel did not envisage, and that Chambers could not welcome. He was left with the dire conviction that both capitalism and the Politburo wanted and probably would get the nightmare world of 1984. In fact, Chambers concluded gloomily that “the whole technological development of civilization was a wrong turning,” and that “the only possible solutions are presently to be made by the Bombs.”

Of Wind & Sparrows. Too dusty an answer for a man who was fundamentally on the side of life? Probably. In compensation, Chambers turned more and more to the daily tasks of his farm and the cyclical change of seasons.

The finest writing in this book is the passages in which the fields and woods of Pipe Creek Farm become a Walden for this man who had wandered in far places. Muses Chambers:

The ground hog loved the light. The sparrow loved the light. Night falls. I often found myself thinking very concretely of people I have known who have long been dead.

You wonder what their ruinous remains look like after so long a separation—whether they have passed the condition of plain corrupting horror and have reached a skeletal minimum that produces only a mild repugnance. Above all, you wonder that they are completely forgotten. I may think of them once in a year, in ten years. They are an unreality that once lived, though it is impossible to grasp why, to what purpose.

Not Solutions but Pyres. The book’s title derives from the farm. “Cold Friday” is the farthest field to the north, and the one Chambers conceived to be his last stronghold, where he was “determined to root the lives of my children.” It was on the farm, three years ago, that Whittaker Chambers was stricken with a heart attack and died.[note]This was Chambers’s seventh heart attack – Editor (WhittakerChambers.org)[/note]

In his confrontation with the world, Whittaker Chambers both sinned and suffered greatly. But he was a man who took ideas seriously, and was willing to dare greatly for them. No one less daring can be wholly self-righteous about either his sins or his suffering. And sometimes there is a sense that he was resigned to both. In his apologia, he wrote: “There are no more solutions by argument… There are only martyrdoms, which are never solutions but pyres, whose flicker is addressed, not primarily to the present, but to a posterity that has not yet cohered out of chaos and old night.”

 

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