Books: Circles of Perdition

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The Vacuum. Why did the traitors commit double treason by failing to defend the beliefs in whose name they had committed treason first? One of the most intelligent of totalitarians has tried to give the answer in a cry from the brink of the grave. In March 1938 Nikolai Ivanovich Bukharin, once one of the most powerful figures in Russia, made his last plea to the Soviet Supreme Court. He admitted that he was a traitor, and explained why he had confessed.

He said: "For three months I refused to say anything. Then I began to testify. Why? Because while in prison I made a revaluation of my entire past. For when you ask yourself: 'If you must die, what are you dying for?'—an absolutely black vacuity suddenly rises before you. . . . There was nothing to die for, if one wanted to die unrepentant. . . . And when you ask yourself: 'Very well, suppose you do not die; suppose by some miracle you remain alive, again for what? . . .' And at once the same reply arises. And at such moments, Citizen Judges, everything personal, all the personal incrustation, all rancor, pride and a number of other things, fall away, disappear. ... I am about to finish. I am perhaps speaking for the last time in my life. I am explaining how I came to realize the necessity of capitulating to the investigating authorities and to you, Citizen Judges."

In her own way, Miss West is saying the same thing when she writes of Dr. May: "A man with so dynamic a mind will be specially conscious of the vacuum left by the disappearance of God." For the horror of treason is its sin against the spirit. And for him who violates this truth there rises inevitably Bukharin's "absolutely black vacuity," which is in reality a circle of absolute loneliness into which neither father, wife, child nor friend, however compassionate, can bring the grace of absolution. For this loneliness is a penalty inflicted by a justice that transcends the merely summary justice of men. It is the retributive meaning of treason because it is also one of the meanings of hell.

The Ibsen Girl. Rebecca West is a Socialist by habit of mind, and a conservative by cell structure. She has the true genealogical instinct. "I am descended," she has written, "from one of the first governors of Madras. . . . One of my close relatives is counted as a maker of British Africa, and ... the more I live in intellectual circles the less does this heredity displease me."

She was born Cicily Fairfield, in London, in 1892. Her father had been a Confederate stretcher-bearer at the siege of Richmond in the U.S. Civil War. After returning to England he became a newspaperman. Cicily took the pen name, Rebecca West, in her teens, when concealment became necessary after she sold her first article to the Freewoman, a feminist magazine which her mother had forbidden her to read. Rebecca West is the name of a character in Ibsen's play, Rosmersholm.

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