The Soul of the World

Book Review: Essays on the definition of terror and the consciousness of transformation.
Hands holding candle photo by Szymon Mazurek

Photo by Szymon Mazurek, iStock.

“The soul of the world!” Not a phrase we’ll hear in election speeches, not one that comes up in talk about our ongoing wars. But the writers, teachers, poets and prophets gathered in this book are remembering that soul. 

The essays in Transforming Terror turn our manipulated understanding of terrorism inside out. What stares from these pages is terror, a thing belonging not to those who inflict it or those who retaliate, but to those who feel it.  

"The world gets better. It also gets worse. The time it will take you to address this is exactly equal to your lifetime." —from Rebecca Solnit's essay "Hope in the Dark"

One path the essays take is personal, psychological—how the victim experiences terror and what may be done to “heal” it—and ultimately reassuring to us as people who think our hearts are in the right place. A task, the giant task of improvement, is repeatedly imagined for us, and we’re seen as up to it. In this country, liberal impulses often act as their own gratification, but in the hands of Susan Griffin, who co-edited the book, the concern with healing moves far beyond liberalism and into a radical protectiveness of all life.

Transforming Terror book cover

Transforming Terror: Remembering the Soul of the World
Edited by Karin Lofthus Carrington and Susan Griffin
University of California Press, 2011, 370 pages, $24.95

Support YES! when you buy here from an independent bookseller.

The other path, more likely to shame than reassure us, is political, factual, shocking, and visionary. Vision is not optimism. It is scalding, in pieces by Wendell Berry (“rogue” violence excuses our own, while a systematic, violent overreaching wipes out lives, economies, and the land), Vandana Shiva (industrial devastation of villages is terrorism), Eqbal Ahmad (the label “terrorist” shifts with the political winds), Daniel Ellsberg (our own repeated threats of nuclear first-use are terrorism). It is somber, in Congresswoman Barbara Lee’s speech opposing force after 9/11. It is humbling, in Michael Nagler’s eloquent essay on the risks Gandhi’s followers accepted along with the beauty and practicality of satyagraha.

The one-by-one approach of the more psychological pieces, relying on personal transformation, may be out of scale with the sweep of Berry’s manifesto, or Susan Sontag’s tribute to activist martyrs, or even Amos Oz’s suggestion—the only funny one in the book—of a university department of Comparative Fanaticism. Yet the goal the psychologists set here is more than the familiar American one of selfhood. They believe we can mine our natures not for more satisfactions but for a hidden ore of goodness. They take seriously the idea of a world-soul, and use a kind of chaos theory to make the claim that private changes of heart can set off a swell of peacemaking in the world. 

Acting on principle is, we’re told, a good in itself. But it is still a political act, in the sense that you’re not doing it for yourself. You don’t do it just to be in the right, or to appease your own conscience; much less because you are confident your action will achieve its aim. You resist as an act of solidarity. With communities of the principled and the disobedient: here, elsewhere. In the present. In the future.
from Susan Sontag’s essay “On Courage and Resistance”

A wonderful effect of this book is to put us in the presence of heroes: Gandhi, Vinoba Bhave, the Israeli refuseniks, the extraordinary Marla Ruzicka, killed in Iraq while working to publicize the terror the invasion unleashed on civilians. Rebecca Solnit’s enlivening essay “Hope in the Dark,” under no illusions but never resigned, shows us how the two paths of Transforming Terror might actually converge, bringing forth new heroes. “Where there is danger,” the poet Hölderlin wrote, “The saving powers grow too.”

In the midst of the information-storm—already bringing us, from think tanks, the idea that leftist South American regimes foster terrorism—is enlightenment still possible? Yes. If our elected officials can’t find it, we can send them this passionate collection. We can also look past them, stop conjuring a circle of fanatics sitting on a rug, summon some passion of our own, and get to work. As Susan Sontag wrote, “The likelihood that your acts of resistance cannot stop the injustice does not exempt you from acting.” To take with us, we have this book of radical good will.


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