behesting . . . and the Historical experience of life

On the indomitable Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci

Listen! A journalist is a person who writes history in the same moment that history happens. And it is the damn best way to write history.

Oriana Fallaci

Roots  are what we live from. We  humans have two kinds: our biological roots that ground us in what we are, and our historical roots that ground us in who. Both arise out of the distant reaches of the past and sink their tentacles into the present, where alone we can draw the sustenance to mold ourselves and shape the future. We carry these roots with us wherever we go.

Our past and present are always with us. At any moment both are real. But they are not at all alike. To know who and what you came from is not enough to know who and what you are. To find this out you must go further. You must look at how you now do or do not take a stand— that is where you can see what you have and have not been so far.

For human beings, being human does not come naturally or easily. It comes hard, with effort, and is met with the greatest reluctance because being human means making choices and taking stands. That is what transforms human life into human lives, births the glory and tragedy of humankind,  and starts all history—personal and universal. To  read history is one thing, but to live historically is quite another. The essence of the latter lies in taking stands. Those who know this live differently from those who do not. They are the ones who resist oppression and thus struggle for freedom, who value will and hence keep alive the moral, and who, therefore, can see and know the heroic. One of these is Oriana Fallaci.

I do not feel myself to be, nor will I ever succeed in feeling like, a cold recorder of what I see and hear. On  every professional experience I leave shreds of my heart and soul; and I participate in what I see or hear as though the matter concerned me personally and were one on which I ought to take a stand…in fact, I always take one, based on a specific moral choice. (O. Fallaci, Interview with History, New York: Liveright Publishing, 1974, p. 9. The title shows that history is as alive for her as she is alive in it.)

In Europe Fallaci’s name is a household word. She lives in Italy in a villa outside Florence. Her father helps her tend the vineyards there since she is so often away, roaming the world as an international correspondent for L’Europeo. She keeps an apartment in Manhattan to occasionally “live in” in her love affair with America, which no longer burns as brightly as it once did. Her articles appear in Esquire, The New York Times Magazine on Sundays, the New Republic, Ms, and in other magazines and newspapers at home and abroad. From time to time she is interviewed on national television. There are also her many books that, regardless of their focus, whether on warring nations, warring sexes, the space program, powerful and poignant novels, or tough interviews are filled with passages of what it means to be one who does not flinch either at being human or being alive.

In If the Sun Dies, written in 1967, Fallaci typically immersed herself in all aspects of what she was then working on: NASA and the U. S. space program—laughing,  crying, sweating, hating, and loving her way through this science-fiction dream just then coming true, and one she believed was so crucial to the future of humankind—an assignment complete with Wernher von Braun, Willy Ley, Canaveral and Houston,  Dee O’Hara (chosen as the astronauts’  nurse because of her experience in obstetrics!); technical films; briefings on fuels and astronomy; John C. Lilly’s  work with dolphins on interspecies communication; scores of renowned scientists, technical experts and military officers; launching pads, countdowns, lift-offs; accidents and tragic pilot deaths; missile ranges and tracking stations—and after it all, found herself stopped cold by what she saw in the “third group” of astronauts turned out by NASA. So different were they from the original seven (Glenn, Shepard, Schirra, Grissom, Cooper, Slayton, Carpenter), that  it  seems as if they had skipped their thirties altogether, by jumping from their twenties to land in their mid-forties and full middle age. So she addressed them thus:

Because I’m having fun in my thirties…I’m not dulling them with a precocious carbon-copy old age.…They’re wonderful years… because they’re free, rebellious, untrammeled,  because the anguish of waiting is over, the melancholy of decline hasn’t begun, because we’re lucid, finally.…If we’re religious, we’re convinced of our religion. If we’re atheists, we’re convinced atheists…we don’t fear the mockery of the young because we’re young too, we don’t fear the reproof of adults because we’re adults too…We are a field of ripened grain…no longer green and not yet dried: lymph flows through us at the right pressure, full of life, and our joy is alive, and our grief is alive, we laugh and cry as we shall never be able to again…so then why isn’t it like this with you? {If the Sun Dies, New York: Atheneum, 1967, p. 307)

This piece is typical. Her interviews are much like the skirmishes in a fencing class as the instructor engages various students in mock matches throughout the floor. First, the formal stance is assumed that begins the engagement. There is that closely guarded, stalking and moving about by both contestants. Soon the fledgling, sensing an opportunity, seizes the chance to score a point, and suddenly—in a skillful motion that turns the other’s movement to her own advantage—the instructor executes a graceful SSSSSWWWWWOOOOOEEEEEEPP-THUNK  that  goes right to the heart. And it is all over. The two contestants know then just where things stand.

Yet  there is more to  Fallaci’s  interviews than  finding out  where someone stands. Interviews that boil down to “so-and-so said such-and- such about this-and-that” are only half an inch above gossip columns. Try as one may it is impossible to boil any Fallaci interview down to just that, for she always gets at something much more:  the person participating in the making of history. That is something which cannot be seen with the naked eye, nor can one take a picture of a person or catch history on film, because when it is developed both will be gone. Only images remain, pictures of people doing something—but both the subject and subjects are gone. No machine or piece of equipment can capture the subjectivity that makes history. It always takes a person to reach the realm of the personal. Those involved in history know that being a person is part of their trade.*

And what is this vibrant reality called  person? It is biology making history into identity. It is being and becoming molded into a self. Person can neither be given nor taken, it can only be lived or died. Person and freedom are found together. You are not born a person, you become one; you are not born free, you must win freedom. Do not expect this to be easy or to meet with applause. Those who applaud it do not clap so much for you as for what they would like to be able to do themselves. Thus their applause is only a wish, which evaporates  when it really counts, when it is time to take a stand—and so it counts for nothing. What does count are those who do not applaud, who do not need to wish because they already know, and who quietly stand with you. No, if you seek to become a person, then you must not only expect resistance, you must learn to thrive on it.

Don’t  let yourselves  be regimented by dogma, by uniforms, by doctrines, don’t let yourselves be fooled by those who command you, by those who promise, who frighten, by those who want to replace one master with another, don’t be a flock of sheep, for heaven’s sake, don’t hide under the umbrella of other people’s guilt, think with your own brains, remember that each of you is somebody, a valuable individual, responsible, his own maker, defend your being, the kernel of all freedom, freedom is a duty, a duty even more than a right. (O. Fallaci, A Man, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1980, p.2)

Is it really this hard? Yes. Then is it worth the trouble? You  must consider the alternative and answer that for yourself. But why is it like this? Because most people decide to finish with life before life finishes with them. They start to drift, and gradually begin to sink from the weight of their own unspent vitality, until they come to settle in its residue. And if you decide not to do this; if you choose to take a stand that shows you will not join in the hoards and herds of the half-alive, then you have made it clear that you will not go with them, that you will stand all by yourself if necessary, and that will threaten them—and you will have exposed them too, and that will anger them, and they will see you as the enemy…and that is right. For if your way prevails, theirs will die. And if their way prevails, you will die. That is how it is and how it has always been.

To take a stand is to cut away from the crowd. Those who do so never number more than a few and never like crowds. If you do like crowds or if the crowd likes you—beware, lest you sell your soul. Person and freedom are always found together, but crowds and taking stands are not. It is very hard to take a personal stand in a crowd. Crowds try to work their way with numbers; crowds oppress, and oppression survives in the world only because the crowds do not resist it.

I have always looked on disobedience toward the oppressive as the only way to use the miracle of having been born. I have always looked on the silence of those who do not react or who indeed applaud as the real death of a woman or a man. And listen: for me the most beautiful monument to human dignity is still the one I saw on a hill in the Peloponnesus. It was not a statue, it was not a flag, but three letters that in Greek signify No. (O. Fallaci, Interview with History, p. 13)

 When one is moved, humanity is stirred, no matter how slightly. To fail to stand up then for something one has been stirred by kills the possibilities it may have offered for a better way to live. Something  is lost for everyone when a person capitulates at the given hour. But to those who try, though later it may seem like a floating island in some uncharted sea which they are now at a loss to find or  reach again, they nevertheless will know that once, for just a moment, they actually stood upon it and felt its soil beneath their feet—even those will never forget what it is like for a person to stand. Because of who and what she is, Oriana Fallaci is deeply moved at the sight of someone who has the dignity to stand and speak in the face of impossible odds. To be so stirred, as she was here and is still, is the surest sign that what she is stirred by is in her too. It is a signal from her own soul. And it is in these stirrings of the soul that we begin to discern that movement in life which is the will.

Life, Francois, is a death sentence. But you’re right not to tell me so. And just because we’re condemned to death we must cross it well, we must fill it without wasting a step, without sleeping for a second, without being afraid of making mistakes or smashing ourselves—we who are men, not angels or beasts but men.**

And what would freedom be but empty if it did not have within it the carrying out of what one wills? This movement of will is what makes the self, and, eventually, a life. They arise out of the two most fundamental human choices of all: to do what one really wants to do, and not to do what one really wants to do—and both of these are acts of will. These acts make all human history what it is and isn’t.

Not by chance, if you are aware of it, does it consume you with a hundred feelings of inadequacy. Not by chance, when I find myself going through an event or an important encounter, does it seize me like anguish, a fear of not having enough eyes and ears and enough brains to look and listen and understand like a worm hidden in the wood of history. (O. Fallaci, Interview with History, p. 11.)

Other  journalists marvel at what Fallaci is able to get out of an interview. When Mike Wallace, interviewed her for CBS’s 60 Minutes, he asked: “You’re the only one who gets this special quality from—whether it is Henry Kissinger or Nguyen Van Thieu or the Shah of Iran. Why are you able to do this?” And she answered, “Because I do not go to them as a journalist…I am a person who goes to speak with another person sincerely curious, not in a superficial way. I really want to understand them.” The reason she gets so much out of people is that she puts so much into life. She acts as the full person she is, with all her doubts, desires, arrogance and humility, hesitancy and brashness.

Those who live their humanity to the hilt never need to demand respect because they already command it. Their commanding presence is the direct result of their being so in command of their own person—and these are the ones who know the true magnitude and range of human responsibility. Their very lives summon others to account for what they have done or will do with theirs. A behest is a command, injunction, or bidding, and to behest formerly meant “to vow or promise” (OED). Behesting means fashioning one’s  “more” into  an historical act and experience of life. Those who do this not only have a sense of history, and are thus able to write about it, but they can make and live it too. Only those who are able to live with a No are free to ask for any Yes in the world.

But you had clearly understood it would end like this, and if ever you had a doubt, it vanished the moment you took the deep breath that sucked you to the other side of the tunnel: into the well where those who would like to change the world are regularly thrown, those who would like to bring down the mountain, give voice and dignity to  the  flock that  bleats inside its  river of  fleece. The disobedient. The misunderstood and solitary. The poets. The heroes of senseless fables but without which life would have no meaning and to fight knowing that to lose would be pure madness. And yet for one day, that day that counts, that salvages, that often comes when you’ve given up hoping, and when it comes it leaves in the air a microscopic seed from which a flower will bloom: even the flock understood this, bleating within its river of fleece.


*  Personal concern and involvement with issues has everything to do with history. As Allan Nevins wrote in The Gateway to History: “For above all, it is the historical point of view, the historical method of approach—that  is, the spirit of critical inquiry  for the whole truth—which, when applied to the past, makes history” (Garden City, Anchor Books, revised 1962).

And the English historian, R. G. Collingwood, pointed out in his autobiography, “We study history in order to see more clearly into the situation in which we are called upon to act. Hence the plane on which, ultimately, all problems arise is the plane of ’real’ life: that to which they are referred for their solution is history.” (The Idea of History, New York: Oxford University Press, 1970)

** Fallaci’s words here run very much in the same vein as those of another great solitary soul, Pascal: “It is dangerous to make man see too clearly his equality with the brutes without showing him his greatness. It is also dangerous to make him see his greatness too clearly apart from his bruteness. It  is still more dangerous to leave him in ignorance of both.”

Author, actor, playwright/composer, psychologist, philosopher, and Episcopal priest. Born in Nebraska on the Great Plains, where the American West begins. Enlisted in the Marine Corps upon graduating high school, with college and seminary following immediately thereafter. Active in the professions listed here. With the abiding emphasis being on both the modes of human becoming and the meaning individuals enact and embody as life unfolds up to one's very last breath.

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