Only a Monster Never Gives Up Hope

Among the appalling sights Primo Levi witnessed at Auschwitz was the fervent prayer of a prisoner grateful to be spared the ovens. "I see and hear old Kuhn praying aloud," Levi wrote, "with his beret on his head, swaying backwards and forwards violently. Kuhn is thanking God because he has not been chosen." Levi was as baffled as he was angry: "Does Kuhn not understand that what has happened today is an abomination, which no propitiatory prayer, no pardon, no expiation by the guilty, which nothing at all in the power of man can ever clean again? If I was God, I would spit at Kuhn's prayer." I thought of Levi the other day, watching the Donmar Warehouse's fine production of King Lear. I've never been at ease with the character of Edgar, the "good" son who save his father (twice) from suicide and despair. Edgar has, at the end, an aspect of Kuhn. And Shakespeare knew it.


When you read the play in high school you learn that Edgar is pure and good. With his "foolish honesty," he's done out of his inheritance by the schemes of his bastard half-brother Edmund. Hunted for a crime he didn't commit, Edgar disguises himself as a madman and, twice, leads his blinded old father away from thoughts of suicide. It's Edgar who believes always that "the gods are just," and Edgar who says the famous lines "Men must endure/Their going hence, even as their coming hither./ Ripeness is all." We must, he says, have faith, and trust in good. He never seems to grasp that some abominations shouldn't be endured—that there is a point where respect for the gods becomes contempt for people. Such true believers may be necessary to see communities through the worst times. But they are, in their indifference to suffering, monsters.

I think it's significant, then, that when King Lear begins to die before the bodies of all his daughters, it is Edgar who tries to stop him, crying "look up, my Lord." Aesthetically and morally, Lear has earned this death; he needs to go. Edgar's act is literally ugly, and his compassion is revealed to be fanaticism. Shakespeare makes the truly noble Kent intervene to stop the commissar of virtue: "Vex not his ghost: O, let him pass! he hates him much /That would upon the rack of this tough world/Stretch him out longer."

It's uncanny, as A.D. Nuttall has written, to keep finding that whatever you've thought, Shakespeare thought of it first. But there it is. In the 17th century, he seems to have intuited that type of the 20th century religion and politics, the person whose faith is insane, and whose compassion is without mercy.

Illustration: Lear and Cordelia in Prison. William Blake, via Wikimedia.

'Upstreamism': Your zip code affects your health as much as genetics

Upstreamism advocate Rishi Manchanda calls us to understand health not as a "personal responsibility" but a "common good."

Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Upstreamism tasks health care professionals to combat unhealthy social and cultural influences that exist outside — or upstream — of medical facilities.
  • Patients from low-income neighborhoods are most at risk of negative health impacts.
  • Thankfully, health care professionals are not alone. Upstreamism is increasingly part of our cultural consciousness.
Keep reading Show less

Meet the Bajau sea nomads — they can reportedly hold their breath for 13 minutes

The Bajau people's nomadic lifestyle has given them remarkable adaptions, enabling them to stay underwater for unbelievable periods of time. Their lifestyle, however, is quickly disappearing.

Wikimedia Commons
Culture & Religion
  • The Bajau people travel in small flotillas throughout the Phillipines, Malaysia, and Indonesia, hunting fish underwater for food.
  • Over the years, practicing this lifestyle has given the Bajau unique adaptations to swimming underwater. Many find it straightforward to dive up to 13 minutes 200 feet below the surface of the ocean.
  • Unfortunately, many disparate factors are erasing the traditional Bajau way of life.
Keep reading Show less

Golden blood: The rarest blood in the world

We explore the history of blood types and how they are classified to find out what makes the Rh-null type important to science and dangerous for those who live with it.

Abid Katib/Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • Fewer than 50 people worldwide have 'golden blood' — or Rh-null.
  • Blood is considered Rh-null if it lacks all of the 61 possible antigens in the Rh system.
  • It's also very dangerous to live with this blood type, as so few people have it.
Keep reading Show less

Scientists create a "lifelike" material that has metabolism and can self-reproduce

An innovation may lead to lifelike evolving machines.

Shogo Hamada/Cornell University
Surprising Science
  • Scientists at Cornell University devise a material with 3 key traits of life.
  • The goal for the researchers is not to create life but lifelike machines.
  • The researchers were able to program metabolism into the material's DNA.
Keep reading Show less