Saturday, November 25, 2023

"Eternity's hostage"

"The Romans Taking Old Dutch Men as Hostages," by Antonio Tempesta Italian (Met)

     "He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune," Francis Bacon writes in one of his most famous essays, Of Marriage and Single Life. "For they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief.
     True enough. But the key concept in Bacon's first sentence is "given" — there is an unmistakable sense of the voluntary around the first definition of "hostage" in the Oxford English Dictionary: "Pledge or security given to enemies or allies or the fulfilment of any undertaking by the handing over of one or more persons into their power."
     Nothing voluntary in this recent batch of hostages, the Israelis captured by Hamas during their Oct. 7 attack, and it's painful to realize that once enemies would sometimes willingly hand over people to make sure agreements were kept. We think of the past as far more brutal than today, but we seem to be holding our own when it comes to barbarism. 
     Which makes etymology a welcome distraction from the headlines. While waiting for Hamas to release the first group of hostages on Friday — 13 Israelis, 10 Thais and a Filipino — more are supposed to be released today — I found myself focusing on the word "hostage" itself.
     "Hostage" has gone through changes over the past thousand years. That initial "h" tends to come and go, depending on what language is massaging it — the original Latin, obsidatus, "being a hostage," blending with hostis — "stranger, enemy" — turning into hostia, "victim, or sacrifice," which is how the Eucharist in the Catholic Church became known as a "host."
     Looking over the way the word and its cognates have changed, it's almost as if the  opposite views of how outsiders in your midst are to be treated is engaged in a verbal tug-of-war, the dichotomy in clear relief. There is "hostile" and "hospitality," "host" as in welcoming guests and "host," as in the body of an army.
     The very act of ransoming hostages seems more Biblical than modern, and indeed, there's hostage-taking in the Bible, as when a King of Judah breaks down the gate to Jerusalem in 2 Kings: "He took all the gold and silver and all the utensils which were found in the house of the Lord, and in the treasuries of the king’s house, the hostages also, and returned to Samaria." The whole "Christ the Redeemer" concept pivots on Jesus being the guy who pays our ransom with his suffering.
      In the Talmud, redeeming captives is a mitzvah, or charitable act, one so important it has its own name, pidyon shvuyim, and tops all other good works because being a hostage incorporates most of the ills that charity tries to address.
      "The redeeming of captives takes precedence over supporting the poor or clothing them," wrote Maimonides. "There is no greater mitzvah than redeeming captives for the problems of the captive include being hungry, thirsty, unclothed, and they are in danger of their lives too."
      It might sound odd at first, but if you think about it, there is something humane about hostage-taking, compared with simply killing enemies. It's a practice based on the value of life, the idea originally being that your kinsmen or country would buy you back (Proverbs 13:8 says that rich men purchase their safety, while the poor are never even threatened — which is wistful; more likely, the poor are simply killed, without hope of ransom). There is something strange to see Hamas, eagerly murdering everyone in sight Oct. 7, but also tucking these folks away for future reference, a kind of grotesque parody of mercy that of course is all about self-interest. They had just started the war and were already looking to purchase the cease-fire that their advocates around the world have been demanding.
     The process of exchanging hostages shows how artificial war is — two sides shift from trying to kill each other with all their might to conveying a fortunate few back from the dead through intermediaries. A reminder of the enormous range of human behavior, how we slide from vile to noble and back again, depending on the circumstances.
     As I write this, the news has begun to trickle out. A list of names. That the returned Israelis range in age from 5 to 85. What horrors they must have endured, what stories they must have to tell.
     The Russian novelist Boris Pasternak wrote a lovely little poem, "Night," that suggests all creative people are hostages, obligated to see the broad sweep of life and convey it. The poem begins with the image of a pilot flying over sleeping cities, then shifts to the insomniac writer trying to grasp it all. The clunky translation I found online ends:
Fight off your sleep: be wakeful,
Work on, keep up your pace,
Keep vigil like the pilot,
Like all the stars in space.

Work on, work on, creator-
To sleep would be a crime-
Eternity's own hostage,
And prisoner of Time.
     That penultimate sentence felt a little awkward, so I checked the original Russian — "Ты — вечности заложник" or, literally, "You: eternity's hostage." Also true. But would make the ransom ... what? Death.


  1. Your deep dive into hostage led me to one of my own. Plight : a dangerous, difficult, or otherwise unfortunate situation being its common modern definition.

    All parties of the circumstance involving the Israelis and Palestinians face different plights. My focus is on children taken hostage or killed through little or no fault of their own. All the children. An archaic meaning of plight was a pledge. The duty of adults to protect children once a plighted vow seems discarded into the dustbin of history.

    At least some of the first hostages and prisoners released are children

  2. More hostages being released, and a cease-fire is in effect. Perhaps there is hope.


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