Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, a text about the Vietnam War first published in 1990 (Boston: Mariner, 2009), includes one of those phrases that give the reader pause because they make him suspect there is more where it came from. The phrase is a hapaxlegomenon, or worse: not only is it never used again, the comments that follow it appear as a non-sequitur, and one is uncertain about how to read the thing. The phrase reads: “the aesthetic purity of absolute moral indifference” (77). The full phrase is: “any battle or bombing raid or artillery barrage has the aesthetic purity of absolute moral indifference—a powerful, implacable beauty.” So the reader must consider why absolute moral indifference could or should be aesthetically pure, and whether there can be absolute moral indifference, and whether, should it exist, it is the right response to an artillery barrage or an event at the office; and more, and perhaps disturbingly, whether absolute moral indifference could or should rise to the rank of a powerful and implacable beauty. How would it be, if we managed to live in absolute moral indifference? Would it really be a matter of implacable beauty? It is hard to imagine it. One can hardly say no, and one can hardly say yes. There is some danger there, in that phrase. The danger is intriguing.
The next paragraph—but the reader must decide whether the next paragraph means to explain that phrase, or to hide it—talks about the intensity of sensations the proximity of death brings along. “Proximity to death brings with it a corresponding proximity to life” (77). “All around you things are purely living, and you among them, and the aliveness makes you tremble. You feel an intense, out-of-the-skin awareness of your living self—your truest self, the human being you want to be and then become by the force of wanting it” (77). One get this, intuitively. Some end of pretenses, being down to the wire brings about a revelation, an unconcealment. The unconcealment is beautiful and you want to dwell in it, not give it up. What does this have to do with absolute moral indifference? Is this desire already morally indifferent? But the next sentences seem to affirm the very opposite: “In the midst of evil you want to be a good man. You want decency. You want justice and courtesy and human concord . . . you are filled with a hard, aching love for how the world could be and always should be, but now is not” (78).
Are we dealing with a sublime experience of absolute moral indifference, or are we dealing with a radical moralization of the indifferent? Or, at the limit, are those two things the same? The text does not say. But it does say, in yet the next paragraph, that “the only certainty is overwhelming ambiguity” (78). The ambiguity, however, that presumed certainty, does not let us off the hook. The question remains. The certainty only covers it up.