Written By: Dr. Edgar Berman Reviewed Edition: Harpers & Row Publishers, New York, 1986 Paperback, 308 Pages ISBN 0-06-097260-2 Quotes Table of Contents
The subtitle of this book is A Remarkable Memoir by the U.S. Surgeon Who Worked with Schweitzer, and it is certainly appropriate. Dr. Berman, a well-established Baltimore surgeon, and his wife Phoebe spent twelve months of 1960-61 working with Dr. Schweitzer in Lambarene. Schweitzer was, by that time, a living legend known throughout the world for his compassion and reverence for life. He was also subject to criticism by people who considered his hospital primitive and colonial, as well as long-standing attacks on his theological positions (in particular his interpretation of the life and beliefs of Jesus). Berman appears to have gone to Lambarene primarily to meet Schweitzer and investigate these criticisms. Schweitzer apparently liked Berman, and they had quite a number of lofty, philosophical discussions despite the busy schedule they both kept. Berman recorded many of these conversations in his diary, and reconstructed others from memory long afterwards. They provide valuable insight into Schweitzer's thinking on a wide range of topics, including among others Reverence for Life and ethics, organs and music, and the life of Jesus. I found the discussions on Jesus and theology particularly interesting as I know of no other source that describes Schweitzer's theological thinking late in life.
This book also provides a vivid description of life in Schweitzer's hospital. The patients, visitors, staff, animals, weather, and insects combined to create a constant, unpleasant commotion. The food was, by Western standards, unappetizing and monotonous; bathing was done over a bowl in your room; the toilet was an outhouse poised over the slope of a hill frequented by the chickens served at dinner. It is incredible that patients were successfully treated in such circumstances, much less that Schweitzer could find the time, energy and concentration for intellectual pursuits.
A shortcoming of the book is that Berman finds it necessary to speculate on Schweitzer's mental health. Based on the fact that Schweitzer once visited a Swiss psychologist friend (which visit was the basis for his autobiographical Memoirs of Childhood and Youth), and the rather singular childhood he described, various people have suggested that Schweitzer suffered from some mild mental illness, generally depression. Berman, while never asking Schweitzer directly, hints around at the subject and takes every instance in which Schweitzer refers to illness or troubles as confirmation of some depressive episode. Psychoanalysis based on childhood experiences was in vogue during the sixties but to my mind it is unfounded and dangerous, and (except in extreme circumstances) occasional depression is not an illness but an inevitable part of most people's lives.
Despite this qualm, I do heartily recommend this book. It provides an excellent and readable look at both Schweitzer's life and his philosophy, which are truly inseparable.
[After Berman suggested to Schweitzer that most men wouldn't accept Reverence for Life, because they are too busy living to think philosophically]
"Schweitzer walked over to his desk and took something from a stack of papers. Then he said quietly, "Don't think about the least of men. Even if the least are in the majority, they can be led by the best and then they could become the most of men. So there is hope that, in time, the least may become the best, and then become the most. Having faith cannot just take the place of Christianity and love; it must be founded on it.""[Emphasis in original]
"Schweitzer's modi vivendi and operandi were eminently unique. His life was more intriguing than those of other great men. Many of our geniuses may have lived less than conventionally as they created their masterpieces but few followed their spiritual bent as completely as Schweitzer did; few risked both death and the death of their talents. Schweitzer, alongside of them, was the rarest of creative intellectuals--true to both himself and his extraordinary inheritance. I tried to imagine others approaching his monumental intellectual level--a Tolstoy, a Goethe, or a Beethoven or a more modern-day scientific genius such as Einstein or Oppenheimer--living their own truths as they used their talents under primitive circumstances. I couldn't."
[Schweitzer speaking:] "These [the Gospels of Mark and Matthew] show that Christianity has now created a dogma and gotten away from the truths of Christ--that man must understand the worldly kingdom of God. Moreover, the less blind faith our society has, the greater its faith will be. In our era of investigation and enlightenment, the Spirit of Christ will live yet another three thousand years or more. Without it, it cannot survive."
"We were really getting into his inmost thoughts, and, to my surprise, he really opened up as to his personal religion. "I have no god; no vision of heaven. I believe in the spirituality and ethics of and through Jesus. If, at that time, those Jews, even the ancient Essenes, through Jesus, had the secret, then they too had the spirit in their hearts. This had to come from somewhere, so let us say it was divine. But, whatever the source, His spirit and His ethics are my religion."
Then very slowly, word-by-word: "I need no churches, no dogma, and maybe no name (Jesus); I believe that action in life itself is religion, and this is what gives it harmony."
[Schweitzer speaking:] "'It was always clear from to me from my studies that Jesus' conceptions were astoundingly original for His time, yet still under the influence of the Jewish world in which he lived. And that was my main, and a most crucial, break with the Church's thoughts.
Jesus was taken out of the context of His time, put into the Renaissance, and made a god--which was a terrible error. In the genre of the conventional thoughts of two thousand or more years ago, they could have simply acknowledged that a newfound message of love and truth was born,' he said feelingly."
[Schweitzer speaking:] "The simpler one remains and the closer to nature one is, the less complicated life one pursues and he is more peaceful and productive. It prevents the cluttering of the mind, and the preoccupation with trivia."
[After being asked whether he would consider retiring to Europe to play music or write] "Then Schweitzer said something that shocked me. 'Do you think I am so narrow that I enjoy living here?' In fact I had thought he did. He continued, 'My prime reason for being here hasn't changed in fifty years and it was neither to write nor to play my music.'
'I have always been torn. When I was in Europe, I had the desire and sense of duty to get back to try to allay the misery of those people whom I knew and loved. Yet when I'm here I can't say I don't miss the things Europe offers.'"
Table of Contents of In Africa With Schweitzer
- The Odyssey--The Contract
- The Trial--The Controversy
- The Insightful Bells
- The Heretical Quest
- Adapting to Life in the Raw
- A Personality of Paradoxes
- A Practice Primeval
- Medicine Men versus Medicine
- The Quest Continued
- A Night to Remember
- Colonialist or Pragmatist
- Bach: His Spiritual Catalyst
- Village Life--Another Talk
- The Political Schweitzer
- Reverence for Life
- Men, Animals and Schweitzer
- The Triage of Reverence
- Remembrances and Comparisons
- Jesus: Messiah or Paranoiac
- A Troubled Mind
- Problems in Mecca
- The Last Farewell
- The Metamorphosis: From Lambarene to Paris
- Lambarene: 20 Years Later
Click here to return to the Albert Schweitzer Page.