My memory for poetry is poor, but a half-line from the great innovative religious poet of the second half of the 19th century, Gerard Manley Hopkins, sticks in my mind:
“No worst, there is none.”
A fuller quote is as follows:
“No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
“More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
“Comforter, where is your comforting?”
Hopkins thought not only that there was always worse suffering possible than that which anybody actually suffered (that is to say, there could always be worse, there was no worst), but that the greatest suffering anyone experienced was of purely psychological origin:
“O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
“Frightful, sheer, no man-fathomed.”
Dying in 1889, he didn’t live to experience the historical horrors of the 20th century, when sheer human malignity produced depths of suffering that could hardly be exceeded. It was the achievement of figures such as Lenin, Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot to demonstrate that there was indeed a worst. It was as if they had set out to prove Hopkins wrong: a curious ambition for dictators.
Whenever I think of Haiti, whose president has just been assassinated, I think of Hopkins’s half-line: no worst, there is none. Haiti’s whole history seems to have been a refutation of Hopkins’s poem. It’s as if the country were determined to prove that the reason there is no worst is because there are many worsts—that the worst comes in many guises.
When I first visited in the early 1980s, Haiti was one of the three H’s that were associated with the new epidemic of that time: AIDS. The three H’s were homosexuals, hemophiliacs, and Haitians. The spread of AIDS was rapid, and since there was no cure, only prevention was possible. That included having as little contact with Haiti and Haitians as possible. Tourism to Haiti ceased.
It so happened that on my return from Haiti, I fell very ill. I had a high fever and had never experienced a headache like it, nor have I since. I was treated in the hospital much as a patient suspected of suffering from Ebola would be today, by people in spacesuits. I recovered spontaneously: I had suffered from a mosquito-borne virus.
Baby Doc—Jean-Claude Duvalier—had just been overthrown. He was a pale shadow of his father, the notorious and sinister Papa Doc, Jean-François Duvalier. Papa Doc had once worked for the Rockefeller Institute but really preferred voodoo, and proved that doctors don’t necessarily make the best heads of state. Surely, after many years of what was called Duvalierism, things couldn’t get worse?
Ah, but they could, and they did, though in a slightly different way.
When I returned with my wife about 10 years later, Haiti was much poorer—or perhaps I should say, its poverty seemed much more desperate, which isn’t quite the same thing.
On my first evening back in the country, we went to a little restaurant with a terrace open to the road. There was a grille between the street and the terrace. When we sat down to a stew of scrawny chicken (delicious nonetheless), small starving children arrived and poked their thin hands and arms through the grille to try to grab the food from our plates. The owner, a woman, shooed them away with a broom as if they had been large flies.
Even more of the countryside had been eroded into a kind of desert (when you flew from the Dominican Republic, you could see the border from 35,000 feet, green on one side and brown on the other). As the population increased, so the production of food decreased, or it seemed so.
Yet, oddly enough, the capital city of Port-au-Prince was safe enough. Money changers, standing in the rotting-garbage-filled streets, had great wads of notes and people saw us change dollars for gourdes, without there being any suggestion that we might be robbed. Now the gangs were in charge.
On my first visit, I had visited a remarkable American medical missionary, Dr. William Hodges, in the small town of Limbé in the north of the country. He and his wife were very welcoming, and I had a pleasant evening with them. Hodges, who spent much more than half of his life in Haiti—becoming a citizen—was also a keen archaeologist and discovered the site of an early Spanish settlement on the north coast of Haiti.
When my wife and I visited him about 10 years later, I realized at once that it was a mistake to have done so. Hodges had told me all those years ago that he wanted to retire and concentrate on his archaeology, but medical conditions had deteriorated to such an extent in the meantime that he had to continue his medical work.
He was surrounded by scores of patients, all in urgent need of attention. He was working more than 12 hours a day, at age 70, and was clearly at the point of exhaustion—he died within a year.
Our visit, far from welcome, was a frivolous intrusion. Hodges was later the object of disgraceful slurs in a book titled “The Immaculate Invasion,” in which he was accused practically of racketeering.
What was clear was that the desperation of the country, which I had supposed as great as possible when I had first visited it, had increased enormously. Ever afterward, when my wife and I had an argument over a trifle, we would say to one another, “Remember Dr. Hodges,” and that would calm us immediately by putting things into perspective.
Yet the travails of Haiti were far from over. Apart from what, when viewed in context, one might call the normal political disasters that have attended its history ever since it won its independence from France in 1804, there was a devastating earthquake followed by a cholera epidemic and a hurricane of terrible proportions.
The damage caused by the earthquake was in large part the consequence of poverty and negligence: Chile has suffered earthquakes of much greater severity, with only a fraction of the damage.
As for the cholera epidemic, it was brought by U.N. peacekeeping troops from Nepal, a fact that was concealed by a kind of international conspiracy that included the U.N., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the major medical journals, though it fooled no one in Haiti.
Massive foreign aid after these catastrophes did what it often does: increase political competition within the recipient country for members of the political class to get their hands on the loot as the surest way to quick wealth. In short, billions of dollars disappeared without any benefit coming to the impoverished.
The numbers of the latter increased enormously, by at least a factor of two since I first visited, as if in an attempt to prove Malthus’s theory right: that population increases faster than the means to support it. Haitians awareness of, and humiliation at, their own poverty increased thanks to improved information technology, thus adding a further layer of desperation to an already desperate situation.
Like everyone who goes to Haiti, I developed a strong affection for the county; yet—no worst, there is none.
Theodore Dalrymple is a retired doctor. He is contributing editor of the City Journal of New York and the author of 30 books, including “Life at the Bottom.” His latest book is “Embargo and Other Stories.”
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.