AMERICA AND AMERICANS: The Lasting Hope of “One People Out of Many”

America and Americans (1966) by John Steinbeck

johnstein10

          As Donald Trump prepares to be sworn-in as the forty-fifth president of the United States — to the considerable shock and lamentation of over half of this nation’s citizens, who did not vote for him– I can’t help but feel anxiety for the future state of the republic: its most vulnerable citizens, its institutions that have (until this moment) stood in resistance to any one leader who might exhibit authoritarian tendencies or exert tyrannical force, and its progress toward a more perfect union — even through all its stumbles and black-eyes along the way. In short, I fear that with the election of Donald Trump the United States is veering wildly off course, as perhaps it hasn’t done since the days of the Civil War.

          I don’t know if this doom-and-gloom feeling is overstatement or if it’s the accurate diagnosis of a wobbly political system that is close to the point of breakdown. In either case, I wonder: Is there a hope for a divided nation? Do we have anything at all to look forward to in the coming years? If we look to the past (and to literature) to answer those questions, then we might respond, “Yes, but it will be a long, hard road. And that hope might not translate into progress for many years, if not decades.”

          I wanted to end my Inaugural List on a note of hopeful-yet-realistic optimism. As low as things seem, our country has been here before. In fact, today is part of a larger struggle that has always existed in this nation. But it’s a struggle that we are winning, and will continue to win — a bright spark of optimism for when we feel our lowest.

          With these thoughts in mind, I recall a rally I recently attended to protest the policies and rhetoric of President-elect Trump, in which a protestor was carrying a sign that read, “AMERICA WAS NEVER GREAT.” I couldn’t disagree more. I understand the intent of the sign: to acknowledge that our nation has always perpetrated atrocities and injustices, even while claiming to be a lamp of liberty and tolerance. But our nation was founded precisely on that struggle to close the gap between our rhetoric of idealism and our reality of injustice. In that struggle lies our greatness.

          It’s a struggle that Steinbeck illuminates and celebrates in his final book, American and Americans, while neither resorting to the tired clichés of patriotic claptrap, nor thrashing away at the easy straw man of overgeneralized sentiments like those expressed on the sign held by my fellow Trump protestor. 

ARTIST PHOTOGRAPHER

John Steinbeck and Charley

          Instead, Steinbeck’s collection of essays — the only nonfiction book on my Inaugural List — is a meditation on the American people, character, landscape, history, and future. He offers insight on the paradoxes of our political system, the immigrant experience (and our treatment of immigrants), the myths that construct our shared American identity, the way we project our identity to the rest of world, our connection to (and destruction of) the land, our economic obsession, the pitfalls of our nation, and how we seem to overcome our flaws to continue progressing as a nation. Steinbeck offers an honest, frank, and highly-subjective analysis (which he freely admits on page one), and he does so out of an obvious abundance of love for the nation and its people. 

          Sometimes his essays are illustrated by personal experiences or stories he has heard from other Americans. The hardback edition from 1966 contains striking black-and-white and color photos offering a glimpse of America in the mid-twentieth century that perfectly compliments Steinbeck’s text. Photographs are included from Ansel Adams, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Gordon Parks, and Alfred Eisenstaedt, among many others. The result is a literary and visual composite of a people in the mid-20th century, at the height of America’s influence in the world after WWII, but also in the midst of some of the nation’s most challenging and chaotic problems, including the Cold War, the atomic age, and the fight for civil rights. Steinbeck’s portrait still holds true fifty years later, and his warnings of a populace numbed by complacency and all-too-riled-up by emotional political rhetoric that panders to base fear and prejudice remains relevant as our nation enters the years of a Trump administration that threatens to take us down an authoritarian route.

          Perhaps we can understand the rise of Trump from Steinbeck’s view of what Americans desire in their politicians: “We want a common candidate but an uncommon office holder.” It’s an impossible contradiction, but one that has somehow worked in the past, which Steinbeck acknowledges. But what happens when that office holder is revealed to be decidedly “common”? Or even worse: dangerous? Again, I turn to Steinbeck to offer some words of hope. The final paragraph of his afterword reassures us that even in the midst of our darkest moments (which Steinbeck does not shy away from illuminating throughout the book) we always manage to progress. These are comforting words for those of us who recognize our nation’s tendency to slip backward on the road of progress, but who have hope that we can once again work together to overcome our basest human flaws to work toward our ideals. The paragraph is worth printing in its entirety:


From our beginning, in hindsight at least, our social direction is clear. We have moved to become one people out of many. At intervals, men or groups, through fear of people or the desire to use them, have tried to change our direction, to arrest our growth, or to stampede the Americans. This will happen again and again. The impulses which for a time enforced the Alien and Sedition laws, which have used fear and illicit emotion to interfere with and put a stop to continuing revolution, will rise again, and they will serve us in the future as they have in the past to clarify and to strengthen our process. We have failed sometimes, taken wrong paths, paused for renewal, filled our bellies and licked our wounds; but we have never slipped back — never.

— John Steinbeck


          I leave these words of hope at the end of my Inaugural List after twenty days of writing about fiction that explores some dark and often depressing subject matter. Moving forward with this blog during the Trump years, I’d like to see Steinbeck’s words as a small but necessary flicker of illumination in a very dark and vast — but not unchartered — path of America’s history. Let us hope that the Ideals of this nation, as expressed by Steinbeck, may ultimately rule the day, guiding us away from Mephisto’s Mother Night and back into the light that burns for “one people out of many.”

THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY?: The Death of the American Dream

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1935) by Horace McCoy

horses2

          In the United States there is a great self-perpetuating myth that hard work and tireless exertion can lead to wealth, success, and prosperity for all. As an anesthetic to the monotonous daily grind of work-eat-sleep, certain distracting entertainments are dangled in front of the eyes of the working class, along with the promise of greater material gain for their continued efforts. Their will to live is soon usurped by their will to possess, which is intrinsically tied-up in the compulsion to work. As a result, labor becomes an end in itself: not that which sustains life, but that which promises prosperity —  a promise that is necessarily just-beyond-reach, as those who control the means of production must ensure that workers continue to strive for that ever-elusive golden ring without actually achieving it. Thus, the working class is defeated in their efforts before they even begin, born into circumstances that ironically reward those who labor the least by virtue of their inherited status, and wear down those who work the hardest for the smallest degree of potential gain.

          It is this circuitous grind that Horace McCoy explores in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, one of the most important works of existential fiction to come from the United States, employing a 1930s dance marathon as an allegory for the horrific, self-destructive competition that capitalism engenders in workers. The novel begins telling us exactly how events will end: narrator Robert Syverten is on trial for the murder of Gloria Beatty. He admits guilt and throws himself on the mercy of the court: he was only doing Gloria a favor, he states.

          Robert and Gloria are down-and-out Hollywood performers in the 1930s looking to make money as they strive for their dreams. They decide to enter a dance marathon — a grueling, weeks-long event in which promoters promise contestants cash for out-lasting one another in bouts of dancing and speed-walking derbies that continue for hours at a time. Contestants are given mere ten-minute breaks for food and brief rest, hardly time enough to recuperate from their hours of work.

shoot-horses

Jane Fonda and Bruce Dern in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (dir. Sydney Pollack, 1969)

          Like a real-life version of The Hunger Games, wealthy patrons in the stands can “sponsor” contestants, giving them money or other advantages, which pits contestants against each other — sometimes violently — for recognition. While the rules seem straight-forward, it is clear that the organizers are pulling strings behind the scenes, changing rules and making up new ones as the contest wears on. Their only goal is to promote the madness by exploiting the young couples for maximum profit. The $1,000 prize is dangled in front of the contestants, but ultimately there are no winners —  only downtrodden young couples in varying states of loss and grief.

horacemccoy

Horace McCoy

          As the marathon progresses, couples find themselves competing in special events and derbies that have no prize attached: they do it merely because they have gotten into the routine. Trapped in a system that promises them an ultimate prize at the end, they feel compelled to work overtime for no immediate gain in the hope that they will attain their ultimate reward at the end.


She shot the pistol and we were off.

Gloria and I let the racehorses set the pace. We made no effort to get out in front. Our system was to set a steady clip and hold it. There was no special prize money tonight. Even if there had been it would have made no difference to us.

The audience applauded and stamped their feet, begging for thrills, but this was one night they didn’t get them. Only one girl, Ruby Bates, went into the pit and that was only for two laps. And for the first time in weeks nobody collapsed on the floor when the race was over.

But something happened that frightened me. Gloria had pulled on my belt harder and longer than she ever had before. For the last five minutes of the derby it seemed she had no power of her own. I had practically dragged her around the track. I had a feeling we had just missed being eliminated ourselves. We had just missed. Late that night Mrs. Layden told me she had spoken to the man who had checked us. We had made only two more laps than the losers. That chilled me. I made up my mind then that from now on I had better forget my system and open up.

–Horace McCoy


          McCoy’s novel is a brief, stark critique of an exploitative system that destroys the will to live even as it promises prosperity. Ironically, the contestants enter the marathon as a means of survival, only to find the contest is the very event that is most hindering their struggle to survive. Robert and Gloria soon understand that the marathon becomes their only purpose in life — one that is so dreary and unending that it offers no purpose at all. The only thing that remains for Gloria is to ask Robert to put her out of her misery. As his guilty verdict is handed down by the judge at the end of the novel (a verdict that McCoy clearly telegraphs from the opening pages: this is a system in which we are all condemned from the very beginning), Robert speaks his defense as the last lines of the novel: “They shoot horses, don’t they?”

          It is no coincidence that McCoy sets the novel in Hollywood, a land in which the dreams and desires of a nation are manufactured as myth to be sold to a population desperate for hope as a distraction from their meaningless cycle of despair. Like its literary cousin The Day of the Locust (published by Nathanael West four years later in 1939, and also set in Hollywood), They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is a Depression-era shot across the bow of the mythical American Dream — the failed promise of a capitalist system that thrives on promoting a prize it can never deliver. Eighty years later in the United States, the novel stills feels as honest and urgent as it was in 1935.

AFTER MIDNIGHT: When Hate Becomes Normalized

After Midnight (1937) by Irmgard Keun

midnight

          Irmgard Keun’s After Midnight, written in 1937 when she was in exile from Nazi Germany, shows the impact of the normalization of hate on young people who yearn for what all young people do: love, passion, and joy. The protagonist, Sanna, tries to live a normal life as the world around her crumbles. Her friends must hide their racial backgrounds and/or their relationships with “radicals.” She must watch what she says and writes for fear of being the victim of informants, who can spread malicious lies at will. She must navigate a perilous social scene that includes Stormtroopers and party members, some of whom have romantic notions for Sanna and her friends. As a result, the things that we might take for granted — from an evening out to dinner with friends to a simple stroll down the street — could turn dangerous very quickly, and sometimes do.

          Throughout all this insanity, Sanna’s voice provides a subversive commentary on Germany under the Nazis, from their bizarre insistence on a (disordered) social order to the insecurity of their own position in society as they bicker among themselves and take out their aggression on others. Keun’s novel shows pretty clearly why her previous works were burned by the Nazis and why she had to flee into exile. (Amazingly, she faked her own suicide and changed her name to return to live in Germany for many years after the publication of After Midnight.)

portret-keun

Irmgard Keun

          As a result, Keun provides the perspective of both an insider and an exile, one who lives with the constant anxiety of having no settled home, where at any time friends or lovers might disappear, never to be seen again. One passage in particular, spoken by a friend of Sanna’s who will soon succumb to the pressure of persecution, offers a striking illustration of this point:


There have been too many atrocities. One dreadful day revenge will come, and it won’t be divine revenge, it will be even more atrocious, more human, more inhuman. And that atrocious revenge which I both desire and fear will necessarily be followed by another atrocious revenge, because the thing that has begun in Germany looks like going on without any hope for an end. Germany is turning on her own axis, a great wheel dripping blood, Germany will go on turning and turning through the years to come — it hardly makes any difference which part of the wheel is uppermost ay any given time. Over a hundred years ago, Platen complained of being sick unto death of his fatherland. Well, in those days you could still live in exile all right. It’s different today. You’re a poor emigrant. You’ll find any other country is smooth and hard as a chestnut shell. You become a trial to yourself and a burden to others. For the roofs that you see are not built for you. The bread that you smell is not baked for you. And the language that you hear is not spoken for you.

–Irmgard Keun


          Those words describe not only the life of the exile, but also the life of all of those who are forced to live and try to survive in a country that is no longer their own — one in which citizens are ostracized, alienated, and persecuted for no other reason than being themselves. Sanna will remember and repeat those last lines as she faces a final decision on her own fate — and that of her lover, Franz — at the end of the novel. It is a choice that too many young people had to make at the time, only if they were lucky enough to survive the Gestapo sweeps. After Midnight is a short and harrowing glimpse into a time when the abnormal became the new norm for those who had to put on a brave face in the daily struggle just to survive.

CANCER WARD: “Either Tyrant or Traitor or Prisoner”

Cancer Ward (1968) by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

cancer-ward

          At certain moments in a nation’s history, the body politic can become irrevocably sick. They catch a fever that spreads across the country by invading the moral fiber of the populace, turning individuals against each other, and then multiplying and dividing like so many cancerous cells. At some point, treatment cannot stop the spread, and the body necessarily breaks down.

          Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward is an allegory of the disastrous impact of Stalinism on the Russian people, and the lasting damage of the “tumorous” labor camps, which might no longer exist, but have nonetheless left a lasting scar on the Soviet Union. Solzhenitsyn’s observation is one that we are well advised to heed: even if a nation survives the cancer of totalitarian rule, the body politic remains forever damaged.

solz

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn gulag mugshot, 1953

          The novel’s protagonist, Oleg Kostoglotov, is a labor camp exile (much like Solzhenitsyn was beginning in the late-40s) who is hospitalized with stomach cancer. His fellow patients are in varying emotional states, from denial to resigned acceptance. The primary atmosphere of the ward is overwhelming helplessness — not only from the perspective of the patients, but also from the staff. Both try to distract themselves from the painful reality that the men on the ward will likely die no matter what treatment is offered. Recognizing the symptoms and the nature of the disease do nothing to curb its spread or even provide comfort. As a result, the staff finds itself suffering as much as the patients. In one case, the head doctor becomes ill herself from the very type of cancer she treats. As another doctor tells her, “It’s the truest of all tests for a doctor to suffer from the disease he specializes in.” It’s a test insofar as the doctor in question must acknowledge the limitations of her own expertise, for even the experts can’t cure the disease. It strikes all equally.


“But can there really be a whole nation of fools? No, you’ll have to forgive me. The people are intelligent enough, it’s simply that they wanted to live. There’s a law big nations have — to endure and so to survive. When each of us dies and History stands over his grave and asks ‘What was he?’ there’ll only be one possible answer, Puskin’s:

‘In our vile times

…Man was, whatever his element

Either tyrant or traitor or prisoner!'”

Oleg started. He didn’t know the lines, but there was a penetrating accuracy about them. Poet and truth became almost physically tangible.

–Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn


          Those rare few who survive are neither stronger nor well ever again. The sickness of Stalinism lingers as a lifelong scar for the survivors, who must grapple with their own place in the historical context of the times. Did they stand up and fight against the illness, or did they put their heads down and ignore it? Or, even worse, did they take part in the denunciations and purges, enabling the illness to spread unchecked?

          Solzhenitsyn’s novel forces us to question where we stand when our social and political position appears to be helpless, even while acknowledging that our response might very well be in vain. If, by chance, the body politic survives the cancer, then the sickness still hasn’t ended, but has only just begun. Even so, do we still stand up and fight? Which role do we choose for ourselves: tyrant, prisoner, or traitor?

GENERALS DIE IN BED: “They Should Be Made to Remember”

Generals Die in Bed (1930) by Charles Yale Harrison

generals

          One of the thoughts that keeps me up at night is that in four days Donald Trump will be in command of the most powerful armed forces in the world. This is a man with no impulse control, who believes he knows more about any issue than anyone else, who has never had so much as a security briefing before November 8, 2016 (and, apparently, who doesn’t even want security briefings post-November 8!), and who is so loose with fiery, sable-rattling rhetoric that he often sounds like a third-world tin-pot dictator. He has not experienced war, violence, famine, or genocide; he has not practiced or even closely observed diplomatic negotiation (and no, “business deals” don’t count, because a failed boardroom deal doesn’t have the possibility of ending in mass bloodshed);  he has not studied history or political science; he has not read literature or philosophy; he certainly has not been engaged with geopolitical affairs beyond his desire to build golf courses in Scotland.

          And this man will be leading the United States military — and will surely be ordering them into armed conflict at some point in the next four years for whatever purposes he deems necessary.

          If I had the power to compel one person in the world to read one novel in the world, that person would be Donald Trump and the novel would be Charles Yale Harrison’s Generals Die in Bed. Hell, I’d be content if Trump merely read the title.

          This highly autobiographical novel from American-Canadian machine gunner Charles Yale Harrison is one of the most emotionally draining accounts of war I’ve ever read. The battle scenes are stated in plain language, without exaggeration, but in devastating detail. Harrison records all the brutality of trench warfare: the rats, the lice, the gas, the flamethrowers, the tanks, the constant artillery barrages, etc. These experiences of battle are not heroic. They are awkward, frightening, frantic, and sad.

          The most memorable moment — and the chapter that drew tears to my eyes — is when the protagonist bayonets a teenage German soldier, and his rifle becomes stuck in the boy’s ribs. The pages that follow are very tough to read (and I have a pretty high tolerance for such things): The frantic cries of the boy as the protagonist attempts to remove the bayonet. The way he runs away to leave the boy to die in agony, only to realize that he needs his rifle. The way he describes returning, grabbing the rifle, placing his boot on the boy’s face and tugging to remove the embedded bayonet as the wound widens and gapes. The awkward ballet of the boy trying to help the protagonist remove the bayonet from his own bloody torso. The realization by both soldiers that the only way for the bayonet to be removed is for the protagonist to fire the rifle point-blank. And the moment when the boy’s brother — another German solider — sees the boy’s limp, lifeless body in the trench.


How can I say to this boy that something took us both, his brother and me, and dumped us into a lonely, shrieking hole at night — it armed us with deadly weapons and threw us against each other.

I imagined that I see the happy face of the mother when she heard that her two boys were to be together. She must have written to the older one, the one that died at the end of my bayonet, to look after his young brother. Take of each other and comfort one another, she wrote, I am sure. 

Who can comfort whom in war? Who can care for us, we who are set loose at each other’s entrails with silent gleaming bayonets?

I want to tell these boys what I think, but the gulf of language separates us. 

We sit silently, waiting for the storm of steel to die down.

–Charles Yale Harrison


 

           The novel is short, but filled with such harrowing accounts. Harrison pulls no punches, including moments when his comrades loot French towns, when surrendering Germans are brutally mowed down, when commanding officers lie to soldiers to get them to fight harder, or when an unpopular officer is shot and killed by his own men. The cycle of advance/retreat/rest made me feel dazed just from reading. It is a visceral experience: inside trench bunkers, shells screaming overhead, rats scurrying, candles blowing out from the concussion of exploding shells, etc.

          It is both the best war novel and the best anti-war novel I’ve ever read. The title reflects the bitterness of an entire generation of men who survived trench warfare. We hear soldiers discussing the war profiteers who make millions from death and the generals who order young men to advance from the relative safety of their field offices. At one point, the protagonist goes on leave in London and watches a comic theatrical performance of chorus girls dressed as soldiers. The rich Londoners, safely away from the front, laugh and joke. The protagonist turns to his date and says, “These people have no right to laugh.” She responds, “But, silly, they are trying to forget.” He replies, “They have no business to forget. They should be made to remember.”

harrison

Charles Yale Harrison

          Harrison’s novel forces us to remember that war is not heroic — that it is not sweet and fitting to die for one’s country. This novel should be required reading for anyone who wants insight into the pain, alienation, and bitterness of the Lost Generation after the Great War, and who needs a reminder that sable-rattling rhetoric and warhawk policies have real human consequences. It should be read by politicians who send men and women to be violently killed and gruesomely scarred in battle, but who couch their bureaucratic decisions in the sterile, dehumanizing euphemism “boots on the ground.”  It should be read by American citizens who think the appropriate answer to any international dispute with any rival is to “bomb them into to the stone age.”

          And, most importantly, it should be read by Donald Trump.

          But since he won’t, then it’s up to us to read it and communicate it to him, and to our elected officials who might have some small sway over American foreign policy in the coming years, through our words and actions in the coming years.

MOTHER NIGHT: “We Are What We Pretend to Be” — Trump’s Performative Rhetoric

Mother Night (1961) by Kurt Vonnegut

vonnegut

 “This is the only story of mine whose moral I know. I don’t think it’s a marvelous moral; I simply happen to know what it is: We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

— Kurt Vonnegut


          Donald Trump is a performance artist. A “showman.” A con man. A professional liar with a dangerously unstable personality. He is also a businessman, a politician (despite his insistence otherwise), and, beginning January 20, 2017, President of the United States of America. He wears so many masks as a part of his public persona that he doesn’t even pretend to be anything other than a walking, talking brand. And the only consistent trait of that brand is to be foolishly — and recklessly — inconsistent. To paraphrase Bob Dylan, all Trump can do is be Donald J. Trump…whoever that is.

          The impossibility of pinning down Trump is precisely what draws so many people to his cult of personality. His followers can project their desires onto him because his performances are unchecked by accountability. And the keystone to the performance of “Donald J. Trump” is that he openly desires what they desire: power, wealth, and success. He is their Ideal made flesh. Likewise, he speaks to their fears because they are his own — the very deep-seated fears and insecurities that are masked by his persona. 

          And so Trump’s truth becomes their own. The fact that this “truth” is ever-shifting and rarely based on evidence, logic, or reality is all-the-more reason for them to accept the Trump fantasy: Trump speaks their truth. And why is it true? Because Trump speaks it. So goes the tautology of totalitarian thinking. Trump “tells it like is” because he knows. But what does he know? Exactly what his followers “know,” but what they cannot say in public for fear of ridicule. So Trump, the Ideal upon whom they project their desire, will perform this truth for them because he has the power and the wealth to resist that ridicule. His power becomes their own through his theatrics, which are the epitome of what J.L Austin termed “performative utterances.” Ironically, Trump has the insecurity of a child, but neither he nor his followers see it. Why not? 

          Because Trump is who he pretends to be. 

          It’s a lesson that we can learn from reading Kurt Vonnegut’s most complex and challenging novel, Mother Night, framed as the “confession” of Howard W. Campbell, Jr., a Nazi radio propagandist during World War II who was also working as a spy for the United States. However, Campbell’s web of lies runs so deep that he becomes unable to distinguish what is real and what is illusion. He begins to live the role he has been performing on the radio. When he is put on trial for war crimes at the end of the novel, his own broadcasts stand as evidence against him.

vonnegut_af

Kurt Vonnegut

          Vonnegut asks us to consider the power of performative rhetoric and the dangers of how the misuse of language might distort the world around us and warp our own inner sense of self. The danger is not merely that politicians with damaged moral compasses might gain significant followings, but that their words and lies will begin to damage the collective moral compass of the nation — like a powerful, centralized magnet that forces all needles to point in one direction, rendering all bearings unsound. What ultimately matters is not what a speaker says is “true”/”false” or whether the speaker is authentic/inauthentic, but rather what the words are doing — the impact those words have on others

          And here we begin to see the folly of apologists who justify inflammatory speech by claiming “It’s only campaign rhetoric” or “That’s only one side of the candidate.” We saw this not only with Trump, but also with Hillary Clinton: discussions of her “public” side and her “private” side. Vonnegut warns us that there is no other side. The personas we project are the people we are — even if those personas are largely performances, and even if they conflict — because the impact our words have on others remains the same, regardless of any other factors. After all, our personalities are complex and multifaceted. We “perform” differently depending upon the audience and our own changing purposes. But each one of those performances constitutes the construction of a Self — an identity that we adopt even as we shift and change roles depending on audience. So we had better be careful how we perform, Vonnegut warns, because the words we speak have consequences, no matter which persona we adopt at any given moment, and no matter what the purpose of our performance. 

          Like Mephistopheles, whose speech in Goethe’s Faust gave Vonnegut the title for his novel, Trump’s persona of “greatness” comes wrapped in the swaddling darkness of Mother Night. The question our nation must ask in the next four-to-eight years is not “Who is the real Donald Trump?” (because he is who he pretends to be), but rather, “Who will hold Donald Trump accountable for being the Donald Trump he pretends to be at any given moment through his dangerous rhetoric?” Since neither Trump himself nor his acolytes are up to the task of adjudicating Trump’s performative “crimes against himself” (to quote Vonnegut on Howard W. Campbell, Jr.), then it falls on every rational, critical thinking person to do so. 

CHESS: The Scars of Persecution and Exile

Chess (1941) by Stefan Zweig

chess

          We often read narratives of those who flee from persecution, or who suffer the physical violence of their captors, or who are ultimately killed by their tormentors. But what of the stories of those who survive? How does one even begin to describe the psychological toll taken on an individual who lives through the horror of an oppressive regime that takes the lives of so many others, and how do those survivors cope with their scars — physical, psychological, and emotional?

          Two books on my Inaugural List tackle these topics: Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward and Zweig’s Chess. I might very well have included Mann’s The Magic Mountain and Grass’s The Tin Drum, which I might still write about in future blog posts. In the case of each novel, the protagonist is physically confined: asylum (Grass), sanitarium (Mann), hospital (Solzhenitsyn), and hotel room prison (Zweig). In each case, the protagonist experiences a distortion of some essential element of his life, leading to a functional abnormality — the physical manifestation of permanent psychological damage. For Mann, it’s a distortion of time; for Grass, a stunting of growth; for Solzhenitsyn, a sexual impotence; and for Zweig, a mental breakdown. These texts do not give us the comforting illusion that surviving political persecution makes one stronger. Quite the opposite. These works present a stark reality in which their protagonists are staggered, wounded, and scarred for life.

          But of all these examples of “survivor fiction,” one stands out as slightly different — not for what happens in the text, but for what happens in the life of the man who wrote it. Only one of these writers ultimately didn’t survive his persecution. Just after the publication of Chess in 1942, Stefan Zweig would succumb to the stress, depression, and sense of hopelessness he felt while fleeing from the Nazis and, along with his wife Lotte, would commit double-suicide in Brazil while living in exile.

zweiglotte

Stefan and Lotte Zweig

          Although Zweig composed a suicide note, I think that Chess might very well have served an equal purpose. The novel reveals how the psychological effects of persecution can divide one’s psyche, leading to mental breakdown, physical exhaustion, and self-destruction. The plot is straight-forward: on a ship from New York to Brazil, a prodigy chess champion is challenged by an amateur stranger with a stunning grasp of the game. We soon learn that this stranger, Dr. B., was held captive in isolation and psychologically tortured by the Nazis for months. His only solace was a book of chess strategy he happened to find and sneak into his room. For months, he drove himself to memorize every move of every classic match and all the strategies of the masters, playing against himself inside his own head as he spent long days in isolation. He would play both black and white sides at the same time, pushing each side of himself to the limit. Chess became what he lived and breathed, even more important to him than food. Ultimately, the game of chess that saved Dr. B. from isolation and boredom during his capture, psychological torture, and interrogation by the Gestapo would become the obsession that fractures his mind and destroys him. We see this play out on the ship in his matches against the grand champion.

          The novella is an allegory that challenges readers to make their own connections, as Zweig does not explicitly point out how we are supposed to understand each character and event. I can only offer my own interpretation, without any claim to a definitive reading:

          The game of chess is writing itself. (The title is often loosely translated as The Royal Game, which I like because, quite coincidentally, Royal was one of the major brands of typewriters at the time of the book’s publication.) Out of the nothingness and isolation of his imprisoned existence, Dr. B. latches onto the one activity that allows him to both relieve his anxiety and give vent to his intellectual confinement. He must invent games only with the limited tools of language at his disposal. The language of chess. What is often a battle between two minds (or among many more, as the chess champion on the ship often competes in multiple games simultaneously, or against multiple opponents working on the same team) becomes, in Dr. B.’s own words, an “impossible” task because he must take on the role of communicator and audience while in total isolation. Perfecting skills he can never use and unable to properly play the “game” that sustains him, he becomes an expert in a language he can never use — an exile within his own mind.


Now if Black and White together made up one and the same person, the result would be a nonsensical state of affairs in which one and the same mind simultaneously knew and did not know something, in which as White it could simply decide to forget what it had wished and intended to do as Black a moment earlier. In fact what is presupposed by this kind of duality of thought is total division of consciousness, an ability to turn the workings of the brain on or off at will, as though it were a machine; playing chess against oneself is thus as paradoxical as jumping over one’s own shadow. Well, to make a long story short, in my desperation I attempted this impossibility, this absurdity, for months. Illogical as it was, I had no other choice if I was not to lapse into absolute madness or total intellectual inanition. My awful situation was forcing me to at least try to divide myself into a Black Me and a White Me in order not to be crushed by the horrendous nothingness around me.”

–Stefan Zweig


          After his mental breakdown, he is released by the Gestapo, who determine him to be too damaged to be a threat. His encounter with the chess grand champion on the ship forces him into a world where his skill is now unbound. This total freedom — after being resigned to his own imprisonment and possible death — is too much for his brain to process. His breakdown is swift and brutal.

          Dr. B. ultimately survives, but only after realizing he can never play chess again. It’s a realization that was too stark for Zweig, who could not come to terms with practicing his craft — the one perfected skill that sustained him and defined his life — in anything less than “a life in which intellectual labour meant the purest joy and personal freedom the highest good on Earth.” That line in his suicide note confirmed that, unlike Dr. B., Zweig could not live without the ability to freely practice his craft in his homeland. Chess became his final statement and, arguably, his greatest work. It stands as a testament to writing under the threat of political persecution as both a saving grace and an impossible plight: that which can restore and revive, or divide and destroy, with equal impunity.

 

BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ: Being Woke in Weimar Germany

Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) by Alfred Döblin

berlin-alexand

          The context behind Berlin Alexanderplatz, according to Alfred Döblin, is that there isn’t much difference between a criminal and an average person. The former usually is the latter, and the latter can become the former without very much variation in routine. And so Döblin gives us the story of Franz Biberkopf, an average man who is a criminal without ever making the conscious decision to be so. The novel begins with his release from prison after serving time for accidentally killing an ex-girlfriend in an argument. Instead of the moment marking a new beginning for Franz, Döblin lets us know in the first paragraph that his life will continue down the same road: “Now the punishment begins.”

          Franz’s “punishment” is simply living in Berlin in 1928, giving an average man like Franz ample opportunity to stumble into trouble, which he certainly does. Although he appears on the surface to have some direction — gaining a job selling far-right newspapers and shacking up with a new girl — he soon falls in with the wrong crowd, drinks too much, becomes the unwitting accomplice in a crime, and loses him arm when his criminal “friends” throw him from a get-away car. So begins his long, slow downfall, as Franz is forced to become a one-armed pimp, never escaping the life of crime into which he was born.


Who is standing in the Alexanderstrasse, very slowly moving one leg after the other? It’s Franz Biberkopf. What’s he done? Well, you know all that, don’t you? A pimp, a hardened criminal, a poor fool, he’s been beaten, and how — he’s in for it now. That cursed fist that beat him. That terrible fist that gripped him. The other fists hammered at him, but he escaped. A blow fell and the red wound gaped. But it healed one day. Franz didn’t change and went on his way. Now the fist keeps up the fight, it is terrible in its might, it ravages him, body and soul, Franz advances with timid steps, he has learned his role: my life no longer belongs to me, I don’t know what to set about. Franz Biberkopf is down and out.

–Alfred Döblin


          And yet, the reader is always sympathetic to Franz. He is a product of his time, culture, and upbringing, whose poor decisions seem clear to those of us observing from the outside, but never so clear to Franz himself. And this is Döblin’s point: we all blindly stumble through life, carried along by Fate, and are forced to learn our lessons in the darkness before we can ever reach a light of understanding. The path that seems so clear to others observing from the outside will seem unknown to us on the path.

          Images of sacrifice run throughout the narrative, from a harrowing and realistic description of a slaughterhouse to a reenactment of Abraham’s decision to sacrifice his son, with each interlude coming at moments when Franz is in Berlin and about to have a transformative encounter that will crush him even lower. He is both criminal and victim. Döblin tells us from the very beginning that he has no chance: he is defeated before he even begins. But it is a defeat that is ultimately redeeming, for it brings about a new self-awareness and knowledge about one’s place in the world.

doblin-alfred

Alfred Döblin

          Döblin’s structure is obviously indebted to Joyce: the fractured narrative, the non-chronological temporality, the multiple shifting perspectives, and the simultaneity of thoughts/actions are all hallmarks of Ulysses. (We even get a Blazes Boylan-type character, Reinhold, who is a kind of evil doppelgänger for Franz. But unlike Franz, Reinhold doesn’t transform, and his static state leads to his downfall, which is not redeeming, as it is for Franz.) The book also seems to be structured on Dante’s Inferno with nine books, corresponding to the nine circles of hell, and a “ride to Hell” in the final fifty pages. I haven’t seen any mention of the influence of Dante in the critical readings I’ve done on Döblin (granted, I’ve only been able to read English-language scholarly works), but this connection seems fairly concrete throughout the text.

fassbinder

Berlin Alexanderplatz (dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1980)

          The message behind the novel is bleak, but with a spark of hope at the end: people have little recourse when it comes to the social and economic position of their birth. Even when they try to rise above their circumstances, they don’t realize that they are defeated from the very beginning by systemic trappings beyond their control. Like animals to the slaughter — or wounded men with only one arm — they march to their inevitable disastrous destinies, largely ignorant of their own sad fate until it’s too late. (Ironically, Franz’s downfall is for a crime he didn’t commit, but that matters not in the poverty-stricken world: all are criminals under the yoke of the system.)

          And yet, this is the path that each of us must take if we are ever to learn the transformative lessons necessary to mature. The possibility of salvation does exist at the end of suffering, but only for those with the will to self-reflect on their most painful moments. For subjects like Franz at the lower end of the social order, such moments will be longer, deeper, and more intense than for those who have a greater variety of resources to help them cope. In that sense, Döblin’s novel is very much in line with Dostoyevsky’s fiction, which posits suffering as the necessary path by which one might achieve deliverance. Döblin suggests that we must sacrifice our old selves if we are to be reborn as more insightful people. It will be painful — like Franz’s lost arm, the scars will remain with us for a lifetime — and it won’t necessarily make us happy, but the trials will transform us, for better or worse. In the slang of contemporary social justice, it’s the only way to be woke.

MAN OF STRAW: A Portrait of the Fascist as a Loyal Subject

Man of Straw (The Loyal Subject) (1918) by Heinrich Mann

straw

          Man of Straw (also translated as The Loyal Subject) is a razor-sharp take-down of the upper-middle-class buffoons who fervently supported Kaiser Wilhelm — the same type of power-worshipping nativists who later embraced the Third Reich. The subject in question is Diederich Hessling, who spends his college years swilling beer with his frat brothers in their exclusive secret society, the “Neo-Teutons,” and avoiding any type of intellectual pursuits, while challenging anyone and everyone to duels of honor (but not going through with those duels, of course; just issuing the challenges!). He worships the military, but desperately tries to avoid service by pulling strings with his social connections to get a medical discharge by feigning minor health problems. (Weak bones! A flat foot!)

          It’s obviously a portrait of Wilhelm himself, as Mann (older brother of Thomas and uncle of Klaus) describes Diederich as looking very much like the emperor, even shaping his mustache upward in sharp right angles in imitation of the Kaiser. But it’s also a portrait that has universal application, at times so accurately depicting certain modern American conservative warhawks and chickenhawks — everyone from Donald Rumsfeld to Donald Trump, but also their lackeys, like Chris Christie and Ted Cruz — that we begin to see Mann’s brilliance in crafting this character: these politicians, like Diederich, are not great men. They are, by and large, average dolts. The fact that Diederich looks, speaks, and acts like such national leaders (Wilhelm specifically) undercuts their perceived authority. These political figures, for all their pomp, lofty rhetoric, and gilded lives, are no more than uncouth, half-educated blowhards. And on some level, they know it.

heinrich-mann

Heinrich Mann

          Mann is quite clear on the dangers of authoritarianism and the kind of people it attracts. His portrait of Diederich might well describe any extreme-right politician (or supporter) of this day. Deiderich isn’t too bright and is physically a coward, but his wealth and status as the son of an industrial owner gives him both privilege and a superiority complex. He lacks empathy and sees women merely as objects for his temporary pleasure or social status, and so his marriage becomes a business deal (and a poor one, at that), with a constant, paranoid fear of blackmail hanging over his head, as in most of his affairs. He is a mamma’s boy who talks bravely about the military and about wanting to “duel” those who dishonor him, but who cringes at any possibility of confrontation. His love of power causes him to worship anyone who wields it and to fall in line behind anyone who commands it, without question. He follows the Church not because he believes in its values, but because it gives him status and further scapegoats the “Others” who are not Christian. (In the case of Germany under Wilhelm, the Jews.) His wealth and status as a leader of industry are entirely inherited, so he knows nothing about the business he owns. As a result, he takes out his anxiety and aggression on his workers, who are brighter than him but lower in class, so are unable to advance under his ownership. He fears them, but his ego prevents him from acknowledging this fact.


…Diederich was alone when he stumbled on to the riding path in the direction of the Emperor, who was also alone. Diederich looked like a man in a very dangerous state of fanaticism, dirty and torn, with wild eyes — from his horse the Emperor gave him a piercing glance which went through him. Diederich snatched off his hat, his mouth was wide open, but not a sound came from it. As he came to a sudden stop he slipped and sat down violently in a puddle, with his legs in the air, splashed with muddy water. Then the Emperor laughed. The fellow was a monarchist, a loyal subject! The Emperor turned to his escort, slapped his thigh and laughed. From the depths of the puddle Diederich stared at him, open-mouthed.

— Heinrich Mann


          This complex combination of physical weakness, willful ignorance, hyper nationalism, capitalistic exploitation of the lower classes, and worship of military power creates “the loyal subject”: one who will be attracted to any powerful force upon which he can project his idealized (and unachievable) Self as a way to substitute for his own lack of will and inner fortitude. He will follow anyone who advocates crushing or eliminating the weak or “undesirable,” not realizing that 1) these are the very flaws that his ego refuses to acknowledge within himself, and 2) he is supporting the power-hungry authorities who will not think twice about crushing him as one of the weak. His own insecurity and lack of self-worth causes him to act against his own self-interest, but in the end, because of his inherited wealth, status, and privilege, he survives — and even thrives — safe in the bubble of his own foolish ignorance.

ALL THE KING’S MEN: Shotgun Politics and Transferral Blame

All the King’s Men (1946) by Robert Penn Warren

warren

          Between the ages of 10 and 13, I went to LSU’s baseball camp every summer in Baton Rogue, Louisiana. They had just attained the status of college baseball powerhouse in the mid-90s under coach Skip Bertman, and the camps were packed every year with eager youngsters hoping to glean a bit of magic from the storied program. One year we heard a motivational speaker — the kind of guy who gives pep talks to professional and college athletes — give a speech on Responsibility. He began by asking, “What’s the national pastime?” “BASEBALL!” we all yelled. “Wrong,” he barked. “The national pastime is… transferral blame.” He then went on to describe how the greatest hindrance to success — from the ball field to the boardroom — is blaming others for our failures and pitfalls, a universal trait that spoke strongly to any 11-year-old who gives myriad excuses for not turning in homework or doing chores. It was the kind of speech that stuck with every kid sitting in the stands at Alex Box Stadium that day. As I grew older, I began to accept “transferral blame” as more than merely buzzwords in a cheesy motivational speech aimed at tween boys, but as a useful tool for understanding American life.

          Nowhere is the national pastime of transferral blame more starkly on display than in American politics (where so many participants, from politicians to voters to media personalities, often seem to have the mentality of tween boys), most notably in the form of psychological projection. We project our complex, multifaceted problems on easy, vulnerable targets, and then expect one politician — upon whom we project our ideal, unrealized desires — to wipe them all away (both problems and vulnerable scapegoats) with one mighty blast of bombastic rhetoric. Back in Louisiana, we called this “shotgun politics”: just aim, pull the trigger, and hope that some of those pellets from the spread find the mark…any mark at all, good or bad, consequences be damned.

          It’s no surprise that one of the great American political novels of the 20th century was born in Louisiana, land of shotgun politics, home of transferral blame. Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, written when he was a professor at LSU and surely based on the politics of Louisiana governor and senator Huey Long (despite Warren’s half-hearted attempts to distance the novel from Huey), is largely about the damage we do to ourselves (and to each other) when we stubbornly insist that our actions are meaningless in the larger scheme of things, and when we refuse to acknowledge our complicity in the rise of corruption, and even violence, in the political system due to our own apathy. Or, even worse, when we cynically work to undermine a broken political system instead of working to fix the problems. It’s far easier to load a shotgun and stand by idly as it’s fired than to speak up and stop the ham-fisted moron who is intent on blasting away. 

Warren

Robert Penn Warren

          It’s a lesson that many of us learned in the 2016 election cycle (and not only the United States), and it’s one that we could have avoided perhaps had we heeded Warren’s warning in the form of Jack Burden in All the King’s Men. Burden is an intellectual, cynical, former academic and current journalist whose apathy and cynicism leads him to cover — and eventually work for — the populist politician Willie “Boss” Stark.

          Burden soon works as Stark’s hatchet man, digging up dirt on political enemies, including his father-figure, Judge Irwin. Stark’s brand of amoral politics — in which ideas and deeds exist independent of truth or fact, which are never concrete realities, and should always be manipulated as a means of some larger political end — initially appeals to Burden’s nihilistic worldview. We all wallow in the dirt, Burden rationalizes, and all dirt is equal. Therefore, a respectable judge’s bribe and a governor’s attempt to cover it up — isolated moments of failure in lives of otherwise moral public service — are on par with the rampant corruption and amorality of Stark, whose entire career has been dedicated to the obfuscation of truth and the slinging of dirt.


“Dirt’s a funny thing,” the Boss said. “Come to think of it, there ain’t a thing but dirt on this green God’s globe except what’s under water, and that’s dirt too. It’s dirt makes the grass grow. A diamond ain’t a thing in the world but a piece of dirt that got awful hot. And God-a-Mighty picked up a handful of dirt and blew on it and made you and me and George Washington and mankind blessed in faculty and apprehension. It all depends on what you do with the dirt. That right?”

–Robert Penn Warren


          All the King’s Men shows us what happens when our moral compass has become so distorted that we think, “All politicians are corrupt. All corruption is equal. Therefore, all politicians are equally corrupt, so our only option is to elect an outsider who best knows how to manipulate the corrupt system in order to destroy it.”

          Does this sound familiar, American voters?

          But the lesson of  All the King’s Men is less about the rise of Boss Stark and more about the fall of Jack Burden, an Everyman who should have been smart enough to know that not all crimes are equal and that we are all interconnected. Words and ideas, like actions, can have a far-lasting impact that goes beyond our own cynically detached circumstances. When Burden’s world comes crashing down, he only has himself to blame. Stark might fire the shotgun, but Burden did the loading. And when that happens, one can’t merely stand back and say, “Well, I can’t be blamed for the result of the blast!”

         And yet, this is precisely how authoritarians operate with impunity. When we don’t take responsibility for our actions, then the authoritarian can work without objection, resistance, or responsibility. His minions can do the dirty work while claiming plausible deniability. And they will, with rationalizations like, “I don’t agree with everything he says but…” (Translation: Don’t blame me!), or “Well, other people might vote for him for unethical reasons, but ALL politicians are unethical, and that doesn’t mean all of us voters feel that way…” (Don’t blame me!).

          And then we have the ultimate transferral blame, in the form of those who stayed home during election day: “I didn’t vote at all/voted third party.” (Don’t blame me!) In a sense, we are all to blame for the Willie Starks of the world, in one way or another. He is a monster of our own creation.