CHRIST IN CONCRETE: The Sacrifice of Immigrant Labor to the Pagan God of Capitalism

Christ in Concrete (1939) by Pietro di Donato

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          1939 saw the release of two celebrated works about the experiences of downtrodden American migrants to California during the Depression: John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath and William Saroyan’s drama The Time of Your Life. Both would go on to win Pulitzer Prizes in their respective genres and enter the canon as classic American works of the proletariat in the Depression-era. Both would be mythologized in Hollywood films — the former starring Henry Fonda and the latter James Cagney. Equally celebrated in that year was a work of fiction that also would be turned into a film ten years later, Give Us This Day, directed by the blacklisted Edward Dmytryk. The novel’s author didn’t win any awards or achieve the canonical status of Steinbeck or Saroyan, despite his novel’s passionate prose, timely narrative, and (as almost eighty years of time has confirmed) timeless themes.

          The novel was Pietro di Donato’s Christ in Concrete, which focuses on the struggles of urban immigrants back east who risked their lives for starvation wages in the 1920s to help build the sprawling cities that drove an American economic boom that would come crashing down in 1929. Like The Grapes of Wrath and The Time of Your Life, Christ in Concrete is a critique of the mythical American Dream — an idea that fuels the capitalist exploitation of immigrants, migrants, ethnic minorities, and the working poor for the prosperity and comfort of the upper classes, thereby excluding from advancement the very American citizens who drive the economic engine. It is a novel in which the stark, bitter reality of the American promise becomes clear to the Italian immigrants who toil as bricklayers: their labor, their bodies, and their blood are used to develop a nation whose laws, justice system, and business practices not only preclude them from the profits of their labor, but dehumanize them at every turn — or simply refuse even to acknowledge their existence.

          The novel opens with the death of a bright and skilled bricklayer named Geremio, the patriarch of a large family of Italian immigrants who assume that their father’s hard work and honest living will help them soon to achieve the American Dream: a steady job, their own home, financial stability, upward mobility, security for their children, etc. In truth, Geremio and his Italian-American co-workers are treated as expendable tools, whose safety is the last thing of concern to either the construction corporation or the law.

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Give Us This Day (Christ in Concrete), dir. Edward Dmytryk, 1949

          Geremio’s horrific death due to the negligence of uncaring bosses at his construction site is a brutal, visceral wake-up call: these immigrant laborers are not free and equal citizens in the American capitalist system. They are, instead, the Christs in concrete who sacrifice their lives for the pagan god “Job.” All that matters is Job. They live and die for Job. Job is their master.


His train of thought quickly took in his family, home and hopes. And with hope came fear. Something within asked, “Is it not possible to breathe God’s air without fear dominating with the pall of unemployment? And the terror of production for Boss, Boss and Job? To rebel is to lose all of the very little. To be obedient is to choke. O dear Lord, guide my path.”

–Pietro di Donato


          Commentators often comment on the so-called “personification” of “Job” in the novel. However, it is not so much a personification as a deification. Job is another word for the pagan god of Capitalism (or even more specifically, Corporatism) with the owners functioning as high priests, the foremen as deacons, and the immigrant labor force as the flock, ostensibly “saved” by the holy auspices of Job, but ultimately guided to their demise like lambs to the slaughter. As the sacrificial offerings to the pagan god of the New World, the men are martyrs to a nation whose economic system exploits their sweat, steals their blood, and gives them only the hope of some better life in the future — the “American Dream” as an eternal promise for their suffering. I would even suggest that the designation “Job” is a textual connection to the Biblical Job. Di Donato’s novel, like the Old Testament book, grapples with the injustice of innocent humans suffering purely on the faith of a silent god. In di Donato’s novel, that silent god is extended to include the pagan god of Capitalism.

          Set against this pagan god of the New World is the joyous, pastoral, communal celebrations of the Italian immigrants, as documented in the section titled “Fiesta.” Their Old World rituals are a stark contrast to both the stifling dominance of Job and the impotent emptiness of the Catholic Church, whose presence in the novel is epitomized by the Irish priest who dismisses a dire request for aid from Paul with a slice of “rich-rich cake.” Unable to nourish the spiritual needs of the immigrants or provide charity relief in their times of deep misfortune, the Church is the Old World equivalent of Job: taking from the people in the distant, empty promise of some mythical “better life” in the future. As a result, the working-class must rely on each other — as workers and as neighbors — drawing strength from their ancient, pre-Christian rituals of sharing food and song in a sense of communal bonding.

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Pietro di Donato

          As the narrative shifts from Geremio’s concrete crucifixion to the coming-of-age of his 12-year-old son Paul, the reader shares in Paul’s gradual awareness of his friends and family not as the recipients of the blessings of the Land of Plenty, but rather as the burnt offerings to this new pagan god. Although di Donato was drawing from his own personal experiences as the son of a bricklayer who died in an accident on the job, one can’t help but be reminded of Marx’s theory of surplus value from the first volume of Capital, in which he uses bricklayers as an example of highly skilled workers whose labor generates new value well beyond the labor-cost: “The distinction between skilled and unskilled labor rests in part on pure illusion, or, to say the least, on distinctions that have long since ceased to be real, and that survive only by virtue of a traditional convention; in part on the helpless condition of some groups of the working-class, a condition that prevents them from exacting equally with the rest the value of their labor-power. Accidental circumstances here play so great a part, that these two forms of labor sometimes change places. Where, for instance, the physique of the working-class has deteriorated, and is, relatively speaking, exhausted, which is the case in all countries with a well developed capitalist production, the lower forms of labor, which demand great expenditure of muscle, are in general considered as skilled, compared with much more delicate forms of labor; the latter sink down to the level of unskilled labor. Take as an example the labor of a bricklayer, which in England occupies a much higher level than that of a damask-weaver. Again, although the labor of a fustian cutter demands great bodily exertion, and is at the same time unhealthy, yet it counts only as unskilled labor.” Di Donato’s Christ in Concrete is one of the purest fictional depictions of Marx’s theory of surplus value. As Paul begins his bricklaying career, he soon comes to realize that the fruits of his labor far exceed the value of his compensation.


“Mister Rinaldi, if you don’t mind — I’d like to say something to you –”

Rinaldi bent his ear a little toward Paul but did not look at him.

“Mister Rinaldi, we can’t do anything with my five dollars — oh, please, Mr. Rinaldi, am I not worth more than five dollars? Oh please, I can’t go home with only five dollars…”

“You see, Pauli, I don’t run the corporation by myself. Understand?”

“But, Mister Rinaldi, don’t you think I should get more than five dollars…?”

“…I — say you are.”

“So, Mister Rinaldi…please…?”

“I can’t fight with the corporation.”

“But they knew my father and worked for him — they know I am worth more than five dollars — why don’t they help me? Mister Rinaldi, why?”

Rinaldi looked for the first time at Paul, and kindly, then said with a shrug:

“I’m sorry, Paulie…That’s the way the world is.”

–Pietro di Donato


          Di Donato’s deeply empathetic portrait of the Italian immigrant laborers is both humanizing and glorifying: like Paul, the reader comes to see these men as martyrs, whose gruesome deaths on the scaffolding of the new cathedrals of the pagan god Capitalism are preserved in concrete like the saints who adorn the stone parapets of medieval cathedrals — monuments in stone that were created, not coincidentally, by the guilds of Old World working-class stonemasons, carpenters, and metallurgists who were the forefathers (perhaps even literally) of these Italian immigrants.

          It cannot be coincidental that di Donato names his young protagonist Paul. Like St. Paul the Apostle, he witnesses a “crucifixion” and undergoes a spiritual transformation, accepting his role as an apostle of the new labor movement by testifying to the Christs in concrete who have suffered and died so that their families may one day secure a better life in a New World. Paul’s conversion roughly follows the new spiritual awakening described in the Pauline epistles, culminating in Paul’s mystic dream-vision  — not in subjugation to the false gods of Job or Church, but in service to the very human sacrifices of his fellow laborers. Paul’s dream details his conversion to a new faith in socialism and the labor movement.


He looks about Job. He is in a huge choir loft with scaffolding about the walls. In niches are Saints. They wear overalls and look like paesanos he dimly recalls. They step down and carry hods and push wheelbarrows. But what Saints are they? The little fellow and the curly-headed and the mortarman look like Thomas and Lazarene, and the Snoutnose who once visited the house.

— Pietro di Donato


          Paul’s allegiance is now with his working-class brethren, whose martyrdom he has witnessed on the scaffolding of Job. Paul’s mother, a devout Catholic, soon makes the heart-rending decision that her faith must be born anew, not in the “plaster man and wooden cross,” but in her fellow man: “Follow him,” she tells her children of this newly transformed Paul. His mother’s blessing is a testament to his new faith, which is documented in Christ in Concrete much like St. Paul’s own conversion was recounted in his First Epistle to the Corinthians.

Almost eighty years after its publication, di Donato’s autobiographical portrait — testifying to the sacrificial burden of new immigrants in a nation that purports to welcome them, while simultaneously exploiting their labor and dehumanizing their struggle — remains, unfortunately, all-too-relevant. The American conceit of being a land of hope and plenty for tempest-tossed refugees is belied by every new generation’s attempts to deny immigrants the same opportunities granted their ancestors. As we have learned from the fiction of so many great American writers who emigrated to the United States in the twentieth century — Yezierska, Cahan, Saroyan, Rølvaag, and di Donato, among them — the success of immigrants is won in the face of overwhelming challenges and hardships. For them, the promise of the American Dream exists at the expense of their struggle, rather than as a safe harbor from it. Their triumph is an overcoming of adversity built into a system that actively denies them its loftiest ideals.

 

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

America and Americans (1966) by John Steinbeck

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          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

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          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.

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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.

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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

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          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.)

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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

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          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.

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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

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          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.”

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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

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 “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.

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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. 

LIFE GOES ON: Fiction as “United Readiness” in the Face of Economic Injustice

Life Goes On (1934) by Hans Keilson

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          How do we face the harshest economic adversity, even as we understand that the cards are stacked against us to the point that hard work does not necessarily lead to success? What motivates us to continue when we realize that working just to stay afloat is impossible? When we’re born into a capitalist system that only benefits those who already have money or privilege — and even then on a system of credit that forces the wealthy to exploit the lower classes just to maintain their own inherited status — how do we push back in the face of such overwhelming hopelessness, unable to repair our own lives, much less fix the system?

          These questions are impossible to answer, even for those of us who aren’t facing the dire and immediate existential crises of the poorest of our neighbors. I would never claim that fiction can give us complete or satisfactory answers to these questions, but I do believe strongly that fiction might work to help us better understand the most vulnerable in an unjust economic system. For those who are struggling with these questions on a daily basis, fiction might even function as both a life boat and a beacon, offering a refuge and at least the possibility of charting a course out of the abyss. 

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Hans Kelison

          Hans Keilson’s highly-autobiographical novel — published when he was just 23-years-old in 1933 and burned by the Nazis a year later — is the story of one small family of merchants being slowly squeezed into financial ruin by the economic downfall in Germany between the wars. Albrecht (a thinly-veiled version of Keilson) and his mother and father struggle under crippling debt to borrow enough money to keep their small store stocked. Since their customers are also strapped for cash and borrowing on credit, the family finds themselves in the same dark hole as everyone else: they borrow items from bigger shops, selling them at a loss, and purchase items on credit that their customers in turn buy from them on credit, thus ensuring that no one can ever dig themselves out of the hole, no matter how hard they work. As this happens, those who already have enough money to survive continue to prosper — sometimes through shady means, such as burning their own businesses for insurance settlements — which only makes it more and more difficult for the impoverished workers to find jobs. Everyone purchases on credit, including those who are relatively financially secure, and no one has the money to pay back the loans, much less the interest.

          The novel is ultimately about Albrecht’s transformation from naive schoolboy to college-educated working man, earning money as a struggling musician as he comes to embrace the leftist politics that might unite the working class against this endless cycle of exploitation and labor strife. It is a sobering, melancholy read that presents a realistic depiction of economic hardship, offering no brazen solutions or false hope. Indeed, the novel ends with Albrecht and his father continuing to struggle in Berlin, but finally acknowledging the need for solidarity with workers, as opposed to going-it-alone in the spirit of independent entrepreneurship, which had only succeeded in isolating the family from their community as everyone’s finances continued to sink, including their own. The message is clear: we are stronger when united, if only to help each other carry our shared burdens.


In front, at the head of the procession, is a solitary man, and the rest follow behind him in well-organized rows of four that swell to a larger and larger demonstration. Workers, the unemployed, impoverished middle-class citizens, students — women and men — all marching at the same pace, and even though the man in the first row doesn’t know the man in the tenth row, doesn’t even know who he is, they are marching together. A mighty will streams out from them, a united readiness: they know why they’re marching.

— Hans Keilson


 

          Even before the novel was banned and burned, the publishers required Keilson to change the ending to be more ambiguous so as not to stir the wrath of the burgeoning Nazi regime. As a result, the marching workers are not explicitly described as striking Socialists, but Keilson leaves enough for the reader to understand that even though the writer was censored, the workers won’t be: “they know why they’re marching.” So do the readers. And, apparently, so did the Nazis, who banned the book, anyway!

          The novel stands as the quiet protest of a young writer who understands that literature has the capacity to document injustice and transform the attitudes not only of those who live through difficult times, but also the generations that follow. We can only begin to lift ourselves — and each other — by first sharing our stories. His novel is a living document that still speaks clearly to anyone struggling in the 21st century with employment, economic inequality, and social injustice. As Keilson wrote in his 1983 afterward: “Literature is the memory of humanity. Anyone who writes remembers, and anyone who reads takes part in those experiences. Books can be reprinted. The fact is, there are archival copies of books. Not of people.”

          Keilson is grounded in a realistic hope to the very end, suggesting that books can only go so far in preserving memory. It’s up to those of us who are living to carry on the lessons and traditions of the men and women whose memories are preserved in literature. Their stories live not just in the printed word, but in how we share their experiences, burdens, and joys, and in how we take up their causes during our own lifetime, announcing our own “united readiness” to join the march.

IT CAN’T HAPPEN HERE: “There Are No Neutrals Here”

It Can’t Happen Here (1935) by Sinclair Lewis

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          In the past year, Sinclair Lewis’ novel about the rise of fascism in the United States has had an unfortunate resurgence in popularity as Donald Trump has increasingly dominated American politics and has, inexplicably, become President-elect. The novel is selling out in bookstores and remains one of the top-selling classic American novels on Amazon.com. Theaters and libraries presented a nation-wide simultaneous reading of a stage adaptation of Lewis’ work in October of 2016, almost in preparation for the unthinkable that might (and did) occur on November 8 of that year.

          But was it really unthinkable? All the signs were there. Americans were sick of career politicians, even if they were extraordinarily experienced. Their fear of Muslims, immigrants, and blacks was real (in their own minds), and horribly exploited by Trump, who used the most vulnerable of our citizens as scapegoats to distract from the genuine problems of labor, economic inequality, and an unfair justice system. He utilized and abused Twitter in a way that revolutionized how campaigns are run.

          And in doing so, the one man who most represented precisely the problems, challenges, and pitfalls facing modern America became the man Americans elected to fix those problems, not through policy suggestions, genuine ideas, or even hopeful rhetoric, but on a platform of nativism,  xenophobia, fear, militarism, and anti-intellectualism. Trump became Sinclair Lewis’ nightmare come to life. Those who have read Lewis’ novel understand that it can happen here because it always was here, long before Trump was ever born, much less descended the Golden Escalator.

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Sinclair Lewis

          Lewis’ novel was wickedly satirical. Unfortunately, that satire has become somewhat prophetic as we enter 2017 and continually push the boundaries of absurdity in American political discourse. The folksy, homespun Buzz Windrip seems clearly modeled on Huey Long, with touches of Eugene Talmadge, Theodore Bilbo, and Father Coughlin thrown into the mix — all of whom Lewis name-checks in the novel. In my early-20s I was fascinated with Depression-era demagogues (and read Lewis’ Elmer Gantry, naturally), so I was very familiar with all these names. Readers might benefit from some background study to understand the 30’s political climate that fostered these types of populists. However, while the book is firmly rooted in 1930s politics, there are significant parallels to the modern day that will resonate with readers in 2017. The fictional Windrip represents a unique type of American fascism that values equal parts P.T. Barnum buffoonery, Will Rogers schtick, and militarism. If this sounds like a recipe for Trumpism, then perhaps you’ll understand why this book still has a great deal to say to 21st century Americans.

          Into this fire, Lewis drops Doremus Jessup, a classic Twainsian Don’t-Tread-on-Me Connecticut Yankee — independent, skeptical, liberal, practical, and a bit curmudgeonly. He refuses both fascism and communism as dangerous collectives. His guiding worldview is pretty much “mind your own business and let others do as they please.” Yet he’s forced into action when Windrip is elected, giving Lewis free reign to satirize everyone form the dolts who fall for Windrip’s rhetoric to the housewives-turned-underground revolutionaries who rage against the machine.


Doremus Jessup, so inconspicuous an observer, watching Senator Windrip from so humble a Boeotia, could not explain his power of bewitching large audiences. The Senator was vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his “ideas” almost idiotic, while his celebrated piety was that of a traveling salesman for church furniture, and his yet more celebrated humor the sly cynicism of a country store.

Certainly there was nothing exhilarating in the actual words of his speeches, nor anything convincing in his philosophy. His political platforms were only wings of a windmill.

–Sinclair Lewis


          Lewis begins each chapter with a quote from Windrip’s fictional book Zero Hour, but suddenly stops quoting about halfway through the novel, just as Windrip attains power. At that point, the novel becomes less about the rise of fascism and more about the way in which average people choose their destinies. Indeed, Windrip’s message is only the spark. The true horrors occur when regular people begin to make decisions (or refuse to act) based on collective fear. And here is where Lewis’ novel takes on prophetic form: not in its chronicle of how a fascist-leaning politician rises to become president, but in how Lewis imagines the American people would respond. They each make a decision to fall into line or to resist; to fight or to flee. Each more outrageous word and action becomes normalized, until Windrip’s own ignorant rhetoric fades into the background. At a certain point, even Windrip himself becomes irrelevant; the events he sets in motion move to a point beyond where he might stop them, even if he wanted to (which he does not). Americans like Jessup are forced out of their indifferent attitudes or politically neutral position and must resist. In the words of the protest song “Which Side Are You On,” written by Florence Reece and popularized by Pete Seeger: “There are no neutrals here.”

          When Lewis writes (ironically) “it can’t happen here,” he’s not talking about fascism so much as the overly-militarized, patriotic, and nationalistic groupthink that already is here, and which can so easily lead average citizens to accept or embrace fascist ideologies. (The SA-styled military unit patrolling the borders before an all-out war with Mexico is called the Minute Men [MM]. Again, this sounds all-too-familiar to modern American readers.) As we enter the Trump Era in the United States, sadly, the novel has become required reading for all Americans, even if its message falls on deaf ears, and might very well be too late to make an impact.

CHESS: The Scars of Persecution and Exile

Chess (1941) by Stefan Zweig

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          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.

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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.