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.

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

Life Goes On (1934) by Hans Keilson

keilson

          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. 

hans-ke

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.

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.

BILLIARDS AT HALF-PAST NINE: The Lasting Ruins of Fascism

Billiards at Half-Past Nine (1959) by Heinrich Böll

boll

          The specter of fascism doesn’t merely disappear when the threat is defeated. It lingers for generations, with much of the psychological effects becoming manifest only years after the violence has ended. This is the basis of Heinrich Böll’s novel about three generations of German architects who struggle with the impact of two World Wars and Nazi oppression. Their friendships, families, and psyches are shattered, and the fragmented narrative of the novel reflects this reality, where memories are always ever-present, like the ruins of the city after the war.

          Grandfather Robert Faehmel has great dreams of building churches and having a large, robust family well into old age. He begins his career by designing an abbey that is the pride of the city. Unfortunately, the Nazis arrive as the “Beast” to destroy everything in their wake. Opposed to the nationalist thugs are the “lambs” of the novel: those who resist the Beast, but who are often slaughtered for their efforts. Robert’s son, Richard, is described as a shepherd: he attempts to rescue as many lambs as possible, including his school friend Schrella, the victim of bullying in the schoolyard by both a student and a teacher who would be attracted to fascism. Richard is forced into the military even as he resists the Nazis, ironically being offered the role demolition expert due to his knowledge of building structures. 

          Despite being an architect himself, Richard doesn’t build anything, either during the war or after. Indeed, his big secret is that he was the one who blew up the very abbey his father designed on the orders of a foolish commander. The symbolism is clear: under the thumb of the Beast, an entire generation of Germans became sterile, unable to build upon the achievements of their parents, but only destroying, at the behest of the Nazis, the great civilization handed to them.


Men, responsibility. Obeying the law, imparting a sense of history to children, counting money and resolved on political reason, all were doomed to partake of the Host of the Beast, like my brothers. They were young in years only, and the only one thing — death — promised them glory, would give them greatness and enfold them in the veils of myth. Time was nothing but a means of bringing them closer to death.

–Heinrich Böll


          Even though it was published in 1959, Böll’s novel is distinctly modernist, with each chapter written from the perspective of a different character. The simultaneity of inner and outer experiences, as well as the fractured temporality of the text, give the impression that the novel was written thirty years earlier — in other words, at the very time when many of the events of the novel take place in memory. The memories and flashbacks to the past are as clear as if they were happening in the present (the late-50s, when the novel was set). Every building, person, and object reminds Robert and Richard of their past. Robert’s son, Joseph, is also an architect. He discovers his father’s secret and must come to terms with living in a world of ruins handed to him by the previous generation. We also encounter former-Nazis who are now politicians and government officials, many of whom are only moderately repentant.

          When a former Nazi runs for office on a staunch nationalist ticket, Böll takes us down a road that is difficult to discuss: how far do we go to ensure that fascism doesn’t return? Those who are most vulnerable, and who are driven almost to the point of madness, might take matters into their own hands and resort to violence — and even assassination — to prevent the next rising of fascism. Is this acceptable? Böll doesn’t attempt to justify such violent recourse, but he does try to understand it.

h-boll

Heinrich Böll

          I am tempted to call this novel a postmortem of Germany after the fall of the Third Reich during the ensuing years of the so-called Economic Miracle, but the entire point of the novel is that fascism wasn’t dead at all. It was still alive, and remains so, but in muted or distilled form. Böll shows how the specter of fascism will inevitably haunt succeeding generations, and even attempts at healing through unification will never entirely erase the scars and ruins (both physical and psychosocial) that remain. Böll’s novel serves as a warning that when the menace is turned loose, no one escapes harm, whether lamb, shepherd, or beast.

TRANSIT: Writing as a Place to Live for Refugees

Transit (1944) by Anna Seghers

transi

“For a man who no longer has a homeland, writing becomes a place to live.” – Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia

          In the past two years, the refugee crisis in the Middle East and Europe (and now across the world) has been the most widespread since World War II. It has challenged the ability of free nations to balance compassion with security and has changed the political climate to the extent that xenophobia and populist dissent are now threatening to overrun the free world. In reading the fiction of the mid-twentieth century, we find that these issues are nothing new. Indeed, in this fiction we can learn important lessons and gain new perspectives on the challenges that continue to face us today.

          Anna Seghers’ novel draws on her own experiences as a refugee from Germany in the 30s, when simply existing as a person was a crime and crossing borders for freedom (and basic survival) was a Herculean task that could lead to capture, murder, or suicide. Transit is narrated by a man who has escaped a Nazi concentration camp and is seeking to live a life of peace in France. He soon discovers that this is impossible, as he becomes part of a group of refugees trying to escape France before the arrival of the German army.

          The resulting bureaucratic nightmare requires refugees to have an endless amount of papers and visas, which are nearly impossible to attain. One must have a resident visa merely to reside temporarily in France, and only on the condition that one is looking to leave. In order to leave, one must have a visa to enter the country of refuge. However, one cannot simply travel to that country without first stopping at other countries in-between, either by land, air, or sea. Therefore, one also needs transit visas for each stop in-between. By the time a person can obtain the proper entry visas, their transit visas become out-of-date, and vice versa. Since it takes so long to obtain these myriad visas, one risks out-staying a resident visa, for which one must continually re-apply, but which are perhaps the most difficult to obtain.

          It is a Kafkaesque nightmare that leads the narrator to adopt the persona of a fellow refugee — a writer who has recently committed suicide (possibly a reference to Seghers’ acquaintance Walter Benjamin?). As the narrator goes in circles trying to either stay in France or obtain the proper visas to flee to Mexico, he runs into the girlfriend of the deceased writer, who is currently searching for her lover, whom she doesn’t realize is dead.


And yet although all this transit whispering made me feel quite miserable, it was amazing to think that even though thousands, no, hundreds of thousands, had died in the flames of the air raids and the furious attacks of the Blitzkrieg, there were many more who were born quite without being noticed by the consuls. They hadn’t asked for letters of transit, hadn’t applied for visas; they were not under the jurisdiction of this place. And what if some of these poor souls, still bleeding physically and spiritually, had fled to this house, what harm could it do to a giant nation if a few of these saved souls, worthy, half-worthy, or un-worthy, were to join them in their country — how could it possibly harm such a big country?

–Anna Seghers


          Lost in all this paperwork is the humanity of the refugees, who are shuffled around like so many cattle, often rounded up for little or no reason and sent back to concentration camps. Our narrator gives us an idea of the constant fear and despair felt by these men and women who discover that their only crimes are being alive and trying to cross borders to survive. The novel is written as a narrative told by the unnamed narrator at a cafe, which suggests that he is not only adopting the persona of a writer, but also has become a storyteller himself, spinning his tale for those of us who have never experienced this kind of madness. In that sense, to paraphrase Adorno, writing has become a homeland for both Seghers and the narrator, who slowly comes to embrace a revolutionary point-of-view as he lives the life of the dead writer seeking asylum.

Internationaler Schriftstellerkongress 1935 in Paris - Anna Seghers

Anna Seghers, 1935, at the International Congress of Writers. Photographer Gisèle Freund said Seghers had “the eyes of a dreamer.”

          We readers understand, too, that fiction is more than the communication of facts, but a place of refuge for the weary — a point of contact where disparate (and desperate) people might embrace a humanity denied to them by certain social or political restrictions, might cross boundaries and barriers that are impossible to cross otherwise, and might build a community of shared experiences that reflect the values of men and women who are so often lost in the system. In short, fiction gives voice to the voiceless, and puts a human face on complex geopolitical issues such as the current refugee crisis.

          Seghers’ novel remains just as relevant today as it was when first published in 1944. As Peter Conrad writes in his introduction: “It is sobering and alarming to rediscover this book: what Seghers saw as an emergency has now become what we call normality.” In reading this novel, we come to value not only the importance of providing refugees with comfort and compassion, but also of the essential need for nations to work together to maintain free and open borders, especially in the face of forces (sometimes violent) that might threaten to destroy that international ideal.

THE CONFUSIONS OF YOUNG TÖRLESS: A Psychosexual Study of Fascism

The Confusions of Young Törless (1906) by Robert Musiltorless

          One of the complex issues the Left has been trying to understand in the last month is not why so many hate groups lined up in support of Donald Trump (that explanation is relatively straight-forward), but instead how it was possible for so many regular, law-abiding, “moral” Americans, who don’t appear on the surface to hold prejudicial views, to cast their ballots for a man who is not only the antithesis of ethical leadership, but who is also, admittedly even to some Trump voters, morally repulsive.

          Robert Musil’s The Confusions of Young Törless gets to the crux of this question. It is a brilliant novel of ideas that examines the duality of man, the nature of authoritarianism, the connections between sexuality and aggression, and the psychological development of modern (post-Enlightenment) man. In short, Törless is a young boy at a military boarding school who faces his own inner struggle to understand man’s darker side, including his confused sexuality, while going along with the bullying, physical torture, psychological abuse, and sexual violence perpetrated by older classmates (Reiting and Beineberg) against a student named Basini, to whom all three are repulsed and sexually attracted in equal measure. Törless begins to take part in the abuse more and more, even as he begins to identify with Basini. (Indeed, precisely because he begins to identify with Basini, the abuse becomes a type of lashing out against the emerging feelings that Törless denies to accept within himself.) For these reasons, the novel is justly famous for its examination of the psychosexual causes behind the authoritarian mentality that gave rise to fascism in Europe decades after the novel’s publication.

torless-movie

The Confusions of Young Törless (dir. Volker Schlöndorff, 1966)

          But on another level, Musil’s novel is about the unknown and unknowable spaces that constitute the connective tissues of our reality — from the struggle to understand our sexuality to the mystery of our dreamworld and subconscious desires. In one central section (which happens to occur exactly in the middle of the text) Törless ponders the impossible contradictions of imaginary numbers in mathematics. They don’t really exist, but simply by accepting the possibility that they might exist — and by going about our mathematical calculations as if they did — we can get useful results that impact real numbers and calculations. The metaphor Törless uses is that of two piers connected by an unknown empty space that we must somehow traverse. And this is the impossibility of existence: of knowing ourselves, our world, and each other, as well as how we integrate these unknowns into our daily lives. It is also the impossibility of communication, or even of literature. In each case, we must step into the void and assume that the impossible must exist if we to are function in the real world. The irony is that this knowledge neither comforts nor reassures Törless (or us), but only adds to the anxiety of his existence. Young Törless is about what happens when insecurity leads us to fill those empty spaces with fear, violence, and self-loathing, giving us a false sense of security that we can somehow safely traverse the void between perceptions that constitute our outer world and our unknown or unknowable inner world. And so what we accept as “reality” hangs in the balance between those two states. (As Dylan sings, “I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man / like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand….”)

          There are certainly parallels to what Jung would term (years later) the “Shadow” and man’s attempt at individuation, as well as a Freudian framework of reason/instinct; however, incredibly, Musil wrote this novel before reading any of Freud’s work (according to scholar Ritchie Robinson’s introduction to the Oxford edition). Adding to Törless’s own struggle to understand this duality is his realization that he actually enjoys witnessing Basini’s torture, even as it repulses him. Although he tells himself that his attraction is merely due to his own desire to study this dark side of his psyche, he knows that in studying it, he is necessarily feeding into it. Whereas Reiting gets his kicks from physically dominating Basini, and Beineberg rattles off some half-cocked (pardon the pun) plan to study Basini’s soul, it is Törless who becomes the worst torturer because he sees himself in Basini’s submission — and Basini knows it. As Törless’ “observes” the torture to understand the underlying why of it all, he acknowledges his own complicity, accepts that he (Törless) could just as easily be in Basini’s place, and realizes that all the boys go along with the torture because they are trapped in a psychological order of domination/submission that cannot be escaped — an order that exists beyond moral precepts, becoming manifest when the authoritarian lashes out at those with whom he most identifies.


So Törless stopped looking for words. Sensuality, which had stolen into him bit by bit from the separate moments of despair, now rose to its full height. It was lying naked beside him, covering his head with its soft black cloak. And it was whispering sweet words of resignation in his ear and with its warm fingers pushing away all questions and obligations as futile. And it was whispering: in solitude everything is allowed.

Only at that moment when he was swept away did he wake for a second and cling desperately to the one thought: “This isn’t me! … isn’t me!… Only in the morning will it be me again… in the morning…”

–Robert Musil


          By the end of the novel, neither religion nor science/philosophy (as represented by the two schoolmasters who teach those subjects to the boys) can help or understand Törless. And the headmaster is only concerned with what’s right for the school, not for the boys themselves. In a way, these three authority figures who sit in judgement of Törless are not unlike the three boys themselves who assert their authority over Basini. The cycle continues and, as Musil reveals near the end of the novel, Törless will end up becoming a civil, law-abiding, morally detached adult, repressing his own dark desires to dominate others while labeling the oppressed as “weak” and simultaneously condemning anyone who resists oppression rather than addressing that same weakness within himself.

musil

Robert Musil

          And so Musil, at the age of 25, charts the development of the amoral ascetic (Beineberg, who rejects all perceived moral flaws in himself by ruthlessly and obsessively studying and condemning them in others), the fascist (Reiting, who demands obedience and desires to lead his classmates to attack, torture, and punish their weaker peers), and, to borrow a concept from Adorno, the “authoritarian personality” (Törless, who recognizes these impulses in others, but nonetheless goes about his life in a type of moral detachment so as to live a civil life).

          By the end of the novel, Törless has developed a strictly-structured super-ego that will guide his detached morality for the rest of his life. And here, somewhere between Beineberg and Törless, we find the ideal subject for a dictatorial regime (an interpretation Musil himself advanced in the 1930s): average, law-abiding, “moral” citizens who join the local PTA, who ritualistically mow their lawns, and who, in the words of songwriter P.F Sloan, “hate (their) next door neighbor, but don’t forget to say grace.”

          Musil’s novel is required reading not only for us to examine the defining social, psychological, and political structures of 20th century modernity, but also to get a glimpse into the gestation of 21st century American Trumpism and its acolytes who rationalize their own subjugation.

MEPHISTO: Every Regime Needs the Theater

Mephisto (1936) by Klaus Mann

mephisto

“I am absolutely indispensable!” yelled the director into the dark garden. “The theater needs me! Every regime needs the theater! No regime can get along without me!”


          These words spoken by Hendrik Höfgen, the protagonist of Klaus Mann’s 1936 novel Mephisto, echo across the decades as we in the 21st century confront political regimes that rely heavily on the manipulation of the populace through theatrical devices of mass media, from the confrontational tone of reality television — which has become so ingrained in politics in the United States as to make political rhetoric almost indistinguishable from popular entertainment — to the art of fake news reporting as propaganda par excellence, whether it be in the form of State controlled television broadcasts, Tweets, unsubstantiated memes, viral Internet “news articles” that circulate in social media, or actual fake news programs (The Daily ShowThe Colbert ReportThe Onion) that often double as legitimate information sources. Klaus Mann’s novel seems prophetic not only in its prediction of the violent atrocities of the Nazis in the years after the novel’s publication in 1936, but also in its foresight to position theatrics as the essential means by which political regimes in the 20th century and beyond would disseminate their messages as a form of ritualistic entertainment.

          Höfgen is a talented young performer and director who initially fears the Nazis due to his earlier flirtation with Communism. He has moderate success in the first stage of his career in Hamburg and eventually moves to Berlin to conquer the “system” and achieve stardom. It is here where he faces a choice: does he stay true to himself and to his art by rejecting the accolades of the Nazi regime, or does he make a pact with the “devil” by joining their ranks to seek fortune and lasting greatness? He does the latter with a performance of Mephisto in Goethe’s Faust (the symbolism here is not subtle!), becoming the darling of the regime and the public artistic face of the Nazis. However, his success is won, in the prophetic words of Mann, “over the bodies of corpses,” as he soon discovers that his pact with the devil will “poison the air of European cities” as readily as gas attacks. The power of propaganda will transform his art into lies, stunt the growth of his craft, and finally destroy his soul.

          By the end of the novel, Höfgen is humbled and defeated. The Nazis use him as much as he uses them; he is, after all, only a man–an actor. But as Klaus Mann makes clear, the greatest atrocities and cruelties in the world are perpetrated by mere simple men. They are the foundation upon which fascist regimes are built.


With an expansive gesture Höfgen threw wide his arms under his cloak, making it seem that he had grown black wings. The man of power slapped him on the back. A respectful murmur went around the orchestra. Then, like the music at a circus before the most dangerous act, it fell silent in deference to the extraordinary happening that followed.

The prime minister had risen. There he stood in all his magnitude, his shining bulk, and stretched out his hand to the actor. Was he congratulating him on his magnificent performance? It looked more like the sealing of a pact between the potentate and the actor.

–Klaus Mann


          In a sense, all fascists are actors. They perform with a specific stagecraft that combines communal ritual with bombastic rhetoric, very often in a way that twists lies into truth. Every regime needs theater, but not every theater needs to be a cog in the machine. And not every actor or artist must take part in the performance. Indeed, Mann is arguing strongly in favor of an art that can do the opposite of fascist theatrics — the power of fiction (as a type of “lie”) to unravel the twisted rhetoric of fascism and reveal the truth that their political stagecraft veils. To drive home this point, Mann includes actual members of the Nazi regime in his novel as characters — including Hermann Göring, named only as “the Fat One,” but described in such detail that it is obvious to whom Mann is referring — which adds a sense of immediacy and realism to his novel, not to mention a touch of personal risk for Mann!

klaus-mann

Klaus Mann

          Ultimately, Höfgen is unable to follow up his success as Mephisto with a performance as Hamlet, leading him to realize that selling out for success and fame doesn’t translate to an elevation in his craft. If anything, the price for his new fame is an artistic void that sinks him deeper into despair.  Whereas Mephisto is a character of action — exaggerated, flamboyant, over-the-top — Hamlet is subtle, brooding, and an “intellectual,” in the words of the Nazi propagandist critic quoted in the novel. In the eyes of the Nazis, Hamlet is the type of character that the Führer must help the German people to overcome. While Höfgen excels at embodying Mephisto, a character condemned to repeat his same performance in servitude to a larger force of darkness, he is unable to muster the emotional honesty and vulnerability of Hamlet, who must struggle openly with questions of moral relativism. Höfgen comes to realize that he is more Hamlet than Mephisto, but that he has deluded himself (and his fascist audience) into thinking otherwise. He plays Hamlet as a dashing Romantic hero, to the acclaim of the Nazis, but the performance rings empty and false to Höfgen. He cannot remain true to his art and to the twisted sensibilities of the regime at the same time. Whereas art is the creation of fictions to reveal honest insights (Hamlet), propaganda at the behest of the regime is the manipulation of fictions to conceal truth (Mephisto). In both his personal and artistic life, Höfgen has traded Hamlet for Mephisto, the fiction of revelation for the fiction of concealment.

          The question Mann leaves with his readers is, “Which fiction will you embrace?”

The Inaugural List: Literary Fiction for the Trump Era

Introduction

          When I find myself stressed, needing direction, or searching for answers, I always turn to books. Especially fiction. Needless to say, I’ve been doing a lot of reading the past few weeks in preparation for the coming Trump administration, mainly finding solace in Weimar-era fiction. It’s unfortunate that these novels of loss and alienation feel so relevant as we enter 2017. We always plan for the future to be hopeful, but the next four years in the United States (perhaps even the next decade) are likely to be unstable, unpredictable, and even oppressive. And so I’ve turned to fiction to help me cope with that reality and to help me understand how and why a culture that appeared to be moving towards openness and inclusivity is shifting dramatically back towards nativism — a very real threat our nation confronts as we begin 2017 — and what the consequences of such a transformation might be for the republic and its people. The reality we must accept is that the United States has always been nativist, despite being a nation of immigrants, and that the battles we will fight in the coming years are the same ones that were fought by progressives throughout history, both in the United States and abroad.

          This is the first lesson that fiction teaches us: Trumpism is nothing new. It’s just an updated spin on an old tale.

          Trump practices a brand of authoritarianism that is more Know-Nothingism than fascism, but the two are parallel ideologies, even if they have their roots in different cultures, countries, and eras. I think that’s why I have gravitated towards so many novels written by German, Austrian, and Jewish writers in the years between the wars. The writers on this list grappled with the same issues that we are facing in the United States on the verge of Trump’s inauguration: rigid and deep divides of class, culture, and political viewpoint; a decade of expanding social freedoms and cultural progress met with heavy resistance by the right; the growing sentiment of nativism, anti-intellectualism, xenophobia, and prejudice that blossomed in the far right and threatens to consume not only the nation, but the world; a volatile economy that only further divides the wealthy from the working class; and now that Trump is elected, the prospect of an extreme emphasis on military might, capitalism unchecked by governmental regulation, and an authoritarian figurehead whose heated rhetoric has created a cult of personality for whom the consolidation of power is a desired end. As our institutional safeguards continue to fail us, we see ourselves in much the same situation as many of these writers in the early 1930s. In short, with the election of Trump, we have made a bargain with an American Mephisto.

          This is the social and political context framing the United States as we enter 2017, and it is the basis for this blog, which uses literature (with a strong emphasis on fiction) as a lens through which we examine this social and political dynamic. What lessons can literature teach us?  As Steinbeck wrote in America and Americans (the only nonfiction work on this initial list), the human desire to read and discuss fiction is a way for us to understand the present and encounter the past by not merely memorizing a record of events, but by absorbing the personal stories of people who lived through those events: “History only recounts, with some inaccuracy, what they did. The fiction tells, or tries to tell, why they did it and what they felt and were like when they did it.”

          In the spirit of Steinbeck’s words, and with the conviction that fiction can provide insight, knowledge, and communal self-reflection for a populace, I have created this blog, which I plan to keep in the longterm as I read more fiction (especially written and published by Americans during this turbulent period) that addresses the “whys” of our inevitable national transformation under Trump. I may sometimes profile works of nonfiction or poetry, but I will try to stick mainly to fiction, for the reason listed above. These blog entries are meant to highlight books that tell us something about ourselves, from which we might learn, draw strength, or heed the warnings of past voices — they might be historical or contemporary voices, but each one is worth reading in the Trump era. My blog entries will be my reflections on why these voices speak to me personally, but they will also pertain to issues that impact us all. 

          I share this blog with my friends, and anyone else who might be reading these words, who enjoy fiction and who might also need a cathartic release through encountering somewhat relatable experiences expressed by these writers. I hope this blog might also encourage others to read these works or to write their own reflections on books that impact their worldview or change their perspective.

          To begin the blog, I will profile one novel per day leading up to Inauguration Day, beginning tomorrow with Klaus Mann’s Mephisto. After the inauguration, I plan to update this blog about once per week as I read current American fiction or world classics (with occasional works of nonfiction) that speak to American life in the Trump era.


The Inaugural List

 

1) Mephisto (1936) by Klaus Mann

mephisto

 

2) The Confusions of Young Törless (1906) by Robert Musil

torless

 

3) Transit (1944) by Anna Seghers

transi

 

4) The Graveyard (1958) by Marek Hlasko

graveyard

 

5) Billiards at Half-Past Nine (1958) by Heinrich Böll

boll

 

6) The Iron Heel (1908) by Jack London

london

 

7) We Are Not Alone (1937) by James Hilton

hiltonalone

 

8) The Harbor (1915) by Ernest Poole

poole

 

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

warren

 

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

straw

 

11) Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) by Alfred Döblin

berlin-alexand

 

12) Chess (1941) by Stephan Zweig

chess

 

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

lewis

 

14) Life Goes On (1934) by Hans Keilson

keilson

 

15) Mother Night (1961) by Kurt Vonnegut

vonnegut

 

16) Generals Die in Bed (1930) Charles Yale Harrison

generals

 

17) Cancer Ward (1968) by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

cancer-ward

 

18) After Midnight (1937) by Irmgard Keun

midnight

 

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

horses2

 

20) America and Americans (1966) by John Steinbeck (nonfiction)

johnstein10