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.

 

BREAD AND WINE: The Reconstitution of Faith as Individual Resistance to the “Collective Stupefaction” of Fascism

Bread and Wine (1936) by Ignazio Silone

 

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“Do you remember the fantastic plans we used to make?”

“To me you seem to be recalling prehistory,” Nunzio said.

“When we went out into the world,” Pietro went on, “we found ourselves in a society that was totally unforeseen, and each one of us had to make his choice — to submit or to put his life in jeopardy. Once upon a time there may have been middle ways, but for our generation after the war they were closed. How many years have passed since then? Barely fifteen, and anyone who saw the two of us here now would never imagine that up to the age of twenty our lives ran parallel and we nursed the same dreams for the future.”

Nunzio seemed nervous and upset. “It’s true that we now belong to two different parties,” he said.

“Two different humanities,” Pietro corrected him.

— Ignazio Silone


          Bread and Wine is Ignazio Silone’s moving 1936 novel of the Italian socialist resistance to fascism in the early twentieth century. After only recently adapting to the industrial age of the long 19th century, the agrarian proletariat found themselves confronting the challenges of an emerging global age in the years leading up to World War II. It was an era ushered in by disasters: from the natural (including devastating earthquakes in the teens and twenties that killed tens of thousands of Italians and a flu pandemic that ravaged Europe) to the man-made (most notably the mechanized horrors of the Great War and a global depression in the 1930s). In the face of a rapidly advancing mechanized (and weaponized) society and the advent of mass communication, the former institutions of authority — from a myriad of local and regional assemblies to the all-encompassing Catholic Church — were shaken to their core. Suddenly, the methods of power to subjugate the masses (consolidation of wealth, control of the means of production, allegiance to rigid social/economic hierarchies, vilification of individuality, restrictions on public spaces/speech, adoption of a ritualized/mystical folk mythos, and the exploitation of cultural in-group/out-group dynamics) were harnessed by nationalists in Italy towards a new political force: fascism.

          Cast against this backdrop of a bleak modern age were the cafoni — poor, rural Italian peasants who, like their fellow working class brethren throughout Europe, were trapped by the threefold masters of fascism, communism, and capitalism. The hero of Silone’s novel, Pietro Spina, emerges from the peasantry to become a revolutionary, trying to balance the theory of Marxist intellectualism with the gritty reality of the day-to-day lives of the cafoni as they gradually succumb to the nationalist indoctrination of their new fascist masters. On the run from authorities and finding himself at odds with his communist comrades who are too rigidly adopting a similar type of authoritarian dogma, the atheist Spina must take the disguise of a Catholic priest and become Don Paolo Spada. Under this name, he lives among the cafoni, attempting to keep a low profile while simultaneously continuing his resistance to the Blackshirts. As the Catholic Church looks the other way when the political climate shifts to fascism (or, at worst, becomes complicit in its rise), “Don Paolo Spada,” ironically, becomes a saint-like hero to the cafoni as he tells them direct, honest truths that neither parrot the empty platitudes of religious doctrine nor placate the burgeoning fascists. In an age of “alternative facts” and magical thinking, the resistance fighter’s words become a source of comfort. In short, the atheistic revolutionary becomes the one who “keeps Christian honor alive in these parts” through acts of individual resistance to the authoritarian dogmas (political and theological) that had been crushing the spirit of the people. Through his resistance, Spina/Spada acts as the living embodiment of the most Christian virtue: individual sacrifice for the love of the oppressed.


Our love, our disposition for sacrifice and self-abnegation are fruitful only if they are carried into relations with our fellows. Morality can live and flourish only in practical life. We are responsible also for others.

If we apply our moral feelings to the evil that prevails all round us, we cannot remain inactive and console ourselves with the expectation of an ultra-terrestrial life. The evil to be combated is not the sad abstraction that is called the devil: the evil is everything that prevents millions of people from becoming human. We too are directly responsible for all this…

I believe that nowadays there is no other way of saving one’s soul. He is saved who overcomes his individual, family, class selfishness and frees himself of the idea of the resignation to the existing evil.

— Ignazio Silone


          Spina/Spada comes to understand that it is not enough to be passive when confronting evil on earth while maintaining faith in some later mystical “better world” in the afterlife. That type of thinking has led to the hypocrisy of religious institutions buttressing the political regimes and economic policies that represent true evil precisely because they cause widespread harm. In this new century, a person’s faith must be placed in (and derive from) the people. If the prevailing social structure perpetuates evil, then the only moral action is to actively resist those institutions. Instead of symbolically celebrating the mythical sacrifice of past religious figures (the “bread and wine” of passive religious ritual), one must be willing to sacrifice oneself in the here-and-now to create that better world on earth by ensuring the safety of the masses against such overwhelming evil (in other words, breaking bread and sharing wine with those who depend upon it for their survival). 


The men around the table ate and drank.

“Bread is made of many grains of corn,” said Pietro, “so it means unity. Wine is made of many grapes, so it means unity too. Unity of similar, equal, useful things. Hence truth and fraternity are also things that go well together.”

“The bread and wine of Holy Communion,” an older man said. “The wheat and grapes that are trampled on. The body and the blood.”

“It takes nine months to make bread,” old Murica said.

“Nine months?” exclaimed the mother.

— Ignazio Silone


          One of the main themes of Silone’s novel — that which Spina/Spada must grapple with in his personal writing and interactions with the cafoni — is reconciliation: between theory and practical living, between faith in institutions (including the party) and faith in people, between spiritual renewal and bodily security, and between individual sacrifice and communal strength. Perhaps the most important of those is faith, an issue tackled by many post-Marxist philosophers during and after World War II, and one which Silone offers as the primary metaphor of his novel (the bread and wine of the title). For Silone, the Kierkegaardian leap of faith still constitutes belief as the acceptance of the unreasonable; however, the perception of rationality (and reality) has been inverted, so that the choice to make that “leap” is no longer confined to the spiritual realm. In a world where ordinary discourse has moved beyond reason — where “alternative facts” and magical thinking are not the harbingers of personal leaps of faith, but the concrete norms of public rhetoric — then the power of belief must necessarily shift from (private) acceptance to (public) resistance. When irrationality becomes the norm, its acceptance becomes expected — and is quite often demanded! — by the masses who support those in power. The leap of faith made by Spina/Spada is one that must be made by all critical thinking people during times of widespread authoritarian rule where the public and private spheres are equally regulated, and represents a “faith” in reason, facts, truth, and virtue. It is the “unreasonable belief” that rationality (in the form of individual, public resistance) will prevail in the face of mass irrationality, what Silone terms the “collective stupefaction” of fascism.

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Ignazio Silone

          Silone’s novel is a defining text of the emerging democratic socialism of the mid-twentieth century, but also a fictional counterpart to the post-Marxist engagement with Kierkegaard’s philosophy and religious thought. If we, like the atheist Spina/Spada, accept the former but not the latter, then we must also heed what those post-Marxist thinkers — from Lukács to Adorno and beyond — have concluded about faith: that the political and theological crises of the twentieth century have dislodged faith as the cornerstone of any spiritual doctrine. Indeed, for Adorno, faith was an illustration of so-called negative dialectics. Both are born of suffering, but for Adorno (if not so much, perhaps, for Silone) the twentieth century response to fascism and Stalism had disintegrated or fractured faith from theology and reconstituted it as that which (paradoxically) must be both utilized and overcome through engagement with the historical, which Kierkegaard’s “leap of faith” rejects, according to Adorno, who positions Kierkegaard’s faith as “leaping” outside or beyond the historical. In a sense, faith is suffering — an existential truth certainly shared by writers and thinkers across a spectrum of centuries and ideologies, including Silone, Adorno, Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, and Camus. Even if Silone’s ultimate message in 1936 is not as bleak as Adorno’s post-war perspective, both writers chronicle the same point at which truth borne out of suffering “leaps” away from spirituality and toward “the denunciation of illusion” (to quote from The Dialectic of Enlightenment).

          For Silone, that denunciation is symbolized in bread and wine, reconstituted symbols of Christian religious faith that now represent a more earthly communion: the peasants who are trampled upon — like wheat, like grapes — and who are redeemed in their suffering through a unifying, life-sustaining collective force: the socialist resistance to fascist ideology. Like individual grains of corn or grapes, they combine to form a new united corpus — let us call them the Corpus Cafoni — whose bonds represent a faith in human unity when humanity is at its bleakest and most divisive.

          In Bread and Wine we see the same set-pieces that have been constructed in our own century around a uniquely American backdrop, even if their ultimate arrangement and performative function have been refashioned to suit the dramaturgy of Trumpism. We might look to Silone’s novel as a text of both comfort and moral orientation as the institutions meant to safeguard our rights are continually placed under siege. Through the testament of Spina/Spada, we come to see that “thoughts and prayers” are meaningless unless we are willing to take action. Our faith must be placed in present realities rather than in spiritual myths, dogmatic institutions, or divisive nationalistic rhetoric. Personal sacrifice in the form of public resistance is required to ensure the safety of the most vulnerable citizens, fostering unity against the divisive forces of power that would rather hope for passive acceptance of their ideology. Only in this active resistance can a renewed faith in a unified humanity fight the violence and lies inherent in the “collective stupefaction” of fascism.

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. 

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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?

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.

BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ: Being Woke in Weimar Germany

Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) by Alfred Döblin

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          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.

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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.

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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.