AFTER MIDNIGHT: When Hate Becomes Normalized

After Midnight (1937) by Irmgard Keun

midnight

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

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

portret-keun

Irmgard Keun

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


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

–Irmgard Keun


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

CANCER WARD: “Either Tyrant or Traitor or Prisoner”

Cancer Ward (1968) by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

cancer-ward

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

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

solz

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn gulag mugshot, 1953

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


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

‘In our vile times

…Man was, whatever his element

Either tyrant or traitor or prisoner!'”

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

–Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn


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

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

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

Mother Night (1961) by Kurt Vonnegut

vonnegut

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

— Kurt Vonnegut


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

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

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

          Because Trump is who he pretends to be. 

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

vonnegut_af

Kurt Vonnegut

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

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

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

CHESS: The Scars of Persecution and Exile

Chess (1941) by Stefan Zweig

chess

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

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

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

zweiglotte

Stefan and Lotte Zweig

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

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

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


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

–Stefan Zweig


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

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

 

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

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

straw

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

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

heinrich-mann

Heinrich Mann

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


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

— Heinrich Mann


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

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

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

warren

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

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

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

Warren

Robert Penn Warren

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

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


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

–Robert Penn Warren


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

          Does this sound familiar, American voters?

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

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

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

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