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.

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.

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. 

CHESS: The Scars of Persecution and Exile

Chess (1941) by Stefan Zweig

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

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

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

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Stefan and Lotte Zweig

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

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

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


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

–Stefan Zweig


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

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

 

WE ARE NOT ALONE: Shared Human Experiences Connecting a Divided World

We Are Not Alone (1937) by James Hilton

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          Fear of the Other, nativism, a militarized nation on the warpath against a cagey enemy, a crackdown on civil liberties, a culture of surveillance: it’s an old formula that makes for the easy persecution of immigrants and refugees. It was in this political climate in England, so similar to the one we now face in the United States in 2017, that James Hilton published We Are Not Alone in 1937, a novel about a small town British doctor and his relationship with a poor German immigrant, set against the backdrop of a xenophobic town that rushes to judgment to determine their guilt when a terrible accident occurs. The plot revolves around Dr. David Newcombe, a quiet family man in a small British town leading up to World War I, who treats a suicidal German immigrant dancer named Leni. After forming a bond with her — perhaps romantic — Newcombe hires her as the family governess. As the war jitters intensify, Newcombe’s wife dies mysteriously, and the town immediately condemns Leni without any evidence. The witch hunt soon turns dangerous for both Leni and Newcombe.

Although his name is not as well known as it was seventy years ago — and even then he suffered from the dreaded “middlebrow” label — Hilton was one of the great British novelists of the 20th century. While Virginia Woolf’s genius and stylistic innovations strike my intellectual fancy and E.M Forster’s search for human connectivity appeals to my personal struggle with empathy and identity, only Hilton’s storytelling can hold me entranced, as if drifting in the rapture of an hallucination. He is a Storyteller of the type that Walter Benjamin claimed the modern world had all-but-lost: one who transcends the trauma of an isolated, mechanized post-WWI society to celebrate communal memory.

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Jane Bryan and Paul Muni in We Are Not Alone (dir. Edmund Goulding, 1939)

          At a time when artists were expressing the impossibility of communication (“They walk incommunicado,” as American poet William Carlos Williams laments in Paterson), Hilton succeeds in imparting the shared experiences of simple human contact. “Only connect,” E.M. Forster writes in Howards End. And Hilton does so, not by avoiding modernity or escaping the present through pure nostalgia, but instead by seeking those pockets of universal humanity that unite us with each other and with our natural world. After seeing a boy with a fatal infection (and in light of the upcoming Great War) Newcombe muses on the power of renewal inherent in human connection with our surroundings, and with each other. The lack of empathetic communion leading up to both World Wars– which is a personal struggle for myself on a daily basis, not to mention for a large segment of Americans — is for Hilton an existential question.


It was a lovely night, warm from earth; and he felt, as he always did when he had seen recent death, a mystic communion with all things living and dead, as well as a perception of their own communion; so that, through such a prism of consciousness, he could sense life in a dead stone and death in a living tree.

— James Hilton


His characters might be alienated, lost, doomed to fate, or even facing certain death, but Hilton’s message is clear: we are not alone. It is not a pat, saccharine declaration meant to provide easy comfort (although his fiction most certainly offered solace for weary readers between the wars). Instead, his message is one that resonates as the purest form of storytelling: the expression of shared experiences that lead us to greater wisdom in times of trouble. Hilton does not flee from the Storyteller’s responsibility nor claim that such communication is impossible. He meets the challenge head-on and finds the images to convey truth where speech might otherwise fail: “He had never found it possible to put everything he meant into speech; indeed, he had sometimes felt that words offered merely surface exactness that was both an illusion and a danger.” In the words of Benjamin, Hilton offers not the cold immediacy of information and fact, but the connectivity of wisdom through shared experience.

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James Hilton

          We Are Not Alone, like the best of Hilton’s fiction, constructs memory as a landscape that we yearn to traverse, even as we see it fading from our senses. It bridges the divisions of modern man, revealing the distances that separate us to be spaces where we might one day connect, if only we have the courage to reach out to each other. As Hilton concludes, “Their worlds were different, their ages were different, their lives and language were different; yet all those differences became themselves absurd when measured against the flash of recognition that sprang between them at every nearness.” Hilton stands out from his contemporaries because he strove to express our “every nearness” in his fiction during an era when literature was defined by alienation, isolation, and separation. That his words continue to ring true is a testament to his success as a Storyteller in a new century bereft of communal memory.

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

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

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

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

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


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

–Heinrich Böll


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

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

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Heinrich Böll

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

TRANSIT: Writing as a Place to Live for Refugees

Transit (1944) by Anna Seghers

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

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

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

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

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


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

–Anna Seghers


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

Internationaler Schriftstellerkongress 1935 in Paris - Anna Seghers

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

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

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

MEPHISTO: Every Regime Needs the Theater

Mephisto (1936) by Klaus Mann

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“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!

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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?”