Monthly Archives: January 2014

A Superbowl for Supermen

This  year’s is supposed to be an especially good one: the best defensive team against the best offensive one. I have no favorite. I hardly follow professional football. I grew up watching it on TV, and my brother played for our home town high school team (one of my home towns; we moved a lot) whose colors happened to be the same as the professional baseball team the family Super_Bowl_XLVIII_logorooted and sometimes wept for. The town was located just across the Hudson River from Manhattan Island, but in many ways it might have been in Indiana or some other part of the interior mainland of the country. It was as sports-crazy as any Southern or Midwestern community, politically conservative and, at least in the case of the religion in which I was raised, extremely religious.

My other older brother also played high school football. His best friend died as the result of a ruptured spleen he suffered during a practice scrimmage.  That was my first experience of someone being seriously injured in a sports contest, in this case a very up-close experience — I can still remember how deeply shaken my brother was by his friend’s death. Nowadays the media are full of reports and debates about head concussions and their long-term effects, starting with kids in the youngest junior leagues. Back then a fatal injury like was just one of those things, a freak accident.

But it’s not the brutality of football I want to discuss here. All sports are dangerous (the last I heard, baseball players are more frequently injured than any other athletes). Football is just more obviously brutal than other sports, with the obvious exception of professional hockey which looks as barbaric as professional wrestling but unlike professional wrestling is not play-acting. What I have in mind is not the violence of the sport, any sport, but the reasons why we celebrate achievement in sports in the first place.

There’s a direct connection between a nation that places high emphasis on athletic prowess — as well as the qualities that promote it: physical conditioning, team-spirit, victory above everything else — and militarism. They go hand in hand, or maybe the better metaphor would be “in lock-step.” In the early years of the twentieth century college football was in serious decline, so much so that a president of the United States took steps to revive it. He didn’t do so out of a personal love for the sport. He understood that without a rigorous athletic regimen in the schools the quality of the American military force would be HSFootballdiminished. If that president were alive today he would be very happy on that account. Not only does every small town cheer on its local high school teams (sometimes with a prayer before kickoff), but college football, basketball and to some extent baseball are all thriving and have become an industry worth billions of dollars to those schools and to the media networks that air their games.

We like to think militarism is something only bad nations engage in. Our military is for defense. As such, why shouldn’t we want it to be as efficient and strong as possible? That’s a reasonable conclusion to a false premise. Our history is full of military adventures and continues to be so, from the genocidal ones we waged against the original native populations to those we undertook against our neighbors on this continent and in the Caribbean to our most far-flung wars in places like the Philippines and Southeast Asia and now the Middle East. Those were not defensive wars by any stretch of the military imagination. They were imperialist wars — more like slaughters in many cases.

This week our current president gave his annual State of the Union speech. Toward the end — the best time for whipping up patriotic hysteria — he introduced a victim (the preferred word is “hero”) of a roadside bomb in Afghanistan, a young man who received serious, enduring and disfiguring injuries as a result of that explosion. The reaction: standing ovation. You might say: standing ovation all across the nation. No one would not show support for a wounded veteran and by inference the cause in which that wound was sustained, would they? On that we should agree, is the implication of this kind of political theater. An enthusiastic applause is pretty much guaranteed from congress members and other government officials very few of whom have enlisted or ever would enlist in the military. Had the president introduced the young soldier as the victim of  an unnecessary war and asked his audience to look upon the pitiful result of our militarism in action, congress might have passed a motion for the president’s impeachment the next morning, if not sooner.

Sport, at least the kind of emphasis we place on it, is virtually synonymous with militarism. That’s why the fascists and the Nazis placed so much stress on sports while at the same time downgrading intellectual activity to the point of ridicule. Our received history is otherwise on the following, but I found a passage in Victor Klemperer’s book on the language of the Nazi regime (The Language of the Third Reich) compelling in this regard. He lived through that period in Germany, and he Hitlermusso2_editdescribes the support given by the Hitler regime to the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin as absolute to the point of not only praising foreign “Negro” athletes who won medals but for celebrating, even allowing the German people to idolize, their ace German fencer who everyone knew was a Jew under the Nuremberg Laws. Why? Because a fit body in an empty mind was the goal the Nazis, like any totalitarian regime, aimed at. And this occurred at games from which the United States withheld a star runner because that runner was Jewish and our government did not want to offend the Fuehrer!

Sports the way we foster and idealize them in this nation embody and inculcate the qualities we want and need for an elite military. In addition to strengthening bodies and instilling team spirit and unquestioning loyalty, they build character — an amorphous term we prefer to leave that way. At the turn of the twentieth century, George Orwell relates in his essay on his school days, faculty considered the boy in the schoolyard who made others bend to his will, suck up to him, run his errands, as a young man of “character.” Today we would call that boy a bully, not because of the effect he has on other boys but because of the methods he uses: physical force, coercion, etc. His bullying should be channeled into more acceptable activities like politics and corporate management.

The Nazis stressed athletic metaphors throughout their twelve years in power, but never so much as when they were losing the war. Goebbels was frequently on the radio, reminding the German people it didn’t matter who was ahead in the game but who was in the lead at the game’s conclusion, who breasted the tape last, who scored the knockout punch. Happily, we Americans have never had to resort to that kind of self-delusion, have we. Or was our insistence that we lost the war in Vietnam “at home” such an excuse? Have we embargoed and boycotted Cuba because the regime there is communist or out of spite because we “lost” that island in 1959? Did we go to war illegally and immorally in Iraq because we believed Saddam Hussein had nuclear and/or chemical weapons or because we resented his still being in power a decade after we had ignominiously defeated him in the “Mother of All Battles” (isn’t it interesting — it certainly would be to Klemperer — how that expression “mother of” has entered our language almost as just another intensifier?).

So, no, I guess I won’t be watching the Super Bowl this year, because when I see those 300-pound linemen butting heads with a ferocity that would kill a bull I can’t help thinking this game is really just a less lethal version of what the gladiators did to each other in the Coliseum as the crowd yelled and cheered exactly the same as they will do on Sunday. And that exercise of athletic prowess, in both cases, is actually a preparation for the real thing, whatever other purposes it may serve as entertainment. May the best Uebermenschen win.

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The Emperor’s Tailors: Lit-Crit as Orientalism

In “A Reader’s Manifesto” (August, 2001 Atlantic Monthly), his briefly infamous attack on the American literary establishment, B. R. Myers made the argument that gatekeepers of that establishment (university professors, literary critics, reviewers) define for the rest of us what is and what is not literature according to a narrow, ideologically-driven view that has nothing to do with the traditional meaning of the word, and they do so with an arrogant contempt for the common reader.

I say “briefly infamous” because Myers’s essay was itself attacked from every quarter with a vehemence that seemed all out of proportion to what those same critics insisted was the author’s insignificance and lack of credentials. They even accused him of being insufficiently Reader's_Manifesto_coverAmerican, and at least one noted establishment figure refused to ride the same elevator with Myers. But then he was assigned to oblivion, the most effective way to silence dissent.

The article received a more sympathetic hearing in the U.K. and Australia. Reading the reactions there, one gets the sense that it provided a refreshing gust of truth that the lit-crit establishment in those places dared not express on their own. I noticed, for instance that following the publication of “A Reader’s Manifesto” the Man Booker Prize in Britain announced that future nominees would be selected partly with an eye toward reader accessibility. The American penchant for post-modern French theory probably never struck as deep in the UK, and some must have resented having to follow an American lead unquestioningly.

My reading of what Myers says in his essay — as well as in his short book of the same name from which the article was extracted (A Reader’s Manifesto, Melville House 2002) — boils down to this: The evaluation of fiction writing has been hijacked by an ideology that defines literature in a way that has nothing to do with traditional values like engaging characters, interesting plot or even simple entertainment. In fact, any writing that celebrates these elements is categorized as sub-literary or “genre.” The result of this hijacking has been the canonization of a mediocrity lavishly praised for what anyone with common sense would regard as obscurity, wordiness, and plain old-fashioned dullness.

But you couldn’t read the attacks on either Myers’s argument or his person without wondering not whether his attackers were wrong or right but what could be the reason for so much anger. True, he was questioning the fundamentals of the establishment’s esthetic, but he was doing so in a reasonable way. Why the campaign to discredit him personally? Why the attempt to question his nationality? Why the refusal of one of the better of their bunch, Michael Dirda, to even address the issues Myers raised, or apparently even to read his article?

These people had to have felt deeply threatened to react that way — threatened the way a religious fundamentalist feels threatened by a creed or life style that seems to flaunt the basic tenets of their faith. Myers seemed beyond the kind of fraternal dialogue they could accord to one of their own who had strayed into the foothills of heresy. He was Moloch, the Evil One — and a threat to their bread and butter, to boot. To allow him a legitimate voice was to open an artery in a closed system they had spent decades stitching together. Closed systems, whether physical like our bodies or social like the Soviet Union or the Catholic church, cannot sustain that kind of breach. A great deal of inward pressure is required to maintain them. Any insult is like sticking a pin into a balloon. The lit-crits knew this intuitively. So they closed ranks as instinctively and as shamelessly as bishops do around pederast priests, assuring themselves, if any doubts arose, they were doing so for the good of literature, not just to maintain their control.

I also got some insight into the reasons for the violence of the establishment’s reaction to Myers’s article from a recent reading of the late Edward Said’s Orientalism, a genealogy of the West’s appropriation of everything Eastern not just physically but as the West’s intellectual “creation.” It is Said’s contention that the Orient/East exists only as a resource and cultural archive for the West, and it’s hard not to see theEdward_Said same kind of attitude at work in the American attitude toward indigenous foreign fiction. We are willing enough to read Indians, Pakistanis, Arabs and any number of Spanish-speaking authors as long as their characters have an American connection and the landscape of their native lands is presented as appropriately exotic but easily accessible, the way our travel books make accessible the touristy landmarks and back-alley bargain spots of the dark continents beyond Coney Island and the Golden Gate. Africa—black Africa — in this respect, is virtually off the map, with rare exceptions. Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is taught universally in our schools from elementary through graduate school. But the title of that novel indicates what kind of reader it has in mind, and the text itself, while worthy, is the work of a university man who has read his Iliad and his Shakespeare. Had he told his story, an historical novel of pre-colonial village life, without those Western literary frames of reference, would he still be at the top of the academic reading lists? Would he even be published in the West?

What we do not admit is the kind of fiction, even fiction written in English, that must be taken on its own terms where its references are largely intra-cultural– though very little fiction written in any language anymore entirely escapes some intrusion of Western culture, and probably takes it for granted. I am not talking about entering into exotic mentalities akin to the mysteries of deep Sufism. Said’s Orientalists assume that in the East—and the same can be said largely about Africa or Latin America—there is no there there until the Western mind and sensibility gives it form and context. Nothing, consequently, is be taken on its own terms, and no attempt is made to experience it that way, because the East is by definition without form, chaotic, lawless, excessive, crying out for the West to organize and dominate it.

A hundred years ago Western artists discovered traditional African art and, after giving it a European medium and theory, presented it as their own, probably without realizing they were merely imitating because until they presented it to Europe on their canvases it did not, in effect, exist. Western composers have been lifting Arabic themes and stories at least since the time of Mozart. Western science is builtOrientalism_Book on the back of an Islamic science that flourished when the capitals of Europe were still mud huts. The Renaissance grew out of the rediscovery of a Greek culture that had been preserved in the East by both Islamic and Christian scholars. Today’s American Neo-Con ideology of a world made over in the image of the United States, or as an imitative vassal thereof, was not born in the mind of a University of Chicago neo-Platonist professor. It belongs to a tradition that used virtually the same words and ideas two hundred years ago when Napoleon’s army “liberated” Egypt. The same ideological imperatives continued through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, propping up the colonial adventures of Europe and eventually spawning the likes of Hitler and Mussolini. Paul Wolfowitz & Co. are just echoes of this same intensely chauvinistic tradition.

I was not surprised by the existence of this tradition as Said describes it, but I was amazed by its strength and respectability. In this light the excesses of fascism and Nazism make perfect sense, given the acceptance that was for so long accorded ideas of cultural superiority and the “racial” conclusions that follow. Authors like Nietzsche are frequently blamed, but the intellectual discourse was solidly in place by the time he came along. Both the British and the French established the East—everything from North Africa to China and, later, Africa—as areas of the world that existed culturally only in the deep past, if at all. In the present, they are like the primitive earth, void and without form, savage, irrational, incapable of self-government. The living people in those parts of the world were seen—and largely still are viewed–as degenerate as their cultures, without the European virtues of logical thought and self-restraint. There is no hope for them except through a benevolent European domination or, now, an American one.

The lit-crits see the world the same way. Literature does not exist until they recognize it as such, whether it’s a domestic product that does not conform to their literary ideology or foreign work that is the organic result of forces beyond the control of Western ideologues. Bush’s wars and the lit-crit’s imperial parochialism are of a piece. You are either with us or against us, good or evil, literature or “genre.” We all are losers in either case, except perhaps for the very rich who become even richer by war and the expropriation of foreign resources, but even they as human beings ultimately have to be impoverished by the narrow range of our cultural spectrum.

The Game of War

My latest at Eclectica:

(For an ongoing discussion of this topic and other ideas it has spun off, please go to the comments section at the bottom of this page.)

War is a game—a lethal game (or “match,” if you like), but a game nonetheless. In the modern era, for the last couple hundred years, we all participate, if only passively as victims of its atrocities, assuming we don’t do so as combatants. It’s a game that affects everyone, but it still comes down to a winner and a loser,war the contest decided by “sides” that perform and are directed in much the same way a more conventional sport like football or basketball is coached and managed.

This is a thought that has been growing on me for some time but only became obvious during my recent reading of Victor Klemperer’s diaries of the Third Reich (I Will Bear Witness, 1933-1941 & 1942-1945). If the Nazis had fielded a soccer team instead of an army, and their opponents had done the same, and the outcome of the conflict including the fates of the populations of all the nations involved depended on who won the match, then the way the war was conducted, I mean the mentality of it, would not have been much different…. Read more.

A Day in the Life

I Will Bear Witness, 1933-1941 & 1942-1945
A Diary of the Nazi Years
By Victor Klemperer

Victor Klemperer was a professor of French literature, specializing in the Enlightenment, employed at the Technical University of Dresden at the time the Nazis came to power in 1933. At that point in his career he already had a few scholarly works in print and was planning another, a project on the 18th century he continued researching and writing until circumstances forced him to postpone that work. But he did Victor_Klemperercontinue the personal diary he had begun many years earlier, now with the purpose of documenting not the big picture of Nazism in Germany (he would leave that to historians) but the experience of it by a single individual, along with other ordinary personal matters he had been recording for decades.

The fact that the Nazis considered him a Jew despite his conversion to Protestantism in his youth put him in the bulls-eye of their abuse. But he was married to an “Aryan,” and on that account some of the harshest measures heaped on non-Aryans were sometimes blunted or postponed, including shipment to Theresienstadt, the concentration camp in Czechoslovakia where most of Dresden’s Jews were to meet their deaths. He had to wear the yellow star, avoid contact with Aryans, not use public transportation, subsist on starvation rations, and would in fact have been sent off to his death within a few days had not British Lancaster bombers rained fire on the population of Dresden, Aryan and non-Aryan alike, in the spring of 1945, allowing Victor and his wife Eva to escape the city and leave behind his Jewish identity by claiming his identification papers were destroyed in the fire.

There are plenty of books about the Nazi era. What’s so special about the Klemperer diaries? Why would I recommend these two volumes to anyone interested in learning what the Hitler regime was like over any work by a professional historian, however worthy that study may be?

My answer has to do with the special character of the diaries, their combination of documentation of a horror growing worse with each passing day (everyone Klemperer talks to believes such an absurd regime will surely fall within months) and the details of a middle-aged upper-middle-class couple’s life, including the stresses and strains on their marriage, not all of them the result of Nazi oppression. One quickly comes to feel one is living with the Klemperers, if only as a fly on the wall, as they struggle to complete the construction of their “dream house” in a suburb just outside Dresden — Eva’s obsession despite their having to subsist on a modest pension after her husband losses his university post.
The daily visits to the house site as they scrape together the money to lay a foundation, then construct modest living quarters and, of course, a garden, seem like an exercise in futility, given what the reader knows is going to happen a few years later. You want to shout at them, “Get out! Get out!” But Eva is determined to have her house, partly, one suspects, because she had given up her own career as a musicologist and performer in favor of her husband’s career. Besides, Hitler really did seem too extreme, too downright surreal, to last much longer (odd, that in America he was seen as a “moderate” who would keep the Bolshevik menace in check). And, besides, as the author of these diaries keeps asserting, he, Victor Klemperer, is a German, a real German, not like the aberrations who had taken over his country, though his faith in that identity is sorely tried over the next twelve years.

The course of the Klemperer marriage, however inadvertent, is continuous and detailed. In the ’30s, Victor is careful to not complain about Eva’s morning fits or constant dental emergencies or her obsession with the house, but the reader wonders what is going on in the woman’s mind, when (with the hindsight of history) the dreadful future seems so clearly written on the wall. But as the years pass and the noose tightens economically and in every other way around the necks of Jews, Eva meets each new deprivation with remarkable personal resources, not just sharing all of her husband’s social and economic disabilities but assisting neighbors in need in the “Jews houses” where the Klemperers are finally forced to live, right down to scrubbing their floors. She also risks her freedom (as an Aryan she could have secured her own status simply by divorcing him), if not her life, by smuggling the manuscript pages of his diary to an Aryan safe house. Using her Aryan ration card she spends hours each day scrounging for food (mostly potatoes, sometimes rotten). And, yet, the Klemperers maintain a remarkably active social life, mostly with others marked as Jews but also with a handful of Aryans.

In the end, the diaries reveal the slow maturing of two human beings who are already well into middle age at the point the diaries open. Victor evolves from a slightly ivory-towerish academic into a more fully rounded person capable of both empathy and a sense of complexity for the people, all the people, he lives among; Eva, from a house-hungry spouse with possibly a grievance about the loss of her own chance at a career into a courageous and devoted spouse and neighbor. Their marriage and love for one another grows stronger with each new stress placed upon them. What seems in the early pages of the diaries a marriage held together perhaps largely by routine and convenience, by its mid-point has become a thing of unshakable devotion and deep affection.

The diaries provide documentation of many different aspects of German society under the Third Reich, despite the restriction of their being written from one man’s point of view. Among these is the obvious fact that many Germans had no use for Hitler, were sympathetic to those the Nazis designated as Jews or otherwise non-Aryan and, as might be expected in a situation where getting the wherewithal just to survive became more and more difficult, were largely ignorant of the strictures Jews were living under. Why else would they risk their own freedom and lives by befriending and assisting individual Jews? There is a naïveté about some of their expressions of support — a stranger crossing the street to shake the hand of someone wearing a yellow star (much to the chagrin of the person wearing it, knowing how dangerous such an act was, primarily for the star-wearer); a shopkeeper slipping extra food into the bag of someone wearing the star and offering a whispered word of encouragement to hang on, it won’t be long now till the war is over.

There are far too many of these acts, some of them a good deal more substantial than what I’ve indicated, to put them down to anything other than sincerity. And on the question of what ordinary Germans knew about the “Final Solution,” even Jews themselves didn’t realize what shipment to Theresienstadt meant until the last year or two of the war. For a time they even entertained a belief that in Theresienstadt they would at least have a better diet and get decent medical care. It’s hard to believe non-Jews could have known something more, at least not ordinary working stiffs, despite the manic, irrational broadcasts by Goebbels blaming “World Jewry” for all the evils in the world (in one he insists the Jews using their American dupes were bombing Rome in order to destroy Christianity, just a first step in their plan to kill all the gentiles in the world). Even when the truth becomes clear about Auschwitz and the other death camps, some supporters of Hitler insist the Fuehrer could not have known about the camps because he was a “man of peace.”

Klemperer writes:

“…National Socialism was already [in 1923] …powerful and popular. Except that at the time I did not yet see it like that. How comforting and depressing that is! Depressing: Hitler really was in line with the will of the German people. Comforting: One never really knows what is going on. Then the Republic seemed secure, today the Third Reich appears secure.”

But he also writes, later:

“There is no German or West European Jewish question. Whoever recognizes one, only adopts or confirms the false thesis of the NSDAP and serves its cause. Until 1933 and for at least a good century before that, the German Jews were entirely German and nothing else…. The anti-Semitism, which was always present, is not at all evidence to the contrary. Because the friction between Jews and Aryans was not half as great as that between Protestants and Catholics, or between employers and employees or between East Prussians for example and southern Bavarians or Rhinelanders and Bavarians. The German Jews were part of the German nation, as the French Jews were a part of the French nation, etc. ”

There seem, in fact, to be two distinct kinds of (Aryan) Germans in these diaries: Nazi thugs who descend on Jews’ apartments, beat up the old women and men and steal the butter off the table before trashing the place; and “ordinary” Germans, even officials like local police who, when they had to visit the Jews Houses, doffed their hats, shook hands, apologized for the intrusion and even offered words of reassurance. One wonders how this could be the same country, never mind the same city. These “good” Germans give Victor hope, though by the end he believes the entire nation will have to be reeducated in the values he believes to have been essential to German culture dating back to the Enlightenment (he blames Romanticism for Nazism). He, happily, lives to see that day and even to reclaim his former professorship at the Technical University of Dresden, which lay then in the Soviet zone and becomes part of East Germany.

One wonders why these diaries are not more widely read as firsthand witness for that horrific period of German history. Is it because life as Klemperer records it is too complex for our sound-bite culture (some of the older men in the Jews House cheer for the Wehrmacht — they had fought against the Brits and French in the first world war and can’t bring themselves to change sides). Is it because he insists early on that Zionism and Nazism are ideologically the same thing: blood = land? I keep expecting him to change his mind about Zionism after the slaughter of Jews goes into high gear in 1942-43, but he sticks to his guns. He fully expects to be one of the slaughtered, watches as his neighbors are taken away in twos and threes. He loses his faith in the Germany he believed in before 1933, but he never loses faith in the principles he believes that culture exemplified at its best.

It’s impossible to summarize a work as varied and rich as these diaries, never mind give a sense for the experience of living through those years vicariously with the Klemperers. The diaries end in 1945 with a return to their suburban home after living for several weeks as refugees in Bavaria. But that return is, of course, just another beginning. The volume of the diary that takes up where these two leave off extends as far as 1959 and was published in Britain, but not in the US. Klemperer died the following year, 1960, of a heart attack.