Thursday, July 30, 2009

Dealing with Our Demons

I just finished "The Emigrants" by W.G. Sebald. One of the great tragedies of the 1990's, in my opinion, was his untimely death. Other works by Sebald that I am familiar with are "Austerlitz" and "The Rings of Saturn." As per the Wikipedia article his novels:
"....are notable for their curious and wide-ranging mixture of fact (or apparent fact), recollection and fiction, often punctuated by indistinct black-and-white photographs, which are set in evocative counterpoint to the narrative rather than illustrating it directly."
To read Sebald, for an American who is the same age, is a moving experience. What is most striking, after some thought on it, is that Sebald describes a post war Germany that does not come to grips with their recent experience. (The post WWII America was an orgy of exceptionalism and vindication. We were proud that we had bombed Dresden. Germans were enemy, but not for long. (See below.)) He also describes the plight of Jews in prewar Germany in a way, at least for me, allowed some visualization of their plight. One of the most striking things about the situation for Jews in the late thirties there seems to have been their resignation to their fate. I am sure that there has been exhaustive analysis of this by others but I would venture that this was due to the extraordinary regimentation of German society at this time. There was, even amongst the Jewish population, a history of very strong support for the Reich.

As must be usual for people reading books like Sebald's, one is drawn to compare the scenario to one's own society. Certainly Sebald's descriptions of Catholic elementary school and life in a small village in Germany circa 1950 has some resonance, in a strange way, for me. But, again the terrible catastrophe that must have been the Allied bombing of Germany, and the humiliation of the occupation, receives little attention. There are a few observations of American G.I.'s in "The Emigrants." What struck the young Sebald was that the females wore pants and smoked cigarettes. They were also, I believe, uncouth.

Let me make a broad analogy. America has not addressed, in any substantive way, the unjustified invasion of Iraq and the subsequent carnage of the occupation. Not one major political figure of our times has made an issue of our collective moral culpability. In fact, even the current Administration, touted to be a morally responsible "change," has abdicated its responsibility in this issue. In an even more poignant analogy, except for the shrill spectators on the Left, and their numbers are very small, we have deliberately refused to address the abrogation of human rights included in the blanket designation "Torture." It is my opinion that if someone in authority labelled anyone from the midEast a "terrorist," and that person was in custody and electrodes were attached to his genitals, the average American would be happy to pull the switch that turned on the electricity. In both the war making and torture we are told "We must put this behind us and move ahead."

Sebald addressed the profound moral issues raised by WWII by simply bringing our attention to how people lived in those times. In the case of the population's moral responsibility, it is their situation even in the absence of discourse. In the case of the tragedy of the German Jews, the fatalistic acceptance of their plight. In the later case, I am reminded of "Riders in the Chariot" by Patrick White.

I am not sure how long it took America to come to terms with the German people. A friend of mine who lived through WWII felt that we never actually "hated" the Germans like we did the Japanese. And the latter was mainly because of Pearl Harbor (though the Japanese treatment of occupied territories and captured Americans is relevant to the discussion here.) It did not take long for the "bad guys" in Europe to become the Russians, in spite of the fact that we were recently allied with them. Certainly by the time of the Berlin Blockade (1948) the Germans were back on the road to being "good guys."

In "The Rings of Saturn" the narrator takes an unusual walking tour in East Anglia. There is much fodder or the chewing in it. As good as it is, however, it tends to be extremely dark. It is like the dark of the late afternoon right before a violent storm. And, indeed, there is a violent storm towards the end of the narrative.

England must predispose its inhabitants to take these meanderings. Why, we frequently encounter such journeys here, here, and here.

1 comment:

Ray Girvan said...

Darn! I nearly swore in front of the customers. Someone just bought the copy of Rings of Saturn I didn't know we had in stock...