Saturday, July 4, 2009

The Kindly Ones: The Anti-Hero is Us


The real danger for mankind is me, is you. And if you're not convinced of this, don't bother to read any further. You'll understand nothing and you'll get angry, with little profit for you or me.

The Kindly Ones, Jonathan Littell

As many of you know, my writings are preoccupied with the question of innocence. The question of innocence inevitably begs the question of guilt. As a perceptive reader, Mark Kerstetter noted in my post about Michael Jackson, "I do believe he desperately and tragically sought innocence. It's an inexhaustible theme: how is an adult innocent?"

When the reviews and appraisals of Michael Jackson's life flowed into cyberspace after his death, I thought for sure this man is a perfect example of my theme. A larger-than-life entertainer who strove for innocence and yet lived in dangerous proximity to its opposite.

Also, I've been researching the new culture of self-medication, and wanting to write an article on the topic. Can a culture consumed with self-medication really be so naive? Aren't we all just looking to cover up the pain somehow?

Strange is life when you open the mind to associations, parallels, and linkages . . . I went to Borders today to have my coffee and read the Times. This is not unusual for me; I go to Borders nearly every day. But today I did not read the Times. Instead, I wandered up and down the aisles, glancing at the latest hardcovers.

You haven't read any book reviews of mine because I haven't read many books lately--or at least finished them. The newspapers take up all my time and attention. As a writer, they do fairly well to fuel my inspiration. (Disclaimer: this is not exactly a book review--a book preview, rather)

In my article, "Is the Internet Killing Culture?" I discuss how I abruptly stopped reading "serious" literature. I read literature for nearly ten years, inside and outside of college, covering large swathes of French, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Austrian, and Italian literature.

At the time, I read few contemporary novels, even fewer American contemporary authors. I read what excited me, what boggled my mind, what catapulted me into writing. The dearth of American literature in recent decades was not something I cared to scrape the bottom of--there were plenty of incredible and delicious novels written by French and Russian authors in the last two centuries.

Today I opened up a big book. Causally, capriciously, I opened up The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell. Whether a novel is full of brilliance or entirely lacking the scaffolding to hold it together, I always stop to look at those monsters approaching the thousand page mark. Why? Because I am in awe of any author who can discipline their life to write such a long tale. The editorial process is maddening enough, let alone the dedication it takes to sustain a level of productivity for five to ten years.

So this book that I looked upon was large. By the cover I could see it was written in French and translated into English. A cursory examination of the side flap and back cover taught me that it had won France's most acclaimed literary prize, Prix Goncourt, the same prize Proust won for Vol. 2 of In Search of Lost Time in 1919.

But none of these things usually matter to me more than the first paragraph. When I read the first paragraph of a novel, I generally know enough to know if I want to read more of it. So I stood over the Goliath in the middle of Borders with people flooding into the store and breezing all around me. I began reading:
Oh my human brothers, let me tell you how it happened. I am not your brother, you'll retort, and I don't want to know. And it certainly is true that this is a bleak story, but an edifying one too, a real morality play, I assure you. You might find it a bit long--a lot of things happened, after all--but perhaps you're not in too much of a hurry; with a little luck you'll have some time to spare. And also, this concerns you; you'll see that this concerns you. Don't think I am trying to convince you of anything; after all, your opinions are your own business. If after all these years I've made up my mind to write, it's to set the record straight for myself, not for you. For a long time we crawl on this earth like caterpillars, waiting for the splendid, diaphanous butterfly we bear within ourselves. And then times passes and the nymph stage never comes, we remain larvae--what do we do with such an appalling realization? Suicide, of course, is always an option. But to tell the truth suicide doesn't tempt me much.
The "bold" lettering is mine. You can see now why this novel caught my attention. It was the voice of the narrator who instantly seduced me into wanting to know more about his particular troubles and woes, but even more than that I believe it was the narrator's self-knowledge that compelled me to pick up the book and bring it over to the small tables in the cafe where I set down my coffee and continued reading.

The title comes from the trilogy of ancient Greek tragedies, The Oresteia, written by Aeschylus. It refers to the Furies who were vengeful goddesses that tormented anyone who murdered a parent. In the story by Aeschylus, the Furies are transformed into merciful goddesses instead of spiteful ones by the goddess Athena. They are renamed the Eumenides or "The Kindly Ones"(1).

What this has to do with the book I have no idea. I am simply mesmerized by the complexity of the narrator's thoughts, his intelligence, and humanity. The voice of the narrator in fact recalls to me reading Proust, whose narrator seduced me much the same, although the temperaments of the narrators are probably nothing alike. But that too, I can't confirm yet . . .

How can one not identify with this?
Ask yourselves: You, yourselves, what do you think of, through the course of a day? Very few things, actually. Drawing up a systematic classification of your everyday thoughts would be easy: practical or mechanical thoughts, planning your actions and your time (example: setting the coffee to drip before brushing your teeth, but toasting the bread afterward, since it doesn't take as long); work preoccupations; financial anxieties; domestic problems; sexual fantasies. I'll spare you the details. At dinner, you contemplate the aging face of your wife, so much less exciting than your mistress, but a fine woman otherwise, what can you do, that's life, so you talk about the latest government scandal. Actually, you couldn't care less about the latest government scandal, but what else is there to talk about? Eliminate those kinds of thoughts, and you'll agree there's not much left.
This is a controversial novel. If I previously thought that Michael Jackson was the supreme archetype to my theme of innocence, then Littell has just upped the ante. In the clever guise of a memoir, the novel tells the story of a former SS officer who witnessed the massacres of the Holocaust. He also, we would assume, took part in these massacres; and gave the orders to carry them out.

To be sure, we are now on the opposite end of the spectrum regarding my theme. The narrator's innocence should not even be in question. Of course, he's guilty of his crimes. This point seems so obvious we shouldn't have to debate it. Then again, maybe innocence or guilt is not the point after all . . .
Once again, let us be clear: I am not trying to say I am not guilty of this or that. I'm guilty, you're not, fine. But you should be able to admit to yourselves that you might also have done what I did.
I'm not even finished with the first chapter when a troubling philosophical thought arises. If this narrator is the quintessential anti-hero--a Nazi--then how is it possible that I identify with him as a man?

He's neither psychotic, nor a sadist, but he's committed these crimes against humanity and I haven't. If not for his fundamental evil, what separates us?

A rare author elicits this kind of recognition in her audience. Literature has the power to bend reality with language. I believe Jonathan Littell has done just that.

Browse The Kindly Ones on Harper Collins Publishers

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Read more of my essays on Escape into Life

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10 comments:

Christine Claire Reed said...

You might be interested in the writings of Mary Doria Russell. She wrote a novel, Thread of Grace, which was nominated for the Pulitzer; it's about how Italy saved most of its Jews. Interesting stuff.

But what's more interesting is Russell's mild obsession with the concept of intent. Her other novels (two amazing sci-fi books, in particular, which are quite literary) are always about this idea that the people who THINK they are doing good can end up doing just as much "bad" as those people we perceive to be "bad."

In Thread of Grace, for instance, you come to sympathize with a Nazi doctor. He thinks, like just about any human, that he is doing good with his work.

And Hitler...she really makes you think about Hitler. Who was a HUMAN, after all.

When we demonize humans like Hitler, we are oversimplifying a very difficult question: aren't we all capable of evil?

windspirit_girl said...

I was preoccupied with questions of innocence/guilt as well for years. I guess I still am. For a long time my thinking was framed by the work of Paul Ricoeur's philosophy of the will, written in his phenomenology days (b/f he made the "linguistic turn"). In those works, there is a distinction between finitude and guilt. Finitude, the conditions under which we all exist, has no guilt. The interesting part is what he does next. He talks about how that same finitude is like a fault line. It creates fragility in human beings that make them more likely to "err." (Similar to Kierkegaard's Concept of Anxiety.)

But this is still not guilt. The passage from that fragility to "fault" in a guilt sense is a leap (again, similar to Kierkegaard, but in Sickness Unto Death); there is no way the understanding can reach it. It's irrational. We can only approach it through myth, poetry, etc. In the leap presumedly there is a choice to "err," but we don't even have access to that. We can't say what is there (which is one reason why we can ask the question about Hitler). Once the leap is made, however, one can impute the choice to someone's character, not just the decision (although I think it would be open to that as well). (In this he's like Kant's idea of radical evil in Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone.)

Interestingly enough, although finitude is not guilty, for Ricoeur it's not innocent either. Innocence is also a concept that exists beyond the ability for our reason to understand and has to be approached through myth, poetry, etc. The last work in his philosophy of the will was to be a poetics of the will, where he would've dealt with the concept of innocence. He never finished it--went on to deal with the nature of language. There are a couple of essays, though.

VinaMist said...

The narrator expresses his "humanity" by relating himself to a caterpillar. His "true self" waiting to be expressed much like a butterfly from a caterpillar.
Yet society never really lets us express our true selves, our true innocence. We, as a society, are always conforming to be accepted. To be accepted is to be human. Conforming to something we are not is destructive to our own existence. No matter the sacrifice. We are numb to our own demise.
Thus, human nature is survival of the fittest. Show no fear, show no mercy. We may not be able to relate to this, but we can relate to someone's "true self". Their human side of innocence.

Lethe said...

Christine: I'll check Russell out; I have not heard of her. I think we're all capable of evil. Furthermore, I don't believe that "evil" qualifies as a definition for any human being. Was Hilter evil? Sure, but what does that tell us about the man; very little I would argue.

windspirit girl: Yes, innocence interests me. I first became interested in the concept after reading Blake's "Songs of Innocence and Experience". From there, I learned that many authors had arrived at this place where they found innocence to be a tragic flaw. I'm still wondering whether innocence is something that can be preserved in adulthood as a virtue and a positive state of mind without detriment to the human being.

Your philosophical discussion is enlightening. Thanks for the contribution to this discussion.

VinaMist: You're right. Society doesn't want us to be innocent it seems; rather it's common to be jaded and cynical; to affect a pretense of experience when oftentimes that experience merely lends itself to preconceived notions. Thank you for sharing your wisdom.

Chris/Lethe

Christine Claire Reed said...

No, we aren't evil; we are capable of perpetrating evil. But evil, then, is a qualifier that we place on actions usually AFTER the fact.

(This is all so convoluted, but I think you understand.)

Anyway, Hitler...not evil. That's not very politically correct to say, but he did not set out to do "evil." He truly thought he was doing good. He was not, of course, but he thought he was. For whatever reason.

This, for me, helps with compassion. Each of us, I think, thinks we are trying our best.

Matt said...

The problem is that Aue IS pyschotic and sadistic. That's not so apparent in the first chapter, but as the novel progresses Aue commits more and more acts that are 'beyond the pale.' He ends up killing people in cold blood (and while not merely following orders, but as acts of free will). He uses child prostitutes (roughly). He murders his mother and step-father. He also murders the one person he could be said to have established a real friendship with. And, of course, he is deeply and irrevocably in love with his sister, which love he has consummated and continues to desire. At one point, for example, he dreams of having anal sex with his sister as she lies on a guillotine. Etc. His evilness goes well beyond his membership in the Nazi party or the crimes he participates in during the war.

All of which is to say that the book certainly opens with a sympathetic conceit (viz., in certain circumstances we can all see ourselves doing awful things), but the rest of the novel tears that conceit to shreds and reveals the work to be an edifice of well-reasoned nihilism. And, unfortunately for Littell, this result seems to be entirely unintentional.

Lethe said...

Matt:

Or not. Perhaps the conceit merely goes further and further as the author has to keep raising the stakes. . . beginning with "Just b/c he's a Nazi, doesn't make him evil" to . . . atrocious acts that can be nothing but "evil". Maybe the author is pushing the envelope with our sympathies, ultimately trying to bring us into direct contact with the most heinous human being. Maybe to challenge us, not to demonize him--to challenge our moral thresholds.

Just a thought, I've only read the first chapter; and now I'm reading The Master and Margarita, so I doubt I go back to the book any time soon.

Matt said...

The problem is that the dissonance between the "I [Aue] am just like you [the reader]" and, in actuality "I am nothing like you, unless you're an incestuous serial killing Nazi" is never resolved. Instead, it becomes a farce, with every act becoming more ridiculous and unbelievable.

If Littell just wanted to challenge our moral thresholds, he certainly doesn't need 1000 pages to do so. He could, for example, tell us to go read Story of the Eye (more shocking and far shorter). And as perverted as Aue is, he is no more perverted than the whole notion of the Holocaust itself, which a myriad of other works can provide a far more accurate, and therefore more troubling, picture of.

Regardless, the structure of the novel itself and the whole mythical allegory suggest Littell is aiming for something different than shock value.

Lethe said...

"And as perverted as Aue is, he is no more perverted than the whole notion of the Holocaust itself"

This is an interesting analogy: Holocaust as perversion. I bet you could go far with that in an essay.

anti_supernaturalist said...

There is evil, but not Evil

The Harlot's cry from Street to Street
Shall weave Old England's winding Sheet. -- Blake. Auguries of Innocence.

The whole of history is the refutation by experiment of the principle of the so-called moral world order. -- Nietzsche. Ecce Homo. IV.4.*

the anti_supernaturalist


Basic Writings of Nietzsche. p.784. Kaufmann trans.

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