Güntermensch

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I'm usually pretty indifferent to guilt-tripping about how you're supporting anti-Americanism if you read and/or enjoy the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or John LeCarré or some other relentless critic of the good ol' American way. In the first place I don't feel like subjecting my tastes to some patriotic test, and in the second place, who gives a shit?

But in the case of Günter Grass I'm ready to make an exception—easy enough, since I was never a big fan in the first place. Since his Waffen SS bombshell in August, it's begun to sink in what an objectionable character the literary lion of postwar Germany really is.

It's not so much Grass' hypocrisy as his self-satisfaction. In what fucked-up parallel universe is it considered persuasive to argue, at this late date, that postwar attacks on the West German establishment (and frequently more-than-tacit support for the East German terror state) in any way obviate, or mitigate, or do anything else but compound the error of supporting the Nazis during the war? Why is it the default assumption that Grass' anti-capitalism was a rejection of National Socialism rather than a continuation of it? (I actually think it may be neither, but among Germans who are irate at Grass over the lifelong SS coverup there seems to some sense that he's let down his core principles, so it's worth asking what those core principles are.)

The second most shameful thing about the SS revelation is that Grass gave a tautological non-explanation explanation for waiting 61 years to come clean: He waited so long because he had to tell the truth now because he'd waited so long. The first most shameful thing is that he's clearly doing it to move units of his new book Beim Häuten der Zwiebel (Peeling the Onion). That point hasn't been lost on some of Grass' detractors. Daniel Johnson damns Grass by faintly praising his "genius for publicity," while Amir Taheri (last seen claiming that the Iranians are making Jews wear yellow stars) uses the news as a wedge against The Tin Drum, Grass' generally acknowledged masterpiece:

The novel takes place in Danzig (Gdansk) a Polish port that Hitler wanted to annex. Grass offers an account of fights between Poles and ethnic Germans, implying that the latter were somehow in danger, precisely one of the excuses that Hitler used for invading Poland. Having established moral equivalence between the Poles and the German invaders he then depicts war as an inevitable human evil, thus putting Hitler on the same bench as other war leaders in history. The implicit message is that all wars, including just ones, are equally bad. (It was on that assumption that Grass campaigned against the liberation of Iraq in 2003).

Grass depicts the advent of Nazism as something almost magical and its effects on the Germans comparable to wizardry. His so-called magic-realism presents Nazism as a supernatural phenomenon, falling from heavens as it were, and not what it really was, a political movement rooted in history and nurtured by German romanticism.

But as is so often the case, it's an attempt to defend the accused that makes you realize what a cretin he really is. In The New Yorker, Ian Buruma sticks up for Grass because, hey, what's a little storm-trooping and six decades of immeasurable hypocrisy when it results in "a memoir of rare literary beauty?" Dig the speaking truthiness to power of it all:

[I]n the context of the early postwar decades Grass's voice was a necessary moral correction to Adenauer's pragmatism. To call Grass an arrogant, hypocritical huckster, as some do, is to forget how important his presence was when most Germans were too busy benefitting from the "economic miracle" to reflect on what had happened just a short time before. His compatriots needed to have their consciences pricked in the nineteen-fifties and sixties; and Grass, much to his credit, boosted social democracy when it needed boosting.

You really can judge a man by his enemies. It is sometimes said that Konrad Adenauer was plucked from a concentration camp and made chancellor of postwar Germany. That's not quite true, but Adenauer did spend quite a bit of time in jails and concentration camps (traditional concentration camps, not death camps) during the Reich period. But what is that compared to the sin of managing an economy that allows people in a war-torn country to make enough money for food and clothing and shelter?

You can also judge a man by his friends. Last month a group of 46 Arab writers signed an open letter in support of Grass, and as this slightly misleading but valuable article notes, it's not clear who was motivated by genuine literary sympathy and who just liked him for being in the SS (or why they bothered at all in this particular case, after ignoring Grass' work before this).

Buruma cops the long view and says Grass' best works "will be read long after the political polemics, not to mention the current storm over his belated confession, have been forgotten." I'm not so sure. The conscience-of-a-nation stuff is central to Grass' reputation in a way it isn't for other politically engaged writers. You'd still have a bunch of cool stories and insights even if you found out Garcia Marquez was really a spy for United Fruit or George Orwell found it impossible to dislike Hitler (kidding—Orwell admitted that in one of his wartime books). But for Grass there's really only one great literary achievement—reclaiming great portions of German phrasing and vocabulary that had been irradiated by association with the Nazis. His reputation rose on the politics of his time, and may well fall with them.

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  1. G?nter’s credibility is about zero, now. Whether people want to like his works is their business, but, like Heidegger before him, his Nazi affiliations taint everything. We’re not talking about being like the Nazis or kinda fascist, we’re talking about being a Nazi. It’s so easy these days to forget just what that meant.

    His next book should be called Being and Naziness.

  2. Are any of these authors as cluelessly anti-American as Trevanian?

  3. Tangential, but this uproar over Grass called to mind the reputation of fascists/crypto-fascists in the fields of comparative religion and mythology who were either born in or achieved success in the United States, Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell being the foremost examples. In addition to the actual fascist entanglements of Eliade and the objectively pro-fascist sympathies of Campbell, these authors, along with popularizers like Huston Smith, drew freely from the fiercely intolerant and anti-modern school of “Traditionalist” metaphysics and similarly dubious sources without ever really being called to account in the same way as, for example, the collaborationist literary theorist Paul de Man. Campbell, long after the scathing expos?–admittedly too much rooted in hearsay–by his onetime friend Brendan Gill, remains hugely influential among Moyersesque liberals but also across the political-cultural spectrum. Why this comparative impunity?

  4. That’s “exposay,” tarted-up.

  5. Hmmm… I think you should stick with your instincts: who gives a shit?

  6. His reputation rose on the politics of his time, and may well fall with them.

    I think The Tin Drum will be remembered not for its political commentary, but because it’s about a guy who stops growing at the age of 4 and can shatter glass with his scream. The gimmick is what sticks out for most people. For that reason, teachers will still assign the book – so students can read a weird story that’s political somehow.

    Plus, it was banned in Oklahoma City.

  7. Zwiebel = Onion? The Onion‘s editor-in-chief is T. Herman Zwiebel. Ohhhhhhh!

  8. Amir Taheri wrote: “The novel takes place in Danzig (Gdansk) a Polish port that Hitler wanted to annex. Grass offers an account of fights between Poles and ethnic Germans, implying that the latter were somehow in danger, precisely one of the excuses that Hitler used for invading Poland.”

    I make no apologies for Grass’ issues, but Taheri is an ignorant ass. Danzig was only nominally a “Polish port” (it was technically a free city with Polish administration of certain matters) and only by fiat of the Allied powers at the end of WW I. The city was overwhelmingly populated by German-speakers and ethnic Germans: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_City_of_Danzig

  9. When discussing how capitalist-friendly Hitler was, don’t forget that the left invented the term “capitalism,” and meant it to be a description of a nasty system. That those of us who support a free market exchange economy also use it as shorthand for what we support doesn’t mean that the two camps mean the same thing when using the same term.

    Hitler certainly was in favor of a command economy. As long as Krupp or I.G. Farben gave him what he wanted, ser guht. Any resistance to his policies…well. let the monster speak for himself: Why nationalize industry when you can nationalize the people?

    Kevin

  10. Brad DeLong and a bunch of commentators (including me) talked a bit about Grass’ enduring antiliberalism here.

  11. So Taheri is an ignorant ass because he wrote “a Polish port” instead of “a nominally Polish port”? Jack, you are one harsh dude!

  12. If Hitler was so in thrall to German owners and managers of capital (more precise terms to be using here, given that “capitalist” is increasingly used to describe one’s ideology rather than socioeconomic status), why did he work so tirelessly to exterminate many of its most able practicioners, the Jews?

    And if you reply, “Well, that only shows that he placed some goals ahead of helping the ‘capitalists’,” you’ve just acceded Tim’s point: that atoning for one’s Nazi past demands more than just slithering into an anticapitalist view that was quite popular and comfortable for a European postwar intellectual.

    Gotta love these pre-Godwined threads.

    Pro – “Being and Naziness” made me chuckle. Back in college I got so tired of hearing postmodernist professors–who wet their drawers at a mention of Heidegger–call *Ayn Rand* a fascist.

  13. The term “capitalist”, like the word “conservative”, and most unfortunately, “liberal”, have become so nebulous in their daily usage as to become nearly without value as a means of clearly conveying ideas. joe’s suggestion of “collectivism” may be useful, but give it enough time, and it would go through the same process.

    If anybody doesn’t know it yet, communicating clearly and honestly is hard work, while obsfuscation and outright lying are easy by comparison, which gives ample opportunity to people with bad, or even evil, intent.

  14. Tangential, but this uproar over Grass called to mind the reputation of fascists/crypto-fascists in the fields of comparative religion and mythology who were either born in or achieved success in the United States, Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell being the foremost examples.

    What bullshit.

    First off, this whole idea of ‘reading into work through a politically-correct analysis of the authors ASSUMED private beliefs’ comes straight out of the liberal postmodern decronstructionist impulse.

    You might as well say James and the Giant Peach is an anti-jew polemic, because Dahl held ant-semetic views.

    Cambell’s work is important and is viewed as such by thousands of scholars across political spectrums. His work is not a product of one narrow political ideology, and whether the guy was a closet nazi or wiccan has virtually nothing to do with the value of his massive contribution to the understanding of mythology.

    JG

  15. On the Grass point, one possible defense of him is to argue that East Germany did a better job of purging big Nazis than West Germany did. (That’s the conventional wisdom anyway.) But even that doesn’t really say much for him philosophically: The GDR pushed a version of history where the Nazis were just some accident that was forced on the German people-a version that Grass himself participated in, as Taheri notes. The Marxist interpretation was just another way of pushing responsibility away from the working classes (who were statistically most likely to be Hitler supporters) and shoveling it onto old villains like the Catholics and the old aristocracy (from whose ranks the only serious anti-Nazis came).

  16. First off, this whole idea of ‘reading into work through a politically-correct analysis of the authors ASSUMED private beliefs’ comes straight out of the liberal postmodern decronstructionist impulse.

    It does? Suggesting that Campbell’s anti-Semitism—not very private, mind you, but reported by numerous students and colleagues, most memorably regarding his desire after Apollo 11 (later bathed in a New Age-mystical glow of “earthrise”) to “put the Jews on the moon”–might have implications for a reading of his work suggests a basic, traditionally humanistic interpretive response to me, not a “liberal … decronstructionist” agenda, especially recalling Derrida’s attempts to “decronstruct” de Man’s crimes out of existence.

    This is a man who proudly declared in 1940–and who just as proudly forwarded his remarks to his hero Thomas Mann, who had recently emigrated to the U.S. and whose books were being burned by the Reich–that:

    “We are all groping in this valley of tears, and if a Mr. Hitler collides with a Mr. Churchill, we are not in conscience bound to believe that a devil had collided with a saint.” *

    whether the guy was a closet nazi or wiccan has virtually nothing to do with the value of his massive contribution to the understanding of mythology.

    Then Grass’ late-ish disclosure can have nothing to do with the value of his contribution to literature, with how we assess that value? Forget about decronstruction, you’d warm the heart of an old-New Critical railer against the “biographical fallacy” (illiberal reactionaries that many of them were).

    * See Martin Gardner, from a review in the Washington Post, 11-24-91:

    “Campbell’s darkest side was his antisemitism, forcefully detailed by Brendan Gill in the New York Review of Books (Sept. 28, 1989). The Larsens dismiss it with a brief reference to “so-called bigotry.” Campbell once said he moved to Bronxville to escape from Jews, and that the moon would be a good place to send them. He objected to blacks entering Sarah Lawrence. He threatened to flunk, and once did, any student who engaged in leftist political action.

    Similarly, Campbell’s hatred of President Roosevelt prompted him to say there were three living Caesars: Hitler, Mussolini and FDR. A great admirer of Thomas Mann, Campbell foolishly sent him a copy of a speech in which he urged artists and writers not to take sides in the unfortunate conflict between Hitler and Churchill. It drew a barbed response from Mann.”

    This would make Campbell a hero to the antiwar.com crowd, I realize.

  17. Pro Libertate,

    “There is one other way the Nazis can be classified, as statists. Certainly, with the exception on one guy, the individual was nothing”.

    Yes, that’s the whole Nazi thing in a nutshell, Nazism was Hitlerism, nothing else was important. There were no individuals in Nazi Germany, only human assests. Hitler didn’t give a damn about the German people, the brave German soldiers who fought and died for him or even the German state. That’s why when the end came he ordered a scorched earth policy; it was all about HIM.

  18. “Campbell foolishly sent him a copy of a speech in which he urged artists and writers not to take sides in the unfortunate conflict between Hitler and Churchill. It drew a barbed response from Mann.”

    This would make Campbell a hero to the antiwar.com crowd, I realize.

    …And?

    What does that say about his copious and detailed analysis of world mythology? Is his work compromised? What aspect? What understanding of mythology is minimized by his political bias?

    Unlike Grass, whose work directly speaks about modern political issues, and whose private beliefs do inform a better understanding of his writings, Campbells work is by contrast pretty free of political influence; you can’t suddently discount his position in the field of comparative mythology through pointing out that ‘well, he was a dumb asshole as far as his political thinking was concerned.’ Fine. But going from that to saying that ‘ergo, all his work is suspect’ is basically a politically-correct view of all thinking = only those who agree with me on X can be right about Y. And that is indeed a liberal instinct that impedes honest debate of the specifics of someone’s work. It turns into purely ad hominem argument = you can’t be right about something narrow because in general you’re wrong about something broad. You’re not a ‘right’ guy.

    Its like those who read Celine, and say his work is no good because he was a nazi collaborator. Nonsense. You can be a dispicable character and and still make work that is exclusive from the influence of political ideologicaly. You may say it still matters; fine. But please try to show what degree the work work relies on the things that made the person ‘wrong’ about their other views.

    saying campbells mythological work is suspect because he didnt hate Hitler enough is fucking gay.

    (i will probably later be posthumously discredited for my logic on this matter because of my apparent homophobia)

    JG

  19. the stuff about campbell is fabricated, near as i can tell. mostly because comparative religion is seen as a hitjob on christianity by some christians; which in one sense it is, i guess, if you have a very fragile worldview.

    they’re flip side of the davinci code crowd, in one sense – too much significance in things which should be no issue for those who believe in the transcendant.

    i would much rather accuse campbell of fucking with zimmer’s work (his mentor) near the end of zimmer’s life and, because there’s some actual textual evidence for this.

    and his estate for the whole star wars thing.

    eliade was an important scholar and a shitty person.

  20. i would also blame him and bill moyers for the explosion of follow your bliss bumper stickers.

  21. final thought: campbell’s jungian framework and his pantheism make it hard for me to read some of his work (since i share neither view) but bias and bent are part of being human.

  22. Unlike Grass, whose work directly speaks about modern political issues, and whose private beliefs do inform a better understanding of his writings, Campbells work is by contrast pretty free of political influence; you can’t suddently discount his position in the field of comparative mythology through pointing out that ‘well, he was a dumb asshole as far as his political thinking was concerned.’ Fine.

    Not fine, really.

    I would never “discount” Campbell’s scholarship entirely on the basis of his alleged anti-Semitism; that’s your claim. I would open his exalted “position” up to interrogation, however, which is all that I set out to do. More specifically, I would question whether traces of “blood and soil” might be found in his relentlessly unifying, anti-modern tropes, drawing from the same windy, obfuscating, self-inflating romanticism that was a major feedstock for the evil he left fervently un-denounced.

    What’s most amusing here is that Grass is known primarily as a writer of fiction, yet by your measure a putatively scholarly writer, even for a general audience, should be held to a more lenient standard.

    What’s less amusing is your demand, now, for supporting evidence after first dismissing the biographical approach out of hand.

    What’s least amusing is how someone who bandies about phrases like “bullshit” and “fucking gay” gets to rail about ad hominem arguments. You’re not helping your own argument here, it seems to me. Next time avoid the easy insults and try a little harder.

  23. the stuff about campbell is fabricated, near as i can tell. mostly because comparative religion is seen as a hitjob on christianity by some christians; which in one sense it is, i guess, if you have a very fragile worldview.

    That’s an interesting perspective, and one I’ve seen come up more than once: that Campbell’s work reflects “anti-Judaism” or “anti-Yawhism,” along quasi-gnostic lines I suppose, more or less; unlike orthodox defenders, I’ve no objection to it as such. My question would be, how might Campbell’s rather strongly attested personal anti-Semitism be seen to inform the anti-Judaism (or whatever one wants to call it) of his work. If it’s not seen to do so at all, fine, I’m only contending that the matter should be open to inquiry, since to pretend otherwise reeks of intellectual dishonesty.

    eliade was an important scholar and a shitty person.

    Unfortunately that’s true. He, Jung, and Campbell, among others, appear to have been shitty in the worst ways, and I don’t see any threat of diminishing the “importance” of their work–which future generations will be free, I hope, to judge–by asking how that shittiness may or may not have leaked out into it.

  24. would also blame him and bill moyers for the explosion of follow your bliss bumper stickers.

    While we’re at it, can we also blame him for Susan Sarandon’s introductions to that interminable Mythos series?

  25. “While we’re at it, can we also blame him for Susan Sarandon’s introductions to that interminable Mythos series? ”

    yes. that was heinous.

    regarding his supposed anti-semitism – i raise the possibility that it’s a hitjob because most of this stuff comes from brendan gill and has been repeated by people who dislike him for various reasons (most of which i can understand) rather than from students or the people who worked with him. if he were an anti-semite, it was well hidden for a very long time. or sarah lawrence was a hotbed of anti-semitism? the ADL certainly never jumped on him, despite the popularity of his work – considering their, uh, vehemence in this area, i find that hard to believe.

    gill also seemed to find him to be some kind of right-winger, which is also a little odd, but this could be due to his anti-communism.

    with eliade, specifically his book on shamanism, his sensibilities definitely shaped the attitude he had towards what constituted a living or a “vulgar” or “fallen” shamanistic tradition (drug use or the induction of trance via pain rather than an ability to voluntarily enter such states without distress), distinctions which are rather useless in my eyes even if the concept is useful in evaluating how oral religious traditions get passed down.

  26. Good points, dhex. I’m actually an admirer of much of Campbell’s work but was shaken by the Gill piece when I came across it. It’s hard to sift out the distortions based on personal resentment in his account, I agree; after a second look at the exchange of letters in response to it, Gill’s dismissive tone starts to look more suspicious. I should also take back the phrase “objectively pro-fascist” as far too extreme in light of Campbell’s later realization that his initial response to Hitler was woefully inadequate. Now back to Grass; it wasn’t my intention to hijack the thread.

  27. This is why I keep coming back to Hit & Run:

    Stephen makes a point about this fellow Campbell, whom I’ve never heard of, but Stephen has a well thought out, educated theory, backed up by evidence.

    And, realiably, Gilmore comes along, and not only has he heard of this Campbell, but he also has an educated, well-thought-theory – that completely contradict’s Stephen’s.

    You just don’t get this quality of commenter on any other general-interest politics blog.

  28. joe am i not educated? 🙁

  29. You too, dhex.

  30. What’s most amusing here is that Grass is known primarily as a writer of fiction, yet by your measure a putatively scholarly writer, even for a general audience, should be held to a more lenient standard.

    I am not making a case for any ‘standard’ at all, or making an apples/apples at all. I was pointing out that the two cases aren’t remotely similar.

    Books like the Tin Drum are explicitly about the political and moral corruption of Nazism; The fact that Grass later admits he WAS a nazi, and just hadnt mentioned it for a couple decades…. is…. well, kinda relevant?

    You go from this to = “Campbell had vague, anti-semitic tendencies”->ergo, his work in an unrelated acedemic field is therefore suspect.

    You still havent bothered to point out how this alleged anti-semitism is supposed to influence our understanding of his research into primitive mythology.

    What’s least amusing is how someone who bandies about phrases like “bullshit” and “fucking gay” gets to rail about ad hominem arguments.

    You’re right. I do have bad manners.

    While you quite politely assert that some guy’s a closet-nazi, based on…well, mostly the word of one or two other guys who only decided to attack his character after his death. Who were roundly rebutted on the anti-semitism point shortly thereafter.

    And indeed, the whole case you’re making is basically a PC backdoor to discount his work; be it true or not, I’m not sure it’s even applicable.

    Like, Miles Davis beat his wives. What does that say about Sketches of Spain? Anything?

    As for Joseph Campbell, I think his philosophy is dull enough to reject on its own terms, without bringing in his personal history.

    Well, fair enough on that.

    I blame the @#$*# hippies.

  31. P.S.: I should also say they also supported the Nazis in the belief that Communism was the wave of the future anyway, so bringing down the old order was merely a step in the historically-determined direction. In the case of East Germany, that even turned out to be true, for a while.

  32. You still havent bothered to point out how this alleged anti-semitism is supposed to influence our understanding of his research into primitive mythology.

    You seem to have confused an actual question for a rhetorical one. Given the charges and Campbell’s continuing popularity, I simply wondered why these issues hadn’t been hashed out more thoroughly and the implications for his work and its reception–esp. given the degree to which 20th-century fascism was steeped in mythological imagery–more rigorously explored.

    Is it against netiquette to ask real questions, or is everything supposed to be a setup for a rhetorical slam dunk?

  33. Is it against netiquette to ask real questions, or is everything supposed to be a setup for a rhetorical slam dunk?

    False choice?

    No Steven; but it *is* weak argument to compare actual uniform-wearing nazis with people rumored (and only weakly rumored) to have had fascist sympathies, and use that slander to attack something wholly unrelated to their (unstated) political ideology.

    JG

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