Hannah Arendt, “Walter Benjamin”, Men In Dark Times

To put it bluntly, it would be as misleading today to recommend Walter Benjamin as a literary critic and essayist as it would have been misleading to recommend Kafka of 1924 as a short-story writer and novelist. The describe adequately his work and him as an author within our usual framework of reference, one would have to make a great many negative statements, such as: his erudition was great, but he was no scholar; his subject matter comprised texts and their interpretation, but he was no philologist; he was greatly attracted not by religion but, “Walter Benjamin by theology and the theological type of interpretation for which the text itself is sacred, but he was no theologian and he was not particularly interested in the Bible; he was a born writer, but his greatest ambition was to produce a work consisting entirely of quotiations; he was the was the first Germ to translate Proust (together with Franz Hess) and St.-John Perse, and before that he had translated Baudelaire’s Tablueax Parisiens, but he was no translator; he reviewed books and wrote a number of essays on living and dead writers, but he was no literary critic; he wrote a book about the German baroque and left behind a huge unfinished study of the French nineteenth century, but he as no historian, literary or otherwise; I shall try to show that he thought poetically, but he was neither a poet nor a philosopher. – Hannah Arendt, “Walter Benjamin”, Men In Dark Times, pp.155-156


The themes which monastic discipline assigned to friars for meditation were designed to turn them away from the world and its affairs.  The thoughts which we are developing here originate from similar considerations.  At a moment when the politicians in whom the opponents of Fascism had placed their hopes are prostrate and confirm their defeat by betraying their own cause, these observations are intended to disentangle the political worldlings from the snares in which the traitors have entrapped them.  Our consideration proceeds from the insight the the politicians’ stubborn faith in progress, their confidence in their “mass basis,” and, finally, their servile integration in an uncontrollable apparatus have been three aspects of the same thing.   It seeks to convey an idea of the high price our accustomed thinking will have to pay for a conception of history that avoids any complicity with the thinking to which these politicians continue to adhere. – Walter Benjamin, “Theses On The Philosophy Of History”, in Illuminations, ed. by Hannah Arendt, trans. by Harry Zohn, p. 258

Walter Benjamin at work

Walter Benjamin at work

Georg Lukacs wrote of some members of the Frankfurt School, Adorno in particular:

A considerable part of the leading German intelligentsia, including Adorno, have taken up residence in the “Grand Hotel Abyss” which I described […] as “a beautiful hotel, equipped with every comfort, on the edge of an abyss, of nothingness, of absurdity. And the daily contemplation of the abyss between excellent meals or artistic entertainments, can only heighten the enjoyment of the subtle comforts offered.

In much the same way, Adorno was critical of his mentor and friend Walter Benjamin’s “Art in the Age of Mechanical Production”, “I am all too aware of the weakness of the work. And this consists, to put it crudely, in the tendency to engage in Jeremiads and polemics” (Quoted in Richard Leppert, ed., Theodor Adorno: Selected With Introduction, Commentary, and Notes, p.249n78), a charge I find all the more fascinating and lacking in ironic self-awareness considering Adorno’s tendency toward the exaggerated statement for elucidating a far more mundane point (something Lepper, the editor of the above volume of Adorno’s writings on music, notes early and often as part of Adorno’s “style”). Indeed, “Art In The Age Of Mechanical Production” may well be one of the most positive statements regarding the revolutionary potential of popular art (film in this case) from a leftist perspective written in the 20th century.

Just as Lukacs became contemptuous of the kind of too-comfortable armchair dialectics of Adorno and his circle, Adorno’s rejection of Benjamin precisely because he was “undialectic” (quoted in Arendt, p.162) and spoke scathingly of Benjamin’s “attempt to capture the portrait of history in the most insignificant representations of reality, its scraps, as it were.” (Arendt, p.163), sprung both from a fairly meritorious critical eye which nevertheless missed the deeper heart of the one being criticized. While it may well have been the case that Adorno’s life was just a tad too comfortable for one claiming a mantle as a revolutionary, so, too, were Benjamin’s works, in Arendt’s words, the strangest kind of Marxism. For Benjamin, however, his dedication to the revolutionary cause, while certainly a vital part of the intellectual toolkit he brought to every task – he came very close to joining the party in the mid-1920’s – was nevertheless uncomfortable enough with Marxist dialectics and a materialism stripped of its spiritual dimension that even to call him a Marxist (Lukacs mentions Benjamin as among his circle of “comrades” for which he grew contemptuous) is a fundamental misunderstanding of the man and his work.

Born in 1892, coming of age just prior to World War I, seeing little in Weimar Germany to recommend itself either to himself as critic or to others as a writer, finally trapped within the maelstrom of history in western Europe in the 1930’s, Benjamin took his own life after, having already made an arduous trek through southwestern France, precious papers in hand to allow him passage, he arrived at the Spanish border the day Spain closed its doors (albeit temporarily; no one, of course, could have known this at the time) to refugees from unoccupied France. His decision to end his own life, while certainly tragic (Berthold Brecht wrote that Benjamin’s death was the first real victory for the Nazi’s against German literature), was, given the circumstances, easily understandable. Not well known in his own time, his closest friends and supporters long since gone to the United States, and his physical, emotional, financial, and probably psychological resources spent, how is one person suppose to stand against the juggernaut of that moment in European history?

All the same, I think Arendt’s inclusion of Benjamin in a volume dedicated to extraordinary people living through extraordinary times (essay subjects include Lessing, Pope John XXIII, Brecht, and Karl Jaspers along with Benjamin and a couple others) is more than a little misleading. Benjamin was, alas, no more a product and commentator upon his times than he was a “simple” literary critic or historian or theologian. Indeed, paying attention to Arendt’s descriptions of Benjamin’s work, the themes she emphasizes, and the examples she cites, it becomes clear that Walter Benjamin was far more a man of the 19th century, particularly 19th century Paris with its rich bohemian subculture, than of the 20th. He was well educated yet could not bear the thought of academe. Like many children of that first generation of German Jews to succeed at assimilation, Benjamin neither considered himself “Jewish” nor did he wish so to be perceived, yet he ran up against official and cultural and social anti-Semitism throughout his life, policies that restricted what he as an unbaptized yet also unpracticing Jew could achieve. Despite this, throughout his adult life, he flirted (at the very least) with Zionism, having made friends with Gerhard Scholem before the First World War broke out. He was constantly writing Scholem that he was considering emigration to Jerusalem, yet he could never quite make the leap precisely because it involved labeling both his person and his work indelibly as “Jewish”, something he didn’t care to do.

Like the description Arendt gives in the epigrammatic quote concerning Benjamin’s literary interests and output, Benjamin was also jealous of his own prerogative concerning the kind of man, the individual, he wished to be. Arendt uses a the French word flâneur as what best suits Benjamin. It is no surprise that part of his never-completed Arcades project saw light under the title “Die flâneur”. The flâneur were a type, not quite a class and certainly not a “community” as we would understand it, who had a certain presence in 19th century Paris. Often derided as bums, they were children of wealthy bourgeois homes who, having no responsibilities to themselves or others, would wander through the streets and arcades and boulevards of Paris, taking in what there was to see and hear, experiencing what there was to experience, without any particular rhyme or reason. Obviously there is something more than a little decadent (both in literal and political uses of the word) about such living. At the same time, there’s an attractiveness to the kind of freedom – freedom from financial worry; freedom from interpersonal responsibility; freedom from the any sense of a purpose or end to such activities – that still appeals. They were, in a word, bohemians, although perhaps without the aesthetic self-consciousness of some such.

Benjamin was comfortable in academic work (his Habilitationschrift was a study of German Baroque Tragedy), with the popular essay (“Unpacking My Library”), critical appreciation (essays on Brecht and Kafka), and even venturing a typically Marxist style and subject matter (“Theses On History”). He both desired the approval of academics, yet because of the demand that he be baptized before he could serve on a University faculty (that would have required him acknowledging his Jewishness as definitive, something he never wanted to do), was never really desirous of such a position. He could play with a variety of vocabularies – Marxist, theological, aesthetic, poetic – without either losing his distinctive voice; he could use these styles without ever becoming so immersed in them he lost his particularity. That particularly after the First World War Benjamin always kept his options open both with Zionism and Communism (two ideologies that vocally detested one another), he never concerned himself even with having to make a choice. He faced the criticisms of friends (Adorno) and mentors (Scholem) with a kind of equanimity borne, I think, from a kind of self-awareness that allowed him to know they just didn’t get him.

What to many might seem the inconsequential, perhaps even dilettante, concerns – his bibliomania, for one; an incident, highlighted by Arendt, of Benjamin becoming enthralled by two grains of wheat upon which a prayerful soul had inscribed the entire Shema Israel – and see in them an importance that others, far more concerned with the scope and sweep of History, not only wouldn’t see, but couldn’t see. This, too, is a kind of aestheticism, a very 19th century attitude toward life and the world that was very much out of place in a world riven first by tragedy in Benjamin’s early adulthood, soon to be destroyed completely. Most intellectuals considered the First World War, with its destruction of a species of European cosmopolitanism, a “turning point” in the most literal way: historical reality had invalidated the best hopes of the previous century and there was, thus, no going back. Yet it was Benjamin who wrote in his “Theses on History” that history was an Angel, her eyes turned toward the wreckage of the past, always being pulled backwards with the present moment. For Benjamin, that wreckage was both very real yet also still held the truth of what had constituted it in the very piles of dust and brick and bone and blood. Far happier in Paris than he ever had been in his native Berlin, far more attracted to the minutiae of life than to the grand sweep of History, quite happy to write quasi-Marxist cultural criticism or an appreciation of Brecht’s early works, Benjamin was far more a creature of an irretrievable past than he was the historical moments through which he lived.

We usually consider people to be products primarily of the social, political, economic, and cultural conditions within which they live. Benjamin, however, while never rejecting his own times, was nevertheless a half-conscious throwback. His “No” to his times – exemplified in his adoption of a Marxist vocabulary while never fully embracing either Marxism or the Communist Party – was as much a desire to reclaim a better past as it was a hope in a future no longer touched by the desolation of his own particular times.

There is something tragically heroic in such a stance, one which understands one’s own time only as a negation both of what has been and what will be. As long as life promises possibilities, it is easy enough to face adversity and continue to struggle on. Facing the full wrath of Historical forces beyond anyone’s ability either to withstand or even comprehend, however, that ghostly past and evanescent future can be crushed along with everything else. Thus was Benjamin’s end, death by his own hand, comprehensible. The gigantic machinery of mass death was pushing hard upon him, resisted by the equally strong forces of those who, acting out of fear, became its unwitting agents, would leave few of us the wherewithal to carry on. If the First World War had destroyed the 19th century, it is not hard to imagine one such as Walter Benjamin, believing the Gestapo was close on his heels and his only escape route now closed, to understand this new war, waged by demonic forces of anti-culture and anti-humanity, might well destroy not only the 20th, but perhaps the 21st as well.

It has been the work of many to resurrect Benjamin’s life and work, reconstitute his correspondence, and try  best to explain this one individual, lost in his own time, to those who have come after who, perhaps, feel more than a little affinity for one who just wasn’t completely at home in his own times. His subject matter might seem to be inconsequential. His style might seem eclectic, even precious on occasion. His scope of interests  are not quite as clear if we consider only what was published in his lifetime. All the same, this incomplete life (Benjamin was three years younger than I am now when he died) and his incomplete work together demonstrate that even fragments can be meaningful.

After all, someone once wrote the Shema Israel on two grains of wheat. In the scraps of life we might yet find the whole of history, if we are willing to look with enough care.

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Why We Need Black History Month

America's Greatest Composer, Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington

America’s Greatest Composer, Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington

For the next four weeks we will all be seeing the posts on social media and various blogs and websites: “Why do we need a ‘Black History Month’?” The answers to that question are multiple and should be set out very clearly.

Long before the United States was an independent nation, much of our accumulated wealth rested on the hunched shoulders and aching backs of African slaves and their progeny. As slavery expanded the slaves took with them not only the dim memories of their grandparents; they took their distinctive cultural styles: music, storytelling, religion, all imbued with survival strategies necessary for a population continually threatened with violence and death. Whites found all of this both “exotic” and “different” – they still do – and tried to steal everything from humor rooted in making fun of their white masters to songs filled with longing for freedom, creating the basis of American popular theater, called The Minstrel Show. The television variety show (now largely a thing of the past) was the last incarnation of what changed its name and shape but was always rooted in white appropriation of African-American cultural forms. From my childhood, Sonny and Cher and Donny and Marie Osmond owe their success in no small part to the ongoing attempts by whites to make the “different” and “othered” cultural styles of African-Americans their own. Even the revealing costumes Cher would wear run in a direct line from white perceptions of the sexuality of African-American women and how that was presented, whether in minstrel shows, the shows at The Cotton Club or Le Revue Negre in Paris, or how Nikki Minaj and other women of color are perceived today. Not only the appropriation of African-American cultural forms, but how whites present their too often distorted perceptions of African-Americans, particularly their sexuality, is one reason we need Black History month.

Things with which we live on a day-to-day basis, whether it’s peanut butter, the traffic light, or the transfusion of blood, come from African-Americans. I doubt anyone would deny the cultural importance of peanut butter! Traffic lights reduced the need for traffic police at busy intersections, freeing them up for actual police work. And the sad fact is that the man who invented the way we extract, store, and then dispense blood for those in need died because he was denied a blood transfusion. Because he was black. His life alone tells us why we need Black History Month.

Finally, we need Black History Month because there are people who still ask the question, “Why do we need ‘Black History Month’?” We need it because when families and residents of cities and neighborhoods march to protest poor living conditions, demanding better treatment and an end to the abuse and murder of their sons and daughters by police, it’s called a riot. When privileged white college students destroy and loot stores, overturn and set fire to cars, and police in riot gear fear moving in to end the violence, it’s called  a celebration. When a young man walking through a neighborhood on his way home from a convenience store is shot and killed by a civilian for no apparent reason, many people dissect everything about the young man’s life in an effort to show all the ways he probably deserved to die. We need Black History Month because the person who shot that young man was not found guilty of murder, claiming self-defense; not long after, a young African-American woman, in fear for her life, fires a warning shot at her estranged, abusive husband, yet faces multiple years in prison as the judge denies self-defense and imminent fear as a defense. We need Black History Month because no white parent has to sit with their child and have “the talk”, a talk about the reality that no matter where that child goes or what that child accomplishes, that child will always be perceived as a threat by police, security officers in stores, or groups of white people. No matter how hard that child works to achieve success, that success will always be questioned because of the myth that Affirmative Action rewards people for lack of ability, while denying those with ability opportunities. No white parent will have to sit and wonder if their son or daughter was pulled over by the police for driving through the wrong neighborhood at night. We need Black History Month because a young African-American is more likely to go to prison than to college.

We need Black History Month because we don’t know one another in America. We whites have no idea how African-American families live. We are both ignorant and afraid of the ways of life of those we perceive as “different” from us. It is commonplace to carry on about how ignorant Americans are of their own history; yet so many believe that four weeks out of the year to focus attention of the contributions and lives of a people who have built America, who live among us as both a part of us and apart from us, some people believe this is unnecessary. That’s why we need Black History Month.

September 11 And Its Aftermath

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People are saying, “Never forget”. Except it’s hard for those of us alive that day to ever forget. The shock and disbelief. The horror and sorrow. The confusion and anger. That last one, anger, that lingered longer. It came to overshadow the rest. We as a nation wanted to get the people responsible for this horror.

Sad to say, that desire for vengeance led, that same evening, to an attack on a Sikh in Arizona. That the Sikhs were no more involved in this attack than the Baptists didn’t matter. To people brought up to look at skin color and general appearance as a gauge of worth, a south Indian in a turban probably looked like a Muslim. That was the first, small indication that our country was about to go off the rails in a very big way.

I was never a fan of George W. Bush before 9/11. Through that summer, as our younger daughter was born and we began adjusting to yet another new life, I watched his administration from a distance and thought to myself he would probably be a one-term President like his father. Just too arrogant, too many missteps. It was like watching amateur hour. Even that day, it seemed to be a bit of amateur hour. People have criticized Bush for staying in that Florida classroom and reading that book. Not me. He did exactly what he should have done. He didn’t panic, he allowed his subordinates to do what needed to be done while he maintained calm in an effort to keep those far from the scene from becoming panicky. Once in the air, Air Force One did exactly what it’s supposed to do – radio and radar silence flying no particular route while guarded by fighters. That day, no one knew quite what was happening and the President and the Secret Service acted precisely the way they should.

In the days immediately following, the President spoke for the country when he insisted we would pursue those who had attacked us. He went further, however, and called upon us as a people not to blame the religion of Islam for the attacks. Terrorism and religion are not the same thing, he insisted, and the millions of Muslims living in America deserved our respect. They should not live in fear because of what some political fanatics did in the name of a religion of peace and justice. At a memorial service in New York, an Imam participated  in a very public way. The message the President was trying to send was very clear.

Except too few were listening. Congress rushed through a bill – the PATRIOT Act – that for all intents and purposes stripped civil protections from people the state believed to be involved in any way in terrorist activity or sympathizes with terrorists. Charities were shuttered. Young Muslim men disappeared, winding up in federal detention without recourse even to habeas corpus. This most ancient and sacrosanct of Anglo-American rights – it’s only mentioned in passing in the Constitution because it’s presence was assumed – was stripped from some criminal suspects. Long-term solitary confinement became common place.

In October of 2001, American Special Forces were inserted in Afghanistan in what was supposed to be a quick strike against the top leadership of the Taliban leadership, removing them and creating conditions in which an American military action would be swift. None of those Special Ops forces made it out of Afghanistan alive and the Taliban leaders remained alive. Our subsequent invasion used allies from local rebel forces, funneling money and weapons to various factions about which we knew little except they opposed the Taliban. When the leadership collapsed and the battle quieted down, American forces swept through the land picking up anyone and everyone off the field of battle. The resulting prisoners, rather than treated according to the laws of war were labeled something new, “unlawful combatants”, for which extraordinary measures were deemed necessary. Thus began the Cuban gulag.

In the summer of 2002, the big news items were the beginning of restructuring in Afghanistan according to local traditions and the collapse of energy trading giant Enron. The Enron collapse, linked to a spike in natural gas and heating prices in California that led to the recall of the Democratic governor and the election of actor Arnold Schwartezenegger, had ripples that led to the White House. Even as public outrage at what happened to Enron employees and retirees grew and calls for federal investigations mounted, the first whispers of something else began to emerge from Washington.

I’ll never forget when a possible invasion of Iraq first became news. It was a Friday morning and I was listening to NPR. It was one of those “news roundup” programs in which talking voices (no one can see their heads on the radio) gab endlessly about the news. Someone in the Bush Administration had said something about Iraq, and it had snowballed. The host, Diane Rehm, asked one of her guests what the talk about Iraq meant. “It means we’re not talking about Enron,” was the answer I heard. From that moment, I didn’t trust the Bush Administration’s talk about Iraq, or its motives for beginning to create support for an invasion.

We all know what happened then. The invasion. The collapse of the Ba’ath regime. Chaos in the streets. The big reveal there had been no planning for maintaining order. There had been no contingency for extra troops to be used for policing. The news that our soldiers and their vehicles weren’t armored properly; families were sending battle armor to their soldiers and Marines. All this should have been a huge scandal, but the Bush Administrations was becoming expert at distraction. Abu Ghraib? A few bad apples. The American occupation government removing any and all Ba’ath Party members from Administrative positions? The only proper action. Stripping weapons from the Iraqi Revolutionary Guard and disbanding it? They were the enemy force and needed to be stripped of power.

Back home, as years passed, first responders and construction workers at the Twin Tower site began to show effects of exposure to dioxin, a rapid-acting carcinogen. The people who had become the faces and names of heroism on September 11, 2001 appealed for help. They received silence. Family members of the dead from September 11 began to speak out against the war in Iraq and the maltreatment of those who were suffering because of their work saving lives or removing the rubble from lower Manhattan. They were attacked by conservative media. Particular narratives of heroism – the rescue of Lynndie England; the death of Pat Tillman – were revealed to be lies. The wars lingered on even as Bush Administration officials insisted it was, in the words of then-VP Dick Cheney, “in its last throes”.

We continue to live with all the mistakes we made in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. From widespread anti-Muslim bigotry through the tens of thousands of veterans wounded in body and mind for which we have yet to provide adequate care to the ongoing death toll as our soldiers and Marines continue to die in Afghanistan, there has yet to be any real reckoning. The events of 9/11 were horrible. Much of what we as a nation did in the wake of those attacks, however, was both unwarranted and has led, as critics at the time kept insisting, to untold misery both at home and abroad. Our all-too-broken politics in no small way can be laid at the feet of our mistakes made years ago. It might well be the case we face decades of repair work both here and abroad fixing all the damage we have done here and abroad.

We must never forget the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. We must also never forget how seriously we botched what happened after. We should commit ourselves to doing better, starting today. The people who died at the Pentagon and the World Trade Center should be honored by our refusal to allow their murder to be the beginning of our unraveling. We owe them that.

Primitivism

When [people] finally got around to writing theories about what they had been doing for some time, such action was inevitably looked upon as a succession of events beginning in the past. In many instances the sequential ordering of the text, the series verborum or narrationis, was simply and crudely imposed on events in the real world. As a consequence of this interpretive activity, the issue of oral and written communication cannot be separated from that of reform, utopia, and primitivism. . . . [An] approach . . . augmenting self-knowledge of course favored the search after origins or first principles that we associate with primitivism. To be better was to be earlier and to be earlier was to find ultimate precedent, which, not surprisingly turned out to be a text. – Brian Stock, “Medieval Literature, Linguistic Theory, and Social Organization”, in Listening For The Text, pp.38-39

St. Paul Writing His Epistles, attributed to Valentin de Boulogne, 17th century. Many of us have this image in our head; in fact, Paul dictated most of his letters. Being from Tarsus, he looked less like a Dutch bookkeeper and more like a contemporary Turkish shop owner.

St. Paul Writing His Epistles, attributed to Valentin de Boulogne, 17th century. Many of us have this image in our head; in fact, Paul dictated most of his letters. Being from Tarsus, he looked less like a Dutch bookkeeper and more like a contemporary Turkish shop owner.

Last week’s Supreme Court ruling expanding marriage rights to all persons takes place in a community and context defined and limited by a particular document: The United States Constitution. Public disagreements, when not veering into bigotry, have centered around the meaning of words. “Right”, “freedom”, “equality” are secular holy words in the United States. For that reason, their meaning is contested on a daily basis. How best do we understand them so they can regulate our behavior as citizens, allow us legal and civic space to participate in the common life?

Many people insist that it is best to understand these words as they were understood by those who wrote and ratified them 226 years ago. The simplicity and clarity of James Madison’s text, it is said, does not lend itself either to innovation or the accrual of meaning over time. To be “free” as the Constitution guarantees it, to have a “right”, means nothing more or less than what it meant in 1787.

We Americans, then, are a textual community rooted in a species of primitivism, as Brian Stock defines it. All sides in the discussion claim the Constitution as their authoritative text. The matter is not Constitutionality or its lack. The argument is over the definition of words.

In much the same way, Christian communities, rooted in a particular text, make appeals to it both for innovation and steadfastness; we demand adherence to the text of Scripture with most Christians knowing little to nothing of its content. We are offered particular moral precepts, particular personal and social values, and insist best contemporary practice is exhibited within the stories and exemplars of Scripture. We insist that Jesus was a contemporary radical disguised as a poor itinerant Jewish carpenter-cum-teacher; his death on a Roman cross-tree is proof that his was understood to be a revolutionary movement by the authorities of his day. We are told that particular legal codices not only should but do continue to apply to current social life.

Much of contemporary Biblical scholarship and theology centers around the search both for textual clarity (arriving at as clear an original MSS as possible) and original meaning. With these accomplished, we are told, we will be better able to appropriate the texts for our own time. Since the first historical critical readings of the Bible in the early 19th century (although late medieval and Renaissance scholars engaged in a limited historical criticism), this has been the goal; each interpretive method offered a path through the thickets of additions and subtractions; through difficult questions of editing; once through we shall not only have the authoritative text, but the authoritative interpretation. Whether it’s the Jesus Seminar, the writings of Marcus Borg or N. T. Wright, or the body calling itself The Center For The Study Of Christian Origins, both the work and the larger ecclesiological goal is the Church Universal understanding itself as indistinguishable from our origins.

Not only Biblical primitivism, but also Doctrinal primitivism reigns in many of our churches, particularly my own United Methodist Church. We are told ad nauseum that we as a Body have lost our doctrinal roots. A return to strict adherence to Christian doctrines will help us overcome our current social and cultural decline and internal malaise. Overcoming contemporary liberalism, conservatism, contextual theologies, fundamentalist theologies all require adherence to Church doctrine, which itself is a body of texts rooted in interpretations of the Scriptural texts.

As I pointed out elsewhere, the pursuit of understanding, particularly of societies and cultures long dead, using languages that are also dead (or at best only dimly related to contemporary languages), is an expression of hubris I find both interesting and tiresome. Whether it’s the Scriptural texts or the doctrinal texts, the assumptions behind the claims of a practical primitivism are neither sound nor falsifiable. There is simply no way contemporary scholars, even after decades of work, building on previous centuries of work, can hope, say, to arrive at a clear original presentation of a manuscript. Even form criticism, which pays attentions to minutiae of sentence structure in an attempt to identify additions to a text, can never answer the question of what might have been removed from a text and for what reason. No doctrinal purist can answer with anything like clarity what words like “salvation”, “grace”, “Incarnation”, or even “God” meant for people in the first, second, ninth, or even 17th centuries. For one thing, those words as they appear above didn’t exist. They are contemporary English words that reflect as best as possible an on-going tradition rooted in ancient dead languages (rooted in ancient dead societies and cultures). Pretending the modern English word “salvation” means the same as its first century Greek equivalent is to play kindergarten games with serious issues. It does violence both to the original understandings – whatever, in the end, they may be – as well as reducing our current understandings to little more than word play.

I understand the lure of primitivism. At the end of the day, however, the claims of many primitivists, regardless of their scholarly credentials, should be stopped by the simple act of demanding what their original meanings have to do with people living in an age unimagined and unimaginable to those original authors. Not that historical, textual, and literary criticism isn’t necessary. Rather, there must come a point not only when scholarship needs to end and proclamation should begin; there also needs to be just a bit more humility in our claims at understanding “original meaning” in any text, whether it’s the United States Constitution, Christian doctrine, or the Bible. As the task of the Biblical reader is to allow the text to read our lives, to interpret our faith, and to let it be the foundation for our proclamation and mission, we should always remember that scholarship ends when practical theology begins. If we aren’t engaging in an interchange that moves first from Scriptures to us, then we aren’t reading the Bible correctly, no matter how much information we have in our heads about the original languages, the authors and editors, and how the words of the text were understood by those who first wrote them down.

Mass Death And Evil

Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions. – Primo Levi

We are alive. We are human, with good and bad in us. That’s all we know for sure. We can’t create a new species or a new world. That’s been done. Now we have to live within those boundaries . What are our choices? We can despair and curse, and change nothing. We can choose evil like our enemies have done and create a world based on hate. Or we can try to make things better. – Carol Matas

Rudolph Hoess, Commandant of Auschwitz-Birkenau

Rudolph Hoess, Commandant of Auschwitz-Birkenau

The quest is simple: Is there such a thing as evil? Not that there aren’t evil acts. Of course there are, we see them all the time. They intrude upon our normal affairs like some sickly boil, spewing their horrid contents on our lives. Most people wipe it off as quickly as they can, fearing an infection that might kill them. Others, alas, sit and stare, wondering if this offal is something foreign – what I’ve been calling spiritual evil – or something all too human. And which answer eases the conscience?

For several days, I’ve ventured to Poland during World War II; Cambodia during the mid-1970’s; Rwanda in 1994. Immersing myself in these horrors is not easy. I understand why most folks ignore the topic. It’s difficult enough to deal with the quite ordinary evils of which we hear: incest and child molestation; people in power extorting silence from victims so as to maintain power; a group of Americans (!) terrorizing Muslims by marching outside their mosque with firearms, expressing hate and threatening violence. For all these things make most folks sad, angry, or turn away in disgust, there is a need to steel oneself and look at all this, squarely, and demand an answer to the question that continues to haunt me: Of what nature is this evil I see?

To forget a Holocaust is to kill twice. – Elie Wiesel

The dead demand more than justice. They plead with us for something far more important: That they not be forgotten. Their voices, their hands tugging at us, how is it possible to remain complacent in the face of this basic need to have their lives and deaths recalled, to join the family of humanity from which they were torn without thought, without care, and in the midst of horrors we may allow ourselves to glimpse, or catch a brief sound on the wind, but can never experience? And our moral imagination too often makes demands their deaths cannot satisfy. Seeking meaning is an insult. It ignores the reality that mass death strips away any ethical pretense. Those who lived and died, those who lived and survived, those who lived and were found guilty of crimes: all of them remind us that there is no room in hell for moral choice. To that end, we must remember but never judge, except perhaps those who not only created these diabolical realities but who accepted the rules and operated within them.

Pol Pot, Brother Number One in Democratic Kampuchea, the smiling, congenial, charismatic dreamer whose policies killed 34% of his country's population.

Pol Pot, Brother Number One in Democratic Kampuchea, the smiling, congenial, charismatic dreamer whose policies killed 34% of his country’s population.

This handsome man was born and spent his youth in the Cambodian Royal household. His sister was a concubine. He was able to travel to Paris to attend university, where he encountered all sorts of ideas, like history, and Marx, and the possibility of a fully human future for humanity free from the oppression of foreign imperialism and domestic authoritarianism. Once people see the beauty and possibility of self-sufficiency and national solidarity, they would fall in line, ready to struggle together.

Of course, this wistful dream was the nightmare of Khmer Rouge rule in the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea. In 1975, when Phnom Pehn fell, the population was roughly seven million. The Cambodians had struggled to maintain a neutral position between the United States and Soviet Union, always wary, however, of their longtime rival and enemy to the east, Vietnam. Between the French, then the Americans, however, Cambodia was dragged against its people’s will in to the mire. Destabilized, bleeding from multiple wounds, the Khmer Rouge had promised the return of the monarchy, only to turn around and begin four years of horror. Nearly 2 million people died over the next four years. Their deaths, as rationalized by Pol Pot and others, were of no consequence; enemies of the promised bright future in which to be a cog in the great Cambodian productive forces, unhindered either by family or class ties as well as any emotion save a desire to serve the people as a whole, even something as human as laughter became a crime punishable by death. To wear glasses meant death. To becomes weakened by hunger and toil was punishable by death. To remain healthy and vigorous meant you were taking more than your share, therefore death.

Comrade Duich, an extremely intelligent mathematician and popular teacher devised a careful system of torture and confession that cost over 12,000 of his fellow Cambodians their lives.

Comrade Duich, an extremely intelligent mathematician and popular teacher devised a careful system of torture and confession that cost over 12,000 of his fellow Cambodians their lives.

Over 20,000 people passed in the doors of Suol Leng prison, also known as S-21, a former boarding school in Phnom Pehn. A dozen survived. This far-too-efficient killing machine was overseen by a genial school teacher who took the revolutionary name Duich (pronounced Doik). He wrote a manual of interrogation and torture that began with the premise that, if the person was in S-21, they were guilty. The point of torture and interrogation was to force them to confess their guilt. Once the confession was complete, worded properly, and presented to Duich and approved, they were taken in batches to Choeung Ek, known to us now as the Killing Fields. Duich would sit by, quietly chain smoking as, one by one, the prisoners were led blindfolded to the edge of a deep pit. They were told to kneel. There they were either shot or bludgeoned in the back of the head. If they continued to live, the executioner would slit their throats, then roll the corpse in to the pit.

When found guilty by a special tribunal combining members of the World Court in The Hague and Cambodian jurists, Duich stood as had thousands of those he imprisoned, and repeatedly confessed, in minute detail, to each and every crime. He neither side-stepped guilt through cowardice, as did far too many of the Nazis, nor denied anything untoward had happened, as Pol Pot insisted in his final interview before his death – a natural death his victims were denied. I’ve watched and rewatched each and every time Duich not only said, “Yes, I’m guilty,” but was at great pains to detail how he was guilty. Like the system of “justice” that reigned under the Khmer Rouge, he was in the dock, therefore guilty, therefore his confession was necessary before any sentence could be announced. Was that confession honest? I have no idea. I heard him get choked up; I watched him tear up. I have no idea if that was real contrition. I only know that it was impossible for me to understand the connection between the well-dressed older gentleman in the Cambodian courtroom and the man who devised a system that created corpses even more efficiently than the Nazi machinery of death. The impossibility of drawing those lines, of seeing any continuity at all leaves me wondering if, in fact, there was any continuity.

Yes, I fully believe the Nazi genocide, the Chinese famine, Stalin’s terror, the Khmer Rouge, the Rwandan genocide, and the many atrocities in southeastern Europe as Yugoslavia collapsed were to some lesser or greater extent, various hells for those who experienced them. To be trapped within systems and events from which there is no escape; whose only end is death; that strip victims of their humanity, leaving even death no real release from the suffering; to plea to God or the the gods for help and hearing answer, seeing no reprieve. All of this constitutes hell.

Which leaves me wondering if there need be a “place” of torment outside these all too human structures of death.

Primo Levi’s quote above captures my sense that, no matter how diabolical the circumstances, there are few truly inhuman creatures involved in carrying out the events. We toss around the moral label “evil” and apply it to Stalin or Hitler, Pol Pot or Mao, yet each person need not have the additional label “evil” added to summarize their lives and actions. That their actions led to evil situations is without question. To deny calling them evil is certainly not an attempt to remove any moral guilt from them. It is, rather, to recognize that persons do, indeed, carry out evil actions; monster, however, do not. Monsters are without reason, outside our ability to comprehend. These men, and all their all-too-willing collaborators in mass death are intelligible under perfectly human categories.

Which should leave all of us far more frightened than the too-easy labeling of them as “evil” and “monsters”. That men and women can and have committed the actions; have set up and participated in hellish systems that destroyed human life completely. . . should give us pause before we rest easy with calling others evil. To repeat: These were men and women, like you and me. That, above all else, needs to be remembered. No devils, no demons, no inhuman creatures. Our deepest darkness, our most horrid fantasies do not come from outside ourselves. They reside in each of us.

Holocaust Testimonies II(b): Memory And The Eternity Trap

As memory plunges into the past to rescue the details of the Holocaust experience, it discovers that cessation play a more prominent role than continuity. – Lawrence Langer, Holocaust Testimonies:The Ruins Of Memory, p.75

The realization that horror never leaves but is ever-present leaves one in anguish over any possibilities.

The realization that horror never leaves but is ever-present leaves one in anguish over any possibilities.

Venturing in to Lawrence Langer’s guidebook for understanding the verbal testimonies of Holocaust survivors, it becomes apparent very quickly that we are entering . . . not a place or time at all. Oh, we who were neither there nor alive can look back and say things like, “The Third Reich began its imprisonment programn with Dachau in the spring of 1933”; we can pinpoint when the death camps, as opposed to the consentrationslager began churning out their product. It was in 1942, not long after a Conference in Wansee among those higher-ups in the Nazi regime responsible for what was ignominiously called “der Judenfrage“. That, however, does nothing more than locate along some arbitrary scale when particular events took place. We as observers can use this particular way of “understanding” to shield us from the multiple horrors these naked facts hide from us.

I originally began reading Langer as a way to remind myself that I was, indeed , familiar with real evil. Human evil at its most depraved. Spiritual evil at its most murderous. I am now not so sure that doing so for my selfish purposes honors the lives of those for whom this was more than just a lived experience but an always-present reality from which there was no escape. At the same time, both Langer’s reflections and the testimonies themselves lead the reader willing to expose himself or herself to the threats they pose to conclusions that are as frightening as they are inescapable.

The major theme of Langer’s book, subtitled as it is “The Ruins Of Memory”, is how the Holocaust exists in the memories of those who came out the other side of this event. The chapter titles of his book – “Deep Memory”, “Anguished Memory”, “Humiliated Memory” and so on – point to part of his project: in order to understand the oral testimonies of Holocaust survivors (as opposed to written accounts , which follow different rules) we have to recognize how memory operates in the lives of those for whom the Holocaust is a lived experience.

Again and again, Langer leads the reader to the conclusion that something more than “memory” – he follows one survivor, Charlotte Delbo, and her distinction between “common memory” and “deep memory” – is involved. Reading the transcriptions of the testimonies, the reader can only conclude that the events they relate do not exist in time at all; indeed, Langer is at pains to highlight the temporal disruption the Holocaust creates from the personal to the historical level. Precisely because of this disruption, we are doing more than reading the stated recollections of those who once were in Treblinka, Auscwitz-Birkenau, and Bergen-Belsen; they are there, have been there, and will be there. Time ceases to have any meaning; as such there is never an escape from the torments of the camps. The life, skin, sense of smell, sense of self is, in each moment, both traveling through time yet never free from the sights and smells and sounds and (lack of) feelings the camps induce. When we read these recollections, we are pulled through the veil time uses to keep us safe and are there with them. As Langer himself writes on page 69: “For the witnesses, the Holocaust is at once a lived event and a “died” event: the paradox of how one survives a died event is one of the most urgent (if unobtrusive) topics of [witness] testimonies . . .”

German theologian Paul Tillich preached a sermon entitled “The Eternal Now”, in which he described the reality of eternity less as endless time and more that all moments are alive in each moment, the whole exists not as a succession of events but as a whole without the need for perception and interpretation through our time- and space-bound categories. What could be more clear, reading these testimonies, than that they present this, tout court? Rather than a comforting notion, which is how Tillich – who escaped Nazi Germany in 1933, the Gestapo close on his heels – wished to use it, the dawning fear scraping the back of our minds is there is a diabolical mirror image to the comfort of eternal bliss. Consider the following transcription of the testimony of Chaim S., on page 62-63:

No, no, no. I try in my best words to bring the picture of out it. But you see, when I . . . I see the picture in front one me; you have to imagine something. The one that listens has to imagine something. So it has a different picture for me than for the one that imagines it. At least I think so, because sometimes I hear telling back a story that doesn’t sound at all the same what I was telling., you see: it doesn’t sound the same. It was horrified and horrible, and when you live once with this tension and horrification – if that is the right word – then you live differently. Your thoughts don’t go too far. In normal life, you think about tomorrow and after tomorrow and about a year, and next year a vacation then, and things like that. Here you think on the moment what it is. What happen now, on the moment. Now is it horrible. You don’t think “later.”

How else is it possible to understand the testimony of Edith P., from pages 54 and 55?

One morning, I think it was morning or early afternoon, we arrived. The train stopped for an hour; why we don’t know. And a friend of mine said, “Why don’t you stand up?” There was just a little window, with bars. And I said, “I can’t. I don’t have enough energy to climb up.” And she said, “I’m going to sit down and you’re going to stand on my shoulders.” And I did; and I looked out. And . . I . . . saw . . . Paradise! The sun was bright and vivid. There was cleanliness all over. It was a station somewhere in Germany. There were three or four people there. One woman had a child, nicely dressed up; the child was crying. People were people, not animals. And I thought: “Paradise must look like this!” I forgot already how normal people look like, how they act, how they speak, how they dress. I saw the sun in Auschwitz, I saw the sun come up, because we had to get up at four in the morning. But it was never beautiful to me. I never saw it shine. It was just the beginning of a horrible day. And in the evening, the end – of what? But here there was life, and I had such yearning, I still feel it in my bones. I had such yearning, to live, to run, to just run away and never come back – to run to the end where there is no way back. And I told the girls, I said, “Girls, you have no idea how beautiful the sun is, and I saw a baby crying and a woman was kissing that baby – is there such a thing as love?”

In the Gospel of St. Luke, we read the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. In this story, Jesus tells of two men, the beggar Lazarus who sat at the gates of the rich man’s house, who died and was comforted in the bosom of Abraham. The Rich Man soon died as well, only he was consigned to a place of torment. He could see Lazarus embraced by Abraham and asked for consolation. He didn’t receive any. The above is a horrid, wicked reversal of that story: Edith P. is consigned to a place of torment from which there is no escape, while the comfortable Germans go about their lives, including loving their children, having the privilege of seeing the sun actually shine, oblivious to the hellish existence that is mere feet from them. I can imagine few tortures more awful than this particular moment when Edith P. caught a glimpse of life outside the camp, had a momentary yearning that is always with her, then wondered aloud if love really existed .

The Nazis created an infernal eternity with their industry of death. Those who entered the camps understood they were the raw material to be forged in to the final product: millions upon millions of corpses. That some few somehow avoided that fate creates a dual reality for them. They are always there, never to escape the death that awaits them on the other side of this grim assembly line. That they have escaped never relieves them of this knowledge. They cannot escape because these places and times are no-place and no-time. We who hear and read the testimonies of survivors are not so much invited to join them as we are pulled against our will to stand with them, feel the cold and constant hunger, the stink of shit and death that can never be washed from our skin, the absence of any emotion save the most base need to survive, a need that is never satisfied, even decades after they have been “liberated” and live on, having jobs and families and lives. That is the deepest horror and the deepest truth of hell: that those trapped within its gates are there, have always been there, and always will be there.

 

Holocaust Testimonies II(a): Nothing Can Prepare You

The anus mundi was the habitat of the Devil. If ever [human beings] successfully created such a habitat on earth, it was at Auschwitz.

Only at the anus mundi could the Jew as deicide, betrayer, and incarnate Devil be turned into the feces of the world. – Richard J. Rubenstein, “Religion and the Origins of the Death Camps: A Psychoanalytic Interpretation,” in After Auschwitz: Radical Theology and Contemporary Judaism, p.32

I usually try to provide a photograph that creates an atmosphere for what I’m writing. For this post, however, I have chosen only to link to two distinct photos. First, there’s this photograph of “the last Jew in Vinnytsia,” in his last second of life. Few images capture the bleak reality of the horrors individuals lived when faced by Nazi terror. Not only is this the last Jewish person in this small Ukranian town; he is kneeling at a pit filled with the corpses of his friends, his family, his co-workers. Knowing he is the last, he gazes at the camera with something like a plea: Please remember me. Considering the Holocaust on any level, we should always begin with the individuals who faced the machinery of death powerless, alone, understanding the fate that was theirs no matter what they did.

The other image is a pile or corpses at Majdanek. If the truly human predicament of the millions can be seen in the final moments of the life of one man, the results of years of dehumanization, increased restrictions on civil rights, and finally a desire to eradicate European Jews wherever they might be can only be understood when we sit and look at the images of corpses, barely recognizable as human, and consider what any of this means.

As Lawrence Langer notes in the first chapter of Holocaust Testimonies, the search for meaning, like every other attempt to grasp the events of the murder of European Judaism, is useless. There is no moral lesson. There are no heroes or villains; rare moments of true humanity can turn just as quickly to murder, making even those gestures of solidarity we consider part of the armory of weapons human beings have in their fight against evil not only meaningless but actually antithetical to survival.

Written accounts of victim experience prod the imagination in ways that speech cannot, striving for analogies to initiate the reader into the particularities of their grim world. This literature faces a special challenge, since it must give most readers access to a totally unfamiliar subject. When searchlights at Auschwitz are said to lick the sky like “flaming rainbows,” we are invited to use this simile as a ticket of entry to the bizarre deathcamp landscape. The singular inappropriateness of an image of natural beauty, symbolizing good fortune and joy, to describe one’s arrival at Auschwitz underlines the difficult of finding a vocabulary of comparison for such an incomparable atrocity.(pp.18-19)

Nothing at all really prepares anyone for what they will see and hear encountering evidence of the Holocaust. That is why Langer insists that, just as reading fantastic fiction requires a willful suspension of disbelief, so, too, does reading and hearing the testimonies of those who witnessed these events as victims. Part of the suspension includes a most-necessary silencing of our usual, all-too-quick need to understand the actions of survivors under traditional moral and humanistic categories. Even the landscape of death and unreality had, for many victims, a sense of familiarity that those of us who have not lived it cannot – truly – fathom, except perhaps through an extreme effort of imagination.

One [survivor] reports that when he was first brought into a crematorium area with a work detail, he did not flinch at the pules of bodies because every day in the Lodz ghetto, from which he had been deported to the deathcamp, he had seen dozens of corpses strewn about the streets. What might seem like fantasy to us became a sign of “ordinary” reality for him, so he could make the adjustment enabling him to accept this “abnormality” as part of his normal daily routine.(p.22)

If this diabolical background can become commonplace, and can be understood by we witnesses to these testimonies as really becoming so, it still takes an effort to set aside our preference for morality tales.

Expecting to encounter heroes and heroines, we meet only decent men and women, constrained by circumstances, reluctantly, to abandon roles that we as audience expect (and need) to find ingrained in their natures. Ideally, for example, even in the camps you honored the sanctity of your fellow prisoner’s bread ration, often literally the staff of life. But in practice, as these testimonies constantly remind us, starvation and moral sentiment were uneasy bedfellows. A gesture of generosity from the world of the “normal” might momentarily kindle the despondent spirit, but the starved stomach sought other nourishment. One of the most difficult truths for the outside to grasp is the moral and physical havoc wrought on conscientious human beings by hunger’s ceaseless tyranny.(p.25)

This persistent upending of our usual sense of expectation requires a depth of feeling and honest willingness to hear what is being said as a once-lived reality, rather than something either edifying or not for future generations to grasp.

Audiences have little difficult dealing with heroic gestures where the agent is in control of the choice – episodes of sharing and support and even of self-sacrifice, all of which occurred in rare favorable circumstances in the usually hostile camp environment. Such gestures feed the legends on which the myths of civilizations have been built. But few witnesses mention them in their testimony, where, unflattering as it may sound, spiritual possibility turns out to be a luxury for those not on the brink of starvation. To understand and to sympathize with unheroic gestures . . ., withholding endorsement or blame but finding instead an admissible frame for them in the moral discourse of our culture – this is one of the burdensome but crucial challenges that still lie before us . . . .(pp.26-27)

Even the most important bonds, the ones we hold up as inviolable, become a burden in a situation in which all the ways we think human beings do and should act no longer apply.

Anna G., for instance, recalling a scene on the ramp at Auschwitz upon her arrival there, relates it to her own life much later, during the postwar period of “normalcy”, suggesting how hopeless is the quest for total immunity from the original ordeal. She tells of a ten-year-old girl who refused to go to the “left” (toward death) after the selection. (earlier she had explained that the members of her transport from Plaszow, having experienced many “selections” there, had learned to dear their meaning.) Kicking and scratching, the young girl was seized by three SS men who held her down while she screamed to her nearby mother that she shouldn’t let them kill her. According to Anna G. one of the SS men approached the mother, who was only in her late twenties, and asked her if she wanted to go with her daughter. “No,” the mother replied . . . .

Hell, they say, is the absence of God. The world of the ghetto and death camp, the slave labor factory and the local community overrun by the Einsatzgruppen, God was indeed absent. As Dostoevsky noted, everything was permissible. The corpses that were the final product were sped along their way not only by the removal of any restraints on human behavior among those in control; when real human choice, our normal moral universe, even the bonds of parent and child, no longer apply, we know we have entered a Universe where sense is no-sense, where terror is the commonplace backdrop, and both the rational and temporal sequence of events, of cause and effect, no longer exist.

Nothing really prepares a person for entering Hell. It is here, however, I must go, listening to the voices of those who made it through the Pit to the other side.