Friday, September 16, 2011

Death of the Adversary

"The papers published in this volume were given to me some time after the war by a Dutch lawyer in Amersterdam."

So begins Death of the Adversary.

The narrator asks some questions but the Dutch lawyer is evasive.  We learn the papers are written in German. A page and a half later, we're reading the papers themselves.

"For days and weeks now I have thought of nothing but death.  Though I am normally a late riser, I get up early every morning now, calm and uplifted, after a night of dreamless sleep." 
I was having trouble at this point, but the book was supposed to be a masterpiece.  My mother had alerted me to an LA Times obituary of the author Hans Keilson who died this past June at age 101.   
"Hans Keilson was a newly minted physician in the mid-1930s when the persecution began. As a Jew in Hitler's Germany, he was stripped of the right to practice medicine. A writer, he soon lost that identity too: His autobiographical first novel was pulped soon after it was released because of a Nazi ban on Jewish writers.
"He fled to the Netherlands, where he wrote the beginnings of two more novels and buried the pages in his garden. After the war's end, in 1945, he dug them up and finished them. "Comedy in a Minor Key," a darkly humorous story set in Nazi-occupied Holland, was published in Germany in 1947, the same year as Anne Frank's diary. The second, more philosophical work, "The Death of the Adversary," earned enthusiastic reviews when it was published in America in 1962.
"That was the last that American audiences heard of Keilson — until last year. After five decades of literary obscurity, he landed on bestseller lists when both books were published again. It was a miracle of literary reclamation all the more remarkable because the long-forgotten author had lived long enough to witness his rediscovery."
Fortunately, Loussac had a copy.  The book is about a man whose life is dominated by his enemy whom he learns about overhearing his parents talking.
My enemy - I refer to him as B. - entered my life about twenty years ago.  At that time I had only a very vague idea of what it meant to be someone's enemy;  still less did I realize what it was to have an enemy.  One has to mature gradually towards one's enemy as towards one's best friend.

I frequently heard Father and Mother talk about this subject, mostly in the secretive, whispering voice of grown-ups who do not want the children to hear.  A new kind of intimacy informed their words.  They were talking in order to hide something.  But children quickly learn to divine the secrets and fears of their elders, and to grow up towards them.  My father said:

"If B. should ever come to power, may God have mercy on us.  Then things will start to happen."
My mother replied more quietly, "Who knows, perhaps everything will come out quite differently.  He's not all that important, yet."

This book mixes abstract ideas of the nature of 'the enemy' and the relationship between adversaries and very concrete detailed incidents as he grows up and learns more about the enemy.  He's excluded by classmates, he meets others with the same enemy,  he runs into the enemy in the flesh on two occasions. 

He never mentions Hitler or Jews by name.  It's all sort of vague.  It took a while for me, reading it, to figure out this was not some personal family adversary.

At the end, when the narrator is returning the papers to the Dutch lawyer who says,
"I received them from the author with the assurance that they contained not a single word that could endanger me, if I kept them."
"Did you believe him?"
"In the beginning, yes, but that was before I had read them.  Later I did read them."
"And then?"
"Then I buried them. . ."

What struck me throughout wes the wrestling of the narrator of the text (rather than the narrator of the intro) with his relationship with the adversary.  First it was understanding what it meant to have an adversary.  Then there was the denial of the serious impact the adversary would have on his life.  Here's an example of fellow victim of the adversary who feels he's being too complacent:
"At bottom you know as well as I where you belong, nor do I believe that you are rebelling against it.  That's not what worries you.  What you're after is something impossible:  you are trying to plaster up the crack that runs through this world, so that it becomes invisible;  then, perhaps, you'll think that it doesn't exist any more.  You are right in the centre of a happening and are trying to render an account of it to yourself, and at the same time to alter the situation so as to allow you to extricate yourself from it with a single leap and to look at it from the point of view of the man in the moon.  You're trying to look at something that concerns you as though it both concerned and did not concern you.  Am I right?"
Today we are all struggling with the adversary.  People are denying reality, trying to either maintain their life as it has always been, or trying to analyze it abstractly and objectively.  We do this with the crashing economy.  We do this with politics.   Some take things seriously and act.  Others carry on as though  things will just pass. Jews in Nazi Germany - the most scientifically and  technically advanced nation in the world at the time - responded in many different ways.  Some realized the danger and got out if they could.  Others thought it would pass and things would return to normal.    The book gives a very intense, and from what I can tell, pretty much contemporary account of the mental processes people struggled with. 
"Self-deception is the pleasantest form of lying.  It is a panacea for all personal ills and injuries, it can heal even metaphysical wounds.  The experience with my friend had been a hard blow, of course, [A good friend had declared his allegiance to the enemy and their friendship ended] but it had not brought me to my knees.  On the contrary.  This first and severe disappointment had strengthened me and prepared me for all the future ones.  I no longer confronted them unprepared.  Had my loss not brought me a gain, or was this the beginning of self-deception?"

I think this is an eternal dilemma.  How does one know when there is imminent and serious danger and when it's no big deal?  While Tea Party members seem to be certain they must act now, and ruthlessly, to prevent the US from collapse, so too there are those who see the Tea Party as being manipulated by rich conspirators who are the greatest threat to American democracy.

And in the land that Keilson wrote about there was a similar sort of dichotomy.  Many Germans were spellbound by Hitler's charisma and demonizing of Jews, Socialists, and others.  It wasn't till many people died - not just those who died in concentration camps, but also those who died on the battlefield - that the bubble burst and they recognized they had been deceived.  Though there were many who continued (continue) to believe in Hitler. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments will be reviewed, not for content (except ads), but for style. Comments with personal insults, rambling tirades, and significant repetition will be deleted. Ads disguised as comments, unless closely related to the post and of value to readers (my call) will be deleted. Click here to learn to put links in your comment.