Tag Archives: Nazis

Giving Reality a Relief

To find  trees where there are none, or something where it shouldn’t be, such as a hat off a head in one shot but on again in the next, are, as it were, cracks in the wall through which poetry can penetrate. Those who notice such spelling mistakes are the real illiterates and cannot be moved by fantasy anyhow. Such details have no importance. 
—Jean Cocteau, Diary of a Film (50).

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Still from the filming of La Belle et La Bête.

Jean Cocteau’s book Diary of a Film is a lovely little look into the process of making a film. His diary documents the making of the 1946 film La Belle et La Bête. A friend had wanted me to read the book, so I decided I’d better see the film first. The film is fabulous. Not just fabulous as in ‘wonderful,’ but, as my desktop dictionary gives the etymology: Latin fabulosus ‘celebrated in fable,’ from fabula. It is both kinds of fabulous. The artistic conception of the sets and costumes are a wonder, and the earnestness with which the earnest tale is told is nearly flawless (there was one scene which caused an outburst of mocking laughter in me, but I didn’t mind, and in fact enjoyed, the hearty laugh).  

But for all that, I’d be mad if I forgot that bad luck has always run through  my life, and that it always has been and always will be, a sheer struggle (77).

“Bad luck” is a serious understatement. Never mind the post-war equipment problems and chronic “current” spasms (in my translation when there was a power outage it was said that they lost ‘current’—and that was pretty much daily). No—it was health issues that seriously beset Cocteau and crew. The leading man suffered boils, the leading woman—feverish illnesses, co-stars—various maladies including a fractured hip, and Cocteau…oh dear man—carbuncles, shingles, fevers, face rashes, eczema, and then this gem on page 189: “Have got jaundice. Yes, that was about all that was missing!” It’s a medical miracle they finished the project. Meanwhile:

Nuremberg trial. The two-and two-make-four’s are judging the two-and-two-make-five’s or even twenty-two (158).

Cocteau is a marvel of succinct truth and he is eminently quotable. Does the above quote not perfectly describe many of our current politician’s logic? And yet….This past summer I bought a wonderful book (it’s a rare occurance for me to actually purchase a book as I neither have room to house books nor discretionary money to spare—but, je ne regrette rien). I haven’t finished it, but this is why I bought it—I knew I would want to take my time with it. (It is in alphabetical order—I’m up to the F’s.) Written by Clive James, Cultural Amnesia is a series of essays (over one hundred) on the heros, villains, and fascinating figures of the twentieth century. Cocteau naturally rates.  And yet, while more than acknowledging Cocteau’s artistic achievements, James, as is his style, does not give Cocteau a pass regarding his questionable forbearance regarding the Nazi occupation of France.

While not exactly despicable—nobody died because of him—his behavior was not admirable (James 131).

Cocteau did not merely stay silent, he was an “air-kissing” attendee of Nazi cocktail parties. I read this essay before I saw La Belle et La Bête and, of course before reading Diary of a Film, but I had to re-read it after the two because….oh man. People are complex and flawed, I know. And—I have children! and I know enough about the Nazi’s and their ilk to know that I can’t say for sure how I would behave—those folks don’t fuck around, they don’t simply murder you! no, they will murder your son, daughter and goldfish too—and that is terrifying. We can not be in Cocteau’s mind, we can not know what aspect of his life allowed or forced his recurring attendance at these Nazi fêtes. All we can know is that we hope we would not. And we hope we will never be faced with the prospect.

I went off to R. in despair of ever finding perfection that can survive its difficulties. It’s always just beyond one’s reach. Sometimes one can almost touch it. But something is lacking (Cocteau 86).

*Title from p. 57: “In films a trick shot is often much more convincing than the real thing, and besides, it gives reality some relief.”

 

 

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Live Without Appeal

The only question for us was whether  or not to accept a world in which there was no choice possible save whether to be victim or executioner (Albert Camus quoted 271). 
– Sean B. Carroll, Brave Genius

IMG_2405It is difficult to assign a genre to Sean Carroll’s book Brave Genius. Ostensibly about the friendship between Albert Camus and Jaques Monad, like life, the book is quite a bit more complex, enormous, and interlaced than the simple premise would suggest.

Camus, famously, was the moral voice of an amoral age, writing anonymously for the French Resistance paper Combat during the Nazi occupation, he also wrote his manifesto, Myth of Sisyphus during that time. I find that astounding. But I suppose it really underlines the message of his profound essay – the revolt is against the absurdity of the world, the revolt is actively rejecting the blinding  copout of ideology or suicide – to live! to feel joy or pain, but to feel! To be authentic to the vitality, the humanity, the passion – to the only thing we have – life.

Jacques Monad was a Resistance fighter, and Carroll gives an account of those years with frightening clarity. The terror is palatable. But Monad was also a biologist trying to understand, through science, the same questions Camus was deeply engaged in – what is the meaning of life – what is life? Monad would go on to discover what happens in between DNA and the creation of protein, and he too would win a Nobel Prize for his contributions to humanity through his work.

Monad admitted that, of course, “this fundamental scientific result is also the most unacceptable” to most people, as it overturns all previous, long-cherished notions of human’s special significance in the universe (487).

It is more than halfway into the book before Camus and Monad even meet, and by then their friendship is a logical conclusion of their individual work, perspectives and proximity… yes, the friendship was meaningful and true, but…it is the steadfastness of their humanity that is raison d’etre of their individual importance and importance to each other. The consideration of their bravery in the face of absurd cruelty and a devastatingly frightening  absence of kindness is profound and deeply moving. The book is really equal parts history, science, and philosophy. Carroll takes the near inevitable friendship between like-minded intellectuals as a baseline for what is really an exploration and history of all travellers on the same journey.

“We are living in nihilism….We shall not get out of it by pretending to ignore the evil of our time or by deciding to deny it. The only hope is to name it, on the contrary, and to inventory it to discover the cure for the disease…Let us recognize that this is a time for hope, even if it is a difficult hope” (267, Camus quoted) 

The confluence and yet beautifully related questions concerning the meaning of life, whether it be through philosophy , politics, science, or any other mode of thinking,  is at the heart of the book. None are possible without intellectual freedom and Carroll’s focus on the horrors of the infringement upon intellectual freedoms is the cris de coeur of the book.

In the act of refusal, the rebel thereby defines a value, a value that Camus alleged “transcends the individual, which removes him from his solitude” and thus joins him to others, and so establishes “the solidarity of man in the same adventure.”
The first philosophical secret of life for Camus was the recognition of the absurd condition. This instinct for positive rebellion–against death, oppression, suffering, or injustice– was the second secret of life, the path to humanity (308).

As much as Albert Camus was, and is,  an inspiration for all of the open-hearted and sincere populace, I have a feeling that this book was written to expose the truth that there are many amongst the true-hearted. Jacques Monad’s story is every bit as riveting and moving as Camus’ or any other of the countless unsung heroes of humanity. And yes, Monad is not exactly unsung, having won a Nobel Peace prize and what not, but still, Carroll’s purpose is to invigorate that which is universally graspable- freedom, and human dignity. The choice between executioner and victim is exactly the hell Monad and Camus gave their lives’ energy to combat. And yet…the world remains what it is…it is enough to make one weep in futile rage.

What Camus could not abide were ideologies that sacrificed life in the present, the one fundamental value above all, for some promise of future justice (310).

Brave Genius, while not really about a friendship per se,  makes the history, science, and humanitarian interest of that time so compelling that one hardly notices. It is simply inspiring that such people existed. Camus is well known, Monad less so, but there are many other heroic, beautiful people intertwined in the story and that is the moving heart and soul of this history. Good people existed then. They exist now. There has never yet been a system designed to put them down permanently. Never.

The question (and striking down) of adaptation (in enzymes) was key to Monad’s work, and in another way, Camus’ as well. To adapt to evil is true suicide. To adapt to fear and the fettering of intellectual freedom is the death of humanity. The acute crisis of WWII was horrific, but the chronic crisis of existence is another, and for Monad, Camus pointed a way out of the despair that the cosmos’s indifference or the scientific evidence of mere chance and necessity being the sole arbiters of all existence seemed to make inevitable. After all, what does any of that matter when we have life within us now?

In the middle of winter  I at last discovered that there was in me an invincible summer (322 Camus quoted from Return to Tipasa).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Waking Inclination

DSCI0016The Silent Angel by Heinrich Böll is a black and white dream. A clinging monochromatic oneiric post-war chill that is-  there is one word, and I hesitate to use it to describe this book because of its criminal overuse to describe thousands of books, but this should be among the first- one of the base line books worthy of the word- haunting.

The large, bold-faced R inside the red rectangle produced a fear in her that was gradually turning to nausea (24)

The nightmare begins with a certified postcard calling Hans up to duty. The mother’s reaction to that small white card with a blood red stamp on it, a bureaucratic horror marking the very end point of innocence, is skillfully rendered by Böll. It’s that sense of knowing: she can’t look at it, can’t even hold it in her hand, she knows that she doesn’t want to know, and yet, she knows that it’s too late because she already knows.

Böll skips the details of the war itself. After all what difference does it make? The same familiar blackened bits of humanity in varying degrees of guilt and innocence are all that’s left and are always the same.

He was sick of the whole thing, she’d know why – and she did know why. (22)

There is an unsubtle use of symbolism throughout the story:  the buying and selling of identities, blood, stone muted angels, the cold, decay, money: the smell of which he describes thusly, “– but it occurred to him that it was the smell of blood, the extremely diluted and refined smell of blood…” (115) And yet, more often, the overall effect is one of subtlety. The psychological divide between before and after is handled delicately by Böll. The conformity and hypocrisy of our lives is a malaise of immeasurable weight but, once held against the scale of truth rendered by abject destruction, the heft is revealed as pathetically flimsy.

He was tired; boredom and despair seemed to blend more intimately, a sluggish stream without end, whose bitterness was not sufficient to give it savor…” (112)

But it is the radical simplicity of love that is, I think, Böll’s meaning. All the societal niceties (and cruelties), all of the “accepted norms” that cause us to cower and hide ourselves away from what we feel and what we desire, once those instituted shackles fall away by the ravages of war, what are we left with? Love or hate? Happiness or fear? What’s left to savor?

Eating is an inexorable necessity that will pursue me throughout my life, he thought; he would have to eat daily for the next thirty or forty years, at least once a day. He was burdened with the thousands of meals he must somehow provide, a hopeless chain of necessity that filled him with fear. (123)

Hans understands in hindsight that his first marriage was born of expectation, fear, and polite reticence. There is a connection within a loveless marriage to the dread with which one is reduced to “eating to live,” rather than living in a world or society where life’s pleasures are ours to seize, ours to want.  When he meets Regina he has already been given his life back from a man’s sacrifice, Willy Gompertz, who provides the subplot (or counter-plot) of lives lived in fear and hate and who saw in Hans a man whom “want[s] to live.” Hans only needs to catch up to that insight. Böll beautifully shows Hans’ mental process of making the decision to feel:

He had accepted life, it was concentrated for him here; a brief span of infinity, filled with pain and happiness…” (131)

He makes an intellectual decision to connect to his heart and let himself experience the pain and happiness of desire, yes for a woman, but more, for it seems to me that the very birth of our empathic humanity is – to want to want.

He entered suddenly without knocking, went straight up to her, and kissed her on the mouth. He felt her soft, slightly moistened lips and saw that her eyes were open. (133)

*This was Böll’s first book written in 1950, but not published until 1992 in Germany, titled Der Engel schweig. Post-war Germany was not quite ready for the story, but Böll went on to write many books and win the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature. This edition was translated by Breon Mitchell.

Other books by Heinrich Boll:

18 Stories: Process of Elimination
What’s to Become of the Boy? : The Howling Void
Billiards at Half-Past Nine: Abscissa and Ordinate

Pessimism’s Cynosure

He no longer slept. His days were filled with aimless haste. In the evenings he would consider his pointless activity.
-Joseph Roth, The Spider’s Web (60)

DSCI0022In The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa there is a line that stuck itself in my memory: I’m not a pessimist, I’m sad. The German author, Joseph Roth on the other hand, at least based on the books I have read of his, is very much a pessimist. And never was pessimism so thoroughly justified as in the novella The Spider’s Web.

Theodore let them into the courtyard. Once in, they started shouting. They pushed against the walls, window panes tinkled pathetically. (49)

I found that sentence arresting. Here is one of the pinnacle moments of the story, when Theodore enjoys his act of “heroism” that his career publicly rests upon, and the window panes tinkle pathetically. The fragility of his persona, the silliness of ambition, and the depressing disgust of confronting such an odious man as Theodore is so completely expressed in those four words- it quite awes me.

He must not think too long. Reflection weakens decision. There is no time. (62)

I couldn’t help comparing Theodore to other contemptible men of literature while reading this book. Like Dosoyevsky’s Raskolnikov, Theodore is smart, but not so smart as to risk the reflection and contemplative philosophizing that is central to Crime and Punishment as well as to Raskolnikov’s final redemption. Yet, he is smarter and more power-hungry than Gorky’s protagonist in Life of a Useless Man, which makes him a lot scarier. The chilling combination of the historical time period of Germany, in the upward climb of Nazism, with a half-clever, ambitious sociopath is disturbing. The political atmosphere simply makes a riper ground for sprouting the ubiquitous depravity of human beings- speaking pessimistically, of course.

There are evenings, thought Theodore, when people must perforce be good, as if under a spell. (68)

Published in 1923, between wars, this book is a frightening bit of divination of the answer to- not so much:why, but, what?- what is the thought process of the truly hateful?

Roth creates the story with the rhythm and punctuation of the segments of a spider’s web. The sentences are short, concise, and well organized. The spider unthinkingly weaves his web, forgetting how vulnerable he really is, forgetting that there are one thousand and one more spiders ready to build on top of his stupid web at a moment’s opportunity. But Theodore won’t, can’t really, think about it. There’s no time.

Horribly awake, he saw all the events of the night before. He fought against them in vain. He tried to erase them. They simply had not taken place. He began to think of all sorts of unrelated matters. He conjugated a Greek verb. (13)

In this novel of betrayal, even one’s own mind is suspect.