Monday, August 17, 2020

I couldn’t manage without anesthesia/ The Reader - by Bernhard Schlink

...the doctor was not ready to let me go back to school, I was bored stiff with books after months of reading, and although friends still came to see me, I had been sick for so long that their visits could no longer bridge the gap between their daily lives and mine, and became shorter and shorter.

Being ill when you are a child or growing up is such an enchanted interlude! The outside world, the world of free time in the yard or the garden or on the street, is only a distant murmur in the sickroom. Inside, a whole world of characters and stories proliferates out of the books you read. The fever that weakens your perception as it sharpens your imagination turns the sickroom into someplace new, both familiar and strange; monsters come grinning out of the patterns on the curtains and the carpet, and chairs, tables, bookcases, and wardrobes burst out of their normal shapes and become mountains and buildings and ships you can almost touch although they’re far away. Through the long hours of the night you have the church clock for company and the rumble of the occasional passing car that throws its headlights across the walls and ceiling. These are hours without sleep, which is not to say that they’re sleepless, because on the contrary, they’re not about lack of anything, they’re rich and full. Desires, memories, fears, passions form labyrinths in which we lose and find and then lose ourselves again. They are hours when anything is possible, good or bad.
This passes as you get better. But if the illness has lasted long enough, the sickroom is impregnated with it and although you’re convalescing and the fever has gone, you are still trapped in the labyrinth.

In school I was neither good nor bad; I think that many of the teachers didn’t really notice me, nor did the students who dominated the class. I didn’t like the way I looked, the way I dressed and moved, what I achieved and what I felt I was worth. But there was so much energy in me, such belief that one day I’d be handsome and clever and superior and admired, such anticipation when I met new people and new situations. Is that what makes me sad? The eagerness and belief that filled me then and exacted a pledge from life that life could never fulfill? Sometimes I see the same eagerness and belief in the faces of children and teenagers and the sight brings back the same sadness I feel in remembering myself.

I asked her about her life, and it was as if she rummaged around in a dusty chest to get me the answers. She had grown up in a German community in Romania, then come to Berlin at the age of sixteen, taken a job at the Siemens factory, and ended up in the army at twenty-one.

As the days grew longer, I read longer, so that I could be in bed with her in the twilight. When she had fallen asleep lying on me, and the saw in the yard was quiet, and a blackbird was singing as the colors of things in the kitchen dimmed until nothing remained of them but lighter and darker shades of gray, I was completely happy.

We set off on Easter Monday. The sun was shining and went on shining for four days. The mornings were cool and then the days warmed up, not too warm for cycling, but warm enough to have picnics. The woods were carpets of green, with yellow green, bright green, bottle green, blue green, and black green daubs, flecks, and patches. In the flat-lands along the Rhine, the first fruit trees were already in bloom. In Odenwald the first forsythias were out.

At home none of us cried like that. We didn’t hit, not even with our hands, let alone a leather belt. We talked.

Never to let myself be humiliated or humiliate myself after Hanna, never to take guilt upon myself or feel guilty, never again to love anyone whom it would hurt to lose—I didn’t formulate any of this as I thought back then, but I know that’s how I felt.

I remember my grandfather during one of my last visits before his death; he wanted to bless me, and I told him I didn’t believe in any of that and didn’t want it. It is hard for me to imagine that I felt good about behaving like that. I also remember that the smallest gesture of affection would bring a lump to my throat, whether it was directed at me or at someone else. Sometimes all it took was a scene in a movie. This juxtaposition of callousness and extreme sensitivity seemed suspicious even to me.

What is law? Is it what is on the books, or what is actually enacted and obeyed in a society? Or is law what must be enacted and obeyed, whether or not it is on the books, if things are to go right? The professor, an old gentleman who had returned from exile but remained an outsider among German legal scholars, participated in these debates with all the force of his scholarship, and yet at the same time with a detachment that no longer relied on pure scholarship to provide the solution to a problem. “Look at the defendants—you won’t find a single one who really believes he had the dispensation to murder back then.”

We were the students of the camps. (...) What we were doing didn’t interest the others; it alienated many of them, literally repelled some. When I think about it now, I think that our eagerness to assimilate the horrors and our desire to make everyone else aware of them was in fact repulsive. The more horrible the events about which we read and heard, the more certain we became of our responsibility to enlighten and accuse. Even when the facts took our breath away, we held them up triumphantly. Look at this!
[//animal rights & other radical civil activists]

The court was in a turn-of-the-century building, but devoid of the gloomy pomposity so characteristic of court buildings of the time.

Who had given me the injection? Had I done it myself, because I couldn’t manage without anesthesia? The anesthetic functioned not only in the courtroom, and not only to allow me to see Hanna as if it was someone else who had loved and desired her, someone I knew well but who wasn’t me. In every part of my life, too, I stood outside myself and watched; I saw myself functioning at the university, with my parents and brother and sister and my friends, but inwardly I felt no involvement.
After a time I thought I could detect a similar numbness in other people.

The other students kept being horrified all over again. They only came to the trial once a week, and each time the same thing happened: the intrusion of horror into daily life. I, who was in court every day, observed their reactions with detachment.

It was like being a prisoner in the death camps who survives month after month and becomes accustomed to the life, while he registers with an objective eye the horror of the new arrivals: registers it with the same numbness that he brings to the murders and deaths themselves. All survivor literature talks about this numbness, in which life’s functions are reduced to a minimum, behavior becomes completely selfish and indifferent to others, and gassing and burning are everyday occurrences.

“Did you not know that you were sending the prisoners to their death?”
“Yes, but the new ones came, and the old ones had to make room for the new ones.”
“So because you wanted to make room, you said you and you and you have to be sent back to be killed?”
Hanna didn’t understand what the presiding judge was getting at.
“I... I mean ... so what would you have done?”

“Yes, she had favorites, always one of the young ones who was weak and delicate, and she took them under her wing and made sure that they didn’t have to work, got them better barracks space and took care of them and fed them better, and in the evenings she had them brought to her. And the girls were never allowed to say what she did with them in the evening, and we assumed she was... also because f they all ended up on the transports, as if she had had her fun with them and then had got bored. But it wasn’t like that at all, and one day one of them finally talked, and we learned that the girls read aloud to her, evening after evening after evening. That was better than if they... and better than working themselves to death on the building site. I must have thought it was better, or I couldn’t have forgotten it. But was it better?”

Had she talked herself into a corner at the trial for the same reason? Because she couldn’t read the daughter’s book or the indictment, couldn’t see the openings that would allow her to build a defense, and thus could not prepare herself accordingly? Was that why she sent her chosen wards to Auschwitz? To silence them in case they had noticed something? And was that why she always chose the weak ones in the first place?
Was that why? I could understand that she was ashamed at not being able to read or write, and would rather drive me away than expose herself. I was no stranger to shame as the cause of behavior that was deviant or defensive, secretive or misleading or hurtful. But could Hanna’s shame at being illiterate be sufficient reason for her behavior at the trial or in the camp? To accept exposure as a criminal for fear of being exposed as an illiterate? To commit crimes to avoid the same thing?

But was it really worth all that? What did she gain from this false self-image which ensnared her and crippled her and paralyzed her? With the energy she put into maintaining the lie, she could have learned to read and write long ago.

“Don’t you remember how furious you would get as a little boy when Mama knew better what was good for you? Even how far one can act like this with children is a real problem. It is a philosophical problem, but philosophy does not concern itself with children. It leaves them to pedagogy, where they’re not in very good hands. Philosophy has forgotten about children.” He smiled at me. “Forgotten them forever, not just sometimes, the way I forget about you.”
“But...”
“But with adults I see absolutely no justification for setting other people’s views of what is good for them above their own ideas of what is good for themselves.”
“Not even if they themselves are happy about it later?”
He shook his head. “We’re not talking about happiness, we’re talking about dignity and freedom. Even as a little boy, you knew the difference. It was no comfort to you that your mother was always right.”

“I haven’t been able to help you... As a philosopher, I mean, which is how you were addressing me. As your father, I find the experience of not being able to help my children almost unbearable.”

When I think today about those years, I realize how little direct observation there actually was, how few photographs that made life and murder in the camps real. We knew the gate of Auschwitz with its inscription, the stacked wooden bunks, the piles of hair and spectacles and suitcases; we knew the building that formed the entrance to Birkenau with the tower, the two wings, and the entry way for the trains, and from Bergen-Belsen the mountains of corpses found and photographed by the Allies at the liberation. We were familiar with some of the testimony of prisoners, but many of them were published soon after the war and not reissued until the 1980s, and in the intervening years they disappeared from publishers’ lists. Today there are so many books and films that the world of the camps is part of our collective imagination and completes our ordinary everyday one. Our imagination knows its way around in it, and since the television series “Holocaust” and movies like “Sophie’s Choice” and especially “Schindler's List”, actually moves in it, not just registering, but supplementing and embellishing it. Back then, the imagination was almost static: the shattering fact of the world of the camps seemed properly beyond its operations. The few images derived from Allied photographs and the testimony of survivors flashed on the mind again and again, until they froze into clichés.

I wanted to pose myself both tasks—understanding and condemnation. But it was impossible to do both.

It was a slow rush-hour train that stopped at every station; people got on and off. I sat at the window, surrounded by ever-changing passengers, conversations, smells. Outside, houses passed by, and roads, cars, trees, distant mountains, castles, and quarries. I took it all in and felt nothing. I was no longer upset at having been left, deceived, and used by Hanna. I no longer had to meddle with her. I felt the numbness with which I had followed the horrors of the trial settling over the emotions and thoughts of the past few weeks. It would be too much to say I was happy about this. But I felt it was right. It allowed me to return to and continue to live my everyday life.

Prosecution seemed to me as grotesque a simplification as defense, and judging was the most grotesque oversimplification of all. Nor could I see myself as an administrative official; I had worked at a local government office during my training, and found its rooms, corridors, smells, and employees gray, sterile, and dreary.

…I was working on the legal codes and drafts of the Enlightenment. They were based on the belief that a good order is intrinsic to the world, and that therefore the world can be brought into good order. To see how legal provisions were created paragraph by paragraph out of this belief as solemn guardians of this good order, and worked into laws that strove for beauty and by their very beauty for truth, made me happy. For a long time I believed that there was progress in the history of law, a development towards greater beauty and truth, rationality and humanity, despite terrible setbacks and retreats. Once it became clear to me that this belief was a chimera, I began playing with a different image of the course of legal history.

Precisely because she was both close and removed in such an easy way, I didn’t want to visit her. I had the feeling she could only be what she was to me at an actual distance. I was afraid that the small, light, safe world of notes and cassettes was too artificial and too vulnerable to withstand actual closeness.

I accused her, and found it both shabby and too easy, the way she had wriggled out of her guilt. Allowing no one but the dead to demand an accounting, reducing guilt and atonement to insomnia and bad feelings—where did that leave the living? But what I meant was not the living, it was me. Did I not have my own accounting to demand of her? What about me?

I woke up and knew that Hanna was dead. I also knew that my desire had fixed on her without her being its object. It was the desire to come home.

“When I was fifteen, we had a relationship.”
“You mean you slept together?”
“Yes.”
That woman was truly brutal... did you ever get over the fact that you were only fifteen when she... No, you said yourself that you began reading to her again when she was in prison. Did you ever get married?”
I nodded.
“And the marriage was short and unhappy, and you never married again, and the child, if there is one, is in boarding school.”
“That’s true of thousands of people, it doesn’t take a Frau Schmitz.”
Did you ever feel, when you had contact with her in those last years, that she knew what she had done to you?”

Sometimes I asked myself if I was responsible for her death. And sometimes I was in a rage at her and at what she had done to me. Until finally the rage faded and the questions ceased to matter. Whatever I had done or not done, whatever she had done or not to me—it was the path my life had taken.

…if something hurts me, the hurts I suffered back then come back to me, and when I feel guilty, the feelings of guilt return; if I yearn for something today, or feel homesick, I feel the yearnings and homesickness from back then. The tectonic layers of our lives rest so tightly one on top of the other that we always come up against earlier events in later ones, not as matter that has been fully formed and pushed aside, but absolutely present and alive.

The Reader - by Bernhard Schlink, 
Carol Brown Janeway (Translator)

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