Friday, August 18, 2006

Watch Them Preen

I probably shouldn't care what an contemporary American novelist has to say about anything. Save a few spectacular exceptions, they are among the most myopic and witless creatures our country produces. Only the humanities professors upon whom their reputations feed are more likely to express the kind of mind-numbing moral confusion that John Irving does today in the Guardian.

How do I feel about what Kurt Vonnegut would describe as a "shit storm" of nationalist babbling in the German media, in the wake of my friend Gunter Grass's revelation that he was drafted into the Waffen SS at the age of 17? From what I have read of the editorials, and the lofty remarks of my fellow writers, critics, and journalists of various political persuasions, there has been a predictably sanctimonious dismantling of Grass's life and work from the oh so cowardly standpoint of hindsight, from which so many so-called intellectuals safely take aim at their targets.

Grass remains a hero to me, both as a writer and as a moral compass; his courage, both as a writer and as a citizen of Germany, is exemplary - a courage heightened, not lessened, by his most recent revelation.

This last point is slightly deranged. Courage requires at least a risk of a sacrifice. Grass, now in his dotage, waited until the last possible moment to admit his role in the war. He accepted all the praise and all the acclaim for his moral vision, and rather than risk all the benefits of his reputation he held his tongue. It can perhaps be said that it took courage for him to admit his role in the war at all, but it is simply counterfactual to say that it is more courageous of him to admit that role now rather than when it would have cost him much, much more.
Grass enlisted at 15; he has said he volunteered mainly "to get away". I wonder if any of his critics truly remember themselves at 15. He had volunteered for the submarines, but in the last months of the war the Waffen SS were taking anyone they could get. I do not judge what 17-year-olds volunteer for - short of premeditated rape and murder.

Signing up for the Waffen SS was as close to signing up for premeditated rape and murder as one could come. And there were at least a few German young people who did know better.

Irving follows that notion with a comparison of the Waffen SS to the American military in Vietnam, a comparison that is inapposite for all but the most dedicated members of the left wing fever swamp.
Now there is all this bitching in Germany about when Grass chose to reveal his Waffen SS enlistment as a teenager! The man (and the writer) is a model of soul-searching and national conscience. People are saying he deliberately withheld this information until after he won the Nobel prize for literature, because he would never have won the prize if it were known he'd been in the SS.

A dishonest change of subject -- it is not merely the enlistment, but the fact he hid that enlistment while preening about Germany's need to confront its past.
(If it is true that the Nobel committee would not have given the prize to him under those circumstances, then the committee should do some soul-searching of its own - I thought it was an award for literature, not political correctness.)

I love how the left turns the phrase "political correctness" around: it applies to the incessant carping from the left about what whole classes of people are allowed to think and say. It has nothing to do with coming to a judgment about the things an actual individual has actually done.
And some people are saying that Grass chose to time his revelation to sell copies of his new autobiography.

heard that when I talked openly about my sexual experience as an 11-year-old with an older woman - that I was just selling books.

It sounds to me like Irving was bragging, and is using this opportunity to remind us all of his former potency. This is another inappropriate analogy: Irving didn't build his reputation on retaining one's virginity until adulthood the way Grass built his on having the courage to confront the past.
How naive do critics and journalists think real readers of complicated fiction are? Grass and I aren't running out of readers. The fulminating in the German media has been obnoxious. Grass is a daring writer, and he has always been a daring man. Was he not putting himself at risk - first at 15, then at 17? And now, once again, at age 79? And, once again, the cowardly small dogs are snapping at his heels.

How many of those cowardly small dogs joined an organization like the SS in the first place, and how many wait six decades between acts of courage?
It was another German novelist of distinction, Thomas Mann, who wrote about a well-known writer's "vulnerability to mean disdain and spiteful abuse ... no matter how plainly such abuse is impelled by private rancours". Mann added that "enemies are the necessary concomitant to any robust life ... often the very proof of our strength".

A definition of enemies as people who criticize you for your choices can only come from the mind of a complete narcissist. Poor writerly John Irving, poor writerly Gunter Grass, having to suffer the existence of people who dare to criticize their writerly souls. If the people who read their work so displeases them, then perhaps they can take another German writer's advice and elect a new people.

The Waffen SS was not an ordinary military force, and the reason we might forgive an adult for having joined that organization is directly related to that adult's willingness to admit his actions. That he lied about his choices indicates that Grass never really came to terms with Germany's past and his own. His reputation is based on his persuasive hectoring of Germany and the west on the subject of war and history, yet he did not have the courage to admit his own role in that history. Having disowned his past, he may as well have not even lived. His moral imagination is no more worthy of trust than that of an inexperienced college student.

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