Posts Tagged ‘judaism’

My inner tween is rolling his eyes and saying “Oh my Gooooooooooood this book wasn’t long enough.” It was published posthumously, so Lawrence may not have been done with it. More than half of this book feels like exposition, and once we get to the place where I feel like he is ready to get into the story it’s over.

The Virgin Protagonist is named Yvette. She grew up in this awful vicarage with a power-hungry grandmother and an overly judgmental aunt. Her mother ran off when she was young, so they keep throwing that in her face. Her father the rector is still in love with the woman he thought she was, so the aunt has to keep all her venom a secret, hissing at Yvette’s door when she’s almost asleep. Creepy.

Six young rebels, they sat very perkily in the car as they swished through the mud. Yet they had a peaked look too. After all, they had nothing really to rebel against, any of them. They were left so very free in their movements. Their parents let them do almost entirely as they liked. There wasn’t really a fetter to break, nor a prison-bar to file through, nor a bolt to shatter. The keys of their lives were in their own hands. And there they dangled inert.

She’s out with friends one winter day and they run across an encampment of Roma. The girls of the party have their palms read, and Yvette makes eye contact with one of the men. The grandmother tells her about a dark man who’s going to be important to her, and it really seems like she’s pushing Yvette into the arms of her married son. He doesn’t have a name until the last page, when Lawrence and Yvette suddenly realize that that may have been important. I’ve remarked on Lawrence’s unfortunate attitude toward ethnicity before, and here it’s at its worst. This man, mentioned in the title, enormously important in this girl’s life, and he’s just called the gipsy, because his ethnicity is the only important thing about him. He’s very sexy, he’s attracted to her, but. He’s rough trade, not someone you introduce to your parents unless he’s just selling copper pots.

In order to delay the inevitable, Lawrence has Yvette meet a disreputable couple from outside of town. He’s a beautiful young ex-army guy, and she’s a soon-to-be-divorced Jew. As with The Sexy Guy, her racial features are highlighted as her only distinguishing traits, and her racial otherness gives her the freedom to relax society’s strict code of sexual ethics. For Lawrence, you can do whatever you like so long as you’re not British. But wait, is the Jewish woman a citizen of the United Kingdom? Doesn’t matter. For persons whose ancestors come exclusively from northern Europe, country of origin is important. For others, not so much. Here in the United States, ethnic Jews and Roma are considered white, but Lawrence doesn’t treat them as such. He has to make them as different from the rectory family as he can, and racial characteristics are easy to focus on.

Lawrence is setting up an ideological contrast: the white English family is constricted by social codes, which they value more than freedom or life. Their law kills. The ethnically other characters reject and/or are rejected by society, but they have the freedom to do as they like. They are in touch with passion, the forces of life. Their anarchy brings life. I’m not saying this was the most culturally sensitive way to prove this point, like showing the value that minorities bring to society by perpetuating the stereotype that all Asians are good at math, but for the 1920s it was brave to cast these people as the goodies and the traditional British family as the baddies. In this book, Lawrence represents a step forward from where society had been, in terms of racial equality, but from where we are now, it’s a step back.

But, having read Lady Chatterley’s Lover, we have certain expectations regarding the representation of the sex act. The marketing for the book encourages these expectations: “The last and most provocative novel from the genius of D. H. Lawrence”, and “The minister’s daughter. Her father taught her about God. The gipsy taught her about Heaven.” But no. Just, no. She plays back and forth, will she act on her feelings for him, won’t she, but in the end she does nothing. The Roma are leaving town, and he comes back to say goodbye, even though they’re barely even friends. A flash flood tears through the valley where she lives, and he saves her by pulling her into the house. They run up to her room because it’s the most structurally sound. It’s February in northern England and they’ve been caught in a flood, so they have to guard against hypothermia, which they do by getting into bed naked together, but it’s not so much sexy as a medical emergency.

The vice-like grip of his arms round her seemed to her the only stable point in her consciousness. It was a fearful relief to her heart, which was strained to bursting. And though his body, wrapped round her strange and lithe and powerful, like tentacles, rippled with shuddering as an electric current, still the rigid tension of the muscles that held her clenched steadied them both, and gradually the sickening violence of the shuddering, caused by shock, abated, in his body first, then in hers, and the warmth revived between them. And as it roused, their tortured, semi-conscious minds became unconscious, they passed away into sleep.

Instead of having sex, they have a nap instead, and he’s gone before she wakes up. She finishes the book in many ways as much a virgin as she was at the beginning. The man himself, the act of making love with him, these concrete things are not important. It’s the abstractions that matter. He represents an ideal, a feeling that she wants to repeat and dedicate her life to. He wakes her up to the importance of love and sex, but he’s not the one to fulfill her desires. If one is inclined to read symbolically, the flash flood in a narrow valley could represent female sexual desire, or sexual fulfillment, but it’s dangerous, and could kill them both. The flood does destroy the house, so the rector’s family has to split up and move away for a time, so maybe Yvette’s sexual awakening is going to ruin her family as they fear, but the book ends before we see what happens. Lawrence suggests and gestures toward things instead of describing them explicitly.

If the book is provocative, or at any rate more provocative than Lady Chatterley, it’s in the representation of the church. This isn’t Scenes of Clerical Life where we see the private lives of pastors and their foibles that make them lovably human. Lawrence practically puts horns on Yvette’s father and claims that his religion is death. Life is in the mountains. It’s in nature, love, and sex. Abstaining from life-giving activities is a slow torture that leads to corruption of the self/soul and death. The respectable life of Yvette’s family is a form of voluntary pointless misery; she can choose not to perpetuate the unhappiness, but she has to choose to do it. We see her begin to choose life, but we don’t see the consequences; we don’t see her happier, freer life. I want this book to be only Act I, not the entire piece. Maybe she does move on, maybe she doesn’t. There’s so much indecision in Yvette’s character that I can’t say for sure what will happen now. But she’s begun, and that’s the important thing.

I think back over the men I was attracted to before I came out of the closet, celebrities, students, friends. I wasn’t ready for gay sex then, so any attempts would have ended in disaster. But seeing them, and especially seeing my response to them, taught me important things about myself. If Yvette were ready for sex, she would have taken that gypsy man without question. He’s definitely available. Even without consummation, she learns important things about herself: how she feels about her father’s house and relatives, what kind of man she finds attractive, and why she’s not attracted to the single men in her own social circle. When I look at this story as a reader who wants a repeat of that scene where Lady Chatterley and her husband’s gamekeeper do it doggy-style in the woods during a rainstorm, it seems like a lost opportunity. When I look at this story objectively, it’s probably the best thing that could have happened to her. Yvette is learning, but she’s not finished. When she’s older, when she’s ready, she’ll find a man to have sex with and I’m sure it will be lovely. Right now, she’s at a time of her life where near misses are enough.

This is the book I really intended to be reading this week. It’s short, but moves slowly. Philosophers tend to write very densely. I imagine that they spend a lot of time thinking and talking about ideas but little time thinking about how to express them clearly. This essay explains concepts at the end that it discusses at the beginning as if the reader already understands them; it’s all very recursive. This is characteristic of academic writing in some countries, but not in mine. When academics from Spanish-speaking countries, for example, move here, they have to completely re-learn how to write an essay.

I was very interested in Derrida back in undergrad; fourteen years ago, I read “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” over and over again until I thought I understood it. It takes a very specific mindset to understand Derrida, and I’m not sure if I had it this week. This essay was originally part of a collection (L’Ethique du don: Jacques Derrida et la pensée du don); it feels a bit like being in a class taught by Derrida, but in my case I didn’t do any of the advance reading. It reflects on and interprets an essay by Jan Patočka, but also includes references to Levinas, Heidegger, Nietzsche, the Bible, and Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener.” The Bible and the Melville I get, but the others are sort of like Berlin. I’ve heard a lot about it, I’ve seen it in films and news stories, but I’ve never actually been there. I don’t know it well enough to discuss it. I’d like to, but not yet. As a linguistic exercise, this essay is a bit dizzying. An English translation of a French essay that interprets a Czech essay, using philosophy written in German and applying it to a story written in Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek, largely translated into Latin.

Let’s see if I can get to the heart of this. In the beginning, there was orgiastic mystery. People had transcendent experiences that led them to imagine divinity, and in the grip of these experiences they did strange things. Orgiastic mystery, what I usually refer to as mysticism, has never gone away. When Plato came along, he incorporated this type of mystery into his philosophy. He said that people had these experiences to point them (and everyone else) toward the Good. He dressed the mystical experience in abstractions to make it more accessible to the layperson, to introduce an ethical component to the divine madness. He rejected the mad elements of it, and incorporated the rest. It’s like when there’s an artist who advocates restructuring society; Americans will celebrate the shit out of her, ignore the really revolutionary elements of her art and create a sanitized version they can teach to fifth-graders in a unit on celebrating our individuality. It’s like reading Ginsberg with ninth-graders in a public school.

And then there was Christianity, which repressed and sort of covered over the mysticism that preceded it. Plato’s abstract Good became incarnated as God. An ethical response was replaced with a personal relationship. And, this personal relationship, this God, is all based on the idea of death as a gift, a specific death given with a specific purpose, one man dying for all mankind. Which is odd and sort of bollocks.

Every one of us dies. Every one of us will die. There is no escape from that. Someone can give their death to prolong our life, but no one can take our death from us. We will all experience death, and all in our own specific way. In Sense and Sensibility, people are placeholders for social roles and positions. When Edward’s inheritance is settled irrevocably on his brother, his fiancée drops him for Robert immediately. Edward Ferrars is not a man, he’s a destiny. Just as the three pairs of sisters are all pretty much the same, Elinor and Marianne, Anne and Lucy, Lady Middleton and Mrs Palmer, it’s a pattern that repeats, like wallpaper. In real life, we are all unique and irreplaceable, because our experience of death will be utterly unique. Death is what makes us who we are. It’s what we have to offer the world.

We are responsible for our actions. When our actions are bad, we deserve the bad consequences. According to Christians, Jesus gave his death as a gift to cancel the consequences of our bad actions. As the Holy Other, Jesus exists in a hierarchical binary relationship to humanity. He is utterly other, and always above us. Jesus’s sacrifice doesn’t stop us from dying, our deaths being an integral part of our identity; it stops us from suffering afterward. It relieves us from responsibility. This is what that study realized, when they gave kids a test to see how well they shared – atheists behave more ethically than religious people because they have no mediator with their own consciences.

Derrida (and possibly the others as well) uses the example of Abraham sacrificing Isaac, though Ibrahim’s sacrifice of Ismail would work just as well. So, this angel tells the father to kill his son. He keeps this exchange secret, preserving the integrity of the orgiastic experience, being responsible toward God while committing a completely unethical act. Religion demands this sacrifice of all its adherents; God tells people to act in strange, unethical ways, ways that harm or at least confuse the people around them. They have a secret responsibility that supersedes their responsibility to their families and society, what Robinson Crusoe (and Gabriel Betteredge) called the Secret Dictate. Here in the United States, Jesus’s gift gives people the right to hate and persecute those who are different to themselves. Look at the resistance to gay marriage and abortion rights; look at the new laws determining which bathroom transgender people can use. I’d feel much less comfortable urinating in the same room as a person in a dress than a person in a suit and tie, regardless of who has a penis and who doesn’t. But American Christians have a habit of legislating their discomfort. Fuck ethics, we have a Secret Dictate, a responsibility to God to ignore the rights of fellow human beings. Now, I’m generalizing, I know that there are good Christians out there, but the reactionary laws still pass, and Donald Trump has secured the conservative party’s nomination, so the good Christians are either not numerous or not vocal enough. I hadn’t thought of it this way before, but I think Derrida’s right: in the wrong hands, religion destroys a sense of ethical responsibility. And most hands are the wrong ones.

Which leads us to the end, tout autre est tout autre. It looks like nothing, Everything else is everything else, but that’s not what he means. Everyone else is wholly Other. Yes, God is completely different than humanity (Wholly/Holy Other), but every human is completely different from every other human. God and other people are equally alien to us. Which means that that secret responsibility to God, understood properly, is also a secret responsibility to every other person. Derrida tends to see the world in terms of hierarchized binaries, which he then smashes apart or “deconstructs.” Self and Other is one of these binaries, and our natural impulse is to favor Self. But religion teaches us to value the Other above the Self, but every Other occupies the same role in the binary, so it doesn’t matter which specific one I’m thinking of, a two-thousand-year-dead Jewish carpenter, my ex-wife, or the new boyfriend I’ve been texting all week. Every other is the same as every other, Holy or Profane.

We should stop thinking about God as someone, over there, way up there, transcendent, and, what is more – into the bargain, precisely – capable, more than any satellite orbiting in space, of seeing into the most secret of the most interior places. It is perhaps necessary, if we are to follow the traditional Judeo-Christiano-Islamic injunction, but also at the risk of turning against that tradition, to think of God and of the name of God without such idolatrous stereotyping or representation. Then we might say: God is the name of the possibility I have of keeping a secret that is visible from the interior but not from the exterior. Once such a structure of conscience exists, of being-with-oneself, of speaking, that is, of producing invisible sense, once I have within me, thanks to the invisible word as such, a witness that others cannot see, and who is therefore at the same time other than me and more intimate with me than myself, once I can have a secret relationship with myself and not tell everything, once there is secrecy and secret witnessing within me, then what I call God exists, (there is) what I call God in me, (it happens that) I call myself God – a phrase that is difficult to distinguish from “God calls me,” for it is on that condition that I can call myself or that I am called in secret. God is in me, he is the absolute “me” or “self,” he is that structure of invisible interiority that is called, in Kierkegaard’s sense, subjectivity.

God sees without being seen, holds us from the inside, in secret, and makes us responsible for keeping that secret. Or in other words, God is a voice in our heads; creating a relationship with the divine is an activity of self-revelation, self-approbation, self-discovery. As in Yeats’s poem, we create God in our own image because our gods are in us all along. Walking with God is a way of loving and accepting oneself.

When I was at school, I thought of these two parts of my life as separate, the conservative religious “good boy” in one box and the liberal intellectual free-thinking academic in another. And here Derrida has deconstructed my personal internal binary, explained what I had kept secret, even from myself.

In the end, Derrida talks about what I had previously thought, religion-wise, only he has a much stronger background in philosophy than I do. Which is: Believing in God doesn’t mean shit if you can’t see God in the people around you, or in yourself. There are Bible verses I could use to back that up, but if you think I’m right you don’t need them, and if you think I’m wrong they won’t convince you.

So. Death as a gift. There are many people, including myself, who have considered Death as a friend to be welcomed, one we become impatient to see. To us, the suicides, I say: consider Death not as a person but as a gift. Give yours to someone who really deserves it, in a situation where the loss of you will have meaning. Most suicides are just a creation of an absence. Find a way to make yours matter. Your death makes you unique and irreplaceable; don’t waste it. Even if you don’t value your life, treat your death with enough respect to make it special. As I follow this vein of thinking, I begin to put more value into my life. Making a good death means living a good life. So let’s do that, shall we?

I feel sort of bad, like I should apologize to the author, but I really feel like when he says

Self-conscious and didactic, it was not a successful work.

he’s talking about his own novel. I mean, a few of the critics call it a thriller, but it doesn’t have anything scary in it. There are a few moments of mild excitement, but not even cheap thrills. It is very learned, with an advanced vocabulary and heavy with allusion, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a good read.

How many times have we done the fallen priest novel? I wasn’t that fond of Graham Greene’s, but I haven’t found one better. As is often the case, the priest, who is a Father Whatawaste, falls in love and has sex. The physical contact drives him into questioning everything he’s ever believed, because if you can have sex without being dragged to hell immediately, then obviously God doesn’t exist.

Within he wonders what he has wondered for much of his life but has rarely allowed conscious space to: is there a being, transcendent or immanent – either will do – that one might call God (or Dio, or Allah, or Yahweh, or Bog, if it comes to that) and if there is such a being, does he (He?) care one jot or tittle for the spiritual or physical life of this speck of dust crammed into tourist class on an Alitalia flight to London, Heathrow? He reads his breviary, possibly for the very last time. His question remains unanswered, but his body (embarrassingly: he has to shift in his seat to make things comfortable again) answers all to readily to the persistent vision of Madeleine, which exists in a separate but simultaneous part of his mind and has by now opened its legs.

Leo Newman’s conundrum is complicated by the fact that he’s a researcher; once he and his girl (diplomat’s wife) start doing it, he gets tapped to translate a newly discovered scroll. It’s authenticated to earlier than any preexisting gospel narrative, and claims to be Judas Iscariot’s account of the life of Jesus. So, he didn’t kill himself after the crucifixion. Worse, he says that he, Nicodemus, and Saul of Tarsus stole the body and hid it where no one could find it, but that he, Judas, has seen the decomposing body of Jesus, so the resurrection is a fraud. First the scandal about him and Madeleine hits the papers, and then there’s the to-do about the Judas scroll. Everyone sees him as a betrayer, as worse than Judas himself. And they do have a point; betrayal is sort of this guy’s stock-in-trade.

There’s something oddly Victorian about the whole thing; a priest who has Jewish blood and Jesuit training unravels Christianity, and yet the attempt is made to present him sympathetically? Who wrote this novel, Thackeray? I mean, the author seems to struggle between a conscious acceptance of the inevitability of sexual desire and a prurient rejection of its expression. I don’t think of sex as failure or disease; I rather believe it’s a success.

And that was the moment when something turned inside him, something visceral, like the first symptoms of a disease. That was what made it all the more disturbing, that it seemed so profoundly organic. The cerebral he could deal with. The cerebral he could battle against, had long ago learned to battle against. Mental images were things he could chase from his mind like Christ chasing the money-changers from the Temple (an incident that is generally accepted by the most skeptical of New Testament scholars as genuine, indeed pivotal). But when it was the temple of the body that was under assault, the dismissal was not so easy. No easier to dismiss a cancer. And her glance at him as they sat at the long dining table beneath the benevolent eye of Jack and the agonized eye of Saint Clare Contemplating the Eucharist, School of Guido Reni, seemed to plant the first seeds of some disease in his body.

Twined around this story, we flash forward and backward, into his past and his present. The story of his present, living with an artist named Magda, is sort of dull, even when compared to the uninteresting main story. It provides some foreshadowing, and I believe Leo is eventually sort of happy. In my opinion, the interesting part of the book is the story out of the past.

Leo’s parents were German Nazis stationed in Italy during World War II. His mother has an affair with an Italian Jew, gets angry, and turns him in. I mean, it may not be the most original story in the world, but it was a lot more interesting and affecting than the story of their son’s life of betrayal. I suppose there’s an element of “the sins of the fathers being visited on the heads of the sons,” and parts of the story of Frau Huber and Checco parallel nicely with Leo and Madeleine.

“You are a Jew. What can you know of God?”

“I thought we invented him.”

She chooses her words deliberately, as one chooses a weapon that will do the most damage: “You may have invented God,” she says, “but you also murdered him.”

How can this poor kid help betraying everyone and everything around him? His father was a Christ-killer, and his mother was a Holocaust-denying Jew-killer.

“Tell me what it is like . . .” he asks as they contemplate a Venus standing in the long grass. The Venus gestures with half an arm, like an amputee. Her face, part ravaged by time, still contains within its worn features a strange modesty. Her thighs enclose her glabrous pudendum tightly, so that men may look but not see.

“What what is like?”

“To be a woman.”

She laughs. “How can a woman explain that to a man?”

“Tell me how it feels when you make love.”

“Don’t be silly.”

“Or when you have a baby.”

“Painful. You’re being idiotic.”

“I want to understand you.”

“Men cannot understand women.”

“Italian men can. Maybe not German men, but Italian men can.”

“German men are no different from Italian men.”

“They are very different. German men murder children.”

“They do not!” Her voice has risen now. The ghostly, mangled Venus has ceased to matter. She is suddenly angry, her face flushed, her nose, that not-quite-classical nose, sharp and white with a kind of tension. “That is a disgusting thing to say!”

He is grinning at her reaction. “Oh, but they do. Jewish children.”

“Lies! I will not have you saying that kind of thing!” Momentarily, guiltily, she thinks of her husband.

I’d like to say that there’s some interesting stuff about gender, but this is the only passage that moves in that direction. And there are a couple of references to homosexuality, but all of them as something to be avoided in a priest. Back when I was a Mormon, preaching in Brazil, one of my friends said, “If you don’t look once, you’re not a man; if you look twice, you’re not a missionary.” Newman’s fellow priests have the same attitude: it takes a celibate heterosexual man to do God’s work. Anything else is the devil’s work. Mawer recognizes that lifelong celibacy is fucked up, but he represents sex as an inevitable evil, proof of betrayal. Judas and Jezebel, cut from the same cloth, dyed with the same blood. Blood soaks through every symbol and allusion in the book, odd since there’s so little physical violence.

It’s an unfortunate book. I’m sure there are some who like it, and it’s self-consciously literary enough that at one time I may have pretended to, but I’m certainly not one of them.

I come from a large family of people who are not especially kind. When I was young, I got angry quite easily, but I recognized how powerless I was to vent my frustrations on my older siblings, so I’d grip my little hands into fists and turn red and grit my teeth until smoke poured out of my ears. Those older siblings enjoyed the show so much that they spent all their leisure time making me angry for no other purpose than to watch me get angry. What does a child learn from this? First, he learns to conceal his feelings. I was so adept at this that I myself didn’t know what I was feeling for most of my life. Now, I’m shy enough that when people meet me, I seem not to have any personality at all, so they project their opinions, desires, and prejudices onto me as if I were a tabula rasa. It gives me a chance to try being different people, but the real me always surfaces eventually, often to jarring effect.

Second, he learns that the world is an unfair place, inimical to his own interests. Those with power make others suffer with impunity, and those who are responsible for keeping him safe are either too busy with other matters, too indifferent, or too powerless to do any good. Life isn’t fair, and there’s nothing you can do about it. As I got older, I’d occasionally try to create some sort of justice, but I quickly discovered that I have no sense of proportion. Any attempt of mine to right the scales of justice leaves them leaning too far to the other side. When you don’t expect the world to be fair, you don’t try to make it fair. When injustice is normal, justice no longer seems like a goal worth reaching toward. As I’ve gotten along, I’ve tried to supplement my deficient sense of justice with moral rules, but everyone knows that rules only really matter in board games. This is why I try so hard to be kind; there’s a baseline of fairness that makes it possible for us to live in a society, that I am lacking. Though I often apply the principle inconsistently, I find kindness easier to manage, and I also find that people don’t mind if you’re unfair if you’re unfair in their favor.

I’ve enjoyed Margaret Atwood’s fiction for quite some time – The Blind Assassin was new when I first loved it – but this is the first nonfiction book of hers that I’ve read, and it is quite good. The reading goes very quickly, and the book takes stories and concepts that we are familiar with and presents them to us in a new light. Five chapters, forty pages each, but they don’t feel that long. If it were a novel, I’d try to read it as an Elizabethan drama, but it’s not a connected story. Well, maybe it is.

Part one, Ancient Balances. Humanity’s earliest laws governed the balancing of accounts, as did our earliest religions. The Egyptians believed that after death, a human heart was weighed against truth, and justice claimed the soul for either good or ill. This belief spread through the other pagan religions, as well as into Judaism and its descendants, Christianity and Islam. In fact, it seems to have predated our evolution into human beings, as primates also have an acute sense of justice. The interesting thing about justice, though, is that it’s always represented as being female. I think that it’s because our sense of justice comes from our mothers, the primary caregivers in most societies. My mother had too much of a temper to manage her children effectively; sometimes punishments were excessive, sometimes they were insufficient because they had been excessive, and sometimes they were nonexistent. I guess it’s easier to love some children if you don’t look too closely at what they do. The ex-wife is also a woman of quick temper who loves babies, but she has a rather extreme sense of justice, which occasionally makes me uncomfortable. By getting divorced, we kept her from having more children than she can manage, so hopefully my children will be more emotionally healthy, more human than I have been.

Part two, Debt and Sin. As we saw with the Egyptian scales, the things we do in this life are often seen as a series of moral debts and credits, that great accountant’s ledger in the sky. I’ve mentioned before how incomplete this metaphor seems to me, how easily it can be used to justify acts of great evil by balancing them with a series of small charitable donations. However, Atwood points out that it’s not only the debtor who is seen as the sinner; the creditor is also morally damaged by the lending of money. Think of our culture’s opinion of pawnbrokers, a career so questionable that it seldom appears outside of Dickens novels or TLC programs. We see them as profiting by taking unfair advantage of people who are at their most vulnerable, as if the pawnbroker forces them into sin. As if the act of borrowing money itself were a sin. My own debts make me uncomfortable; I’ve taken on a second job to try to pay them off. But they were also necessary; when I moved here, I needed some money for a security deposit on an apartment, and I was also in need of food. I got a new credit card because I couldn’t make it on my own. It’s like this: if I have a skillet, I can make healthy food for a few dollars a day. If I don’t have a skillet, I can eat unhealthy fast food at a rate of eight to ten dollars a day. So, it makes sense for me to buy a skillet. If I don’t have the money for a skillet, I’m stuck eating expensive food. I could decide not to eat for three or four days and so save enough money to buy a skillet, or I could borrow the money. I chose to borrow it. I don’t think that makes me a sinner, just a human being who values his health.

In this section, Atwood also talks about the importance of record-keeping. Remember Fight Club, when Jack/Tyler’s plan was to destroy all the credit card records? Apparently that’s a historical trend. Erase the record of the debt, cancel the debt without paying it. It’s what all we debtors really want, isn’t it? And what we refuse to do when we become creditors. Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.

Part three, Debt as Plot. As Cecily points out in The Importance of Being Earnest, memory is responsible for nearly all the three-volume novels one encounters. Specifically, memory of debts. The nineteenth century novel is full of debts and repayments. In graduate school, I once wrote about how Wuthering Heights is a rewriting of Byron’s “The Giaour,” where money has replaced religion. One of the strongest examples that Atwood uses is one of my favorite books, The Mill on the Floss. She also discusses the imaginative power of millers generally. In Eliot’s novel, life is a matter of inheriting and settling accounts; Maggie Tulliver tries to create a world where relationships are built on more than debts, and it eventually kills her. The next logical step is

Part four, The Shadow Side. Revenge. A good portion of this is about Shakespearean tragedy, which revolves around vengeance. There’s also The Merchant of Venice, which covers a humanized Shylock and his overgrasping vengeance. Atwood mentions a production that used a Native American actor for Shylock, which I think must have been quite compelling. For me, though, thoughts of Shakespeare generally turn to Twelfth Night, the play most interested in giving gifts, and the debts that gift-giving creates. Indeed, it’s a play about unwanted debts, where people become creditors against their will. Years ago, I decided that I would never lend money to a friend. I will gladly give, and if they want to return it that’s their choice, but I won’t give money to someone if I need it back. This practice can lead me into trouble, like when I gave money to someone who was a bad risk, and then he moved to a different continent while promising to pay it back. It would have come in handy a year later, when I was getting a new credit card instead of buying a skillet with my own money. Así es la vida.

I prefer to pay my debts off, but I will forgive any creditor who comes my way. Even those people who have repaid my love with violence and neglect. Let debts go, even those of emotion and soul. Let there be love and peace. Let forgiveness overcome our desires for war.

Part five, Payback. I believe that the human desire for payback leads to more unnecessary conflict than anything else. Jesus fuck, just let it go. It doesn’t matter if you have a right to exact vengeance; relinquish your rights and let it go. Clinging to your vengeance binds your debtor to you more closely. The only way to be free of him is to let go.

The bulk of this section is taken up by a rewriting of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, updated for our time. We can’t imagine a man so consumed by the love of wealth that he won’t spend on himself, so the Nouveau Scrooge does. But when he’s faced with the price of his wealth, the destruction of the earth led by the industrial age, he changes his mind and gives his money to support the preservation of nature. Atwood finishes her tale of human history with the renunciation of wealth, the reversal of the nineteenth century – a vision of a future where capital is used to benefit the earth instead of the individual, where species are saved, and we stop acquiring more than we need.

It may seem strange, to write a book about money and spend most of it talking about religion, fiction, and the environment, but it makes sense. Atwood has spent this book telling us who we are, what makes us human. Fair play, justice, getting into and out of debt, yes, but more importantly, we are the stories we tell. If we keep telling the story of capitalism, we will keep living in a world of more and more extreme capitalism. There are other stories to tell, though. Stories of community, stories of cooperation, stories of peace, stories of kindness. As the Barenaked Ladies once sang, It’s time to make this something that is more than only fair.

For the first time in years, I now have a public library card. I haven’t had one since before I got divorced. There’s something about my relationship to the library that has changed in this time; it’s not the home it once was. The books are free, so I want to grab them all, every one that appeals to me, and take them home at once. But then, when I do have them at home, my interest in them is gone. I think that part of the problem is the temporary nature of my association with the book. I feel as if the books I own are a part of me, but library books can never be mine. There’s also the physical experience of the book: I like a book to feel warm and natural in my hand, tree-ish, not covered in cheap plastic. When it comes to books, there’s a certain correlation between love and damage, and it’s hard for me to connect with something so well protected. Fortunately, I have lots of books that I own, including several that I haven’t read yet.

When an experienced reader picks up a book by Umberto Eco, he knows exactly what he will find. Historical conspiracy theories, a bizarre ritual at the climax, and misogyny. Lots and lots of misogyny. Eco’s more successful works are those that provide a reason for this exclusive boys’ club, like The Name of the Rose, which takes place in a monastery on the historical line between the Dark Ages and the Renaissance. I started Baudolino but didn’t finish it because I got to the point where I just couldn’t take any more of the solely decorative female characters. The misogyny in The Prague Cemetery makes sense because the protagonist is very open and honest with the reader and himself about the fact that he hates women. In fact, in the opening chapter he explains how he hates just about everyone: women, Germans, Russians, Jews, the French, southern Italians, Masons, Jesuits, all of them. I suspect he even hates himself. He recently committed an act so thoroughly against his own character that he starts the book with a psychic break between personalities accompanied by amnesia, and it’s told as two distinct personalities trying to piece together a personal history by writing a diary. There’s a third-person narrator/audience surrogate who occasionally arbitrates, and sometimes summarizes years of life in which nothing happens to advance the plot.

Simonini was raised by his father and grandfather, and therein lies the trouble. The grandfather spent a lot of his time with the Jesuits, discussing the big Jewish conspiracy to bring down everything. The father spent a lot of time with the republican army, discussing the big Jesuit conspiracy to bring down everything. Instead of choosing one or the other, Simonini absorbs both their prejudices and grows up hating everyone. He admires some people who are skilled in useful trades, but throughout his life he never meets anyone he loves, either romantically or fraternally. Perhaps this is why it’s taken me so long to read the book; I don’t like being around someone like him.

I have heard it said that over a billion people inhabit this earth. I don’t know how anyone could count them, but from one look around Palermo it’s quite clear that there are too many of us and that we’re already stepping on each other’s toes. And most people smell. There isn’t sufficient food. Just imagine if there were any more of us. We therefore have to cull the population. True, there are plagues and suicides, capital punishment, those who challenge each other to duels and who get pleasure from riding at breakneck speed through woods and meadows. I’ve even heard of English gentlemen who go swimming in the sea and, of course, drown. But it is not enough. Wars are the most effective and natural way imaginable for stemming the increase in human numbers. Once upon a time, when people went off to war, didn’t they say it was God’s will? But to do so, you need people who want to fight. If no one wants to fight, no one will die. Then wars would be pointless. So it’s vital to have men like Nievo, Abba and Bandi who want to throw themselves in the line of fire. Others like me can then live without being harassed by so many people breathing down our necks.

In other words, although I don’t like them, we do need noble-spirited souls.

Simonini is from Turin, born somewhere around 1830. I feel like a more exact knowledge of Continental nineteenth-century history would have been an advantage in reading this book; my knowledge of the century comes from having studied Victorian literature, so if the United Kingdom had been an important setting I would have felt right at home. But my understanding of the Continent at the time only extends to its effect on British writers, and by the time they passed the Reform Bill the novelists and poets were focused on domestic matters or the distant empire; nothing farther than Newcastle but closer than India gets consistent attention. So when I find myself in the middle of Garibaldi’s attempts to unite Italy, I see his name and think, Italian revolutionary with a red shirt, but I don’t fully understand the issues he was fighting for. Eco kind of gives the impression that Garibaldi himself didn’t understand what was going on. Simonini is a forger and master of disguise who does some spy work for the Piedmont government. However, his hatred of every group in existence gets him in trouble; government alliances shift frequently, and it’s important never to go too far in any direction. When Simonini engineers the explosion of a ship carrying one of Garibaldi’s top officials, Piedmont gets rid of him by shuffling him off to Paris.

In Paris, he does similar work, spying on this or that person, forging documents that lead to huge international incidents. Throughout it all, there’s his little story of the Prague cemetery that he keeps revising and reusing. Originally cribbed from Eugene Sue, he writes the story of the leading rabbis meeting at midnight in the Jewish cemetery in Prague to discuss their plans to take over Europe. It’s very thinly veiled propaganda. As the winds of politics change, he revises the story to match whoever it needs to be used against. He ends up working with a lot of real historical characters, who tend to be bigots, or at least interested in inspiring mass hatreds.

I don’t want to destroy the Jews. I might even say the Jews are my best allies. I’m interested in the morale of the Russian people. It is my wish (and the wish of those I hope to please) that these people do not direct their discontent against the tsar. We therefore need an enemy. There’s no point looking for an enemy among, I don’t know, the Mongols or the Tatars, as despots have done in the past. For the enemy to be recognized and feared, he has to be in your home or on your doorstep. Hence the Jews. Divine providence has given them to us, and so, by God, let us use them, and pray there’s always some Jew to fear and to hate. We need an enemy to give people hope. Someone said that patriotism is the last refuge of cowards; those without moral principles usually wrap a flag around themselves, and the bastards always talk about the purity of the race. National identity is the last bastion of the dispossessed. But the meaning of identity is now based on hatred, on hatred for those who are not the same. Hatred has to be cultivated as a civic passion. The enemy is the friend of the people. You always want someone to hate in order to feel justified in your own misery. Hatred is the true primordial passion. It is love that’s abnormal. That is why Christ was killed: he spoke against nature. You don’t love someone for your whole life – that impossible hope is the source of adultery, matricide, betrayal of friends . . . But you can hate someone for your whole life, provided he’s always there to keep your hatred alive. Hatred warms the heart.

And, of course, Simonini also deals with those who hate the Jews for different reasons:

The English Methodists, the German Pietists, the Swiss and the Dutch all learn to read the will of God from the same book as the Jews – the Bible, a story of incest and massacres and barbarous wars, where the only way to win is through treachery and deception, where kings have men murdered so they can take their wives, where women who call themselves saints enter the beds of enemy generals and cut off their heads. Cromwell had the head of his king cut off while quoting the Bible. Malthus, who denied the children of the poor the right to life, was steeped in the Bible. It’s a race that spends its time recalling its slavery, and is always ready to yield to the cult of the Golden Calf, ignoring every sign of divine wrath. The battle against the Jews ought to be the main purpose of every socialist worthy of the name. I am not talking about communists – their founder is a Jew. The problem is exposing the conspiracy of money. Why does an apple in a Paris restaurant cost a hundred times more than in Normandy? There are unscrupulous races who live on the flesh of others, merchant races like the ancient Phoenicians and Carthaginians. And today it’s the English and the Jews.

And, if you’re starting to get visions of Nazis, you’re pretty close to the truth.

I asked if he thought he was a good example of the superior, Apollonian race. He glowered at me and said that belonging to a race is not just a physical matter but above all a spiritual one. A Jew is still a Jew even if, by accident of nature, he is born with blond hair and blue eyes, in the same way as there are children born with six fingers and women capable of doing multiplication. And an Aryan is an Aryan if he lives the spirit of his people, even if he has black hair.

All this hatred really grinds you down after a while. Eco’s writing is spectacular, as ever, but his choice of subject is so antipathetic to my customary frame of mind that I disliked the book, just as I disliked Foucault’s Pendulum and The Island of the Day Before, only more intensely because it more directly attacks my fundamental belief in the goodness of humanity with fewer interruptions to discuss theoretical matters that don’t relate to human evil. And instead of only using women in a dismissive way (you can glimpse them flirting there at the margins of Eco’s stories), Simonini spends a lot of time using a woman and thoroughly hating her.

Diana Vaughan is not a central or important character. She has dissociative personality disorder; the more dominant personality is a sexually voracious Satanist who tells lots of stories about her brief time with the Masons. The less dominant personality is a sweet, pious girl who is horrified at everything her other self does, says, or believes. Simonini takes her out of a mental institution and hides her in a private apartment, where he and his colleagues use her imaginative stories to blacken the reputation of the Masonic lodges. The colleagues also use her for sex. Simonini is too repulsed by the human body to take advantage of her in this way, until the climactic ritual, a black mass that ends in an orgy. There’s a bit here that reminds me of one of my favorite parts of The Name of the Rose, and I think that Eco really excels at describing the experience of sex:

I know that such abandonment will cause my whole body to waste away, will bring an ashen pallor to my dying face, clouded vision and disturbed dreams, husky voice, pains in my eyeballs, the invasion of pestilent red marks upon my face, the vomiting of calciferous materials, palpitations – and finally, with syphilis, blindness.

And though I can no longer see, I feel the most excruciating and indescribable and unbearable sensation of my life, as if all the blood from throughout my veins were suddenly gushing out from a tear in each of my taut limbs, from my nose, from my ears, from my fingertips, from my anus, help, help, I think I know now what death is, from which every living being recoils, even when he seeks it through an unnatural instinct to multiply his own seed.

I can no longer write, I no longer recall, I am reliving, the experience is unbearable, I wish I could forget it all again . . .

So of course he takes the girl home and kills her. The two acts together cause the psychic break and amnesia mentioned at the beginning; once he remembers what he’s done, he no longer needs the separation of consciousness, so he reintegrates his self and gets back to work destroying the Jews. He makes one last expansion/revision and sells the Prague cemetery story for the last time, with the implication that this will become The Protocols of Zion, that document that stirred up a passionate European hatred of the Jews right through the Holocaust.

When I consider Eco’s career, at least the now four and a half novels of his that I’ve read, I really have to wonder how similar Simonini is to Eco himself. Eco loves to write about conspiracy theories, always portrayed in a spirit of ridicule for the people who believe in them. Christianity seems to be the biggest conspiracy of all. As I reflect on it, Eco has written very few characters whom I actually like, or who have a favorable opinion of humanity. I like the narrator/protagonist of The Name of the Rose and his Sherlock-Holmesian friend Brother William, and I like Casaubon’s girlfriend in Foucault’s Pendulum. That’s about it.

But generally, despite his great skill in writing, Eco writes books that I can’t agree with, but can’t argue with either. He has a vast wealth of historical knowledge and a deep, deep cynicism; all I have is my faith in people. As I think over time, my own personal history and not the history of global events, I think Eco is wrong about people. Perhaps they are a bit gullible, but they’re not evil, and they’re not stupid. Love is just as natural as hate, though it’s harder to manipulate. Sex is not weird or wrong; loving copulation is as natural as breathing, with similarly healthful effects. People are good, and the world is a beautiful place: two facts that Eco’s characters shut their eyes to, and they then call their blindness truth. I don’t generally think of myself as a person of faith, my faith in religion or God being almost nonexistent, but I believe in people. I love them – I love you. And because you are a human being, I believe you are good, you are strong, and you are beautiful. This faith remains unshaken.

There are established forms and methods for discussing The Holocaust. Imre Kertész ignores them and writes about what I must believe are his own experiences as a teenager in a concentration camp. For example, here’s the closing bit:

But one shouldn’t exaggerate, as this is precisely the crux of it: I am here, and I am well aware that I shall accept any rationale as the price for being able to live. Yes, as I looked around this placid, twilit square, this street, weather-beaten yet full of a thousand promises, I was already feeling a growing and accumulating readiness to continue my uncontinuable life. […] there is nothing impossible that we do not live through naturally, and keeping a watch on me on my journey, like some inescapable trap, I already know there will be happiness. For even there, next to the chimneys, in the intervals between the torments, there was something that resembled happiness. Everyone asks only about the hardships and the “atrocities,” whereas for me perhaps it is that experience which will remain the most memorable. Yes, the next time I am asked, I ought to speak about that, the happiness of the concentration camps.

And this is precisely what he does. Instead of writing about people dying, he writes about people living. This is a novel about how to survive disasters, not how to be delivered from them or how to be ground into the dust by them.

Only in Zeitz did I come to realize that even captivity has its mundane round; indeed, true captivity is actually nothing but a gray mundane round.

In this sense, most of us do live in captivity, and I drew some parallels to the difficult experience of living on an expatriate compound. We aren’t being starved or forced to work beyond our strength, obviously, nor are we beaten or shot at, (to limit myself to what we read in the book) but the monotony, the emotional starvation, and the uncaringness of the supervisors I can readily identify with. I also quickly sink into this listless mental paralysis that I think deserves a stronger name than boredom. At one point, he imagines hell as a place where it is impossible to get bored – this is his defense mechanism; his strategy for survival is to dissociate the mind from the suffering. Indeed, the mind sometimes severs itself from reality altogether, floating in a near-senseless limbo state. And this is why I watch too much television.

So it makes sense to me that when the camps are liberated, it takes a while for him to care. In the films, there are always American soldiers rushing in and carrying children or the wounded out of the camps immediately, as if they were shepherds returning lost lambs to the fold. Not so here. He’s in a camp hospital, and he hears some noise during the day, and then notices that his dinner is late. Some people get on an intercom and announce freedom in many languages, but . . .

However hard I listened, though, all I heard of from him, as from everyone before, was about freedom, but not a single word about or in reference to the missing soup. I was absolutely delighted, quite naturally, about our being free, but I couldn’t help it if, from another angle, I fell to thinking that yesterday, for instance, such a thing could never have happened. The April evening outside was already dark, and Pyetchka too had arrived back, flushed, excited, talking thirteen to the dozen, when the Lagerältester finally came on again over the loudspeaker. This time he appealed to the former members of the Kartoffelschäler-Kommando, requesting them to resume their old duties in the kitchens, and all other inmates of the camp to stay awake, until the middle of the night if need be, because they were going to start cooking a strong goulash soup, and it was only at this point that I slumped back on my pillow in relief, only then that something loosened up inside me, and only then did I myself also think – probably for the first time in all seriousness – of freedom.

Freedom is an important concept for me as an American; we’re taught to think of it as the most important thing ever, the concept that defines our nation. Yet, when I think of our behavior over the last fifteen years, or if I’m being perfectly honest, the last seventy, I wonder. Given the constraints of economics, education, and other factors, how free is the average American? Is this a Land of Opportunity? We clutch the word freedom in our mouths while giving away the genuine article with both hands.

When discussing concentration camps, it is only acceptable to discuss Jews. Even Bent, a gay romance set in a concentration camp, is about Jews. [How on earth did I think this would be a good movie for me to watch? Where is the possibility of a happy ending in that?] I would like very much to see a timeline for the camps—which types of inmates were brought in at which times, when all the pink triangles were dead, that sort of thing—because it always seems to me that the Jews were latecomers. That’s why they get rescued at the ends of their books/films. Protagonist-with-the-forgettable-name gets sent off in the middle of 1944, and while I don’t mean to diminish his experience, why don’t people talk about the ones who were taken earlier? The camps were efficient and heartless because the guards had been trained to be before the Jews in the films showed up. They cut their baby teeth on the political dissidents and homosexuals, so I imagine the experience of being in a camp in 1940 would have been very different.

The Jews in Holocaust films also tend to be all the same. They aren’t very orthodox, religious pragmatism/assimilation appealing to American audiences as it does, but they’re all keenly aware of their racial identity and derive a large part of their sense of who they are from their Jewishness. Not so, with our protagonist. Yes, he wears the yellow star at home and the yellow triangle in the camp, but his national identity as a Hungarian is much more important to him than his Jewishness. Before he goes to the camp, he has this conversation with a girl:

Then again, I had also read a book, a sort of novel, not long ago. A beggar and a prince who, leaving that one difference aside, conspicuously resembled each other both facially and physically, to the point they could not be told apart, exchanged fates with each other out of sheer curiosity, until in the end the beggar turned into a real prince while the prince became a real beggar. I asked the girl to try and imagine the same thing about herself. It was not very likely, or course, but then all kinds of things are possible, after all. What could have happened to her, let’s say in very early infancy, when a person is not yet able to speak or remember, it didn’t matter how, but suppose she had somehow been swapped or got mixed up with a child from another family whose documents were in perfect order from a racial point of view. In this hypothetical case it would now be the other girl who would perceive the difference and of course wear the yellow star, whereas she, in view of what she knew, would see herself – as of course would others – as being exactly like other people, and she would neither think about nor recognize any difference. As far as I could tell, that had quite an impact on her. At first she merely fell silent, then very slowly, but with a softness I felt as almost palpable, her lips parted as if she were wishing to say something. That was not what happened, however, but something else, much odder: she burst into tears.

I think this is true of socially constructed identities in general. Yes, racial characteristics are genetic; yes, sexual preference is marked by observable physiological responses; but this is only a scientific basis for society to categorize us. The physical fact of race and gender are not as important as the identity society builds for us around them. You’re Jewish? You must be clever, greedy, and argumentative. You’re gay? You must like dance music, shopping for clothes, and adopting the gestures and speech patterns of sassy African-American women. All of these are arbitrary social constructions. But when we adopt a social construction as an identity, it can be hard to have that pulled away from us.

Like de-emphasizing nationality. The Germans took Jews from several different countries, told them that Jewishness was their most important identity, and put them all in camps together. But they don’t all speak Yiddish, and when left to themselves, they tend to reassert the primacy of their national identities. For Protagonist, this is generally a difficult process because there are so few Hungarians, he doesn’t speak Yiddish, and he doesn’t identify strongly with other Jews.

That day I learned that the discomfiture, the skin-crawling awkwardness which at times took hold between us was already familiar to me from back home, as if there had been something not quite right about me, as if I did not quite measure up to the proper ideal, in short as if I were somehow Jewish – a rather odd feeling to have after all, I reckoned, in the midst of Jews, in a concentration camp.

He’s a Jew among Jews, cast out of the outcasts for not being Jewish enough. At some point in our lives, we all struggle with the conflict between socially constructed roles and our personal identities. I don’t know if this is still the case, but when I was growing up African-American boys were discouraged from getting too interested in their education because that was characteristic of whites. There was a certain style of dress that was accepted for them – I’ve seen the prices, those clothes are just as expensive as the ones popular for white kids, so this isn’t an economic issue. But collectively, our society has decided how black people (gay people, women, people with disabilities, fat people, etc) should dress, act, and speak, and woe be unto the teenager who tries to be free from that.

But I’m ignoring the happiness of the concentration camps! Protagonist arrives at the hospital and talks with the doctors, who are also prisoners, but of ten or twelve years. They ask him what he did to wind up in Buchenwald, and he describes getting taken, and they’re shocked that it was done without his parents being consulted.

In the end, I found that people on all sides were looking at me, heads shaking, and with a most singular emotion on their faces, which was a little embarrassing because, as best I could tell, they were feeling sorry for me. I felt a strong urge to tell them there was no need for that after all, at least not right at that moment, but I ended up saying nothing, something held me back, somehow I couldn’t find it in my heart to do so, because I noticed that the emotion gratified them, gave them some sort of pleasure, the way I saw it. Indeed – and I could have been mistaken of course, though I don’t think so – but later on (for there were one or two other occasions on which I was similarly questioned and interrogated) I gained the impression that they expressly sought out, almost hunted for, an opportunity, a means or pretext for this emotion for some reason, out of some need, as a testimony to something as it were, to their method of dealing with things perhaps, or possibly, who knows, to their still being capable of it at all; and in that form it was somehow pleasing, for me at least.

They need to be able to pity someone. They can bolster their happiness by looking at the suffering of others. No matter how bad things are, at least I wasn’t in a concentration camp at age sixteen. They can look back on their own happier youths and contemplate the present with more strength. Things might be awful now, but they could be worse, and there are always the memories of better times to relive. There’s also music, as in this scene from shortly after intake:

That day I also saw the women too for the first time. A group of men congregating and excitedly swarming around by the barbed-wire fence pointed them out: there they were, true enough, though I found it hard to pick them out in the distance, on the far side of the clayey field that stretched before us – and, above all, to recognize them as being women. They scared me a little, and I noticed that after the initial delight, the excitement at the discovery, the people around me here all fell very quiet. Just one observation, which rang hollow and a little tremulously, reached my ear from nearby: “They’re bald.” In the big hush, I too picked out for the first time, carried by the occasional wafts of a light summer-evening breeze, thinly, squeakily, and barely audibly, but beyond any doubt, the soothing, joyous sound of music, which, combined as it was with the sight, somehow hugely astonished everyone, myself included.

Yes, bald women in concentration camps can still sing. For some, I imagine it’s a necessity. Protagonist goes on about stubbornness, but having read the literature of the civil rights movement, I’d be more likely to classify it as resistance. With all of the Germans’ attempts to dehumanize the prisoners (like removing their names – I really shouldn’t continue doing that here: Protagonist’s name is György Köves), they are determined to remain themselves, to hold onto their sense of personal identity, whether that involves religion, nationality, or just a good voice. In the men’s camp, there’s some singing too, but the resistance seems to come more and more from passivity. Indeed, that’s what impresses me the most about Protagonist and the people he lives among: their passive acquiescence to circumstances. I suppose it’s not that different from Americans today, but . . . the herding, the starving, the beatings. I’d like to think that we wouldn’t put up with it, though I have no way of knowing.

Every so often, though, the stubbornness reveals itself in action. In this scene, a few prisoners are being executed for having escaped and been recaptured.

The customary punishment squad assembled, then, after a further wait, the representatives of the military authorities made their appearance, after which everything went ahead in due form, if I may put it that way – fortunately, up front near the washroom, far from where we were, not that I watched anyway. My attention was drawn rather to my left, from where all at once came a sound, a muttering, some sort of song. In the row I saw a slightly tremulous head on a scraggy, forward-stretched neck – little more, in fact, than a nose and a huge, moist eye that, right at that moment, was somehow swimming in a crazy light: the rabbi. Soon I also picked out his words, particularly after others in the row had slowly taken them up from him – all the Finns, for instance, but many others as well. Indeed, though I don’t know what the mechanism was, it somehow passed across to nearby groups, the other blocks, spreading and gaining ground as it were, because there too I observed a growing number of lips in motion and shoulders, necks, and heads cautiously, almost imperceptibly, yet distinctly rocking back and forth. Meanwhile, the muttering was just about audible here, in the center of the row, with a continual “Yitgaddal ve-yitkaddash” being sounded over and over again, like some murmur issuing from the ground below, and even I knew that this was the so-called “Kaddish,” the Jews’ prayer of mourning for the dead. It is quite possible that this too was sheer stubbornness, the final, sole, and perhaps, I could not help realizing, in some ways slightly forced, I might almost say prescribed and in a certain sense fixed, so to say imposed, and, at the same time, useless mode of stubbornness (for it altered nothing up at the front: apart from the last few twitches of the hanged men, nothing moved, nothing wavered at these words); yet all the same, I could not help somehow understanding the emotion in which the rabbi’s expression seemed almost to dissolve, and even his nostrils quivered so strangely. As if it was only now that the long-awaited moment were here, that moment of victory whose coming he had spoken, I recollected, back at the brickyard. Indeed, for the very first time, I too was now seized, I don’t know why, by a certain sense of loss, even a touch of envy; for the first time, I now somewhat regretted that I was unable to pray, if only a few sentences, in the language of the Jews.

In the films, every prisoner suffers alone, or with one close friend. We do not see the communal experiences like this. We don’t think about the power that we give to a group identity when we place all the people who share it in one place. Hitler was the first person in modern times to gather the scattered Jews, and while this was contrary to his intent, the act of gathering them gives them power. It is one thing to pray alone when your heart is troubled; it’s a bit like dancing by yourself in your room. It is entirely different to either pray or dance with a huge crowd of people who are doing the same thing in unison. Your individual identity fades in importance and you merge with the crowd, experiencing all of their individual joys or sorrows with your own. We transcend ourselves and merge with the collective consciousness. There is a joy, a catharsis in this act of voluntary surrender, even when praying for the dead in a Nazi death camp. By gathering the Jews, Hitler united them in a way they had not dreamed possible for thousands of years.

I’m sorry if it offends you that joy can be found in Buchenwald. I’m sorry if you’re bothered by my facility for finding the good in bad situations. But I believe that the capacity for joy is an essential quality to living, and this is a book about survival, not death. Protagonist might not understand a soft bed or kind treatment after being in a concentration camp for a year, but he still enjoys them. He still notices when a man’s face is handsome. In fact, he notices the attractiveness of good health more when he’s surrounded by starving prisoners.

In the final chapter, Protagonist argues with someone about the role of fate. He sees fate as being the exact opposite of freedom. Having been liberated from a concentration camp, he doesn’t feel the need to say that there was an omnipotent impersonal force that made this tragedy happen; he knows that it came about because of the decisions, actions, and apathy of millions of people. I don’t think he blames the people, but he doesn’t agree that the Holocaust was inevitable. So, ultimately, the title of the book is synonymous with Freedom. Freedom is also another way of understanding the stubbornness and nonviolent resistance of the prisoners. If they can’t be free from their situation, they can find ways they are free to make their own choices and act for themselves. Or at the very least to think for themselves. This is a novel that resists the urge to Americanize the Holocaust, to make the prisoners like ourselves, to make our nation the liberating hero, but if freedom defines the United States, then this is a book about the concept that gives us an identity. Freedom, its consequences, and (to use the popular phrase) its price.

America doesn’t have the monopoly on freedom. I think the search for it is a human trait, the exercise of it a basic right. And sometimes, we need a book like this to remind us how important it is, what opportunities we have to pursue it, and how easy it is to hand our freedom to an authority figure. It’s important to cling tightly to our freedoms; it’s even more important to respect the freedom of others. I would like to live in a world with neither prisoners nor guards (one compels the existence of the other), where we can be truly free and in peace.