Günter Grass, and the search for knowing memory

This is the first of at least two posts I’m writing on the issue of memory and its reliability.

Grass is perhaps the most eloquent of Germany’s post-World War Two novelists. Indeed, he may be the most eloquent and morally-inclined of all post-WWII German writers, period. His novel, The Tin Drum is one of the most widely read, and stunningly insightful novels of the seduction of fascism, and its essential immorality. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature for his work, and has long been considered German’s most important moral voice, especially as regards Germany’s legacy of Fascism.

It’s all the more horrifying, then, that he recently came forward with the admission that he had, like many other young Germans at the time, volunteered for the Waffen SS (The Waffen SS was separate from the SS proper, and therefore theoretically uninvolved in the worst atrocities).

This man, the author of the Tin Drum, a recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, and for many, German’s ‘in-house moralist,’ is revealed as yet another muddled German who volunteered for the Nazi armies, not as one of those youngsters who escaped knowledge and culpability for Nazi crimes.

So what are we to make of his autobiography, Peeling the Onion, in which the first four chapters are dedicated to his experience and enrollment in the Waffen SS? I haven’t read it, since my German isn’t up to that sort of demand, but there’s an interesting review of it by John Vincour for the International Herald Tribune here.

Vincour’s review truly tears Grass a new one, but it’s less vindictive than Christopher Hitchens’ attack in Slate, where the lapsed leftist accuses Grass of admitting this now merely to boost sales. That accusation may or may not hold water, but both Vincour and Hitchens are guilty, in my opinion, of rewriting history. Not nearly as much as Grass did (or, as Vincour shows, still does), but all the same: Grass may not have been everyone’s moral touchstone in postwar Germany, but he was hardly ‘self-appointed.’ Hitchens has lost nearly all credibility since his work promoting the Iraq war as a crusade against so-called Islamo-fascism. Furthermore, he has consistently rewritten his own history
Where Vincour gets it right, and where Hitchens allows himself to fall into the hilariously tawdry and self-referential spectacle of pompously accusing another author of pompous and hypocritical comments intended to sell books, is that Vincour has apparently read Grass’ autobiography. And this leads him to take on its central theme: Memory.

Vincour argues not against the facts (which are, after all, preserved in historical archives – Grass was arrested by the Allies as a member of the Waffen SS), nor the timing of Grass’ revelation (which could have multiple explanations), but to the way in which Grass’ meditation on his own history is mediated in his reflections on his memory. Vincour’s review, titled “Blurred Memory,” describes the ways in which Grass consistently erases the traces of his own culpability, and how his memory seems to leave out precisely those things that would make the work acceptable as a coming-to-terms with memory in history.

I should repeat again that I have not read this work. I’m waiting for the English translation. But I’m fascinated by the public furor around it. There are several aspects that make me particularly curious to see how it plays out:

First, the idea that memory can be a public good. That is, Grass’ memories do not belong only to him. Through his history of criticism and insistence that Germans must confront their Nazi past, his own memory and culpability has been rendered less than private, and subject to the corrections that are supposedly offered by history, to memory. Memory is often considered, for various reasons, as less accurate than history, especially by those on the right or in the so-called ‘middle,’ where the right’s hegemony operates most effectively. History is thought therefore to be capable of correcting memory. And sometimes, certainly, it can.

Second, the idea that Grass would have been exculpated for his history, had he come to appropriate terms with his memory. Building on the previous point, it is clear in many of the essays and statements made about Grass’ Waffen SS activity, that Grass could have been forgiven (and perhaps, still could be – the jury’s out; it’s just us gossiping in the empty courtroom right now) had his memoirs been perceived as an ‘honest’ confession of his activities. The consensus that appears to be building, as seen especially in Vincour’s well-written review, is that the memoir does not accomplish this; rather, the very style in which it is written, and the metaphor of the onion which is peeled, prevents any veracity from becoming known (after all, an onion has no essential core which is revealed once it is peeled – it just makes you cry).

Finally, that confession and history go hand in hand. Confession is the legitimate mode of memory in this arena, and it is verified by appeals to history. This is the sort of insight that Foucault’s work first brought to the fore in works like Discipline and Punish. Talal Asad examined confession as a rite of juridical power in Genealogies of Religion.

The thought that comes to mind and on which I would enjoy receiving feedback, is that the combination of history and confession is a particularly potent force in the modern world, where memory is conceived of as a potent and powerful force of the oppressed against totalizing and homogenizing power of modern capitalism, but where its expressions must be verified in relationship to history. History, ‘written by the victors,’ becomes the authoritative force in much modern discourse; history is the field, and confession (with reference to history, completing the solipsism) is the process by which history is completed. Memory becomes history’s supplement [do we really need the citation to Derrida? Here it is], rather than a separate force.
This is a clear subordination of the power of memory to that of history, in the confessional mode. Now, when it comes to Nazism, there may be a compelling reason to subordinate memory to history, though I would argue that in every case where the two come in conflict there is a slippage – What does it mean that we should “Never Forget” when history is precisely the discourse that makes individual forgetting possible? What does it mean to remember our history, as Santayana urges us to do? The interactions only seem one way: we can remember our history, but historicizing our memories does not have the opposite meaning: both refer to history as the authority of truth, and memory as the process or supplement which brings history to the present.

And here we return to the juridical power of authority. What is authority? Stemming from the latin word auctoritas (see Bruce Lincoln’s book on Authority), wikipedia’s entry on auctoritas defines it as:

a juridical power to validate, legitimate another act: in itself, it has no sense, as it has to be related to this other act. In other words, law (more generally, right) doubles and recovers life in a dialectic relationship.

This appears to confirm my thinking above: in situations like the one we encounter with Grass, all accusations which include questions of both memory and history must make the former subordinate to the latter: History is the juridical authority over memory.

So, what then of the idea that memory is the preserve, sanctuary and power of those repressed by the authors of victorious history?

My sense is that of all the writers on contemporary memory and history, one of the best is actually Subcommandante Marcos. Three of his essays, which I will deal with in another posting, can be found here:

An inverted periscope (or memory, a buried key)

The history of the measure of memory

The duality of remembrance

Celebration of memory is also a celebration of tomorrow

Marcos on memory and reality

To return, finally, to Vincour’s review: a moment of insight happens when Vincour doesn’t attack Grass for erasing memory, but for his ‘unknowing memory.’ This phrase, which is left largely unexplained, implies a possibility for memory’s validation that is not dependent on history, its institutions and authorities, but on the seriousness of moral purpose evident in the construction of a remembrance. It is not a failure because it conflicts with established history, but because the elements of memory that could bring such a remembrance to a moral fruition are lacking. I’ll end this post with a lengthy quotation from the essay:

Grass talks about his hardened drill instructors back from the east and their “cruel wit.” But what about their jokes – were they about Jews, partisans, or gypsies, or an extra schnaps ration for manning machine guns in mass executions? Not a detail.

And no names either of barracks buddies or thoughts about what they’ve become. Grass returns to see a persecuted teacher after the war, whose name we learn, but there are no faces, no conversations, no “cruel wit” from those who, in theory at least, were being schooled alongside the author by the SS.

Grass also spares the reader any re- creation or sense of the SS ideological training that dehumanized its members, and built a psychological machine to carry out, whether by Waffen SS troops or their black-uniformed counterparts, missions in the service of horror.

The column of no-details fills with unanswered questions. Grass mostly spares himself in the process and we are insulted in our disbelief. By not daring to provide the jokes, the names, the details, we ask again, what kind of human being wrote “The Tin Drum,” and then hid from these personal facts for 60 years?

I look forward to hearing your comments.


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