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Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Watching “The Reader,” Reading Hegemony

Watching the film, “The Reader” (2008), based on Bernhard Schlink’s novel (Der Vorleser in German, 1995; The Reader in English, 1997) about Hanna Schmitz, an older woman, and an adolescent Michael Berg growing up in post-war Germany. The woman’s has a dirty secret … she selects young people and sleeps with them as a guard in a concentration camp. For sex?

No, so they will read to her.

At the end, when Hanna is about to commit suicide, she stacks the books that Michael Berg her former young lover (and now a lawyer) has sent to her in prison …

She stands on a pile of German literature … we can plainly see a book called Poems by Rilke … to hang herself.

The books she couldn’t read (her illiteracy condemned her to life imprisonment) now serve to kill her.

I connect this with George Steiner’s indictment of German literary culture (“The Hollow Miracle,” “A Note on Günter Grass,” “A Kind of Survivor,” in Language and Silence).  

(Aside: in his ostentatiously erudite, obsessive prose, I see an inverse mirroring of the muteness and moral ambiguity of the writers and Teutonic culture Steiner interrogates/imitates in a garbled way …)

As if to refute Steiner’s thesis, Schlink gives us a woman who cannot read and does not seem to be able to think clearly …  her shame connects her illiteracy, her moral ambiguities in her personal life and her inability to think clearly about right and wrong.

(She seems to have a literal kind of alexithymia or to put it more accurately the psychiatric condition, alexithymia—an inability to put feelings into words, is given a literal rendering as illiteracy.)

What is being said here?


Gramsci’s hegemony and Foucault’s discourse …

Even the victims are part of a discourse …

How to explain the shame that Holocaust survivors describe?

How to explain the anecdote that Emmanuel Lévinas recounts about the dog, Bobby, being “the last Kantian in Germany” who recognizes the humanity of the Jewish prisoners which their fellow humans do not acknowledge?

What is usually invoked is “identification with the aggressor” (Anna Freud’s notion) and later elaborations such as the “Stockholm Syndrome” …

These are at best smaller, specific and individual instances of a larger and more important phenomenon speaking to a greater question, which is that often victims and perpetrators share much of the same culture and its ideology … and they experience the same compelling, commonsense explanations of the world which seem evident and natural …

It takes a combination of courage to stand apart from the crowd, and clarity of analysis to see things differently, in order to distance oneself from a dominant social discourse or hegemony. An example is in Aharon Appelfeld’s novel, Badenheim 1939 where the characters “misconstrue every signal of their fate” until disaster arrives at their door.

So that in Auschwitz, the guards complied with the anti-Semitism of the dominant culture, and the Jews themselves felt shame and humiliation for their predicament. Primo Levi says that fellow Jews rejected him as a Jew because as an Italian, he didn’t speak Yiddish like the Jews of Eastern Europe and Russia.

Both Hitler and Stalin succeeded in manipulating mass psychology but the extreme nature of their regimes distracts us, blinds us even, from the general phenomenon which is hegemony—the transformation of a specific, idiosyncratic ideology into general, shared culture.


All leaders rule through hegemony in Antonio Gramsci’s view or through discourses in Michel Foucault’s perspective. The subtlety and sophistication of the methods used makes each case different—more or less successful in the measure in which it can camouflage those very methods.


In three key novels, childhood is used as an emblem for adult preoccupations.
Each child is mutilated by war …

In Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird (1965), the Polish Gypsy-Jewish child becomes mute.

In Elsa Morante’s La Storia: Romanzo (1974)/History: A Novel (1977), the Italian Jewish child is epileptic.

In Günter Grass’ Die Blechtrommel (1959)/The Tin Drum (1961), the German child becomes stunted and effectively only appears to be a child even as he ages.

In a (Freudian) displacement/(Hegelian) inversion of this in The Reader, we see a woman who is adult in almost every sense, but is like a child in being preliterate. And perhaps in terms of her moral development. When she does learn to read (a symbol of her entering the adult world, the world of ideas and the world of moral responsibility), she commits suicide. And she does so, on the very day of her release from prison when her reader has organized an apartment for her and found her a job. And she does so by placing a stack of books as footstool and we are led to assume, kicks them away in order to hang herself. How symbolic!

The Reader made me rethink my understanding of the man-child Oskar in Grass’ The Tin Drum. In the other two novels, the Jewish children are, however mutilated or maimed by war, always children. In the two German novels, the protagonists are in fact grown-ups with childlike qualities … Oskar’s childlike body is mirrored by Hanna’s childlike mind.

We need to reread now Christa Wolf’s brilliant, emotionally shattering Kindheitsmuster/Patterns of Childhood (1976) … looking back on that era. (She is the greater artist, in my judgement; unquestionably more courageous and more self-confronting. Schlink’s moral distancing begs the question, as does Grass’ distancing through metaphor.)

And now we can read Fragments together … Binyamin Wilkomirski’s fictive memoir (I choose “fictive” as opposed to “fictional memoir … we can easily imagine a novel being written under the fictional guise of a memoir … but a fictive memoir ironizes the notion of memoir).

In all these works, our notions of childhood are put at stake … 

On one hand, the commonsense notion of childhood is invoked in its exceptions … as deviations from the normal course of the growth of a child … the mute child, the strange, epileptic child, the stunted child …

On the other hand, these very exception in not being clinical cases are emblems, allegories … so either we are to suspend our usual understanding of children’s growth as in a kind of European magical realism avant la lettre or we have to review our notions of growth and maturity subsumed under the notion of development.  

I hope to show that both approaches are problematic.

Using growth and its vicissitudes as a literary trope does violence to the assumptions of what I will call “developmental thinking,” but questioning developmental models means we will not be able to understand these characters as traumatized children because the very notion of developmental trauma then falls apart. Either there are developmental norms for growth and typical, discernible deviations from those norms that generate our pictures of children and their growth which is the discourse we call “development” (and the children invented do not conform to that discourse) or the entire discourse about development is wrong and children and adults simply have highly individual, idiosyncratic lifecourses and lifeworlds. The notion of “trauma” as exception then falls apart because whatever occurs, it is simply one more way to be.

What do we lose and what do we gain in each instance?


Coda: An example of how hegemony or discourse works …

In “The Final Problem” (1893), Sherlock Holmes is in a mortal struggle at Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland (not far from Saas-Fee where the European Graduate School is situated) with Professor Moriarty who declares, “Everything that I have to say to you has already crossed your mind.” To which Holmes responds, “And my answer has no doubt crossed yours.”

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (“the Napoleon of crime writers”) presents Holmes (“the Napoleon of crime fighters”) and Moriarty (“the Napoleon of crime”) as brilliant men who understand each other implicitly but in fact such discourses work routinely in society precisely because people commonly understand each other’s habits of mind and habits of conduct.


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