Sunday, August 20, 2006

The Corruptibility of Günter Grass

Today's New York Times has two op-ed pieces on the unfortunate revelation of Günter Grass's sordid Nazi background: Daniel Kehlmann's "A Prisoner of the Nobel" and Peter Gay's "The Fictions of Günter Grass." As if being any kind of Nazi isn't bad enough, Grass was apparently part of the Waffen SS, who played a particularly ugly role in the Holocaust. Kehlmann's piece raises an interesting point:

"His participation in Hitler’s elite corps could have been seen as youthful foolishness, but his silence over so many years is another matter. And naturally, there are consequences for Germany’s image in the world. When even the most outspoken German moralist wore the uniform of murderers, one might ask whether there is a single guiltless German in this generation."

In the world of Levinasian ethics one might say that Grass is doubly responsible for his role in the Holocaust: first for the direct action, and second for his concealment of that action -- the concealment of the action continues and extends it, perpetuates its legacy. Both articles point out that had Grass come forward about his past in 1959 after the publication of The Tin Drum, perhaps he could now retain some of his well-deserved literary respect. But clearly we will never view Grass, newly Nobel prize-less, in the same way.


nedric said...

A similar suspicious aura surrounds Heidegger both in his person and in his philosophy. While complacency and concealment of many Germans seems intolerable, I often wonder how contagious these are for humans generally. These seem to be key to 'appreciating' the horror of being human. I always want to know "Why?" - either in regard to the original acts or in regard to the following acts of concealment. But then I start wondering, "When did the world become the confessional?"

Monica said...

Yes, and I think it's probably more than a "suspicious aura" when it comes to our friend Heidegger. For one thing, when he became Führer of Freiburg University (in 1933?) he immediately closed the libraries to all Jews, including his teacher, Husserl, and Emmanuel Levinas.

But I think you're right that complacency and concealment are indeed contagious for any and all humans. Yes, the "horror of being human" is a good way to put it.

nedric said...

Right, good correction on Heidegger. I had intended it to be only about his later much too brief and vague comments about his explicitly Nazi activities, like in the interview in Spiegel which he requested be published only after his death.