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Gunther Grass - some thoughts

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Kjbishop
Posted on Tuesday, August 15, 2006 - 11:56 pm:   

If I had a blog I'd write this there, but I don't, and I feel the rare, for me, urge to publicly vent about something, so here it goes.

By now, anyone reading this probably knows that Gunther Grass, author of 'The Tin Drum' has confessed to joining the Waffen SS as a 17 year old. He should have done it on the Ricki Lake Show - he might have got more understanding from the trailer trash than he got from one of his own biographers, Michael Jurgs, who said that the admission marked "the end of Grass' moral authority," or from Lech Walesa, who thinks he should surrender his honorary citizenship of the Polish city of Gdansk, or German politician Wolfgang Boernsen, who would have him return his Nobel prize.

Let's look at this rationally. Grass was 17. He was called up into a Waffen SS panzer division. He obeyed the order. What on earth else, one has to ask, could he or even should he have done - at that age, at that time, in that place?
Grass is obviously haunted by the memory of this childhood failure to take the moral high road - or perhaps even to be aware that a higher road than service to one's country can exist. Are we to chastise and revile him for not having possessed a transcendent moral compass, and the courage needed to use such an instrument, at 17 years old? Or to heap odium on him because he hasn't come clean before now, regarding what is obviously a painful and shameful matter?
The knee-jerk, irrational, utterly unforgiving response from certain quarters is disturbing, the more so because it's coming from people who should know better. It suggests that these people believe that Grass' brief, and, if he is to be believed, unblooded period of military service has left such a stain on his soul that all the works he has subsequently produced must be tainted with some sort of distilled Nazi depravity.
Here's an alternative idea: perhaps Grass' wartime experience, his guilty feelings, and his ability to look clearly at the emotions he experienced as a young man, are the very reason why he was able to write his novels and speak as a moral voice.

As for those jumping up and down and screaming now, I hope it occurs to them that while rage and revenge may be permissible, compassion and forgiveness are far more noble - and far more useful to the world.

Ok, rant over. Back to my cave.
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Brendan Connell
Posted on Wednesday, August 16, 2006 - 03:55 am:   

Hi,

I understand where you are coming from, and do agree that people should be forgiven etc. But I am not sure that we should dismiss his responsibility because of his age. I think by 17, you should be able to clearly distinguish between right and wrong.

He also did not need to keep silent about it for so long, though I imagine it was convenient to do so.

The truth is that the vast majority of Germans of the time were implicated in one way or another in the horrors of the war. Still, they should be held responsible.

I think the problem is that people put a moral burden on artists. Great art should not be equated with morals. Many scoundrels have been great artists. Personally, even though I am from Jewish stock, I admire several anti-Semitic authors. I don’t admire them as human beings, but I admire their writing.

I am not saying Grass is a scoundrel. Of course he should be forgiven. But on an artistic level, his art doesn’t need to be.

I will be in the cave across the mesa.
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Ellen Datlow
Posted on Wednesday, August 16, 2006 - 06:43 am:   

Got to add my two sense. The point is not that he joined the Nazi party but that he's kept quiet about it for what...fifty years? After demanding at the same time that Germany come to terms with its past. It's pure hypocrisy.
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Dflewis
Posted on Wednesday, August 16, 2006 - 07:12 am:   

'The Tin Drum' is a masterpiece. Many writers are hypocrites, I guess, but none of their hypocrisy can logically change the work itself (for good or bad). Perhaps all fiction should be published nemonymously.
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Ellen Datlow
Posted on Wednesday, August 16, 2006 - 02:35 pm:   

Many writers are assholes, stupid, ignorant, venal, hyocritical, and sometimes monstrous human beings. How is that relevant to the discussion? We're not discussing his work, but the fact that he chose to delete a major aspect of his youth while railing against others in the same position for over fifty years!
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ben peek
Posted on Wednesday, August 16, 2006 - 04:27 pm:   

the question is, as ellen points out, not that he was part of a unit deemed one of the worse, but that afterwards he lied about where he was in the war, and was reportedly quite critical of the nazi germany and those involved in it. so it's more a critique of his moral standards than anything else.

personally, i tend to think it's a bit of nothing. he never denied he was conscripted, though he lied for where he served. the unit he did actually serve in was responsible for (i believe) guarding concentration camps. there's been some cry to actually have grass bought up on war crimes charges since he revealed it. but... well, so what? does it really undermine his position of authority that much? is it really worth all the debate?

there's been some claims too that grass has released this to help sell copies of his autobiography, as well.
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Ellen Datlow
Posted on Wednesday, August 16, 2006 - 09:37 pm:   

Ben,
The fact that he was a member of the Nazi party at 17 and guarded concentration camps (I hadn't heard that) is not the issue to me. I do not at all think he should be tried for war crimes.

It's the hypocrisy of his high moral ground and that he has chosen to reveal it now--yeah, right before his autobiography is being published. That's what sticks in my craw--and that of many other people.
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Kjbishop
Posted on Wednesday, August 16, 2006 - 10:59 pm:   

Brendan: I can see where you're coming from, too (it's a good clear view across the mesa). I tend to agree about being able to tell right from wrong at 17; the problem for me is that if you've always been told that patriotism and military service in the name of protecting your country and furthering its interests is right, 17 seems a young age to decide on your own that this might not be so.

Ellen: It surely would have been better for Grass to admit the truth right at the start. But at the time, it must have seemed like a terribly big deal to him that is was the SS into which he was conscripted - and I can understand why shame, and, yes, perhaps fear of forfeiting the moral authority he'd been invested with would have caused him to lie. If he has been a hypocrite, I would prefer to forgive him, at least partly because I agree with Ben that it really isn't that big a deal. Perhaps his shame helped prompt his calls for Germany to deal with its past; but does that make those calls any less valid? Perhaps it takes an ashamed person to prod others into facing their own shame.

Whatever effects this may have on perceptions of Grass as a human being (to me, it only says that he *is* a human being, with all the complexity and fallibility inherent in that perplexing, difficult state of existence) I would hate to see it tarnish the reputation of his work. A book can obviously be filled with quite a bit more morality than its writer musters in his daily life; he has time to think, and to find the moral voice amongst all the other voices.

Des: I agree that anonymous publication would solve problems of this sort. Only we don't seem to want anonymous authors; we want Authors, named, visible, and the best of them get lumbered with the mantle of Prophets.
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ben peek
Posted on Thursday, August 17, 2006 - 04:03 am:   

ellen--

yeah, i must admit i find the timing of it a little odd. but maybe until recently he hadn't planned to write about it?

the unit he was assigned in was one that guarded the camps. i'm not sure if his did--i guess you have to read the biography for that bit. put he was put into it at the end of the war which, from memory, was when germany was trying to bolster those particular forces.

i got to admit, to me, it makes grass a little more interesting. i like the flaw. but then, i really havent followedhis work strongly, and i haven't had to listen to him speak from his moral high ground for years. i suspect if i had, it'd stick in my throat.
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Dflewis
Posted on Thursday, August 17, 2006 - 07:57 am:   

I agree that anonymous publication would solve problems of this sort. Only we don't seem to want anonymous authors; we want Authors, named, visible, and the best of them get lumbered with the mantle of Prophets.

I like the way you put that, KJ.

I do think such considerations as an evaluation of the 'work itself' and the perhaps misleading radiations upon it from knowledge of the author (we shall never know him to the core even from what he says himself about himself)
are relevant to this discussion of the repercussions of the original topic message. Fundamental repercussions, I feel.

A historic evaluation of the author himself from his life events - as a person - is perhaps isolatable as a topic. But, usually, I feel, as a result of such biographical considerations, one is naturally drawn towards inferences about the author's work or, at least, towards inferences that other people are making these inferences even if you are not. It is human nature.

But perhaps this is either a topic thread of (i) pure biography (whereby we look at GG's life as a life even if we may not have heard of GG at all without his literature coming first) or one concerning (ii) how his biography affects the literature itself and our view of it.

Or, more likely, both (i) and (ii), as it would be unusual (unnatural, impossible?), I feel, to keep them separate in any discussion. But in an alternate world, somewhere, perhaps they do keep the two things completely separate by a method such as nemonymity! :-)
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Kjbishop
Posted on Friday, August 18, 2006 - 03:06 am:   

I wonder how many authors feel that the voice of a book is really *theirs* anyway; or theirs unproblematically, given the somewhat fuzzy nature of identity.
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Dflewis
Posted on Friday, August 18, 2006 - 03:23 am:   

I wrote a bit of my on-line novel today which was a sort of personal epiphany - but re-reading it in a few days I shall reject it because of the nature of what it is about. It being online, however, I cannot revise it later. It is probaly not my own epiphany, in any event, but the character's. Whatever I say, you only have what I've got to say to go on. If I'm typical of other writers, the Intentional Fallacy is indeed what it is: a fallacy.
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Kjbishop
Posted on Friday, August 18, 2006 - 02:05 pm:   

It is probably not my own epiphany, in any event, but the character's.

Exactly. It might be an epiphany you 'keep' and which becomes a part of you; but even then, a contradictory voice would probably still remain in you. We wouldn't be writers, able to inhabit other characters, if we couldn't be chameleons to a certain extent.

Maybe we're so interested in the lives of writers partly because of anxiety over the intentional fallacy, i.e. the more background info we have about the author, the more confident we are of finding that elusive (phantom?) 'authentic' meaning of the text. (Yet even if you sat the author down and asked him, he might not be able to give you a straight answer as to his original intention.)
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Richard Calder
Posted on Monday, August 21, 2006 - 04:59 am:   

From 'The Denial of True Reflection', an article by John Berger in today's Guardian ('Modern moralists live in an experience vacuum; Günter Grass's idea of honour is beyond them'):

'Without ethics man has no future. This is to say mankind without them cannot be itself. Ethics determine choices and actions and suggest difficult priorities. They have nothing to do, however, with judging the actions of others. Such judgements are the prerogative of (often self-proclaimed) moralists. In ethics there is a humility; moralists are usually righteous.

'These thoughts come to my mind as I read the macabre denunciations being levelled today against Günter Grass. About him as a man and about his great work as a writer, they totally miss the point, and might be dismissed as laughable, but, as an index of a certain recent moral climate in Europe, they are troubling. They are an example of moral judgements made in a carefully constructed vacuum of experience. They are what is left after the emptying out of lived experience, and they are a strident denial of what we know in our bones to be real.

'Günter Grass, aged 15 and dreaming of being a heroic warrior, volunteered to join the army and, when he was 17, accepted to enlist with the Waffen SS. After a few months, having participated in no atrocity -- except that of wearing a uniform that rightly provoked an atrocious fear -- he became a prisoner of war and started to learn, with horror, what the forces that he had enlisted with had perpetrated.

'The rest of his life as a storyteller was devoted to grasping, narrating and explaining, with extensive fellow-feeling, the contradictions, cruelties, abysmal losses, wisdom, ignorance, cowardice and grace of people (person by person) under extreme historical stress. Very few other writers of our time have such a wide knowledge of articulate and inarticulate experience. Grass never shut his eyes. He became a writer of honour.

'That he was naive when he was 17 means only that he was 17. Inside a story there are no mistakes, only the living through of mistakes. And he has lived through his, better than most of us would have done.

'The moralists go on to condemn Grass further for waiting so long to make this short chapter of his early life public; he finally wrote and published his autobiography when he was in his 70s.

'To me it is clear that he felt that it was only at this age that he could do any real justice to this incident, which was both a choice and an accident ...

'The righteous moralists are proposing that Grass should renounce all the honours that his life's work has received. Their proposition only shows that, by systematically refusing to acknowledge his experience, they have forgotten what honour consists of. He has not.'

For the Pharisees ...
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Ellen Datlow
Posted on Monday, August 21, 2006 - 06:46 pm:   

No pharisees that I know of around here.
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Kjbishop
Posted on Monday, August 21, 2006 - 11:47 pm:   

With or without Pharisees present, thanks for posting Berger's view, Richard. I check the Guardian now and then but don't read it regularly, and I'd missed this.
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Lawrence A
Posted on Tuesday, August 22, 2006 - 03:47 am:   

a more appropriate, detailed and accurate article is this one from Daniel Johnson entitled "An Open Letter to Günter Grass"
http://www.nysun.com/article/38082?page_no=1

which expands on Ellen's point that Grass launched vindictive attacks on those who held deskjobs in the Nazi party, but neglected to mention he was serving in the Waffen SS at the same time, something he neglected to mention for you know sixty years, longer than most all of us here have been alive.

some relevant quotes from the above article:

---------------------------------------------


"Another memorable scene: Bitburg cemetery in 1985. President Reagan and Chancellor Kohl commemorated the 40th anniversary of the end of the war, at the height of anti-American agitation. In the snow-covered military cemetery, graves of Waffen SS soldiers were discovered. Americans were scandalized, Germans embarrassed, but the ceremony went ahead.

You joined in the denunciation of Reagan and Kohl for appearing to pay tribute to the dead of the SS. Somehow, though, it didn't occur to you to say that you could easily have been one of them."


"...... And there was Kurt-Georg Kiesinger, who had merely been a Nazi Party member throughout the Third Reich, an ordinary opportunist, but who later rose to become Chancellor of West Germany.

That was a scandal in your [Grass's] eyes, and in one of your open letters you called on him to resign — for the crime of having been a Nazi. You never let the German right forget its shady past for one second. But you must have prayed that nobody remembered your own.

Oh yes, you made the most of your moral superiority over those Schreibtischtäter.You pissed on them from a very great height indeed. Except that it now seems that you were one of them. You were a desk criminal, too, only your crimes were committed in the front line and concealed at the desk for the next six decades."


".....You were fortunate to escape retribution at the time, and even more fortunate to have done so for 60 years. Why did you finally come clean? You say yourself: "It had to come out." But why? Were there incriminating documents? Had you confided in your family or friends? Was some young historian finally on your trail? Or did your conscience prompt you to come clean before you died – better late than never? I should like to think so.

But the absence of contrition — indeed, of any self-awareness beyond self-justification — in your interview excludes that possibility. I am afraid that the most cynical motive is also the most plausible: You had an autobiography to sell. The media spectacle, the national soul-searching that you must have known would be unleashed, had one overriding purpose: to make sure that your latest — very possibly your last — book would be a best seller."

-----------------------------------------



gee I guess Berger just forgot to mention the above. too busy pretending to know the motives of Grass in joining the SS in the first place.

the new pope Ratzinger came in for massive attacks on this very forum when he was elevated to the highest seat in the Catholic Church, including harsh words by several regulars here for having been in the Hitler Youth. I probably made the most blistering and scathing comments on the new pontiff by far. As many of you may remember. Yet Grass as a youth served in the SS and there is all this apologetics for him. Oh he was just a kid blabla. So why one set of rules for Ratzinger and another set of rules for Grass?

The answer is obvious, Ratzinger is a conservative whereas Grass is one of the darlings of the European Left. The former gets a grilling because of his Nazi past which was well-known and not something he covered up (even though he was just a kid during WW2) and the latter, Grass, gets all these ready-made excuses (he was also just a kid during WW2) even though he covered it up for sixty fucking years.

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