Grass Writes a Letter

Most of us were once young and stupid. What if we were branded by the worst we have done? What if anyone, listening to us, couldn’t avoid seeing that brand? Then, how effective would we be? How difficult would it have been for us to speak with authority, to do the best that we could do when we were no longer quite so stupid? Clearly, Dimmesdale is tempted by Chillingworth to justify his hypocrisy by the good that his sermons do. (The temptation how many politicians’ handlers set before their bosses?)

So, we see the artful Gunter Grass letter. I am struck by how this aged man notes he will bear the mark of Cain – he has lived a long life without it. It will, needless to say, be a part of every obituary when he dies, but it was not a part of a lifetime’s work nor a factor in others’ responses. He won’t be around for the obituaries; he was around for the Nobel prize.

The lessons Tom Segev finds have the truth of clichés but also their simplification:

Two main lessons arise from the letter: Be skeptical, young man, especially in a time of war. Ask what should be asked. If you have a terrible secret, come out with it before you become a person whom the whole world recognizes, and the sooner you do so the better off you’ll be.

Skepticism in the midst of a mob is necessary for integrity, its detachment lets us analyze when faced with the overwhelming passions of a society on the wrong track. But unresolved skepticism – skepticism that doesn’t have a “for” as well as an “against” – leads to cynicism, to nihilism and disengagement. Skepticism inspired by rational assessment should be followed by engaged action (often counteraction). Skepticism in itself is barren.

And, many a terrible secret is never known in our lifetimes – indeed, ever. Our lives are various & confused, our pasts mingle with our present but are unseen – ignored by us, shadows others can’t see. And how would Grass’s words have been interpreted if the brand had been public his whole active, intellectual life? He was playing the odds and he had a chance of winning. Pragmatism – it will eventually come out – is not the best argument here. Of course, while others don’t know, we do. Such duplicity harms us even if no one else finds out.

This week we have been reading The Scarlet Letter, and the hypocrisy and authority of Dimmesdale remind us of Grass; that fictional preacher found himself able to speak more profoundly to the hearts of his parishioners because of his sin but he reached them because he was not marked. His guilt contrasts with Hester’s acceptance of that brand, her willingness to pay with shame to expiate guilt she is less sure is hers. As is so often true, literature provides an interesting exercise. As years have passed, more students see Dimmesdale as a “wuss” (not inappropriate if colloquial). How do we see Grass?

I haven’t read much Grass – and what I did, I read long ago & can barely remember. I did not feel at ease with the implied author, but then that is likely to be as much a flaw in me, my parochialism, as in his vision. Some of you are likely to have read more and thought more about this. I’m hoping the comments will be better informed than my response.

Two earlier comments: Blog: Horsefeathers; Newspaper: NY Times. The latter notes “Now because Mr. Grass has invariably taken leftist positions, his loudest critics are, unsurprisingly, conservatives.” Well, yes – far be it from the Times not to use ad hominem when attendance to the issues might be useful. Grass’s positions may have been leftist, but comparing his position to, say, Lincoln’s, makes him appear more petty than “leftist”. For instance, his criticism of Reagan’s visit to the cemetery in 1985 and his argument that East Germany was “annexed” by a colonial West Germany appear derived from a self-righteousness that should not have come so easily. Nor does the Times skimp on quoting a conservative’s ad hominem. It concludes on a note that moves beyond skepticism to cynicism:

Some of his longtime critics, however, have suggested that Mr. Grass’s confession is no more than a publicity stunt to draw attention to the book. And they have pointed out that the release of many of his books, most recently “Too Far Afield” and “Crabwalk,” has also been accompanied by headline-grabbing controversy.

“Günter Grass thought for a long time how he could get the most possible people to buy his new memoir,” Hans Zippert, a columnist in the conservative daily Die Welt, noted in a particularly sharp jab. “Then, fortunately, it occurred to him that he had been a member of the Waffen SS but hadn’t trumpeted it before. A real sensation.”

While this explanation may seem farfetched, Mr. Grass’s publisher, Gerhard Steidl, has nonetheless brought forward the publication date of “Peeling the Onion” by two weeks.

Well, maybe. But we have the narrator’s need to provide in our conclusions a pattern that combines the many threads of our lives, leaving none astray to unravel the whole picture. That drive for an order to our lives is one we tend to underestimate. Few of us like unresolved mysteries and fewer still, perhaps, like unresolved lives. Now, he can turn that confession into art, make it a part of his own narrative, see it from the perspective he wants us to see it from:

It was only when I determined to overcome my skepticism toward biographical writing and when I began to work on a book that examines that dubious instrument called memory and questions it and in the end is brought to expression by peeling the onion, layer after layer, did I find the words to describe in the broad context this episode, which though brief was so influential in my life. There is nothing for me to add to this book.

That context is introduced with a demand: “May I be judged by those who for whatever reason have nothing to hide.” (This seems to me another cliche that is true – all of us have indeed been young & stupid – but also the observation that this is a mercy that should be granted by the judge rather than demanded by the penitent.) We realize why he has waited until this autobiograhical moment, well into the last stages of his life, to give that youthful folly a proportion with which he is comfortable: “That being so, all I can do is ask that the whole history of my upheaval-filled life, since the time I was 17, and all of my activity as a writer and an artist and an involved citizen in my country be acknowledged as a counterweight.”