Monday, September 6, 2010

Put the Book Back on the Shelf 3: The Kindly Ones, Jonathan Littell

[These are really brief notes on an enormous book that was sparked by Douglas Murphy's post.]

For a book that deals with some of the worst moments in human history, the most surprising thing to me about The Kindly Ones was how difficult it was to put down. Douglas Murphy supplies a few reasons – the mythological underpinnings, the Forrest Gumpery. The latter is particularly effective, for although Maximillian Au is no ingénue, there is something of the Good Soldier Schwejk (with admittedly less beer drinking and farting and more Mozart and gay cruising) about him. He is the very idea of the bureaucrat (although Murphy notes the family tragedy which lifts him from the banality of evil stereotype, more on which later) whose insistence of his lack of personal responsibility seems almost genuine; while he is in the middle of (in)famous historic events, they don’t particularly effect him as much as stress him out.

Or so it seems. By making Au the main vessel of consciousness, Littell compels us to at least provisionally identify with him, at least if you want to get further than 50 pages into the book. Which is especially odd given what a neither/nor character Au actually is. On the one hand, we have a character right out of Visconti’s The Damned – a cruisy queer Nazi with incestuous feelings with his sister and homicidal feelings towards his mother. (Is there not something slightly clichéd about this? It seems as though Littell avoided the Eichmann-bureaucrat stereotype but fell right into another. Perhaps we should declare a moratorium on Queer Nazis; there weren’t that many to begin with, and by the 1940s there were a lot fewer.) On the other, there is the sentimental murderer, feeling sorrow over the possibility that he might never hear Bach again, or talk to someone about Tertullan.

What Au signally lacks is mediation between the private fact of his psychopathology and the larger pathologies of History. The mediators haven’t vanished in a Weberian sense; they have been withdrawn. Try as one might, its hard to avoid the Zizek point about “the totalitarian personality”, for want of a better term): the inner detachment and cynically distance from power, the “I personally have nothing against the Jews, but the if that’s the Law, then that’s the Law” syndrome that manifests itself in his revulsion by the more virulent anti-Semites in the SS, the tactical withdrawal into the rhythms of personal gemuchlikeit (tea, decent food, musical scores, privacy).

This purposed withdrawal of any affect mediating between personal and social might be linked to Au’s mental disintegration, as Murphy points out. (Confession: I thought that the sexual fantasies that take up part of the last third of the book were real.) What, for example, to make of the murder of his mother and step-father. Like the two detectives, we the readers are certain that Au probably did kill them, but there is nevertheless absolutely no textual evidence to support this, and Au retains not even a traumatic gap in his memory regarding what must have been a very bloody moment.

This apparent absence of trauma is one of the things that is interesting about Au’s character. But at the same time, he is not the typically sociopath that one would expect him to be; if anything, he often resembles his erstwhile opposite number: Leopold Bloom, in his desire to make his way in the world with as little fuss as possible. In what sense, then, is Au’s psyche broken-down? Or more specifically, what is the cause of this breakdown? The fact that he finds himself present at most of the major atrocities of WWII doesn’t seem quite enough. My sense is that it is his toggling back and forth between creaturely comfort and survival and the weight of History (e.g. when Hess makes his speech to the SS, making everyone complicit in the Holocaust) without a mediating affect that makes the link between an already pathological consciousness and the density of the Final Solution is the source of his mental collapse; the transitions between parallax are too traumatic as such.

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