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Some notes on the Rule of Thugs

Every Man Dies Alone, by Hans Fallada, (translated by Michael Hofmann) MelvilleHouse, Brooklyn, New York, 2009, 539 pp. pb $19.95

While I was reading Toronto writer Nazneen Sheikh’s romantic memoir  Moon Over Marrakech, I also happened to be reading a 2009 translation of Hans Fallada’s justly-lauded 1947 novel, Every Man Dies Alone. It is a fictionalized account of a real-life Berlin couple who opposed Hitler and the Nazis for two years in the early part of the Second World War by writing anti-Nazi postcards and dropping them in public places.  They wrote and dropped some 280 postcards, of which all but about 20 were quickly turned in to the Nazis.

The real world couple the novel was based on, Otto and Elise Hampel, were caught in 1942, tortured, and then beheaded by the Nazis. Fallada himself, an alcoholic who survived imprisonment for insanity by the Nazis, died in 1947 before the novel was published in German, and, inexplicably, another 62 years passed before it was translated into English. The achievement of Every Man Dies Alone, a considerable one, is that it forces readers to experience not just life in Nazi Germany for those who didn’t succumb to Hitler and to Nazi propaganda, but the miasma of totalitarian oppression in general. It forces a convincing sense of just how utterly crazy human groups can get—and how easy the boundary between normal human polity and insanity is to cross, not to mention offering an unnervingly clear idea of the risk involved in opposing mass insanity.

What the Hampels faced in Nazi Berlin early in the war was, for people who have lived their lives with a full compliment of human rights, almost unimaginable. But to paraphrase Primo Levi, it happened before so it can happen again, and so the exercise of reading books like Every Man Dies Alone, which isn’t in any sense pleasant, ought to be placed among the duties of democratic citizenship: it isn’t enough to understand what democracy entitles us to, we also need to know what it protects us from. I can think of few pieces of writing that are more eloquent than Every Man Dies Alone on exactly what democracy and the rule of law protects us from: arbitrary violence, and the kinds of humiliation exacted on decent people in a country under the rule of thugs, a term that defines what Nazi Fascism was as exactly as any I’ve ever encountered.

Comparing Every Man Dies Alone with a cultural confection like Moon Over Marrakech, (or any number of other recently-published novels) isn’t fair in several ways, but it’s an interesting and useful exercise notwithstanding. It’s interesting because the first thing you notice is that the comparison necessitates a choice between endorphins and enlightenment. That reveals, by itself that we have, at this point in history, a near absolute prejudice—as we reject our Protestant ancestors—for the endorphins. Behind that prejudice, Moon Over Marrakesh and its kind easily wins out: who needs the downers; ain’t life hard enough? Reading the confections is fun, and relatively unchallenging, even when you do learn something, which will likely be something that broadens or deepens one’s personal pleasure at being alive or makes it easier or more simple to experience.

But don’t we, if we want to continue living in a democracy and enjoying the entitlements that contemporary consumer democracy confers on us, now have a more urgent concern than since the Second World War? Given the vast increase in fundamentalisms and political and cultural totatities that have re-emerged in the last two decades, we have to more or less constantly balance the duty to educate ourselves in civil and political matters with our right to seek pleasure, pursue happiness and otherwise practice “every man for himself”. It may seem like small potatoes, but not to give some sort of reading priority to a work of literature that is profoundly and relevantly cautionary, the way Every Man Dies Alone is, is an abrogation of that citizen’s duty.  I suspect that the penalties for not doing this will eventually be extreme, even if they might be delayed as long as a generation. Unfortunately I have no way of proving any of this, because the degree of liberty we currently enjoy is unprecedented, only recently achieved, and we certainly can’t yet project the cultural consequences of it with certainty. It might turn out that the legal and political safeguards we’ve erected to protect those extreme personal liberties may be powerful enough that we’re actually free to forget the past. But what if they’re not? As Primo Levi said, it happened before, so it can happen again.

Yet the very fact that that last question is no longer rhetorical isn’t quite what’s bothering me. It’s something subtly different. We’ve now had nearly a century of film and 60 years of television—the latter is what Marshall McLuhan unhelpfully called a “cool”—or interactive—medium. His distinction is unhelpful partly because McLuhan also thought that seminars and cartoons were coolly interactive, and that he likely would have enthused about the Internet the same way, which from his leafy glade in Wychwood Park, he would have imagined was nurturingly interactive.

It is true in a simple-minded sort of way that among the cultural effects of these mediums of “enhanced” human interactivity has been the enlargement of our individual and collective emotional receptors, and a shrinking from if not necessarily the actual withering of rational judgment. We are now prone to wish to prioritize experience through the sensorium rather than through ratiocinative understanding. But given that shift in cognitive protocols, have we made books like Every Man Dies Alone culturally obsolete or even incomprehensible? And where does that leave us in the face of the onslaught of the new (or rejigged-to-electronic-technology) totalities that both cocoon cognition and subject it to unprecedented degrees of social and psychological manipulation?

What alerted me to all this was the four full pages of testimonials attesting to the book’s importance found inside the front cover of the paperback edition of Every Man Dies Alone. They’re drawn from newspapers and from celebrity reviewers—if the latter can still legitimately still claim to exist—across the English-speaking world, and nearly all of them spoke to the cautionary importance of the book rather than its literary merit. They were, I think, assembled where they are—at the gates of the book—as a kind of chorus, there to reiterate that there are reasons we should read this and other similar books with unpleasant subject matter.  It seemed like overkill when I encountered it, but now that I’ve thought it through, I’m not so sure.  We live in a world where the emotional residue of, say, 9-11 has been more thoroughly considered (and massaged) than what caused it or what its long-term political implications are. We may be more in touch with our feelings about it than we might have 40 years ago, but few North Americans have any kind of structured understanding of why it happened or to what degree the conditions that precipitated it have been resolved. McLuhan, insightful as he sometimes was about media technology, had little comprehension of how unstable and erratic emotion is as a medium for social communication. Its primacy as a human informational receptor has transformed most of us into political and cultural imbeciles lost in the drowsy numbness of information overload and it may be the gasoline pump in the global rise of religious fundamentalisms and lifestyle Bolshevisms.

Meanwhile, do read this book, even if makes you feel icky.

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1300 words, September 22nd, 2010

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Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett is a Toronto-based writer.

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