I am immersed, at the moment, in German history, because I am reading Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus.
Serenus Zeitblom – what a name! Mann loved these kinds of names – is writing the biography of a composer, his friend, Andreas Leverkühn. The writing begins in 1943 - and continues through the devastation of Germany from the air, and from the Soviet advance. At almost the beginning, Zeitblom admits that the spirit of his biography goes against his ‘conscience as a citizen:.
‘And yet there is something that some of us fear – at certain moments that seem criminal even to ourselves, whereas others fear it quite frankly and permanently – fear more than a German defeat, and that is a German victory. I hardly dare ask myself to which of these two persuasions I belong. Perhaps to a third, which yearns for defeat constantly and consciously, but with unrelenting agony of conscience. My wishes and hopes are compelled to resist the victory of German arms, because my friend’s work would be buried beneath it, covered with the curse of proscriptions and forgetfulness for perhaps a hundred years, thus missing its own age and receiving historical honor only in another.”
Zeitblom is too moderate to ask himself more general questions about that third category. And yet, who among us has not felt intimations of it during this ice age of reaction in which we live, cocooned in the ephemerally invulnerable systems erected since the beginning of the Cold War, feeding our intellects on our irritation and imaginary apocalypses? Imaginary, I say, for us – not for, say, your average Baghdad dweller. And of course, for those who have eyes to see, the minor apocalypse – to give it its true historical scale – of an American middle class that has been persuaded, in the age of Reagan, to cut its throat and think, while it is lapping up its own blood, that it is enjoying the very champagne of capitalism.
… This has been in my mind as I have been watching Deutschland, bleiche Mutter (1980), by Helma Sanders-Brahms. This film was met with a barrage of criticism in West Germany when it was first released. Partly, this barrage was about the syndrome Sebald identified – the desire to forget the war, meaning, forget the bombing. That desire has notoriously turned about – unfortunately, the bombing is now being remembered as the great victimizaiton of the Germans. To forget or to remember are two sides of the same coin. The coin is called pathological normality. And Sanders-Brahms film is – sometimes unconsciously – a probe into that state. For one of the questions one wants answered about that bombing is: why was there no revolt against a state that had so evidently and plainly led the nation into the abyss?
The question naturally arises from the common perception that the Nazis succeeded because they produced prosperity. They quickly brought an end to Weimar’s economic collapse, and so became immensely popular. This, at least, is the story. If it is a good story, though, than the utter collapse of that prosperity, the systematic burning of German cities, the dumping of burgerliche Deutschtum literally on the ash heaps of their homes should have prompeted, by the same logic, the overthrow of the Nazi regime.
But this didn’t happen. In fact, the passivity, the acceptance of the bombing, seems to be of a piece with the acceptance of defeat, acceptance of the occupation, acceptance of the Adenauer regime – acceptance after acceptance. In a sense, what died in the allied bombing was the idea that there was a place for revolution in Europe. The velvet revolution was, of course, not one – it was the mere final collapse of governments who could no longer rule. It was no more a revolution than the collapse of the Habsburg empire was a revolution – it was a defeat. No, I would say that the end of revolution as a European reality, at least in the twentieth century, was this lack-of-an-event that occurred in 1943-1945. The lesson of Nazi Germany was learned by both sides in the Cold War, who managed a double movement – prosperity on the one side and a managed and total vulnerability on the other. Myself, though, I’m more interested in the structure of this pathological normal state. This inability not to be normal.
In DBM, the narrative voice – Sanders-Brahms voice – introduces us to the meeting of Lene and Hans – her parents – at a dance in which Hans tells Lene that the only thing that matters to him is seeing her again. And she says: “Glucklich. Ganz normal. Nur es in diesem Zeit geschiet. In diesem Land.”
And that is the keynote of the war that comes – ganz normal. The bombing – ganz normal. Hans’s shooting of women ‘terrorists’ – ganz normal. The journey of Lene and her mother through a wasteland of burned out cities. Ganz normal. For Sanders-Brahms, the twist here is that women in Germany – while the men were away at the front –could take control of things. Of their lives – a control that was taken away from them after the war, in the Adenauer era. In a way, one feels that this is a sort of blind cul de sac – ignoring the substance of that control, that control of German women in Germany in 1943, holding onto the ganz normal. The film was received, and still has a reputation, as an expression of feminist film-making – but I don’t believe that the feminist theme is really separable from the theme of pathological normality.
In the middle of the film, Lene wanders with Hanna in a wood. At first it seems to be winter – then spring. Hitler dies, a voiceover samples the voice of Donitz’s surrender – and Lene begins to tell her daughter the story of the Robber Bridegroom, a story that was brought by French refugees to Germany – the old story of Bluebeard. A story that includes, in Lene’s version – a path to the bridegroom’s house of ashes, and an old woman sitting in the house who warns the bride – look around you, you are in a house of murderers!
Those who know the film will see that here, I am skewing my interpretation to the scenes depicting the war. The thread I am looking for here is not the feminist one, taken by most commenters on the film. Or: it relates that moment – all our hopeful moments, all the politically progressive moments that have made life so much better – to a war culture with which we must deal, or perish.
My definition of utopia: when the ganz normal is not a state of collaboration in an ongoing state sponsored crime.
MANY YEARS LATER as he faced the firing squad, Roger Gathman was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover
ice. Or rather, to discover the profit making potential of selling bags of ice to picnicking Atlantans, the most glorious of the old man's Get Rich schemes, the one that devoured the most energy, the one that seemed so rational for a time, the one that, like all the others - the farm, the housebuilding business, the plastic sign business, chimney cleaning, well drilling, candy machine renting - was drawn by an inexorable black hole that opened up between skill and lack of business sense, imagination and macro-economics, to blow a huge hole in the family savings account. But before discovering the ice machine at 12, Roger had discovered many other things - for instance, he had a distinct memory of learning how to tie his shoes. It was in the big colonial, a house in the Syracuse metro area that had been built to sell and that stubbornly wouldn't - hence, the family had moved into it. He remembered bending over the shoes, he remembered that clumsy feeling in his hands - clumsiness, for the first time, had a habitation, it was made up of this obscure machine, the shoe, and it presaged a lifetime of struggle with machine after machine.