Category Archives: Review Essays

‘Ethics And Denial: Confronting The Holocaust In History’

I’m not really happy with this one, but here it is all the same. *grin* ~L

Ethics and Denial: Confronting the Holocaust in History

Michael Shermer and Alex Grobman.
Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It?.
Berkeley: University of California, 2000.

Zachary Braiterman.
(God) After Auschwitz: Tradition and Change in Post-Holocaust Jewish Thought.
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998.

Carol Rittner and John K. Roth (eds.).
From the Unthinkable to the Unavoidable: American Christian and Jewish Scholars Encounter the Holocaust.
Westport: Greenwood Press, 1997.

Deborah Lipstadt.
Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory.
New York: Penguin, 1994.

John K. Roth and Michael Berenbaum (eds.).
Holocaust: Religious and Philosophical Implications.
New York: Paragon House, 1989.


Despite an ever-growing body of literature on the Holocaust, the greatest crime of the Hitler régime remains an inexhaustible space for work on the ethical-historical implications of mass murder. Yet to the extent that the Holocaust is construed as a isolated chapter in human history—one bounded by the precise contours of racist ideology and fascist organization—its wider lessons are obscured. As John Roth observes, “we are still living in a world—sixty years after the liberation of Auschwitz—that has been repeatedly revisited by mass murder, ethnic cleansing, and genocide.”1 But the Holocaust is much more than an “immense human failure”; it points to what we as a species are capable of in the modern period, when tools of awesome destructive potential lie in the hands of beings with an innate moral sense little improved by millennia of cultural development. Whether we subscribe to a religious model that makes man a reflexion of the divine, or hold that man is inseparable from his ancestral, animal nature, the capacity for violence and habit of following the crowd are scarcely deniable—and it is their combination that make the ethical questions of the Holocaust of perennial significance.

It is not our intention here to argue against the uniqueness of the Holocaust in Jewish or European civilization; nor would we advocate a purely comparative approach that placed the Holocaust beside such things as the Pol Pot massacres or the multi-generational Native American genocide. Instead, what is urged is a line of study separate from and parallel to the aforementioned—one whose concern is the historical record of atrocity and whose analytical tools are borrowed from disciplines such as psycho-analysis, sociology, philosophy, and evolutionary psychology. In the space of a few decades, “the Holocaust moved from being unthinkable to being thinkable and then to being unavoidable,” then promptly turned a corner and “became unthinkable all over again”.2 Our contention is that the scale and thoroughness of the Holocaust, and the varied ways in which it has been apprehended, present unparalleled opportunities to study the fragility of social relations and the ease with which a murderous ideology can subvert seemingly solid moral values. In the words of Carol Rittner and John Roth, the Holocaust “did not have to happen. That recognition leaves humankind, morality, religion, and even God on trial.”3

The books here discussed are representative of opposing positions taken after the fact of the Holocaust has receded into the past: one which determines to think through the implications of that event for established systems of moral and social life, and one which resolutely avoids the consideration of its implications precisely because of an unwillingness to question deeply-held beliefs. In this instance, our attention is turned towards religious thinkers convinced of the Holocaust’s unique challenge, and towards the Holocaust-denial movement. But had we writ to undertake a more substantial project in this vein, these positions could just as easily be reversed—with secular-psychological studies on the one hand and determinedly-religious adherence to theodicy on the other.* There exist, indeed, any number of axes along which the ethical and social measure of the Holocaust might be taken; the following reviews point to one such.


“Try as we may to comprehend it—historically, philosophically, religiously—the Holocaust leaves unanswered and perhaps unanswerable questions in its wake.”4 The near-silence of academia in the post-war period was decisively shattered by the Six Day War. Since then, attempts by scholars to work through the topic have generated a massive body of work. Collected volumes, then, are unusually valuable for researchers, with views from widely diverse perspectives collected thematically with some regularity. In this, John K. Roth—working with various collaborators—has been particularly prolific, issuing more than twenty titles on the Holocaust, ethics, and genocide, as well as numerous monographs.

The essays collected in Holocaust: Religious and Philosophical Implications, edited with Michael Berenbaum, may represent a high-water mark in this enterprise. This superlative work compiles essays and excerpts from twenty scholars, nearly all of whom take the view that “the Holocaust was an epoch-making event, an experience that demands a rethinking of traditional understandings of God and history.”5 Although it does not exactly keep the promise of its subtitle, with almost no emphasis on secular philosophy and several essays focussed on the events of the Holocaust rather than their significance, the volume remains a successful distillation of more than twenty years of scholarly ferment.

The introduction sets up the problem of faith after monumental disaster, and addresses the historical uniqueness of the Holocaust. The authors are sympathetic to the positions of thinkers like Emil Fackenheim and Elie Wiesel, who charge that the Holocaust is unlike all previous events in Jewish history; yet they note that some scholars, such as Michael Wyschogrod, are critical of focussing on the Holocaust, preferring to keep the emphasis on God’s acts of redemption. It is perhaps telling that Wyschogrod was not invited to contribute.

Part one sets out to identify the place of the Holocaust in history, and the contributors all make their cases for uniqueness—though some, such as Berenbaum himself, with a note of inclusivity. Yehuda Bauer, in a piece which admirably details the suffering of other peoples, reneges on the inclusive promise of such details by making the tautologous argument that genocide can apply only to racial, national, or ethnic groups—specifically excluding religion as a motivator.6 His argument that religion has become a voluntary issue also belies the facts, as seen recently in Malaysia.7 Berenbaum argues, in the spirit of Wiesenthal’s incorporation of non-Jewish suffering, that bringing together other acts of genocide “do not innately obscure the uniqueness of the Holocaust; they clarify it.”8 He critiques Bauer’s scepticism regarding the Americanization of the Holocaust—the task of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council to make the Holocaust a living issue—and suggests that “the question of audience should not be confused with content.”9 By bringing the Holocaust to a wider audience, and placing it in dialogue with other events of the twentieth century, we can “let our sufferings, however incommensurate, unite us in our condemnation of inhumanity rather than deride us in a calculus of calamity.”10

The third part of the present volume sets up a debate that is key to any attempt to riddle the ethical and religious implications of the Holocaust—that of the rôle granted a God of History and the theodic interpretations of Torah. Excellent representative selections from Elie Wiesel, Richard Rubenstein, Emil Fackenheim, Eliezer Berkovitz, and Irving Greenberg are capped off with an exchange between Wiesel and Rubenstein. The latter disappointingly fails to clarify Wiesel’s position on God’s part in the Holocaust, but the selections themselves are an excellent introduction to a complex body of literature.

A more recent collection by Roth, From the Unthinkable to the Unavoidable: American Christian and Jewish Scholars Encounter the Holocaust, edited with Carol Rittner, draws together specifically American and religiously-motivated voices. This has the advantage of offering an incisive portrait of religious thought after the Holocaust, and the Christian perspectives reflect the growing Americanization of the Holocaust mentioned above. That larger engagement is addressed with reflexions on history and memory, as when Abraham Peck recalls his friends’ reaction to his father’s stories of the Holocaust (“Why is he telling me this?!”11), or when Rittner looks back to her first experience with the enormity of the Holocaust—a fact she had missed entirely when reading The Diary of Anne Frank at school.12

But the book’s real accomplishment lies in its bringing to the table the complex relationship of Christian tradition to the Holocaust. Many of the authors not only wade bravely into this oft-evaded problematic, but describe their own experiences in directly grappling with the issue. Eva Fleischner was a Catholic graduate student in historical theology when she encountered the Holocaust—through the novel Treblinka by Jean-François Steiner.13 Having had her “eyes opened” by this and succeeding books, she kept them open by focussing her studies on the rôle of the churches. John Pawlikowski began agitating for Jewish-Christian dialogue whilst a Servite Fathers seminarian, where he was heavily influenced by one of his teachers, John Dominic Crossan.14 And Alice Eckardt makes an impassioned plea for Christian renewal in the wake of honest acknowledgement of the historical complicity of the churches in anti-Jewish atrocities, insisting that the Holocaust represents a point of rupture after which Christian ideas on Judaism and the Jews had to be reformed.15 The topic could have been better represented, by for example inviting contributions from scholars like William Nicholls or members of the Jesus Seminar; but the treatment here is still a welcome change from the frequent and shameful silence.


With so many Jewish and Christian writers now entering the discussion, there is a need for careful analysis of the major lines of thought. In his concise and insightful work, Zachary Braiterman engages with three of the most consequential thinkers in the post-Holocaust Jewish tradition. Additionally, his book is on its own a powerful intervention in the debate over theodicy in Hebrew thought. Through an extended discussion of the history of theodicy, Braiterman works to extract anti-theodic elements in the sacred texts of Judaism, offering them as a counter-weight to the (admittedly more numerous) theodic rationales found in Torah (e.g., Job). This allows readers to view the modern interventions of Rubenstein et al. in the context of a lengthy tradition that has always disputed the theodic interpretation—that is, we can read these authors as both with that past theology and as signalling a new chapter within it.

But the supreme virtue of Braiterman’s text lies in a close reading of the life-works of three theologians who have spent their careers attempting to plumb the meaning for Jewish faith of the Holocaust. His first choice, Rubenstein, is unarguably the easiest to address from an anti-theodic standpoint. Often grouped (somewhat erroneously) with the otherwise Christian Death of God theologians, Rubenstein has taken a great deal of criticism from his earliest comments on theology, and especially after his landmark publication in 1966 of After Auschwitz: Radical Theology and Contemporary Judaism. The book’s title commanded attention: it implied that theology after Auschwitz could not remain as it was, irrespective of the scant attention previously accorded the topic by such luminaries as Mordecai Kaplan and Martin Buber. Rubenstein makes explicit what a great many survivors had maintained but never properly elaborated—he argued that “to posit a just and omnipotent God covenanted to Israel and active in its affairs could only mean that God justly willed the murder of six million Jewish people.” He consequently “attacked belief in the God of History, the notions of covenant and election, the hallowed texts of Jewish tradition, and the scandal of theodicy.”16 Coming from a rabbi, such a thorough-going rejection was electric.

Yet as Braiterman is at pains to point out, Rubenstein’s rejection was never as neat as it appeared, and it was often the case that his rhetoric signalled a cleaner break with tradition than he was willing to make. Rather than arguing that God was no longer relevant or had never existed at all, Rubenstein had intended instead a kind of renewal—a shift in the perception of God held by the Jewish people. The use of the phrase ‘Death of God’ put Rubenstein in Nietzsche’s company, which for those with only a surface reading or second-hand knowledge of Nietzsche was more than enough to condemn by association. But, like Nietzsche, Rubenstein was in fact a very spiritual thinker, who attacked only that “ultimate actor in history” — a “God of History” in the form of a “perfect, unchanging Creator and Lawgiver who stands in isolated splendour outside of his creation.”17 Indeed, as Braiterman reminds us, Rubenstein took issue with the Protestant Death of God theologians, seeing in the loss of the traditional idea of God not a liberation but “tragedy and upheaval” as man struggles to redefine the ancient relationship with the divine.

The means with which Rubenstein attempts his reconstruction of Jewish theology do come in for sharp criticism. He is upbraided for selective reading of traditional texts, and for applying “contorted logic” to passages placed in unusual contexts.18 However, Braiterman is also unequivocal about Rubenstein’s accomplishment, and despite harsh words in some places, is at pains to defend him from critics. Observing that he was “working in a virtual vacuum”, with new ideas that stood out against a heavy tradition—a task, therefore, which “demanded rough and shocking language”.19 The problem was not with religion as a whole, but with theodicy, and yet this was no fringe concept; dislodging it required that it be recognized widely as a problem. The way to accomplish that was to demonstrate, in an offensive manner if need be, that the concept itself was offensive in the post-Holocaust world, and Rubenstein did this with remarkable verve.

Braiterman’s most substantial, and strained, reading is of Orthodox rabbi Eliezer Berkovitz. Born in Transylvania, Berkovitz received a yeshiva education and, unlike the other two thinkers discussed, was not a philosopher per se, but a classical theologian immersed in the Jewish tradition. His work focussed on the idea of faith, and he asserted that faith “did not mean mere belief in the existence of an infinite, omnipotent God”, but rather must “signify trust, reliability, and endurance”, even in the face of the Holocaust.20 Berkovitz argued that the memory of God’s works in the past was more than enough to sustain his people into the future.

However, Braiterman uncovers a stain in Berkovitz’s later writings where things were not so neat and tidy. Berkovitz begins to assert that there is in the world of faith “a new element of anger and mistrust”, that at times the ancient notion of covenant “commands contention”.21 This post-Holocaust shift did not, however, turn Berkovitz from historical forms of faith. The solution which he hit upon was to deny the ability of non-survivors to judge, or to adopt the positions taken by, those who endured the trials of Nazi brutality. He alludes to Rubenstein in making the claim that one who only heard about the Holocaust had no right to follow the path of those, like Wiesel, who lost their faith in it. Berkovitz has no harsh words for the survivors themselves: he “justifies their defiance and even calls it holy.” But, “he himself cannot adopt their rebellion. To do so would mean that he must ignore those Jews whose faith survived intact. How dare he reject faith in providence when they did not?!”22

Finally, Braiterman introduces the career of Emil Fackenheim by observing that he “stands at the midpoint of post-Holocaust Jewish theology”, drawing on elements of both previously-discussed thinkers’ work.23 He is best known to-day for having formulated a “614th Commandment” stating that Jews were forbidden to grant Hitler “posthumous victories” by despairing of God and the world in the aftermath of the Holocaust. As with his defence of Rubenstein, Braiterman is at pains to point out the rhetorical nature of this seemingly-extraordinary injunction—one which seems to demand a positive commitment to Judaism that is rooted in unbearable tragedy. As Braiterman himself observes, there are problems inherent in positioning the Holocaust as the focal point of Jewish life; but he argues convincingly that this statement of Fackenheim’s “was just a trope (in and of itself barely adequate) that stood for the far more critical motif of supernatural revelation.”24

Fackenheim’s early steadiness, as evinced by the 614th Commandment, is overtaken after 1970 by a sense of rupture in the Holocaust, leading to a “pronounced theological minimalism and unequivocal love for Israel” and a series of “uniquely ambivalent readings of the Hebrew Bible and its God.”25 Although committed in all of his work to maintaining the supernatural God of revelation, Fackenheim shifts to an emphasis on “‘root experience’—a past event with the normative power to legislate to the present.”26 Similarly to the rabbinical response to the destruction of the Second Temple—after which prophecy was no longer accepted and the nature of the covenant was changed—Fackenheim argued that “appeals to personal epiphanies are precluded from the ambit of revelation.”27 The sort of radical rejuvenation of Judaism urged by Rubenstein was thus shunted aside and the existing structure of revealed Judaism reinforced. Yet in contrast to his early work, in texts like God’s Presence in History Fackenheim’s theology is reduced to “anti-theodic fragments and the dumb will to endure.”28 He is unwilling to suggest a new approach to God, and unable to maintain the theodic arguments of the Orthodox faithful, leaving only the “avowal of ignorance” held to by those “who faithfully accept a mysterious providence whose workings they cannot fathom.”29


Commenting on the continuation of antisemitism and anti-Judaism in theological work, long after the Holocaust should have forced a reconsideration of such doctrines, A. Roy Eckardt castigates Christian thinkers for continuing to promulgate Jewish deicide and apocalyptic treatments of the Second Coming. He suggests that, so long as such thinking continues, the threat of the Holocaust will never recede: “One Shoah is finished; preparedness for sequels is in the workshop.”30 The question of whether another Holocaust could happen is largely an empty one: the world has changed too much for anything with similar characteristics, and predicting an event with an unknown character is clearly impossible. What is certain, however, is that many of the fundamental elements that might contribute to a future genocide are alive and well, and we will close our discussion of material on ethics after the Holocaust by considering the emerging historiography on one of these elements: denial.

The Holocaust denial movement is instructive because it involves the insistence that facts conform to ideology, and highlights the human ability to learn only those data which reinforce a belief. It may strain credulity that race ‘science’ could be used to wage a war of extermination again, but racism is but one ideology with a history of inciting violence. What the denial movement shows beyond any doubt is that rational explanations are no shield against the spread of murderous ideologies. Further, that the instinct for fair play (Gallup polls have shown over 30 per cent accepting that it is possible the Holocaust did not happen) and free expression (it is often argued that the deniers have a right to express ‘their side’ of the argument) commonly seen in the United States make the improbable at least worth consideration.31 And finally, what these books show most clearly is the refusal of history to confront the failure of the dream of reason. That is, each of these authors makes broad arguments about the nature and motive of deniers, and in so doing opens a space for reflexion on the continuing possibilities for, and apology of, genocide; yet they do so in ways that signal a need to believe that the deniers are merely aberrant, and not also representative of the human way of belief.

Deborah Lipstadt’s 1994 book Denying the Holocaust brought discussion of denial into the mainstream, with favourable reviews throughout the popular and academic press. It also sparked a legal fire-storm which ultimately destroyed the career of David Irving, an erstwhile British historian and Hitler apologist. Irving took exception with being called a denier in Lipstadt’s book, and given the direction of Britain’s libel laws—the accused must prove their innocence—he thought that he could silence her and gain some useful publicity in the process. What happened instead, as ably recounted in Richard Evans’s Lying About Hitler, was that the Holocaust itself, and denial by extension, were placed on trial. With the detailed testimony of expert witnesses accepted into the court record, and Irving’s reputation destroyed by the media coverage, Holocaust denial has receded—for now. But what Lipstadt’s book shows, along with that of Shermer and Grobman, is that the political and ideological motives of denial remain compelling and will not die easily.

Lipstadt brings deniers into focus in order to highlight the danger posed by racial extremists masquerading as respectable figures. Her best example is a Southern California organization called the Institute for Historical Review.32 Prior to the publication of her book and the subsequent Irving trial, the IHR had been working to pawn itself off as a serious scholarly enterprise, and that pretence is shattered by her devastating analysis. Yet despite her characterization of their threat, the ease with which the IHR could be connected to extreme racist and antisemitic groups and publications partially belies that threat. What is, however, more than demonstrated is that right-wing groups in the United States, even those with proven popular appeal, can betray a continuing fascination with Hitler and an affinity for violent antisemitism. (She cites the careers of David Duke and Pat Buchanan, for example.33) Lipstadt shows that with increasing sophistication, individuals who had “once argued that the Holocaust, however horrible, was justified now contend that it was a hoax”: an accusation which gains in popular appeal when it is linked to Middle East terror and scepticism regarding the instinctively pro-Israel stance of the United States.34 With indefinite turmoil in the region, the rhetoric of such groups—who blame Israel for making the United States a target for terror, and blame Jews for inculcating support for Israel into the mainstream—cannot entirely be dismissed out of hand.35

Offering a succinct history of the denial movement, from the immediate post-war period up to the 1990s, with sections on the radical right, the IHR, the gas chamber ‘debate’, and the insidious effect that media coverage of the movement is having on American campuses, Denying the Holocaust is a major achievement. Yet two things mar the book and qualify its success: the lack of detail on the deniers’ claims, and the refusal of the author to confront the deniers themselves. The former is addressed only briefly, as an appendix, and a great many denier arguments are ignored. Despite the absurdity of their claims, the arguments must be incontrovertibly refuted if history is to prevail over myth.

The latter is founded in her characterization of the Nazis as irrational. She asserts that “reasoned dialogue has a limited ability to withstand an assault by the mythic power of falsehood, especially when that falsehood is rooted in an age-old social and cultural phenomenon.” The Holocaust is thus grounded in the “mythic appeal of antisemitism” and there remains “no rational basis” for the Nazi policies.36 This statement can be challenged on two fronts. Firstly, the Nazis certainly saw themselves as rational, even scientific, in their aims. Setting aside the repugnance of their ideology, it is probably just as rational as other murderous policies, such as forced collectivization. Rationality is a poor metric for ethical judgements. And secondly, a huge array of common human beliefs could be equally tarred with the epithet “irrational”, from the weird (UFOs) to the sacred (transubstantiation) to the commonplace (nationalism). Dismissing the Nazis as irrational entirely misses the point, since much of what we believe is equally irrational, and such beliefs can also mislead us into atrocities. Building on this belief in denier irrationality, she contends that debate with them is misguided, as it gives the illusion that they hold a legitimate position. Even ignoring the implications of this for other areas of human knowledge, we can object to this position on the simple basis that it allows the idea to survive and spread unopposed.

One man characteristically unable to let a bad argument stand is Michael Shermer, founder of the Skeptics Society and inveterate debunker. After arguing for the preservation of free speech and the right of the deniers to make their claims, Shermer and co-author Alex Grobman suggest that scholars then have a “duty” to respond to the deniers’ claim. Their arguments are convincing. They state that, if denial is allowed to gain wider currency, it will help to rehabilitate political views now considered anathema. They suggest that “if people can be convinced that the Holocaust never happened, perhaps they can also be persuaded to believe that slavery is a hoax perpetrated by blacks to coerce Congress to institute affirmative action programs.”37 The argument may seem specious, but only because the example is too extreme as a start; most historical revision begins slowly and takes hold after generations, such that, exemplia gratia, large numbers of Americans now believe that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, and that the current separation was concocted by later generations of disbelievers in order to disenfranchise the majority. As time passes it grows easier to make the facts conform to your vision for them, and if “we allow the distortion of one segment of history without making an appropriate response, we risk the possible distortion of other historical events.”38 Holocaust denial thus transcends the Jewish people, antisemitism, and the Nazis, and must be addressed as an attack on the basic facts—an attack which can and should be countered with the facts.

The other key weakness of Lipstadt’s book is the signal strength of Denying History; that is, they invest a great deal of time into the refutation of critical denier arguments. Some of the most widely-touted ‘evidence’ against the Holocaust has involved the existence of gas chambers using the Zyklon-B pesticide. This material comes in for scathing criticism is chapter six, with not just the credibility of the authors but the substance of their reports interrogated.39 Their evidence is a welcome corrective to Denying the Holocaust, and makes the book a worthy contribution to the historiography. However, Shermer’s background perhaps leads him to a too-easy speculation as to the motives of deniers, and in this way Denying History repeats a flaw of Lipstadt’s work: the deniers are painted as irrational extremists, whose kooky ideas can help us to identify and avoid them. This reductionism fails to appreciate the manifold reasons that people are drawn in by false information, and hopes that if the agendas of the originators are revealed, the arguments will cease to have power. The emotional nature of decision-making suggests, however, that ideas can easily lose the rationale that informed then at their origins, and pass themselves on in new forms.

Both the duty to respond to deniers and the preponderance of facts in doing so point to another issue that begs consideration: the nature of historical knowledge. Like Richard Evans in Lying About Hitler, Shermer and Grobman expend considerable energy attacking “post-modernism” for spreading a “relativism” that is “a seedbed for pseudohistory and Holocaust denial.”40 This is a titanic blunder which leaves the real enemy untouched. By their own formulation, the denier ethos requires that adherents feel “absolute certainty that they have the truth”.41 Challenges to absolute reality are less likely to lead to Holocaust denial than appeals to so-called “historical science” and a reconfigured positivism that is peddled here.42 The authors’ criticism of Foucault, for example, shows no understanding of that author’s position, and the suggestion that post-structuralist theory is somehow at odds with “the facts” is every bit as irresponsible as the relativism they decry would be. And at any rate, the appeals to moral absolutes themselves open the way to atrocity—the Nazis, after all, certainly thought that morality on their side (as, e.g., Claudia Koonz convincingly argues in The Nazi Conscience).


This reduction to “objective” history returns us to the central task for ethics in the post-Holocaust world: that of the challenge such an event offers to conventional thinking. We have seen some authors touching on the philosophical and religious implications that the Holocaust opens, and how often the conclusions force very uncomfortable conclusions. If, for example, anti-Judaism is fundamental to Christian theology, what must be done in the wake of this most awful manifestation of historical antisemitism? Is it possible to reform the various religious traditions without simultaneously undermining them? And what of the problem of objectivity itself: if certainty in the righteousness of one’s cause can lead to a disaster like the Holocaust, do we then need to examine certainty? or only the beliefs themselves? How are we to know that a belief now seen as innocuous, like nationalism or religious faith, cannot to-morrow provide the fuel for the next Holocaust?

It is the task of historians when navigating tortuous minefields like these to aid the philosophers and offer needed context and perspective to debates. The threat of Holocaust denial and racist antisemitism may have slipped into the background, but there are other paths to the Shoah: the continuing rise of Biblical literalism and apocalypticism, for one, offers a far less easily challenged form of antisemitism. History and ethics do not make comfortable bedfellows, but if the philosophers are willing to ask the truly big questions about human nature, we may one day learn to control our destinies and stop the next war.

1      Roth, John K. Ethics During and After the Holocaust: In the Shadow of Birkenau. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. 25-6.
2      Rittner & Roth. 2.
3      Rittner & Roth. 3.
*      The debate between Christopher R. Browning (Ordinary Men) and Daniel Jonah Goldhagen (Hitler’s Willing Executioners) presents a good opening to research in the former vein.
4      Rittner & Roth. 3.
5      Roth & Berenbaum. 2.
6      Roth & Berenbaum. 29.
7      A Christian convert was denied the right to recognition by the nation’s (secular) high court, and her request remanded to an Islamic court. She will now have to consider emigration if she wishes to practice as a Christian. 30 May, International Herald Tribune.
8      Roth & Berenbaum. 96.
9      Roth & Berenbaum. 84-87, 87.
10    Roth & Berenbaum. 96.
11    Rittner & Roth. 9-10.
12    Rittner & Roth. 126.
13    Rittner & Roth. 19-20.
14    Rittner & Roth. 100.
15    Rittner & Roth. 140-2.
16    Braiterman. 87.
17    Rubenstein, via Braiterman. 93.
18    Braiterman. 102-105.
19    Braiterman. 109.
20    Braiterman. 113.
21    Braiterman. 113.
22    Braiterman. 117.
23    Braiterman. 134.
24    Braiterman. 135.
25    Braiterman. 135.
26    Braiterman. 140.
27    Braiterman. 140.
28    Braiterman. 143.
29    Braiterman. 143.
30    Rittner & Roth. 113-4.
31    Poll data taken from Smith, Tom W. ‘A Review: The Holocaust Denial Controversy’. The Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol. 59, No. 2 (Summer 1995). On fairness, see e.g. Lipstadt. 3.
32    Lipstadt. 137-156.
33    Lipstadt. 4-6.
34    Lipstadt. 4.
35    Lipstadt. 143.
36    Lipstadt. 25.
37    Shermer & Grobman. 15-6.
38    Shermer & Grobman. 16.
39    Shermer & Grobman. 123-172.
40    Shermer & Grobman. 27.
41    Shermer & Grobman. 88.
42    Shermer & Grobman. 30.

‘Imagining Postcolonial Communities’


Imagining Postcolonial Communities
Thoughts on Benedict Anderson

Imagined Communities.
Benedict Anderson.
London: Verso, 2006 [1983].

Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference.
Dipesh Chakrabarty.
Princeton: Princeton, 2000.


In setting out to criticize the arguments of a book as influential and as justly celebrated as Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, one is right to proceed cautiously. It is impossible to calculate the value of a book which, in addition to launching a whole series of hotly-contested discourses on the emergence of nationalism, remains after more than two decades the undisputed classic of the field. Yet for all its obvious merits, the foundations upon which Anderson constructs his thesis are far from solid, as reviewing that thesis with the help of Dipesh Chakrabarty will demonstrate.

Nationalism and the West — Anderson’s Contribution

Anderson begins his account by reflecting on the then-recent invasion of Cambodia by Vietnam and the problem that this conflict posed for Marxist historiography. The difficulty lay in the demonstrable lack of proletarian solidarity and obvious national interest motivating the attack—i.e., by an utter inability to justify the action in Marxist-historical terms. Setting aside the thin rationalisations for previous inter-Marxian conflict, the record of violence in and betwixt Marxist régimes plainly shows that a revolutionary consciousness has never taken root in the way foreseen by Marx and Engels, and Anderson sets out to explain the countervailing force upsetting these calculations—that is, nationalism.1 Rightly noting that “since World War II every successful revolution has defined itself in national terms”, Anderson applies an overdue corrective to an ideological blindness affecting, not only Marxists, but Western planners as well.2 Nationalism is, indeed, to be found everywhere in the world to-day, animating states of tremendous cultural and historical diversity.

Acknowledging from the outset that this ubiquitous presence—nations, nationalities, nationalisms—has “proved notoriously difficult to define”, Anderson sets about proposing a new definition: a nation “is an imagined political community… [that is] both inherently limited and sovereign.”3 They are imagined in the sense that they are abstract, in the way that “all communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact” are, and in their being specific creations or inventions;4 and they are limited by finite populations and borders, but assumed fully to command what lies within them. But as communities, they are heir to that fraternity shared at the smaller scale of personal (objective) community. In this they have often been imagined to have an ancient or timeless appearance, have exercised an universal jurisdiction—all lands falling under the control of some nation—and, critically, they have come to possess a powerful, magnetic attraction, arousing “deep attachments” in their members despite “their philosophical poverty and even incoherence”.5

But as we will see, these “artefacts” are a peculiar creation of Western European culture, which have simply been universalized in the centuries since first emerging in the Americas. In Anderson’s formulation, the nation depended for its emergence upon three historical factors: secularism, language, and print-capital. Each of these changes was in turn conditioned by the decline of three elements of the Ancien Régime social structure: the fading away of sacred script languages (particularly Latin, but also Greek and Hebrew); the loss of faith in divine monarchy; and the end of “what Benjamin calls Messianic time, a simultaneity of past and future in the instantaneous present.”6 Each of these factors is contingent upon circumstances in the West, and Anderson’s attempt to globalize nationalism on these bases is convincing only in a context of a Western intellectual hegemony. Without digressing needlessly, one might casually note the persistence of Arabic as a “particular script language offer[ing] privileged access to ontological truth”, and perhaps the presence of Hirohito as a living god during the high point of modern Japanese nationalism.7

An expression pioneered by Anderson, ‘print-capital’ refers to the development and profitable exploitation of the written word, as in newspapers and popular novels. Print-capital, and the social-administrative transformation that accompanied it, set the stage for the modern state. Early printing was mostly in Latin, but in the cultural revolution set off by easier access to religious texts (i.e., the Reformation) printing quickly spread to the vernacular.8 This growth of written material helped to stabilize languages and slow the normal course of ‘drift’. This in turn led to the evolution of “languages-of-power”, which, taking advantage of the new technology, hedged out the mostly-spoken and relatively easily-assimilable dialects on the fringes of a given power structure.9 A common vernacular tongue was, according to Anderson, essential in the first phase of nationalist development, and only in later forms could a polyglot nationalism survive. However, despite significant mention of the difficulties in establishing a vernacular in the Habsburg realms, he does not seem to notice the existence of modern nationalism within that empire; even without a true common tongue, there was little shortage of soldiers in the Great War. But finally, with the rise of vernacular printing, especially in the new languages-of-power, sacred script tongues began rapidly to give way, accelerating the conditions for a secular modernity.

It is in the treatment of religion that Anderson’s thesis is most in need of extension, for whilst he wishes to make use of the new ‘secular’ culture of Europe, what has in fact developed is anything but secular. It is to transformations of religious identity and concept that we must turn, as has been noted by some of Anderson’s followers.10 But within that transformation, at the widening gap betwixt the religious and new-born secular-scientific spheres, came one of the most significant developments in this transition—a subtle change in the ‘apprehension of time’ itself.11 Building on the apocalyptic eschatology of the early Christian communities, mediaeval civilizations had paid little heed to the passing years; all of time was already present and connected in G-d’s plan. Novels and newsprint led the way to a new conception of time, one linking together the many peoples of the earth beneath a single, linear stream with simultaneous action in differing parts. In the memorable phrase Anderson borrowed from Walter Benjamin, we were now to conceive of a ‘homogeneous, empty time’, wherein simultaneity is “transverse, cross-time, marked not by prefiguring and fulfilment, but by temporal coincidence, and measured by clock and calendar.”12 We all, therefore, share a single temporality; we all exist in the same world.

But this world was still ruled according to a ‘stagist’ view of time, a neo-Hegelian view of progress and development. Civilizations that had not evolved the same kind of secularism, or reached the same level of technical brilliance, were treated as ‘immature’ and in need of ‘assistance’. We are concerned here not with the particulars of colonial ideology, but with their basis in the same transitional qualities Anderson is keen to recognize in nationalism, for it is in this realm that Anderson’s ideas become noticeably problematic. It is well and good to note the way in which Western nationalism emerged, and it is vitally important that we understand the nature of that nationalism in order to see how it has fared as a universal model for the world in the centuries since. But that conception maintains, amongst other difficulties, a fundamentally secular view of time and space: What happens to Anderson’s model of secular nationalism when it is applied to a civilization with radically different experiences of religious modernity?

Empty, Homogeneous Time? — The Challenge of Pluralism

Dipesh Chakrabarty, in his tour de force intervention in post-colonial historiography, injects some much-needed pluralism into Anderson’s project. He takes issue with the way ‘imagination’ is used in that author’s title, seeking to “open up the word for further interrogation” and to “breathe heterogeneity” into it by allowing “for the possibility that the field of the political”—in which communities are to be imagined—”is constitutively not singular.”13 His approach involves a kind of anti-modernist stance (though Chakrabarty refuses the post-modernist appellation), drawing heavily on Nietzsche, Freud, Heidegger, and Foucault. For Chakrabarty, modernity is a Eurocentric metanarrative, which has been presumed to have universal and unquestionable applicability, and which is assumed to take a standard form. His scepticism with regard to such a position means that his intervention will extend well beyond the Marxian discourse that inspired Anderson, though it would be impossible to develop in the absence of such.

The Europe that Chakrabarty wishes to ‘provincialize’ is not a place, but a reified, “imaginary figure that remains deeply embedded in clichéd and shorthand forms in some everyday habits of thought that invariably subtend attempts in the social sciences to address questions of political modernity in South Asia.”14 Although his stated concern and disciplinary background limit his project, it does not hamper his thesis, as the “habits of thought” that he describes occlude opportunities for change in strictly European terms as well. They are found in the unavoidable discourses of modernity—”citizenship, the state, civil society, public sphere, human rights”, and so forth. As Chakrabarty notes, “one simply cannot think of political modernity without these and other related concepts that found a climactic form in the course of the European Enlightenment and the nineteenth century.”15 But as he is also quick to point out, “European thought has a contradictory relationship” to the rest of the world, and he finds that it is “both indispensable and inadequate in helping… to think through the various life practices that constitute the political and the historical” outside of the West.16 Chakrabarty thus engages the entire Western model of political development, and suggests ways in which it can be adapted and modified.

To do so, he “challenges us to rethink two conceptual gifts of nineteenth-century Europe… One is historicism… the other is the very idea of the political”.17 The first of these must take account of the way time is broached in common usage, for the ‘stagist’ view of time noted above carries the considerable weight of an imperialist origin. Chakrabarty cites two immediate examples: that to imagine the discourse of post-colonialism as following on post-modern / post-structuralist thought is to practice historicism; i.e., to continue the argument “first in the West, and then elsewhere”; and, in critical theories of economics, “nobody sees ‘late capitalism’ as a system whose driving engine may be in the third world.18 The word ‘late’ has very different connotations when applied to the developed countries and to those seen as still ‘developing'”—i.e., they are ‘late’ because they are ‘behind schedule’ in relation to the West.19 The problem lies in the argument’s construction: Does the West represent the way forward, and all other parts of the world are ‘behind’ her in linear time? Or are there as many ways ‘forward’ as there are peoples?

For most theorists hitherto, including (it would appear) Benedict Anderson, and for the economic structures of global capital, the former has been the preferred approach. Chakrabarty sees in such formulae the universalizing tendency of colonial discourse, and draws attention to small details that, under analysis, highlight the underlying assumptions. For example, he quotes E. P. Thompson on one aspect of the modernity project: “Without time-discipline we could not have the insistent energies of the industrial man; and whether this discipline comes in the form of Methodism, or of Stalinism, or of nationalism, it will come to the developing world.” But, even “if Thompson’s prediction were to come true… we would never know for sure whether this condition had come about because [time-discipline] was a genuinely universal, functional characteristic of capital, or whether world capitalism represented a forced globalization of a particular fragment of European history.”20

Questioning the nature of historical time and its flow forces us also to challenge the nature of the political subject constructed within it. “Imaginations of socially just futures for humans usually take the idea of single, homogeneous, and secular historical time for granted. Modern politics is often justified as a story of human sovereignty acted out in the context of a ceaseless unfolding of unitary historical time.”21 But if time is not secular, if spirits and powers are immanent, if one believes they are ‘seeing beyond the real’ in a transcendental sense, then secular historical time may not be a sufficiently complex analytic. Anderson has used the word ‘imagined’ in an “enormously suggestive” form that may be self-evident for Westerners, but is complicated by other ways of perceiving, such as the “divine sight” he describes in Bengali practice. Chakrabarty asserts that Anderson’s use of ‘imagined’ is a “subject-centered category”, whereas “divine sight” does not even require one “to erect a category called ‘the mind'” (here he invokes, for comparison in the Western tradition, Spinoza and Deleuze, both for their immanent ontological theories).22

This may seem, on the surface, to be a rather esoteric point, but it has deep implications for the way in which the political is constructed in modern nationalist discourse, for the Western mode of political thinking more generally, and for the capitalist enterprise itself. “One empirically knows of no society in which humans have existed without gods and spirits accompanying them.”23 Whatever one may feel about the validity of various creeds—or, indeed, of religion itself—any system of thought which consigns the religious to a ‘pre-modern’ oblivion was not designed with human beings in mind. Even in the West, where secularism runs like a mighty current in the ocean of modernity, religion continues to play an omnipresent rôle in public discourse. That religion is generally of the sort accommodated by Western political norms, but not exclusively so24; and the question is far more urgent for cultures in which there exists no historical divide betwixt the spiritual and personal, or in which no division betwixt religion and politics is possible. This last is a persistent problem in Western confrontations with Islamist states and groups, and a subtle critique of their entire Weltanschauung cannot fail to creep into bilateral discussions.

These differences in basic outlook necessarily force the adaptation of Western modernity to differing contexts—and these alternations often sits poorly with the underlying civilisation, and can leave open wounds for later generations. “Capital brings into every history some of the universal themes of the European Enlightenment, but on inspection the universal turns out to be an empty place holder”, and the particular will need to be accommodated.25 What is generally called the “transition to capitalism” involves an often-painful “process of translation of diverse life-worlds and conceptual horizons about being human into the categories of Enlightenment thought that inhere in the logic of capital.”26 Forced by colonial powers or modern institutions of global capital to assume a direction that it ‘intelligible’ in the West, the colonial subject is nevertheless not on a direct path that will land him at the same ‘level’ of development as his present or former masters; in fact, “this single subject” who is meant to change himself to live in this world “breaks up, on examination, into multiple ways of being human, which makes it impossible for us to reduce this moment to any summary narrative of transition from a premodern stage to modernity.”27 Caught betwixt the value and the logic of modernity, and the insistence of ancient tradition and cultural context, the (post-)colonial subject is in a double-bind; and that, to echo Chakrabarty, is simply a fact of life in “the restless and inescapable politics of historical difference to which global capital consigns us.”28

Fault Lines — Comments and Conclusions

By now we have seen that Benedict Anderson has offered a clever analysis of the origins of nationalism is the West, and we have seen why such a formula would not likely have developed in the same way elsewhere in the world. And, given the colonial past and economically-hierarchical present, the Western model has been pressed upon much of the planet, with varying degrees of success. Dipesh Chakrabarty has suggested that for the regions in which this model is inadequate, a new interpretation should be developed, in dialogue with the intellectual legacy and analytical tools bequeathed to the world by the West. And yet the source of those tools has led to a privileging of European history and thought above all others, forcing a basic engagement with its critical moments and thinkers—as Chakrabarty notes in his introduction, non-Western historians are expected to have assimilated the canon of Western history, but no such reciprocity is on offer. Additionally, the formerly-colonized nations have thus far failed to develop many competing tools that have been adopted by the West (which would help to forge the two-way communication needed for a truly pluralistic academy).29 Chakrabarty notes that “insofar as the academic discourse of history… is concerned, ‘Europe’ remains the sovereign, theoretical subject of all histories”30

With this last in mind, one could argue that—whether guided by Marxian, Hegelian, Christian, or some other set of principles—every major institution of Western domination has been conceived within an inherently teleological model, presenting (and often perceiving) itself as the logical outgrowth of some profound process, fit to be adapted for use anywhere in the world. Chakrabarty quotes Meaghan Morris: “The modern [will continue to be seen] as a known history, something which has already happened elsewhere, and which is to be reproduced, mechanically or otherwise, with a local context.”31 Failure consciously to adapt the useful aspects of Western modernity has led to conflict, and often outright failure in the process of nation-building; and where such values have nevertheless been brought into operation, they have frequently been altered as a result of such conflict.

Put succinctly, the history of nation-states and nationalism is the history of the West. The imposition of that history, and of its ultimate productions, on the entire world has provided, seemingly, a basis for mutual intercourse amongst humans of every race and creed. But as this imposed history is founded on a lie—viz. that the Western experience of secular political development makes sense in any cultural milieu—it is by definition unstable and contested. Chakrabarty’s basic intervention “is to write into the history of modernity the ambivalences, contradictions, the use of force, and the tragedies and ironies that attend it.”32 Urging recognition of the “irreducible pluralities” that inform the “constitutional heterogeneity of the political”, we are to try building into the means of inscribing history a proper mechanism for retention of the contradictions and coercions that created the modern world.33 This “nontotalizing conception of the political” will then presumably open the door to a new kind of history—one that does not, as yet, exist.34

Epilogue — “My Country, Right or Wrong”…?

The need to stick closely to the two texts used in our seminar prevented several features of this analysis from being developed more fully. One of these seemed pertinent enough to warrant a brief exposition here, even if it is now entirely disconnected from the arguments above.

In a more recent work—The Spectre of Comparison—Anderson makes a significant addition to the argument in Imagined Communities. Dealing with the thorny issue of identity, he develops the language of “two profoundly contrasting types of seriality”, which he calls ‘bound’ and ‘unbound’. Anderson explains the distinction thus: “Unbound seriality, which has its origins in the print market, especially in the newspapers, and in the representations of popular performance, is exemplified by such open-to-the-world plurals as nationalists, anarchists, bureaucrats, and workers… Bound seriality, [by contrast,] has its origins in governmentality, especially in such institutions as the census and elections, and is exemplified by finite series like Asian-Americans, beurs, and Tutsis.”35 This definition accompanies and amplifies his effort to “draw as clear an analytic line as feasible between nationalism and ethnicity.”36 In both of these tasks his approach is seriously misguided.

Unless one is to lapse into metaphysics and postulate an a priori category for every possible bureaucratic distinction, we must face the fact that they are socially constructed—as much so in most cases as the supposedly “liberating” unbound serialities. The process that forms both types of seriality is simple ‘Othering’, one need go no further into psycho-analytic theory than that; identities such as those he describes are all created negatively—that is, through exclusion. One is an anarchist because she is not a statist; a French national because he is not a German. It is possible to change these categories in most cases—and this is an area of the original Imagined Communities thesis that needed work—through such things as emigration, so they must be understood as fluid and consensual. But this is their only substantive difference.

Bound serialities are ostensibly ‘bad’ because they are assigned from the outside, according to conditions one cannot change. Are not the unbound type managed in much the same fashion? Each of his examples of unbound seriality rely upon the consent of others to recognise a chosen status. Likewise each of the examples listed for bound seriality involve artificial designations created by society for its own purposes. We need look only to the Rwandan genocide to see the lack of objective bases—the Tutsis are not a ‘race’ distinct from the Hutus, but the result of an arbitrary distinction forced upon them by European conquerors. This allows, admittedly, for socially-constructed categories of external oppression—but could not the same apply to unbound serialities? Were not anarchists at times persecuted merely because they were anarchists? because someone identified them as anarchists? Are not brutal wars waged betwixt patriots of opposing nationalities? and men gunned down in ‘cold blood’ because they were of the wrong nationality? This is especially problematic when combined with Anderson’s observation of universal applicability—in his words, “everyone can, should, will ‘have’ a nationality, [just] as he or she ‘has’ a gender”37 What of nationalities that are forced upon individuals, such as through conquest and annexation, or the creation of new states?38 Only by neglecting the rôle of state coercion can unbound serialities escape the criticism Anderson levels at ‘ethnic politics’.

The whole distinction betwixt serialities seems informed, more than anything else, by Anderson’s desire to salvage some inherent value in the venerable conception of nationalism—as if the violent excesses of the past two centuries had been undertaken in the name of mere corruptions to their essential purity! In his conclusion to The Spectre of Comparison, Anderson observes that from the perspective of the common man, “no matter what crimes a nation’s government commits and its passing citizenry endorses, My Country is ultimately Good.” He then asks, in these troubled times in which we live, “can such Goodness be profitably discarded?”39 If we are ever to accept the rights of all humans to live as they choose, without their being targeted for destruction on the basis of purely contingent matters such as their place of birth, the answer is an unqualified ‘yes’.

1      Anderson,Benedict. Imagined Communities. London: Verso, 2006. 1-2.
2      Anderson. Imagined. 2.
It is arguable that the US government’s failure to perceive the nationalist character of Vietnamese ambitions led to a ‘domino theory’ of engagement that left two million dead.
3      Anderson. Imagined. 6.
4      Anderson. Imagined. 6.
An interesting rationale for this can be found in evolutionary psychology, which suggests that the maximum number for human social groupings is around 150—any larger and normal social processes can no longer keep order, and hierarchy and violence will emerge. See, e.g.,Robin Dunbar, Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language,Harvard 1998.
5      Anderson. Imagined. 5.
6      Anderson. Imagined. 24.
7      Anderson. Imagined. 36.
8      Anderson. Imagined. 37-40.
9      Anderson. Imagined. 45.
He gives an example in High German (e.g.,that of the Habsburg court) and Platt-Deutsch (or, more properly, Niederdeutsch)spoken in the north-western lowlands. As the two are orthographically almost identical, the latter could not compete successfully as a print form.
10    For the use of religion in setting up a nationalist contrast with theOther, see Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation 1701-1837;for the use of religious themes and techniques in the development of a parallel secular identity, see David Bell, The Cult of the Nation in France: Inventing Nationalism, 1680-1800.
11    Anderson. Imagined. 22-26.
12    Anderson. Imagined. 24.
13    Chakrabarty, Dipesh. Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought andHistorical Difference. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000. 149.
14    Chakrabarty. Provincializing. 4.
15    Chakrabarty. Provincializing. 4.
16    Chakrabarty. Provincializing. 6. emphasis added.
17    Chakrabarty. Provincializing. 6.
18    On the other hand, it could be argued that a refusal to acknowledge the debt to certain Western intellectual currents informing post-colonialism is simply a denial of legitimate influence. It is difficult to see here why it is inadmissible to identity a post-modern cast but perfectly appropriate to suggest working with and through the Western canon as a whole.
19    Chakrabarty. Provincializing. 7.
20    Chakrabarty. Provincializing. 69.
21    Chakrabarty. Provincializing. 15.
22    Chakrabarty. Provincializing. 174-5.
23    Chakrabarty. Provincializing. 16.
24    One might think here of Pentecostalism, which privileges ‘speaking in tongues’ and the ‘direct experience of G-d’s presence’, as being in many ways incompatible with modernity.
25    Chakrabarty. Provincializing. 70.
26    Chakrabarty. Provincializing. 71.
27    Chakrabarty. Provincializing. 148.
28    Chakrabarty. Provincializing. 70.
29    Notable exceptions, of course, are post-colonial and subaltern studies, yet the use of these new analytics by European historians in their ownwork has been fairly limited, and those analytics themselves depend for their coherence upon the Western Marxist tradition.
30    Chakrabarty. Provincializing. 27. emphasis added.
31    Chakrabarty. Provincializing. 39.
32    Chakrabarty. Provincializing. 43.
33    Chakrabarty. Provincializing. 179.
34    Chakrabarty. Provincializing. 149.
35    Anderson,Benedict. The Spectre of Comparison: Nationalism, Southeast Asia, and the World. London:Verso, 1998. 29.
36    Anderson. Spectre. 29.
37    Anderson. Imagined. 5.
38    And whilst we’re assigning nationalities, what of those with multiple passports? If I hold Israeli and American citizenship, is my nationality as clear-cut as most people would like to consider their gender?
39    Anderson. Spectre. 368.

‘Nations And Nationalisms, Forged And Invented’

Nations and Nationalisms, Forged and Invented
Thoughts on Linda Colley and David A. Bell

Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837.
Linda Colley.
London: Pimlico, 2003 [1992].

The Cult of the Nation in France: Inventing Nationalism, 1680-1800.
David A. Bell.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.

1.0 Introduction — Commonalities: Religion, War, and Homogeneity

It is a clear testament to the enduring influence of Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities that nearly every work on nationalism to follow has been either set within its thesis or has constructed itself in dialogue with that work. It is used in ways both strikingly similar and occasionally differing in two landmarks of eighteenth-century scholarship: David Bell’s Cult of the Nation in France and Linda Colley’s Britons: Forging the Nation. In moving through these works, it will be helpful at times to recall Anderson’s basic arguments and identify their moments of salience. This review will bring the texts together, discussing their respective problematizing of three common themes; explore some of the particularities each text contains; locate the rôle played by sources in each argument’s construction; and end with an analysis of the contribution these authors have made to our understanding of nationalism and the process of state-formation.

Despite their many differences, Britons and Cult of the Nation are, in some sense, paired opposites in both their subject matter and theme. Each advances an explanation for the emergence of nationalism and a national identity (though in Bell more of the former, Colley more of the latter) that deals comprehensively with the religious make-up of the great majority; with the affects of war and the Other as national enemy par excellence; and the ethno-cultural diversity of the domestic populace. Each will be addressed in turn below.

2.0 Religion and National Identity — Protestants and Catholics

Great Britain, as Colley asserts, was by law “a pluralist yet aggressively Protestant polity.”1 For a century and a half, practically the entire duration under discussion in Britons, Catholics were officially discriminated against, and in time of war or national distress they were at times scape-goated by rowdy English nationalists—assaulted, dunked in the river like witches, their property seized or destroyed.2 The reasoning can be found in the way Britons chose to construct their past; a long parade of national disasters were laid at the feet of Catholics, from Guido Fawkes to the Great Fire of London. The trials of Protestants on the Continent were used as object lessons in ‘popish’ tyranny, and events as far apart as the Great Armada and the Glorious Revolution were thought to be signs of God’s special favour in sparing the English the ‘pain’ of Catholic domination.

There was, of course, no imminent danger posed by Catholics towards their majority fellow subjects, but fear was nonetheless consistently fed in the popular imagination and by official legislation (how else to interpret the prohibition against Catholics possessing weapons?). Fear turns easily to hate, and hate to persistent prejudice and stereotyping—Colley quotes a poem declaring that to be Catholic “was to be economically inept: wasteful, indolent and oppressive if powerful, poor and exploited if not.”3 Against this powerful ‘Other’, the constituent peoples of Great Britain could look to a common identity as Protestants (albeit of differing flavours), and Colley draws attention to this shared religious identity repeatedly in her account, seeing in it a major source of ‘national’ identification. In particular, the language of religious difference was invoked when Britain was at war with Catholic France; however, Colley’s interpretation of this specifically religious dimension to war neglects the fact that Britain was usually allied to one or more Catholic powers against France (Habsburg Austria, Spain, etc.). This was further complicated when Britain went to war with Revolutionary France, as the same antagonistic language often leapt to the fore but without the religious or absolutist context, which greatly complicates Colley’s reading.

Religion did, however, act to shape the developing Constitution and views on society expressed at all levels. As the power of Parliament grew, “apologists [for state power] abandoned appeals to the divine right of kings, a doctrine that had always posed enormous problems, and took their stand instead on both divine providence and the people’s will”, with some eye toward the former directing the latter, no doubt.4 As the first site of industrial development, the interplay of religion and work in Britain has occupied historians for some time. “All too often, economic growth… has been seen as a modernising agent and therefore antipathetic to religion. But… in practice, economic growth co-existed very comfortably with a profoundly Protestant patriotism”.5 In this sense, Colley echoes both Max Weber6 and Edward Thompson7, with the religious sensibilities of the British people seeping into their industrious lifestyle.

At several points Colley makes excellent use of a long tradition reading England as a new Israel, citing patriotic sermons equating the two and a popular translation of the psalms whose author “thought nothing of replacing references to ‘Israel’ in the original text with the words ‘Great Britain’.”8 This “special destiny” would crop up regularly until late in the nineteenth century, much as it would in the American experience, and it merits mention by Bell. Religious and racial exceptionalism contributed mightily to the violent xenophobia directed outward from Britain, with Bell citing, by way of example, a “comparison of British and French colonial policies in North America, which shows that an exclusionary Britain set up much stricter boundaries than France did between white settlers and Indians and made it far more difficult for Indians to integrate into colonial society”.9 As he goes on to note, this “prejudice formed an integral element of the British national idiom in a way that had no French equivalent.”10

Bell also sees religion as central to the construction of French national identity, though in markedly different fashions. Taking his cue from Marcel Gauchet’s book The Disenchantment of the World, Bell sees the modern nation-state emerging at precisely the moment that Europeans were experiencing a crisis of self-conception brought on by a sense of God’s “withdrawal” from the world. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, “the world had become a place which could be apprehended on its own terms, allowing mankind to develop new forms of knowledge, a new relationship with nature, and—especially—a new politics.”11 But this was not just a crisis of God’s absence, but of the memory of a very different religious presence—the sixteenth-century Wars of Religion. Bell follows J. G. A. Pocock in holding that changes in Enlightenment France were derived in part from a powerful desire to strengthen civil society and prevent a recurrence of such savagery.12

Nationalism appears, in this context, as a counterpart to religion—couched often in the same language and bearing remarkable similarities. Bell observes that nationalism and religion “have employed the same sorts of symbolic practices, both as aides to belief and commitment and as a means of delineating what is sacred and beyond criticism from what is corruptible and profane. Flags, holy days, parades, processions, shrines, and pilgrimages: all belong to nationalist and patriotic movements, and to religions alike.”13 It is here that Bell suggests Imagined Communities is most inadequate to explain nationalism, for whilst Anderson makes a “suggestive remark” on the dynamics of religion, out of which nationalism grew, “he never really abandons a simple functionalism which holds religion and nationalism commensurate because each, in its way, helps people cope with ‘the overwhelming burden of human suffering’.”14 The new way of perceiving the world that developed in eighteenth-century France—a world which “God has created and then left to its own devices, with natural objects obeying strict laws that human observation can presumably uncover”—demanded a radically new vision of Christian divinity.15

That vision in turn allowed for elaboration of the “new or newly redefined foundational concepts of société, civilization, patrie, nation, and public. Each allowed [the French] to imagine an arena of harmonious human co-existence whose principles did not ultimately derive from the dictates of an (increasingly absent) God.”16 This was not part of a simple ‘de-Christianization’, but a shift in the place of religion in human life. With it came a new emphasis on living well together, on an “idea that membership in a properly constituted community… did not depend on religion, but on customs… and cultivation. Religion had become a private matter, an affair of conscience. It… no longer [structured] international relations.”17 It did, however, inform the approach taken toward the nation-state, and Bell argues that French efforts to make patriotism broadly compatible with both monarchy and a “love of humanity and human progress” grew out of “the Catholic commitment to a universal human community”.18 The French, in contrast to the British, could not see religion and fatherland merge together in shared affection, but rather needed to extend the affection held for the Church to include, on a different order, the state.

2.1 War, Expansion, and ‘the Other’ — The Villain in the Mirror

Of potentially equal importance in the development of these states, though in a far less problematic manner, is the rôle of warfare in the construction of identity. Britons and Cult of the Nation each depict one half of an antagonistic pair that spent the greater part of two centuries at war with one-another. Both authors explicitly state that the opposite nation was a key component in forming the nation; that each one fed off of the existence—and antipathy—of the other. But a critical difference lay in their respective manner of doing so. Colley states that: “Time and time again, war with France brought Britons, whether they hailed from Wales or Scotland or England, into confrontation with an obviously hostile Other and encouraged them to define themselves collectively against it.”19 Bell, however, counters that “vilification of national enemies and assertions of France’s superiority had very narrow applications under the old regime… The French did not define themselves primarily by ‘othering’ foreigners.”20 This is no scholarly riposte or apology for cosmopolitan France, but evidence of a genuine divergence in the forms of nationalism developed in these two states—the latter very likely stemming from the Catholic universalism mentioned previously.

Though careful not to suggest that the British were blindly xenophobic, Colley does draw attention to the “vast superstructure of prejudice” that suffused the British state.21 This could take the form of racist caricatures of their fellow-islanders (documented, in the Scots case, very ably by Colley; in the Irish case, not at all), but was especially fierce when directed at the French. Britain’s early part in the slave trade, genocidal policies with respect to Native American’s, and noticeably more vulgar form of colonial occupation in Africa all seemingly point to a fundamental intolerance in the English character.* And clearly the fact of being an island nation played a major rôle in shaping a Weltanschauung that ritually excluded foreigners.22 To say, as Colley does, that Britishness was constructed “in response to overseas developments” is really, in one sense, only to acknowledge this geographic isolation—when trade and technology finally brought the inhabitants of the islands too close together, they could look only beyond their shores for comparison and competition.23

In Ancien Régime France, conversely, the emphasis was always on the Continent; as the preëminent Catholic state and land power, France could hardly afford to look away from the affairs of her neighbours for long. But, with few to contest French power in isolation, it was in competition with Britain—a perennial ally to France’s enemies—that the French nation was to define itself. One resource entirely neglected by Colley, and very profitably exploited by Bell, is war propaganda.24 Over the course of the eighteenth century, the French state mobilized tremendous print resources to justify its wars in foreign capitals, and to its own subjects; indeed, “the mass of Anglophobic works printed during the wars… owed their existence to concerted propaganda campaigns on the part of France’s foreign ministry.”25 In times of war or “national insult”, the print shoppes churned out virulently anti-English tracts, including even distant ancestors of the “atrocity literature” that figured so prominently in twentieth-century conflicts. During these periods, “the cosmopolitanism so often associated with eighteenth-century French culture abruptly disappeared from books and periodicals, to be replaced by snarling hostility to France’s enemies,” surely at least some part of which owed to public sentiment as well as government desire.26

Bell describes significant alterations in the manner affected by French polemicists betwixt the War of the Spanish Succession and the Seven Years’ War; the “first presented a war of kings, of royal houses. […] In contrast, the literature of the Seven Years’ War… presented a conflict between France and Britain in quite a different manner, as a war of nations.”27 This was remarked on at the time by one newspaper:

There are wars in which the nation only takes an interest because of its submission to the Prince; this war is of a different nature; it is the English nation which, by unanimous agreement, has attacked our nation to deprive us of something which belongs to each of us.28

For Bell, the “difference between the two bodies of propaganda shows just how much had changed in France”, and suggests that the latter war “contributed to the concept of the nation as a political artifact, something consciously constructed through an act of political will,” and “as a collectivity possessed of its own internal unity and of certain legitimate ‘rights’.”29

Across the Channel, another kind of legitimacy was being established. Colley touches repeatedly on the vital rôle played by foreign war in ‘forging Britishness’, and of the dizzying opportunities opened up by success in the Seven Years’ War there was no historical precedent. Commentators at the time were suddenly given to comparing their homeland with the Roman Empire, and Colley cleverly points out that Edward Gibbon’s decision to chronicle that world’s demise came “just one year after the signing of the Treaty of Paris.” Deep structural changes would need to follow this conflict—Britain’s “pre-war empire had been sufficiently informal and sufficiently cheap for Parliament to claim authority over it without having to concern itself too much about what this authority entailed.”30

These changes would have to take account of the Scottish contribution to the war, and address the previous conditions of life under the Union. During the Seven Years’ War, “for the first time ever, the British army had been able to recruit men on a massive scale from the Scottish Highlands. Those clans that had taken up arms against the Union in 1715 and in 1745 had been wooed to the British cause by way of favours and promotions for their former chieftains, and transformed into the cannon-fodder of imperial war.”31 But what Colley neglects to mention here is the speed and brutality with which the British state suppressed Highland culture after the ’45, though it is hinted at by reference to “former chieftains”.32 The part this violent coercion and lack of viable alternatives for advancement played in bringing the Highland Scots into the imperial project is overlooked in her account, though it surely has some parallel with the Irish experience of assimilation in the colonial service (discussed briefly in Colley’s text).

Regardless, the new empire certainly made the fullest use of Scotland’s “impressive reserves of talent”, including that of its Enlightenment thinkers—above all, the century to come would be ruled according to the idea of Adam Smith—and the genius of the Scots would figure prominently in the nascent Industrial Revolution.33 This greater engagement with trade and imperial responsibilities perhaps did more than any other single factor to bring the ancient enemies of Britain together, and soon, rather than resenting their impoverish and hostile neighbours to the north, the English were complaining about the Scots’ increasing affluence and influence (e.g., in the Indian colonies).34 Throughout the empire and the world, “the mechanisms of trade helped to bring together the different regions of Great Britain” and, as Colley notes, “in moving south” to take up positions in the new economy the Scots “helped construct what being British was all about.”35

But if the Seven Years’ War finally cemented the Union, it was the American War of Independence that forced a thorough re-consideration of what it meant to be British. In wars against Continental enemies, British polemicists had made good use of the spectre of Catholic ‘tyranny’, but the Americans were not only Protestant, they were British! Through the eighteenth century, the Americans of the Thirteen Colonies “had yet to evolve a recognisable and autonomous identity of their own”, and many early American folk-ways attest to the deep ties that existed then.36 Colley describes the war, accurately, as a civil war that divided the British nation against itself, both across the Atlantic and within the respective geographies. Unsurprisingly, this “compromised enthusiasm for the war” and attracted significant popular opposition—as demonstrated, for example, by the volume of petitions to Parliament.37 But with the Scottish presence in government and commerce now so substantial, and the history of violence and distrust so long, “many influential Scots… seized on the American war as a means to underline their political reliability to London, deliberately contrasting their own ostentatious loyalty with American disobedience, and with the anti-war activity of English radicals.”38

The intemperate remarks of John Wilkes aside, much of the British public closed ranks around the war, seeing in it a real crisis, and a test of their national unity and character. Given the changes to the British Constitution over the past half-century, it was no longer possible to understand the objections put forward by the American colonists (Colley uncovers references to supporters of America being beaten in the streets of London); and, despite the close kinship, a war that soon involved France, Spain, and Holland brought the isolated British closer together.39 As Colley observes, “defeat proved more constructive in the long term”, allowing for the resolution of many recent uncertainties at home, and bringing Parliament to clarify and strengthen the imperial administration in Canada, India, and Ireland.40 More importantly, “the half-century that followed… would be one of the most formative and violent periods in the making of modern Britain and in the making of the modern world—a time of accelerating industrialisation and urbanisation, of growing class consciousness and demand for reform”, and during which the British form of government reinvented itself.41 The monarchy steadily took on a more symbolic function as more power accreted to Parliament, and the longevity (and apotheosis) of George III, followed by Victoria, lent an aura of stability and strength to the British throne.42

Having joined the Americans against their ancient enemy, in this—the last Franco-British war prior to the Revolution—Paris propagandists were unusually restrained; Bell suggests that they “criticized the English mostly for excessive pride and for trying to establish a universal empire of the seas.”43 But as regards possible French xenophobic materials, Bell becomes uncharacteristically circumspect, stating that “except in a very few cases, we do not know how widely any particular text circulated, let alone how readers responded to it.”44 Under circumstances more favourable to his interpretations, he shows far fewer qualms about the paucity of hard data regarding readership (occasionally building complex generalisations from admittedly insignificant texts).

Intriguingly, Bell does choose to speculate on the “essentializing of ethnic and racial differences” betwixt the French and the English. Though most often invoked in the sense of a “moral” degeneracy, “a failing of the spirit”, it is reasonable to read the sources of the period as positing a genuine human variability that can be seen in racial terms.45 He speculates that, despite “making national difference into something as fierce and unforgiving as religious difference had been during… the Reformation”, French polemicists were “[helping] readers to think of human diversity” in terms of “common origin”, and as bequeathing individuals with “characteristics which temperature and humidity could not explain, and which shifts in climate could not alter.”46 We can see clearly in this stance the early signs of a new ‘scientific’ racism, which—in the nineteenth century—was to justify imperialism in biological terms. However, the degree of racism was again quite different to that seen in England; as has been profitably demonstrated elsewhere*, “even ‘savage’ Indians did not ultimately stand beyond the reach of the French civilizing mission.”47

2.2 Unity in Difference? — The Question of Internal Homogeneity

Using Imagined Communities as her jumping-off point, Colley suggests that, “historically speaking, most nations have always been culturally and ethnically diverse, problematic, protean and artificial constructs that take shape very quickly and come apart just as fast”.48 Bell extends Anderson’s framework somewhat by stating that “nationalism is a political program which has as its goal not merely to praise, or defend, or strengthen a nation, but actively to construct one, casting its human raw material into a fundamentally new form.”49 Both authors agree that the modern nation-state emerged in the eighteenth century, and both follow Anderson on the means taken to build one, but each extends his model by addressing not just the formation of these nations, but their attendant nationalisms. Bell is more explicit about this project, but Colley’s intent is just as plain, and both trace the development of nationalism primarily from political responses taken to combat external, existential threats to the nation.

However, unlike the young populations amongst which Anderson observes the first modern nationalist thinking, Britain and France were ancient, with collective histories far pre-dating their political forms in the eighteenth century. As a consequence, they were sites wherein power was sharply contested amongst linguistic and ethnic groups that had long been vying for domination (or merely struggling to survive). Because they are concerned with what became the dominant culture in a multi-ethnic state, both authors neglect the stories of the many tiny minorities within their borders (Bretons, Basque, Scots Gaels, Manx, Corsicans, etc.), but this is a significant omission in a study of nationalism and the nation’s origins. All of the minority groups in these states—including especially the massive ‘minorities’ in the Languedoc and Ireland—played a part in shaping the national fabric, and it is unfortunate that Colley and Bell chose to disregard their contributions.

One powerful force for social cohesion—despite the fractious nature of debates within it—is the so-called ‘bourgeois public sphere’ that emerged with ‘print-capital’ during the eighteenth century. It has been long-argued—going back to the original formulation of the analytic by Jürgen Habermas—that France essentially lacked a functional public sphere in the eighteenth century.50 According to Habermas, in the absence of representative government to influence and a genuinely free press to do the influencing, the literate bourgeoisie in France could not engage in the sort of constructive dialogue then emerging in Britain. Bell challenges this characterisation, and suggests that coffee houses and private salons served that purpose in France (though we cannot, of course, know much of what was said).51 This distinction is critically important to Bell’s thesis, as the ideas he asserts were used to shape the French polity would have required, in addition to direct government transmission, the polite reception by the middling classes needed to bring them into being. Much of the evidence marshalled by Bell to document the birth of nationalism in France come from books (often obscure ones), foreign or underground newspapers, and small-press pamphlets (sometimes anonymous); if this material was not being read and discussed, his back-dating of the nationalist enterprise to the Ancien Régime cannot stand.

In Britain, countless groups were taking advantage of the Habermasian public sphere to put forward ideas for change, and both printing and readership were increasing by leaps and bounds.52 For her purposes, a focus on the Wilkite Radicals provides a useful barometer of integration; as she observes, “Wilkes became the personification of liberty, and liberty was the hallmark of Englishness.”53 Wilkes put forward a specifically English nationalism, and the “Scots, so the Wilkite argument went, were inherently, unchangeably alien, never ever to be confused or integrated with the English.”54 Their claim to detect a difference of “political temperaments” betwixt English and Scots echoes the ‘racial’ theorising alluded to in France earlier.55 The Scots, for their part, were far from pleased by this lack of good faith in the ‘Great Britain’ project; Colley cites a Welsh traveller in Scotland as having been “appalled to discover just how bitter more informed Scots felt at being so constantly and crudely misrepresented in the south.”56 In Colley’s analysis,

Wilkes functioned as an English nationalist administering comfort to a people in flux… He offered a reassurance to his more intolerant and worried countrymen that they wouldn’t be absorbed into an all-embracing and non-Anglocentric Great Britain… This was exactly what large numbers of English men and women wanted to hear. Yet… it was a deeply misleading reassurance. For… the real significance of Wilkite complaints that Scots were invading the British polity to an unprecedented extent is, quite simply, that they were true.57

It would take a good many years before this sort of prejudice could be put to rest, and popular culture played as much a part in perpetuating as extinguishing it; but it would, indeed, fade away with time. Witness the muted response to the ’45: Colley challenges presumed indifference by arguing that “the English poor seem to have responded to the invasion with seething passivity, until, that it, the army broke up and retreated. Then they struck.” This was, as she says, hate: “hate by the poor and vulnerable for outsiders who had dared to shatter the peace of their communities.”58 But where just a century before one could have been assured that this hatred would follow on from the invaders’ race, this seems to have diminished in the interim; and as the official reaction to the ’45 concentrated on Highland culture, the Scots as a whole were absolved of wrongdoing. The “Scottophobia” accompanying the rise of that people in the imperial project was short-lived, leaving only the Irish as inter-island racial underdogs. Colley documents the massive Irish immigration to meet rising industrial demands, but neglects entirely to probe the deeper relationship betwixt Britons and Irish.59 She manages to cover the shifting attitudes toward Catholicism in the lead-up to emancipation, but this surely had more to do with British Catholics than Irish; and she does note briefly the tensions in cities with large Irish worker populations.60 But this absence in its larger dimension, and the implications for race-theorising in her construction of nationalism, is perhaps the text’s most glaring omission.

Whether or not we accept Bell’s conclusions about public readership in France, print was without doubt a critical medium for change in eighteenth century. Not only did it allow the philosophes a forum for debating (in the abstract, of course) what forms of government and society were most conducive to virtue, etc., but it provided the Revolutionaries with a ready supply of material to inspire nation-building projects. Timothy Tackett may be right about deputies to the Estates General lacking extensive exposure to the political and philosophical debates of the time, but they did not remain so ignorant for long.61 And there were more populist forms of print material appearing for sale in the capital, such as the volumes of compiled biographies of ‘Great Men’. Bell contends that such hagiographic projects created “models” for living one’s life, and “recalled nothing so much as the saints of the Roman Catholic Church.”62 Holding up a mirror to the French people, novelists and journalists usually described the national character as one defined by cheerfulness and sociability, as against the gloomy English; but also as effeminate, flighty, and superficial.63

These traits often stood in opposition to the radical programmes of civil reformers, and critiques of the day “associated supposedly typical French traits with the corporeal failings of lethargy, sickness, physical corruption, and old age.” It was widely recognised that reforms should be encouraged, but no clear consensus on how; schemes often involved a return to some mythical, uncorrupted past.”64 What emerged in the end was a series of publications on the proper place of Man in relation to his patrie, which culminated in the Revolutionary slogans and programmes. Having in mind what a good republican system needed from its citizenry, the Revolutionary government lacked only the means of spreading it—their solution is one of Bell’s most significant interventions. “In undertaking this vastly ambitious project, the Jacobins had only one clear model before them”: The Catholic Church. Drawing heavily on Jesuit experiences of Christian education, the Revolutionaries appropriated the language of “error and slavery” to spread a new gospel through “apostles of liberty and equality”.65 And, interestingly, Bell rejects Eugen Weber’s research (and that of others) on the linguistic diversity of France in this period—insisting instead that the problem was essentially ‘invented’ in the capital to justify one transformative scheme.66 Having drawn on the Church for a model of evangelizing, Bell might as well have looked at their experience of preaching in the Languedoc. As it stands, he dramatically downplays the problem of intelligibility in the provinces, which serves to minimize heterogeneity in at least one crucial (nationalism-thwarting) way; for if, as has been asserted elsewhere, the entire south of France and many other regions besides were firmly entrenched in various patois, the French-language print projects would have had a much slower impact on the nation.67

Ultimately, of course, the purpose of Revolutionary educational schemes was to reduce the diversity of France to a manageable, homogeneous civilization, and they cannot in any sense be said to have succeeded until late in the nineteenth century. But Bell is not attempting to trace such thinking through its implementation: he is concerned only with its early articulation, and this is one of the areas in which the book loses power. Had such an exhaustive discourse analysis been combined with more substantive explorations of the evolving facts ‘on the ground’, Bell’s book may have approached Colley’s scope, wedding a history of nationalism to the genuine emergence of a nation-state. But whereas Colley starts her account too late (leaving out the Glorious Revolution, re-organisation of public finance, and the earlier stages of empire, amongst other things), Bell ends his too soon; by the end of his account, a good case for the early enunciation of nationalism has been made, but the values have in no sense been imparted successfully to a national population.

3.0 Conclusions

This review has concentrated on ways in which Bell and Colley’s books can be contrasted to provide a fuller picture of the origins of nationalism in the tumult of eighteenth-century war. It has, as a consequence, neglected many of the particularities each contributes. Each intervention was, and remains, deeply significant in their respective specialisations, and together they lay a firm foundation for further study of the origins of nationalism in Europe. Benedict Anderson and other before him (Gellner, Seton-Watson, etc.) have sketched out theoretical approaches to the problem of nationalism and nation-building, and the best test of these theories is the construction of convincing histories that conform to them. Bell and Colley both succeed in this to varying degrees, and each in turn set the stage for deeper studies into particular manifestations of the nationalist programme; we will conclude by examining some of their successes and failures.

For such recent histories, it is striking that both authors largely neglect the Atlantic world. Colley thoughtfully includes the Americans, and deals at some length with question of slavery and emancipation, but there is no direct connexion betwixt the British metropole and the colonial periphery.68 As many recent studies have shown, the integration of such outlying spaces significantly alters the historical picture; settlers and the colonized live in dialogue with the imperial power, and the older view of one-way cultural transmission (the ‘civilizing mission’) does not stand up to scrutiny. Bell’s failures in this regard are more manifest, but can be excused on some level given the intellectual contours of his project. But sources aside, French authors were undoubtedly touched by Atlantic issues in substantial ways: How, e.g., did slavery figure into Republican views of the ideal polity?

Bell’s book is a classic of revisionist historiography; almost entirely an intellectual history, he draws extensively on print culture to trace the appearance and spread of words and concepts. Some of his inferences seem questionable, such as the ‘lack’ of significant linguistic diversity, the influence of texts with a demonstrably-poor circulation (he seems almost to take a mimetic conception of ideas and their propagation), and the appearance in France of a ‘public sphere’ analogue. For this, and for basic reasons of methodology, the book ends up being extremely limited in its ambitions—and its successes. For whilst Bell would like to say that his research identifies the ‘origin’ of nationalism, without some exploration of how those ideas were disseminated and ‘lived in’, one is left wondering if popular nationalism has been located, or merely the dream of nationalism. That is, in the absence of nationalist action and intercourse, one is restricted in analysis to what was, in France, a very limited print audience. Nationalism may very well pre-date the Revolution, as Bell believes, but a study such as this cannot conclusively prove that point.

Colley’s work is at once more ambitious and successful and—ultimately—frustrating. Documenting the origins both of nationalism and the nation itself, she presents a much fuller picture. Her reliance on secondary sources for many aspects is occasionally troubling, but understandable given the breadth of her study; and the original research she includes is often brilliant and first-rate (such as her analysis of the ‘Defence of the Realm’ returns). And whilst theory is muted in both authors’ work, her approach is noticeably clearer about its influences and prejudices. The greatest criticisms easily levelled at Britons involve errors of omission, as these often imply significant revisions of her narrative. She does not, e.g., deal with corruption in the Edinburgh parliament’s decision to sign onto the Union, or the military suppression of the Highland lifestyle, leaving the question of coercion outside of her conception of Scottish participation; she does not, as mentioned above, deal with the Irish at anything like an appropriate level; and her chapter on women is unconvincing in the face of Victorian sexual dynamics and the emerging ‘separate spheres’. But what most leaves the book unsatisfying, in the end, is the basic problematic; at the end of a magnificent read, one is left wondering just how different British nationalism was from English nationalism. She notes that, in certain circumstances, Welsh and Scots were able to identify as English—but did the English ever think of themselves as somehow Scottish or Welsh?69 And if not, how much of what became the British national identity was simply an expanded and pluralized version of the English?

1      Colley, Linda. Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837. London: Pimlico, 2003. 19.
2      Colley. 22-3.
4      Colley. 48.
5      Colley. 43.
6      The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.
7      The Making of the English Working Class.
8      Colley. 30.
9      Bell, David. The Cult of the Nation in France: Inventing Nationalism, 1680-1800. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001. 46.
10    Bell. 46.
11    Bell. 28.
12    Bell. 30.
13    Bell. 22.
14    Bell. 23.
15    Bell. 29.
16    Bell. 35-6.
17    Bell. 102.
18    Bell. 47.
19    Colley. 5.
20    Bell. 44.
21    Colley. 36.
*    ‘English’, in this instance, to trace the feature further back, and to highlight the application of such intolerance to ostensible partners in the British nations.
22    Colley. 17.
23    Colley. xv.
24    see, e.g., Bell, 43-6 & 78-91.
25    Bell. 44.
26    Bell. 82.
27    Bell. 90.
28    Bell. 90.
29    Bell. 91.
30    Colley. 102.
31    Colley. 103.
32    There is a line about tartans being suppressed on page 114, but it is buried, not deliberate. Of all the minority groups Colley ignores in constructing her ‘Britons’, the Scots Highlanders stand beside the Irish as the most conspicuous and glaring errors.
33    Colley. 124.
34    Colley. 128.
35    Colley. 100 & 125.
36    Colley. 134-5.
37    Colley. 137-9.
38    Colley. 140.
39    Colley. 142.
40    Colley. 143-5.
41    Colley. 149.
42    Colley. 195.
43    Bell. 99.
44    Bell. 44.
45    Bell. 104.
46    Bell. 105.
*    See, e.g., Alice Conklin, A Mission to Civilise: The Republican Idea of Empire in France and West Africa, 1895-1930.
47    Bell. 98.
48    Colley. 5.
49    Bell. 3.
50    The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society (orig. 1962).
51    Bell. 34-5.
52    Colley. 40-1, 108-117.
53    Colley. 111.
54    Colley. 113-4.
55    Colley. 116.
56    Colley. 118.
57    Colley. 117.
58    Colley. 77.
59    Colley. 329.
60    Colley. 328-9.
61    Becoming a Revolutionary: The Deputies of the French National Assembly and the Emergence of a Revolutionary Culture (1789-1790).
62    Bell. 119.
63    Bell. 147-150.
64    Bell. 150-154.
65    Bell. 161.
66    Bell. 178-180.
67    see, e.g., Eugen Weber, Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914.
68    Colley. 350-360.
69    Colley. 162.

‘Man Must Be Overcome’

— Man Must Be Overcome —
Nietzsche, Shaw, Hesse

On the ‘Influence’ of Nietzsche

In several of his dramatic works — most famously Man and Superman and Major Barbara — Bernard Shaw made an overt use of Nietzschean imagery and ideals, and in particular their more popularised (and sensationalised) forms. When he was writing, Nietzsche had only recently appeared in Britain, and few of his works had as yet been translated; despite this, the impact of Nietzsche upon fin de siècle London was not unlike the booming artillery of the coming war — distant perhaps, but sufficiently loud already and a clear sign of impending disaster for Victorian morality.

The Nietzschean influence is no less pronounced in Hermann Hesse’s work, though it is often there interpreted in a more benign and spiritual manner. Where Shaw discusses the raw power play between individuals and society, as befitting his own socialist politics, Hesse concentrates on that which has the greater meaning for him: the quest to find peace within the self. Siddhartha’s search takes him through the range of human experience — suffering, pleasure, yearning, contentment — and attempts to answer Nietzsche’s challenge: “What does your conscience say? — ‘You shall become the person you are.’”1

But the surface differences in these two authors’ respective readings of Nietzschean thought are just that — a thin layer of apparent deviation disguising the same essential psychological observations that guided Nietzsche’s work. Further, in each author’s work, there is more than ample suggestion that what they wrote on was not at all Nietzschean thought as such; that what they had to say drew instead upon the very same influences and trends that Nietzsche had availed himself of.

Rather than dividing their readings between the personal & psychological in Hesse, and the social & political in Shaw, I propose to show that both authors are in fact using these Nietzschean concepts in much the same way. That is, I am going to suggest that both authors make use of a deeply personal transformation, and that these journeys have social and political implications only secondarily.

That the similarity of their interpretations has been little-recognised perhaps owes more to the prejudices of our own culture — we tend to distance our inner selves from the political, and consider the individual’s spiritual odyssey to have consequences mostly for the sojourner himself. That we cannot escape connexion with others unless we make of ourselves a hermit, however, means that each of our stages of personal transformation will impact the lives of those around us. It may seem more obvious that Barbara wants to save the souls of those she encounters, but this is merely a function of the story’s setting — Siddhartha longs just as deeply to share his life and its lessons. Working as a river boat man, Siddhartha will impress upon each of his receptive fares the peace that he has found, just as Barbara will appeal only to those who have ears to hear her.

Man and Superman: The End of Innocence

I teach you the overman. Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?”2 ~ Nietzsche

No single feature of Nietzsche’s thought has elicited more controversy and confusion than the twinned conceptions of overman and eternal recurrence. Nietzsche spoke of these together, as being two parts of a single message intended to free man from the dogmatism of universals, but they have most often been approached separately. The first is usually seen as some kind of apocalyptic prophecy — a way to imagine a world that has abandoned ethics and which takes and kills shamelessly — and the latter is just as often dismissed as an absurdity with no practical application. In truth neither of these renderings can withstand serious scrutiny, but it is not my intention to revisit them here. But these readings of Nietzsche are of import if we are to address Shaw’s overman, especially as his characterisation is closer and more elegant than some later critics would like to believe.

Before the ink had dried on Nietzsche’s proof sheets for Thus Spoke Zarathustra the misconceptions and misappropriations were under way. No sooner had Nietzsche unleashed his Zarathustra, a model so carefully and deliberately suggestive rather than descriptive, than the endless stream of interpretation began. In a vision that is seldom far from the minds of Nietzsche readers, Lee Spinks notes that the “’gift’ of the Overman was quickly transformed into the nightmare vision of a fascistic ‘Superman’ who foreshadowed an inhuman and totalitarian world of rapacity and violence.”3 Such readers missed the point, of course — the overman is not for man to contend with to-day, for if we could conceive of the overman, we would be the overman.

But Shaw turns the overman to quite another, more subtle and appropriately Nietzschean purpose. For him, the overman is he who can live in the world without illusion, without purpose, without qualms. We may shudder in revulsion at the prospect of men making decisions without the guilt and guidance of a moral system, but the fact remains that such men exist, and have always existed. Instead of the more pleasing vision of common humanity, we are confronted with the brutal fact of man’s essential inhumanity to man. Such brutality may be repellent, but our displeasure hardly serves to alter reality, and both Shaw and Nietzsche call attention to this, as well as to the hypocrisy that is the stock in trade of any moral system. Here the naked self-interest of charities, and the immorality of the weapons trade, are laid bare as but two sides of the will to power.

Central to Shaw’s interpretation of the overman is the idea that man is more authentic and less dangerous when he does not delude himself. This is frequently done through clever juxtaposition of motives, as in the scene where Undershaft “buys” the Salvation Army in order to push Barbara away from its comforting walls. Barbara speaks of a common morality, decrying the use of a distiller’s money to support the Army’s campaign against the demon alcohol. Undershaft points out in his matter-of-fact way that alcohol “makes life bearable to millions of people who could not endure their existence if they were quite sober.”4 This appallingly cavalier attitude is perfectly foiled by Mrs Baines, who asks Barbara if there “will there be less drinking or more if all those poor souls we are saving come to-morrow and find the doors of our shelters shut in their faces?”5

Shaw may intend here to lampoon charitable organisations for their hypocrisy, but he does so in such a way that one is led to understand that this kind of hypocrisy is actually essential to their work. Social progress is most often found in the kind of Machiavellian compromises that would make a pure idealist blanch; the idealist must either learn to lie to himself about what he is doing, or he must face the reality that he serves the very thing he fights. This duality is classic Nietzsche: one is either a self-deluded member of the “herd”, or else forced to withstand the harsher truths of their lives, and often to confront their own self-loathing. (“Whoever despises himself still respects himself as one who despises.”6)

Shaw also taps into Nietzsche’s radical epistemology, and his thorough critique universals in human thought (a theme to which we shall return in our discussion of Siddhartha). In a blistering rebuttal to bourgeois notions of morality, so often thrown about as if their truths were entirely self-evident, Shaw allows Undershaft to answer Stephen’s self-assured pose: “I know the difference between right and wrong.”7

“Oh, that’s everybody’s birthright. Look at poor little Jenny Hill, the Salvation lassie! she would think you were laughing at her if you asked her to stand up in the street and teach grammar or geography or mathematics or even drawingroom dancing; but it never occurs to her to doubt that she can teach morals and religion. You are all alike, you respectable people. You cant tell me the bursting strain of a ten-inch gun, which is a very simple matter; but you all think you can tell me the bursting strain of a man under temptation. You darent handle high explosives; but youre all ready to handle honesty and truth and justice and the whole duty of man, and kill one another at that game.”8

In place of the idealistic believer — whether in politics, religion, or even science — Shaw depicts the expression of power without illusion, an ideal central to Nietzsche’s conception of the overman. We see a creature that not only bears a willingness to strike when necessary, but that can do so without fooling himself that what he does is “right” in the way that so many choose to rationalise prison, war, poverty. But this does not excuse the kind of behaviour such persons are capable of. On the contrary, it exposes the self-interest underlying common decisions; whilst not intended to provide a moralising explanation, it does help us to understand. Like Nietzsche himself, Shaw likes to engage in a bit of social psychology, as in the following dialogue:

Cusins: I dont think you quite know what the Army does for the poor… it makes them sober—

Undershaft: I prefer sober workmen. The profits are larger.

Cusins: —honest—

Undershaft: Honest workmen are the most economical.

Cusins: —attached to their homes—< Undershaft: So much the better: they will put up with anything sooner than change their shop. Cusins: —happy— Undershaft: An invaluable safeguard against revolution. Cusins: —unselfish— Undershaft: Indifferent to their own interests, which suits me exactly. Cusins: —with their thoughts on heavenly things— Undershaft: And not on Trade Unionism nor Socialism. Excellent. Cusins: You really are an infernal old rascal.9

Whether deliberate or no, one could hardly envision a more perfect expression of “slave ethics” as they relate to everyday life. By turning ourselves away from our lives — focussing our attentions on religion, or television, or drugs — we merely escape the mundane realities that others will happily manipulate in our absence. By refusing to take an active and passionate interest in the details, we are conceding power over our own lives to those willing to take that power from us.

But why should a man of Shaw’s social convictions pick up on the aristocratic and transcendent élitism of an “infernal rascal” like Nietzsche? It is in their yearning for the transformative potential of living without illusion that Shaw and Nietzsche come closest together. Ernst Behler suggests that

“[t]he central motto for [the] reception of Nietzsche by a socialist individualist consists in the simple word Übermensch… Nietzsche had used the term mostly in the sense of self-transcending, self-overcoming, but also occasionally combined it in an ironical twist with the idea of breeding the Übermensch.”10

This more immediate, social and physical expression of the overman, is “dominant in Shaw’s usage”, but it is very “cleverly combined with his own social program.”11 There has been much speculation about Nietzsche’s politics, and certainly his “Great Politics” remain obscure for many readers, buried beneath often-contradictory aristocratic language. However, this need not prevent us from seeing Nietzsche as pointing the way to a politics of the future — one that would exist beyond the confines of what we currently understand as the political.

Writing on the implications of Nietzsche’s epistemology, Andrew Koch points out that although

“Nietzsche’s critique of existing morality and of politics is oriented to the present, …his understanding of political possibilities is oriented toward the future. Nietzsche claims that his politics is for an age not yet born. Politics, as it is presently conceived, must come to an end. Does this mean the Nietzsche is a utopian? He never claims that the age of the overman would end conflict, bring the reign of “truth”, or end suffering. He simply argues that it would function better than an age in which human beings are taught to despise themselves.”12

This self-hatred, which Nietzsche traces to the Christian emphasis on humility (or what he would consider self-degradation), erupts from Undershaft in a vicious attack on the social glorification of what should be considered criminal:

“Have you ever been in love with Poverty, like St Francis? Have you ever been in love with Dirt like St Simeon? Have you ever been in love with disease and suffering, like our nurses and philanthropists? Such passions are not virtues, but the most unnatural of all the vices… Leave it to the poor to pretend that poverty is a blessing: leave it to the coward to make a religion of his cowardice by preaching humility…”13

Poverty is a crime: the very idea seems scandalous, as though we could blame the poor for their condition! But this is exactly what each of these authors does in his own way.

For Shaw, poverty is a problem for everyone, and must be eliminated. His socialist politics are tempered by an individualistic streak more common in anarchist thinkers — he insists that the poor must be able to stand up and work toward their own “salvation”, rather than depend upon the hand-outs of charity and the crumbs thrown down from the rich man’s table. Nietzsche sees this play out as a part of the game of life — his total celebration of life demands of man the strength to pull himself up. In his criticism of pity, Nietzsche is suggesting that the man unwilling to struggle against the conditions of his life has already accepted them, and thus should be left to wallow in his self-wrought misery. It seems a cold, and almost “evil” position; but when you peek beneath the surface, it differs little from Shaw’s socialist activism. Poverty will cease to exist as soon as all men decide that it is no longer appropriate, and it will persist so long as the masses of humanity are willing to tolerate the predations of the wealthy.

In the meantime, how are we to fault those who are eager to abuse our naïveté and foolish forbearance? Shall we drag everyone down toward an idealised vision of suffering? Or would we not better be served in working to uplift our own lives? Should we not be willing to live our life “unashamed”14 of our decisions, cognizant of their context and consequence? And, as the improvement of the human condition as a whole serves our interests as well as anyone’s, we can address the question of altruism with a better understanding of our own motives.

But this level of honesty is unlikely to win approval, and it is here that Shaw and Nietzsche both succeed in addressing the psychology of power in personal relations. Nietzsche knows that “[a]rrogance on the part of the meritorious is even more offensive to us than the arrogance of those without merit: for merit itself is offensive.”15 His theory of ressentiment is a clever apprehension of historical motive, and perhaps one of the more subtle and enduring insights of the past century. For his part, Shaw knows that an individualist’s “best friend” is not his most charitable companion, but his “bravest enemy”, for only your enemy can challenge you to improve yourself and keep you “up to the mark”.16

Shaw does not politicise Nietzsche so much as show us how the personal and the political spheres are already intimately linked. Unlike Shaw, Nietzsche has no political philosophy; for him, the overman is merely an ideal–

“a concept devoid of any particular content, of any particular image. The overman comes after the anarchistic [i.e., Dionysian] nature of the world is understood, after a recognition that the world does not contain a single truth or teleologically destined way of life. The overman embodies creativity and is capable of self-sacrifice, and as such, love, but Nietzsche adds little that is specific.”17

Indeed, he could not do so, for such deterministic prognostication would run contrary to his philosophical purpose. Higgins thinks that

“Nietzsche intends this vagueness in his image of the overman. The overman is a kind of place-holder for the aim of human aspiration toward greatness. The particular form of such greatness varies from individual life to individual life. The overman’s lack of defining characteristics makes it possible for this image to accommodate the full range of great striving as it appears in all individual cases.”18

In short, Nietzsche tells us only what we have been, and that we can be something more — he does not presume to tell us what that something is.

Nietzsche may have been excessively critical of all extant political systems, but Shaw has a definite political objective in his storytelling. For him, the transformation of the personal is an inherently social and political revolution, with every part of our lives caught up in our connexions with other people. After sitting through the entirety of his play with Undershaft as the perfect embodiment of perspectivism and self-definition, and being in all things the utterly Nietzschean immoralist, in the end we can see that for Shaw the real overman …is Barbara.

It is her combination of socialist idealism and Nietzschean self-overcoming that points to Shaw’s real message: that social ills cannot be overcome until they can be looked in the face and understood for what they are. In this Shaw begins to cut his own path; where Nietzsche enjoins us to let our will say: “the overman shall be the meaning of the earth!”19, Shaw asks that we direct all the earth to uplift. Here he takes Nietzsche a step beyond what Nietzsche will allow himself, hoping that the ideal of the overman could be within reach of us all. Never mind that Nietzsche had said that “even in the will of those who serve” can be “found the will to be master”20, he is in general much more sceptical about the capacity of the majority to overcome anything.

Rather than focus upon the rare and unique, as Nietzsche does, Shaw preaches equality and hopes to inspire a nobler and more profoundly “Christian” vision of society, by refusing to ignore the darker side of our affairs. It is no sense hiding from the evils of society — at the end of the day, as Barbara says, “[t]here is no wicked side: life is all one.”21 This is perfectly consistent with our understanding that the overman is not a social phenomenon at all, but a deeply and uniquely personal one.

The path to self-realisation will vary greatly, and the affects that such a person will have on the world around them will vary according to the circumstances of their lives, but it is important to emphasise that neither Undershaft nor Barbara are “social” manifestations of the overman — their views are personal, and it is only incidentally that they impinge upon the lives of others. To the extent that other men fail to assert themselves as strongly or as independently, we can see the loneliness of such a position: standing proudly but alone, beyond good and evil, but far from beyond reproach. For so long as Western civilisation survives in its current state, those who by their very nature command respect and demand hatred will remain misunderstood; and we will continue to blame them for our own inadequacies.

Time is a River: The Art of Transformative Living

“Time is a great long river, and I’m standing in it, just as you are standing in it.” ~Utah Phillips

A peerless work of psychological and spiritual development, Siddhartha takes us on a journey from the impetuosity of youth to the wisdom of old age. No less so than in Shaw’s play, Hermann Hesse leads his protagonist through a transformative odyssey that invites easy parallels to the overman. And just as in Shaw, that comparison is more than apt, for in the character of Siddhartha Nietzsche would surely have recognised the hallmarks of his own creation. However, it is not just the overman that jumps to the fore here — the book is positively replete with Nietzschean ideas, from the illusion of time and free will, to the mistrust of teachers, to the movement through Dionysian stages on the path to enlightenment. Rather than focussing upon the form of proto-overman herein encountered, we will attempt to touch upon some of the more salient and Nietzschean issues Hesse raises.

Driven from his home by the need to find his own path, far away from the studied knowledge of the brahmin, Siddhartha has from the start suspected that there are no proper teachers; this theme returns several times in the text, and each time it echoes one of Nietzsche’s fundamental maxims: that there are no educators in life.

“As a thinker one should speak only of self-education. The education of youth by others is either an experiment carried out on an as yet unknown and unknowable subject, or a levelling on principle with the object of making the new being, whatever it may be, conform to the customs and habits then prevailing.”22

When, after some time with the shramanas of the woodlands, Siddhartha turns to his friend Govinda and tell him, “I am beginning to believe that this knowing has no greater enemy than wanting to know, than learning”,23 he is already deep in the throes of an existential crisis. Siddhartha has begun to doubt the wisdom of his elders, to look beyond their answers; his true journey begins when he hears the cry of Nietzsche’s madman, running through the marketplace:

“Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him — you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving?…”24

What has been killed is not merely God, but all universals, all immutable truths. The sceptical modern age has opened us all to the absurdity, contingency, and ultimate meaninglessness of life. It is this emotional and psychological void that works like Siddhartha aim to address.

Once Siddhartha has come to suspect that everything he has learnt is false, he sets out to find himself, beyond the shadow of the gods and the comforting presence of history. Govinda’s question echoes in his ears, spurring him on, driving him: “…what would remain of everything that had once seemed sacred to us? What would be left? What would stand the test?”25 Nietzsche himself poses this same challenge: “In the horizon of the infinite— We have left the land and embarked. We have burned our bridges behind us — indeed, we have gone farther and destroyed the land behind us.”26

When nothing is left to you but your seeking, all that remains is to embrace this destiny, and seek. For many, there are no hard questions or existential crises — for many, the truths of society are sufficient to carry them through their lives. For those rare others, however, the drive to question all is an unquenchable lust, satiated only by the realisation that this seeking is its own ends — that there is no final goal or simple answer beyond the self.

In his time with the shramanas, Siddhartha learnt to think; this is not so simple as matter as is seems, and in fact it is and has been a relatively rare attribute in human history. As another who had learnt to think, Nietzsche often decried the poverty of mind prevalent in the university system, which had by his time already given up its promise of encouraging the independent development of thinkers, turning instead to the task of indoctrinating young men into the dominant discourse. Siddhartha saw early on that acceptance of another’s teaching is no way to learn, and understood this very clearly in the end:

“No, a true seeker, one who truly wished to find, could not accept any doctrine. But he who had found realization could look with favor on any teaching, any path, any goal. Nothing any longer separated him from the thousand others who lived the eternal, who breathed the divine.”27

In the apparent exclusivity of this path, Hesse more directly invokes the spectre of the overman, for Nietzsche never thought his ideal to be within reach of the majority. Indeed, he believed that the “great majority of people lacks an intellectual conscience”, and would thus be unable or unwilling to strive for it.

“I mean: the great majority of people does not consider it contemptible to believe this or that and to live accordingly, without first having given themselves an account of the final and most certain reasons pro and con, and without even troubling themselves about such reasons afterward.”28

More than nearly any other modern thinker, Nietzsche enjoins the reader to find our own truths, and to ignore his ideas — and those of his predecessors — wherever they do not fit our needs or our world. Only when the reader has rejected all of Nietzsche’s theories and prejudices, and dispensed with the supposed authority of his writings, can we approach those writings in a manner befitting the author’s intent. Nietzsche is no teacher — he is merely a signpost standing on a wooded hillside, pointing toward a possible future.

It is in this way that Hesse’s characterisation so closely evokes the path followed by Nietzsche himself on his path to “enlightenment”. Abandoning Germany with the rise of the Reich, Nietzsche spent the rest of his life wandering through southern France, Switzerland, and Italy, seeking healthier climes for both his body and his mind. Nietzsche understood solitude in a way that few Western thinkers had before or have since. The Siddhartha who ends his days listening to the voice of the river would have understood perfectly the following sentiment:

“As a recompense for much ennui, ill-humour and boredom, such as a solitude without friends, books, duties or passions must entail, one harvests those quarters of an hour in the deepest immersion in oneself and in nature. He who completely entrenches himself against boredom also entrenches himself against himself: he will never get to drink the most potent refreshing draught from the deepest well of his own being.”29

Nietzsche is often dismissed as “crazy”, or as an eccentric crank who took himself too seriously. This judgement ignores his ironic wit and self-deprecating sense of humour, but we will grant that his humour is not exactly accessible. But in his isolation and wanderings, Nietzsche seemed to experience many of the same psychological torments that afflicted Siddhartha. His letters are filled with an inexpressible yearning — a desire for completion that he knew he would never find.

More importantly, Nietzsche’s self-imposed isolation gave his grandiose and lofty pronouncements far greater weight than they would have had in the hands of, say, a Schopenhauer (Nietzsche was deeply critical of any thinker who did not live his thought, and Schopenhauer — the philosopher of pessimism — is the example par excellence). In the same way that Nietzsche looked down upon European culture from some distant vantage point, Siddhartha looked down upon the residents of the city as “child people”. He could sense the passivity of the majority, and the respect naturally afforded to the self-consciously independent. “They are all grateful, although they themselves are due the gratitude,” he thought to himself. “All of them treat me with deference; they would all be happy to be my friend, they would be glad to obey me without having to think too much. People are children.”30

In his years of near-solitude and the enforced hardship of life as a shramana, Siddhartha had tasted of what Nietzsche calls his own conception of freedom:

“That one has the will to assume responsibility for oneself. That one maintains the distance which separates us. That one becomes more indifferent to difficulties, hardships, privation, even to life itself. That one is prepared to sacrifice human beings for one’s cause, not excluding oneself. Freedom means that the manly instincts which delight in war and victory dominate over other instincts, for example, over those of “pleasure.””31

It is this last that, for a time, Siddhartha loses sight of, as a necessary phase in his becoming.

Once possessed by this superiority of spirit, Siddhartha felt confident forsaking his life of penury and moving in amongst the “children”. As Nietzsche asserted, the path of “[a]sceticism is the right discipline for those who have to exterminate their sensual drives because the latter are raging beasts of prey. But only for those!”32 Believing himself above the ravenous hungers of lesser spirits, he entered their world in order to learn what he could from it.

And learn he did! His apprenticeship with Kamala brought him knowledge of the sensual, and at first he revelled in what Nietzsche would call the Apolline and Dionysiac duality. The Apollonian ideal represents the capacity for order, beauty, harmony, and measure — wherever there is the human imposition of structure and will, there is the spirit of Apollo. Dionysus, on the other hand, is the embodiment of chaos, excess, destruction, creation — in short, the raw stuff of life itself. In the combination of these ideals, Nietzsche sees the finest achievements of Western culture. But this balance is difficult to achieve or sustain; and as the Dionysian is the more fundamental, natural impulse, the danger for those surrendering themselves to its vicissitudes is great. One can for a time experience the raw energies of creation, or he can succumb to self-destructive hedonism and lose everything.

This is, of course, just what Siddhartha did — he pursued the wealth, status, and power of a city merchant, at first with an ironic sense of pleasure, but later with the insatiable desire and narcissism of those he had first dismissed as children. As Nietzsche had said, the “passions have a phase when they are merely disastrous, when they drag down their victim with the weight of stupidity — and a later, very much later phase when they wed the spirit, when they ‘spiritualize’ themselves.”33 Siddhartha had experienced this, but almost in reverse — for as long as he had lived in the city, “he had continued to feel different from the others and superior to them. He had always looked at them with a touch of disdainful contempt, with just that contempt that a shramana always feels toward worldly people.”34 Siddhartha entered the city an experienced shramana and the master of his passions, but within a few short years those passions had mastered him.

But Siddhartha could not have gone so far already if he did not have the strength to pull himself away from this living death; and one day he discovered in the depths of his self-loathing its source, and resolved to leave everything behind. He returned to the river, there to face himself and contemplate his end. Siddhartha had reached the apex of nihilism — only one step remained to complete his fall into the water’s final embrace. Here, leaning over the river at the moment of his destruction, he was reborn. The best way to place this into Nietzschean terms is via an extended quote from Gilles Deleuze:

“Active destruction means: the point, the moment of transmutation in the will to nothingness. Destruction becomes active at the moment when, the alliance between reactive forces and the will to nothingness is broken. The will to nothingness is converted and crosses over to the side of affirmation, it is related to a power of affirming which destroys the reactive forces themselves. Destruction becomes active to the extent that the negative is transmuted and converted into affirmative power: the “eternal joy of becoming” which is avowed in an instant, the “joy of annihilation”, the “affirmation of annihilation and destruction.” This is the “decisive point” of Dionysian philosophy: the point at which negation expresses an affirmation of life, destroys reactive forces and restores the rights of activity. The negative becomes the thunderbolt and lightning of a power of affirmation. Midnight, the supreme focal or transcendent point which is not defined by Nietzsche in terms of an equilibrium or a reconciliation of opposites, but in terms of conversion.”35

This experience, which Siddhartha interprets as the river speaking to him, brings him back to the ferryman and to a gradual awakening to himself. He learns to listen to the river — and to listen in general — as Vasudeva had learnt. And it is this message that he will pass on to other travellers; neither teacher, nor sage, nor leader, Siddhartha nonetheless exerts, through his work on the river, a tangible influence on the world around himself. Many who came in search of the “holy man” turned away, unable to see that which they could not understand — but others would learn from Siddhartha, from his eyes, from his smile, from his reverence for the eternally-flowing river.

Long years before, when Siddhartha had met the Buddha Gotama, he had in the pride of his youth assured the Perfect One that “nobody attains enlightenment through a teaching”.36 The Buddha had enquired of him, “Have you seen the host of my shramanas, my many brothers who have taken refuge in the teaching? And do you believe… that it would be better for all of them to abandon the teaching and return to the life of the world and its pleasures?” Siddhartha assured the Buddha that he thought nothing of the sort — “May they all remain with the teaching, may they all reach their goal! It is not for me to judge the life of another! It is only for myself that I must judge, that I must choose and refuse.”37

This perspectivist view of truth, knowledge, and the divergent paths we must each take in life is yet another idea Hesse shares with Nietzsche; in fact, Nietzsche would have agreed wholeheartedly with the older Siddhartha, when he tried to explain to Govinda that: “Wisdom is not expressible. Wisdom, when a wise man tries to express it, always sounds like foolishness.”38 With his many failures, Zarathustra could surely have related to this conversation, and, like Siddhartha, Zarathustra knew that the best course was to laugh off the failure and try again. “The higher the type, the more rarely a thing succeeds. You higher men here, have you not all failed? Be of good cheer, what does it matter? How much is still possible! Learn to laugh at yourself as one must laugh!”39

In the years that followed his return to the river and apprenticeship with Vasudeva, Siddhartha learnt to hear the river’s laughter, and many other things besides. On that first day, as he pulled himself back from the edge of despair, he had been struck by something that must have occurred to Nietzsche as well, for it comes down to us in the West from Heraclitus: “Everything flows; nothing stands still.” As he gazed into the river, Siddhartha “saw that the river flowed and flowed, flowed ever onward, and yet was always there, was always the same yet every moment new!”40 Echoed here by the Indian Siddhartha is the genesis of the classicist Nietzsche’s greatest — and strangest — idea: the eternal recurrence.

Nietzsche refers to this innovation as “the greatest weight”41, but recurrence is not intended to be a lodestone around our necks. On the contrary, it is quite plain that Nietzsche saw recurrence as ultimately life-affirming, and hoped that it might set man loose of the illusions of free will, idealism, and metaphysics:

“Have you ever said Yes to a single joy? O my friends, then you have said Yes too to all woe. All things are entangled, ensnared, enamored; if ever you wanted one thing twice, if ever you said, “You please me, happiness! Abide, moment!” then you wanted all back. All anew, all eternally, all entangled, ensnared, enamored — oh, then you loved the world. Eternal ones, love it eternally and evermore; and to woe too, you say: go, but return! For all joy wants — eternity.”42

The most common error made in interpretations of the eternal recurrence is seeing it as a physical theory, when in fact it has nothing to do with this universe — it is the universe itself which will recur, not individual beings within it. Here Nietzsche breaks completely with the Western tradition, looking more to the East and its cyclical conceptions of time; as does Hesse in Siddhartha, which challenges our sense of continuity and progression when Siddhartha asks: “Have you also learned from the river the secret that there is no time?”43 In a philosophy that embraces the infinite to the extent that Nietzsche and Hesse appear to, where is there room for resentment or regret? What purpose can disappointment serve, when there is only the eternal now — this instant, this experience? The river of life does not flow from one point to another, carrying us along with it as the dialectical thinkers would suggest; the river is always and everywhere all at once — infinite.

Concluding Thoughts

In closing, I should like to make a few observations about the interpretation and influence of Nietzsche, as this has already caused some small disagreement in class. The confusion this may have created, however, should in fact be a blessing, for if nothing else it may have highlighted just how much the twentieth century has been defined by ambiguity and interpretation. As for Nietzsche and his work, Robert Wistrich puts this very well when he opines that

“there was something elusive in Nietzsche’s fragmented, diffuse, and lyrical oeuvre — experimental in method, aphoristic in style, and anti-systematic in nature — that [lays] itself open to… uses and abuses, to multiple opposed interpretations, not to say misappropriations; so much so that it often seems difficult to ascertain who the “real” Nietzsche was or if such a person actually existed. His life and work appears in retrospect like a battlefield of contending polarities — suspended between the Apollonian and Dionysian impulses, between and beyond good and evil, or the “master” and “slave” moralities — those antitheses he harbored within his soul until the twilight of madness descended upon him in 1889, leaving the final verdict to the care of posterity.”44

Thus far I feel that posterity has mostly done Nietzsche proud — the proliferation of interpretations, the variety of opinions, and the diverse applications to which his initial threads have been put could not fail to surprise and delight, as well as infuriate him. In this, as in so many other areas, I expect that his reaction would have seemed a total contradiction.

However, despite the enduring influence and the bits of his legacy that one can see all around, I cannot entirely view Nietzsche as a “shaman” or “prophet” for the twentieth century, any more than I can see him as “crazy”. Indeed, he may well be the first sane philosopher of the modern era, for he saw most clearly the kind of problems with which our century would grapple, and pointed the way toward a serious and lasting critique of Western civilisation as a whole.

The course material has thus far suggested that Nietzsche was “too radical” in his writings — that he went too far and consequently later generations have simply picked up the pieces that most suited them. This latter observation is undoubtedly correct, though the end result is little changed, as this is what Nietzsche himself would have expected — he had already set the proper, sceptical approach the reader should take to his writings:

“The philosopher believes that the value of his philosophy lies in the whole, in the building: posterity discovers it in the bricks with which he built and which are then often used again for better building: in fact, that is to say, that the building can be destroyed and nonetheless possess value as material.”45

As to the former position, however, I feel that in many respects Nietzsche does not go far enough; and moreover, that his critique could not hope to make genuine sense or find a receptive audience, in his time or any other. The threads laid out by Nietzsche have been taken and advanced by later thinkers able to draw upon continuing cultural evolution, but they remain at core Nietzschean ideas; the past century has been entirely Nietzschean in character. He may have lacked the tools with which to build the critique he sought, and certainly he lacked the holistic understanding that such a thoroughgoing transvaluation could not possibly succeed or have value in itself, but he went as far as he could and left the rest to us. He was certainly perceptive enough to realise that he had been “born posthumously” — that his project would not readily find acceptance or understanding.

But it is my contention that this lack of understanding is very much the whole point — that Nietzsche in truth has nothing whatever to tell us about our world, only about his own, and that he hoped to be read as a prompt, not as a prophet. For Nietzsche, there is only the personal, and never does the reader discover in him a sense of the universal or immutable. Robert Solomon and Kathleen Higgins have observed that “[o]ne of Nietzsche’s most prominent innovations, providing a bridge to the twentieth century, is his insistence that there is no absolute knowledge that transcends all possible perspectives: knowledge is always constrained by one’s perspective.”46 Any proper appreciation of Nietzsche much begin with this contingent, metaphorical, and almost relativistic framework in mind — he simply cannot be read literally, as he himself makes clear repeatedly in his work.

Instead, Nietzsche sought radically to transform the nature of our questioning — to shift the emphasis from the metaphysical to the human. As Zarathustra said,

“God is a conjecture; but I desire that your conjectures should be limited by what is thinkable. Could you think a god? But this is what the will to truth should mean to you; that everything be changed into what is thinkable for man, visible for man, feelable by man. You should think through your own senses to their consequences.”

“And what you have called world, that shall be created only by you: your reason, your image, your will, your love shall thus be realised…”47

And in the final reckoning, it is here that the success enjoyed by both Shaw and Hesse in their respective uses of Nietzsche is made plain, and shown to be at once equally Nietzschean, equally personal, and equally human.

1      Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science. ed. & trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage Books, 1974. 219.
2      Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. in The Portable Nietzsche, ed. & trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Penguin Books, 1954. 124.
3      Spinks, Lee. Friedrich Nietzsche. London: Routledge, 2003. 115.
4      Shaw, George Bernard. Major Barbara. in Pygmalion and Three Other Plays. New York: barnes & Noble Classics, 2004. 110.
5      Shaw. 110.
6      Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil. in Basic Writings of Nietzsche. ed. & trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: The Modern Library, 1967. 271.
7      Shaw. 126.
8      Shaw. 127.
9      Shaw. 100-1.
10    Behler, Ernst. “Nietzsche in the Twentieth Century”. in The Cambridge Companion to Nietzsche. ed. Bernd Magnus and Kathleen M. Higgins. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. 292-3.
11    Behler. 293.
12    Koch, Andrew M. “Dionysian Politics: The Anarchist Implications of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Critique of Western Epistemology”. in I Am Not a Man, I Am Dynamite: Friedrich Nietzsche and the Anarchist Tradition. ed. John Moore with Spencer Sunshine. New York: Autonomedia, 2004. 60.
13    Shaw. 99-100.
14    Shaw. 143.
15    Nietzsche, Friedrich. Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits. trans. R.J. Hollingdale. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986. 139.
16    Shaw. 152.
17    Koch. 60.
18    Solomon, Robert C. and Kathleen M. Higgins. What Nietzsche Really Said. New York: Schocken Books, 2000. 143.
19    Nietzsche. Zarathustra. 125.
20    Nietzsche. Zarathustra. 226.
21    Shaw. 157.
22    Nietzsche. Human. 374.
23    Hesse, Hermann. Siddhartha. trans. Sherab Chödzin Kohn. Boston: Shambhala, 2000. 16.
24    Nietzsche. Gay Science. 181.
25    Hesse. 16.
26    Nietzsche. Gay Science. 180.
27    Hesse. 86.
28    Nietzsche. Gay Science. 76.
29    Nietzsche. Human. 359.
30    Hesse. 40.
31    Nietzsche, Friedrich. Twilight of the Idols, or, How One Philosophizes With a Hammer. in The Portable Nietzsche. ed. & trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Penguin Books, 1954. 542.
32    Nietzsche, Friedrich. Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality. trans. R.J. Hollingdale. ed. Maudemarie Clark & Brian Leiter. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. 162.
33    Nietzsche. Twilight.. 486.
34    Hesse. 60.
35    Deleuze, Gilles. Nietzsche and Philosophy. trans. Hugh Tomlinson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983. 174-5.
36    Hesse. 28.
37    Hesse. 28.
38    Hesse. 110.
39    Nietzsche. Zarathustra. 404.
40    Hesse. 80.
41    Nietzsche. Gay Science. 273.
42    Nietzsche. Zarathustra. 435.
43    Hesse. 83.
44    Wistrich, Robert S. “Between the Cross and the Swastika: A Nietzschean Perspective”. in Nietzsche, Godfather of Fascism? On the Uses and Abuses of a Philosophy. ed. Jacob Golomb & Robert S. Wistrich. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002. 145.
45    Nietzsche. Human. 261.
46    Solomon & Higgins. What Nietzsche Really Said. 35-6.
47    Nietzsche. Zarathustra. 198.

‘Conflict, Burden, And Ambiguity’

Conflict, Burden, and Ambiguity
An Existential Reading of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried

For a novelist, a given historic situation is an anthropologic laboratory in which he explores his basic question: What is human existence?
        — Milan Kundera

Subjectivity is truth, subjectivity is reality.
        — Søren Kierkegaard

In setting out to write such a paper as this, I must first ask myself, what are my goals? What is it that I am trying to say? My own interpretation of the motives of the various characters of these books is clearly just that — my own; it has no objective value beyond my own understanding. But perhaps this is exactly the point. Perhaps, like master storytellers Milan Kundera and Tim O’Brien, I have nothing to prove to you, and no answers to your questions. But I do have something to say about the nature of truth, the purpose of stories in the search for meaning, our often-imperfect realisation of our own freedom and the anxiety this causes when experience conspires to bring us closer to seeing it, and the rôle of conflict in these confrontations with the absurd.

In choosing existentialism as a framework for understanding these two stories, I have revealed two things about myself. First, that I have a bias toward subjective philosophy in general, and towards a contemporary reading of existentialism in particular. Secondly, that I reject the notion of structural and intellectual biases. I mean this with as little irony as possible — my fundamental attraction to existentialism and my appreciation for these two novels is based largely upon their common grounding in ambiguity, and in their respective approaches to truth. Existentialism is, after all, a revolt against traditional philosophy and against systemic thought that is grounded in the presumption of an objective, knowable truth beyond ourselves.

The search for meaning in existence is a constant in human thought and expression, and most are able to convince themselves that they have found it — in their religion, in their country, in their relationships — in some concrete and understandable aspect of their lives. For others, this search for meaning, and the common forms that it takes, is complicated by the sheer impossibility of their situation. Experience conspires to deny them the comfortable illusions that most cherish by forcing them into a direct confrontation with the incomprehensible; that is, with the absurd. Such is the case with the major characters in The Things They Carried and The Unbearable Lightness of Being; for them, war has triggered a chain of events that bring into question everything that they thought they knew about living, and about dying.

But what is the absurd? It would be an over-simplification to say that the world is absurd. In its utter lack of discernible external meaning or motivation, the world beyond ourselves seems to us absurd (when it is, in fact, “seen” at all, which is seldom; few amongst us are willing or able to challenge basic assumptions). The world, however, is not absurd; it simply is. It may seem to us capricious or cruel, beautiful or bizarre, but it is none of these things — in giving expression to such feelings, we demonstrate a false expectation. We have been taught that the world makes sense, and when we are faced with overwhelming and personal evidence that this is not so, what is being challenged is this expectation. French novelist and philosopher Albert Camus tells us that the “world in itself is not unreasonable, that is all that can be said. But what is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart” (Camus 21). The absurd, then, is not found in the world itself, but in our expectation that the world conform to our notions of decency or normality.

Both novels make use of human conflict to bring these notions into question — they are, in effect, creating an existential situation in order to explore the development of human personalities that are faced with the reality of their own lack of control over the world outside themselves. War is perhaps the ultimate existential playground; it is by its very nature pointless, and it causes us to face death and life in stark and naked terms, shorn of the veneer of meaning that we erect to conceal the absurd nature of our existence. How different individuals respond to these circumstances — to the emotional burden of living — is the major theme of both novels. The events depicted in the novels provide the characters an opportunity for a genuine reckoning with their responsibility as free beings; will the characters face it, and the anxiety that such a confrontation brings, or will they retreat into phantasy and delusion?

A Foundation for Existential Analysis

“Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself” (Sartre, “Existentialism” 15). French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre lays out this proposition in his essay “Existentialism is a Humanism,” in which he attempts to precisely define the form of existentialism that he represents, and to defend it against common criticisms. Continuing, he adds that “existentialism’s first move is to make every man aware of what he is and to make the full responsibility of his existence rest on him. And when we say that a man is responsible for himself, we do not only mean that he is responsible for his own individuality, but that he is responsible for all men” (Sartre, “Existentialism” 16). In making this statement, Sartre is echoing Kant’s Categorical Imperative: “Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law,” and in particular the imperative of duty: “Act as if the maxim of thy action were to become by thy will a universal law of nature” (Kant 268). This is a tremendous burden, by any reckoning, and appropriately leads to what most of the existential thinkers call “anxiety.”

This is not the sort of anxiety that should lead one to resignation or passivity — it is precisely the “sort of anguish that anybody who has had responsibilities is familiar with” (Sartre, “Existentialism” 20). Nineteenth-century Danish author Søren Kierkegaard, universally acclaimed as the first existential philosopher, called upon his readers to take up the challenge that this confrontation offers — the either/or choice that he feels defines human freedom. In exhorting us to accept the ability to define our own lives through our decisions, and not to evade this responsibility, Kierkegaard asks:

Do you not know that there comes a midnight hour when everyone has to throw off his mask? Do you believe that life will always let itself be mocked? Do you think you can slip away a little before midnight in order to avoid this? (Kierkegaard, “Either/Or” 99)

It is this either/or choice, this form of existential anxiety (or, in Kierkegaard’s words, dread), that the characters in these novels will encounter as a result of their peculiar position in history.

War stands as the ultimate affront to the ideals that we in the Western world have been brought up to cherish; war forces a suspension of conventional morality, and a denial of basic decency. In the name of honour and duty, war forces its participants into acts that they have been taught to abhor — they are forced to kill, and to watch those they care for be killed. War is, then, an existential situation of the first order, in that it forces a confrontation with personal responsibility and with the absurd. It is far easier to adjust to such a reversal when there are obvious reasons to fight, such as a direct threat to the home or family. In the case of Vietnam, no easily discernible threat or logic dictated American involvement; quite the contrary, it was clear to the majority of the men on the ground that the Vietnamese posed no overt threat to the American way of life, and hence the war had no purpose. Killing and dying without a reason brings about a direct confrontation with the absurd, and forces one into a fundamental choice — that betwixt the acceptance of personal responsibility for actions committed under these circumstances, or flight into phantasy or rationalisation, a basic denial of the freedom to choose. This failure to accept the responsibility that absolute human freedom places upon us is what Sartre calls “bad faith” (Sartre, “Being” 86-116). War as depicted in The Things They Carried is an existential situation that forces its characters to act in accordance with a realisation of our own freedom to choose.

Similarly, the occupation of one’s homeland by an alien presence forces one to make a distinct choice — to collaborate, or not to collaborate. The situation itself is largely beyond control; though an individual’s actions can surely impact its success or failure, it must be accepted for what it is. How the individual responds to the situation, on the other hand, is entirely up to her, making such an invasion into another type of existential crisis. The incomprehensibility of the events themselves, combined with the realisation of our own culpability and freedom to act, demands that an authentic decision be made. Authenticity here means an understanding that any decision that we make originates from within ourselves, and it demands that we not seek refuge within a group or shared ethic, or seek to obviate our personal responsibility in any way. True apprehension of existence is, according to German philosopher Martin Heidegger, “either authentic, originating from its own self as such, or else inauthentic” (Heidegger 137). The Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia, depicted in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, demands of the characters an authentic response to their situation, one that is predicated on their own understanding of their responsibility to themselves as free agents.

Using the concepts of bad faith and authenticity, as well as other existential criteria, I intend to examine and define the principal characters of each novel in existential terms. Differences in the lives of each character, and in their situations, will allow me to explore various aspects of existential thought along the way. There are four main characters in The Unbearable Lightness of Being: Tomas, Tereza, Sabina, and Franz; all being important counterpoints to one another within Kundera’s own philosophical model, I will address each in their turn. From The Things They Carried, I have limited my study to four characters: Jimmy Cross, Tim O’Brien, Norman Bowker, and Azar; these receive the most extensive treatment in the book, and thus afford me the best opportunities for an existential analysis.

Having addressed the characters, it is also worth mentioning that there are numerous structural similarities and contrasts in the two novels themselves, as the manner in which they are written is every bit as important as the story — perhaps even more so. Whilst both of these books are decidedly post-modern in their approach to storytelling — interweaving narrative passages with reflective sequences and segments that stand out as the author addressing his audience — there is an important distinction to be drawn in their methods. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Kundera the author frequently pauses in his narrative to interject personal observations and reflexions on the nature of the characters he has created, thus blurring the essential distinction betwixt art and artist. His work is also more overtly philosophical, a fact which in large measure inspired my own approach to this review. Kundera makes use of various features of existential and pre-Socratic philosophy throughout, and the novel’s message hinges upon an incomplete interpretation of Nietzsche’s “eternal recurrence,” which I will address in due course.

The Things They Carried has a very similar structural aesthetic, most particularly in its use of shifting perspective and lack of direct chronological order to the events depicted. However, the narrative approach is fundamentally different in that O’Brien avoids Kundera’s more unusual device of having the author address his readers, instead providing himself a vehicle for personal expression through the creation of a doppelgänger named, of course, Tim O’Brien. Reading through the novel, aware of the author’s own time in Vietnam, the reader is thereby left to wonder, just where, exactly, does Tim O’Brien the author end and Tim O’Brien the character begin? This “metafictional” approach blurs the line betwixt truth and fiction, bringing to the fore another important feature of existential thought: that of subjectivity.

According to Kierkegaard, all truth is subjective — that is, relative to the individual and their unique point of view. As he explains in his Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the “Philosophical Fragments”, when a person commits himself to an essential (id est, an existential) proposition with his whole being — when he believes in it enough to stake his life upon it — then it can be considered subjectively true, even if it is factually or objectively false.

When the question of the truth is raised subjectively, reflection is directed subjectively to the nature of the individual’s relationship: if only the mode of this relationship is in the truth, the individual is in the truth, even if he should happen to be thus related to what is not true. (Kierkegaard, “Postscript” 211)

An understanding of the individual’s responsibility for his own truths is an important, indeed a critical, aspect of both novels, which is what has drawn me to an existential approach to reviewing them. The authors understand that we create our truths for ourselves just as we create ourselves: through our actions and our decisions. These truths, like those decisions themselves, are never tied to anything in particular, least of all to the past. I am fully responsible for the person I have been in the past, yet I am no longer that same person; this existential paradox is at the heart of our relationship to the stories we tell. The Things They Carried and The Unbearable Lightness of Being are unusual in the degree to which they blur the distinction betwixt story and storyteller, fact and fiction, the past and the present. The reader is not only unable to discern the degree to which the authors’ experiences have shaped the stories they choose to share, we are, by the nature of those stories, discouraged from doing so. In the end, it doesn’t matter whether or not any of these events occurred — they stand as fundamental, existential truths from the authors’ lives.

Freedom and Responsibility

The first lines of The Things They Carried introduce the character of Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, whose inability to concentrate on the business of war leads, he feels, to the death of Ted Lavender. In the face of his over-powering obsession with Martha, a woman back home in New Jersey, he lets his attention slip during that critical moment when Lavender is shot. Unwilling to face the uncontrollable nature of death in a hostile environment, Cross chooses to blame himself for the death — but what could he have done to prevent it? A sniper picked off Lavender as he was on his way back from urinating (O’Brien 12), and he fell silently to the ground before his shocked and traumatised comrades. “Like cement, Kiowa whispered in the dark. I swear to G-d — boom, down. Not a word” (O’Brien 17). For Cross, it is not the manner in which Lavender is killed that is important, it is the fact that he was daydreaming about Martha at that exact moment.

Jimmy Cross has just stood face-to-face with the absurd in warfare and has turned quickly away. He is never able to accept that he could have done nothing for Lavender, any more than he can accept that Martha does not love him, and never will. He takes on the burden of Lavender’s death, like Jesus taking up the cross — accepting punishment for someone else’s sins, in this case, the war’s. Feeling that this burden was just a part of his duty as an officer, he saw it as just another part of his responsibility for the men under his command. He sets out to punish himself for his “failure” by burning all of Martha’s letters, and her two photographs. The pebble that she had sent him, picked up from where the water touched the sand — at the juncture of their two worlds — and that he had carried in his mouth as a good luck charm, is symbolically transformed through the guilt he has taken on into a heavy burden. “He felt shame. He hated himself. He had loved Martha more than his men, and as a consequence Lavender was now dead, and this was something he would have to carry like a stone in his stomach for the rest of the war” (O’Brien 16).

Later, when Cross makes the mistake of camping his unit in an open field, which is promptly attacked when one of the men turns on his flash light to show off a picture of his girl, Kiowa is sucked into the mud and drowns. Kiowa had been with the unit for some time, and was well-liked; his death was accidental and totally random, yet Cross takes this death on as a personal burden, just as with Lavender. “My own fault” he kept murmuring to himself (O’Brien 169), and spent the day composing a letter to Kiowa’s father in his head, rather than attending to his immediate responsibility, which was to the men who remained alive.

Many years after the war has ended, he continues to carry this cross, unwilling to forgive himself for the deaths under his command. “It was something that would never go away, he said quietly” (O’Brien 27), just as his love for Martha never leaves him. They meet at a reunion in 1979, and she makes it more than clear that she will never be able to reciprocate his feelings for her (the text, in fact, seems to imply that Martha might be a lesbian: O’Brien 28-29), and yet, when reflecting on this event in speaking with Tim, he is clearly still hoping that she will see the story Tim intends to write and will come to him. Back in the jungles of Vietnam, when he had stooped over his foxhole and burnt her pictures, he told himself: “No more fantasies” (O’Brien 24), but he is never really able to let them go, for to him, they define him and his relationship with the world. Jimmy Cross does not accept that he is free, and never moves on from these youthful illusions.

Similarly, the character of Tereza in The Unbearable Lightness of Being never faces her own freedom or the responsibility that that entails in her relationship with Tomas. The background events of her life, like those of every other character in the novel, are dictated by chance and by her own decisions, yet she insists upon finding a deeper, symbolic meaning in each moment, and in delegating responsibility for her own life to someone else. Because she cannot accept that she is responsible for her own happiness, she is never able to find peace in her life — she suffers frequent nightmares in which her fragile sense of security is threatened by her perception of Tomas’s infidelities (Kundera 18, 57). For Tereza, life is an endless trial and, with her eyes closed to her freedom, each morning she “awoke with great reluctance, with a desire to stave off the day by keeping her eyes closed” (Kundera 132).

All of her life, she had been looking for a man to take care of her; someone to enfold her in his arms and take responsibility for her happiness. “Even at the age of eight she would fall asleep by pressing one hand into the other and making believe she was holding the hand of the man whom she loved, the man of her life. So if in her sleep she pressed Tomas’s hand with such tenacity, we can understand why: she had been training for it since childhood” (Kundera 54-55). When she meets Tomas by chance during a brief stop-over he makes in her village, she draws from a series of co-incidences a message that Tomas was “the one” who could save her, and in attaching herself to him, she was finally able to leave her mother (Kundera 47-55). However, leaving home did not afford her the opportunity to grow up that it should have, as she simply substituted Tomas for her mother and became totally dependent upon him.

Afforded ample opportunity to learn that “chance and chance alone has a message for us” (Kundera 48), Tereza never manages to do so. From earliest childhood until the day she dies, she is running from herself by retreating into a phantasy world where every gesture, every co-incidence, has the deepest significance. Utterly convinced that her relationship with Tomas is “meant to be,” she is unable to reconcile herself to his constant affairs with his mistresses; she in unable to separate her own requirements from his and unable to accept Tomas as he is. Despite the fact the Tomas obviously loves her, and only her, she is unable to accept his love because it is not on her exclusive terms.

Even her own body is a source of anxiety for Tereza. Convinced that there must be something more to her than her body, she would stand transfixed before the mirror, staring at her features, convinced that she was seeing her own soul reflected in her face (Kundera 41). Tereza lacks the strength to separate herself from her expectations — she is constantly fleeing her own freedom. Whether running back to Prague in order to make Tomas chase her, attempting suicide to escape her feelings of helplessness (Kundera 17), or phantasizing about Tomas wanting her dead to escape the sense of guilt that she cannot abandon, Tereza never faces the absurd on any level. Like Ted Lavender in The Things They Carried, who chose to spend the war strung out on tranquillisers (O’Brien 230), Tereza is looking for any excuse to escape from her own life. She is thereby both living in bad faith, by refusing to accept her own freedom, and is inauthentic in that she refuses to acknowledge that her decisions are her own to make.

In this way, she is like most individuals, whether fictional or not. Nothing in popular culture encourages the sort of reflexion that would bring about a confrontation with the absurd, and hence most of us continue to expect a life that is fair and meaningful, never quite conscious of the fact that we are creating our own meaning through our decisions. The central characters in these two novels fare slightly better than most in this regard. By the time he writes his novel, Tim is conscious of the fact that he will not find a meaning for his experiences in Vietnam outside of himself, and so must create it through his stories. Tomas seems to understand from the start that his decisions are all that define his existence, and consequently he is more honest with himself about his motives. As we shall see, he is by far the most authentic of the characters in either novel.

Reflecting on the war years later, Tim hits on the essential experience of man at war: “In the midst of evil you want to be a good man. You want decency. You want justice and courtesy and human accord, things you never knew you wanted” (O’Brien 81). The depths of man’s inhumanity to man awaken in Tim an understanding that life is not as simple as he thought it was. In his confrontation with the absurd, he discovers that ultimately it is he that must supply the meaning to his life and to his experiences. He takes the incomprehensible experience of the war, and turns it into stories that allow him to explore the elements of deeper truth that seem to exist below the surface of reality. Whilst Tim succeeds in finding a way to generate meaning in his life, through his writing, he fails to come to grips with the fact that life itself does not necessarily have one. He continues to search for the elusive answer to his questions — wanting to know why such things happened to him, and hoping that in his stories he can at least reach a state of catharsis — rather than accepting the events for what they are and moving on.

Often in a true war story there is not even a point, or else the point doesn’t hit you until twenty years later, in your sleep, and you wake up and shake your wife and start telling the story to her, except when you get to the end you’ve forgotten the point again. And then for a long time you lie there watching the story happen in your head. You listen to your wife’s breathing. The war’s over. You close your eyes. You smile and think, Christ, what’s the point? (O’Brien 82)

Indeed, what is the point? That is what Tim spends the next two decades searching for. His is unable to let go of his past in Vietnam, and whilst his stories allow him some measure of peace, it is never enough to end his search for a deeper meaning. His daughter’s tenth birthday present gives him an excuse to return to Vietnam, and revisit some of the places that have left such deep scars on his psyche. Returning to the “shit field” where his friend Kiowa lost his life, he looks about for a clue to why this place had haunted him for so long. Standing in the field, Tim thinks to himself:

There were times in my life when I couldn’t feel much, not sadness or pity or passion, and somehow I blamed this place for what I had become, and I blamed it for taking away the person I had once been. For twenty years this field had embodied all the waste that was Vietnam, all the vulgarity and horror. (O’Brien 185)

What was that field, really? A symbol to him off all that he could not let go from this period in his life? Did Tim ever understand that it was his own decision to remain locked in the past, and was he able, in this final reckoning with the field when he buried Kiowa’s moccasins in the mud (O’Brien 186), to let go of his guilt and anguish over these events?

And what of the man that he may, or may not, have killed? “He was a slim, dead, almost dainty young man of about twenty. He lay with one leg bent beneath him, his jaw in his throat, his face neither expressive nor inexpressive. One eye was shut. The other was a star-shaped hole” (O’Brien 130). What does it mean that he is able to either objectify the death by making it a story, or to take on the responsibility for a death he did not cause by inventing such a story? (O’Brien 180) In the end, the events of that day do not matter — what is important is what Tim took from the experience, and that is the guilt attached to the death of a young Vietnamese man, a sense of guilt that he cannot release. The fact is, he does have a choice, and he does not wish to face that choice — his stories give him a way out, a way to express how he feels without actually dealing with those feelings or his responsibility for them.

Throughout his life, Tim has had to make these kind of choices, and what is more, he has known all along that they were significant. When he received his draft notice, he knew instinctively that he had encountered an existential situation; that is, that how he responded to that notice would determine the course of his entire life. Tim is faced with the anxiety that comes from a realisation that he was completely free to choose his course of action. He can accept the draft and fight a war that he does not believe in, or he can flee to Canada and leave behind everything he loves, necessarily incurring the shame that would accompany such a flight. And so he runs.

Driving north, toward the Canadian border, he has “a giddy feeling, in a way, except there was the dreamy edge of impossibility to it — like running a dead-end maze — no way out — it couldn’t come to a happy conclusion and yet I was doing it anyway because it was all I could think of to do” (O’Brien 47). Tim is confronting his freedom, and is trying to find his way within it. As Spanish thinker José Ortega y Gasset says in his essay “Man Has No Nature,” “At every moment of my life there opens before me divers possibilities: I can do this or that. If I do this, I shall be A the moment after; if I do that, I shall be B. . . . Man is the entity that makes itself” (Ortega 155).

Throughout his six-day stay at the Tip Top Lodge (O’Brien 47-61) along the Rainy River on the Canadian border, Tim wrestles with himself. He knows what he must do in order to remain authentic — cross the river and enter Canada. He feels that the war is wrong, and that he should have no part in it. Yet in the end, he allows his sense of guilt and obligation, his shame, to draw him back to Minnesota, and into the war. Having stared his own freedom and responsibility to himself in the eye, Tim caves in to social pressures and hence, in bad faith, sets off for Vietnam as a foot soldier.

Tomas makes exactly the opposite choice from a very similar situation — when he expresses his displeasure with the current régime in Prague by publishing an editorial based upon the story of Oedipus in a small intellectual weekly (Kundera 178). This editorial immediately brings to light the possibility that Tomas will be forced from his position at the hospital. As the best surgeon on the staff (Kundera 180), it was widely expected that he would take over for the chief surgeon upon his retirement. Now he is being asked to retract his statement, to deny that he had intended any criticism of the régime. Tomas is faced with the possibility of making an inauthentic statement, and thereby securing his future, or standing by his words and losing his career. What is more, he understands that everyone expects him to make the statement — never mind that he agonises about it for days, revealing the unusual degree to which he is attuned to his own sense of self. For his principled stand, he is, in due course, forced out of his position at the hospital, and takes up practice in a small country clinic fifty miles from Prague (Kundera 184).

This sort of decision, which would be almost impossible for most people in such a situation, is relatively easy for Tomas, given his deep commitment to being honest with himself. The decision was born of his indignation at the Czech Communists who profess ignorance of the crimes the state had committed, and hence proclaim innocence of any wrongdoing. “We didn’t know,” the Communists protest, “We were true believers! Deep in our hearts we are innocent!” (Kundera 177) Tomas sees this for the lie that it is — a lie they have told themselves, but a lie nonetheless. When Tomas heard them shouting out this defence, he thought to himself:

As a result of your “not knowing,” this country has lost its freedom, lost it for centuries, perhaps, and you shout that you feel no guilt? How can you stand the sight of what you’ve done? How is it that you aren’t horrified? Have you no eyes to see? If you had eyes, you would have to put them out and wander away from Thebes! (Kundera 177)

Which brings him to his Oedipus analogy, and the loss of his career, which he has sacrificed on the altar of his principled honesty.

Who amongst us could stand in solidarity with such a man as this? Tomas falls from a position as senior surgeon to the rôle of a lowly window-washer, yet steadfastly refuses to regret his decision, which he had made whilst fully cognizant of its likely outcome. Sartre defines responsibility as “consciousness (of) being the incontestable author or an event or of an object” (Sartre, “Being” 707). Tomas knows that he has no one to blame for the condition of his life but himself; he has accepted his own responsibility.

Tomas’s honesty further extends beyond the professional and deeply into his personal life, informing his choices in love and sexuality. He knows that his conception of “erotic friendship” is a social taboo, and he understands that his continued infidelities hurt Tereza, yet he can see no harm in them himself.

Making love with a woman and sleeping with a woman are two separate passions, not merely different but opposite. Love does not make itself felt in the desire for copulation (a desire that extends to an infinite number of women) but in the desire for shared sleep (a desire limited to one woman). (Kundera 15)

For Tomas, sex and love are not related; for Tereza they are intimately bound up. In the end, it is his deep love for Tereza that leads Tomas to forsake a life that he is perfectly content with, and to strike out into the country and find another life, equally fulfilling, with only Tereza. In this decision, as in the others, Tomas knows exactly what he is doing, and why. He understands that his life is his own to define, and through his continuous honesty he reveals a level of authenticity that few amongst us can approximate.

Lightness and Weight

Kundera’s book begins with a discussion of the theory of eternal recurrence, one of the major themes in the work of nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Despite its oft-stated centrality within Nietzsche’s own thought, it has been frequently misunderstood — and often dismissed — by other philosophers and authors. Kundera appears to continue this tradition of misrepresentation when he presents the eternal recurrence merely as one component of a polarity betwixt lightness and heaviness. The ancient Greek thinker Parmenides divided the world into opposites, defining one side of each pair as positive and the other negative; for Parmenides, lightness is a positive feature, and weight negative. In evoking this contrast, Kundera is asking the reader to consider human life in terms of overwhelming burden versus total insignificance, and wondering which of these is truly desirable.

In his early discussions of recurrence, Nietzsche himself refers to his idea as “the greatest weight” (Nietzsche, “Science” 273), and Kundera echoes this when he calls recurrence “the heaviest of burdens” and says that “if every second of our lives recurs an infinite number of times, we are nailed to eternity as Jesus Christ was nailed to the cross. It is a terrifying prospect. In the world of eternal return the weight of unbearable responsibility lies heavily on every move we make” (Kundera 5). As Kundera points out, this weight is not entirely negative — there is, for example, great joy to be found in the crushing weight of a lover’s body. Nietzsche, however, goes much further in exploring the beauty inherent in eternal recurrence:

Have you ever said Yes to a single joy? O my friends, then you have said Yes too to all woe. All things are entangled, ensnared, enamored; if ever you wanted one thing twice, if ever you said, ‘You please me, happiness! Abide, moment!’ then you wanted all back. All anew, all eternally, all entangled, ensnared, enamored — oh, then you loved the world. Eternal ones, love it eternally and evermore; and to woe too, you say: go, but return! For all joy wants — eternity. (Nietzsche, “Zarathustra” 435)

In directly connecting the burden of recurrence and the joy of living, Nietzsche is already making difficult Kundera’s usage of recurrence as a crushing burden that nevertheless makes life meaningful. For Nietzsche, recurrence is ultimately life-affirming and he speaks of it as liberating and superior to prior theories of free-will.

It is true that there is a certain burden inherent in realising that your every action must stand for all time as representative of your own self and your intentions in that moment, but this is only part of the theory. The most common and egregious error made in interpretations of the eternal recurrence is in seeing it as a physical theory, when in fact it has absolutely nothing to do with this universe — it is the universe itself which will recur, not individual beings within it. Further, the eternal recurrence is itself tied up in Nietzsche’s thought with the will to power, which he conceived of as a replacement for the pre-Socratic notion of a primary element from which all things are derived. For Nietzsche, all of life reflects the will to power, that force operating within nature which seeks a victory over limitations: a transcendence of the possible, if you will. When recurrence is placed within the proper context — that of a replacement for other metaphysical theories of immortality — and viewed in conjunction with the will to power, it is difficult to conceive of recurrence itself as being a burden or crushing weight.

On the contrary, recurrence is a way to free the self from regret and resentment. Nietzsche speaks of recurrence in terms of infinite combinations of elements, and of lives. Every possible decision has been made by an infinite number of subtly-different copies of you — by twins in other universes, to place the idea in the language of modern science. Current studies based upon cosmological observations are lending credence to the science fiction staple of a “multiverse,” and are, according to physicist and astronomer Max Tegmark, “grounded in well-tested theories such as relativity and quantum mechanics” (Tegmark 41).

The “Many Worlds” theory of quantum realities, first put forth by Hugh Everett III in 1957, has been steadily gaining adherents amongst physicists, and has recently displaced the older Copenhagen model. In The Universe Next Door, British physicist Marcus Chown tells us that through the use of this model,

physicists are increasingly accepting the idea that there are infinite realities stacked together like the pages of a never-ending book. So there are infinite versions of you, living out infinite different lives, in infinite parallel realities. In some of these realities . . . you never started to read these words. In other realities, you had an entirely different upbringing, developed radically different interests, made completely different friends. (Chown 25)

In The Will to Power, written seventy years before the “Many Worlds” theory appeared, Nietzsche tells us that:

In infinite time, every possible combination would at some time or another be realized; more: it would be realized an infinite number of times. And since between every combination and its next recurrence all other possible combinations would have to take place, and each of these combinations conditions the entire sequence of combinations in the same series, a circular movement of absolutely identical series is thus demonstrated: the world as a circular movement that has already repeated itself infinitely often and plays its game in infinitum. (Nietzsche, “Will” 549)

In essence, then, every possible life you could have lived, you have lived already, and will live again perpetually. Where in such a world view is there room for regret? Where is the burden of having made a poor decision, when you can take comfort in the fact that another version of you did not make the same mistake? This understanding of infinite combinations of circumstance is, for Nietzsche, a more elegant solution to the question of free will, and an affirmation of the joy of living.

Having seen that Nietzsche did not consider recurrence to be a burden in the way Kundera uses it, and neither does it have any impact upon the perceived flow of time as human beings experience it (since we cannot experience life from without the universe as G-d would, but only from within it, subjectively), Kundera’s entire lightness-heaviness polarity comes apart. His understanding of the theory is incomplete, and confuses the infinite repetition of universes with an ephemeral quality extant in this world. He states that the eternal recurrence causes events to appear without “the mitigating circumstances of their transitory nature” (Kundera 4), and that only recurrence would allow us to pass judgement on the past. Kundera’s use of recurrence begins by accurately depicting the burden placed upon us in our choices, but neglects to account for the absolute freedom that is inextricably linked to an understanding of the infinite combinations inherent in recurrence.

Placed within Kundera’s own language, Nietzsche’s theory of eternal recurrence is both light and heavy, liberating and encumbering — it makes little sense as only one component of a binary value scale for living. When viewed in this way, our actions are seen as frozen in time and eternally recurring, yet they are only one aspect of an infinite “self” that stretches across time and space and encompasses all possible outcomes. Further, we now can see that both aspects of recurrence — lightness and heaviness — are essential features of an authentic life, or conversely, that an over-emphasis on either aspect leads to bad faith. By focussing on the burden of eternal recurrence, we can deny the essential truth of our freedom, and by seeking to obviate our responsibility for ourselves in denial or escapism, we are defying the individual will to power.

The interplay of these two extremes — of burden and escape — are clearly illustrated in the characters of Norman Bowker and Azar from Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. Young American foot soldiers in the jungles of Vietnam, these two men have allowed their experiences to dictate their emotional responses, and both have lost themselves in doing so. War, in all of its incomprehensible horror, forces the individual to confront himself and his sense of personal responsibility, just as the military life demands the surrender of the individual will to the needs of the collective.

“The war was over and there was no place in particular to go” (O’Brien 137). Norman’s reflexions, transformed into a story by his old war-buddy Tim, give us a glimpse into the psychology of so many Vietnam veterans, unable to re-adjust to normal civilian life after the brutality they had experienced — that they had perpetrated — in that tiny country half a world away. Norman is unable to reconcile his past in Vietnam with the life he could have had if the war had never dragged him out of the Mid-West and into those distant jungles.

Moreover, he is haunted by his failure to win the medals that, he feels, would have earned him the respect of his father. Years later, when writing of his own experiences in the war, Tim remembers:

Norman Bowker lying on his back one night, watching the stars, then whispering to me, ‘I’ll tell you something, O’Brien. If I could have one wish, anything, I’d wish for my dad to write me a letter and say it’s okay if I don’t win any medals. That’s all my old man talks about, nothing else. How he can’t wait to see my goddamn medals.’ (O’Brien 36)

Given a chance to wish for anything, Norman doesn’t wish to go home, to escape Vietnam; he just wants his father to be proud of him, whether he wins any medals or not. For Norman, this idea of winning medals has grown into an intolerable weight that he cannot let go of, even as it drives him to the edge of despair.

Vietnam is over and Norman is driving around a lake in his home town on the Fourth of July. His father is at home, watching baseball, and all Norman can think of in his endless circuits is how he would be able to tell his father that he just wasn’t “uncommonly brave.” He thinks about the seven medals that he had won, but notes that all of them are for the “routine, daily stuff . . . just enduring” (O’Brien 141) even as he tries to convince himself that they are worth something. By the end of the ’70s, Norman is still obsessing over his perceived failure and, after attempting to get Tim to exorcise the daemons for him with a story about his experiences ends in disappointment, his friends find him “hanging from a water pipe” in the YMCA (O’Brien 160).

“The Myth of Sisyphus,” Albert Camus’s seminal essay on the absurd, begins with these words: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy” (Camus 3). A bold claim, to be sure, but one that lies at the heart of existential thought — if life has no meaning or purpose, why then do we not end it? In his definition of the absurd, Camus sees three consequences for living: revolt, freedom, and passion. Through a combination of these — through an acceptance of these — he can “transform into a rule of life what was an invitation to death” and can “refuse suicide” (Camus 64). For Camus, “the struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart” (Camus 123), and this is the essential lesson of existentialism: that life itself may have no meaning beyond our own actions, but we can make it meaningful through our actions. The question of the “meaning of life,” then, becomes an oxymoron — life is its own meaning.

Norman Bowker feels himself trapped beneath a terrible burden; this weight has led him to retreat from a sense of responsibility for his own freedom, and for the consequences of his actions both during and after the war. Wrapped up in his pain, Norman sees no way out save death. In committing suicide, Norman is denying that he has any responsibility for the condition of his life, and denying too that he is free to change and to grow and to leave Vietnam behind.

Similarly, Azar spends the entire war in a self-inflicted emotional isolation, using his childish humour to put up a mental block against the horror he knows that he is a party to. In his resolute refusal to take any part of the war seriously, Azar stands across from Norman as a polar opposite — total lightness and irrelevance against the crushing weight of Norman’s overweening heaviness — yet both are equally clear reflexions of bad faith in their inability to accept responsibility for their rôle in the events unfolding around them.

Through his relentless trivialization of death, Azar seeks to desensitise himself to it, and thereby to evade any sense of accountability for it. Happening upon Tim as the latter contemplates the corpse of a young Vietnamese man he has just killed with a hand grenade, Azar cannot resist remarking “Oh, man, you fuckin’ trashed the fucker . . . You scrambled his sorry self, look at that, you did, you laid him out like Shredded fuckin’ Wheat” (O’Brien 125). Whether or not he notices that Tim is appalled by the death, Azar cannot help making light of it. Tim, meanwhile, is creating an entire life story for the dead man in his head, obsessing over the death almost to the point of catatonia.

Azar clearly is affected by his environment, but is too young and immature to deal effectively with it, hence his attempts to turn death into a game. Sometimes these games reach levels of morbid absurdity, revealing depths of trauma that are difficult for an outsider to comprehend, such as when Azar took a puppy that Ted Lavender had been caring for, “strapped it to a Claymore antipersonnel mine and squeezed the firing device” (O’Brien 36). Confronted by his comrades over this senseless death, Azar, in his complete emotional disconnexion, reveals more about the psychological effects of Vietnam upon the teenagers drafted to fight than any other single line in the novel: “What’s everyone so upset about? . . . I mean, Christ, I’m just a boy” (O’Brien 37).

The Apprehension of Being

Sartre’s ontology defines the apprehension of physical reality using two distinct models: being-in-itself and being-for-itself. An object which would have substance regardless of human perception is defined as being-in-itself; its existence is not predicated upon, challenged, or affected by human observation — it simply is. Conversely, a human being is defined as being-for-itself, which implies that it creates itself, and is ultimately responsible to itself. Sartrean views on freedom and responsibility have been addressed earlier in this treatment, and I will not belabour the point by repeating them except to say that this ontological model is the foundation for those views.

One of the major problems with being-for-itself — and with subjective views of reality in general — lies in accounting for the presence of other consciousnesses. I am, after all, demonstrably not alone in the world, yet without the ability to directly experience the thoughts and feelings of other people, what can I actually know of them? How can I know that their actions are related to their feelings and desires and perceptions in the same way that mine are?

Sartre solves this problem by presenting a third ontological model: being-for-others. Whilst admitting that he cannot prove the existence of other consciousnesses through deduction, Sartre shows us why we cannot seriously doubt that they do by insisting that we must have a “pre-ontological comprehension” of “the Other” in order to function as human beings. Indeed, he takes the existence of other people to be a factual and indisputable outgrowth of the famous cognito ergo sum, first postulated by René Descartes to establish an existential foundation for the individual consciousness. Using Sartre’s pre-ontological comprehension, I can no more doubt the existence of other people than I can doubt my own existence.

There is, however, a problem in any direct encounter with the Other. If it is true that they are unique beings like myself, then the world around them exists only for them, just as it does for me. In effect, when we encounter the presence of another independent consciousness, we are forced to surrender our sole command of the world outside ourselves — the world no long revolves around us alone. When this happens, Sartre tells us that:

[We] still have to do with my being and not with an image of my being. We are dealing with my being as it is written in and by the Other’s freedom. Everything takes place as if I had a dimension of being from which I was separated by a radical nothingness; and this nothingness is the Other’s freedom. (Sartre, “Being” 351)

In order to re-gain control over our individual perception of reality, we are forced to objectify the Other; to place her in a subordinate position relative to our own. This is never fully possible, because we intuit that the Other is a being just like ourselves, and that she will at the same time be objectifying us.

This act of “being seen” destabilises our freedom, because it forces us into an awareness of theirs. Having been seen, we are now cognizant of the Other’s ability to judge us — his gaze draws our attention to our own appearance, leading to manifestations of such feelings as pride, shame, and embarrassment. There is in this gaze a clear distinction betwixt our perception of ourselves and that of the Other. Sartre says that:

[the] object which I apprehend under the name of the Other appears to me in a radically other form. The Other is not a for-itself as he appears to me; I do not appear to myself as I am for-the-Other. I am incapable of apprehending for myself the self which I am for the Other, just as I am incapable of apprehending on the basis of the Other-as-object which appears to me, what the Other is to himself. (Sartre, “Being” 327)

The common inability to deal rationally with our encounters with the Other and to indefinitely re-claim the world as our own means that we must constantly be aware of the gaze of the Other and prepare ourselves for it. Understanding that the Other and his judgements are not permanent, and do not negate our own freedom, is an important step towards a sincere approach to communitarian living.

Despite this, it is not uncommon to become so wrapped up in the Other’s view of your life that you lose any sense of its value independent of that person’s perceptions. This is what happens to Franz when he gives himself over completely to Sabina, the artist who has spent a year as his secret mistress. In his love-blinded obsession, he never truly understands Sabina and comes instead to worship her more as the Platonic ideal of perfect womanhood than as a woman in her own right.

During one of their first times together, Franz announced to her, in an oddly emphatic way, ‘Sabina, you are a woman.’ She could not understand why he accentuated the obvious . . . Not until later did she understand that the word ‘woman,’ on which he had placed such uncommon emphasis, did not, in his eyes, signify one of the two human sexes; it represented a value. Not every woman was worthy of being called a woman. (Kundera 89)

His perception of himself becomes so thoroughly enmeshed in her perceived approval that he “took pleasure in her praise” (Kundera 111) even when it was nothing more than a casual comment made whilst lying in bed. Never understanding that Sabina “was charmed more by betrayal than by fidelity” (Kundera 91), Franz decides at last to commit himself completely to her, and announces to his wife that he is leaving her (Kundera 114). Predictably, Sabina promptly disappears from his life, and from Geneva; Franz leaves his wife just the same, and feels that in doing so he has “ceased to be a little boy; for the first time in his life he was on his own” (Kundera 119-120).

Franz was not, however, “on his own.” Sabina’s memory hung over his new life like a ghostly echo; he discovered that her “physical presence was much less important than he had expected. What was important was the golden footprint, the magic footprint she had left on his life and no one could ever remove” (Kundera 120). He continued to define every aspect of his life in relation to her, even when he took on a young new mistress from the university — worse, he felt as though Sabina herself, in her new rôle as his “invisible goddess” (Kundera 120) had actually sent the girl to him as a replacement.

Later, Franz is invited to take part in a demonstration-march on Cambodia to protest the Vietnamese invasion and imposed diplomatic isolation, which persisted despite the famine wracking the country and the desperate need for medical supplies. Franz had always been attracted to political demonstrations, despite never voting himself, for he felt it was a way to connect with a sense of shared humanity that was lacking in his own life. At first, he declines this invitation, but reconsiders when it occurs to him that his friend might have “contacted him at Sabina’s secret bidding” (Kundera 259). He thought to himself: “Heavenly bodies know all and see all. If he went on the march, Sabina would gaze down on him enraptured; she would understand that he had remained faithful to her” (Kundera 258-259). Consumed by his false conception of himself as a being for-the-Other, Franz has concocted an idol for himself, one which ultimately leads him to a meaningless death in the dirty streets of Thailand.

And what of Sabina herself? Sabina, who is never able to stand the gaze of the Other when it threatens to penetrate her veneer of detached ambivalence; Sabina who is never able to commit to anything or anyone, least of all herself. Wise enough to accept the things that are beyond her control (Kundera 89), it is only in dealing with her own inner self that Sabina shows her inauthenticity. When life presents choices to her that would force a re-evaluation of, or confrontation with, her long-suppressed daemons, she invariably chooses betrayal and flight.

The security she feels with Franz, the first truly good and noble man she had ever met, makes her want to call out “Don’t let me go, hold me tight, make me your plaything, your slave, be strong!” (Kundera 98), but she never does; these are the words that would break down the walls she has built around her ability to love and to commit. When Franz tells her that “love means renouncing strength,” she recognises in his words the depth and sincerity of his feelings for her, but in her self-imposed isolation those words only “disqualified him from her love life” (Kundera 112).

It is true that Sabina experiences the shame of standing before the Other, as when she met her former lover Tomas’s wife and they decide to take nude photographs of one another. “The situation she found herself in was . . . a bit more difficult than she had expected” (Kundera 65), and she dispels her nervousness by reversing rôles and taking the camera. However, it is not in her relations with the Other that Sabina is most inauthentic — it is in her understanding of her own freedom and responsibility for the condition of her life.

Sabina most completely embodies what Milan Kundera refers to as “the unbearable lightness of being.” Through her constant betrayals — of her family, her husband, her country, herself — Sabina has always sought a new thrill, a new path to adventure. What she was really doing was fleeing from the possibility of commitment, and when at last she has run out of things to betray she finally “felt emptiness all around her.” This emptiness is her own doing, of course; it was “the goal of all her betrayals” (Kundera 122), though she had forbidden herself from becoming aware of this simple fact.

It is significant that, of the four main characters in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, only Sabina remains alive in the end. Her lightness has prevented her from being dragged down by the tumultuous events that engulfed the lives of her lovers and friends, but it also renders her life completely inconsequential. The will that she has drawn up after settling in California stipulates that “her dead body be cremated and the ashes thrown to the winds” (Kundera 273) in order to retain her lightness to the very end — not even the soil of her adopted country could claim her.

An Existential Valuation

Jean-Paul Sartre’s long-time companion and fellow philosopher and author Simone de Beauvoir contributed the idea of situated freedom to the foundation Sartre had lain in existential ethics. Put simply, situated freedom recognises that certain social groups are not frequently given the opportunity to recognise their potential for freedom, providing a mitigating circumstance when bad faith is applied to their actions. In her 1948 work The Ethics of Ambiguity, de Beauvoir uses harem women and slaves to explain this concept:

Their behavior is defined and can be judged only within this given situation, and it is possible that in this situation, limited like every human situation, they realize a perfect assertion of their freedom. But once there appears a possibility of liberation, it is resignation of freedom not to exploit the possibility, a resignation which implies dishonesty and which is a positive fault. (De Beauvoir 38)

De Beauvoir’s formulation allows us to apply the individualistic Sartrean conception of bad faith to specific segments of the population in a more general way, and in this way address their instances more accurately. When applied to the characters in the novels under discussion, the second half of the quotation above is of particular importance. As members of two distinct and repressed social classes — the soldier in war and the civilian in an occupied nation — these characters may or may not be expected to recognise their potential for freedom, depending upon the specific events outlined in their respective tales. If we deem them to be operating within sufficiently mitigating circumstances, we may choose to absolve them of moral culpability for failing to act upon their natural human freedom.

Whilst more explicitly defined, and thus more useful for our purposes, this idea remains firmly in line with Sartre’s own view that bad faith is not necessarily to be condemned in all people, but only in those who are cognizant of the condition of their freedom. Sartre lays out his own justification for passing existential moralistic judgements thusly:

[When], in all honesty, I’ve recognized that man is a being in whom existence precedes essence, that he is a free being who, in various circumstances, can want only his freedom, I have at the same time recognized that I can want only the freedom of others. Therefore, in the name of this will for freedom, which freedom itself implies, I may pass judgement on those who seek to hide from themselves the complete arbitrariness and the complete freedom of their existence. Those who hide their complete freedom from themselves out of a spirit of seriousness or by means of deterministic excuses, I shall call cowards . . . (Sartre, “Existentialism” 46)

The critical distinction to be made is betwixt those who would use the “spirit of seriousness” or “deterministic excuses” to evade their responsibility for their own lives and those who may simply remain unwittingly ignorant of that freedom.

The soldier in Vietnam is an almost unique case in the history of American warfare in the unprecedented awareness of the average soldier of their options for escape. Not only were draft cards widely burned and draft notices spurned, many men fled to Canada to avoid the draft entirely, or found ways into the National Guard or the university system. Even those who ended up in Vietnam remained aware of the news from home of growing protests against the war, and were given the possibility of reviewing their participation in it. Finally, there were indirect ways out of the war, such as that eventually taken by Rat Kiley when he put a bullet through his own foot (O’Brien 223). The frequent breakdowns in routine military discipline, the wide availability of media sources, and the many routes for escape from the war make the young soldier in Vietnam unusual in his culpability for evading his freedom to choose.

This same culpability can be applied to those ground beneath the heel of Soviet domination during the Cold War in Europe. Through such avenues as Radio Free Europe and the extensive underground presses, the citizenry of occupied eastern Europe were well aware of their predicament and the alternatives available to them. However, lacking an effective means to resist on a large scale, most chose not to act at all; when faced with such monolithic force, how many of us would not choose the easy way out? After all, what can one man do against the might of the Red Army? Under existentialism, this evasion of responsibility is precisely where authenticity comes into play. In refusing to accept that all of our actions are meaningful, and that we are ultimately to blame for the condition of our own lives, we surrender to inauthenticity.

Using the criterion above, and an understanding of the historical realities that formed the backdrop for these two novels, we can render an existential judgement upon the various characters based upon their individual recognition of their freedom and subsequent actions. Tereza and Azar may have been too under-developed emotionally to ever have come to recognise their freedom, and can be excused for living in uniformly bad faith throughout. We are given to understand that Jimmy Cross and Norman Bowker are of more than adequate intelligence and resources to have made better decisions than they did, and so can condemn their consistent retreat from responsibility. Sabina and Franz are both portrayed as highly intelligent and articulate, and more than capable of asserting their freedom; both, in fact, do so in a variety of ways by making difficult decisions and accepting the consequences of those decisions. They also demonstrate an unusual degree of insight into their own lives and motivations, particularly near their respective endings, and whilst they never accept full responsibility they come closer than many of us do.

The last two characters, Tim O’Brien and Tomas, stand out from the other six by virtue of their far more unambiguously-existential experiences. Tim is significant for the very explicit confrontation he has with the absurd on the Rainy River, and for the deeply-introspective exploration of his possible avenues of escape from Vietnam. Standing face to face with an opportunity to do what he knows is right — what he knows best reflects his own chosen nature — Tim recoils in fear and shame, and returns home to accept his draft notice. Tomas, given the chance to retract his editorial and keep his position at hospital, stands on principle because he knows that his own nature demands an honest response to this challenge to his integrity. From the events recounted in each of these characters’ stories, we can determine that Tim is, in Sartre’s words, a coward, and that Tomas is living an unusually authentic life.

The greatest novels have something to teach us about psychology, reality, or the human condition; the very best try for all three. These two have provided an excellent vehicle for the exploration and explication of the major themes in existential philosophy, but given the depth of their characters and the severity of the settings depicted in each, I could just as easily have made a psychoanalytic evaluation, or a post-modern review, or a historical criticism; the list goes on. The fact is, I chose existentialism for a reason. But having now completed this survey of The Things They Carried and The Unbearable Lightness of Being, we should take a moment to ask ourselves, what have we learnt about the novels themselves and about the diverse characters within? What have we learnt about ourselves? If you’re anything like me, you’ll have your own answers to those questions, and all things considered, your answers are probably just as good as mine.

Works Cited

* Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. Trans. Justin O’Brien. New York: Vintage International, 1991.
* Chown, Marcus. The Universe Next Door: The Making of Tomorrow’s Science. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
* De Beauvoir, Simone. The Ethics of Ambiguity. Trans. Bernard Frechtman. New York: Citadel Press, 1994.
* Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Trans. Joan Stambaugh. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996.
* Kant, Immanuel. “Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals.” Trans. Thomas Kingsmill Abbott. Chicago: University of Chicago / Britannica Great Books, 1952.
* Kierkegaard, Søren. “Either/Or.” A Kierkegaard Anthology. Trans. Walter Lowrie. Ed. Robert Bretall. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973.
* Kierkegaard, Søren. “Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the ‘Philosophical Fragments’.”A Kierkegaard Anthology. Trans. Walter Lowrie. Ed. Robert Bretall. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973.
* Kundera, Milan. The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Trans. Michael Henry Heim. New York: HarperPerennial, 1999.
* Ortega y Gasset, José. “Man Has No Nature.” Trans. Helene Weyl. Ed. Walter
Kaufmann. Existentialism From Dostoevsky to Sartre. New York: Meridian, 1989.
* Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science. Trans. & Ed. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage International, 1974.
* Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Portable Nietzsche. Trans. & Ed. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Penguin Books, 1976.
* Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Will to Power. Trans. & Ed. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage International, 1967.
* O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. New York: Broadway Books, 1998.
* Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness: A Phenomenological Essay on Ontology. Trans. Hazel E. Barnes. New York: Washington Square Press, 1992.
* Sartre, Jean-Paul. “Existentialism [is a Humanism].” Existentialism and Human Emotions. New York: Citadel Press, 1987.
* Tegmark, Max. “Parallel Universes.” Scientific American. May 2003: 40-51.

‘A Question Of Faith’

A Question of Faith
An Exploration of Theological and Philosophical Dimensions in
Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool”

In his short story, “Gimpel the Fool,” which draws heavily on Yiddish tradition and is based in part upon the “holy fool” ideal, author Isaac Bashevis Singer presents the character of Gimpel, an orphan and successful businessman who is also his village’s willing scapegoat. Called “Gimpel the Fool” by everyone but himself, he is seemingly naïve and gullible, and the frequent brunt of jokes and terrible cruelty, all of which he takes stoically. More than this, he appears to take a certain pride in his place within society, and does not fault the excesses of his neighbours, even when they result in a near-disastrous marriage to an unfaithful woman who seems to bear everyone’s children but his own.

Beneath the surface of this often-humourous tale are many subtle religious and philosophical undercurrents. The story is highly symbolic, and confronts issues of critical import for the Jewish community in the post-Holocaust period. The character of Gimpel himself is a direct challenge to prevalent theological and philosophical notions of the 1950s, functioning as an unexpected re-affirmation of absolute faith despite the tragic events of the previous decade. Through Gimpel, Singer calls to account the radical retreat from God that the Holocaust engendered in Jewish religious thought, and at the same time seems to suggest a re-consideration of the very nature of reality and religious faith through Gimpel’s more abstract world-view. This metaphysical element — Gimpel’s challenge to basic assumptions and willingness to accept that anything could be true — is the crux of the whole story, highlighting as it does Gimpel’s unconditional belief.

It is to the question of faith, then, that we will direct our attention in this review. Over the course of the story, Gimpel’s fellow villagers present him with an endless series of absurd stories, each of which he is willing to consider, no matter his own understanding of their probability. We can see Gimpel’s nature clearest when he is confronted by the most extreme of pranks, such as when the villagers attempt to convince him that his parents have risen from the dead and that Mashiach has come (Singer 96).

The arrival of Mashiach, or the Jewish Messiah, is in Orthodox tradition to be accompanied by the dead rising from their graves, and signifies that the world is about to be re-made. This coming is to be the culmination of Tikkun Olam, the perfecting of the world, which has been seen as the mission of the Jewish people on Earth. The daily prayers of traditional Jews look forward to this time, and reaffirm this responsibility, thrice daily during the Aleinu: “And therefore we put our hope in You, . . . to perfect the universe through the Almighty’s sovereignty” (Scherman & Zlotowitz 187). As to Mashiach, and to the Messianic ideal as a whole, this has a long and complicated history within Judaism, and views on the subject vary widely. Belief in some form of Messiah has been, however, at least since the time of Maimonides (12th century), a central tenet of traditional Jewish theology, and is best articulated in Maimonides’s own Thirteen Principles of Faith, the twelfth of which says: “I believe with a full heart in the coming of [Mashiach], and even though he may tarry, I will wait for him on any day that he may come” (Maimonides, Sanhedrin: ch. 10).

Gimpel is, of course, deeply sceptical that Mashiach has arrived — he knows in his heart that the villagers are playing upon his faith again and that he should not act upon their claims. Caution was certainly warranted in this case; after all, as the first-century sage Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai once said, “If you should happen to be holding a sapling in your hand when they tell you that [Mashiach] has arrived, first plant the sapling and then go out and greet [Mashiach]” (Telushkin 545). However, Gimpel is willing to proceed unhesitatingly as if Mashiach has arrived, simply because this might have happened. This is a powerful demonstration of faith, both in the villagers, and in the unseen and unknowable designs of God.

Somewhat paradoxically, then, Gimpel is no one’s fool, and therefore everyone’s. He allows himself to be misled constantly, always trusting that the next time someone may be telling him the truth; to doubt them seems to him to be a wicked thing. His visit to the rabbi for advice following the Mashiach episode does much to set up the character of Gimpel for the rest of the story, and to explain the reasons for his ongoing patience with his lot in life. The rabbi tells him, “You are not a fool. They are the fools. For he who causes his neighbor to feel shame loses Paradise himself” (Singer 97). In allowing himself to be fooled again and again, Gimpel is demonstrating nothing but wisdom: in prudence (what they say could be true!) as well as in his complete, almost innocent, trust. He is willing to make decisions, and stand by them, based upon nothing more than his deep conviction in a world of possibilities beyond his understanding.

Elka, the woman Gimpel is talked into marrying, has a clearly questionable history. “She was no chaste maiden, but they told me she was virgin pure. She had a limp, and they said it was deliberate, from coyness. She had a bastard, and they told me the child was her little brother” (Singer 97). Suspicious of her from the start, Gimpel convinces himself that the marriage would not be such a bad thing, no matter her past, since “when you’re married the husband’s the master, and if that’s all right with her it’s agreeable to me too” (Singer 97). Even so, he attempts to question her regarding the stories he has been told (that she was a virgin, that the child she already has with her was truly her younger brother, etc.). She responds by placing demands upon him, and upon the village, and Gimpel consents to the marriage despite his misgivings.

Married or no, it appears certain that Gimpel is refused his conjugal rights from the first night on (Singer 98). How is it, then, that only seventeen weeks after their marriage, Elka gives birth to a son? When he challenges her assertion that the child is his, she claims that the child is merely premature, and her story is backed up by others in the village; he lets the issue drop there, saying to himself, “who really knows how such things are?” (Singer 99).

Over their tumultuous years of marriage, this act of faith in her future intentions is tested many times, and he is given ample opportunity to escape his marriage vows. By all appearances, Elka never intended to be faithful to him; their entire relationship was certainly conceived of as a way to provide legitimacy for the children she would bear to her lovers, one of whom Gimpel manages to catch in his bed by coming home early from work one day. Even in such obviously compromising circumstances, Elka tries to manipulate the supposed simplicity of her husband by telling everyone that Gimpel was falsely accusing her, and that he must have imagined it (Singer 100).

Halacha, the body of Jewish Law as interpreted by Talmudic scholars, prescribes immediate divorce in cases of adultery. “There’s nothing to think about,” the rabbi told Gimpel when he hesitated to request a divorce. “You mustn’t remain under the same roof with her” (Singer 100). Still he hesitates to press a formal case. Whilst carrying out his Halachic obligation to avoid the bed of an adulteress, he agonises over his decision to divorce her. Her denial eats away at him, until finally, despite the evidence of his own eyes, he allows himself to see the possibility, however remote, that he could have made a mistake. After clearing her name with the Bet Din, a Rabbinical court which had earlier heard his case against her and demanded divorce (Singer 100), he returns to his home.

Whether or not Gimpel really believed in his wife’s innocence is largely irrelevant to the message his actions transmit. He made a decision to place his trust in her under the Huppah (the wedding canopy), and he honoured that commitment by refusing to abandon her. This sequence is strongly symbolic of the relationship betwixt God and the Jewish people — the covenant made with the Patriarchs and which all Jews are obliged to honour, no matter what their own misgivings may be. Jews need not understand the Law as given at Mount Sinai, but they must obey it, for at Sinai their ancestors “make a commitment to perform the commandments, even before they. . . understand, their rationale” (Telushkin 54).

This returns us to the historical context of the piece, specifically its appearance in post-Holocaust Jewish literature. For many Jews, the God of history (the intervening God depicted in the Torah) died in the concentration camps of the Nazi death machine. It has been difficult for many to get past the fact that God would not have done something directly to stop the slaughter, and to reconcile faith in a God that would lead his people out of slavery, and then allow them to be murdered by the millions. Belief in a personal deity was lost for a great many survivors, and even for many amongst the succeeding generations of Jews not directly affected by the experience.

Elie Wiesel tells a story in his first book about a group execution that he and the other inmates of the Buna concentration camp were forced to watch. One of the victims was a child, and it took him half an hour to die. Standing in that silent crowd, watching the terrible scene unfold before him, Wiesel heard another inmate behind him whispering, “Where is God? Where is He now?” As the child hung there, dying, Wiesel heard a voice within himself answering that question: “Where is He? Here He is — He is hanging on this gallows” (Wiesel 75-77).

Traditional Jewish theology would be forced to conclude that the Holocaust was a punishment from God for some transgression, in the same way that the Prophets interpreted the destruction of Israel at the hands of the Assyrians and Judah by the Chaldeans as YHVH’s wrath for straying from the Covenant. In her discussion of the evolving conception of the Hebrew God following the Assyrian conquest, Karen Armstrong writes, “The God of Israel had originally distinguished himself from the pagan deities by revealing Himself in concrete current events, not simply in mythology and literature. Now, the new Prophets insisted, political catastrophe as well as victory revealed the God who was becoming the lord and master of history. He had all the nations in his pocket” (Armstrong 43).

The ultimate source of this thinking is the Prophet Isaiah, who deals with the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel and the scattering of her peoples, and whilst Armstrong’s own work on the evolutionary conception of God is part of a relatively recent movement in Biblical criticism, orthodox interpretations of Isaiah have always explicitly understood these passages to be representative of a God of history, acting on and through all nations equally. This interpretation becomes especially problematic given the staggering horror of genocide; it is difficult to imagine a God that would not only stand by and watch such an act transpire, but might actually be the instigating force in the murder of one million innocent children.

To counter this, Richard Rubenstein, an American-Jewish theologian, has put forth the argument that the reason God did not intervene to prevent the Holocaust was that the God of history never existed in the first place, and that the stories of the Torah are not to be read literally. This places him within the so-called “Death of God theology” that arose amongst Christian theologians following the Second World War. Thinkers in this school are deeply influenced by the existentialists, but most importantly by Friedrich Nietzsche, whose famous formulation “God is dead, and we have killed him” has done so much to define the nature of religious discourse in the post-modern era. Rubenstein places Nietzsche into perspective with the following passage:

After Nietzsche, it is impossible to avoid his language to express the total absence of God from our experience. . . No words are entirely adequate to characterize a historical epoch. Nevertheless, I believe the most adequate theological description of our times is to be found in the assertion that we live in the time of the death of God. (Rubenstein 245)

It is important to understand that, for Rubenstein, this is not an explicit denial of the existence of God, but merely a suggestion that he may have created Man and then left him to his own devices, in the clearest expression of the perils inherent in the concept of free will. It is here that the connexion betwixt “Death of God” theology and existentialism is most explicit. Rubenstein asks,

Can one speak of freedom and the death of God, yet ignore Sartre and Camus? The whole thrust of Sartre’s ethical and psychological concern rests upon his exploration of the meaning of freedom after the death of God. Sartre agrees that if God is dead all is permissible, but he does not rejoice in the freedom consequent upon the death of God. He asserts. . . that we are condemned to be free. He sees anxiety as a direct concomitant of our freedom. If there is no God, we and we alone are responsible for our actions. (Rubenstein 256)

This position goes a long way towards absolving God of responsibility for the Holocaust, and may provide a way to retain faith in a universal God after these events, provided the thesis that the God of history is a human invention is acceptable. What Rubenstein is suggesting is not that God be abandoned, but that our conception of Him be modified to account for the events of the past century.

Whether one accepts this premise or not, the simple fact is that many Jews have abandoned their faith entirely in the light of the events of the 20th century. This loss of faith in God — either as a God of history or as an entity in any form — and in Judaism as a religion is the single greatest threat to the continued existence of the Jewish people that has been faced in more than three millennia. For many Jews, even a modification of Jewish belief along the lines proposed by Rubenstein is unacceptable, as it would lead to a loss of traditional Jewish identity and hence serve Hitler’s aims of destroying the Jewish people.

In “Gimpel the Fool,” Singer is deliberately side-stepping the difficult issues in the post-modern conception of God, and hearkening back to the unquestioning faith common to the decimated orthodox communities of Eastern Europe; he is explicitly calling on Jews to return to a belief in the ineffable mystery of God, no matter their personal doubts and the problems of recent history. Gimpel never questions that God may work in strange ways, and he is willing to open his heart and his mind to whatever may come his way, much as the orthodox way of life and unqualified belief in the word of God and the promise of Mashiach had allowed them to withstand centuries of persecution and pogroms throughout eastern Europe virtually unchanged.

Continuing this tradition of re-affirming faith in the God of Israel, Canadian-Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim has gone so far as to formulate a “614th commandment” in response to the phenomenon; namely, that “Jews are forbidden to give Hitler posthumous victories.” This “commandment” is expressed by Fackenheim in four parts:

We are first, commanded to survive as Jews, lest the people of Israel perish. We are commanded second, to remember in our guts and bones the martyrs of the Holocaust, lest their memory perish. We are forbidden, thirdly, to deny or despair of God, however much we may have to contend with Him or with belief in Him, lest Judaism perish. We are forbidden finally to despair of the world as the place that is to become the kingdom of God lest we make it as meaningless place in which God is dead or irrelevant and everything is permitted. To abandon any of these imperatives, in response to Hitler’s victory at Auschwitz, would be to hand him yet other posthumous victories. (Fackenheim 150)

In Jewish tradition, the Torah contains 613 commandments, not the ten commonly cited by Christians. To go so far as to assume that God could not have anticipated the Holocaust, and to suggest the need for a new commandment in order to stop Jews from turning away from Judaism entirely, speaks volumes about the severity of this problem.

Singer’s story is, however, not completely untouched by issues in modern philosophy. One significant element, the Golem, can be read as an exposition of existential freedom and our ultimate responsibility for the lives that we lead. Jean-Paul Sartre argues in Being and Nothingness that the very condition of being is freedom, but that this freedom comes with a high price. Showing the ways in which our decisions act upon the world, Sartre posits that we are ultimately responsible for our actions, and that this responsibility places upon us the burden of living in “good faith”; that is, according to what we know is right for ourselves and for others.

The story begins with Gimpel comparing himself with the legendary Golem of Rabbi Löw of Prague, which manages to neatly foreshadow its conclusion, wherein he throws off the constraints of his rôle in village society and heads out into the world as a storyteller. The village’s stories had created Gimpel “the Fool,” and in the end Gimpel shrugs off their stories and sets out to create his own. Gimpel was clearly never a fool for his belief in God and Man, but he is able to accept and use their derisive name for him, to take it on and give it his own meaning through his actions and his decisions.

The Golem had been created with a limited function in mind (to protect the Jews of Prague), but soon began to take on characteristics of greater autonomy and self-direction; there are many versions of the legend, but in all of them, Rabbi Löw is forced to remove the animating glyphs from his creation. Like the Golem, Gimpel occupies a very particular, and restricting, province within his village. He appears, in a sense, to have been created by the lies of the villagers, and his decision to cast off this old life and begin to spin his own yarns as a wandering storyteller likewise expresses the Golem’s desire to live independently of its creator, and Gimpel’s final understanding of his own responsibility for the life he leads. The death of his wife frees him from his last remaining sense of obligation to the village of his birth and, after disposing of his property to see to the financial security of his late wife’s progeny, he abandons his old mission and finds a new one on the road.

The comparison with the Golem legend seems clearly related to the discussion above on the supposed “death of God” and the responsibility of Man for his own actions. Hearkening back to this discussion, it could be inferred that just as the Golem desired to live independently of its creator (Man), so too does Man desire freedom from the limitations imposed by an interventionist God (id est, the fullest expression of the ‘free will’ concept within Judaism). In the post-Holocaust era, the Jewish people must be able to carve out a place for their faith that is free of the restraints imposed by its more ancient theology, and shift the focus from a God that will come to their aid, and onto themselves, in their continuing struggle for survival.

Gimpel’s willingness to live within the world as it is, not as he expects it should be, gives him the strength to love unconditionally (as in the case of his relationship with his wife) and to deal with a life that he does not understand. This ability to see the world without illusions is a direct confrontation with the absurd — the existential concept that truth is ultimately unknowable and that the meaning of life is to be found within our own actions — and Gimpel’s decision to take responsibility for his life by leaving his home and writing his own story is representative of our own need to take responsibility for our actions as a species. By this view, Man is to be held accountable for the Holocaust, and not God; in this way, belief can survive, though it must of necessity be transformed by the experience.

At its core, “Gimpel the Fool” is a story of hope and faith, in both God and in the basic goodness of Man — no matter the circumstances, no matter his own doubts and questions, Gimpel proceeds through his life with perfect openness and acceptance. In the end, he realises that he does not need to understand life in order to live it, but neither does he need to just persist in the rôle that was created for him. By consciously setting out to create his own life, his own reality, outside the confines of his native village, Gimpel is giving us a model for living in a capricious world, and a way to retain our faith in its ultimate worth.

Works Cited

Singer, Isaac Bashevis. “Gimpel the Fool.” Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. Third ed. Eds. X. J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia. New York: Longman, 2003. 95-106.

Scherman, Rabbi Nosson, and Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz. The Complete Artscroll Siddur. New York: Mesorah, 1985.

Maimonides (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon). Mishneh Torah. 1204.

Telushkin, Rabbi Joseph. Jewish Literacy. New York: William Morrow, 1991.

Wiesel, Elie. Night. New York: Hill and Wang, 1972 (orig. French copyright: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1958).

Armstrong, Karen. A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. New York: Ballantine, 1993.

Rubenstein, Richard L. After Auschwitz: Radical Theology and Contemporary Judaism. New York: Macmillan, 1966.

Fackenheim, Emil. “Transcendence and Contemporary Culture: Philosophical Reflections and a Jewish Theology.” Transcendence. Eds. Herbert W. Richardson and Donald R. Cutler. Boston: Beacon, 1969.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness: A Phenomenological Essay on Ontology. Trans. Hazel E. Barnes. New York: Washington Square, 1956 (orig. French copyright: Gallimard, 1943).