Things I’ve been reading.
Here goes with the obvious. I re-read Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, and now I’m reviewing it in my own journal of the plague year. Meta, huh? From the first time round I’d kept an impression of throbbing body-horror and robust Protestantism, and there are definitely both of those in size, but I had forgotten or hadn’t noticed that Defoe’s narrator is recruited as what would now be described as a contact tracer. There’s actually quite a lot in the book about the practicalities of coping with a pandemic, especially one where the sufferers appear to be contagious before they develop symptoms. Of course the sources Defoe was using didn’t know about the fleas and didn’t have a germ theory of disease.
Ernst Wiechert’s Der Totenwald is a short prison memoir detailing Wiechert’s experiences in Buchenwald concentration camp. Wiechert was an interesting character, a major interwar novelist who started off in the early 1920s writing Jünger-esque novels glorifying the frontline experience and howling for revenge, but who then turned to religion as a better way of coming to terms with his traumas. Hugely popular, he was politically conservative and deeply pietist, and the Nazis hoped to win him over but were bitterly disappointed as early as 1933 when he gave a famous lecture at Munich University warning that Hitler was leading Germany to war and ultimate disaster. He was slung into the camp on Goebbels’ personal orders for refusing to take part in a referendum on the occupation of Austria and encouraging others to do so. In the camp, he became thoroughly radicalized, coming to respect the political prisoners who helped him survive enormously and deciding early on that his only mission would be to remain as a witness. He remarks that inside the camp, there are professors and tram drivers, coal miners and members of parliament, a complete nation. Outside it, though, there are only Nazis.
He was eventually sprung through the influence of a forestry official who happened to be a personal friend of Himmler, was subjected to a terrifying interview with Goebbels, and spent the war trying to avoid being produced at official literary events as an ornament. He wrote Der Totenwald and several other books in secret, burying the manuscript piece by piece, although he also had a bestseller not long after getting out of the camp. After the war, he published it, to very odd results – the former exiles denounced him as an inner-emigrant, while his insistence that what had happened was a specifically moral catastrophe, that had happened because of Germans’ personal failures as Christians and as human beings, was the last thing Marxists, Freudians, or institutionalist political scientists wanted to hear. The people who did appreciate him were the younger generation of writers around the 47 Group, who very much did want the strongest possible judgment on the past in order to achieve the cleanest possible break with it.
It would be interesting to know what the critical theorists made of him; they wouldn’t have cared much for his Christianity or his conservatism, and they tended to judge those who stayed in Germany with a harshness facilitated by safety, but on the other side the author of Minima Moralia might have appreciated the insistence on unflinching moral clarity.
Grand Hotel Abyss is Stuart Jefferies’ group biography of the Frankfurt School, and even his intense sympathy for his subjects (he even makes a heroic effort to salvage Adorno’s views on jazz from the uncontrollable cringe of posterity) couldn’t stop me being obscurely pleased that Adorno’s own students in 1960s Frankfurt thought roughly what I did about studying him in 2000s Vienna. Back then, between the cosmic remoteness of the ageing 68er professors and the unflagging determination of the teaching assistants, the Frankfurters were treated as an unimpeachable canon of classics one had to force down until you could pull out the right tags to win your arguments. This was apparently roughly what the students thought then, too, that the doctrine had become several of the things it existed to denounce. I could never really get over the way they seemed to have a answer, or rather a rhetorical fix, for really any state of the world, and I was interested to see that they eventually conceded that Karl Popper had a point about falsifiability. That said, I had never heard about the whole thing with the hippos.