October 2008

Rags and Bones

By Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net




Holocaust kitsch

I guess I shouldnÕt be surprised by the existence of holocaust kitsch as a subgenre of art, but I am.

I just saw a poster for a new movie,  The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Two children are sitting facing one another with a barbed wire fence in between. The one on the right of the poster, apparently inside the enclosure, is wearing a striped concentration camp uniform. The other, normally dressed, is looking at him from outside, with friendship and compassion. The poster is fairly effective in communicating what the movie is about: German boy befriends young Jewish inmate of concentration camp, through the wire.

What is remarkable about this poster is what is not present. There is no howlingly furious guard ready to smash the Jewish boy to pulp with his rifle stock. The fence is apparently not electrified (in fact,, the chinks look quite large enough for either child to crawl through). The Jewish kid is not emaciated (one criticism of Holocaust movies in general is that the actors look way too well-fed and buff to be convincing). Of course, the biggest falsehood of all is that the Jewish kid isnt dead.

At the gates of Auschwitz and all death camps, an immediate selection was made at the gate as the trains delivered the victims. Children too small to work (this would have included this child, who appears to be seven or eight) were sent immediately to the gas. Older, more robust children who survived the initial selection died in droves from starvation, dysentery and infectious diseases. They were also raped and exploited by the most primitive and criminal of their fellow inmates.

Unless the movie is set in the show camp, Theresienstadt, which the Nazis set up to fool the world that the Jews were not being killed, this child would not have lived, let alone to stroll around the camp unimpeded and form friendships with outsiders through the wire. If it is Theresienstadt, he probably wouldnt be wearing the striped uniform.

This kind of historical revisionism adds up almost to Holocaust denial (as did Roberto Benignis movie  Life is Beautiful some years ago). If you want to set in a movie in a completely unrealistic, unpersuasive version of a large corporation or luxury resort, go for it. But I think artists and filmmakers should acknowledge a special responsibility not to romanticize the Holocaust.

There is a process whereby tragedy passes through a grossly hypocritical public filter and is transformed into kitsch (I have written about how this has happened to September 11, in just seven short years). Auschwitz was the sphincter of the world, a place where humans designated for excretion from society were turned into waste products. Its more dignified to avoid setting sweetly uplifting stories there (even if you are Stephen Spielberg).



Sometimes the first harbinger, or the confirmation, of a terrible event or of a sea change occurs in the choice of words used in the daily papers. In this way, journalism tends to be out in front of the political leadership, who concentrate more on using the blandest, most reassuring phrases possible.

I had that sort of an  egad moment when the papers described a run on Bear Stearns a few months ago (I had missed accounts of a run on Indymac not long before). The concept of people lined up in panic to pull their money out of a bank about to fail is of course indelibly associated with the great crash of 1929.

At 54, I am old enough to have lived through a few economic crises: the 1973 oil embargo, recession and stagflation, the savings and loan debacle,  Black Monday,  the collapse of the Internet bubble, the pause in the markets after 9/11. You dont need to be an economist to know that todays situation is very different; you can feel the fear in the air as huge, seemingly permanent institutions, such as Lehman Brothers, Bear Sterns and Merrill Lynch, tip over or merge one after another. Within a matter of weeks, all of the old guard of investment banks is gone, bankrupt, sold at fire-sale, merged with a bank, or transformed by its management into a bank holding company. Journalists are starting to take the gloves off; no-one is quite willing to say this may be a depression; instead, the verbiage, which one is starting to encounter everywhere, is the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. (Similarly, on a smaller scale, recessions tend to end before anyone is willing to admit we had one.)

More than one million Americans have been foreclosed out of their homes in the last two years, unemployment is rising, credit card interest is shooting up, and banks are ceasing to lend money. I am watching all of this with some bemusement; I have no job, mortgage or credit cards, and little debt, so may be lucky enough to dodge some of the shit coming down. On the other hand, my net worth, conservatively invested, is shrinking, and if it shrinks enough, or the world implodes and mutual fund giants like Fidelity close their doors, I will be S.O.L. like everyone else.

I have struggled for a good part of my life with the question of whether there is progress in the world, whether we learn from past lessons and do better, or whether history is, as Gibbon said, nothing but the record of human folly and misfortune. As I get older, I get more pessimistic. The Glass-Steagal law, passed after the Depression to build an impenetrable wall between investment and commercial banking, was repealed in 1999. It took only nine years for us to come to the verge of another great depression, driven again by the banks taking foolish risks. Just as Vietnam predicted Iraq, the Internet bubble was the precursor of the mortgage bubble; all bubbles are essentially similar; all involve young people, paid on commission, designing and selling highly speculative products divorced from any common sense indicators of value or stability. Internet companies didnt have to be profitable, or even have a theory of future profitability, to go public at high multiples of revenue; mortgage-based securities were founded on home sales to people who couldnt afford houses, with variable interest rates or balloon payments designed to crush the purchaser in the near term.

What about this Bail-out? It is not clear, as I write, it will even happen; the most conservative House Republicans have broken away from the President and are decrying it as socialism, which it isnt. It might be if it resulted in the workers owning the means of production, but in its pure form, it is simply a hand-out to wealthy, greedy, stupid people to console them for the terrible choices they made. It might be tempting, as some pure Libertarians do, to call for no intervention and let the chips fall wherever they will. Purely selfishly, the fear that I will be pulled down with everyone else would keep me from calling for this, if nothing else.

The appeal of a bail-out is that it makes for an active, reassuring narrative. If government does nothing, government officially Does Not Care About Us; if it pumps 700 billion dollars into the market, we preserve the illusion there are grown-ups in control, who are busy Doing Something, and will See Us Through. Based on faith in this narrative, dozens or hundreds more banks will or wont fall, people will or wont line up to pull their money out, most other businesses will or wont crash because they cant get credit, and the word bread-line, presently a historical artifact, may or may not become a current term again.

I reassure myself that in the worst case, I will camp out in the house I own outright (though I may not have money to repair it or pay taxes on it), fish for bluefish and walk the Atlantic beaches in the morning to see if anything valuable washed up.


Tom Jones

I am reading Tom Jones and thoroughly enjoying it. It is easy reading, funny and smart, and though nearly 900 pages of small print not at all the heavy sledding I associate with (sound the trumpets) Classic English Literature.

Instead, it is a curiously modern book, reminiscent of Swift, Sterne and Voltaires works.

It is very meta-novelistic; Fielding spends a lot of pages ragging on critics, talking about the novelistic art, and deftly defeating expectations as soon as raised. Tom Jones saves a married woman being attacked in a wood from apparent rape and murder; but we soon find out that the assailant was her faithless lover. Best friends constantly sell one another out, or are revealed to have self-interested motives for their most apparently compassionate actions. Even the naive hero, a sort of Candide, falls into other womens beds with alarming regularity while swearing eternal dedication to his one true love. What makes it so appealing is that it is a book in which no-one is any better than they should be; the novelist is not paying obeisance to any social conventions and certainly not to popular taste. What makes the novels written just one hundred years later so much harder to read is their stuffiness, humorlessness, and hypocrisy--qualities of which Jane Austen, a fine writer otherwise, was probably wholly unconscious, so deeply ingrained were they. Even Dickens, a very funny and socially-minded writer, is often quite impossible, staying within the social limits which dictated that heroines be chaste, prostitutes die, and so forth. Of course, it is hard to beat stinging satire, of any century, for its continuing freshness of vision, while more socially-sanctioned literature tends to fade away with the mores of the time which created it.



Kurosawas Ikiru is a beautiful story of a reflective death. A bureaucrat diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer discovers how meaningless life has been, toiling in an office deflecting responsibility elsewhere while applying his official seal to make-work documents. His first and final rebellion, almost a paroxysm, is to achieve some meaning at the end of an otherwise pointless and unappreciated life. In his simple world of low expectations, it is not his destiny to write a novel, kill a dictator or save a houseful of children from flames. What he does instead is to use every ounce of stubbornness he can muster, a mute persistence almost animal, even vegetable in nature (roots destroying rock) to cut through the systemÕs inertia and accomplish---the building of a playground.

The movie has an unusual structure. A forward driving, traditional narrative carries us from the day of his diagnosis to the moment, a few weeks later, he realizes he must find a project to occupy the short remainder of his time on earth. We then jump forward five months; he has died, and the many guests at his wake, most of them hypocrites, are facing the uneasy knowledge that he accomplished something unique--and attempting to deny it or explain it away.

A series of flashbacks show us the truth of his achievement, and how he managed it through sheer desperation, without ever becoming smarter or more articulate than he was at the outset.

The only honest mourners are the women who prior to his intervention had been baffled by red tape for months in seeking the building of a playground. They appear and give him the final assurance that he mattered, by weeping unrestrainedly.

Our last sight of the protagonist in flashback: he is sitting in a swing in the new playground, singing to himself. We know that in a few minutes he will die of a hemmorhage, contentedly.

The movie avoids all of the sentimentality and grandiosity Steven Spielberg would have brought. Its message is simple and very clear: in this world, you have to bring your own meaning.