Tag Archives: judgement

Compassion – Hanna(h)s and the Holocaust

I revisited The Reader, the film that finally saw Kate Winslet get her Oscar – as Ricky Gervais predicted, it was about the holocaust. There’s been other such observations (such as in new film The Congress) that this most sensitive subject, often cited as the greatest horror of this or any time, garners recognition.

I shared my initial thoughts on Bernhard Schlink’s tale here – five years on, I stand by them all. I had further thoughts on the writing, which in neither case (book nor script) was perfect, but that’s not the focus of this post. You can see them on my Amazon reviews.

The impression that left me with was the assumption that awfulness and shame is the only response that Germans leave themselves for the events of and around World War II; that it is beyond forgiveness, and to attempt it is offensive to Jews – and I again point out that they were one of at least 4 groups (gay, gypsy, disabled too) who were targeted.

There is nothing to be learned, says the daughter who was in the fire and in concentration camps. In the film, Hanna Schmidt says it after her 20 years in prison, before taking her life. Neither party is allowed to grow; the whole story is about stagnant people, in victimhood and guilt. Although I am aware that what holocaust victims endured is something many of us have no idea of, I think all of us have experienced suffering and therefore am not unqualified to suggest that it is those darkest times especially where we seek growth.

The Reader is about a court case of six SS guards. My response drifted from the legal response to  – what would a counsellor or a minister say to these guards? Their business is not justice in the philosophical sense of logical wranglings, but of the heart.

Hannah Arendt is a film about a very similar subject – the 1960s trial of SS workers. This time, the trial is real and there is only one employee in the dock – an infamous senior one, and whose actions make far more sense to bring to court. (One of my criticisms of The Reader is that the church on fire was a case of manslaughter/Samaritan Law, not a war crime – the things the guards did which might have been weren’t the focus of the trial, thus weakening the premise). In both stories, the defendants are a synecdoche, standing for the vast army of SS workers during Nazi Germany, and the persons are made to represent a historic moment rather than the deeds of the individual.

Hannah Arendt was a German Jew who was captured in the war, and yet her attendance at the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem yields more generous results than the immature fictional Michael Berg who was not implicated or involved in the camps – he wasn’t even born.

Both stories involve a defendant who seems to have lost their moral compass, and can only think in terms of their duty and orders. They cannot grasp their part in sending people to their death; it is a conveyor belt, and once they have done their part on the assembly line, they do not think about the next.

Hannah Arendt’s summation was that Eichmann’s lack of thinking was what made the atrocities he masterminded possible. It is true of Hanna Schmidt, the imaginary guard and lover of Michael in The Reader. Hanna doesn’t just not think, she can’t read; in learning, she faces some of her past by reading about the Holocaust, including Hannah Arendt’s. This hugely important point was left out of the film and Hanna is given even less scope for anything positive than in the book.

What most made me angry was that Kate Winslet, who I admire, said that if viewers sympathised with Hanna whom she played, they would (or should) feel morally compromised.

Wrong. You are never morally compromised for feeling compassion.

That means, to feel with: it is not about endorsing, just listening and empathy.

I again bring up my therapist and pastor, whose business it is not to condemn, but to facilitate a way back to wholeness. I again note how The Reader uses theological terms, which are actually from the legal – redeem, atone, justification, propitiation, expiation. They are ugly in pulpit and court; the two shouldn’t be conjoined.

What scares me most, what makes these stories relevant, is not perpetuating the suffering of the groups who were killed and the now remorseful perpetrators of the last world war. It is that the mindset that made that Nazi movement possible is still with us.

It starts with the milder things, with something that seems reasonable.

But I warn against creating enemies and unquestioning allegiances.

You are never just doing your job – you are never excused from thinking, or your conscience. Conscience is knowing with, and that is not a matter for only thought – it is a feeling, and intuition.

If your role takes away liberties, crushes, oppresses; if you are afraid to stand up to your employer – than something is gravely wrong and needs to be stopped. No contract should ever ask personal principles to come second to work.

It can be in smaller ways – random searches, taking or demanding money that causes poverty and fear; refusing an appeal. Many of us have opportunities and powers in this way. Thinking of them as papers or stats to clear, not as real people, is the first step. That’s how the army gets its staff to kill – targets are other, they are not like you. But this can be true of judges, police and enforcement, customs staff, welfare. Belle is the story of a judge who used his power well.

In small ways, we can begin that change: to refuse to act out of suspicion and prejudice, to break the chain of command which puts pressure on the next person, which uses fear to coerce. We can choose not to believe hype that would justify such actions.

If we never lose sight that the other person isn’t other, they’re a person, we could halt the fear and aggression and ensure dictatorships never again rise.

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Creative Maladjustment Week

This is based on a Martin Luther King speech who said “Here is a list of horrible things in our world which I’m glad to be maladjusted to, and I won’t be changing that”. He resisted being “normal” as officially defined (especially by psychiatry) and said we need a new group to improve our world, the creatively maladjusted. This international week celebrates that spirit, and here’s its website.

Here’s what I am proud to be maladjusted to:

– Benefits claimant hating, as incited by media and certain political parties; the belief that your worth comes from how much taxable income you generate

– Banks that can create theoretical money and make actual debts to chase you for, even or especially when you’re poor, and cause global crises that others both suffer and pay for

– a health system that’s as much about supply and demand and control as it really is about wellness, and which sees other forms of healing – often older and more universal – as a threat to be derided and blocked; a system that can make decisions on your behalf for ‘your good’ which affect your life and body and mind

– a world where governments and corporations try to own and control people and pry and don’t treat people as people and where other forms of life are only given value by what they profit other humans

– a world where we have judgment and fear, not acceptance, towards those who are different from us, whether that be due to nationhood, skin colour, beliefs, sexuality, gender, bodily ability

– a world where we are disseminated to and encouraged to ridicule or silence those who don’t agree with and expose and question the beliefs that those in control would like us to absorb

– a world of secrecy and control of the few, often masquerading as a people led open advanced society

– invasive customs control based on exaggerated threats; wars on terror justified through fear but which really have some hidden benefit for the few whilst causing more terror for those who we claim to protect

And campaigns to glorify and justify war, past and present

You know my flags by now – justice and liberty for all! And most important – Love.

Here is a big wave of them along with all those other CMs!

 

 

 

 

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Bitching about Austen

I might have a season of this, so prepare yourselves.

I’ve already had one – “Death Comes to Pemberley” and links to “Going Off Austen” and I wrote elsewhere “Lydia and Wickham – Pride and Prejudice’s Naughtiest Couple”.

Why am I bitching again? Why didn’t I take Austen off my shelf (lord knows I need the space) 4 years ago and let Janey fans enjoy her?

Having my Kate Winslet season (blog posts on here previously) led me to watch the 1995 Sense and Sensibility, which I was reluctant to do; as I’ve said, I’ve not got on really with Austen’s other 5 novels and I’m fed up with polite period adaptations. But I wanted to see Kate’s performance and her career progression. And for a while, I liked the film; and though it was slower to get into, I read the novel with some pleasure.

It was easy to see why the woman that gave us Ophelia and Rose in Titanic could play Marianne Dashwood – passionate, impetuous, heart broken, (near) dying. I did various “Which Austen character are you” quizzes, and received varying answers, but Marianne appeared more than once. And I wasn’t unhappy with that, because Marianne has spirit, she’s genuine, she doesn’t care for those stupid social rules that beset Austen, she’s not materialistic, she speaks and knows her heart.

As for her supposed faults — it was my irritation with that question that got me the result of Lady Catherine De Burgh in one quiz (I’m sort of amused by that and a bit secretly proud). Emma Thompson in her actor/writer’s commentary of the S&S DVD often points out Marianne’s selfishness and rudeness: she rises unbidden at the table of her hosts and asks to play the piano; she boldly hops into a barouche with her boyfriend in public; she speaks or won’t speak ‘out of turn’ (think how dreadful that phrase is!) and she even complains about her sister’s cold feet in their shared bed. And she writes late night letters to her love who’s just publicly and inexplicable spurned her.

This is really what worries me about Austen. I nearly called this piece

Austen fans keep prudery alive

because I’m more disturbed that modern people are getting this, and sticking up for it! The introduction to the Pitkin guide to Austen, written by a man, says that Austen gives us a moral standard (and lets men understand women!!). An article high on the search engine results I won’t name, but that I did comment on, reviews this film with a paragraph on “Bad Content” which includes low necklines and unmarried mothers. The same magazine issue that my truncated guest essay was published in (Jane Austen’s Regency World, Nov 2010) had an article about sex appeal in Austen. It was illustrated with louche cartoons lampooning contemporary royalty, but the text incongruously is about the fact we don’t understand “seriousness” of the “moral crime” of single motherhood today (GOOD!) and full of words like “condemn” “immoral” “vulgar flirt” and “lower impulses” about anyone whose sexuality is more open.

Do you want us to put the corset back on?!

Many of Kate Winslet’s films have been about women who literally and metaphorically take off the corset, but S&S is about a character who puts it on. In Jude and Hamlet, her ahead of time unconventionality and strength are her undoing, but in Titanic, she is freed. Marianne, understandably as a teenager, would need to mature; she can be thoughtless and unfair, and I most dislike her dismissal of 35 year old Colonel Brandon as aged and infirm (rightly lampooned).

Let me slip aside and say

Jane Austen is ageist

Not only are her heroines ridiculously sensible at 19-21, (even though Jane was double that age when writing – oh we have Anne in Persuasion who’s mid 20s), but she makes the mothers or grandmothers beyond romance and beauty. Lively Mrs Jennings is a widow in the book s0 why not have a romance for her? What about Mrs Dashwood, who is my favourite – only 40, as alive as her middle daughter, and whose wit is removed from the Ang Lee/Thomson version: “men are safe here, let them be ever so rich” and her riposte to Marianne’s inability to imagine that anyone older than her can love. Note how dowdy and pale Gemma Jones is made as Mrs D. What about her and the Colonel?

Austen’s men get wives half their age which by today’s standards would seem dubious.

Back to my corset: I don’t want understanding of those mores revived in our day, thank you. I’m pleased that sex before marriage and children or living together without marriage are not things that most of us bother to judge any more. I don’t want crushing etiquette and class delineation to be revived, or those fragile reputations. And I don’t want to go back to a world of deference and where we never learn to speak what we feel (see my article on Her this Feb).

Let me be clear – I have strong values; just not those constricting, judging ones that Austen lovers seem to see themselves as guardians of.

As for sexuality: everyone who exercises it in Austen is a tart or blaggard. And we’re so upset that anyone might adapt or spoof Austen and go higher than a U certificate. I stick up for Andrew Davies now for putting that (very slight, sensuous) seduction scene at the start of his 2008 Sense and Sensibility. The book’s got a dull opening to adapt and that act, as Jane herself says, is the ‘vice’ that set of all the others. People in Austen who are sexual are gold-diggers and preyers on minors; they shock polite society. Heaven help what Willoughby and Marianne might have done in that barouche the day of the picnic…. well, wouldn’t most of us as a passionate couple? But of course, they can’t have, if Marianne is a heroine.

Early Marianne is the most congruent of Austen heroines that I know, but instead of Elinor and her learning from each other, Marianne becomes her sister. Sense and Sensibility is the story of the taming of Marianne, if not the humbling of her. Marianne is ashamed of her conduct and tells her sister it should have been like hers. By the end, she’s promising to rise by 6 and keep busy all day, improving herself. She never really falls for Brandon, it’s engineered by her social circle (not in the 1995 film), and she becomes “devoted” and mistress of a household, family and most worryingly – patron of a parish…. all before her wisdom teeth have arrived. Yet the former Marianne often acted out of perception and a kind heart: getting up from the table to play the piano to stop a guessing game upsetting to her sister; speaking out against an attempt to defame Elinor. She is right to want to discover what’s happened with Willoughby and tell him how she feels about the ball snub, and so I support the letter than Emma Thompson criticises her for.

Elinor’s embarrassed by Marianne’s public tears on her behalf, and later is glad to note Marianne’s silent discretion the next time she feels like a blub.

Elinor tells Edward – who has stuck up t0 his dreadful mother who cast him off – that he does owe her an apology for he has given offence. I can see none, for his engagement would never need to have been concealed if his mother approved and Mrs Ferrars snr should have allowed her son the autonomy he surely deserves.

Finally, I go back to the lack of corporality allowed, that these characters are all asexual with nothing under their dresses or breeches, and how they are defended if anyone suggests otherwise! We can’t bear to think of them or Jane herself as a living, carnal woman – but Jane had a fanny, she didn’t just write a character with that name.

I know that statement and this whole article (and their sisters) will cause anger, but I note generally how people denigrate what clashes with their own opinion on something they hold precious. Whether it’s Game of Thrones (the antithesis of Jane’s world, where you’ll be criticised for criticising the normalising portrayal of violence) or the genteel drawing rooms of Austen, fans won’t stand for 1 star reviews. But it takes away freedom of speech and forgets that not everyone likes the same. There are many people – intelligent, cultured, well read, tasteful – who don’t like Austen, find her boring, don’t understand the appeal (I’m told Bronte was one). Perhaps because I was one, in my corset, I feel the need to talk about Austen and ensure corsets do not return, for the reanimation of those social objurgations really scares me and rouses me as the former Marianne.

I now feel like watching the zombie version, the Fight Club spoof, or the one Austen I rate – Rozema’s Mansfield Park.

But let’s be honest: Jane wouldn’t do well on one of the writing schools at Chawton — conspicuous exposition in dialogue, telling not showing, heavy backstory at the beginning, baggy endings of endless codas.

Am I going to stop this now? For this article, yes, but the future? I suspect I’ll dust Austen off again for another rant.

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