Thursday, January 23, 2014

Walking a Fine Line

"I wanted simultaneously to understand Hanna's crime and to condemn it. But it was too terrible for that. When I tried to understand it, I had the feeling I was failing to condemn it as it must be condemned. When I condemned it as it must be condemned, there was no room for understanding. But even as I wanted to understand Hanna, failing to understand her meant betraying her all over again. I could not resolve this. I wanted to pose myself both tasks—understanding and condemnation. But it was impossible to do both." 
(Schlink 157)

Reading The Reader makes me very uncomfortable. On the one hand, we cannot simply ignore and forgive the atrocities of the holocaust, the genocide, the truly horrific crimes against humanity that happened during World War II. What if that was my family that had been sent to a concentration camp? My grandmother as test subject? My uncle as a bag of skin and bones brutally whipped? My cousin made in a candle? Unforgivable. Unthinkable. That a fellow human being is capable morally and emotionally of inflicting this pain and suffering on another person is incomprehensible. That a whole country allowed this to happen is unforgivable.

On the other hand, what about the context? Putting ourselves into that time period, experiencing the pressures of the government, the military, the brainwashing, the propaganda, the fear, we can see how an atrocity like the Holocaust became a reality, became possible.

And herein lies my moral dilemma, the same moral quandary that boxes Michael in:

When I try to understand "Hanna" (or WWII Germany) I feel like I am committing a crime against humanity—because I am failing to condemn the atrocities in a way that the atrocities demand to be condemned. How CAN I forget the human fat candles? The human skin lampshades? By "understanding" the German perspective, I am necessarily, automatically, positioning myself against the victims of the Holocaust. There can be no "buts" or "howevers." A crime such as the holocaust SHOULD have no mitigating circumstance.

But like Michael says, when I condemn it as it MUST be condemned, then I am unable to "understand" Germany, unable to recognize the complex situation that existed during WWII. Without "understanding" then we only have wounds and no healing.

So here we are, Michael and I, floating in an impossible space, plagued by guilt because we cannot simultaneously condemn as we should condemn and understand as we might be able to understand.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Justice, Law, Order, and Morality

One of my favorite TV shows is Law and Order—the police procedural segment is interesting, but what truly hooks me is the trial segment, when the characters have to confront ethical issues of justice and law.  

Are law and justice the same thing? Clearly, in Part II we see some miscarriages of justice: the other defendants using Hanna as a scapegoat; the treatment of the trial as a "game" with rules; Hanna's inability to read the deposition and the pieces of evidence presented against her. And yet, these all fall within what is allowed by the Law. Does the Law, then, truly serve Justice?

What is true Justice? Is Justice related to Morality? If we use Kantian ethics to define Justice: would allowing a known murderer walk free because the witness lied be Moral? That seems to me a miscarriage of Justice.

And what is the purview of philosophy in Justice and Law anyway? When Hanna asked the judge what he would have done, the judge's answer was philosophical, was very Kantian. There are certain things that one just doesn't do, he says. And everyone is disappointed with this answer. Especially Hanna. She doesn't want to know what Philosophy has to say about her actions. It's too abstract, too distant, too divorced from her reality. She wants to know what she should have done in that exact moment, with the church on fire, her orders, her sense of duty (warped as it may have been), her surroundings, and her context.

Does the context of WWII make Hanna free from the guilt of listening to and watching the women burn to death and not freeing them? No. And yet, I know my answer to this question renders me somewhat of a hypocrite, because who knows how I would have acted in that situation. Is that why the judge is always so irritated by Hanna? Is it because he knows that in judging Hanna he is also judging himself and what he might have done?

Who are we to judge? Are we not just as fallible and mortal as Hanna?

And yet, some Justice MUST be served. Because the Holocaust was an atrocity on a scale that exceeds all our human comprehension, an atrocity that exposes the horrifying darkness of humanity, an atrocity that allowed human beings to be treated as objects, test animals, mere things.

But this justice that is meted, is it true Justice?

Monday, January 13, 2014


I remember the first time I read Chapters 10 and 11 of The Reader.  I was horrified by Hanna's actions—the violence of the belt stands out like a bloodless wound in my memory. Yet, I'm uncomfortably aware that I, to some degree, recognize and understand Hanna's reactions.  In Meghan's post, she astutely attributes Hanna's actions and responses to her insecurities. I agree. From personal experience, Hanna's actions seem like they come from a place of self-hatred. Michael says that he "had the feeling that she hurt herself when she turned cold and rigid" (49). To me, this points to Hanna's inability to face up to whatever guilt or shame or self-hatred that is buried within herself. To deal with it, she alienates Michael, making him the aggressor and turning herself into the victim. Many students see Hanna as a confident, dominant woman; I see the opposite: Hanna is a woman out of control who only has the appearance of being in control. When someone's self-hatred has nowhere else to go, it turns on those who love that person. By alienating the one person who cares about her, Hanna might be performing a twisted sort of self-flagellation (self-punishment). Perhaps Hanna feels that she does not deserve Michael's love (pushing him away, turning "cold and hard") (49); at the same time, however, she yearns for the unconditional love that Michael offers—it's something that she may never have experienced before.

Not to say that this excuses Hanna in any way whatsoever. She is creating an abusive relationship with Michael and she must bear that responsibility. Many students also cannot understand why Michael cannot (or will not) stand up for himself. However, it is important to keep in mind that victims of abuse are completely under the control of the abuser, psychologically and emotionally. It is easy to tell a wife who is regularly beaten by her husband that she should just leave him, but that does not take into account the damage her psyche has taken. Michael's thought process (given to us by his revealing first person narration) indicates that he is under Hanna's thrall—fearing and loving her, needing her validation.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Memory in The Reader

Today, I want to talk about memory and the issue of memory in The Reader. As far as I can tell, The Reader is a novel composed entirely of memory. There is no present, no future.
Michael himself is concerned with the issues of memory and hindsight. He asks:

"Why? Why does what was beautiful suddenly shatter in hindsight because it concealed dark truths?" (37)

Allow me now a digression:

When I was four (or maybe it was five), I lived in Korea. One family vacation was spent at a ski resort; there are still photographs of our trip there hanging on the walls of my parents' home. One picture is of my sister and me bundled up in ski jackets sitting on what must be the flattest part of the ski resort. My sister is smiling at the camera; I am staring off somewhere to the right of whomever is taking the picture.

I am not a skier. This is in part due to a horribly terrifying experience during that ski trip: I am sitting on the ski slopes by my wee lonesome self (playing with the snow, one must assume), when I begin sliding backwards slowly but uncontrollably. I am sliding towards a large, gaping dark hole, a chasm that yawns behind me. I call out to my mother for help. No one comes to save me.

After that incident, I harbored deep-seated anger at my mother—anger at her for abandoning me in my time of great need. I had never felt so alone, so helpless, so terrified. When I needed her most, she hadn't been there. For about 13 years, I blamed her for her neglect.

By now, you must have a number of questions: 1) What is a dark, yawning hole doing on a ski slope? 2) How does one slide spontaneously on a flat piece of land? 3) Who leaves a four year old child by herself at a ski resort?

The answers to your questions lie in the fact that this memory is a lie. This whole incident never happened. I must have imagined it, maybe dreamt it.

And yet, my anger as a result of this memory was real. 13 years of anger all for a figment of my imagination.

Honestly, finally learning about the truth was difficult. If memory is so easily counterfeited, how could I trust myself and my perception of reality? How could I trust my perception of myself?

In Karl's post on memory, he points out how identity and memory are inextricably linked. Our memories shape our decisions, thoughts, and emotions. Yet, apparently, our identity is built on a foundation of sand. According to a study conducted at Northwestern University, every time you recall a memory, your brain alters it. What ends up happening is that the brain remembers the experience of the memory as the original. The implication? The more you remember something, the further away from reality it becomes. Ironically, this means that your most treasured memories, the ones you go always go back to, are more fabrications that reality.

“Your memory of an event can grow less precise even to the point of being totally false with each retrieval.” 
 Donna Bridge, lead author of the paper being published in the journal Neuroscience 

In Michael's case, Hanna clearly is a memory he returns to obsessively—yet this means that his memories of Hanna are necessarily distorted. How much of the narrative can we trust?

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Reader: Chapter 1-5 (Response to the text and an Ode to Students)

Sickness. Weakness. Vomit. Assault. These are the things that we start with in Schlink's The Reader. Not a particularly propitious beginning for what is to be a love story. Yet, at the same time, the chapter juxtaposes a strangely clean rescue: "clear" vomit, "wave[s] of water", "fresh sweat" (Schlink 5). Perhaps this is the central issue in The Reader: Michael Berg's struggle to confront the diseased yet pure relationship with Frau Schmitz. 

As I read through my student's responses, I am struck by the depth of their reflections on quotes to which I've never paid much attention before. In particular, many students noticed that Michael's recollections of buildings and surroundings starkly contradicted his inability to recall his lover's face. Annabel mentioned that this made the narrator's tone objective and scientific, and I totally agree… to an extent. I wonder, too, how much of this seemingly objective and factual recall is in fact Michael's attempt to give shape and structure to a past that is mired in doubt and questions.

And now for a reflection on the blogging process:

This is much harder than I anticipated, and I am definitely appreciative of all the efforts that my students are putting into their posts and their reflections. I once read that teachers should do the same work they assign their students. This attempt may be the end of me. We shall see! =)