If it's someone
then it's that someone
who knocks us down
mows us down, all our grass
I cannot withstand this
That's why I put a stone
in a box, close the top
and so bury the silence behind its name
If it's someone
he's not here
nor is he the stone in that box
- J. Bernlef (translated by Scott Rollins)
In the original Dutch the poem is titled 'Uit het oog uit het hart'.
Als het iemand is
is het dus die iemand
die ons neerslaat
wegmaait, al ons gras
Ik ben niet bestand tegen dit
alles vernietigende beeld
Daarom leg ik een steen
in een doos, sluit de deksel
begraaf zo de stilte achter zijn naam
Als het iemand is
is hij hier niet
is hij die steen in die doos
The poem shares its title, as well as its preoccupation with identity, memory and disintegration, with the English translation of his best-known novel, 'Out of Mind' ('Hersenschimmen', 1984). Here's a short review of the memorable Ro Theatre production, back in 2006.
In 1989, when the translation came out, Anita Desai reviewed 'Out of Mind' for the New York Times.
Words can be like tiny doses of arsenic: they are swallowed unnoticed, appear to have no effect, and then after a little time the toxic reaction sets in after all.
It is the central premise of Victor Klemperer's classic work 'The Language of the Third Reich', originally titled 'LTI: Lingua Tertii Imperii, a philologist's notebook'. Language, far from being ideologically innocent, or neutral, can be the most subtle and pervasive form of indoctrination and oppression.
First published in 1947, 'LTI' is both shocking as a historical document of the Nazi language and awe-inspiring as the record of a Jewish survivor. But above all it serves as an important lesson about the power of words, one that is still very relevant today.
Despite its grim theme, and even if it sounds almost frivolous to say so, it also makes for a fascinating read for anyone with an ear for language.
Klemperer worked as a philologist at the Dresden University of Technology. 'LTI' collects material from the diary he kept from 1933 when the Nazis came to power in Germany until the end of World War II in 1945. (His full diaries were not published until 1995.) As a philologist, Klemperer took the unique perspective of observing and analyzing the language of the Nazis, and studying how the Third Reich made "language the servant of its dreadful system, [procuring] it as its most powerful, most public and most surreptitious means of advertising."
Being Jewish (or rather, being classified as such), Klemperer in his diaries provided a firsthand account of the horrors of Nazi antisemitism, which he miraculously survived only because his wife was Aryan (or again, was classified as such). By the end of the war, he found himself one of only a handful of Jews left alive in Dresden.
As the essay 'The everyday life of tyranny' about Klemperer's diaries emphasizes, for Jews life during these twelve years under Hitler consisted of an endless string of larger and smaller humiliations, and Klemperer painstakingly recorded them all. It characterizes him as a scholar that he counted being denied access to libraries and the ban on smoking among the larger deprivations. But he appears to have been acutely conscious of the way all the minor humiliations added up.
This excerpt from his diary mirrors his statement about the poisonous quality of language:
It's not the big things which are important to me, but the everyday life of tyranny, which gets forgotten. A 1,000 mosquito bites are worse than a blow to the head. I observe, note down the mosquito bites.
But 'LTI' is first and foremost a book of philology, that oldfashioned field of study encompassing linguistics as well as culture, anthropology and literature. In 'LTI' Klemperer's personal misfortunes are only mentioned in passing, while the hateful Lingua Tertii Imperii takes center stage. Ironically, his philological project of bearing witness to the madness was what kept Klemperer sane during the long years of mass psychosis in Germany.
Again and again during these years my diary was my balancing pole, without which I would have fallen down a hundred times. In times of disgust and despondency, in the dreary monotony of endless routine factory work, at the bedside of the sick and the dying, at grave-sides, at times when I myself was in dire straits, at moments of utter ignominy and when my heart was literally breaking - at all these times I was invariably helped by the demand I had made on myself: observe, study and memorize what is going on - by tomorrow everything will already look different, by tomorrow everything will already feel different; keep hold of how things reveal themselves at this very moment and what the effects are. And very soon this call to rise above the situation and to safeguard my inner freedom was concentrated into that consistently effective secret formula: LTI, LTI!
So what exactly was the LTI? This is not an easy question, and Klemperer provides no clearcut answer - he considers his primary task to record, and theorizing secondary. However, it soon becomes clear that a central and defining term in the LTI is 'fanaticism' ('Fanatismus').
The sole purpose of the LTI is to strip everyone of their individuality, to paralyze them as personalities, to make them into unthinking and docile cattle in a herd driven and hounded in a particular direction, to turn them into atoms in a huge rolling block of stone. The LTI is the language of mass fanaticism. Where it addresses the individual - and not just his will but also his intellect - where it educates, it teaches means of breeding fanaticism and techniques of mass suggestion.
Etymologically, the word 'fanatical' is associated with religious zeal and has a decidedly negative meaning of someone in the throes of mental illness - ecstatic, deluded, unthinking. However, during the eighteenth century Enlightenment, the word slowly acquired a more positive connotation, and Klemperer traces the turning point to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who wrote that "fanaticism is a great and powerful passion which inflames the hearts of men."
The word thus exemplifies an uncomfortable truth that Klemperer returns to repeatedly, that the roots of Nazi ideology can be traced to German Romanticism - a period usually associated with high culture and a great flowering of art and literature. And indeed many of the LTI’s characteristics are familiar Romantic ideas brought to their fanatical conclusion: its anti-intellectualism and irrationalism, placing feeling above thinking ('Sturm und Drang'), its yearning for the past, for a simpler and more bucolic life reconnected to the soil ('Blut und Boden', or 'Blubo'), as well as its implicit ideas of human inequality ('Übermensch' implying 'Untermensch').
Very different from the Romantic high culture, however, is the LTI's poverty, its relentless simplification and numbing repetition, which often seems to offend Klemperer even more than its hateful content. It shows again how fanaticism was a central feature of the LTI, infusing the Nazi propaganda and narrowing the groupthink ever further.
...the word 'fanatical' was, throughout the entire era of the Third Reich, an inordinately complimentary epithet. It represents an inflation of the terms 'courageous', 'devoted' and 'persistent'; to be more precise, it is a gloriously eloquent fusion of all these virtues, and even the most innocuous pejorative connotation of the word was dropped from general LTI usage.
With wry humor Klemperer also marks the precise moment when the word, inflated and worn out, started its decline. It was at the end of 1944, when in a speech Goebbels "writes that the situation can be saved 'only by fierce fanaticism'. As if fierceness was not already the essential condition of the fanatic, as if there could be such a thing as tame fanaticism."
To be sure, the LTI contains many other elements - in the same way that corrupted ideas of German Romanticism constituted only one ingredient of the explosive Nazi cocktail - and Klemperer patiently analyzes them, from the use of abbreviations and acronyms to what he calls the Americanization of the language. In a chapter titled the 'Curse of the Superlative' he collects examples of the tiresome chestbeating of the LTI which made every battle into a "battle of total destruction" or even "determining the fate of the German people for the next 1,000 years" (as the invasion of the Netherlands was announced in 1940).
Klemperer even calls the superlative:
...the most prevalent linguistic form of the LTI, which is not surprising given that the superlative is the most obvious means by which a speaker can achieve a desired end, it is the quintessential advertising mode.
Ultimately, it is rather chilling to realize how many of the LTI's features have become accepted rhetorical weapons in the Western world, used daily in advertising and politics. The bombastic use of superlatives, the repetition of simplistic messages ad nauseam, the obscuring and lying with neologisms, the use of quotation marks to evoke irony or "innuendo" - in fact, the entire modern media arsenal of spinning, framing and alleging can be found avant la lettre in the LTI.
This includes one more characteristic, that nowadays we would just call postmodern, but which Klemperer as a classical philologist perceived as linguistic barbary. It also answers the earlier question of what exactly the LTI is, by recognizing that it isn't one coherent style or system of expression.
It is worth contemplating our current media landscape with this analysis in mind:
...the consummate and most characteristic feature of the Nazi art of language (...) - and here Goebbels is the undisputed master - lies in the unscrupulous mixture of heterogeneous stylistic elements; no, mixture isn’t quite the right word - it lies in the most abruptly antithetical leaps from a learned tone to a proletarian one, from sobriety to the tone of the preacher, from Fontane's simplicity, and Berlin's gruffness, to the pathos of the evangelist and prophet. It is like an epidermal stimulation under the impact of alternating cold and hot showers, and just as physically effective; the listener’s emotions (...) never come to rest, they are constantly attracted and rebuffed, attracted and rebuffed, and there is no time for critical reasoning to catch its breath.
Under such attack, Klemperer’s greatest achievement may well have been that his critical reasoning did catch its breath.
For further introduction, there is a good French documentary about Klemperer called 'La language ne ment pas' ('Language doesn't lie') which is online in full, though without subtitles.
In a daring theatrical venture the Flemish Toneelhuis staged a three-part adaptation of Robert Musil's contemplative and largely plotless novel 'The Man Without Qualities' ('De man zonder eigenschappen'). In the hands of director Guy Cassiers, who has made complex literary adaptations his trademark (remember his version of Proust?), it becomes a heady but mesmerizing audiovisual experience - especially when seen as one blurred marathon.
The book's title understands qualities not in the sense of talents but of characteristics ('Eigenschaften' in German), and these in turn are interpreted as limiting, as ballast one acquires by living. Thus the man without qualities lives in a state of total possibility, by permanently keeping all options open and basking in the richness of ideas, of what could be.
The dreamy passivity involved in such an ideal reminds of Musil's contemporary Pessoa, but Musil's anti-hero is more involved in society - that is the high society of Vienna in 1913, when World War I has not yet destroyed the anachronistic Austro-Hungarian Empire of Franz-Josef, but its decadence is already apparent. In part one, 'The Parallel Action' ('De parallelactie'), Musil shows himself a great satirist of the wealthy indolence and ineffectual political maneuvering of the Viennese beau monde. This also makes it the most relevant part of the trilogy, with interesting parallels with today's navel-gazing society.
Part two, 'The Mystical Marriage' ('Het mystieke huwelijk') zooms in on the relationship of Ulrich and his sister Agathe, which after the death of their father develops into a close bond with incestuous implications. Mostly, however, their relationship serves as another illustration of Musil's theme of possibility preferred over actuality.
'The Crime' ('De misdaad') completes the funnel-like structure of the trilogy by exploring the conscience of another of the novel's characters, the murderer and rapist Moosbrugger, as well as the author himself. Inspired by the novel, this part was written by Yves Petry, and while it certainly provides a spectacular closure to the trilogy, its postmodern inclusion of Musil as a character feels awkward, a break with the early 20th century modernity of the novel.
Throughout all three parts, Cassiers puts his immersive and cinematic style of video projections and stage design to optimal use to compensate for what would otherwise be rather static and wordy theatre. Despite the consistently strong acting, it can't hide the lack of real dramatic involvement of the play.
But in the scenes where it succeeds the result is magical.
Perhaps it's because of the rather generic sounding title, but Bertrand Tavernier's subdued dystopian drama 'Death Watch' (1980) seems to have been relegated to obscurity these days. The irony is that the title refers to a voyeuristic reality TV show avant la lettre, around which the film very presciently revolves. Naming the film after the show was a clever self-referential way to signal viewers' complicity in such exploitative entertainment - but of course you'd only realize this after seeing it.
While 'Death Watch' is mostly noted for its satirical foresight in television's development towards ever more blatant emotional intrusion, it weaves in other themes in an intriguing mix of drama, satire and science-fiction that makes the film hard to categorize.
The English spoken 'Death Watch' ('La mort en direct' is the title of the French, dubbed version) was shot in the gloomy, jagged cityscapes of Glasgow and the contrasting beautiful and desolate Scottish moors. Like most good science-fiction, its world looks recognizable and rundown rather than flashily futuristic. Its post-societal, world-weary atmosphere reminds of 'Children of Men' (2006), which has some other interesting parallels with Tavernier's film.
In a society where few humans die of natural causes anymore, a commercial TV channel introduces a program called 'Death Watch' which promises to show a terminally ill woman, Catherine Mortenhoe (Romy Schneider) on her way to her death. In order to do this they implant a camera in the eye of a cameraman, Roddy (Harvey Keitel), who is then able to record everything he sees.
The TV channel's cynical manager (Harry Dean Stanton) pitches his show very seductively:
Look how shy we've become about death. It's the new pornography. Nudity is nothing anymore, now we put fig leaves on the dying. We've sold them away in homes outside of town. Who lives with the dying anymore? No one. No relatives. A few callous, trained guardians, those are the last people they see. I want to bring them back to us, bring them home.
While Catherine flees the prying cameras, Roddy befriends her and helps her get out of the city, all the while recording her slow demise. And as her death approaches, questions about the privacy and dignity of dying become more poignant. "I just want to get out of this life on my own," as Catherine puts it. At this point the media satire also becomes more awkward to watch, as we start to realize that it's not just that despicable TV show that spies on Catherine, but the film itself too. After all, much of what we see is through the camera eye of Roddy. And we fully expect to be there when she dies.
It's the same strategy that 'C'est arrivé près de chez vous' ('Man Bites Dog', 1992) later used, making viewers complicit until it became painful and embarrassing to watch. 'Death Watch' does this much more subtly, but the mechanism is the same.
Meanwhile a third theme emerges around the Faustian bargain of the camera eye. Roddy chose to see and film everything - eliminating discretion, the option to turn the camera off, to look away - but he pays a price. It becomes apparent early on that he won't be able to have intimate relationships anymore. His relationship with Catherine is based on deception, and it ends abruptly when she finds out.
Tavernier thus makes a nuanced statement about how intimacy and discretion go hand in hand, and when one is forced, the other disappears. Applying this to death, it becomes clear that the "fig leaves on the dying" are in fact a merciful discretion surrounding the most intimate act of their life.
Exploiting such intimacy results - as illustrated by much of today's TV offering - in embarrassing ersatz emotions. Catherine summarizes the shallow commercialism of the media world early on when she says: "Everything's of interest, but nothing matters."
Update: Little White Lies recently reviewed 'Death Watch', coining the genre "kitchen sink sci-fi".