Joseph Brodsky, Shirley Jackson, and the “no-fault Holocaust”


Literature as “moral insurance”

“As a form of moral insurance, at least, literature is much more dependable than a system of beliefs or a philosophical doctrine. Since there are no laws that can protect us from ourselves, no criminal code is capable of preventing a true crime against literature; though we can condemn the material suppression of literature – the persecution of writers, acts of censorship, the burning of books – we are powerless when it comes to its worst violation: that of not reading the books. For that crime, a person pays with his whole life; if the offender is a nation, it pays with its history.” — Joseph Brodsky, 1987 Nobel lecture

At the time, I had reservations about Joseph Brodsky‘s absolutist view of literature as “a kind of moral insurance.”  I am less ambivalent now.  I was reared … or rather, I reared myself … on the novels of Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, and the Brontës; I suppose the great heart of the 19th century formed much of my moral and political education.

Great-hearted Hugo

As Susan Sontag said, “Reading should be an education of the heart.”  In a world where offline reading is occurring less and less, I wonder where and how such a shaping of the heart will occur.  (The graphic novel is a promising form — but, as in the case of “Borderland,” I think it is better as an appeal to pre-existing values, and lacks the nuance required for “the education of the heart.”)

Yesterday, I ran across this 1997 article, “A No-Fault Holocaust,” in U.S. News and World Report:

‘In 20 years of college teaching, Prof. Robert Simon [of Hamilton College] has never met a student who denied that the Holocaust happened. What he sees quite often, though, is worse: students who acknowledge the fact of the Holocaust but can’t bring themselves to say that killing millions of people is wrong. Simon reports that 10 to 20 percent of his students think this way. Usually they deplore what the Nazis did, but their disapproval is expressed as a matter of taste or personal preference, not moral judgment. ‘Of course I dislike the Nazis,’ one student told Simon, ‘but who is to say they are morally wrong?’

She refused punditry

The article also discusses a Chronicle of Higher Education piece by Kay Haugaard, a writer who teaches at Pasadena City College, about Shirley Jackson‘s famous 1948 story, ‘The Lottery,’ which used to be a staple of high school reading lists.  The story:  A sunny small-time American town that gathers every year to implore an unnamed force to grant a good corn harvest. Annually, the citizens draw slips of paper from a wooden box to select a victim for human sacrifice. A young mother draws the losing card, and is stoned to death by the community.

“Until recently, she says, ‘Jackson’s message about blind conformity always spoke to my students’ sense of right and wrong.’ No longer, apparently. A class discussion of human sacrifice yielded no moral comments, even under Haugaard’s persistent questioning. One male said the ritual killing in ‘The Lottery’ ‘almost seems a need.’ Asked if she believed in human sacrifice, a woman said, ‘I really don’t know. If it was a religion of long standing. . . .’ Haugaard writes: ‘I was stunned. This was the woman who wrote so passionately of saving the whales, of concern for the rain forests, of her rescue and tender care of a stray dog.’ …

“The search is on for a teachable consensus rooted in simple decency and respect. As a spur to shaping it, we might discuss a culture so morally confused that students are showing up at colleges reluctant to say anything negative about mass slaughter.”

Jackson refused to explain “the meaning” of her story, except to tell the San Francisco Chronicle a month after the story was published in the New Yorker:

Explaining just what I had hoped the story to say is very difficult. I suppose, I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village to shock the story’s readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives.

According to one critic, Jackson intended “a sensitive and faithful anatomy of our times, fitting symbols for our distressing world of the concentration camp and the Bomb.”  But what to do when readers are tone-deaf to “symbols” and even meaning?

Mind, Jackson’s story was written at a time when anyone’s stoning seemed unthinkable and archaic, and not part of the daily news — today?  different story.  Think of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, among others.

Undoubted courage (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

So I wonder at the popular appeal of the Dalai Lama last week, and the euphoria at his teaching, which suggests that our compassion should be motivated by the universal search for happiness, and also by the knowledge that compassion contributes to our own physical well-being — it lowers our blood pressure, releases endorphins, etc., etc., etc.  Is compassion motivated this way compassion at all — or just an extension of endless cycle of self-help routines? Is that the only common denominator left? And how will such a self-serving compassion help one when the Nazis bang on the door, looking for the Jews? Or when the NKVD asks for names during a Lubyanka interrogation?  The most immediate response — to lower one’s blood pressure, reduce one’s heartbeat — is to hand them over.

What bugs me is that the Dalai Lama — the man who faced off bloody Mao Zedong, one of the last century’s immortal genocidaires — is a man of endless courage.  He knows this stuff.  It’s a peculiar reverse case of our current malaise — he walks the walk, but why doesn’t he talk the talk?

Without a compensatory virtues of independence of mind, and, beneath that, courage — which the ancients believed is the foundation of all virtues — is there any compassion at all?

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9 Responses to “Joseph Brodsky, Shirley Jackson, and the “no-fault Holocaust””

  1. David Sucher Says:

    Do you believe that Prof Simon’s story is true?
    I don’t.

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Don’t know him. And certainly don’t know his students at Hamilton College.

    Sounds like you know the guy … What’s your take?

  3. Roseanne Sullivan Says:

    I was devoted to literature, read every great book I could find for years. Having left behind the certainties of religious belief, I believed that literature could be a guide to the moral life. Maybe it was the phallo-centric literature of the 20th century that disabused me of that notion. Something did, anyway.

    I applaud your courage to criticize (even mildly) such a cultural hero as the Dalai Lama. Good question “[H]ow will such self-serving compassion help when the Nazis bang on the door, looking for the Jews?” Because there is not much one could actually do except to be prepared to interfere with the arrest and be killed by the Nazis at such a moment, I would frame the question differently, “”[H]ow will such self-serving compassion help when one faces a moral choice that should not be decided merely on what is best for me but on what is morally right?” One example could be deciding to let a parent die when the death could be avoided, because the person’s situation is unbearable-to you. I remember one Minneapolis Star Tribune report about a woman who told doctors to withhold medical care and food and water to her mother after the mother had broken her hip, and the report by a nurse who was anguished that she was forbidden to reply to the old woman’s soft cries for something to drink. Or leaving a marriage because the person does not conform to your wishes for a partner, ignoring the commitment you made for better or for worse.

    We train our young people in moral relativism, with talk about how different people have to live their lives based on what they think is right, without reference to any outside authority, And then it is no wonder that a college student would say a nonsensical thing like “Of course I dislike the Nazis, but who is to say they are morally wrong?”” Who indeed?

    BTW, who is Great-hearted Hugo and what is he doing on this particular blog?

  4. Cynthia Haven Says:

    More on him here:

    (I added a link to the post.)

  5. Ellen Trezevant Says:

    I haven’t listened to the Dali Lama lately, so I can’t comment on what he says.

    My personal suggestion for anyone who finds themselves confused about the realm of moral action would do well to read Winston Churchill’s six volume set on the Second World War. It is first rate literature but even more so a compelling documentation of “human sleep – the wish not to see things as they are – which makes men ignore the clear warnings of corruption before its work begins.” (the quote is from Rodney Collin, in the Theory of Celestial Influence – not WC).

    I suppose the Dali Lama (or any other sane, well grounded, and loving human being) would definitely encourage seeing things as they are and letting action arise spontaneously from that perception – and not from some imposed concept, be it peace, war, compassion or even “consciousness”.

  6. Cynthia Haven Says:

    @Roseanne: Victor Hugo, bien sûr!

    @Ellen: The Cliff Notes’ version is the second volume of William Manchester’s biography of Winston Churchill in the years between the wars, titled “Alone.” Stunning.

  7. Cynthia Haven Says:

    (p.s. Apologies @Roseanne — Your comment somehow got lost in the spam filter!)

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