Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Concrete and abstract


If I heard that once from my dad, by the time I was ten years old, I must have heard it a million times. Only this morning do I learn the source: Jack Pearl, a radio comic "Best known for playing Baron Munchhausen on radio in the 1930s and popularized the expression "Vas you dere, Sharlie?" to the the point where it became a household phrase."

I'm reading Geert Mak's In Europe, a splendid account of a year's journey (1999) across Europe, geographically, from Spain to Stalingrad, and across the twentieth century, chronologically, from the cousins who ruled the continent (Edward, Wilhelm, Alexander and so on) to... well, I'm not sure; I've only read to the center so far; to the adoption of the Euro, I think.

One of the things that makes me so enthusiastic about this book is Mak's inclusion of many first-person accounts. A journalist as well as a historian, Mak goes out of his way to talk to strangers. He looks up a few logical interview subjects too, of course; one of the most poignant to me so far is a grandson of Kaiser Wilhelm, who recalls the old man as a friendly old grandfather in his Dutch garden long after his dreams crashed at Versailles.

But Mak also talks to beggars and butchers, children and churchmen, to find out how things look to them; look to them in the moment, in 1999; and looked to them in the pivotal times of that amazingly pivotal century: World War I, Versailles, the roaring '20s (a phrase too American for Mak to have used), the Great Depression and the buildup to World War II, that war itself in its surprising evolution -- the more surprising to an American reader (and recent viewer of Ken Burns's documentary) for its European viewpoint.

Just now I've been reading about the Holocaust. It was no simple matter. For one thing, mass exterminations were not exclusively Nazi in origin: we know of course about Stalinist examples (though they haven't figured much so far in Mak's book), but who knew about the Lithuanian Nationalists' mass executions of 3800 Jews in 1941? (Look here.)

All this is the more fascinating for my having recently read Farewell to Marienburg, a first-person memoir by Claus Neumann, who was born in East Prussia (now Poland) in 1929 and came to adulthood in Nazi Germany. Claus lives near me; we met a few weeks ago at a local author's panel; I like him very much and admire his book -- like my own recent books, I suppose, it is an amateur's book in the best sense, a book written out of reflection and an urge to understand, not out of mastered knowledge and the urge to instruct others.

Claus maintains that he had no idea of the Holocaust until the end of the war, when liberating troops revealed the camps to their neighbors. This, even though he was perforce a member of the Hitler Youth. I believe him, partly through the persuasiveness of his writing, partly because even a slight acquaintance reveals an utterly guileless and sympathetic man. Yet Mak is equally persuasive in his account of the thousands of Germans -- and citizens in such German-occupied countries as France, the Low Countries, Norway and Denmark, and the countries within the Eastern Front -- who had to have been complicit in one way or another.

Part of the resolution of this conflicting evidence lies of course in Neumann's youth at the time. He was protected by his parents from knowing too much; certainly from understanding more than was avoidable from the fragmentary evidence that may have been whispered.

More, though, is resolved by considering the nature of ignorance, by the protective ability of the human mind to set evidence aside, to refrain from knowing or understanding, particularly if one is preoccupied by daily problems of one's own survival. This consideration is a special quality of Geert Mak's book: perhaps a scholarly journalist is the best possible writer to speculate on the subjects of awareness, observation, understanding, expression as they interrrelate in the accidents of daily life.

* * *

Six friends are just returned from a trip to Turkey (four in one group, a couple in another); and this morning Giovanna mentions she's been thinking about an intriguing aspect of Turkish grammar: there are two past tenses, one for things and events one's seen for oneself, the other for things and events one knows about only at second hand.

(I wonder if this shows up in other languages; and if perhaps it's related to the French system of past tenses, one of which is purely literary as I understand it, not used in everyday speech.)

This throws into a different perspective the current flap in Turkey over Congress's resolution condemning the mass killings of Armenians in Turkey early in the last century -- at a time, in fact, when such killings were apparently in vogue worldwide: if Congress is to resolve against all such historical pogroms it won't get much more done before Christmas.

We tend to condemn in the abstract things we don't care to deal with -- or, let's be generous, can't readily deal with -- in the concrete. Darfur rages; Congress frets about the 1920s. Oddly, we can and do suppress the evidence of our own eyes, but are persuaded by the theories evolved by strangers.


John Whiting said...

The Jesuits have a useful phrase: invincible ignorance. Another name, perhaps, for Coleridge's willing suspension of disbelief. Fanaticism is the flip side of romanticism.

rwsiii said...

Quechua verbs have evidentiary tense, to indicate personal knowledge, hearsay, or supposition.