Gunter Grass II (1927- )
Bill Long 8/18/06
Three Other Considerations...
If I am sympathetic to Grass because of the first reason (the "you had to be there" reason), I also would advance the following.
2. One's life shouldn't be judged by the worst decision made when one is 17 years-old. Remember that when WWII ended in Germany, Gunter Grass was 17 years old. He was younger when he was drafted into the army, and he was 17 when he entered into the service of the SS. What is it like to be confronted with life and death decisions when you are 17? What is it like for your country to be potentially going up in flames when you are 17? What is the pull of ideology on a smart 17 year-old?
Let me speak autobiographicallly and culturally for a moment. First, culturally. In the last few years in American life, American law has gone through quite a change precisely on the question of how culpable a person under 18 is for crimes he commits. Let me be clear. A person of age 16 or 17 and, in some states, 15 and 14 can be tried "as an adult," especially for heinous crimes. But, the legal change we have seen in the past few years is that youth who commit capital crimes before their 18th birthday may not be executed for these crimes. They can end up serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole, but they cannot be executed. Why? Because there is a growing sense that it simply is unfair to think that a person acting before his 18th birthday is acting with full control of his mental faculties. Or, to put it differently, the brain of a 17 year-old hasn't developed fully enough to be able to "think through" the consequences of his actions. That is what psychologists are telling us, and it is starting to convince judges.
From an autobiographical perspective, I recall that when I was 17 years-old, I, who think of myself as intellectually inclined, was a total sucker for ideologies. As a matter of fact, my love affair with ideologies continued well into my 20s. I loved the simple appeal of Evangelical Christianity. Later I completely fell for the justice claims of African-Americans and feminists who argued against the racism or patriarchy of the society. I just wanted to believe something of what I considered to be historical importance; I didn't have the life experience to evaluate what you might call the "nuances" of bold claims. I hadn't yet seen the vulnerable (and sometimes even cruel) underbelly of all three of these movements). But I wanted to believe something of "ultimate" value.
Thus, I understand how Gunter Grass could have become a member of the SS, and could have "fallen for" the Nazi ideology.
3. Those who deal eloquently with the past are no less hung up by the past as those who are professedly more ignorant of the past. Someone once remarked to me, after I told them that I had written two autobiographies and talked clearly about nuance in life and sorting out one's past, that I must be one of the most "self-aware" persons she had ever met. I quickly corrected her. Just because I have immersed myself in my personal past doens't mean at all that I have "overcome" it; it often means that the contradictions are so big, or the tensions so evident that the past simply has a claim on my ongoing life and is never fully "sorted out." The fact that Gunter Grass wrote his "Danziger Trilogy" iabout 40 or so years ago, in which he eloquently probed the moral confusion and pain in the WWII years, doesn't mean at all that those issues were "resolved" in his own life. And, indeed, we see that they were not.
4. I don't know if there is such a thing as "moral authority" in our world anymore. That is, I believe in expertise. I believe that people can develop a competence in a field and so be more skillful interpreters of knowledge than others. They can place things in historical perspective, show how things evolved, and even use this knowledge as a basis for how we ought to go forward from here. But I am not sure if I believe that anyone has "moral" authority anymore. By "moral authority" I mean someone who can tell me what is or ought to be the right and just course to pursue. Why? Because all of use are embedded in our own moral ambiguities. All of us are moral heroes one day and then common people slogging through the ambiguities on the next day. Our heroics last a few minutes and our normalcy lasts the rest of our life. And, often those things for which "moral authority" is granted to people are things that a person accomplished not because they thought they were doing the right thing but simply because no other viable opportunity presented itself to them at that moment.
For example, the US President who consistently emerges as the "greatest" President in survey after survey of US Presidents is Abraham Lincoln. He is admired for several reasons, but one of them is that he stuck firmly to his conviction of the importance of our Union in the midst of efforts to divide us. Lincoln assumes a towering importance in our national mythology because he clung to the "right." Well, if you look at Lincoln's life from the perspective of the time in which he lived, from the perspective of his own recollection of events, we see a different story. He is pummeled by political realities and writes about how he feels he is drawn along by forces unseen rather than that he has any real ability to make intelligent choices. His felt experience is that he was just hanging on to life, and we find in him a great moral authority.
Thus, it doesn't particularly bother me that Gunter Grass has been brought down a notch in people's moral hierarchy. Maybe because I am an American I can say that he never occupied so lofty a station for me as he did for many of my German colleagues. But I also think that I realize that "moral authority" is really not a concept that "works" very well for me. Gunter Grass is a brilliant writer, and he wrote on topics of immense importance for German literature and for the German people. But, in the end, he is a human, mixed with all the confusions, uncertainties and hypocrisies which we all share. Did we really think it would be different?
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long