This was what I couldn't manage to grasp: the yawning gap, the absolute contradition between the ease with which one can kill and the huge difficulty there must be in dying. For us, it was another dirty day's work; for them, the end of everything. (82-83, my emphasis)The opposition of work and death is the single most crucial element of this novel. Merely at the level of structure, the novel cleaves cleanly into two halves: the first taken up with the question of death as work, the second with work as death.
The embarrassing facility of this chiasmus makes me pause: can it be this easy? But there is nothing easy about it.
To be more precise, in the first half of the book Aue and the SS generally are consumed with the problems—logistical, strategic, even ontological (what is a Jew?)—of the labor required to murder—how best does one mobilize a workforce that will murder efficiently? In the second half, Aue becomes wrapped up in the effort to turn the death camps into productive units, but he finds that this work has already been done for him—the only problem is that the product of these camps is death, and it is manufactured relentlessly. There is even a proper German name that Littell gives us: "Vernichtung durch Arbeit, annihilation through work" (645).
Yet in both sections it should be said that death is much more than the absence of life: death is a capacious category, a state that bleeds far into biological processes: the discourses of Agamben's "bare life" and Bauman's "social death" shadow each page (unsurprisingly, but nonetheless powerfully—few novels, I think, have made those categories more conceptually potent). Hunger and starvation, in particular, expand death's domain well into life. I have written elsewhere (sorry, it's at the end) about how shocked I am to find that no one is talking about Littell's work with the NGO Action against Hunger, which immediately preceded his years of researching for this novel. The incessant presence of hunger, starvation, and malnutrition in The Kindly Ones was, I thought, unmissable. Intense hunger is a more prevalent trope than even death, and the worst of the atrocities that the novel depicts are crimes of malnutrition and starvation.
I believe that by counting work and this enlarged sense of death as the two most salient and inclusive themes of the novel, most of the problems critics have had trying to conceive the novel as a unity dissipate, and the outrage and objections hurled against it can be understood anew. I will try to proceed by taking a number of passages from the novel which seem to play right into the commonest assessments of Littell's intentions or supposed missteps, then reading them through the dialectic of work and death (hopefully) to generate a more valuable insight about what this novel means to do, and what it has done.
Aue stresses early on that the distinction between genocide and war was "artificial":
for it should be noted that in our century at least there has never yet been a genocide without a war, that genocide does not exist outside of war, and that like war, it is a collective phenomenon: genocide in its modern form is a process inflicted on the masses, by the masses, for the masses. It is also, in the case in question, a process segmented according to the demands of industrial method. Just as, according to Marx, the worker is alienated from the product of his labor, in genocide or total war in its modern form the perpetrator is alienated from the product of his actions. This holds true even for the man who places a gun to the head of another man and pulls the trigger. For the victim was led there by other men, his death was decided on by yet others, and the shooter knows that he is only the last link in a very long chain, and that he doesn't have to ask himself any more questions than does a member of a firing squad who in civilian life executes a man duly sentenced under the law. The shooter knows that it's chance that has appointed him to shoot, his comrade to guard the cordon, and a third man to drive the truck; at most he could try to change places with the guard or the driver. (18-19)Such a passage (there are a number of others like them) is, on its face, a defense of the Nazis, but I think it must be read through as, instead, an argument about the conditions for genocide: Littell (not Aue, who is making an argument that can be read if not as a defense, then as an accommodation of a supposed inevitability of murder) is making the case that the mobilization of war is a necessary condition for the complex logistics of carrying out a genocide. The addition of the phrase "in our century" is a mark of Littell's presence: he is intervening to let us know that he is not arguing that 21st century genocides have been or will be necessarily related to periods of war—which is true only because wars have stopped looking like WWII.
This argument is different from Schmitt or Agamben's "state of exception," I feel, because for Littell, it is not as important that the State be temporarily empowered with extra-juridical authority, but that it be actively arming its citizens and moving them around, enmeshing them in a new order of labor, directed to a monumental and concerted task—the production of death. This project is alienating (distancing) like any other segmented, transindividually complex task; one can always pretend to be a stranger to its larger meaning.
Littell does not see effective totalitarianism as a necessary element of the inauguration of such a project; he on many occasions suggests that the popular conception of German efficiency and industry is not a successful way of describing the Nazis in action; the supposed orderliness, cold and routinized, that is regularly associated with the Nazi execution of the Final Solution is shown in the novel to be highly inaccurate.
In fact, Littell goes out of his way to illustrate the weakness of the supposedly hyper-efficient, hyper-centralized Nazi regime. One of Aue's former professors, Ohlendorf, argues (convincingly, for Aue) that "Our State is so far an absolute, national, and socialist Führerstaat only in theory; in practice, and it's only getting worse, it's a form of pluralist anarchy. The Führer can try to arbitrate, but he can't be everywhere, and our Gauleiters know very well how to interpret his orders, deform them, and then proclaim that they're following his will when actually they're doing whatever they want" (222). The Führerstaat is much closer to our own governments than it is to an Orwellian regime; genocide is, as Littell insists, "a collective phenomenon," not an autocratic fiat.
If the collectivity of genocide as a massive, labor-intensive project is a necessary condition, so is the individually targeted focus of the socializing forces of enjoyment and success, or more succinctly, "pride in one's work."
The novel abounds in men who deeply enjoy a variety of jobs and vocations which we noble citizens of mostly good states would applaud: Osnabrugge is a fairly nerdy engineer who specializes in bridges (Brugge = Brücke); Voss is a charming linguist who is quite devoted to the minorest of Caucasian languages; Hohenegg is, generally speaking, a good doctor who takes great pleasure in the incremental advancement of science brought about by his research. That all these men are not as peripheral to the SS's Actions as they would like to be is for each a matter of concern, but none leaves his post: each is more devoted to his work.
The SS, at least as Aue depicts it, finds the enjoyment of the job of murder much more problematic, however:
it must have been this that was disturbing the hierarchy, the idea that the men could take pleasure in these actions. Still, everyone who participated in them took some form of pleasure in them—that seemed obvious to me. Some, visibly, enjoyed the act itself, but these could be regarded as sick men, and it was right to ferret them out and give them other tasks, even punish them if they overstepped the bounds. As for the others, whether the actions repelled them or left them indifferent, they carried them out from a sense of duty and obligation, and thus drew pleasure from their devotion, from their ability to carry out such a difficult task despite their disgust and apprehension: "But I take no pleasure in killing," they often said, finding their pleasure, then, in their rigor and their righteousness. (98)Not all that many pages later, Aue is tasked with compiling a scrapbook of sorts of the Babi Yar massacre; some soldiers are amateur photographers, and he arranges to have their prints developed and pasted into a handsome leatherbound folio, which his superiors present to their superiors. Aue is congratulated for the sterling craftsmanship and flair of his work, but he is unsettled by this task and even more by having done it well. Osnabrugge consoles him: "Every man must do his work with love." (135) Many pages later, Aue has become grateful for the pleasure he can take in his work:
For awhile I thought I had drowned, submerged by the things resurfaced from the depths of my past. And then, with the stupid, incomprehensible death of my mother, this anguish too had disappeared: the feeling that dominated me now was a vast indifference--not dull, but light and precise. Only my work engaged me; I felt I had been offered a stimulating challenge that would call on all my abilities, and I wanted to succeed--not for a promotion or for any ulterior ambitions, I had none, but simply to enjoy the satisfaction of a thing well done. (570-571)***
This form of enjoyment is, of course, not the one generally associated with the Nazis' Actions. Aue is not silent on the question of sadism: there is the quote above, and many very similar to it, in which he asserts a frequent sternness about any intimation of perversion. He also, however, shows a large number of Nazis and Eastern Europeans who are perverse, who are undeniably sadists. Yet Aue has two fairly specific answer regarding the relationship of perversion to the Nazi 'character.' One is that sadism is a part of humanity, not a special condition particular to genocides or murder:
There have been hundreds of thousands of us whom you still judge as criminals: among them, as among all human beings, there were ordinary men, of course, but also extraordinary men, artists, men of culture, neurotics, homosexuals, men in love with their mothers, who knows what else, and why not? None of them was more typical of anything than any other man in any other profession. There are businessmen who enjoy fine wine and cigars, businessmen obsessed with the bottom line, and also businessmen who hide obscene tattoos under their three-piece suits and go to work with a rubber plug up their anuses: all this seems obvious to us, so why wouldn't it be the same for the SS or the Wehrmacht? (23)This certainly sounds like pleading for sympathy by an obscene invocation of a shared humanity ("O my human brothers…"), and it is such an invocation, but again there is a better reading than seeing this as some kind of authorial depravity—as a gross overextension of the novelist's prerogative to ask us to inhabit her characters. When Aue argues that "Nazis are humans too!" the point is not to bring Nazis into the human fold, nor is it to suggest that all humans are, deep down, as sadistic as we imagine the Nazis to have been, but to suggest that the imaginary division we readily grant between the private and the public life of business professionals was applied by SS men to their own and to each others' lives; they too believed that their "private" perversities had nothing to do with their "work." In other words, the fact that a man privately took sadistic pleasure in killing did not and does not exhaust all the reasons for his having murdered someone, and Littell argues that we must account for those other reasons, not contenting ourselves with a monocausal explanation.
Therefore, I think we can read the following quote, which has been used many times in reviews, to enter not a plea for the humanity of the Nazis nor for the baseness of the human species, but as a reminder that in order to disrupt the types of rationalizations that can produce mass death or mass misery, we must keep straight the categories which make us comfortable with ourselves, and those which made the perpetrators able to countenance their deeds.
There was a lot of talk, after the war, in trying to explain what had happened, about inhumanity. But I am sorry, there is no such thing as inhumanity. There is only humanity and more humanity. (589)"Inhumanity" is an empty set, Aue believes, because no one nominates themselves for membership. The evasions are so numerous: who chooses to believe they are inhuman, regardless of what they do? There are more damning and more descriptive explanations for these actions, and the victims are owed more than an insanity defense submitted on the Nazis' behalf.
The other Nazi defense, that of "Befehlnoststand, the just-obeying-orders" (18), Aue explicitly rejects, and also rejects as an explanation for the career of Adolf Eichmann, who plays a prominent role in the novel. At one point Aue takes a step back from the narrative to remark,
A lot of stupid things have been written about him: he was certainly not the enemy of mankind described at Nuremberg (since he wasn't there, it was easy to blame everything on him, especially since the judges didn't understand much about how our services functioned); nor was he an incarnation of banal evil, a soulless, faceless robot, as some sought to present him after his trial. He was a very talented bureaucrat, extremely competent at his functions, with a certain stature and a considerable sense of personal initiative, but solely within the framework of clearly circumscribed tasks: in a position of responsibility, where he would have had to make decisions, in the place of his Amtschef Müller, for example, he would have been lost; but as a middle manager, he would have been the pride of any European firm. I never perceived that he nourished a particular hatred of the Jews: he had simply built his career on them, they had become not just his specialty but, in a way, his stock in trade; later on, when they tried to take it away from him, he defended it jealously, which is understandable. But he could just as easily have done something else, and when he told his judges that he thought the extermination of the Jews was a mistake, we can believe him; many people, in the RSHA and especially in the SD, thought similarly—I've already shown this—but once the decision was made, it had to be seen through to the end, he was very aware of that; what's more, his career depended on it. (569-570)Eichmann, it should be noted, is tremendously aware of what he is doing throughout the book, and it is his knowledge of the camps' functioning that drives him to perform well—he knows if he does his job well, more Jews will die, and he might get a promotion. Aue's labelling of him as a "middle manager" type is, then, in absolutely no way exculpatory. Aue indicates that what holds true for Eichmann was true to greater or lesser degree with other SS officials: their knowledge of the nature of their work was part of their drive to do it well. They knew that killing Jews was a way to advance their careers. In fact, this is why Aue has such a difficult time negotiating with anyone in the SS hierarchy; tasked with making the camp inmates more productive workers, he can't find anyone whose interest isn't best served by starving, beating, robbing, and killing them. Yes, it was following orders, but as Aue says, "What I did, I did with my eyes open"—if their eyes were open enough to see a promotion, they were open enough to see what they were doing to get it. Or, as Aue's friend Thomas says,
"Look," he finally went on, "for a lot of people, anti-Semitism is an instrument. Since it's a subject that means a lot to the Führer, it has become one of the best ways to get close to him: if you manage to play a role in the solution to the Jewish question, your career will advance much more quickly than if you concern yourself say, with Jehovah's Witnesses or homosexuals. In that sense, you can say that anti-Semitism has become the currency of power of the National Socialist State." (458)I am uncomfortable with the "one among many" nature this attributes to the Jews, implying that the prioritization of the killing of the Jews was merely one of Hitler's caprices. Such a theory neglects the long history of anti-Semitism in Europe, and when Aue addresses this later (669-72), he does so with a sense of fatalism: "a certain aspect of European history, unfortunate according to some, inevitable according to others, has made it so that even in our days, in times of crisis, it is natural to turn against the Jews, and that if you become involved in a reshaping of society through violence, sooner or later the Jews will end up on the receiving end… and that this is not entirely by chance" (672). The history of anti-Semitism is absolutely much more complex than that, but Littell seems to have been content to let Aue remain undisturbed in this pat explanation.
However, Aue later returns to this question in the light of a (if it were possible) more incomprehensible decision:
people couldn't understand why the Germans, when they were losing the war… still persisted in massacring Jews, in mobilizing considerable resources, men and trains, especially, to exterminate women and children, and thus since people couldn't understand, they attributed it to the anti-Semitic madness of the Germans, to a delirium of murder that was very remote from the thinking of most of the participants, for in fact, for me as well as for so many other functionaries and specialists, the stakes were essential, crucial, to find labor for our factories, a few hundred thousand workers who might have let us reverse the course of things, we wanted Jews who were not dead but very much alive, able-bodied, preferably male… (780)Aue tenders an explanation which focuses on individual motivations, but it is mostly a repetition of what I have outlined above. He also pulls back and delivers what for me was the most piercing moment of the entire book: the murder of millions is shown to have been a sort of opportunistic solution to a simple logistical problem:
because of the loss of the Ukraine Germany had to face a grave deficit in food supplies, especially in wheat, and so had turned to Hungary, a major producer, according to him that was even the main reason for our pseudo-invasion, to secure this source of wheat, 360,000 tons more than in 1942, or an increase of 400 percent, but the Hungarians had to take this wheat from somewhere, after all they had to feed their own population, but precisely, these 360,000 tons corresponded to rations for about one million people, a little more than the total number of Hungarian Jews, and so the specialists in the Ministry of Food saw the evacuation of the Jews by the RSHA as a measure that would allow Hungary to free up a surplus of wheat for Germany, corresponding to our needs, and as for the fate of the evacuated Jews, who in principle would have to be fed elsewhere if they weren't killed, that didn't concern this young and all in all pleasant expert, a little obsessed with his figures though, for there were other departments in the Ministry of Food to take care of that, feeding the inmates and other foreign workers in Germany, that wasn't his business, and for him the evacuation of the Jews was the solution to his problem, even if it became someone else's problem in turn. (783)***
There is one further (lesser) element which is still quite important, and that is the condition of interminability—the war is something which no single person can define nor accurately foresee the end. The perpetual horizon is a powerfully vitiating force, particularly when that horizon holds such a disorienting blend of tedium and danger. Such conditions lead to an even greater sense of accommodation, exemplified in the novel by the character Döll, who is a euthanist:
"On one hand, it wasn't very pleasant. But on the other, it wasn't the front, and the pay was good, my wife was happy. So I didn't say anything." -- "And Sobibor?" He had already told me that's where he worked now. He shrugged his shoulders: "Sobibor? It's like everything, you get used to it." (589)I have no idea if Littell had this quote in mind at any point in writing The Kindly Ones, but in Blanchot's recit Death Sentence, we read, "I was working, and the hazards of work are excuse enough for any evasion" (64). Something like it comes with Aue's grumbling about "the dullness of bureaucratic routine, the permanent tension of underhanded intrigues: (770). To me, this sums up a great deal of the book both in substance and in intention.
One important quasi-tangent: Colonization is a frequent touchstone for Aue (e.g. 261-2, 707), who compares the brutality of colonial regimes in Africa and Asia to the German slaughters in order to assert a sort of collective, pervasive guilt which diminishes the German case to being part of a series. But again, we can read a deeper argument behind this that we can attribute to Littell: the Holocaust was like the colonial project insofar as both were presented to the home populations, to the colonized peoples, and to the direct colonial agents themselves as massive, labor-intensive, transindividually complex tasks which therefore were beyond the judgment of any single person inside the project, but which opened up immense opportunities for individual success and enjoyment.
I've tried to explain what I think is at the core of the novel, but I haven't touched on Littell's ostensibly gratuitous inclusions of Aue's sexual fantasies, which, as you may have heard, are extraordinarily vulgar. Not, I think, "first time in print" vulgar, but distinctly unpleasant. I also have said nothing about the supposed mythic substructure that undergirds the novel and gives it not only its title but allegedly its ultimate meaning.
Daniel Mendelsohn's theory is that the book enacts a dialectic between Greek and Christian morality (the old "Athens and Jerusalem" two-step—someone get a Straussian in here!). He argues that Littell is using his novel to argue for the greater applicability of the old Greek morality, a claim that is well supported textually (e.g. 589, 592).
Yet how original is this insistence on the primacy of deed over intention with regard to the Holocaust? The judgment set against Eichmann stated as much, and Arendt considered such an application in some detail (e.g. 277 in the Penguin edition of Eichmann in Jerusalem). The notion of a "crime against humanity," she argues, is premised on the insuperable factor of the severity of the deed, regardless of the individual's capacity to be judged guilty as an individual.
I think that rather than overselling the meaning of the mythical origins of this ethical system, we should read Littell's argument for the primacy of the deed and the irrelevance of intention as the mooring of a worldview that holds work and death so closely together; it is the only ethics that makes sense with such categories. I do not seriously believe that Littell re-read the Oresteia and said, "Boy, do I have an idea for an ethical system!" It seems to me much more likely that his views found purchase and resonance in Aeschylus, and that he recognized that the power of the old myth would continue to resonate in his creation. (I have a few more thoughts about this in the other post I wrote about the novel.)
But this still does not resolve the question of why there is so much of the incest fantasies and wanking and sex with trees in the novel (not to mention the likely matricide/step-patricide). The sheer length of the "Air" section makes me extend this hypothesis with some trepidation, but it seems to me that the point of Aue's sexual deviance is precisely to confront the reader not with "sacrilege" or "impiety" or "transgression" but with a variation of the personal/professional split that I described above. "But why couldn't an SS-Obersturmbannführer have an inner life, desires, passions, just like any other man?" Aue asks, meaning not that he deserves to have an inner life, but that he perceived himself as if he did.
Just think of how absolutely successful Aue is at cordoning off his personal life from his "job"—is there no meaning in this? And it is actually the threat of the collapse of this division—when he is arrested for homosexuality in college or law school—that brings him into the SS, and the insinuation that he is unable to keep his personal affairs to himself in Piyatigorsk that gets him sent to Stalingrad. The line between the private and the professional is of absolute importance to Aue, and I believe that this importance is meant to raise the question of how much of Aue's actions really can be attributable to the psychological mess inside his skull. Isn't this supposedly the whole point of the Orestes theme—Aue is not, ultimately, defined by his incestuous desires, he is defined by his participation in the massacre of his human brothers. It is his actions, not his psychological issues that make him a monster.
The great test this is, of course, the matricide. Can we, given the evidence in the novel, judge Aue guilty for the death of his mother when the deed is blank but the motives are abundant? The aburdity of his "blackout" now becomes a little clearer, I think: it is crucial to this very question that Aue be factually unaccountable for the crime: the evidence is entirely circumstantial, though very compelling. Littell is using the blackout also as a way of underlining the fact that no one "blacked out" the war—this amnesia is as much a myth as Orestes, and he is asking how consoling or adequately explanatory we still find this myth to be.
I believe that with the matricide, Littell is asking us if we are not much more comfortable confronting this type of crime—the motives, intentions, psychology of which are all completely overdetermined, the action almost undefined—than we are with the crime of the Holocaust—the actions of which are sickeningly overdetermined; the motives contradictory, varied, ultimately incapable of being exhaustively defined. The opposition of these crimes in these terms yields a powerful question: where does the witness stand in either crime? and a more vexing one: to which crime do we stand as witness more readily?
I believe Littell is challenging us to be a witness not to crimes of pure pscyhological speculation, but to the crimes that take place immediately in front of us, and never to forget that it is the action we must bear witness to above all.