Monday musing: once more on the whole grass thing

Maybe it is OK to be a Nazi if you also happened to write at least one really amazing book. Granted, Mister Grass has written a lot of crap in the last few decades. I was recently trying to read My Century when a fit of boredom so immobilized me I had to watch several episodes of The Entourage on a friend’s TiVo just to get back the use of my limbs. But The Tin Drum is a great book of the twentieth century. It is so good that you can’t debate it. It’s just good. It’s great. A person who has written a book like The Tin Drum has provided a service for humanity. They have managed to grasp and convey something deep and profound and important about the real experiences of a generation. A novel that operates on that level is performing at the very highest echelon of what a novel can do and be. The Tin Drum is one of the novels that actually did the work of putting the European mind and soul back together again after its utter collapse in the traumas of the first half of the twentieth century. John Berger put it this way in his impassioned defense of Grass in last week’s Guardian:

… [H]is life as a storyteller was devoted to grasping, narrating and explaining, with extensive fellow-feeling, the contradictions, cruelties, abysmal losses, wisdom, ignorance, cowardice and grace of people (person by person) under extreme historical stress. Very few other writers of our time have such a wide knowledge of articulate and inarticulate experience. Grass never shut his eyes. He became a writer of honour.

The Tin Drum, in that sense, changed the world, at least a little bit (and for the better). The person who wrote The Tin Drum has therefore become a special person to us.

Günter Grass is also a terrible blow hard and sometimes barely tolerable jerk who has shown a calculated and self-serving side in many of his actions, most egregiously in rather conveniently waiting to receive his Nobel Prize before mentioning anything about all that SS stuff. Christopher Hitchens, not one to mince words, has summed up the situation thusly:

Grass’ many defenders have not asked themselves the question that needs to be posed, which is: Has he at last decided to appeal to the new German readership that is, so to say, a bit fed up with hearing about how dreadful the Nazis were? If this admittedly rather cynical suggestion has any merit, then at least his recent boring writings and operatic confessions would, in combination, make perfect sense. But they would also make absolute nonsense of his previous career as a literary policeman and a patroller of the line of taboo. “Let those who want to judge, pass judgment,” Grass said last week in a typically sententious utterance. Very well, then, mein lieber Herr. The first judgment is that you kept quiet about your past until you could win the Nobel Prize for literature. The second judgment is that you are not as important to German or to literary history as you think you are. The third judgment is that you will be remembered neither as a war criminal nor as an anti-Nazi hero, but more as a bit of a bloody fool.

There is no question that Hitchens is essentially correct in this tirade. Grass can and should be condemned for all of it. And here there is something lacking in Berger’s otherwise thoughtful essay. Berger is right that Grass proved himself, in his work, to be a writer of honor. But he’s also proved himself to be a complete ass. It took Hitchens to put his finger on that one messy little detail: Grass is a piece of shit.

But he is also great, overwhelmingly, wonderfully great. That’s how good his book is. And that is the one thing Hitchens is wrong about. Grass’s importance to German literature and, indeed, to world literature can’t be underestimated. That’s what happens when you write a truly great novel. Perhaps it’s not right, but there you have it. There are lots of weasely little worms who served with the SS when they were too young or ignorant to realize what they were doing and they’ll never be forgiven for it. Nor should they be. Let them rot. But they didn’t write any great novels. When you do something great, the rules change. That is the nature of our moral world, the human moral world in which things don’t work out very clean and nice. They get complicated and they do so quickly. Berger gives a nod to that fact in his essay but he makes it too easy on himself and thus too easy on Grass as well. Hitchens is no friend to easiness but he has to fudge the issue as well in order to achieve the finality of his moral judgments. In the end, Hitchens has to belittle Grass’s writing in order to get away cleanly with his judgments. The one time Hitchens mentions The Tin Drum, he does so with a telling reverence that shows how much he is brushing the question of Grass’s achievement under the rug. He writes, “For all this, one was never able to suppress the slight feeling that the author of The Tin Drum was something of a bigmouth and a fraud, and also something of a hypocrite.” Well, fair enough. But that’s the point. He is still the author of The Tin Drum and nothing is going to change that. It has to enter into our thinking about the man and what he is to us, what he means to us.

The brilliant philosopher Bernard Williams once coined the term Moral Luck. With it, he meant to pound a little contingency into the universalist and absolute moral philosophies of the Kantians and Utilitarians. We are not judged, Williams meant to say, in the pure realm of our actions and intentions, but within the decidedly contingent realm of the outcomes of those actions and intentions. What happens matters. The way things turn out, which is effectively impossible to foretell, has a lot to do with how we judge and understand the initial behavior. Williams was famously fond of his Gauguin example. It was, by any standard, a rather reprehensible set of actions that led Gauguin to abandon his wife and child and take off to Tahiti where he could behave scandalously with very young girls. It was a shitty thing to do. But, Gauguin also managed to accomplish something else. He painted brilliant paintings there. He painted paintings that were a revelation, that blew painting open and revealed new worlds of possibility to the art of his time. That is an accomplishment that cannot be ignored in the attempt to take account of Gauguin’s awful behavior to the people who needed him most. We judge Gauguin differently in the light of his accomplishment. That isn’t even to say that we let him off the hook, but that we simply cannot see his actions as unrelated to his accomplishments when those accomplishments are so meaningful to the world we all share.

And that is where Günter Grass currently resides. He’s in Gauguin territory. And any attempt to reduce him either to being a complete fraud on the one hand or a martyr/saint on the other is going to look like bad moral philosophy. Maybe we simply have to say that he’s a piece of shit who got away with it. Worse things happen in the world than that. But I’m glad he wrote The Tin Drum and I have no question that the world in which The Tin Drum was written is better than the world in which it wasn’t.