Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Whose Mouth Shall Be as a Furnace

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George Steiner's sole novel, The Portage to San Cristòbal of A. H., is rooted in a very pulp idea: Hitler survived the war, faked his suicide, and like too many of his barbaric henchmen escaped Germany, and retribution, to settle in the jungles of South America. However, now (the novel was published in 1979) he has been tracked down by a small band of Jewish Nazi hunters. The mission has been masterminded by a man named Leiber, who we never meet directly, but who monitors their progress via radio. When the team of five men find Hitler, he's a 90 year-old man in a dirty grass hut, in the heart of most horrid and inhuman jungle, guarded by men with guns and no ammunition. He is easily taken captive. From this idea, Steiner constructed one of the strangest and most unnerving novels I've ever read. Steiner says that he wrote the book in a feverish three days, and that he knew, when he was done, something of what he'd face upon it's publication.
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The novel is a short one, about 160 pages, and though it's filled with thunderous language (Steiner's description of the hunters' suicidal drudge through the "green hell" was so powerful that I found myself thinking "My God, now they have to go back?"), The Portage to San Cristòbal of A. H. can be usefully boiled down to two sequences, which form the entire reason for the book's existence. And it's hard to know from which sequence to quote first. In the first, one of Leiber's radio transmissions is presented, and for eight pages Leiber recounts the subhuman terrors of the Holocaust, as well as warns his men not to listen to Hitler's words, not to let him speak, and not to require him to ask twice, or even once, for water, food, clean bedding, to supply him with these things at once so that he can never appear to them as a person. But most of all, so that he not be allowed to speak, because Hitler's infernal genius was his gift for language:
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When He made the Word, God made possible also its contrary. Silence is not the contrary of the Word but its guardian. No, He created on the night side of language a speech for hell. Whose words mean hatred and vomit for life. Few men can learn that speech or speak it for long. It burns their mouths. It draws them into death. But there shall come a man whose mouth shall be as a furnace and whose tongue as a sword laying waste. He will know the grammar of hell and teach it to others.
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The problem with quoting from this extraordinary chapter first, even though logically I should as it comes first in the novel, is that what Steiner -- a literary critic, teacher, and philosopher by profession -- does with it, or appears to do with it, or maybe should have fully intended to do with it, without qualifications, is pre-refute what comes later, in the last chapter. That's the chapter where Hitler tells his side of things, defends himself (eloquently, even), where Hitler is given the last word. Leiber's message, it is implied, was not received by his men, and after the death, from fever, of one of them, and a general crumbling of spirit, it is decided that before all the powers of the globe swoop down upon them and take Hitler away, an honest accounting of his crimes, a genuine trial, must be held, there, in the jungle. And so it is, and, in the last chapter, Hitler overwhelms all procedure, and speaks his mind. This is the sort of thing Steiner gives Hitler to say:
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[I learned f]rom you. Everything. To set a race apart. To keep it from defilement. To hold before it a promised land. To scour that land of its inhabitants or place them in servitude. Your beliefs. Your arrogance...My "Superman"? Second-hand stuff. Rosenberg's philosophic garbage...My racism was a parody of yours, a hungry imitation. What is a thousand-year Reich compared with the eternity of Zion? Perhaps I was the false Messiah sent before. Judge me and you must judge yourselves. Übermenschen, chosen ones!
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And:
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...[T]he Jew mocks those who have pictures of their god. His God is purer than any other. The very thought of him exceeds the powers of the human mind. We are as blown dust to His immensity. But because we are His creatures, we must be better than ourselves, love our neighbor, be continent, give of what we have to the beggar...We must bottle up our rages and desires, chastise the flesh and walk bent in the rain. You call me a tyrant, and enslaver. What tyranny, what enslavement has...branded the skin and soul of man more deeply that the sick fantasies of the Jew? You are not God-killers, but God-makers...The Jew invented conscience and left man a guilty serf.
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Furthermore, Steiner's Hitler says, the Jews owe me big time, because without the Holocaust, there would be no state of Israel. And also that while I, Hitler, may have slaughtered six million Jews, as well as Catholics, gypsies, homosexuals, and the handicapped, and caused, through the war against me, several million more to die, so have lots of other people throughout history, and their dead number far greater than mine. This last point is easily refuted -- "So what?" I'm tempted to ask -- but Steiner seems to take it pretty seriously. He belabors it in his afterword to my University of Chicago Press edition, and while Steiner doesn't use the point to excuse Hitler, it strikes me as particularly inessential. If you were to scale down the body count, and say "Yeah, I killed that person, but that guy over their killed two people", it becomes somehow even easier to wonder why that should in any way mitigate how you should be morally viewed.
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There's more, to do with, for example, Hitler's view that Moses, Marx, and Jesus are far greater criminals than he, in Marx's case because he inflicted a morality on mankind that Communism itself has proven especially ill-suited for. This is a very makeable point, and has been made countless times, but generally this is done in a way that is completely divorced from the Holocaust. The blood on Stalin's hands is, in a sense, a separate issue. But it is a makeable point, and Steiner has Hitler make it. Personally, I find the points made by Steiner's Hitler easier to discount than many other reasonable people might, which is not to take any kind of moral high ground, but rather to note that politics do enter into all this, and reasonable people disagree on politics sometimes (perhaps you've noticed this). Reasonable people also sometimes compare each other to Hitler. In that sense, maybe Steiner was on to something here, but I'm not sure he was on to what he thought he was on to.
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It's probably high time I mentioned that Steiner is, himself, a Jew. One who is very critical of Israel's policies, but one who also, according to Ron Rosenbaum, who spoke to Steiner for his book Explaining Hitler, an "anti-anti-Zionist". Even so, his criticism of Israel, which I've gathered was a semi-regular feature of his writing prior to The Portage... (I confess I've read nothing else of Steiner's) found its way, in some form, into Hitler's mouth, and this did not go unnoticed by people who were deeply critical of the novel. And there were many of those people. As if Steiner hadn't already started a big enough blaze, he allowed the novel to be staged as a play, and that, according to Rosenbaum, is when things really got hot:
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Toward the close of our conversation in Steiner's Cambridge University study, I read him a quotation from an account in the London Observer of the play and the fierce controversy that surround the production -- the pickets outside, the applause within. The Observer critic said the audience appeared to be applauding Hitler's speech in the play, the final epic soliloquy of self-justification Steiner had crafted for his Hitler character; the words that close the play.
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"Oh no!" said Steiner, horrified. "Oh no, no, no, no, no," he insisted five times. The applause was not for what Hitler said, he told me, but for the play as a whole, which ends a moment after Hitler's speech. In other words, the were applauding him -- or the actors -- not Hitler.
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Rosenbaum seems a bit skeptical of this idea, but I must say I'm not. In whatever state of mind one walks away from The Portage... with, it's unlikely to be "I don't know, I feel kinda weird saying this, but that Hitler guy made some damn good points." Granted, I can't see applauding at the end of such a play, either, no matter how good I thought it was -- the whole thing would be just too goddamn unnerving. And Steiner, in his attempts to defend himself in Rosenbaum's book, doesn't do a thing to make it any less unnerving. He doesn't praise Hitler, he doesn't discount in any way the nightmare of the Holocaust, and it's more than clear that he views Hitler as a Satanic figure (he frequently compares what he was doing in The Portage... to Milton's Paradise Lost), but he does say that the questions he asks in Hitler's speech are questions he would like answers to. Specifically, he would like Jews to answer them. He also criticizes the Jewish intellectuals with whom he's debated his novel for never answering the questions when he's bluntly asked them to. Not being privy to those conversations, I can only imagine that perhaps having this ghastly filter of Adolf Hitler to deal with in relation to those questions perhaps made those men to whom Steiner was speaking a bit uncomfortable. But more than that, more than a little bit pissed off. Why should they give Hitler the time of day, even by proxy? Ask your questions, but do not ask me consider Hitler's point of view.
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Towards the end of the chapter on Steiner and his novel in Explaining Hitler, Rosenbaum says that eventually in his conversation with the man, Steiner speculated on something that deeply disturbed him:
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It was a line of speculation so shocking, so transgressive, I later found myself wishing I hadn't heard it at all. He introduced it by referring to a startling remark in the final, posthumously published interview with Sidney Hook, the celebrated anticommunist philosopher -- a remark Hook realized was so inflammatory he insisted it could not be published during his lifetime.
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What Hook, also a Jew, wondered was that if the Jews had assimilated, things might have been a great deal better for everybody. Steiner builds on it this way:
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"My question goes even further. I have said Auschwitz does two things: It does everything to the Jew, and it does everything to those who do it to the Jews...The horror of the thing is we have lowered the threshold of mankind...We are that which has shown mankind to be ultimately bestial. We refused Jesus, who dies hideously on the cross. And then mankind turns on us in a vulgar kind of counter-Golgotha which is Auschwitz...And when somebody tortures a child, he does it to the child, he doest it to himself, too...Auschwitz breaks the reinsurance on human hope in a sense...And without us, there would have been no Auschwitz. In a sense, an obscene statement and yet an accurate statement."
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I don't know about you, but what's at the bottom of that line of thinking makes it awfully hard to accept Steiner's claim that Hitler's self-defense at the end of The Portage to San Cristòbal of A. H. was simply what he believed Hitler would logically say in those circumstances. In fact, most of what Steiner says in his own defense makes the idea hard to accept. This, in fact, is the first justification Steiner makes in Rosenbaum's book, and then there's his horror at the idea that at the end of the stage version, audiences were applauding Hitler. And then Rosenbaum keeps asking questions, and Steiner, unfortunately, infuriatingly, keeps answering them.
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In the end, I don't really know what to make of The Portage to San Cristòbal of A. H., and feel that for all the words here, I've said very little myself. It's a book, separated from the rest, cold and intimidating and a little frightening. But it's just a book, to be read. Or not.

11 comments:

Tony Dayoub said...

You deserve praise for managing to evoke some of the novel's atmosphere while avoiding the pitfall of misperceived anti-Semitism. This is a thought-provoking piece because you manage to be delicate without seeming to walk on eggshells.

璇陳陳陳竹 said...
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Ivan said...

Intriguing essay, one that makes me want to reread "The Portage to...Etc."
Thanks!

bill r. said...

Tony, can I take it you've read the book? If so, what's your take?

Ivan - Thanks. If you do read it again, I'd love to hear what you think of it now.

Tony Dayoub said...

No, I haven't read it. I just meant that your post gets the novel's themes and milieu across pretty loud and clear. Sounds intriguing.

bill r. said...

Ah. Well, it's quite a book, that I ultimately didn't...er...approve of? I guess? Honestly, when I finished, it was late at night, and I had trouble sleeping afterwards.

Ivan said...

I still have to reread the novel (no chance to since this morning), but when I did (about 25 years ago), I was deep in a "pulp fiction" phase, devouring Jim Thompson, Charles Willeford, Donald Westlake, etc., and in my mind I had made Portage into a sort of super-pulp: a man's man adventure (crossing a dangerous jungle to find Hitler is a pretty pulpy plot) but with deeper, nastier thoughts, a la some of Thompson's work, but even more outre'--I mean, holy shit, reading Hitler's declaration that Israel wouldn't exist without him kind of freaked young me out.
That said, I still have to reread this work, at least to have an adult's opinion.

Arbogast said...

Thank you for bringing this novel to my attention, Bill. You're good!

bill r. said...

Ivan - Yeah, it's sort of like that: a pulp dark philosophical novel. A high school English teacher recommended this to me a long time ago (well, in high school), though for the life of me I can't remember the context. I wish I could contact him and ask what the fuck he was thinking.

Arbogast - Apparently, you heard my clarion call for more comments! How embarrassing!

Or not. I can never tell with you.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Hunh---I wonder if this is kind of a Gentile thing. Growing up Jewish, the idea that we wouldn't have had Israel without Hitler was just kinda there, one of those grim historical jokes that define Jewish humor. Certain humorless types would get antsy when it was mentioned, but the idea that Hitler's dream made a reality of Herzl's dream was always a given. Right now, actually, the logic of the book makes me think of Ross Douhat's recent column about the so-called "Ground Zero mosque", where he says that immigrants should be grateful to nativists for helping them assimilate.

bill r. said...

Fuzzy, you should probably read the book. I understand the logic of the Israel thing, but don't you think it's a little different when you have Hitler saying "You owe me?" Besides that, there's quite a bit more to the book than that one point.

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