05 March 2011


Hans Keilson fled to the Netherlands from Nazi Germany, and once out of hiding, became a child psychoanalyst.  He also wrote novels, and achieved new fame last year, at the age of 100, when the first English translation of his novel Comedy in a Minor Key was acclaimed as a classic.  His earlier novel Death of an Adversary was also reissued, fifty years after its first appearance, and presents a powerful portrait of what we might call a 'pathology of solipsism:' one man's insistence on treating the menace of 1930's Germany as if it were imaginary and could be rendered harmless inside his own mind.  Jewish and ordinary, he can't bring himself to see that Hitler and his influence are genuinely inconceivable in any language he understands, and that he needs to act, not to explain away.  In that, of course, he is not so different from many other Germans of his time or, I suppose, from the rest of us.

The program to redefine "German" as the opposite of "Jewish" ('I know now who I am not') might have taken its epigraph from Cavafy's 'Waiting for the Barbarians:' "And now what shall become of us without any barbarians?/ Those people were a kind of solution."  Because the words Nazi, Hitler, Germany, Jew, do not appear in this book, we readers are reminded of them everywhere.  The dearth of capitalized nouns heightens the starkness of the narrative, purging it of over-familiar postwar associations.  It also demonstrates the narrator's defensive abstractness: his rendition of this historical nightmare has been purposely leached of its particularity, "sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought," like Hamlet's Elsinore.

The book begins as the (also unnamed) narrator puzzles over why his parents are worried about the rise of the politician B.--a capital letter!--whom he later comes to call 'the Adversary:'

I remember one particular picture.  I was disappointed... it was the first disappointment he caused me.  The colorless, ordinary photo of a middle-aged man... I had expected something more, I had a vague feeling that an enemy must be a special, different species of human being... But a man like any other... was he able to make such tremendous things happen that even Father had to be afraid?  Who gave him the power?

Mysteriously, B. inspires strangers to hate the narrator even before they have met him:

I became more intimately acquainted with him through the insults and injuries of those who called themselves his friends, behind whom he stood, invisible, unknown... I found no consolation for the painful knowledge that I had been chosen to be the enemy.  However strongly I felt... [their] hatred... how could I have entertained the thought that I, too, had a right to hate and detest them?... This discovery broke in upon me forcibly... there was something I had to atone for.  But what?
     [B.'s] lifeless picture... did not yield up its secret... Unblinkingly I stared into this mirror, until I believed that I could recognize there my own image.

As B.'s hatred spreads, the narrator's anxiety to understand what B. is, and what that makes him, takes on greater urgency.  In the holodeck of his imagination, he and B. are personally connected, each reflecting the other in a distorting mirror.  B. is interpreted in turn as Adversary, divine scourge, double, counter-image, part of himself.  Although reminded over and over of B.'s Otherness, and of B.'s insistence that he too is wickedly Other, he blinds himself to the omens that violence is coming, not just in imagination but in body.  Explaining that B. needs to define him as an enemy to make the country strong, an 'Aryan' friend tells him a parable.  The Tsar has given the Kaiser a herd of elk who, in spite of the best food and surroundings, begin to die off.  A Russian expert is consulted:

     "The [elk] lack one thing," the forester went on, "and that is why they are dying."
     "Well?" said the Kaiser...
     "Yes," said the old man, "wolves, they miss the wolves."  And then he went back home, to his elks and his wolves.

Homo homini lupus: "Man is a wolf to Man."  Later, the narrator explains his position to his colleague Wolf:

     "I don't know whether [B.] means it all as seriously as we think.  He pursues certain aims and needs an enemy, as a kind of peg on which to hang his propaganda.  At bottom he means himself."
     "A terrible truth," said Wolf... "So terrible that I take leave to doubt whether you realize all its implications."

"Real-ize?"  He doesn't: he can't: he won't.  As reality draws closer--the desertion of friends, a political rally, the desecration of a graveyard--he is forced into more and more elaborately twisted formulations of how he and B. are necessary to each other.  He even begins to think of B. as a 'friend.'  Finally, in an extraordinary climax, the Real scatters his phantasmagoria like smoke, and he awakens into history:

He finds himself in a crowd waiting for B. to drive by:  Why did I not leave?  Suddenly, I knew the reason.  I was standing here in order to convince myself that he really existed.  The motorcade passes, and B. turns out to look like--a man.  I felt the desire that his eyes might... look firmly into mine.  Perhaps that would enable me to penetrate behind the appearance, which was escaping me at the very moment that I saw it. 

Suddenly, even though I had seen them all the time, I noticed the heavily armed soldiers at the back of his car... My illusions vanished.  I understood that I was deceiving myself and that I was helping him to deceive both himself and me.  If I regarded him as my friend, there was no need for me to see the soldiers... But they were always there.  They were part of him.  And if I regarded him as my friend and induced him not to see them, then I too did not need to see what he was carrying about with him.  It was a twofold deception.

I have paid for it... for my childish stupidity.  I confronted him like a child, full of dread, of fear that someone might guess my thoughts... I murdered him, in my thoughts I shot him down.  No one knew it... I shot him.  It was a split-second affair.  But he collapsed.  I saw it clearly, he collapsed.  He fell back into the arms of the soldiers and I could not believe it, and when I looked more closely he was standing upright with shining eyes, gazing at something that was floating between heaven and earth... Only one thought dominated me while I was standing there in the full light of day and tried to grasp the fact that it was he who was passing by--the thought: what an opportunity for a man of action.  What an opportunity! 

"What an opportunity for a man of action."  What an epitaph.  The narrator is not a man of action: even his violence, when it finally comes, is entirely fantastic.  The unimaginable truth about Hitler is just this: he is not a man like any other, but precisely a man of action; given the opportunity, as history has since shown us, he will translate his demonic abstractions into action.  What raises this story into near-tragedy is that the narrator, like the other hapless millions who suffer history rather than making it, can't recognize until too late that the Hitlers, the Lenins, the Robespierres, the Pol Pots, are men of action.  Can we?

1 comment:

  1. They are, but they are not the only ones. Anyone who sits on a jury or participates in a town meeting is also, politically speaking, a (wo)man of action.