A bit over a year ago I read Herman Koch’s novel The Dinner during Christmas break. I picked it up at the college bookstore, where it was sitting amongst a bunch of other books I had never heard of. The review blurb on the front shouted “Chilling, nasty, smart, shocking and unputdownable.” I love it that reviewers can get away with inventing words; at least it didn’t say that the book is a “tour de force” or “electrifying.” “Chilling” and “nasty” convinced me that this would be great holiday reading.
The story is built around the conversation between two couples at a pretentious, overpriced dinner with several courses at a pretentious, over-priced restaurant. The Dinner is well written and entertaining, but I recommend it only to those who don’t mind being reminded pointedly of just how petty, mean, self-centered, manipulative and just downright bad we human beings can be. I don’t want to ruin the story for those with the nerve to read it; one example will suffice. We find out through flashbacks that Paul, the narrator and one of the four main characters, is a retired high school history teacher who seems to miss the classroom. It turns out that several years before the dinner he found himself in the midst of a midlife crisis. While trying to help his students grasp the number of victims of the Holocaust, he goes off on a rant that sounds like an angry stand-up comedy routine, as he explains to his boss, the principal.
I let them do some simple arithmetic. In a group of one hundred people, how many assholes are there? How many fathers who humiliate their children? How many morons whose breath stinks like rotten meat but who refuse to do anything about it? How many hopeless cases who go on complaining all their lives about the nonexistent injustices they’ve had to suffer? Look around you. How many of your classmates would you be pleased not to see return to their desks tomorrow morning? Think about the one member of your own family, that irritating uncle with his pointless horseshit stories at birthday parties, that ugly cousin who mistreated his cat. Think about how relieved you would be—and not only you, but virtually the entire family—if that uncle or cousin would step on a land mine or be hit by a five-hundred-pounder dropped from a high altitude. If that member of the family were to be wiped off the face of the earth. And now think about all those trillions of victims of all the wars there have been in the past, and think about the thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of victims who we need to have around like we need a hole in the head. Even from a purely statistical standpoint, it’s impossible that all those victims were good people, whatever kind of people that may be. The injustice is found more in the fact that the assholes are also put on the list of innocent victims. That their names are also chiseled into the war memorials.
Well now. That wasn’t very nice. Not surprisingly, the principal invites Paul to take a non-optional leave of absence to rest up—a leave from which he never returns. But admit it—Paul does have a point. His rant reminds me of when Ivan Karamazov tells his brother Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov that he has no trouble loving humanity. It’s individual people that he can’t stand. The Dinner was indeed unputdownable, because it tapped into the misanthropic vein that lies just beneath the surface of even those of us who consider ourselves to be most loving toward and accepting of everyone
Shortly after finishing The Dinner, I read Markus Zusek’s The Book Thief. Narrated by Death and set during World War Two, there is no shortage of humans at their worst in this book either. Even those characters with glimmers of goodness in them are frequently petty, spiteful and hurtful. Yet it is these bits of goodness in midst of a very dark and seemingly hopeless world that drive the plot and regularly cause Death to be confused about the nature of the creatures he spends his time with. “I’m always finding humans at their best and worst. I see their ugliness and their beauty, and I wonder how the same thing can be both,” Death observes. “The contradictory human being. So much good, so much evil. Just add water.” I agree. This is why I frequently tell my students that by far the most interesting topic in philosophy is us. Human beings, in all of our glory, tragedy and destruction. In a final soliloquy at the end of The Book Thief, Death ruminates about the main character, Liesel, both about what has happened to her and what her future might hold.
I wanted to tell the book thief many things, about beauty and brutality. But what could I tell her about those things that she didn’t already know? I wanted to explain that I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race—that rarely do I ever simply estimate it. I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words and stories so damning and brilliant. . . . I am haunted by humans.
For my colloquium on the Nazi era, I am currently reviewing Albert Speer’s Inside the Third Reich, Speer’s memoir written during his twenty-one years of imprisonment in Spandau prison as a Nazi war criminal. Speer was Adolf Hitler’s official architect, ultimately the wartime Minister of Armaments for the Third Reich, and one of the few people who might have been considered as Hitler’s “friend.” The back cover of Speer’s memoir includes a picture of Speer and Hitler looking intently over a set of blueprints. The caption is a brief quotation from the memoir: “One seldom recognizes the devil when he is putting his hand on your shoulder.” But the actual text of Speer’s memoir belies the caption. The Hitler who Speer knew as well as anyone from the early 1930s, described in great detail in the memoir, is not a “devil.” He is intuitive, insecure, eloquent, childish, visionary, petty, surprisingly insightful at times, unbelievably ignorant at others, capable of both great eloquence and of mind-numbing banality. This same description also loosely fits Speer himself. Speer and Hitler are, in other words, just two typical examples of what haunts Death in The Book Thief—human beings.
In the syllabus for our Nazi colloquium, the beginning of our course description reads as follows: “A Polish Franciscan priest. A Lutheran pastor and theologian. A French, Jewish social activist attracted to Marxism. A French novelist and philosopher. A group of young German college students. The citizens of an isolated rural town in France. What do the above persons have in common? In unique and profound ways, Maximillian Kolbe, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Simone Weil, Albert Camus, the members of the White Rose, and the people of Le Chambon were witnesses to the power of the human spirit and the dignity of the human person in the face of unimaginable horror and atrocity.” So much good. So much evil. Just add water.