The Iron Rule

Jacqueline Rose

Towards the end of Bernhard Schlink’s best-known novel, The Reader, the narrator is pondering his future after taking his state exam in law. He has just seen his former lover, Hanna Schmitz, convicted of war crimes: she had been a concentration camp guard, something he hadn’t known when she seduced him as a 15-year-old boy. None of the roles he saw played out in court appeals to him: ‘Prosecution seemed to me as grotesque a simplification as defence, and judging was the most grotesque oversimplification of all.’ He has lost his belief in post-Enlightenment law as enacting a gradual but steady progress towards ‘greater beauty and truth, rationality and humanity, despite terrible setbacks and retreats’. Now the law seems to him more like Odysseus’ journey – a process that endlessly circles back to its original starting point only to set off again. In this reading, the Odyssey is a story of motion, at once successful and futile, driven and without aim: ‘What else is the history of law?’

On its publication in English in 1997, The Reader was heaped with praise, but also severely criticised for its apparent prevarication about judgment. We are drawn into sympathy with Hanna as it gradually emerges that she was illiterate. Women in the camps were given a temporary reprieve from the gas chamber on condition that they read to her. Was her inability to read being offered as a partial excuse for her crimes? Was Schlink playing on the emotions of his readers in order to blur distinctions where, for the sake of history and justice, there should be none? (The reader of the title could be any one of her blighted reading companions, Hanna herself who finally learns to read in prison, or of course each of us.) In fact, the narrator dispenses judgment liberally throughout the novel. Hanna is guilty. When she insists in her final confrontation with him that only the dead can call her to account because only they understand her he finds it ‘shabby and too easy, the way she had wriggled out of her guilt’.

Schlink, who is himself a lawyer, indeed a judge, was born in Germany in 1944. People of his generation, he insists, have been ruthless in the condemnation of their parents. And yet, given the legacy, how can they fail to be wary of the law – the abominations of the camps were conducted in the framework of the law – and of the reliability of human judgment? ‘How could one feel guilt and shame,’ asks the narrator of The Reader as he considers the behaviour of his own group, ‘and at the same time parade one’s self-righteousness?’

Schlink is something of an adept at taking on the burden of guilt. Before writing The Reader, he wrote detective novels – two were translated into English following his international acclaim – in which the main character and narrator is the private detective Gerhard Self. Before becoming a detective in 1945, Self was a Nazi public prosecutor who had sent Polish and Russian workers who failed to meet their work quota to concentration camps and had led the investigation into two German workers at a chemical firm (falsely) charged with sabotage, both of whom were convicted, one of them hanged. He becomes a detective when, at the end of the war, ‘they turned their back on me for having been a Nazi public prosecutor’; later, when they want the old Nazis back, he turns away from them – whether this is a principled or unprincipled decision is unclear (Self’s Deception, 1992). In Self’s Punishment (1987) Self discovers that the person whose death he is now investigating on behalf of the chemical firm was about to blow the whistle on the firm’s use of the forced labour of Jewish scientists during the war. Without being aware of it, he has been investigating his own past. In this case his judgment – or more precisely Self-judgment – is unequivocal: ‘By any standard, even the National Socialist one, the judgment was a miscarriage of justice and my investigation was wrong.’ As one reviewer of Homecoming has suggested, detective fiction might seem the natural form for the children of postwar Germany bent on uncovering a history that their parents have mostly refused to talk about. To this apparently unimpeachable objective, Schlink in these earlier novels adds a twist. Schlink, remember, is a child of the generation under accusation. He has created a detective who, when he delves into the past, finds himself.

Schlink has said that he became a lawyer, rather than a historian or philosopher, because law requires cases to be decided and problems solved. ‘For me,’ Self says in Self’s Punishment, ‘cases are only over when I know everything.’ ‘I would get to the bottom of things,’ the narrator insists in Homecoming, ‘I would get to the bottom of everything.’ Nothing in his fiction, however, quite supports this view of the law, which has an air of bravura about it. At the start of Homecoming, the narrator as a child likes to argue about mistaken verdicts with his grandfather, for whom the topic is a passion. The moral implications of these tales were ‘momentous’: ‘For though mistaken verdicts are unjust by definition, the more famous of them often have a historical significance that goes far beyond injustice and can even transform injustice into justice.’ Later he turns to publishing because he considers it, unlike law, to be ‘puzzle-free’. He has failed to create a computer program that can predict legal outcomes on the basis of past patterns; he has also abandoned a thesis on justice in which he tried to argue that justice should be enacted regardless of any extra-judicial human or social concerns, but found himself unable to weigh up the damage and benefits of his own case. He tired ‘of the endless words’. Law, it would seem, is endless. It cannot be computed, predicted, either in its origins or effects. If Schlink sees law as decisive, unlike philosophy and history – unlike writing, we might add – he nonetheless seems to be using his novels to explore the radical uncertainties of his legal profession. Put law in the context of a novel, and it reveals something about its nature, since it has no choice but to submit to the movement and equivocations of words.

Schlink’s writing is oddly circular and self-referring, as if there is a problem that he can’t get away from, or that won’t go away. Homecoming can be read as an extended footnote to The Reader, taking off from the moment when the narrator suggests that the ending of the Odyssey is no ending at all. As Edith Hall writes in The Return of Ulysses, Homer’s story has proved particularly attractive material for a postwar Europe trying to come to terms with the violence of its own history.[1] Hans Erich Nossack is just one German writer who made the Odyssey his base for writing about the horrors of the war. In his novel The End, written in 1943, he uses Odysseus’ admonitions to the old nurse rejoicing over the death of the suitors to describe his feelings when women cheered at the downing of Allied aircraft over Hamburg (he had always opposed National Socialism). If the end of the Odyssey lends itself with difficulty to the idea of a good homecoming, it is not least because the finale is, as Hall puts it, a bloodbath. Eurycleia finds Odysseus among the corpses of the suitors ‘spattered with blood and gore, like a lion when he comes from feeding on some farmer’s bullock, with the blood dripping from his breast and jaws on either side, a fearsome spectacle’. ‘It would have gladdened your heart to see him, spattered with blood and gore like a lion,’ she tells the somewhat sceptical Penelope in an attempt to win her over. In this context, to evoke the ending in terms of its openness, as Schlink does at the end of The Reader – Odysseus comes home only to depart once more – seems if not evasive, certainly bland. In The Reader, the Odyssey isn’t just shorn of its violence but is also redemptive, the first tale the narrator reads to Hanna and the first taped book he sends her in prison from which she learns to read.

The ending of the Odyssey provides Homecoming’s starting point, its narrative core. The novel opens with a young boy, Peter Debauer, the narrator, shunted – as Schlink was – between his home in Germany and his Swiss grandparents, alighting on an unfinished novel that tells the story of a soldier who returns from the war, only to find his wife living with another man. His grandparents publish novels – ‘Novels for Your Reading Pleasure and Entertainment’ – which they forbid him to read. He reads this one on the back of sheafs of paper he is using for his schoolwork. Once again, reading has the thrill of transgression (it is where the action is). He shouldn’t be reading the novels at all, let alone a story of sexual treachery. The narrator’s most passionate desire is to know how the story ends: did the husband challenge the lover and/or kill him, was the lover the true villain for having told the wife that her husband was dead, did the wife fall into her first husband’s arms, did the husband quietly disappear not wanting to blight his wife’s happiness, did the two men – this one stretches credulity – become fast friends? The narrator concedes – as if on behalf of Schlink – that he is simply milking a familiar genre, a whole industry of homecoming novels that surfaced at the end of the war. But by the time the novel has returned to this enigma several times, I was starting to feel uncomfortable, as if the aftermath of the war were being made to depend on how we decipher the sexual transgression of a woman (most of Schlink’s narrators, with the exception of the narrator of The Reader, seem to be more or less happy to admit their chauvinism if not misogyny).

But there is more, or rather worse, to come. The narrator will never find out how the story ends, but he does find its author: his own father, whom he believed to have been shot early in the war. Instead he turns out to have been a member of the SS, a devoted Nazi ideologue called Volker Vonlanden, who faked his own death and escaped to the US, where he is now John de Baur, a successful academic who teaches deconstruction and its relation to the law and who delights in experimenting on the mental and physical endurance of his students under the cover of scholarly retreats: ‘He had studied under Leo Strauss and Paul de Man and was the founder of the deconstructionist school of legal theory.’ It isn’t clear which is his greatest crime: having been a member of the SS, faking his identity, abandoning his son, or following the principles of deconstruction.

John de Baur is discovered when his book The Odyssey of Law lands on his son’s desk at the publishing firm where he works. Still a model for the law’s uncertainty, the Odyssey is now given an ugly new twist as it is put to the service of a generalised collapse of ethics and an apology for evil – Schlink has pushed his earlier account of the law past its own breaking point. In his Nazi tracts, Vonlanden had advocated an ‘iron rule’: ‘Whatever you are willing to take upon yourself you have the right to inflict upon others … If I am prepared to be killed, I have the right to kill.’ Schlink runs a direct line from these writings to the theories de Baur lays out in his latest book: evil is as essential as good to the progress of humankind, the victims of murder do not suffer their own death, genocide can be carried out with a clear conscience because it leaves no one alive to grieve. ‘This is evil,’ the narrator’s girlfriend exclaims when she lights on the book, presumably in case the reader hadn’t noticed. Schlink spins this out of a version of deconstruction that promotes just about every misguided cliché:

There was also a chapter dealing with the role of truth and lies. Truths are often lies and lies truths; erudition means nothing more than shattering one ideological view of the world to make way for another. We make our own truths and lies and are responsible for deciding what is true and what is false. We are likewise responsible for deciding what is good and what is evil and whether evil should be given free rein or forced to serve the good … The decision to use evil for the sake of good requires that the decision-maker be willing to bear the brunt of evil.

Neither Paul de Man, nor any of the proponents of what is here called deconstruction, has ever to my knowledge suggested that evil should be given free rein or forced to serve the good. De Man was one of the foremost critics of the Yale School, whose strongest philosophical allegiance was to Jacques Derrida. In 1987, it came to light that in his twenties, de Man, a Belgian, had written for Le Soir, then a collaborationist newspaper. Schlink’s narrator seems not just to be aligning himself with those of de Man’s accusers who suggest there might be a link between de Man’s collaboration and his later theories, but also to be suggesting that deconstruction and Nazism are the same thing. ‘There was much I could not grasp,’ the narrator comments somewhat disingenuously, ‘but what I grasped immediately was that this was the iron rule all over again.’ (He takes books out of the university library in order to understand what deconstruction is all about.) Crucially, none of this emerges until the last quarter of the book. In The Reader, the investigation of Hanna’s past proceeded slowly but surely over pages and time, which meant that, even if she had finally to be judged, you could not help but enter into her predicament. In Homecoming, the revelation of de Baur’s identity is more a deus ex machina, something pulled out of a hat. Unusually for Schlink, the novel has a happy ending: the narrator is reconciled with his mother and now feels he could become a father himself (expose the sham of deconstruction and everything will turn out for the best).

In fact, recent critical legal scholarship, in explicit allegiance to deconstruction, sees its task as placing ‘the institution of law on trial in the court of ethics’, in order to expose the gulf between justice and law.[2] It traces law’s failure – which includes the collapse of its moral authority under Nazism – to the persistent attempts of the juridical profession throughout history to push morality aside. This conception of law shares with Homecoming a rejection of the utilitarian concept of justice that was at the core of the narrator’s abandoned thesis: ‘I intended to demonstrate that justice is of use only insofar as its claims are formulated and put into practice without concern for social utility. Fiat iustitia, pereat mundus.’ His father’s beliefs can then be seen as the hideous fulfilment of the path not taken by the son: law shorn of culpability for the evil it might create. That de Baur is also winning and brilliant only compounds the offence.

A guest editorial by Schlink in Der Spiegel in September 2007 may give a clue as to what is at stake in Homecoming. The German defence minister Franz Josef Jung had stated that shooting down hijacked planes might be allowed under constitutional law: ‘in situations of general danger or when Germany’s fundamental liberal and democratic order is at risk’ – a statement so wrong, Schlink writes, ‘that it is painful’. In fact, the Constitutional Court explicitly prohibits shooting down planes when a catastrophe is almost certain to occur. Jung was stretching the law to fulfil a specific post-9/11 political agenda with which we are all too familiar: increased security at the cost of freedom, in this case a thinly disguised apology for the violence of the state. Criticising Jung, Schlink places himself on the side of liberalism and the protection of human ‘dignity’ (his word) against the excessive encroachments of state power. His analysis of the grounds of Jung’s statement is, however, worth noting: ‘The defence minister believes what he says. He believes things are the way he says because he says that is the way they are.’ This is not far from John de Baur’s The Odyssey of Law: ‘We make our own truths and lies and are responsible for deciding what is true and what is false.’ Schlink would seem to be suggesting that deconstruction, or something like it, is responsible for the collapse of civic freedom in the West.

In a famous essay, de Man examines Rousseau’s desire in the Confessions to shed, by speaking or writing, the burden of past guilt. The essay tracks the fragile boundary between confession and excuses – it is called ‘Excuses (Confessions)’ – and shows how Rousseau struggles in exposing the truth of a shameful incident in his past, as the process of confession constantly threatens to bury the offence once more under a fabric of words. As with apology, there is always a risk with confession that, by being so invested in its performance, it will pull the ethical rug, so to speak, out from under its own feet. For many readers of de Man, this essay is at once his attempt to deal with his wartime years as a journalist on Le Soir, and an explanation – some will say excuse – for his decision not to speak out: ‘I have found,’ de Man cites Rousseau, ‘there to be actual instances in which truth can be withheld without injustice and disguised without lying.’

For Paul de Man’s detractors – and Schlink is now one of them – his offence was not just the writing, but the concealment of his past, a concealment that was then ferried effortlessly into his theory, so the argument goes, where it took refuge in de Man’s insistence that the life of words cannot be reduced to a reality to which it only ever partly and imperfectly refers. That language is at once non-referential with regard to reality and that it also constantly fails in its movement towards that same reality may seem, at first glance, to be self-cancelling propositions: how can language fail at something it doesn’t in any case do? But it is central to any understanding of deconstruction that language is caught in this dilemma, which then becomes the dilemma of all of us whenever we use words. Fiction is the place where this dilemma is at once suspended but also given its fullest range and scope. ‘Literature,’ de Man wrote in his 1982 essay ‘The Resistance to Theory’, is the place ‘where this negative knowledge about the reliability of linguistic utterance is made available.’ This gives to fiction a special truth (which is not the same as saying that all truth is fiction). Literature is fiction ‘not because it somehow refuses to acknowledge “reality”, but because it is not a priori certain that language functions according to principles which are those, or which are like those, of the phenomenal world.’ De Man is neither denying reality, nor suggesting that language has no responsibility to truth. He is warning against the danger of forgetting the precarious relationship to reality offered to us by words. At times Schlink knows this. In Homecoming, the narrator’s mother – who has withheld the truth about his father – is given to frenzies which render him speechless as he waits for the insults, shouts and sometimes blows: ‘Only the disciplinary structure of the words and sentences kept her from going off the deep end.’

The political stakes here are important. It is ideology – de Man stresses in the same article – that confuses ‘linguistic with natural reality’, since it insists that there is only one true version, its version, of how the world should be seen. As Hendrik de Man put it in The Psychology of Socialism (1926), ‘My way of thinking recognises its own relativity.’ Hendrik de Man was Paul de Man’s uncle and played a key role in his intellectual and personal development. After being a passionate socialist, he became a collaborator, calling in 1940 for the German occupiers of Belgium to be welcomed and disbanding the Belgian Socialist Party, of which he had been president. His influence is often cited as instrumental in his nephew’s fall. But those who make this accusation – they also tend to be the ones who condemn deconstruction for relativism – could do worse than to read Hendrik de Man’s earlier writing, which he presents as a critique of incipient Fascism and of Bolshevism (witnessing socialist workers contaminated with the ‘virus of national hatred’ during the First World War played a major part in ending his belief in Marxism):

I shall rejoice if people become so keenly aware of the relativity of their knowledge that they will no longer try to dispose of others’ fates and others’ lives in the name of any knowledge whatever. My gorge rises against the claim that the human understanding can justify the use of force in the regulation of other persons’ lives.

Once knowledge is recognised as conditional, it becomes harder to use as an apology for violence. Unqualified belief in one’s own truth system is deadly. It is not from uncertainty about one’s own judgments, but from unswerving forms of conviction, unamenable to any flicker of doubt, that the world has most to fear.

What, then, does it take to redeem a guilty past? Is confession enough? Does it ever come in time? The fury that has greeted Günter Grass’s confession about his wartime past suggests that something more than an appeal to honesty, making a clean breast, is involved. The language and position of de Man’s accusers, as Werner Hamacher observes in his article ‘Journal Politics’, ‘are those of the police who have seen a spectacular case slip out of their hands’.[3] Grass’s moral authority was seen to collapse under pressure of his membership as a youth of the Waffen SS, an affiliation he had chosen to conceal. Behind the accusations there seems to be an unspoken assumption that anyone who has erred in this way should have no trouble at all in admitting it to her or himself. But if the crime is monstrous, then surely its passage into knowledge and then language will be hard and slow. At moments it has felt as if the real crime of both Grass and de Man might be the crime of revealing that there are things so appalling to us in retrospect that our only way of dealing with them is to close down part of our minds – to not want to know. There is a contradiction here which increases in direct proportion to the certainty with which the condemnation is expressed: of course we would have acted differently, i.e. better (perish any other thought); but had we failed – although this is almost unthinkable – we would have been only too happy to recognise what we did and admit it to the whole world.

In fact none of us can know how, under inhuman pressure, we would have behaved. In The Reader, the courtroom is silenced when Hanna asks the judge: ‘What would you have done?’ ‘The real problem,’ Edith Hall says apropos the ending of the Odyssey, ‘is not the level of violence inflicted, but our fear of the information about human psychology that the narrative contains.’ When Edouard Colinet, a Belgian resistance fighter, wrote to Neil Hertz about his friendship with de Man in 1988, insisting that de Man’s conduct was never anti-semitic, he also insisted that no one should underestimate the ‘deep moral degradation, at all levels, which develops in time of war’. Even to acknowledge that much, however, might serve to veil something we are still more afraid to contemplate: the length to which a mind will go to shut off unwelcome, guilty, knowledge about itself. ‘My uniformed self,’ Grass writes, ‘seemed to be slipping away. It had even given up its shadow and wanted to belong among the less guilty’; ‘Memory likes to play hide and seek, to crawl away.’ The problem was endemic: ‘None of us,’ Romano Bilenchi wrote in the Italian review Società in November 1945, ‘recognises his own past.’[4]

In theory, the de Man story should be the perfect stuff of fiction, not just because fiction and fictionality were his chosen terrain, but because fiction is able to contain the ‘generous scepticism’ – the phrase is William Empson’s – which allows that someone might be both guilty and not guilty at the same time. In one of the best essays on the de Man affair, ‘More Lurid Figures: De Man Reading Empson’, Neil Hertz cites this passage from Seven Types of Ambiguity:

This sort of contradiction is at once understood in literature, because the process of understanding one’s friends must always be riddled with such indecisions and the machinery of such hypocrisy; people, often, cannot have done both of two things, but they must have been in some way prepared to have done either; whichever they did, they will have still lingering in their minds the way they would have preserved their self-respect if they had acted differently; they are only to be understood by bearing both possibilities in mind.

The fictional renderings of de Man seem not to allow such possibilities. Schlink is not the first novelist to transmute the story into fiction. John Banville chose the same subject for his novel Shroud (2002). Banville’s trick is to have the de Man figure tell his own story. Since he is a self-confessed liar, this means that the reader cannot know if even his reluctant account of his own past, torn out of him by a woman who is on his trail, is true: ‘There is not a sincere bone in the entire body of my text.’ (This is to base a whole novel on the Cretan paradox, the self-cancelling statement ‘I am a liar.’) Similarly in Homecoming, the narrator seems to inherit from his father, and from his mother who has also misled him, a compulsion to lie and deceive. Banville’s second trick is to have the woman who exposes the narrator suffer from hallucinations and voices so you don’t know if she can be trusted any more than he can be. At the end of the novel she kills herself (another female victim of the de Man affair).

Vander, Banville’s protagonist, is a brute and a sadist who probably murdered his wife. He is also a Jew who took his false name from a young friend, the real author of the collaborationist articles now wrongly exposed as having been written by him. Vander has no trouble admitting that he was attracted to the Nazi vision of racial purity even at the cost of his own people, and, worse, that he still is: ‘I would have sacrificed anything to that transfiguring fire. I whisper it: and I still would.’ As for his namesake, when the deportations had begun, and the world was closing round ‘armed with cudgels and flaming torches’, he holds forth to his young Jewish friend on the wondrous possibilities of an empty stage, ‘when all the bodies had been dragged by the heels into the wings’. ‘Nothing of consequence would be lost to the cultural and intellectual life of Europe,’ he writes in one of his articles, ‘really, nothing at all, if certain supposedly assimilated, Oriental elements were to be removed and settled somewhere far away, in the steppes of Central Asia, perhaps, or on one of Africa’s more clement coasts.’ Banville had clearly read, or read an account of, de Man’s dreadful 1941 article ‘The Jews in Present-Day Literature’, in which he suggested that nothing would be lost to the literary life of the West by the creation of a colony for Jews outside Europe.

At the end of the novel it turns out that the most assimilated Jew of them all was the original Vander (the narrator at least comes from something more like a shtetl), whose mother is last seen trying to exchange a small cache of diamonds for food as the family is deported to the East. In Banville’s hands, de Man turns into a monster and a fraud, a Jew whose self-hatred is matched only by that of the boy whose name he stole – the revelation is the novel’s coup de grâce (why do these novels go in for the final shocking revelation as if the best response to the de Man affair is to be sent reeling?). Banville’s novel may be intended as an ironic send-up, but when Empson wrote of the generous scepticism of irony, I don’t think this is quite what he had in mind.

What, in all of this, is left of the Jew? One of the stories in Schlink’s 2002 collection, Flights of Love, might help to answer the question. Called ‘Circumcision’ – which suggests Schlink will not mince his words – it tells the story of a failed relationship between a German, Andi, whose father was involved in looting Russian art on behalf of the Nazis, and an American Jewish woman, Sarah, whose family lost relatives in Auschwitz. She loves him ‘even though’ he is a German. When he asks her how she would feel if he said he loved her ‘even though’ she is Jewish, she insists there is no symmetry: ‘How dare you compare the two … The Germans killed six million Jews. That somebody might start to wonder about things when he has to deal with one of you – are you really that naive?’ When he suggests to Sarah’s sister, Rachel, that it might be better if the world ceased to organise itself according to religious groupings, she defends the uniqueness of her faith: ‘If you have no more faith in your religion and you can let it die out, that’s your business. I want mine to live and my family to live with it and in it. Yes, I consider my religion unique.’ Rachel is allowed to win the argument: the children of the Nazi generation will have to accept that their history implicates them in the future survival of the Jews.

In a way all Schlink’s novels have been trying to deal with this same question: the responsibility of the sons of Germany for their fathers’ crimes. In so far as the law is a ceaseless engagement with precedent, you could also say that the same dilemma – of fathers and sons – is inscribed into the heart of law (the father-son drama of Homecoming finds another explanation here). Perhaps, as he sees it, it is the openness with which he confronts this problem that gives Schlink licence to turn so crudely on Paul de Man. But the end of ‘The Circumcision’ suggests that something else might be in play. Andi decides that to win Sarah definitively, he must convert to Judaism and be circumcised. His horror at the prospect, which is explored in painstaking detail, doesn’t deter him. The story ends with him walking out on Sarah when she fails to notice the difference and doesn’t even quite register when he tells her what he has done. The final failure is therefore Sarah’s. ‘What sort of religion is it,’ he asks at one point, ‘that isn’t content with the symbol of surrender, but instead demands that the surrender leave an irreversible physical mark?’ ‘What sort of religion?’ In the end, it is the German who suffers. And the Jews – this story comes close to suggesting – are finally answerable just for being who they are.

[1] Tauris, 304 pp., £20, January, 978 1 85511 575 3.

[2] Politics, Postmodernity and Critical Legal Studies by Peter Goodrich, Costas Douzinas and Yifat Hachamovitch (1994).

[3] Hamacher’s article is included in Responses: On Paul de Man’s Wartime Journalism, edited by Hamacher, Neil Hertz and Thomas Keenan (1989).

[4] The quotation is from Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945 by Tony Judt (2005), reviewed in the LRB by Neal Ascherson, 17 November 2005.