Sex, Shame and Guilt: Reflections on Bernhard Schlink’s der Vorleser Essay Example
The occasion for this paper was twofold. One had to do with the fact that I happened to read Bernhard Schlink's Der Vorleser (The Reader) (1995) and J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace (1999) in close proximity to each other. This, in itself, is not particularly remarkable because the novels themselves were published within a few years of each other. But there are proximities and proximities; and in my case the closeness was made of months rather than years.
The second catalyst was a recent article by William Collins Donahue which, as its title makes clear--'Illusions of subtlety: Bernhard Schlink's Der Vorleser and the moral limits of Holocaust fiction' (1)--takes a very sceptical view both of Schlink's tale and of the almost unanimously enthusiastic response to which it has given rise. Let me turn to the two novels: to the simi...
larities between them, and to a particular thematic issue common to both of them which is not without its problematic implications. Both The Reader and Disgrace, in terms of the story that they recount, fall into two distinct sections.
The first half is a detailed description of a sexual relationship which is skewed by a crass imbalance of age, moral maturity and intellectual sophistication. Michael Berg, the narrator of The Reader, is a schoolboy of fifteen who has a passionate affair with Hanna Schmitz, a woman of thirty-six. He comes from an academic home (his father is a professor of philosophy), and is receiving the kind of schooling that prepares him for university and subsequently a career in one of the professions (in the event, he becomes a lawyer).
She works as a tram conductor and (although it takes som
time for Michael to realize this, and to speak of it in his narrative) she is illiterate. The discrepancy in education could, then, hardly be greater. And it is not only expressed but accentuated by the fact that Michael spends a great deal of time at her request reading out loud to Hanna (he is the 'Vorleser' of the title). In Coetzee's novel, David Lurie, a university professor of English aged fifty-two, has an affair with one of his students, Melanie Isaacs, who is twenty.
The affair soon comes to light and causes a scandal; David has to answer to a disciplinary tribunal and in consequence loses his job. The sexual issue, in its physical, psychological, moral and social dimensions is, however, not the only--perhaps not even the chief--concern of either novel. The second section of The Reader describes a trial in which Hanna and various other women have to answer accusations of war crimes--they were in charge of a group of women prisoners who were being temporarily held in a church.
The church was bombed and caught fire; but Hanna and her fellow guards did not open the doors. With only two exceptions, the prisoners burned to death. Hanna's trial embodies, then, the issue of the Nazi past, of coming to terms with the past ('Vergangenheitsbewaltigung'); and in this sense The Reader can claim to be a 'state-of-the-nation' novel. Something similar applies to Disgrace. In the second part of the novel David goes to live with his daughter Lucy who ekes out a living on a smallholding on the uplands of the Eastern Cape, a long way away from urban South Africa.
One day the two of
them are attacked by three coloured men. Lucy is raped, David is beaten up, doused in lighter fluid, and set alight. The crime, although its precise motivation is left shadowy, seems to relate to the bitter history of white exploitation of the indigenous population in South Africa. Both novels, then, raise issues of corporate transgression, transgression of laws, rights, conventions, of human decency. Yet both novels, as we have seen, have a first half that has, on the face of it, precious little to do with politics.
The texts would seem to imply, if nothing else by a kind of propinquity, an interrelationship between (on the one hand) Hanna's illiteracy and powerful sexual appetite and (on the other) the criminality of the Nazi years, between David's exploitation of a woman student (on the one hand) and the whites' exploitation of the coloured population in South Africa (on the other). Yet these implications promise more than they can deliver, as we discover as soon as we try to spell out the issues.
The coexistence of the sexual fable and the political fable is (so to speak) allegorically enticing. Both fables, we might argue, centrally invoke forms of authority and submission. Both fables have to do with the interface between public and private experience. But where do these parallelisms in fact get us? If we were to say that Hanna's illiteracy alerts us to the moral illiteracy of the perpetrators of Nazi war crimes, do we thereby achieve any kind of insight into historical causality? Do we have a clearer feel for questions of exoneration or blame? Surely not.
Similarly, any attempt to read David's exploitation of Melanie as allegorically
expressive of white exploitation of the black population does not carry much conviction--not least because Melanie is white, and because she has allies and defenders who ensure that the university system, sensitive as it is to any whiff of sexual impropriety, swiftly punishes David. Once we try to read the implications across the two sections of our texts, we find ourselves in an interpretative minefield; yet not to read those implications at all seems perversely literal-minded, and leaves us with two strangely incoherent texts.
The arguments for opposing any kind of implicatory sleight-of-hand in respect of The Reader have been vigorously put by William Donahue in the article to which I have already referred. It is Donahue's real achievement to have forced the issues into the open. In essence, his case rests on five objections and they are as follows. (i) The Reader, in its associative fervour, tends to obscure, rather than to illuminate, a number of key historical and moral issues. (ii) In the figure of Hanna it unhelpfully conflates the victim and the victimizer. iii) Michael's understandable ambivalence and helplessness when observing Hanna in the witness box is illegitimately transformed into a woolly sense that any inquiry into the Holocaust is, by definition, an attempt to bring reason and dispassionate judgement to bear on utterly incommensurable experiences.
(iv) That Michael can love somebody who was guilty of war crimes may, admittedly, take us a step beyond simple parent/child antagonism in the context of war guilt, but it does not throw any light on questions of collective and personal responsibility. v) Hence, the enthusiastic critical response to The Reader can only be symptomatic of postmodern culture's
love affair with uncertainty and inexactitude, with sites of implication rather than with instances of explication. The critical thrust behind Donahue's argument is welcome, if for no other reason than that it does confront us with genuine interpretative difficulties (in respect of both texts). But there are two issues to which he pays imperfect attention. One derives from the narrative mode.
Both our texts are, it must be stressed, largely baffling as narrative performances. Donahue notes--but does not, in my view, acknowledge fully--the fact that, in The Reader, Michael Berg, as narrative presence, simply does not come within hailing distance of understanding or clarifying the whole experience--both erotic and politico-historical--of knowing Hanna. It is not, in other words, as though interpretations were being offered from which we need to dissent; rather, there is hardly any interpretation in evidence.
And (although this is not, of course, something that concerns Donahue) in Disgrace the fact that the narrative is sustained through-out in the present tense means that there is an unnerving lack of interpretative hindsight. Both texts, then, have the flavour of still unfinished business. Moreover, there is a further common concern that unites The Reader and Disgrace, and it is, again, one that moves us beyond the interpretative spirit of Donahue's argument. And that is the issue of shame rather than guilt. I am not a moral philosopher.
But perhaps a few observations on the overlap and distinction between guilt and shame may be helpful at this point. Guilt is the easier notion to get hold of. As Gabriele Taylor puts it, 'guilt, unlike shame, is a legal concept'. (2) That is to say: guilt operates within an institutional
framework of codifications of law, and offences against that law have to be provable. Such moments of demonstrable transgression derive from deeds that have consequences for other people (who are often victims of the wrongdoing), and entail consequences for the perpetrator in terms of penalties exacted.
Within the interpretative field of force that defines guilt, then, there are vigorous assumptions made as to the moral autonomy (and hence responsibility) of the offender. Admittedly, once one extends the argument from guilt as such to feelings of guilt, the hitherto clear-cut contours lose much of their authority. But even so, guilt always has a judicial dimension. However, once we begin to consider shame, we find ourselves in different territory. To quote Gabriele Taylor again, 'repayment and punishment are appropriate to guilt but not to shame'. (3) Shame is incomparably more diffuse than guilt.
As an emotion of self-assessment, shame is often physical, even visceral in its causes and manifestations. It is often linked with the sense of being seen in an inappropriate or wrong context--with losing face. It seems to be complicit in bodiliness, in (for example) experiences of nakedness (particularly in respect of the pudenda--the term itself speaks volumes, of course). In this sense, the motor forces of shame are socio-psychological and cultural in character. But there is also a powerful admixture of the ontological (even, perhaps, the theological).
As Mario Jacoby puts it: 'At a certain intensity, shame has the power to make us feel completely worthless, degraded from head to foot, sometimes without our having done anything bad at all. ' (4) Gabriele Taylor links shame to a condition of compounded self-consciousness (and it is worth remembering
that in English the term 'self-consciousness' has both the sense of cognitive endowment with self-awareness and also of embarrassment): A person feeling shame becomes conscious not merely of what he is doing, but becomes conscious also of his self. This means partly hat he cannot be unself-conscious in the manner of a young child or of somebody wholly absorbed in what he is doing. But it is also the self-consciousness of Adam and Eve after the Fall. (5)
Put most simply, one could say that shame has less to do with the judicially forthright causality of guilt than with the strangely oblique operation of overlapping and clashing contexts, of inadmissible adjacencies and discomforting propinquities. Coexisting worlds become impinging worlds. The issue of context, of framework, is all-important because shame arises when the frontiers between distinct and separate worlds are crossed.
This crossing, this moment of transgression, has nothing to do with infringement of laws, and everything to do with a sense of the commingling of inappropriate contexts. To invoke a familiar example from moral philosophy: the artist's model may be unashamed at posing naked as long as the scrupulously professional climate is sustained; but once that context is supplanted by desire on the part of the painter, the context has changed, and shame results. Shame is both a condition and a feeling; and its effects may linger long after the cause has ceased to exist.
Guilt, by contrast, is more circumscribed; it is defined by statute--and is, by that token, contained by a statute of limitation. I want to suggest that the thematic and narratological heartland of both The Reader and Disgrace is that of the diffuse contextual
contamination that is shame; shame, rather than guilt, is what binds together the private and the public realms of both stories. If we now turn to The Reader, (6) it is, I think, important to register that the key junctures in the story-line have all to do with shame.
The narration begins with Michael's illness: 'I was ashamed of being so weak. I was even more ashamed when I threw up' (p. 2). Hanna is kind to him and helps to clean him up. When he later goes to see her with his flowers as an expression of thanks, he glimpses her putting on her stockings: As she was reaching for the other stocking, she paused, turning towards the door, and looked straight at me. I can't describe what kind of look it was--surprised, sceptical, knowing, reproachful.
I turned red. For a fraction of a second I stood there, my face burning. Then I couldn't take it any more (p. 2). The current of quizzical, unsublimated desire is unmistakable. He returns a week later, and his attempt to fetch coke from the cellar for her leads to his getting covered in dust. She runs a bath for him: 'But when I had turned off the tap and taken off my pants, she looked me over calmly. I turned red, climbed into the tub, and submerged myself' (p. 22). When he leaves the bath, she is holding the towel and is naked. And that is the beginning of their sexual relationship. If shame and embarrassment mark the beginning of their affair, they also mark its end.
There is something utterly clandestine about all their meetings. The last time they
see one another during their affair, there is distance between them. Michael is at the swimming pool with his circle of friends from school. Hanna appears some way off. At this moment of collision between two hitherto separate worlds Michael does not know what to do, say, or think: She was too far away for me to read her expression. I didn't jump to my feet and run to her. Questions raced through my head: why was she at the pool, did she want to be seen with me, did I want to be een with her, why had we never met each other by accident, what should I do? (p. 79).
The issue of seeing and being seen is paramount here--and it is a central constituent of the notion of shame. They see one another again at the trial. For days on end there is no exchange of glances between them. The one and only exception is a moment when Michael is ashamed: Hanna turned around and looked at me. Her eyes found me at once, and I realized that she had known the whole time I was there ... When I turned red under her gaze, she turned away and back to the judges' bench (p. 116).
Once again, what is at stake is a matter of adjacent worlds that collide: and the result is a moment of shame. Later in the trial Michael realizes (and he only reports this realization at the moment when it occurs) that Hanna can neither read nor write. And he realizes that her shame at this inadequacy accounts for various anomalies in her behaviour. It explains her refusing promotion
at various phases of her career; it accounts for her admitting (falsely) that she wrote the report about the burning church, because she will do anything to avoid the shame of being exposed as illiterate:
I could understand that she was ashamed at not being able to read or write, and would rather drive me away than expose herself. I was no stranger to shame as the cause of behaviour that was deviant or defensive, secretive or misleading or hurtful. But could Hanna's shame at being illiterate be sufficient reason for her behaviour at the trial or in the camp? (p. 132). Michael may be incredulous; but there is no other explanation for Hanna's behaviour, nor indeed for his own in respect of their subsequent contact. When Hanna is in prison, he sends her tapes of books that he has recorded for her.
But he does not seek any more immediate contact with her. Even when she has learnt to read and write, he does not write to her. Still more weightily, he does not--until shortly before her release, when it cannot be postponed any longer--go to see her. The reason for his diffidence has everything to do with his fear at the prospect of causing previously separate spaces to mingle: 'I had granted Hanna a small niche, certainly an important niche, one from which I gained something and for which I did something, but not a place in my life' (p. 196).
The somewhat elaborate notion of a necessary compartmentalization of the emotional life is tantamount to saying something much simpler and more brutal--that he is ashamed of her, that she no longer belongs in his world,
neither now nor in the future. That painful need to keep the various experiential realms separate, that shame at the contaminating possibility of their commingling, is central to Michael's psychological and stylistic performance as narrator. The governing register is one of not knowing, not understanding, not remembering, not reflecting.
In consequence, the narrative is and remains something curiously undigested. The act of recall is provocatively unforthcoming. This is most obviously the case in the matter of Hanna's illiteracy. Michael recounts, for example, all the elaborate routines of his reading aloud to her, he recounts the row in the hotel room when she pretends she never saw the note that he left for her--yet at no point, as narrator, does he offer the appropriate explanation. All the unmistakable gestures of retrospection that we hear on every page of his account serve merely to express his condition of still not knowing.
Moreover, none of the interpretative strands that inform his narrative are clinched. Time and time again we are confronted with suggestive interpretative possibilities, with clusters of possible meaning, but little is made of any of these intimations. Let me give a few examples. One strand is, of course, sexuality. What are we to make of the story under this aspect? Is it a study in exploitation? Is it an analysis of the uneasy relationship between love and sex? Is this a study of a relationship that owes its intensity primarily to its illicit character?
And if that is the case, is the implication a judgement on society? Or on the two mismatched lovers? None of this is dealt with. At one point Michael comments: 'I don't know about her
love for me' (p. 68). But he does not seem to know a great deal more about his love for her. Or we can inflect the sexual fable as essentially a psychological fable--about growing up, about a remarkable experience of sexual initiation. But here again we can make very little headway. At all events, we register that Michael in later life seems incapable of fulfilling relationships with women.
So perhaps it is a story that demands to be read negatively--as the depiction of a trauma. But we do not hear the sting of hurt and obsessiveness. Or what of the judicial fable? Clearly there is a weighty issue here--how may a later generation judge a former generation when the social and cultural experiences were so different? Michael seems at a loss to know. All he can offer is a silence compounded of horror, shame and guilt--'Should we only fall silent in revulsion, shame, and guilt? ' (p. 102).
Or we can detect a political theme: Michael, at one level, might seem to stand for the generation of the mid to late 1960s. At one point he suggests as much--'How could it be a comfort that the pain I went through because of my love for Hanna was, in a way, the fate of my generation, a German fate? ' (p. 169). He talks of the shame that his generation feels at the guilt incurred by his parents' generation: 'Pointing at the guilty parties did not free us from shame' (p. 168). But the theme unfolds with little energy or focus, not least because, although Hanna is of the generation to be his mother, she is his lover.
while we can hear an allegorical intimation in this constellation--Michael, like so many children of his generation, has to discover that he loves older people who were capable of monstrosity in the Nazi period--yet the intense sexuality of the relationship with Hanna disturbs that allegory. Moreover it is that powerful sexual charge and the stress on the immense difference in social position and educational attainment that muffles the incestuous implications of their relationship. Should we perhaps hear the story as a philosophical fable?
We are, for example, told that Hanna has a kind of integrity within her own bodiliness: It was more as if she had withdrawn into her own body, and left it to itself and its own quiet rhythms, unbothered by any input from her mind, oblivious to the outside world (p. 14). What we hear at this point is a near-parabolic argument about a woman who, as long as her social world allows it, makes up for her lack of education and her illiteracy by a sense of rare oneness that unites being and consciousness.
Much later in the story we learn from the prison governor that Hanna, in the course of her time in prison (which she likens to a nunnery), withdraws even further within herself, away from her body, which she begins to neglect: In fact it was as though the retreat to the convent was no longer enough, as though life in the convent was still too sociable and talkative, and she had to retreat even further, into a lonely cell safe from all eyes, where looks, clothing and smell meant nothing (p. 106).
The implication (and it is no more than
that) seem to be that the one certainty that Hanna has--her indwelling in her own bodiliness--is disturbed when she learns to read in prison; and she reads about the concentration camps. Perhaps we are concerned, then, with a parable about the enrichment and the blight of human self-consciousness. But, once again, that theme is not allowed to come into any urgent focus. We do not know enough (because Michael does not allow himself to know enough) about Hanna to explore the theme with any real authority or resonance. And this is true throughout his account.
The final gesture of Michael's narrative--and it bespeaks a rare moment of self-consciousness on his part--is one of cognitive and narrative helplessness: The geological layers of our lives rest so tightly one on top of the Other that we always come up against earlier events in later ones, not as matter that has been fully formed and pushed aside, but absolutely present and alive. I understand this. Nevertheless I sometimes find it hard to bear. Maybe I did write our story in order to be free of it, even if I never can be (p. 216). The closing cadence expresses entrapment.
And I would suggest that what one hears above all else as the motivating centre to Michael's narrative is shame: shame as a kind of transferred bad conscience by (erotic, political, social, psychological, philosophical) association and contamination. Shame is, as we have seen, an emotion that has to do with a sense of coexisting realms of experience, each uncomfortably, subversively impinging on the other. The result is not a cathartic reckoning with either a sexual or a political past. What is
left is unfinished business, an experiential nexus located somewhere beyond reassuring causality and interpretation.
And what is indubitably authentic is the bitter taste in the mouth, the shame-filled self and the shame-filled world. Donahue's objections to Schlink's tale are, in my view, ultimately not so much objections to the story itself as to the critical literature it has engendered which tends to move into swiftly allegorical mode and to claim for the story forms of analytical profundity (and these are the various constituent fables which I have outlined) that it never quite delivers. And it never quite delivers because it is about a condition that cannot be reliably interpreted and by that token exorcized.
The narrative mode of not-quite-comprehending is, then, as much truth as The Reader has to offer. Something similar, I venture to suggest, also applies to Coetzee's Disgrace. (7) Initially, David is shameless in respect of his sexual desires. When the novel opens, we see him enjoying a relationship of entirely regulated sexual satisfaction with a black prostitute by the name of Soraya. But a chance meeting with her, in the company of her two young sons, outside the, as it were, professional context of their business-like meetings, finishes their arrangement.
Clearly Soraya will brook no disturbance of her compartmentalized double life. The novel opens, then, with a glimpse of sex that is sustained by an ethos of unalloyed efficiency. Once that efficiency is disturbed, the possibility of shame emerges--as both emotional and social reality. David then begins an affair with one of his students, Melanie Isaacs. When the scandal breaks, he is prepared to accept that he is guilty of having transgressed the code
governing staff/student behaviour at the university. But the tribunal convened to hear his case wants more; the members expect indications of contrition and shame.
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