Monday, July 20, 2015

Reflections on Simon Wiesenthal's The Sunflower

WWII German soldiers' graves.
If you had been a Jewish concentration-camp resident and slave laborer, and a dying Waffen SS soldier asked you for forgiveness for the one atrocity in which he'd participated, would you be able to do it? That's the question Simon Wiesenthal asks us in his short story The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness.

It's almost too easy to speak of what we would have done had we been placed in Wiesenthal's position. We were not, and the probabilities are that we'll never have an analogous situation in which we'd have to make good on our boast. Rather, it remains for us to think about what it means to forgive others in a context where all normal human mores are turned upside-down and all choices are fraught with peril.

Did Wiesenthal have the right to forgive Karl Seidl's participation in the mass execution of a Russian town's Jews? Did Wiesenthal have the right to withhold the words of forgiveness, as he did? And when Wiesenthal met Karl's mother, did he have the right to withhold the truth of Seidl's confession? Was he right to let her go on ignorance, so she would only retain the memory of Seidl's goodness?

[UPDATE JULY 5, 2017: Karl’s last name is never given in the book; near the end, when Simon visits Karl’s mother, he calls her “Frau S——”. The only source I have on hand for his last name is the Wikipedia article on the book, which itself does not cite a source. I may have obtained that information elsewhere, but I didn’t make note of it at the time. So be warned ...!]

These questions take on an added urgency in the situation of the United States in 2015. The recent controversy surrounding the Confederate battle flag is, in a very real sense, our struggle to forgive ourselves for having had chattel slavery as an institution, and for mistreating African-Americans, first as beasts of burden and then as unwelcome parasites. What must we do to create a culture in which the divisions of the past — divisions that still haunt and influence us today — no longer exercise such a powerful hold on us, a culture in which "black" and "white" are merely inaccurate shorthand references to skin color and nothing else?

At issue isn't Wiesenthal's rights in the matter: whether he had the authority to absolve in the name of other Jews, whether Seidl had sufficiently atoned for his sins, the sins of the SS, or the sins of Nazi Germany. As fascinating as such discussions can be, the fact remains that human justice is finally imperfect, even futile: there are some things for which no vengeance or legal punishment can sufficiently atone. The dead of 9/11 did not burst forth from their graves when Osama bin-Laden was killed; and the Twin Towers did not suddenly arise from the barren ground where once they stood when his body was cast into the ocean. What do we do, then, when the guilty are all dead, their spoils have all been turned to restitutive payments, and our souls are still wounded and bleeding?

Many people have endorsed Wiesenthal's refusal to comfort Seidl with the words of forgiveness. And yet, as his tale nears its conclusion, you can tell Wiesenthal, who passed away in 2005, was never satisfied with that answer. Yes, there were many people who willingly participated in the Shoah. There were many who, while doing nothing directly to mistreat the Jewish people, nevertheless benefitted from their mistreatment. There were many other people who did nothing to intervene, who shut their eyes to the tragedy being played out in front of them and their children, who said to themselves, "This is not my problem; I can do nothing about this." Wiesenthal dedicated his postwar life to bringing the guilty to some form of human justice, while continuing to force the rest of the world to embrace the Shoah as "our problem". And yet he still remained bothered by his refusal to say to Seidl, "I forgive you."

And I think I know why.

I think what ultimately bothered Wiesenthal is that he'd been offered a chance to assert his humanity in a context in which humanity was notable by its radical absence. Seidl had shown his own humanity by laying his tormented conscience in Wiesenthal's hands, depriving Wiesenthal of the comfort of thinking him a monster. Given his situation, Wiesenthal could not have exercised any form of justice ... but could he not have shown mercy and compassion? Unable to heal his physical wounds, could Simon not offer balm for his wounded conscience, and so risen to the challenge of Karl's confession?

At the heart of the dilemma is the proper ordering of forgiveness, or mercy, in relation to justice and atonement. The Pharisaic approach makes forgiveness contingent upon atonement, upon satisfactory restitution for the injury done. But in a case such as Seidl's, or the American South, what can possibly constitute the proper satisfaction?

Making forgiveness contingent upon full atonement sets up situations where forgiveness is impossible, and even allows us to sadistically move the goal line backwards as the penitent appears to close in on it. We have functionally decided, in these cases, to not forgive, to keep the wounds of our souls bleeding and raw rather than to let them heal, to live perpetually in the moment of the injury rather than go forward with our lives. We have opted for vengeance; and vengeance is often the very opposite of justice.

To forgive is not necessarily to forego atonement, but rather to create the conditions in which we can accept what atonement can be reasonably offered. To forgive is to forego vengeance, to forego making the conditions ever harder. To forgive is to choose to move on.

As well, there is a community element to sin: besides separating us from God, injuring our souls, and doing damage to our victims, we also damage our community relationships, even when our sins are either committed in private or legally tolerated by the public. We don't live or act in a vacuum; nor do legal rights really create "safe spaces" for evil to be indulged. Because, as the saying goes, "we're all in this together", there really isn't a "victimless crime": every wrong, whether done privately or publicly, against oneself or against a nation, wrongs us all.

Simon was not part of the particular Jewish community Karl helped to obliterate; yet he was a part of the broader community of the Jews, against whom the Germans were making war, and a part of the even broader community of mankind, against whom Nazi actions and Nazi ideology were offenses. Simon could not have forgiven him on behalf of everyone; but he could have forgiven Karl on his own behalf, as one spiritually injured by Karl's participation in the Shoah. And I'm convinced that, in his heart, he eventually did; whether Karl benefitted from it or not depends on your metaphysics.

One of the paradoxes of the human condition is that the √úbermann mentality, the belief that Man is materially perfectible by Man himself, renders the individual who holds it less fully human than the creature he wishes to perfect. Man by nature is imperfect: flawed not only genetically but morally, subject to corruptions of both body and soul. To attempt to make humans more materially perfect, the Conditioner must adopt a moral Darwinism: only the fittest of the fit have a right to live, and every person who fails that condition is lebensunwerten Leben, "life unworthy of life". The Conditioner must moreover forget his own imperfection, his own flaws, and in his hubris must arrogate to himself the position of God.

By daring to make such a distinction, however, the Conditioner must strip himself of compassion, which by its nature is sympathy for human imperfection. True compassion recognizes neither a being unworthy of living nor a life unworthy of being. The Conditioner cannot judge the worthiness of humans without in the same moment separating himself from the rest of humanity; but his denial of his imperfection does not of itself make him perfect. The Conditioner is trying to give to the race that which he does not possess as an individual. He can become a better man; but he cannot become more than Man. By placing himself in such a position, by denying his own weaknesses and any tolerance for weaknesses, he is on the road not to Superman but to monstrosity. It is not that we do not possess sufficient wisdom to take on the task of building Man 2.0; the task is unwise almost by definition.

Out of this paradox we retrieve another paradox: mercy to the deserving is not mercy, but rather justice — the rendering of what is owed to whom it is owed. Mercy, to be truly mercy, cannot have a sense of merit. Indeed, the matter is almost reversed; for the less a man deserves an act of mercy, the more merciful the act becomes when he receives it. To show mercy and compassion to those who do not deserve them is not a "false humanity"; dogs are capable of so much, while many other mindless beasts show no compassion even for the deserving. Does a shark take pity on a bleeding swimmer in his helplessness? The shark does not sit in judgment of the swimmer's life or soul, but rather eats her regardless of her deserving to be eaten.

No, the "false humanity" lies in the reduction of the human to the merely natural, the argument that humans cannot, and should not attempt to, "rise above" their "natural" responses — their disgust for moral monsters, their desire for revenge, their demand for their pound of flesh. Their "real humanity" turns out to be less than humane.

The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice. 

—William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice IV:i

A final note: In none of this do I seek to pass judgment on Simon Wiesenthal or Karl Seidl, who were, nebech, only men. My ancient faith tells me I am equal with both Simon and Karl: we are equally sinners; we are equally wayward children of God. I was not born with the same weaknesses; but I was born with weaknesses of my own, because I was born human.

I did not grow up in a society whose masters labored to make us forget God and build Superman; I did not grow to manhood knowing my very life was unwelcome, an intrusion on a barely-hospitable people. Had I been raised in that time and place, I should not have been the man I am now, and might not have made the decisions my postwar heart says would have been right. Let no one who has never been subject to the test judge those who have failed it.

That, then, is the final argument for forgiveness: We, too, are sinners. Even now, we as a nation and a culture are failing our own tests, individually and corporately; we have beams to remove from our own eye before we can remove the splinters from others'. To choose not to forgive is to choose to be unforgiven in our turn. Let us be merciful; let us be compassionate. And in that mercy and compassion we shall be fully human, because we shall have chosen to be humane.