The Kindly Ones

Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones is not a novel short of meaning; quite the contrary, it surfeits and gorges itself on meaning. Its placement of its protagonist in the midst of the second world war and the final solution offers more than enough associations to begin with. During the course of the novel, various protagonist seek to interpret events through the aspect of Marxist theory or Jungian psychoanalysis. For example, Aue declares towards the start of the novel that "I had always wanted my thinking to be radical and now the state had also chosen the radical and absolute… how could I prefer the comfort of bourgeois laws?" Towards the end, the phantom of his sister declares that the German hatred of the Jews was a self-hatred of the aspects of the German psyche that assimilated Jews had most successfully imitated; "kill in us the potbellied bourgeois counting his pennies." In this case, Littell externalises this through Aue’s two fathers, one a German officer guilty of butchery in the first world war, the other, his step-father, a French bourgeois ("Our father was German. My future is with Germany, not with the corrupt bourgeoisie of France). The slaying of the step father has clear Freudian resonances, but the novel almost inverts the Oedipal narrative by having Aue desire his real father, assuming a passive feminine sexual role (either when he is fucked by his male lovers or when he imagines exchanging places with his sister and being fucked by her), and killing his mother along with his step-father. Equally, the novel casts Hitler as a father figure ("a neurotic, full of unresolved complexes" as Una describes Hitler); Max biting the Fuhrer’s Slavic nose at the end of the novel representing his final casting off of paternal authority. The novel also seems to echo Freud’s arguments in Civilisation and its Discontents, with the entirety of the war having become an example of the pleasure principle let loose at the expense of civilisation. As a child, Aue is accused by his mother of stealing for "pure pleasue of doing evil," while at the beginning of the war he speaks of those who killed the Jews out of a sense of sensual pleasure, making the battlefield into "a perverted fairyland, the playground of a demented child." It comes as little surprise that Aue’s last murder is committed in the Berlin Zoo, signifying a reversion to both the bestial and the infantile.

Finally, there is the mythic & literary aspect lent to events through the parallels invited to the Greek myth of Eumenides or Hartmann Von Aue’s narrative of courtly love, incest and warfare, Gregorius. The naming of Aue’s sister as Una, recalls Spenser’s Fairy Queene and implies that Aue himself serves as the novel’s false Duessa, with the implication that the two are severed parts of a whole (although Aue’s love for Una equally sits uneasily with his homosexuality or his father worship). Inevitably, the profusion of associations tend to contradict one another; Hartmann Von Aue’s protagonist atones for his incestuous sin by fighting in the crusades; his namesake admit no atonement when he is sent to Stalingrad. Equally, the Aeschylean account of the Eumenides emphasises the founding of the law as an alternative to blood-letting, while the novel’s descent of Aue into insanity only serves as a companion to the derangement of the German Reich and its destruction; Orestes did not follow the murder of Aegisthus and Klytemnestra with the death of Pylades or of the Eumenides themselves. In this respect, one thinks more of the Faust myth and Mann’s adaptation of it in particular. Aue may describe himself as beset by the kindly ones at the conclusion of the novel, but it is clear that he will not face punishment for either his own sins or those of his nation.

These sort of ruptures between the work and the myths it represents are of the same kind as that described by Maurice Blanchot in his account of Sartre’ retelling of the Oresteia. In Sartre’s version, Orestes finds freedom in the realisation of responsibility for his crimes, after having been under Electra’s sway, just as Aue sees each individual as being subordinate to the supreme value of Volk ("the will of this volk was embodied in a leader… it was still necessary to comprehend within oneself the necessity of the Fuhrer’s orders… we had to submit… act in such a way that if the Fuhrer knew of our action, he would approve of it… living out your own will as if it were the Fuhrer’s"). Even Eichman can see how such ideas violate Kant’s ethical imperatives and eventually Aue can as well; "I didn’t have remorse, I didn’t feel guilty.. yet I understood what it meant to hang a girl.. a girl like my sister." To Sartre this implies acceptance of the Furies, rather than denial of the horror through remorse.

"The meaning of the double murder is that he can only be truly free by the ordeal of an act whose unbearable consequences he accepts and bears…. The hero claims all the responsibility for what he has done; the act belongs to him absolutely; he is this act, which is also his existence and his freedom. Yet this freedom is not yet complete. One is not free if one is the only one free, for the fact of freedom is linked to the revelation of existence in the world. Orestes must then not only destroy the law of remorse for himself, but he must abolish it for others and through the unique manifestation of his freedom establish an order from which inner reprisals and the legions of terrifying justice have disappeared… It would be infantile to think that by his fearful murder he has rid himself of everything, that, free of remorse and continuing to want what he did even after having done it, he is finished with his act and outside of its consequences. On the contrary, it is now that he will sound the surprising abyss of horror and naked fear that dogmatic beliefs no longer veil, the abyss of naked, free existence, free of complacent superstitions…. He is free; reconciliation with forgetfulness and repose is no longer permitted him; from now on he can only be associated with despair"

One might think of a Faust who embraces his damnation. Nonetheless, Blanchot complains that Sartre’s play lacks ‘impiety against real piety’ in its depiction of the killing of Aegisthus; one rather wonders if Littell has not decided to posthumously furnish Blanchot with such an example; certainly the paradox of Aue declaring that he is beset by the Kindly Ones when he feels no remorse nor has anything to fear from the police or allies is a contradiction of the same kind Sartre offers; "I am not talking about remorse, or about guilt. These too exist, no doubt, I don’t want to deny it, but I think things are far more complex than that… What I did, I did with my eyes open, believing that it was my duty and that it had to be done, disagreeable or unpleasant as it may have been."

It also plays well to Blanchot’s aesthetic of the literary as "an object capable of rendering contradictory or meaningless any attempt to study it theoretically." At one point, Max quotes Blanchot on Moby Dick; "a work that presents the ironic quality of an enigma and reveals itself only the questions it raises." One does wonder if the Nazis are perhaps the most suitable subject for explorations of ambiguity, particularly so when quoting a theorist who had been sympathetic to fascism; nonetheless the impiety Littell requires can only come through denial of our principle taboo, the idea that after Auschwitz there can be no poetry. Certainly, the novel possesses a polyphonic aspect by virtue of the way its narrator is able to play against our conventional moral judgements, as when Nazi officers state they plan war crimes tribunals over the Soviet massacres in the Ukraine or against the British for their bombing of civilians in German citizens or when Aue compares the Reich’s methods to those used by the British and French in defending their empire or by the Americans in defending their commerical interests. Nonetheless, one wonders if this doesn’t undermine some of Littell’s ethical ideas; on the one hand Aue’s crimes have to plumb the depths of the abyss in order to complete his project, on the other Aue must also serve as an Everyman figure, as when Aue declares that "I am a man like other men, I am a man like you." One think of Simone Weill’s declaration that:

"Nothing is so beautiful and wonderful, nothing is so continually fresh and surprising, so full of sweet and perpetual ecstasy, as the good. No desert is as dreary, boring and monotonous as evil. This is the truth about good and evil. With fictional good and evil it is the other way round. Fictional good is boring and flat, while fictional evil is varied and intriguing, attractive, profound and full of charm."

Littell seems to have no wish to break the mould in this respect; the extremity of Aue’s actions inevitably distance him from being an exemplar of the banality of evil that he attributes to the assorted Nazi bureaucrats he meets. Max’s statement that military doctors find women’s underwear underneath the uniforms of the wounded more often than you’d think only serves to illustrate the contradiction. For example Aue’s narration speaks of a "good family man who wanted to feed his children and who obeyed his government, even though in his innermost being he didn’t entirely agree… free will has nothing to do with it" But in practice, Aue only ever disagrees with national socialism on practical or tactical matters; he remains a believer throughout and is rather less cynical about matters than many of the other characters. Littell advocates a Greek rather than Christian morality in response to this, just as Oedipus was guilty of slaying his mother even unknowingly (and as Aue cannot remember killing his mother and step-father), so too is an SS officer guilty when only obeying orders; "the link between will and crime is a christian notion" Nonetheless, the Sartrean project behind the novel still requires Aue to accept responsibility, not merely to state that punishment is independent of volition.