Putting the Audience through a Difficult Evening

I have neither read nor seen Aunt Dan and Lemon, so can’t comment on any of the specifics of the piece, but reading through Wallace Shawn’s justification (or “justification”) put me in mind of another work touching on how we process atrocity (and specifically the atrocities of the Second World War), Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones.

The Kindly Ones is a thousand-page doorstop of a book narrated by a fictional SS officer who leads us through the war and the Holocaust as he participates in them, first reluctantly and then with increasing enthusiasm (and here I keep typing variations of “until he eradicates his humanity entirely,” but that feels wrong – much of the point of the book is the very humanness of evil).

In his introduction (framing the novel as a reminiscence years after he has slipped back, unpunished, into the general public) he makes the point that “in most cases the man standing above the mass grave no more asked to be there than the one lying … at the bottom of the pit.” And it’s both a repellent, self-serving justification for participating in evil, and true. Tracing his experiences, the reader is pulled sickeningly through a set of circumstances and decisions where one is forced to ask “what would I do differently?” Not in a general sense (“I wouldn’t have been a Nazi!”) but in the moment – how do all of these small actions and inactions add up to the greater horror? And what, in those specific circumstances, is the just, moral, ethical thing to do?

We are deeply reluctant to admit that we have anything in common with people whose behaviors we rightly see as monstrous. We want to see fascism (or indeed any system of brutality) as inherently and totally amoral. And yet, if you concede one small central point, that outsiders are not human (or not sentient, or the implacable enemy of the insiders), the system becomes completely moral. Who wouldn’t take the initiative to eradicate what he or she sees as evil (the depravity of the outsiders) and defend the virtues of love, purity, the home, the family, etc., even if it means doing something hideous?

So perhaps that point is the one to stand on and guard with your life – that the true evil is not the atrocity itself but the division of the world into “us” and “them.” I’ve often thought that there’s really no such thing as true altruism – nobody acts on behalf of others, at the bottom of it. But we can and often do act on behalf of our families and loved ones, which is a sort of selfish selflessness. We see those we identify with as extensions of ourselves. If we wish to avoid repeating atrocity, the trick is therefore to grow our sense of “us” until there is no more “them.” Not to behave benevolently towards outsiders, but to recognize everyone as an insider.

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