A Nazi Zelig: Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones | The Nation


A Nazi Zelig: Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones

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At all of these levels, the novel teems with erudite allusions, beginning with classical sources, which are in turn refracted through recent intellectual currents deeply embedded in the novel's orchestration. The novel's title is the euphemistic moniker for the Furies of Greek mythology and the title of the third part of Aeschylus' Oresteia sequence. In Aeschylus' telling, the Erinyes, or Furies, are forced by Athena's intervention in their relentless pursuit of Orestes for killing his mother to become the "Eumenides," or kindly ones, and join her in generously acquitting him of his crime. Indeed, the bare facts of the Oresteia provide the template for the specific acts Aue commits, and the defensive contrition of his preface certainly indicates that he expects a similar act of redemption.

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Samuel Moyn
Samuel Moyn is professor of law and history at Harvard University. His most recent book is Human Rights and the...

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Littell updates these classical themes by recalibrating their dynamics with psychoanalytic theories, especially the unclassifiable German thinker Klaus Theweleit's old and generally forgotten analysis of the psychology of fascism. (Theweleit became the chief German defender of The Kindly Ones and a pen pal with its author.) A generation ago, Theweleit published Male Fantasies, which analyzed the inner lives of the Freikorps, a group of soldiers who refused to demobilize after World War I and formed paramilitary units to put down the socialist revolution whose specter briefly haunted German cities. (Aue's father, not coincidentally, was a Freikorps officer.) Theweleit's theory focused--rather impressively at the time--on the psychic, lived reality of reactionaries. He highlighted, most of all, their desperate attempt to expunge any traces of femininity from their being, to achieve an impermeable "armored" body that would repel the miasma of pestilence and infirmity they attributed to the revolutionary left. Theweleit's influence shows most of all in the "atmospherics" of The Kindly Ones: in Aue's constant, striking immersion in viscous fluids--mud and his own shit, above all, but also vomit and semen. Far more than any explicit killing, it is the almost constant eruption and flow of greasy putrescence that saturates these pages with an inescapable feeling of nausea and abjection.

Yet Littell just as clearly wants to apply Theweleit's meditations on the psychosexual roots of reactionary politics to the Nazi era--and to a deeper syndrome. Another title for The Kindly Ones, given this aspiration, might have been Female Fantasies. For Aue, the goal is anything but to expel the feminine; it is to revel in and return to the feminine, and the various strands of his life are all dyed in the hue of this wish. Indeed, he has an intuitive understanding of Theweleit's discoveries before their time, and the femininity that could "wreck" men's "dominion" and "dissolve their control," so secretly feared by Theweleit's fascists, is precisely the self-loss that Aue consciously seeks.

Above all, the plot's fundamental motor, and the heart of Aue's quest, is his incestuous passion for his twin sister, Una. Aue's homosexuality is one feature of his governing fantasy to rejoin his sister, even to be her, or perhaps to return to their enwombed unity. Aue hates his mother for breaking up his love affair with his sister (and for driving away their father). But other passages indicate that Aue's melancholic longing for Una is fixated on something early and metaphysical and not late and sexual. In an aside during his work for Himmler, Aue confesses to missing "that other life that could have been, if something hadn't been broken so early. It wasn't just the question of my sister; it was vaster than that, it was the entire course of events, the wretchedness of the body and of desire, the decisions you make and on which you can't go back, the very meaning you choose to give this thing that's called, perhaps wrongly, your life."

The symbol of the twin--and, without giving too much away, it bears noting that there are many pairs of twins in the novel--seems to stand for the outrageous imperfection that drives Aue's transgression: the constant presence in the psyche of another, more perfect self one also knows is lost forever. All of Aue's regressive fantasies of reconciliation come to a head late in the novel in an extraordinary onanistic interlude--a sordid but unexpectedly spellbinding one--in which he indulges in his sister's empty house, as Soviet troops remorselessly close in. And yet, even in his orgy of self-involvement, Aue recognizes that he seeks not sexual ecstasy but metaphysical bliss. It is "these imaginings, these forever rehearsed obsessions, and not the thing itself," Aue says (emphasis added), "that are the frantic driving forces behind our thirst for life, for knowledge, for the agonizing struggle of self."

A rather obvious parallel is Thomas Mann's Death in Venice. Much as for Gustav von Aschenbach, the symbolism of personal abasement and perhaps extinction through feminine transformation is central to the landscape of Aue's dreams, some of which--notably an epic reverie after he is shot in the head at Stalingrad--are enigmatic in the extreme. It is also as a kind of feminine self-loss that Aue understands what one might otherwise criticize as an utterly stereotypical link between his Nazism and his homosexuality. The comparison with Death in Venice extends to Littell's crystalline and resolutely unexperimental prose style: dreams and sexuality trigger thematic fireworks, but the rhetoric is almost always measured, and the syntax never breaks down.

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