Reading Cioma Schönhaus's The Forger: An Extraordinary Story of Survival in Wartime Berlin
Unpacked books in our store space in Westport, NY

Further thoughts on Cioma Schönhaus's The Forger and other books, plus some thoughts on Internet re-socialization

This weekend, preparing to drive upstate to work on our bookstore-to-be, I brought along Joanna Russ's What Are We Fighting For? along to read. I arrived in Westport, NY at the stroke of midnight, and read until about 1AM, and then finished the first chapter in the morning. It was great to hear Joanna's voice again: she is one of those writers whose speaking voice I can hear clearly in her written prose, and I found that reunion quite delightful. Her analysis of Janice Radway's Reading the Romance is something I wish I'd read a few years before she published it back when I was assigned the book in a Sociology of Literature class in grad school. I found a lot to object to about the Radway book at the time, and having back-up from Joanna Russ would have been great.  

But nonetheless, the bell hooks style third-wave feminism in the same chapter seemed to me to make the chapter's argument a bit muddled. You can't really talk about romance readers in the same chapter as trying to decenter feminism from white upper-middle-class heterosexual feminists without leaving the impression that this generations' women who got married and had kids are simply reactionaries who have made some kind of terrible mistake. 

Perhaps this is the way you had to begin a feminist tract in the mid-90s, but I put the book aside for later reading. If Joanna were really present in that captivating narrative voice, I would have argued with her about this. But a book is only a book, and she published it 13 years ago. If I wanted to argue, I should have read it a while back.

And so emptying boxes into our store space and shelving the books, I came across Cioma Schönhaus's The Forger, which as I said in my previous post, I bought on a book buying trip on the way to Balticon. (I sold a domain name to an Internet bookseller, and part of my payment was in books, so we had to go to the store to collect.)

Structurally, The Forger, is a similar narrative to Bill Mason's Confessions of a Master Jewel Thief, which I read in April: Schönhaus lead the same kind of glamorous semi-underground adrenaline-soaked audacious lifestyle as Mason, leading -- after a while of audacity -- to major man-hunts and having to go seriously underground, except that Schönhaus's life of crime was aimed at saving the lives of Jews in Nazi Germany. (Reading these books back-to-back would be a somewhat uncomfortable experience.) The way each of them thrived was by assessing social expectations, and then confounding them. And in both books there is the issue of trust and betrayal, and how these men lived while being both socially gregarious and trusting almost no one. We give Schönhaus the moral high ground as a hero of the resistance, where as Mason is just an ex-criminal with an interesting tale to tell.

In addition to issues of pseudonymity, discussed previously, the other thing I found really fascinating about the book was the mismatch between the rapid re-socialization of the population taking place in Nazi-era Berlin, and people's disbelief and denial that this could possibly be happening; I commented upon a similar mis-match evident in Kazimierz Sakowicz's Ponary Diary 1941-1943: A bystander's Account of a Mass Murder. A key line from Sakowitcz:

Evidently, [Jewish mothers about to be thrown into mass graves with their children] expected that when the clothing was collected the children hidden in that way [under it] might be saved. Unfortunately. (p. 73)

The book I read just before coming up to Westport for the weekend was James Morrow's very well-researched novel The Last Witchfinder. Moment by moment, the re-socialization of the populace during witch hunts bears an eerie resemblance to the observed details in Holocaust accounts, which is, I guess, the phenomenon which Hannah Arendt referred to as "the banality of evil" in the context of Adolf Eichmann. But the focus on one man, Eichmann, does not give us access to the broader problem -- rapid re-socialization on a large scale that makes this more like a problem in epidemiology. Certainly, there are sociopaths in the word, but what causes epidemics of otherwise normal people who behave in a way one would expect of a sociopath?

A few years ago, I viewed the Internet as a vehicle for spreading compassion, spreading empathy, allowing the possibility that someone like me from her dining room could spontaneously arrive at ways to help individual people on the other side of the world who are in many ways nothing like me; that my son could draw a cheerful picture for a little boy in Pakistan who spent four hours buried in the rubble after an earthquake (and he did).

Lately, I have come to view the Internet as a vehicle for rapid re-socialization, much of it for the worse. I see a sudden Internet-induced lack of empathy, compassion, and even basic sympathy, in what I regard as a population of normal (by which I mean not sociopathic) people. I see mean-girl behavior in adult women that would get them sent to the Vice Principal's office under no-bullying policies if they were sixth grade girls at my son's school; I see violent ideation expressed publicly; I see demonization (sometimes literally); and I see this passing by without opposition from the communities within which these are expressed. 

I find this very worrisome. None of  the theories we have about how people behave in large numbers can adequately account for behavior on the Internet because the Internet is too new. A few years ago, I thought of the Internet as a potential solution to many things, and as a tool for spreading compassion across international and cultural boundaries. Now I begin to see it as the opposite: a tool used by others for the mass elimination of empathy, and as a problem rather than a solution.

Just where is it that we are going from here?