Tag Archives: historical methodology

On the Romantic Erasure of Jewish Identity, and Other Erotic Sundries

I read an article today by a Jewish woman lambasting a work of romantic fiction written by a Christian woman. The gist of the reviled book is that a Jewish girl is taken under the wing of a concentration camp commandant, they fall in love, and in the end they convert to Christianity and save Jews from the Nazi maw. Something like that.

The reviewer in question was utterly outraged, first that a non-Jew was even writing from the perspective of a Jewish woman; second that any redemption could be had by any Nazi but especially the commander of a concentration camp; three that such dross has a right to be published at all. I disagree, albeit respectfully, with each of these concerns.


My first and paramount disagreement is that an outsider cannot, ought not write about the perspective of another–in this case, and it is an extreme case, about the seminal tragedy of the Jewish people: the Holocaust. Emotionally, this subject is notable for several reasons, its close proximity to the present day, its enormity, the methodicalness with which it was carried out, the unparalleled historical evidence for its breadth, sadism, and efficiency…No event in recorded history can match the Holocaust in pints of blood or reams of paper. Controversy is inevitable.

That a Jew is insulted, enraged, baffled, betrayed at the sight of a romance set during this time is understandable. I as an outsider in every way, when I put my mind to it, can imagine the intellectual outrage, create my own sense of emotional distress, work up an appetite for blood. Are my emotions a mere echo, a mimicry, a farce of the genuine article? There is no objective way to know. I suspect that the immediacy of my recreation soon wears off, while her emotions linger. I suspect that her reaction is stronger than mine, more concentrated. I suspect that both are personal, although in differing ways. Both are real, in the sense of being experienced, although clearly hers are the more intense. It is a matter of degrees, I think, and not of validity.

And regardless of degree, both require honesty. She needs to be honest in the use of her memory, a tricky device and prone to error, exaggeration, and outright fabrication. I, experiencing second hand, need to be honest in my humility and genuine in my attempt to research and grapple with something outside my immediate sensory experience. Both have their flaws and limitations. Both are acts of constructing order out of chaotic data.

Her criticism strikes at the very heart of what I believe the point of writing is. I approach fiction much like I approach history, as a process by which empathy is had for my fellow man. Rousseau was not wrong in surmising that pitie is a natural part of the human mind, but it dulls in the face of competition, rivalry, jealousy. Sometimes it disappears altogether, at least functionally.

Great fiction (and history in this sense is fiction because the historical narrative is a product of the imagination), effective fiction, is empathetic. It is the author’s admission that his is not the only perspective, that even through his own prejudices and limitations (necessary to the creative process as they are) he can see that there are other stories than his own, other perspectives than the one he assumes to be correct on a daily basis, other modes of thought and being than the ones that he finds comfortable and natural.

It is an imperfect process to be sure. I can never know what it was like to be in the Holocaust, either as guard or as condemned, ditto for growing up in a Jewish family in the wake of that cataclysm. But I can imagine. I can surmise. And I can honestly put myself into the shoes of another, doing my best to see what she sees, breath what she breathes, think what she thinks. In doing so, I will never be able to recreate the objective reality of the past. Fiction cannot do that; history cannot either (nor memory, if we’re being honest). I can, however, recreate at least a semblance of the subjectivity of the human creature.

When done in good faith (and careful research is a prerequisite to this fidelity), fiction is a way for the subjective to bend, expand, look upon itself. In this way our common humanity is better understood–and our differences (in opinion, in custom, in disposition) are made rational, are made understandable to the outsider.


Now, what of redemption? I should first mention that the Christian idea of redemption makes sense in this context. All can be saved if they only embrace the Truth that is Jesus Christ. In so doing, they shed their pride and thus deserve (earn, are given–depending on your theology) salvation. A counter-intuitive notion, to be sure, and one that Christians have trouble putting into practice (witness the hatred felt towards child molesters, as an example), but an ideal of many Christian denominations it certainly is.

So, that a Christian author would find the idea that a Nazi could be redeemed plausible and indeed quite compelling as an exemplar for the power of God to forgive all his creations, is not an irrational turn of events. Nor is it strange that a Jew would take umbrage at this. The Jewish God is not so loving as the Christian, and the tone of His interaction with the world shifts radically from the Old to the New Testament. The two perspectives are so radically different as to make compromise practically impossible.

Theology aside, I believe that all people deserve redemption in the historical sense of that word. What I mean is, as a historian, it is my duty to throw my imagination into the perspective of anyone that becomes my subject of study, regardless of their thoughts or actions. It is the closest thing I can do to allowing my subject the objectivity–the lack of unconscious or irrationally strong bias–that makes for genuine, honest history, that is to say history done in good faith.

It is in this way that we lose the temptation to grind axes, vomit polemics, or pass vitriol off as scholarship. In this way we judiciously, carefully weave our prejudices into the fabric of the work, balancing them as best we can against whatever facts we unearth. No bias can be totally erased, but it can be tempered. In that equilibrium resides an honest picture of the past–not complete, but a valiant effort in that direction.

Historical redemption is also a humanizing activity. It reminds us, by forcing us to look at the motivations behind what we presently consider the most heinous acts, that it is not a monster we are studying. It is not a demon that has attracted our historical curiosity, who begs for our historical judgment. Our subject is nothing as special as all that. It is merely a man, with a man’s strengths, a man’s motivations, a man’s imperfections.

Morally, it whispers into our presently arrogant ear that we, as humans like once they were, have the same potential for good and for ill, that the actions that we take will have consequences–intended or no–just as theirs did, that the future will judge our actions with as much narrowness of perspective as we now judge our progenitors.

Whatever their reasons were, the Nazis perpetrated the worst slaughter that recorded history has preserved. This should sober us, terrify us to the reality of human motivation: that given enough energy, we can justify anything. Being reminded of that, we of the present should show the caution and restraint so seldom seen by those whom we claim to have bettered. We are our past. Those people were and are us. Their mistakes were ours, the mistakes of the race. Only when we own up to them, our wrong-doings, can we internalize them, learn from them, possibly outgrow them. History is a laboratory experiment 1000 generations running. We are as much lab rats today as in the days of Hammurabi. After so much trial and error, will we ever escape this maze?


My final quibble is with the idea that such a work as this, being insensitive to a minority community, being historically ignorant, being racist in its erasure of Jewish identity by a Christian one, ought not have the right to be published at all. My gut reaction to such a statement is horror. After all, the first amendment is what allows me to write whatever I want without fear of recourse. It has its limits, libel for instance, but realistically my speech seems freer than at any other time or place in recorded history. The majority will always find ways to silence the minority, but the official response is so ridiculously weak that I have no fear of having the hammer of the law smite me for what I put to print.

The question becomes is that a good thing? The outraged author to whom I am responding says that such fiction as this is dangerous in its ability to nullify the identity of another. She is rightfully concerned that free speech is dangerous. It certainly is. Freedom is fraught with danger. Do the benefits outweigh these?

I am inclined to say yes.

Philosophically, or perhaps politically, a free exchange of ideas seems of genuine practical value, for it–hopefully–results in a weeding out of the less-well-thought-out stuff, and through the continual editorial process of criticism and response, would yield something better. But this seems hard to quantify, or to prove.

I will say that the potential allotted to a people possessed of free speech seems more fraught with peril, but also so much higher, than a people trammeled with the safety of a controlled mind. Strife breeds necessity, and necessity creativity. And there is no place where creativity is more necessary than in the products of the human imagination.

So there it is, a respectful disagreement. Can the internet handle such a thing? …And there I am being self-righteous. We can all breath a collective sigh of relief.

On Motivation

Why do we do the things that we do? Because we are motivated to do so. But what motivates us? What makes us move? There are, it seems, two possible alternatives to this question. 1. Reasons 2. Mechanisms. The relationship between the two is confusing, at least to me.

Let us start with an example of an explanational schema. Let us start with Freud, because he is on my mind and people don’t talk about him as much as his legacy deserves. He is not popular, therefore I like him.

Freud was something of a biological determinist. He looked to bodily drives and impulses, to instincts and passions, for his explanations of human action. Hence the universality of his Oedipal complex, of penis envy, and the like. These were not constructs merely; they were concrete phases of human development, differing shapes the mind took in reaction to the near universal stimulants presented to it through its early development.

Where does that leave motivation? Well, if the biological motivations of human action are universal, Freud would have to explain our differing rationales for similar actions. He did so through the method of free association, whereby the analyst prompted a few questions, let the analysand talk and talk, gradually pealing back the layers of rationalization (a term coined by a psychoanalyst), ultimately revealing the true man under the armor of the Super Ego.

Freud’s answer, then, was that our explanations are not accurate in fact, but geared towards the expectations society places upon us, those we think society places upon us, and those we place upon ourselves. Ultimately, however, the reason we give for doing things is a veil, masking raw biological fact.

In his treatise on religion, Freud hits these same marks, postulating that religion, that myth is a comfort against the unexplainable. It makes the mysterious less frightening by imbuing it with human characteristics that we can understand, predict, control, or rebel against. It gives us hope. It gives us community. It keeps the uncontrolled Id at bay.

Is Freud right? What motivates us? As a student of history, I have been asking myself this question without coming to any kind of satisfactory answer.

Why did Herclius sail all the way from Spain, usurp the Byzantine throne, fight his way to the gates of the Persian capital as Constantinople lay besieged, vanquish Byzantium’s foes, and then do almost nothing when, at the end of his reign, the Muslims attacked? Historically, analysis has focused on perhaps his Roman patriotism, his religious fervor, his youthful zest compared to the atrophy of an old age gained in the wake of victory. Couple this with the youthful Islam against the fractured Christianity of the East, and you get your historical narrative.

But what does that really explain? Why did Heraclius do what he did? Because of his religious motivation. What caused that? His upbringing, maybe the Christian creed meshing with his mental constitution. What constitutes a mentality, and how do the words of others interact with that?

It is easy to say that rational causes rest on a foundation of biological processes. I write because I want to. I want to because the act of writing causes chemical X to react with chemical Y and yield outcome Z. But how does one interplay with the other? When I write even when it does not yield a positive chemical response, why do I write? Because of some repressed desire to punish myself? Does that come from a different chemical?

To ask how motivation splits into reason and mechanism and how those parts interact is, I suspect, the same as asking how man splits into mind and body, and then asking how one interacts with the other. Perhaps it is the wrong question to ask. Perhaps it is a false dichotomy.

Humans like to explain things. They do not like to have their explanations questioned or dissected. Or doubted. Freud faced much criticism manfully, honestly even, but psychoanalysis was still his baby, and not infrequently his rebuttals were witty but unable fully to grapple with the issue at hand. He has been criticized much too harshly for this. He was a much more astute methodologist than some give him credit for. Still, he had a worldview and brooking naysayers was not his natural bent.

How do we explain his defensiveness? With an assertion: humans like to explain things. And a corollary: they do not like to have their explanations criticized. What evidence do I have to support this? Experience. Anecdote. The authority of a blog. What caused this facet of human behavior? Evolution. Isn’t evolution just a long term manifestation of genetic change? Then how do genes motivate people? They imbue proclivities. How?

Magic. People do things because Magic.

Happy Easter.


Why I like Froissart

Jean Froissart wrote a chronicle of the happenings of his day and age, covering events in and around 1320-1400 AD.

(Aside: Is anyone else perturbed by postmodern scholars using CE instead of AD? You know what gets me about the whole thing? What the heck does Common Era even mean? Common to whom, stuffy academicians? Islamic states don’t share this dating system in common with us: they date their events from the Hijra of Muhammad. If we want to grant that enough of the (West) world is no longer Christian, or realistically that enough of the (West) world is only nominally Christian, that’s all fine and good. How’s about we do the valiant thing and start fresh. If we want to use something as nauseating as Common Era, then I guess that’s ok too, albeit a begrudging ok from me, as this commonality is an elusive, mushy thing; but let’s start the CE at a proper date and time, whenever that might be. Oh, but that would be inconvenient, and when would we start it anyhow, oh and wouldn’t that upset a lot of people? Yeah, change is kinda like that. I don’t think the Pagan remnants of the later Roman Empire were very pleased when the Christians popularized their own dating system. Not everyone appreciates Progress.

But let’s be clear here: this Common Era, so called, starts when Christ entered the scene. Doesn’t that sit oddly with anyone else? Yeah, he’s just another man among many great men, but because it is convenient, we’re going to keep the whole count down and aftermath of his coming and going, which kinda makes it seem like he’s a little more important than, say, Muhammad, just to pick a name randomly. If Jesus was not the son of God, or if that is the consensus now, then maybe we should devise a dating system that doesn’t put the special pants on him, huh?)

Valiance: that is why I like Froissart and his Chronicle. It is chock full of men doing deeds brave and valorous. More importantly from my perspective: I am only 100 pages into it, an abridged version at that!, and I am vaguely aware that further along in the thing he puts more emphasis on his patrons than on *the other guy*, but thus far he has done admirably what too few historians and too few people have done: given the opponent a fair shake.

That requires valor to accomplish.

What makes treating your opponent like a fucking human being courageous? It certainly does not benefit those on the battlefield. I suspect the Russian soldier at Kursk, amidst the clamor and roar of thousand upon thousands of German planes and tanks and artillery pieces, amidst the howl of millions of Teutonic soldiers pouring out across the scarred and battle-worn landscape, would not have taken a moment to remind himself that, hey, most of them Germans probably didn’t want to be here in the first place. I bet a lot of them were conscripted, and could care less about Hitler’s increasingly deranged ideas about the Destiny of the Fatherland. Even the officers, many of whom were only in the army because it was the thing to do in Germany, not particularly because they were ardent Nazis, even they were not horrible guys. Wow, even the diehard Nazis themselves, well, I guess a lot of them have families, children, Christmas morning–or whatever those weird Germans do over there–heck, I probably don’t disagree with everything they have to say. It’s just that part about needing all us Slavs dead to make room for their Reich…that doesn’t fit too well with me wanting to live and all that. Guess that means I’ll have to fight it out with them. That’s pretty logical of me.

No, this Russian conscript no doubt considered the Germans bloodthirsty rapists who ought every one of them to be thrown back into the decadent West, and killed if possible. Because it’s that kind of dehumanization that makes conflict winnable. When a politician wants to be “tough on crime,” he doesn’t mention any of the terrifyingly understandable reasons one might break the law; he doesn’t look at the possibility that, maybe, the punishment ought fit the crime, and that the code of Hammurabi might not be the best place to draw inspiration from; and he doesn’t mention to his voters how ineffective and often cruel the crime fighting methods at his disposal are; he simply labels all humans breaking the law (and getting caught, that’s an important distinction) as “criminals.” That makes it easier to stomach the notion that he might be allowing the lifetime confinement of another human being, because he’s not imprisoning a man, he’s imprisoning a criminal.

That Russian isn’t about the get his bayonet stuck in the ribs of a man who will never see his family again; he’s gutting a capitalist swine.

I’m not strapping another human being into a restraint bed and holding him still while a nurse injects chemicals into his body; I’m restraining one of the crazies.

Froissart is no saint when it comes to stuff like this. I am given to understand he is the opposite of understanding when it comes to men not of the knightly class. Still, I think it admirable of him to write a history so that, as he puts it, “…the honorable enterprises, noble adventures, and deeds of arms which took place during the wars waged by France and England should be fittingly related and preserved for posterity, so that brave men should be inspired thereby to follow such examples.”

And so far, at his account of the Battle of Crecy for example, he gives fair play to both sides, recounting the valor of individual knights regardless of the banner under which he does battle.

I think it healthy to remind ourselves, through flawed writers like Froissart, that what we deal with in our lives are other people. Labels are necessary as organizational tools and concise descriptors; they ought not replace a man’s heart with a foreign piece of clockwork.