[This is reposted from my earlier blog because I want to link to it from a 2020 post. It first appeared on 19 May 2009 – JS]
It’s a truism that as men get older we prefer non-fiction to fiction. I hesitate to say that that’s true me in particular, but this collection of lectures by Bernhard Schlink thrills me much more than The Reader did some years ago. The Reader was a bloody good, thought-provoking read. Guilt about the Past strikes sparks from my brain with just about every paragraph.
These essays/lectures deal with the question of collective guilt: is it a legitimate concept, and if so what is to be done about it? Who has the right to forgive? How can a valid reconciliation be achieved between those who inherit a shared history of monstrous deeds in which their forebears were perpetrators and objects respectively? Bernhard Schlink has recent German history in mind and refrains from talking about his subject in universal terms, but what he manages to articulate is powerfully relevant to all manner of situations. He talks in terms of law, and morality where it’s not covered by law. I won’t try to write a proper review here, but recommend that you read the book. It’s short, clear, and lively. Every time I picked it up, as I flicked through the pages looking for my place, sentences would leap out at me. At random:
The notion that the past could be brought into form and order is foreign to the law.
… simply stated, everyone whose relationships have been damaged can reconcile. While forgiveness lifts the burden of guilt from the guilty parties, reconciliation merely makes it a bit lighter.
… understanding does not have only positive connotations.
… my mother was right. If a person does not believe in a forgiving God, then they have to live with their guilt when they can no longer obtain forgiveness from the person they injured.
The book is very readable, but I’ll need to re-read it and meditate on it.
Snow White: Life Almost Lost, on the other hand, does the meditating for you. It’s a discussion of the fairy story from the point of view of a Jungian therapist. Much wisdom is dispensed about the challenges of the inner life, and the Grimm Brothers’ 1859 version of the tale provides a mostly plausible springboard for it, but Herr Seifert surely sets a record of some kind by taking 32 pages of discussion to get us through the first 45 words of the story – and that’s without any attention to ‘Once upon a time’! The words themselves, in case you need reminding:
Once upon a time in the middle of winter, snowflakes were falling like feathers from heaven; a queen was sitting at a window that had a frame of black ebony, and she was sewing. As she sewed and looked up at the snow, she pricked her finger with the needle.
You’ll have to read the book to discover what profundities about life and death, hope and despair, belief, imagination, love, law and deprivation those words contain – assuming that like me you can’t see these profundities unaided.
My favourite couple of sentences, from much later in the book (remember there is no married couple in the story, until the wedding in its last paragraph):
Even after many years of marriage, going to bed at different times is still a problem for many couples. Every evening they suffer the same irritation: The one has to go now, the other can’t go yet. Each always experiences this as a form of a seeming demand; and without exception the mate is accused. We talk only of what the other did to us; we do not talk of our own lack of readiness to risk corresponding conflict and stand up for our own wishes. Ultimately all these poisoned thoughts suffocate our soul, just as the bodice laces suffocated Snow White.
Leaving aside the incomprehensible phrases, which can probably be laid at the translator’s door, this measures up fabulously against some of the most ingenious of mediaeval biblical hermeneutics. And for all that, and for all the preoccupation with marriage as the one road to a fully human life, I have come away from the book with a much deeper appreciation of the Snow White story.