The Kindly Ones: The Anti-Hero is Us


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Skull, B.Media

The real danger for mankind is me, is you. And if you’re not convinced of this, don’t bother to read any further. You’ll understand nothing and you’ll get angry, with little profit for you or me.

–Jonathan Littell, The Kindly Ones

As many of you know, my writings are preoccupied with the question of innocence. The question of innocence inevitably begs the question of guilt. As a perceptive reader, Mark Kerstetter noted in my short article about Michael Jackson, “I do believe he desperately and tragically sought innocence. It’s an inexhaustible theme: how is an adult innocent?”

When the reviews and appraisals of Michael Jackson’s life flowed into cyberspace after his death, I thought for sure this man is a perfect example of my theme. A larger-than-life entertainer who strove for innocence and yet lived in dangerous proximity to its opposite.

Also, I’ve been researching the new culture of self-medication, and wanting to write an article on the topic. Can a culture consumed with self-medication really be so naive? Aren’t we all just looking to cover up the pain somehow?

Strange is life when you open the mind to associations, parallels, and linkages . . . I went to Borders today to have my coffee and read the Times. This is not unusual for me; I go to Borders nearly every day. But today I did not read the Times. Instead, I wandered up and down the aisles, glancing at the latest hardcovers.

You haven’t read any book reviews of mine because I haven’t read many books lately–or at least finished them. The newspapers take up all my time and attention. As a writer, they do fairly well to fuel my inspiration. (Disclaimer:  This is not exactly a book review, a book preview, rather)

In my article, “Is the Internet Killing Culture?” I discuss how I abruptly stopped reading “serious” literature. I read literature for nearly ten years, inside and outside of college, covering vast swathes of French, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Austrian, and Italian literature.

At the time, I read few contemporary novels, even fewer American contemporary authors. I read what excited me, what boggled my mind, what catapulted me into writing. The dearth of American literature in recent decades was not something I cared to scrape the bottom of–there were plenty of incredible and delicious novels written by French and Russian authors in the last two centuries.

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Today I opened up a big book. Causally, capriciously, I opened up The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell. Whether a novel is full of brilliance or entirely lacking the scaffolding to hold it together, I always stop to look at those monsters approaching the thousand page mark. Why? Because I am in awe of any author who can discipline their life to write such a long tale. The editorial process is maddening enough, let alone the dedication it takes to sustain a level of productivity for five to ten years.

So this book that I looked upon was large. By the cover I could see it was written in French and translated into English. A cursory examination of the side flap and back cover taught me that it had won France’s most acclaimed literary prize, Prix Goncourt, the same prize Proust won for Vol. 2 of In Search of Lost Time in 1919.

But none of these things usually matter to me more than the first paragraph. When I read the first paragraph of a novel, I generally know enough to know if I want to read more of it. So I stood over the Goliath in the middle of Borders with people flooding into the store and breezing all around me. I began reading:

Oh my human brothers, let me tell you how it happened. I am not your brother, you’ll retort, and I don’t want to know. And it certainly is true that this is a bleak story, but an edifying one too, a real morality play, I assure you. You might find it a bit long–a lot of things happened, after all–but perhaps you’re not in too much of a hurry; with a little luck you’ll have some time to spare. And also, this concerns you; you’ll see that this concerns you. Don’t think I am trying to convince you of anything; after all, your opinions are your own business. If after all these years I’ve made up my mind to write, it’s to set the record straight for myself, not for you. For a long time we crawl on this earth like caterpillars, waiting for the splendid, diaphanous butterfly we bear within ourselves. And then times passes and the nymph stage never comes, we remain larvae–what do we do with such an appalling realization? Suicide, of course, is always an option. But to tell the truth suicide doesn’t tempt me much.

The “bold” lettering is mine. You can see now why this novel caught my attention. It was the voice of the narrator who instantly seduced me into wanting to know more about his particular troubles and woes, but even more than that I believe it was the narrator’s self-knowledge that compelled me to pick up the book and bring it over to the small tables in the cafe where I set down my coffee and continued reading.

The title comes from the trilogy of ancient Greek tragedies, The Oresteia, written by Aeschylus. It refers to the Furies who were vengeful goddesses that tormented anyone who murdered a parent. In the story by Aeschylus, the Furies are transformed into merciful goddesses instead of spiteful ones by the goddess Athena. They are renamed the Eumenides or “The Kindly Ones”.

What this has to do with the book I have no idea. I am simply mesmerized by the complexity of the narrator’s thoughts, his intelligence, and humanity. The voice of the narrator in fact recalls to me reading Proust, whose narrator seduced me much the same, although the temperaments of the narrators are probably nothing alike. But that too, I can’t confirm yet . . .

How can one not identify with this?

Ask yourselves: You, yourselves, what do you think of, through the course of a day? Very few things, actually. Drawing up a systematic classification of your everyday thoughts would be easy: practical or mechanical thoughts, planning your actions and your time (example: setting the coffee to drip before brushing your teeth, but toasting the bread afterward, since it doesn’t take as long); work preoccupations; financial anxieties; domestic problems; sexual fantasies. I’ll spare you the details. At dinner, you contemplate the aging face of your wife, so much less exciting than your mistress, but a fine woman otherwise, what can you do, that’s life, so you talk about the latest government scandal. Actually, you couldn’t care less about the latest government scandal, but what else is there to talk about? Eliminate those kinds of thoughts, and you’ll agree there’s not much left.

This is a controversial novel. If I previously thought that Michael Jackson was the supreme archetype to my theme of innocence, then Littell has just upped the ante. In the clever guise of a memoir, the novel tells the story of a former SS officer who witnessed the massacres of the Holocaust. He also, we would assume, took part in these massacres; and gave the orders to carry them out.

To be sure, we are now on the opposite end of the spectrum regarding my theme. The narrator’s innocence should not even be in question. Of course, he’s guilty of his crimes. This point seems so obvious we shouldn’t have to debate it. Then again, maybe innocence or guilt is not the point after all . . .

Once again, let us be clear: I am not trying to say I am not guilty of this or that. I’m guilty, you’re not, fine. But you should be able to admit to yourselves that you might also have done what I did.

I’m not even finished with the first chapter when a troubling philosophical thought arises. If this narrator is the quintessential anti-hero–a Nazi–then how is it possible that I identify with him as a man?

He’s neither psychotic, nor a sadist, but he’s committed these crimes against humanity and I haven’t. If not for his fundamental evil, what separates us?

A rare author elicits this kind of recognition in her audience. Literature has the power to bend reality with language. I believe Jonathan Littell has done just that.

CRA 7-4-09


Browse The Kindly Ones on Harper Collins Publishers

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Read more of my essays on Escape into Life