Thursday, October 25, 2012

Winter of Some Other World

The other day I heard a scientist on the radio wondering aloud whether colors really exist. It seemed, to say the least, a peculiar question to ponder. How could colors not exist? Aren’t things different colors? But the further we got into the interview the more interesting the question became. Colors, obviously, are some aspect of what we see in the world.  So what we really mean when we say that color exists, or that a specific color exists, is that our brains interpret the specific way light refracts off certain objects to yield the conclusion—the entirely intellectual conclusion in that it is rooted in the intellect alone—that those objects all bear the same hue, that they “look” the same. Does that mean that they actually are the same in some absolute sense of the word? Or does it just mean that we see them that way to us given the way our optic nerves work and the way our human brains interpret the signals brought to them by along that particular stretch of the neurological highway that is our perceptive consciousness in all its fullness…and essentially arbitrariness. Do cockroaches, with their tiny little brains, also think red apples are red and green ones green? How could any of us know that?

One day, I’d like a neurologist, ideally a philosophically-oriented yet supreme articulate one like Oliver Sacks, to explain this all to me in a way that doesn’t yield the conclusion that, all perception being midrash of one sort of another, all we know of the world is what we think we do, not what we actually do know in any unassailably absolute way. In the meantime, however, I’ve been thinking about these questions and wondering about them on my own. Is all we know of the world a function of how our brains interpret the data? Would it be possible, therefore, for two people to look at the same apple and for one to “see” it as being red and the other to “see” it as green without either being wrong? I have no idea! But the idea itself is truly intriguing. Maybe what we know of the world is precisely a function of what the signals our brains receive mean to us…not in unequivocal, unquestionable terms but in the private, idiosyncratic, deeply personal way that we interpret the world all around us by deciphering sensory data partially in the way our brains are hardwired to work and partially in the way we have trained (or willed) them to work all on our own.

It was in the context of these unsettling thoughts about the way we know the world that I finished Ken Follett’s book, Winter of the World, the second installment in his ongoing “Century Trilogy” series depicting life in the twentieth century. It’s a big book—although at 935 pages it isn’t quite as long as the first book in the series, Fall of Giants—and, like its predecessor, it too features the rich, complicated stories of the slightly intertwined lives of five families, one Welsh, one English, one Russian, one German, and one American, as the members of those families make their way through the fourth and fifth decades of the twentieth century. (The first book featured earlier versions of the same families and covered the World War I era, including the years leading up to the war and the ones following its conclusion.)  I’ve always liked Ken Follett’s books. I believe I’ve read all of them, excluding perhaps only some of his very early ones.  I especially loved The Pillars of the Earth and its sequel World Without End, but some of the earlier books I also liked very much—especially A Dangerous Fortune, The Man from St. Petersburg, and The Key to Rebecca. He writes bigger books than ever now—Winter of the World is his third 900+  page book in a row—but his books are still characterized by the same attention to detail, his trademark (and uncanny) ability to sound as though he knows the places he is writing about intimately, his well-known plot twists and clever characterizations, plus his very skillful way of weaving real historical personalities into an otherwise fictitious narrative.  He’s the real thing, Ken Follett. If you haven’t read him, you’re in for a huge treat.

But for all the author’s talent at depicting places and eras other than his or his readers’ own, the world depicted in Winter of the World is not the one in which I live. Nor is the world he describes anything like the world I personally see when I look back on the years about which he is writing. For one (huge) thing, the Shoah—the prism through which I view everything connected with the Second World War—is almost entirely absent. The story features a long section set in Berlin in the late 1930s, but Kristallnacht is left unmentioned. (1938 itself is passed over without comment—the book skips from 1937 to 1939—which from a Jewish point of view is almost unimaginable.) The sole Jew in the book truly to suffer at the hands of the Nazis is a Jewish doctor who is magically sent home from one of the camps and then who, in the style of the saintly Janusz Korczac, selflessly elects personally to accompany the mentally disabled children in his care to their deaths. (His daughter survives but seems successfully to have fled from her own Jewish heritage, which is only subsequently mentioned only negatively with respect to the burden such a heritage constitutes for her as she attempts to assimilate into English society.) The only Jew to belong to one of the five primary families is a Londoner who does not appear to have any specific connection to Judaism or Jewishness other than openly to self-define as a Jew. But that is not exactly my point: the book doesn’t need to be about Jewish people. But to write a thousand-page book about the Second World War in which the Nazis’ war against the Jews is referenced only in passing and never in detail, let alone in graphic detail—that puts the book more in the realm of science fiction than belles-lettres to me, and makes the world it describes into a kind of parallel universe in which many things take place that also took place in the real world but which nevertheless remains a fundamentally alien and unfamiliar version of the actual world in which we all live.

There are occasional references to Nazi anti-Semitism, but the only sustained depictions of politically-motivated Nazi violence are one horrific account of the execution of a gay man in one of the camps and two moving episodes revolving around the Nazis’ efforts to murder the mentally disabled under the so-called Aktion T4 program of forced euthanasia that eventually led to the deaths of about 200,000 physically or mentally handicapped men, women, and children. The first account is strictly about children, but the second appears to feature Jewish individuals, but the author declines to say that clearly and merely allows the readers to draw their own conclusions from the larger context of the narrative. And it is that notion—that the Jewish dead all seem also to fall into a different category of individuals the Nazis hated—that runs through the book and makes it read so strangely to me. The T4 victims are probably Jews (because they are being treated in a Jewish hospital when it was already illegal for Jewish doctors to have Aryan patients), but they are also mentally disabled. The one time readers encounter the Einsatzgruppen, the death squads that murdered entire Jewish communities in the occupied Soviet Union and in Poland, most readers will fail to understand that the Nazis specifically targeted the Jews under their control for annihilation. Erik, a German soldier, accidentally wanders into the forest and, coming across a mass execution in progress, naively asks the officer in charge about the victims.
             Erik spoke to an SS sergeant standing nearby. “Who are
              these people, Sarge?”
             “Communists,” said the man. “From the town. Political
               commissars, and so on.”
             “What, even that little boy?”
             “Jews too,” said the sergeant.
             “Well, what are they, Communists or Jews?”
             “What’s the difference?”
The story of a fabulously beautiful garden in Wales being destroyed to make way for a coal mine is told with more feeling and in greater detail.

Auschwitz itself is mentioned only once, and there it is reported that “hundreds” of Jews died there, not the 1.2 million Jews who were murdered in that place. It is true that in the context of the story itself, we are possibly supposed to imagine that the report of hundreds killed was an example of how wrong the first details regarding the fate of the Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe were, and how understated. But the figure is never corrected, nor is the camp ever mentioned again. Nor is any other camp mentioned by name that I can recall.

And so I come back to my initial  question about colors. Is what we see of the world only what we think we see? I look back on the 1940s and see the Shoah looming so large before my eyes that I can barely perceive the rest of the world just behind and beyond it. I know all about the rest of it. I’ve read the books. I know perfectly well that the Jews were not the Nazis only victims. The story about the murder of the gay man is as grotesque as it is horrific. The story of those poor  disabled children shipped off to their deaths by a system that saw them only as bills to be paid rather than as precious human lives to be cherished defies belief. Yet, to write about the Second World War but to treat the Nazi war against the Jews as a background detail seems beyond peculiar. Or is that just how fiction works, novelists almost by definition telling one specific story (or, in this case, one set of interlocking stories) and leaving the big picture for historians and scholars to paint in a more even-handed, more comprehensive way? It’s hard to say. The book, after all, is about five families and the specific experiences those specific people had during the war, not about the war itself. No one in any of the families was at Stalingrad, so there’s no account of the battle. None was a Jew in Nazi-occupied Europe, so there’s nothing to tell. Follett hardly has to explain himself to me, of all people. But reading the book was disorienting to me, and profoundly so. Almost like learning that colors are only a function of how we personally interpret sensory data and cannot, therefore, be presumed to represent anything like “absolute” reality.

I’ll definitely read the third volume in the Century trilogy when it comes out in a few years, but the experience of reading Winter of the World has left me puzzled. I suppose the test of a great book is whether it inspires you to ask just that kind of question…about yourself, about how you view the world, about the way you understand the world to function. If that is so, then Follett’s must be a very good book indeed. To see the Second World War through the eyes of characters to whom the Shoah is a mere detail among many, thus just one more instance of Nazi badness directed at yet one more group of innocents without being something unique in the annals of human degeneracy, is upsetting to the point of being disorienting. But, of course, just because others see my apple as they must or do, that doesn’t mean the apple isn’t really red. And, similarly, just because we are prisoners of our own perceptive capabilities, that doesn’t mean the world out there doesn’t really exist…or that history doesn’t.

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