16 August 2018

"Shame is what turns societies around."

Working after hours at the Raymond Village Library.
In a conversation with Robert Ferguson, Danish poet Jesper Mølby was recounting the story of a German doctor, Johann Friedrich Struensee, royal physician to the notoriously out-of-control Danish monarch Christian VII. Struensee took advantage of his status of trust with Christian VII to become, in effect, the regent ruler of Denmark for a period between 1770 and 1772. This gave him a chance to convert Denmark, for this brief interim, from an absolute monarchy to a model of free speech, egalitarianism, and enlightenment.

When the establishment finally caught up with Struensee and deposed him, they tortured and executed him publicly in a prolonged, extravagantly cruel process, detailed in Ferguson's book Scandinavians: In Search of the Soul of the North, and even illustrated in the book with a contemporary woodcut that I will not reproduce here. Mølby concludes his account:
People say that as the show went on, the watching crowd fell silent, and when it was all over they left in silence. I think a limitless sense of shame was born on that April day in 1772, and shame is what turns societies around.
After the Struensee episode, Denmark reverted to absolutism, but a few generations later, the 1849 constitution abolished absolute monarchy and banned censorship in perpetuity. (However, a law was also passed that banned foreigners from high office!)

Ferguson reports this episode in Scandinavians as part of his explorations of several interrelated questions: Is the reputed "melancholy" of the northlands a real thing or an exotic assumption of foreign observers, a sort of Nordic orientalism? How do we explain Scandinavia's thoroughgoing democratic values, early abolition of capital punishment, fiscal prudence, and welfare economies, and what role does Lutheran faith play in all this? Is the shadow side of all this enlightenment a sort of enforced conformism, posing special challenges for authors, artists, and explorers?

(You won't be surprised that another Dane, Søren Aabye Kierkegaard, takes up another very significant chapter of Ferguson's book.)

Back to the scene at Struensee's execution: Jesper Mølby's evocative generalization, " ... shame is what turns societies around," caused me to stop reading and think back on another book I read recently: Lara Feigel's excellent The Bitter Taste of Victory: Life, Love, and Art in the Ruins of the Reich. Feigel recounts the shifting cultural politics of the Allied occupation of defeated Germany, and the participation of novelists, filmmakers, poets, and journalists with varied German connections in that occupation. She also describes the German responses to those efforts -- often falling short of the shame and remorse expected by many of those determined to re-educate Germany. It fell to their children, to the next generation of Germans, to begin demanding a more thorough confrontation with guilt and shame.

I grew up in the family of a professor of German language and literature. I can still remember the shelves of books by Thomas Mann, Günter Grass, Hermann Hesse, Heinrich Böll, and so many others, that surrounded me and my toys for all my indoor hours. I was blissfully unaware of all the controversy and emotion swirling around these questions of German guilt, and I know nothing of what my mother talked about with her students at Roosevelt University. I do know that she stubbornly preserved a sense of racial superiority, granting only that the Japanese people among whom she grew up were "honorary Aryans."

Shame did not seem to influence my mother. (How I wish I had known to ask her about some of these crucial questions. What was she thinking about as she taught classes on The Tin Drum?!) But, setting aside my mother for the moment, what role did shame play in the rebirth of today's Germany?

Americans have no license to avoid these questions. The USA is a materially prosperous and culturally fertile country that has somehow succeeded in marginalizing most conversations about who has paid the price for "our" good fortune. Our current treatment of immigrants is shocking confirmation that we are still under constant attack from that primordial demon, racism. We may still be far from the depths of Nazi racism and its industrial-scale cruelty, but maybe we need a healthy shock of national shame and revulsion to turn us around before we hit bottom.

I've been reading these books, Feigel's The Bitter Taste of Victory, and Ferguson's Scandinavians, as part of my explorations of my own cultural inheritance as the Oslo-born son of a Norwegian father and a German mother who left their respective countries only a handful of years after World War II. It's also part of my preparations for my first-ever visit to Japan later this fall. I hope to spend time in Osaka and Kobe tracking down the so-far elusive trail of my mother and her family in those places.

These explorations are how I'm spending the first months of retirement. It's an amazing and unfamiliar freedom to pursue a single thread of inquiry, uninterrupted, for days and weeks. Thank you for keeping me company here!

Adria Gulizia wants us to welcome the gifts God sends us.
Too often, we in the Church ignore or downplay what the Bible says about the gifts of the Spirit that God bestows on every believer through the power of the Holy Spirit. In more conservative congregations, this may be because of a desire to see authority and influence flow through the “official” channels of church leadership rather than according to the beautiful anarchy of God’s grace. In more liberal congregations, gifts may be ignored or downplayed due to a misguided egalitarianism that studiously ignores the fact that different gifts may entail different degrees of visibility and require different levels of accountability and support.
The Pietà of a Mother Orca: Is Leah Schade justified in using the powerful Christian image of crucifixion? At first I was dubious, but on re-reading her article, I felt more persuaded. What kinds of interests and influences might be shaping our responses?

The Russia that Republicans love doesn't exist. And: How conservative is the Russian regime?

Has it really been fifty years? I remember the crushing of the Prague Spring.

Are missions a joke? (Responding to critics of missionary service.) I've read Jamie Wright's The Very Worst Missionary: A Memoir or Whatever, enjoyed it a lot, and plan to do my own review before too long. In the meantime, I thought this blog post on A Life Overseas was a helpful response to Wright and similar critics.

Update: Here's the promised review of Jamie Wright's book.

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