The Numbness

Not ready to Conform by Cynthia Korzekwa
Some time back, my mom sent me one of her books, The Reader by Bernhard Schlink. Set in Germany, it’s the story of an adolescent male, Michael, who has an affair with an older woman, Hanna. Years later, Michel learns that Hanna, before being his lover, had been a guard in a Nazi concentration camp and was now being tried for her crimes. Much of the book focuses on the concept of guilt but The Reader presents another idea much more intriguing — that of numbness.

At Hanna’s trial, Michael observes that those who spasmodically attend the trial  are always horrified at what they hear. But, attending every day, he risponds differently:

«It was like being a prisoner in the death camps who survives month after month and becomes accustomed to the life, while he registers with an objective eye the horror of the new arrivals: registers it with the same numbness that he brings to the murders and deaths themselves. All survivor literature talks about this numbness, in which life’s functions are reduced to a minimum, behaviour becomes completely selfish and indifferent to others, and gassing and burning  are everyday occurrences. In the rare accounts by perpetrators, too, the gas chambers and ovens become ordinary scenery, the perpetrators reduced to their few functions and exhibiting a mental paralysis and indifference, a dullness that makes them seem drugged or drunk».

And how many of us have conformed to a certain kind of lifestyle to the point that we no longer know how to consciously evalute it. Because conformity numbs your perception.

Hanna’s true crime was that of being a conformist. And, like all conformists, she was just “obeying orders”. In 1944, SS Captain Erich Priebke ordered the shooting of 335 Italians in the Ardeatine Caves. The victims were males ageing from 14 to 75  and were considered, said Priebke, terrorists. Fifty years later, Priebke was tried for this crime in Rome. He admitted to having ordered these men’s death but was found not guility for the reason that he had acted under orders. Eventually this verdict was appealed and Priebke was sentenced to house arrest for life. In fact, just the other day, Priebke celebrated his 100th birthday at his home in Rome. Champagne included.

erich priebke's house

A group of protestors outside Erich Priebke’s house in Rome (foto Andreas Solaro/AFP via)

It’s easy to condemn Hanna and Prebke for their crimes. But what puzzles me is this: how was it possible for an entire nation to follow Hitler in his madness? Ok, so we know that WWI destroyed the German economy and that Hitler was charismatic and told the people what they wanted to hear and blah blah blah. But is that all it takes? Why were the people so ready to conform? And when was it that the numbness began — a numbness that obliterates compassion. And the concept of “fellowman”. The numbness that makes you ignore the needs of other just so you can obsessively focus on yourself. Yet when you look at yourself in the mirror, you are too numb to see how you really are.

The book is called The Reader in reference to Michael who reads to Hanna not knowing, at the time, that she was illiterate. And it was this illiteracy that caused her so many problems. For illiteracy makes you dependent upon others. But Hanna’s true illiteracy had nothing to do with reading and writing as much as it had to do with ethics. Ethically uneducated, she conformed because conformity is allowing others to think for you instead of doing the thinking for yourself. And that’s when the numbness sets in.

Is numbness the current epidemic?


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6 Responses to The Numbness

  1. An interesting post, The Reader was also made into a film with Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes, I have seen the film but not read the book.
    I think there has been a sense of numbness in the West for a while, I sense it in myself although I must confess to not being an activist of any type and not that interested in politics except when it effects my life, I feel a bit overwhelmed by all that is going on and tend to ignore it.
    My aunt lived in Hitler’s Germany and I think she felt much the same way she said that people were vaguely aware of the bad things that were happening over there through rumours, but afraid to speak up and not really understanding quite what was happening.
    I think things are beginning to change again now, there is a lot of rage in the world and people are beginning to come out of the miasma and speak up.

    • After reading the book, I saw the film on youtube and thought Kate Winslet to be the perfect Hanna.. And Debbie, I hope you’re right about people beginning to come out of the miasma but I still have doubts. Of course we can’t all be activists in the traditional sense of the word but we could at least try to become more aware of what is really going on instead of having standardized thoughts and feelings..
      Having first hand info from your aunt was a great opportunity…..i would have had 1000s of questions to ask!
      Thanks for posting!

  2. jo Quirk says:

    So many whirling thoughts. Haven’t read the book or seen the film-will do. There are loyalties required to belong to a group or culture or religion and being shunned by the major group can be terrifying especially if you live in a limited mix of people. Adhering to group principles and group convictions of any sort of close your mind to other possibilities and those who guard those principles at all cost are always afraid of the break down of those adherences. When Jewish people start giving refuge to Arabs and creating an underground and Arabs do the reverse, we might get somewhere. Australia is fighting against boatloads of refugees arriving and demonising those who arrive by boat, even though they are no different from the ones who arrive every day by plane. Politicians are fuelling the fire by scaremongering about the people who come in boats. I dropped my religious connections some time back, but I didn’t become a bad person. It means I have to make my own decisions about everything. Being a part of a Jewish enclave in Melbourne would certainly help with my art sales but it isn’t possible. I find most newly arrived cultural groups are suspicious of your interest because of what others might think and will never truly embrace you because of the barriers they have when they arrive. I am fortunate to live in a very multicultural family.

    • Jo,once again I agree with all you say. I was raised in San Antonio, Texas and had a babysitter from Piedras Negras, Mexico who took care of me while my mom worked. I was very lucky because from an eary age I had a bi-cultural outlook. It made my world so much bigger. I cannot understand the rigidity towards other cultures. Why do so many people want to live in a box?

  3. For Debbie—I find the story of your aunt intriguing….how many women had to live with the same aftermath emotions your aunt had to live with?

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