August 16, 2006KR BlogEthics

Well, It’s Not Like He Won the Peace Prize, People

The Nobel Prize committee has done the right thing and announced there are no plans to revoke Gunter Grass’ 1999 award. An award for literature, not for moral authority, by the way, for those of you who have begun calling for him to give it back. Plenty of authors are terrible human beings, but it’s not by their lives (or at least, not by their lives alone) that we judge an author’s greatness. Even if Grass has pulled a Zidane and forever tarnished his legacy by one poorly-thought-out move at the end of his career, he, like Zidane, can stand proudly behind his other accomplishments–with the dignity and respect he deserves.

Was it wrong for Grass not to reveal his membership in the SS? Probably. But does it make sense that he didn’t? Of course. Think of it: you are a young man who joins up in order to defend your country in a losing war. You find out afterward that your country was committing terrible atrocities (Grass “never pretended to have been part of the anti-Nazi resistance and admitted that he believed in Hitler right up until the Nuremberg war crimes trials“). You’ve been concealing your membership anyhow because at best you are an enemy combatant and at worst a war criminal. Now, imagine the terrible shame you must feel. And the longer you commit your sin of omission, the harder it is for you to tell the truth.

I was once told by my Latin professor that shame is the strongest of all emotions, that it is shame and not love that motivates men to the most terrible of things. Can we call Grass a hypocrite for demanding Germans remember the atrocities committed on their soil? The Times Online isn’t hesitating. Can we understand, at least, the motivation Grass might have in such a call to remember? Yes, clearly, as Time Magazine points out.

Must we consider if Grass has morally discredited himself? I, for one, think not. First of all, who is better to lead the call to remember than someone who belatedly realized the atrocities committed? I agree Grass should have admitted his complicity before now–that is not in question. And perhaps this new knowledge does make some of his statements particularly sanctimonious in hindsight.

But what everyone keeps forgetting in all this fracas is that Grass is an author, not a politician. Who cares if he’s morally discredited himself personally? Does it matter? The sentiments in the work stand intact. In fact, the works are probably more powerful for the author’s moral ambivalence–there is no doubt in my mind that thousands of graduate students, as I type these words, are falling all over themselves to critique Grass’ works in light of this new information.

As Guy Dammann puts it, for those of us who did not view Grass as a spokesman, this changes nothing. It’s not like Grass got the Nobel–as Matthias Matussek nonsensically suggests–for his stand on the past. Matussek, for the record? He got it for literature. Not for being a public scold. For writing. The writing stands on its own merit even after the author has been disgraced. Grass’ personal hypocrisy is just that–personal. Quit hounding Grass to give back his awards for writing when it is human being that is distasteful.