Undercover: The Newsstand in Review (09/23/76)

The most interesting writing I’ve come across in the last couple of weeks has been in maga­zines, not books. This means that (1) my review of The Werewolf of Paris will be delayed an issue, (2) a visit to the doctor may repay in enlightenment what it costs in hard cash, and (3) you should take advantage of your local library. To begin with the best:

“Concentration-Camp Survival” by Bruno Bettelheim (The New Yorker, August 2nd). The finest magazine article of any sort I have read this year. Writing with enormous moral authority, yet never condescending to his subject matter or his readers, the great child psychiatrist—himself once a prisoner of Hitler’s camps—takes on Lina Wertmüller’s Seven Beauties and a highly touted new study of survival in the camps, Terrence Des Pres’s The Survivor. “Seven Beauties,” Bettelheim writes, “is a somewhat uneasy, indirect, camouflaged—and therefore more dangerous, because more easily accepted and hence more effective—justification for accepting the world that produced the concentration camps… But it is also a self-justification for those who today do not wish to consider the problems that that world posed, and instead settle for the easy solution of a completely empty survivorship…”

Bettelheim sees the central position of Wertmüiller’s film as identical with Des Pres’s argument in The Survivor: “Survival is all, it does not matter how, why, what for… According to them… all that matters, the only thing that is really important, is life in its crudest, merely biological form… we must ‘live beyond compulsions of culture’ [that is, morality] and `by the body’s crude claims.'” The actions Des Pres seeks to legitimize by this argument (you name them) take place not “beyond culture” but beneath it—to put it another way, Des Pres’s survivor does not transcend culture, he retreats to a stage in human existence when culture was not even imagined. But to Bettelheim, the heart of the matter is that the ideas Des Pres and Wertmüller are promoting—ideas that make questions of good and evil seem unreal and farcical—are in the present era as attractive as they are dangerous. They are dangerous because totalitarianism, which itself “survives” by institutionalizing acts (torture) and conditions (slave labor camps) that are “beyond culture,” is deeply entrenched in much of the world; they are attractive because ideas that defuse questions of good and evil allow one to make peace with Soviet, Iranian, Chilean or any other form of political iniquity.

Taken to their logical extreme, such ideas endorse such iniquity. Des Pres and Wertmüller do not go to such extremes, but especially in Wertmüller’s film, Bettelheim finds the claim that the moral foundations of the camps were in fact no different from those of the world outside. The corollary, of course, is that actions that can be legitimized in the context of the camps are not only legitimate in but appropriate to the normal world. Even granting that actions “beyond culture” were legitimate in the context of the camps—which Bettelheim does not for a minute do—the political and social consequences of such an argument are plainly appalling.

I may have made Bettelheim’s piece sound like a cold and abstract moral tract; it isn’t. His criticism is lively and deeply affecting—as cinematic as it is ethical, as empirical as it is political. Compared to his article, most of what I have read over the last months seems half-hearted, hedged, pompous and tired.

“Black, White and Very Blue” by Erich Segal (The New Republic, July 31st). Straight talk on how the Africans blew it by pulling out of the Olympics—that is, by pulling out too soon—plus inside dope on why white and black American athletes who were ready to boycott the games in solidarity with the Africans changed their minds.

“Looking for Jimmy: A Journey through the South, Rising” by Robert Sam Anson (New Times, August 6th). New Times‘ pull-quote: “The South had the answers. If I were to know Jimmy Carter and what we were about to become, I had to know his land. The mystery of him was here, in Dixie.” Even among big theme journalists, of whom Anson is one, mystification on this level of pretentiousness is a rare thing, and I can heartily recommend Anson’s piece—to which NT devoted almost an entire issue—as a classic example of the slick writer out of his depth. The fallacies in the pull-quote—that there are “answers”; that America, by electing J.C., will “become” something other than what it currently is, and so on—are more than matched by the fallacies of Anson’s method: searching talks with various good-guy Southerners, from a courageous judge to a non-racist evangelist to a—well, you get the idea. As is traditional with journalists and social scientists investigating an area of which they know little, Anson takes the easy way out—he heads straight for an elite, and lets the elite stand in for a complex and varied society. The predictable conclusion: the South, unlike the plastic, corrupt North, has roots, purpose, tragedy, and a lock on the national soul.

Readers of more serious work on the South, such as Tony Dunbar’s Our Land Too, Robert Coles’s Children of Crisis books, Theodore Rosengarten’s All God’s Dangers, or the virtually unwritten social and political history chronicled in the quarterly Southern Exposure, will find a little too much—most of it quite troublesome—missing from Anson’s picture. Others may wonder if the “mystery” of Jimmy Carter might not have as much to do with his participation in David Rockefeller’s Tri-Lateral Commission as with an affinity for the Georgia mud.

“There’s so much good,” says an Alabama editor—one Ray Jenkins, who Anson says understands the South “because he grew up in it”—“and there’s just this one thing—racism—that’s so bad.” This line sounds pretty good to Anson; on his next trip down I suggest he try it out on some textile workers.


Rolling Stone, September 23, 1976

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