Home > Book Reviews, Gender Politics, Socialism > Laurie Penny, Bernhard Schlink and generational guilt

Laurie Penny, Bernhard Schlink and generational guilt

There’s a point near the end Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader, when the narrator travels from Germany to New York to meet the sole survivor of a war atrocity to which his ex-lover, a then illiterate Romany girl who found herself employed as a concentration camp guard, had pleaded guilty in order to mask her own guilt at her illiteracy.

His job, set out in the will of his lover, who has committed suicide the night before her release from prison, is to hand over the paltry life savings to this sole survivor.

The survivor, now a well-off middle-aged US citizen, sees right through his guilt at his unknowing association with a convicted war criminal, and the more general ennui he feels as a post-war German:

‘Did you ever get married?’

I nodded.

‘And the marriage was short and unhappy, and you never married again, and the child, if there is one, is at boarding school.’

That’s true of thousands of people, it doesn’t take a Frau Schmitz [the ‘Reader’ and convicted war criminal].

In an instant, the Jewish survivor sums up the fate of much of the post-war German generation – not guilty of the rise of Nazism themselves, but seemingly ineluctably tied to the collective guilt of their parents’ generation, most of whom were themselves victims of Nazism, and now passing on their feelings of alienation to another generation. 

The moment is all the more poignant, of course, because it is someone who has actually lived through total horror who is now judges the narrator and his generation for their seeming inability to move beyond the psychological pull of this collective, inward-looking pain.

As the book closes, the narrator nearly attains ‘closure’ after putting his story in writing:

‘What a sad story, I thought for so long.  Not that I now think it was happy.  But I think it was true, and thus the meaning of whether it was sad or happy has no meaning whatsoever.’

But the guilt lingers:

‘Maybe I did write or story to be free of it, even f I can never be.’

I was reminded of all this a week or two ago when I read a typically impassioned and honest post from Laurie Penny.  Here’s an excerpt:

 ‘(O)n being asked why [a friend] had given up a promising career in marketing to become a political activist, she told me quite simply that she ‘would have gone crazy otherwise’.

That’s a pretty accurate verdict on the state of my generation right now. Whatever our background, nearly all of us are under an immense amount of pressure, struggling to find and keep work or benefits, trying to establish our independence in a world that does not seem to have any room for us. My generation, overwhelmingly, faces a choice between becoming politically active or becoming massively despondent, ‘going crazy’ with frustration at a world that has turned out so much harder and crueller than we thought it would be even when we’d grown up enough to realise that politicians and business leaders would repeatedly and inevitably let us down………

It is my firm belief that the current generation of 18-25 year olds have an unique perspective on politics and culture, filtered through a childhood of war, encroaching natural disaster, frantic consumerism and sudden betrayal.’

 And Laurie concludes:

 ‘(A)fter a discussion I had with my boyfriend last night, during which he ventriloquised rather aptly for our parents’ generation:”here, have this planet! It’s only slightly on fire!”‘

In the last paragraph in particular, you can hear the scorn.  Betrayal by her parents’ generation, Laurie seems to be saying, is what is making her and her generation ill.  The fault for Laurie’s sense of alienation lies with me (I’m 47 now) and the people of my age.  My failure to create a peaceful, environmentally sustainable world for Laurie to live her life in makes her ‘despondent’. 

So do I then have the right to be angry at my parents’ generation also?  After all, my mother was 19 years old on the day the second world war ended, and her adult life was spent in a peaceful country, where in 1945 there was a real commitment to socialism, but by 1979, when I was about to come of age, the socialist dream had turned sour, and the New Right had risen.

And so might begin a generational cycle of despair, to which both my and Laurie’s children, should she have any, will also surely be entitled.

One reaction to Laurie’s post might be the kind of cold scorn shown by the Jewish survivor to the narrator on The Reader (and indeed there is some of that displayed in the comments to Laurie’s post).

But I don’t think it’s the right reaction.  For starters, it not an attitude to which we are as entitled as the Jewish survivor; she had the right to stand outside and beyond (it is not coincidence that Schlink has her in New York) and make her judgment on the post-war German generation precisely because she has suffered unimaginable horror, and because she is about as ‘pure’ a victim as there can be.   My generation is not wholly victim; we are collectively guilty of allowing a neo-liberal economy to develop unchallenged over the last 30 years, and we need to be honest about that.  It is not our place to judge what Laurie should or should not feel.   We are, quite simply, not worthy. 

But nor, on the other hand, is it the right reaction to fall into a despair at our collective guilt, precisely because collective guilt does not make us individually guilty.  I have been a good trade unionist, I have saved the lives of many poor children, and I have done what I can in my own small way; it is simply that it has been, at least to date, to small.  That in itself does not make me guilty of the crime I am now accused of by Laurie.

 The right reaction, I contend, is the one that the narrator in The Reader makes, at the very end of the book.

‘What a sad story, I thought for so long.  Not that I now think it was happy.  But I think it was true, and thus the meaning of whether it was sad or happy has no meaning whatsoever.’

It is the truth about why my generation failed that we must seek, and then we must seek to make it better with all the energies that are left remaining to us.

The reason we failed is that the forces of capitalism were too strong, and because the Left did not organize as effectively as it could have done.  The reason the left did not organize effectively is that, in the 1960s and 1970s, when I was young, the Left lost its focus on class, and became besotted with the ‘identity politics’ of post-Marxism to the ultimate detriment of its own organizational core.

That is the bare truth, and acknowledging this dispassionately, without blame from one generation, and without collective guilt on the part of another, is an important step towards generational reconciliation and comradely action. 

This is possible, especially in an internet world where people like Dave, myself and Miljenko,  different generations with different life experiences who might have looked past each other in person but treat each other as equals in cyberspace.  To do otherwise – to seek solace in the company of one’s own generation and not to look at why things turned out the way they did – is to miss the real target for our anger: capitalism.

Thus, while I understand why Laurie should want to seek out her contemporaries in the form of ‘A Radical Future, a forthcoming ebook written and devised by British activists and academics under 30 years ‘, my respectful contention is that the development of such age-based groupings may be comforting for the participants in the short-term, in the same way that ‘Men’s Societies’ in universities might possibly be, but in the longer term they may divert energies from the real challenges the Left faces, and even prove counterproductive as stereotyped norms of how generations act and relate are reinforced through lack of engagement.

Our own generation can create a comfort zone for us in our anxieties, our anger and our guilt, but what really helps change the world is stepping out of the comfort zone.

  1. Mil
    December 28, 2009 at 9:48 am

    Yes. I saw “Zelig” yesterday, casually and quite felicitously after not being allowed to watch “A Matter Of Life And Death”. There is a scene in “Zelig” where his chameleon-like nature is likened to the evils of capitalism, and – I suppose – this is the essence of our failure. New Labour was a delicate balancing act – which, in the end, wasn’t really. As Alex Smith recently pointed out via a quote from Derek Draper, New Labour allowed those forces which are used to ruling the country without recourse to the ballot box to continue doing so. And therein, through our desire to square circles, lies our generational failure. Too many of us – though yourselves not included – believed that in outright failure capitalism would somehow fall. But the true evil of capitalism lies in the fact that any failure – where allowed to fully take place – will always affect the current objects of its oppression and not the subjects which lever its power. If you don’t bail out, *we* will suffer most. If you do bail it, *they* will benefit more.

    Generational angst is now hitting me most painfully, in so many ways. I can’t explain the music that makes my world go round, can’t explain why it’s as good as what my children prefer to listen to. I can’t communicate the need to keep a distance on the seductive nature of consumer capitalism. I can’t communicate the need to understand the importance of study and long-term planning. I can’t explain why – in my life and as a result of those terrible experiences which struck me down six years ago – I cannot climb the greasy pole of promotion and so provide them with a better material existence.

    I am at a loss in both the personal and the political. All I see is ever-increasing circles. I would love to enjoy my life without the anxiety of a generational incomprehension because I truly believe it is not a question of blame to be apported. I do not blame my parents for their inadequacies because I recognise my own.

    Where I do realise the importance of defining generational markers in the sand is in that protection of eagerness and enthusiasm which delineates youth. Thus it is that older people need younger people even as younger people do *not* need the older. And so it is that I begin to feel a little superfluous.

    But hey, ho – isn’t that what life is about? Realising, essentially, how little one is. Even – in this world of youthful empowered consumers – in the personal.

  2. Richard
    December 28, 2009 at 10:03 am

    The lesson about Hitler is that you are more likely to stop his ilk as a Coroners Officer than as a political activist. But hey who am I to dissuade a youngster back to a parasitic career in “Marketing”.

  3. December 28, 2009 at 5:09 pm

    I think it’s all relative, truthfully.

    On one level, I find myself compelled to look to other generations because I find so little worthy in my own.

    Yet this is only in a Labour context. In that same context I resent the quiescence of the majority of those remaining from two generations before mine, even though most of them disagree with what’s going on in the world.

    The generation immediately prior to mine is what sustains a lot of Left politics, though softer than the previous lot. And my generation are born-again careerist wasters, so earnest in protestation, so bureaucratic and unprincipled in action.

    On this level, I think it’s vital to stress that there are people my age who are active, who are out there and who haven’t been wooed by establishment politics. If that’s what this Radical Future thing does, then I’m for it, however confused the politics turn out to be – and they sound very confused.

    However, as I said, it’s relative. Outside the Labour Party, it is my generation alone which carries Left politics. There are branches of socialist groups around the country where the majority of members are under thirty.

    The mirror image to this is in the sharply declining participation of young people in the political system generally, and specifically in their allegiance to Labour.

    With this in mind, it’s also important to stress the continuity of political struggle between the generations. Many of the political visions of yesterday are still what inspire thousands in the UK today. Many of the realities of today make the need for those previous visions all the more acute.

    In this sense, I’d like to see more done by two generations ago to detail, in accessible form, what politics was like for them. Not just in general, but specifically. How long was spent in union meetings and to what end? How long was spent at party branch meetings and to what end? What was political activism in those days and why did it fail?

    Here is the potential scope for projects like we tried to pursue in the present with Left New Media, and which Kate Belgrave pursues in alternative forms with her interviews. If they’re setting out to stress the role of my generation, i.e. the under 30, then we can rebalance the field and provide the political context which renders the role of my generation so important.

    We can do it by drawing on such ‘institutional memory’ as remains in the workers’ movement.

  4. December 29, 2009 at 9:47 am

    Thanks for comments, all. Sorry to be a bit slow with reply.

    Mil @1: I agree that the Left for too long has been almost anaesthetized by the idea that capitalism will, as a result of one of its cyclical crises, simply fall apart of its own accord. This crisis has shown that the opposite is in fact the case – that the opportunity of crisis is seized to make capitalism even more robust, albeit with a somewhat changed form with starker repression. Symbolic of this process is the way, for example, in which the rating agencies have used the fact that they were so very ‘wrong’ (in our terms) about the risk in financial product packages (CDOs etc) as a rationale now to come down like a ton of bricks on sovereign debt in a way that would not have happened twenty years ago, and thereby restore their reputations.

    But what my post was really meant to be about was that inter-generational angst appears a) to be a widespread aspect of modern life under capitalism (and a factor in capitalism’s unfettered continuation); b) becoming more pronounced, and more readily felt by newer generation, the more modern consumer capitalism develops.

    That is, the kind of angst you feel is a product of capitalism, and useful to it, and that attacking other generations as the source of that angst and unhappiness is simply to misdirect that the attack.

    And that is supposed to relieve you (and Laurie) of all angsty feelings. Didn’t work, clearly.

    As an aside, I think an interesting aspect of all this is the way in which modern consumer capitalism has even appropriated the terms of what a generation actually is. When my parents were teenagers, there was effectively no such thing as a teenager – no youth culture. When I was a teenager, I was a teenager, but I stopped being a teenager when I was no longer teenage. It was my time to be an adult. Now, it seems from Laurie’s demarcation, that a young person is young until they are 30. Convincing a whole ten years’ worth of people that they have different interests from other older people is a very useful way of ridding society of solidarity.

    Dave/Richard – gotta go. Will reply later.

  5. Mil
    December 29, 2009 at 11:24 am

    “Convincing a whole ten years’ worth of people that they have different interests from other older people is a very useful way of ridding society of solidarity.” I love that sentence, Paul. This YouTube video trailer is pertinent to the issue:


  6. Mil
    December 29, 2009 at 11:26 am

    In this latter post, prior to Christmas excess, you can see my former optimism shining through. Maybe the New Year will serve to regenerate …

  7. Laurie Penny
    December 31, 2009 at 4:34 pm

    This is a massively interesting response, thank you. I think you’re right, in that people from my generation need to suck up their anger at the grownups and focus on what needs to be done now. But I’m not sure age-based groupings are entirely redundant – for one thing, the authentic political voice of people around my age has not been properly expressed or paid attention to since the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the associated protests.

    Possibly because I’m the child of a Jew and a lapsed Catholic, I don’t believe that guilt serves any useful purpose. But anger can be a powerful political tool, as long as its primary aim is not simply to engender guilt.

    More on this later, and thanks again. L.xxxx (p.s feel free to email if you want to talk about this in private, laurie dot penny at gmail)

  8. December 31, 2009 at 5:51 pm

    Hi Laurie, nice of you to drop in. I was going to cover Susan Faludi and her views on single groupings (esp male movements) but I ran out of steam. Another post in the New Year, maybe

  9. splinteredsunrise
    December 31, 2009 at 10:16 pm

    I’m in two minds about this. On the one hand, I’m not someone who has a problem with older generations as such – most of the people who have influenced me politically are either over seventy or dead. If older generations haven’t achieved what they might, and left those tasks to the younger generations, they have at least passed on valuable traditions and experiences. And that isn’t nothing.

    On the other hand, though I’m not exactly approaching pension age, people of Laurie’s age will have a whole set of cultural references I don’t get. And while the fundamental concerns will stay the same, the specifics change. So no, youth-specific groupings aren’t redundant, as long as they don’t fall into an “old men of thirty” mindset that there’s nothing of value they can learn from what went before. Reinventing the wheel is just a waste of energy.

  1. September 9, 2010 at 11:24 am
  2. April 14, 2012 at 8:48 am
  3. November 24, 2012 at 12:49 pm

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