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Bernard-Henri Lévy

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The First Death of Günter Grass

Posted: 04/11/2012 8:17 am

There is North Korea and its autistic tyrant, equipped with a by and large operational nuclear arsenal.

There is Pakistan, armed with warheads -- no one knows how many, nor precisely where they are located, nor what guarantees we have that they will not, one day, fall into the hands of groups linked to Al Qaeda.

There is Putin's Russia, which, in the space of two wars, has accomplished the exploit of exterminating a quarter of the population of Chechnya.

There is the butcher of Damascus, whose body count so far is at 10,000 and whose criminal stubbornness threatens the region's peace.

There is Iran, of course, whose leaders have made it known that their nuclear arms, when they will have acquired them, will serve to strike one of their neighbors.

In short, we are living on a planet where candidates for the most officially pyromaniac State, openly aiming at its own citizens and the surrounding populations, threatening the world with conflagrations or disasters unprecedented in decades, are by no means lacking.

Yet here is a European writer, one of the greatest and most eminent, for he is Nobel prize laureate Günter Grass, who has nothing better to do than to publish a poem in which he explains that there is only one serious threat hanging over our heads, and that this threat comes from a tiny country, one of the smallest in the world, one of the most vulnerable as well and, by the by, a democracy: the State of Israel.

This declaration filled the fanatics who reign in Tehran with pleasure, so much so that, through the intermediary of their Minister of Culture, Javad Shamaghdari, they could not wait to praise the "humanity" and the "spirit of responsibility" of the author of The Tin Drum.

It was the object of ecstatic comments in Germany and throughout the world, among all the Pavlovian cretins who confuse the refusal of the politically correct with the right to let loose and, in so doing, liberate the stench of the most pestilential of thoughts.

It was the occasion for the habitual and boring debate about the "mystery of the great writer capable of being a coward or a scoundrel" (Céline, Ezra Pound) or, worse still, about the "moral indignity, or the lie, that must never be literary arguments" (in consideration of which one permits throngs of sub-Célines or poor man's Pounds to wallow in abjection).

But, for the observer with a bit of common sense, the affair inspires three simple observations.

The poverty of spirit sometimes characteristic of great age. This terrible moment, which even the most glorious are not spared, when a sort of intellectual anosognosia causes all the dikes that usually hold back the flood of the ignominious to crumble. "Farewell, old man, and think of me if you have read me" (Lautréamont,  -Maldoror , Chant 1).

Grass's own past. What he admitted six years ago, when he told of joining a Waffen SS unit at 17. How can one not think of it today? How can one fail to make the connection between the two sequences? Between this and that, between the Burgrave social democrat confessing that he learned the ropes under the Nazis and the scoundrel who declares today, like anyone else who is nostalgic for a fascism that has become taboo, that he can no longer remain silent, that what he is saying "must" be said, that the Germans are "already sufficiently burdened" (one wonders with what) without becoming, what's more, "complicit" in the present and future "crimes" of Israel. Isn't the connexion, unfortunately, patently obvious?

And then, Germany. Europe and Germany. Or Germany and Europe. This ill wind that blows across Europe and has filled the sails of what one is compelled to call a neo-antisemitism. No longer racist antisemitism. Nor Christian. Nor even anti-Christian. Nor, really, anticapitalist, as it was at the beginning of the 20th century. No. The new antisemitism. The one that has a chance of being audible and, before that, expressed, only if it can identify "being Jewish" with the supposedly criminal identity of the State of Israel, ready to launch its thunderbolts upon the innocent Iranian State. This is what Günter Grass is doing. And this is what makes this affair terribly indicative.

In my mind's eye, I can see Günter Grass in Berlin in 1983, on Willy Brandt's birthday.

I hear him, first from the rostrum, then sitting down at a table, surrounded by a small group of admirers, his hair thick, his speech dense, looking a bit like Bertolt Brecht in his oval-framed glasses, his heavy face, cheeks trembling with feigned emotion as he urges his comrades to look their famous "past that is not past" in the face.

And here he is, 30 years later, in the exact same situation of those men who suffer from a hole in the memory, unwitting fascists, unwillingly haunted, that he invited, that very night, to come to terms with their unspeakable reservations. Posture and imposture; a statue made of sand and a sideshow; the Commander was a Tartuffe, the teacher of morality the very incarnation of the immorality he assailed. Günter Grass, this big fish of letters, this turbot, frozen by 60 years of posing and lies, has finally decomposed. And that, to the letter, is what is called a debacle -- how sad.