I had a fun evening with Mom when I visited Leslie last week. On Monday, after I attended Grace and Haley's gymnastics lessons after school, Leslie dropped me off at Mom's so that I could just have dinner with her and not deal with kiddie-chaos at the same time. Since I had not yet written up my class's visit to the Milwaukee Public Museum's Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bible exhibition in the journal (yet another thing to get to!), she was quite curious about my impressions about that right off the bat. There was a lot of theological conversation, actually, while she whipped up some food: she wanted me to go into more detail or explain some points about the Modernity/Post-Modernity article from Robert Jenson that I had posted a little while back, and then there was a series of questions she had about both my dissertation and the dissertation defense process itself.
So that turned out to be some good practice for me, since I have to open the defense with some basic explanation of the dissertation and of my intention for the text. We especially ended up talking over the potential significance of the study, and how both Professors Fahey and Sullivan (my director and my subject) both thought that I could be opening up a third mode of Catholic ecclesiology with this text and the two books that will come out of it. This serious conversation kind of consumed us for a while, but there was lighter talk, too: we sort of geeked out together on computer stuff for awhile, and I was able to show her a few shortcuts or bits of functionality in her laptop that she had been trying to figure out for awhile. I was equally pleased – or a little relieved – by that, since it was no sure thing that I could get her PC to do the same things I knew how to do on my Mac. I also handed off the second season DVD set of Everwood to her, which she was anxious to pick up with after having enjoyed its first season. So we talked over the Colin story arc of the first season, and the way the characters were written, pretty much agreeing on their flaws as well as their obvious strengths. I'm so fond of the story, though, that I'm especially pleased she enjoyed it, too.
A few weeks ago, on Friday 26 February, we had had a dinner party over at the Lloyds' that got interesting in a way I meant to write down. The evening did turn to happier thoughts and talk, but when I arrived, the guys had been sitting out in the living room, and there was some talk going on about movies, with Professors Wriedt and Barnes particularly holding forth. At some point, I mentioned that I had I had just watched The Reader for the first time and had found it a particularly engaging film, although I found it disturbing watching (in the way of Eyes Wide Shut or Leaving Las Vegas, although not so utterly awful an experience as the latter). In fact, it was so striking as a film in its portrayal of damaged and damaging human beings that I immediately watched it a second time. I haven't felt the need to do that with a film since some long-ago Friday night when Beth Hoffner and I watched Fried Green Tomatoes my last year in DeKalb, where we were so tickled by the thing that we looked at each other, and without a word immediately rewound the videotape (yes, back in the day) and settled in for a second go.
Markus interjected right away that he did not care for the film or the book at all, although this had little to do with their artistic forms or achievements as such. What he found so objectionable (and what then steered the conversation away from film for next half-hour or hour) was a tendency that he saw among his fellow Germans to grab on the the sort of underlying assumptions that he thought characterized in the story: we fell into Nazism because we fell under the sway of deranged and horrible men; that is, we committed great crimes, but that these were acts of national madness and dysfunction. (We didn't even get into the story's disturbing and devastating sexual use of a teen by an adult.) It was a sort of "insanity plea" for the nation: a psychological excuse that takes the onus of the 1930s and 1940s off of the German people and puts it onto a psychological scapegoat – "a disease or syndrome did these things, not us." Being theologians and historians, we couldn't help but notice the similarities to the Manichean religion's attractive explanation of evil: that evil is a reality or a force "out there," and that when human beings did evil things, it wasn't them doing them, per se, but the evil that was at that moment in them. Augustine's penetrating psychological realism, demonstrated in The Confessions, hammered that approach, which he had himself practiced for a decade: evil, that corruption or absence of the goods of reality, is only to be found in the human will, and not existing in reality on its own. There is no "the devil made me do it" plea to be made.
This was, at some level, part of what the story of The Reader was all about: a narrative that touched on a generational German experience of dealing with the question of Who Was To Blame. Markus argued, though, that the very approach of the story implicitly threatened to write it off as a psychological event or aberration that appeared to be confronting the need for responsibility, but was instead taking advantage of current acceptance of psychological explanations for "phenomena" as opposed to more legal/ or ethical conceptions like "crimes against humanity" in order to avoid more purely moral questions of responsibility. He thought that this fueled a kind of false "dealing with it" engagement with the Nazi past that still allowed most of German to ultimately avoid the question. Even though he comes of a post-war generation, he still speaks of his generation and those after him as bearing some sort of real responsibility on a national or cultural level.
I remember him telling me on another occasion that he had almost a sort of iconographic confrontation with these questions every day at work back in Frankfurt. His office on the campus of the Goethe University of Frankfurt am Main is in a little building northwest across a quadrangle from the IG Farben Building. In that building, the IG Farben Company took advantage of slave labour in the Nazi regime and developed Zyklon B, the gas used to exterminate the Jews and others in the Nazi concentration camps. If I recall correctly, he thought that his own little outlying building might have been the laboratory in which the poison was developed. For him to now take that space and turn it into a center for theological effort was one small spiritual and symbolic act of rejection, penance and redemption for this wretched piece of his people's history.
As I said, the night then did turn to different, and mostly happier, conversation. I continued to experiment with my new fascination with the "low-tech" photography of my phone's camera.
A small group of us had gone out after the first meeting of the Seminar on the Jewish Roots of Christian Mysticism, back on Monday 22 February, when Andrei has spoken on "Demonic Imitation of the Divine Union: Azael's "Hieros Gamos" in The Apocalypse of Abraham." It ended up only being four of us: me, Mike, Markus and Anthony, and we settled on heading over to Louise's on Cathedral Square, which pleased me as I hadn't been there in the better part of a year, since hitting it too long ago with Meg R. It was a good night out, talking theology and history and assorted fun, and I cannot recall much more detail than that, now. (Although certainly Andrei's topic came up more than once, as the erotic imagery (and sound effects) of cherubim in action were hard to forget.)
The main reason I now wanted to note it my journal actually came about two weeks later. Mike had then come up quickly in the Seminar's schedule, speaking two weeks later on Monday 8 March on "Receiving the Name of God: Ascension of Isaiah and Odes of Solomon." (Basically a section of his dissertation-in-progress.) That went well, with some enthusiastic discussion afterward, featuring a memorable moment with Fr. Golitzin blowing up (half tongue-in-cheek) at Andrei for being silly in the process – which most of us found worth the price of admission alone. Not that there's a price.
We once again found a few of us interested in going out for dinner afterward, basically the same gang, but with Donna and the kids subbing for Anthony. And, rejecting a few other options because of the kids being with us or because of Markus's insistence on a certain level of quality, we ended up going to Louise's again. We also ended up with the same waitress, who I believe was named Dana. And two weeks later, she not only recognized us, she remembered exactly what each of us wanted from the bar.
Now that's a good waitress. That party trick alone (much less her quite fine service) added an extra third to her tip.