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Sunday, October 2, 2016

HvS | Letter 2 on "The Borrowed House" (Evil)

The original cover by
Farrar Straus, 1975.
[The following letter from Hilda van Stockum to her daughter Brigid was a postscript to, and as long as, Letter 1 but was much more than a postscript. It's a self-contained, thoughtful exegesis on evil–as treated in The Borrowed House, and with extraordinary relevance to today. Within the past two weeks, I heard someone say that "the U.S. attempt to democratize Middle Eastern politics has resulted in the Middle-Easternization of U.S. politics". Now read the third paragraph below, which I have put in bold face.]

Letter #2 from HvS to Brigid (c. 1971)

P.S. I keep adding to this letter. The more I think about it, the more I can't see it [The Borrowed House] as a simple conversion story [i.e., conversion of Janna from Hitler Youth to an opponent of Naziism].

First of all, I wonder whether my reluctance to depict evil or to have evil happen is so wrong. At present we are fed with a steady diet of violence and it is unfashionable to think up happy endings, but don't you think that contributes to violence?

Is it accident that all the old tales were about heroes who surmounted evil? Don't we become finally what we aspire to, and does it not depend on the model we have? I believe the modern lack of spine and permissiveness came through a generation of books that told people they were not responsible, fate decided, you had to bow before fate.

I felt inspired writing that second chapter [of The Borrowed House].  Do children need to read about another weak sister who sees finally the error of her ways? The more I think, the more I read about this subject, the less it evolves in such a simple pattern. I am glad of your criticism for it forces me to think deeper.

If Gurdjieff is right, then depicting evil and good in simple terms is bad, then that means staying in the opposites. People don't like that Janna stole and lied, but she had a soft heart. I've just read The Gift Horse by Hildegarde Knef [who died in 2002] and it is an extraordinary book. I think Hildegarde and Janna have a lot in common. If you can't get it I'll send you my copy. It gives a very good picture of Germany before, during and after the war.

Hildegarde was not a Nazi either. [She] managed to stay out of Hitler Youth. [But she] suffered from Germans, Russians and the Allies. And the simplifications that people made of good and evil were the reason. She never fitted. So I think these simplifications are wrong. Christ wasn't kidding when he said love your enemies.

I must not show Janna as evil and becoming good, but I can show that her judgement changes and that what she thinks is bad in herself she finds out is good. She is ashamed of her own soft heart.

I have been trying to think what the real evil of Naziism is, because most people just stop at the violence, and violence we see even in an innocent baby. Cruelty is also a universal trait; I was cruel to my donkey and very ashamed of it afterwards. I took real pleasure in beating him.

Unless we recognize that, we can't sift the real reason why Hitler was so bad. I think it was that he waged psychological warfare against good, spiritual good. For instance, when the Dutch wanted to go on a General Strike to protest arrests, the Nazis would spread rumours that the arrest [story] was not true, so that the moment passed and the Strike became half-hearted and ineffective. There was a diabolical knowledge of how to use human frailties to thwart good intentions.

The Pope has recently reaffirmed the existence of the devil and I don't think anyone can understand Hitler except as a puppet in Satan's hand. The funny thing is that I read in the Nuremberg trials his plans for the future, which included killing all American Jews and negroes, abolishing all churches etc. At the end he says: "And then I will retire and do some farming." [I have not been able to find this reference. JTM] I wonder if that strikes you also as excruciatingly funny? It can only indicate that here the real Hitler was permitted to say something [after his death]!

I suddenly saw my story [The Borrowed House] more as a What Daisy Knew tale, innocence besieged by lies and evil.

The funny thing about writing is that it IS on the level of contrasts. Painting is on a higher plane; there the contrasts are merely merely mechanical and the aim is unity. Poets are the only writers who achieve that too. Abstract painting has been following the contrasts by eliminating the psychical meanings and making the mechanical the most important. Maybe that its descriptive of our time.

You see the story [of Janna] as a completely Hitlerized girl, who does Hitler things, then goes to Holland, goes into a house where she is surrounded by Nazi grownups and hostile Dutch. Why should she be converted?

I see the story as a very individual child who has been fed beautiful lies about Naziism but has not met the horrors. She has natural virtue and when confronted with the situation in Holland see through the lies, at least partially, and takes action. I can't see it any other way.

Hilde Knef writes very amusingly of how she got into trouble with her Nazi schoolmarms, asking questions like:
  • "Who do have to defend ourselves against? Nobody has attacked us." and
  • "Why do you want to bring all those Germans in Sudetenland and South America back if we lack lebensraum?"
Of course, I can't let Janna do that. It would spoil my story completely. Janna must be acquainted with the good side [of life in Germany under the Nazis in the 1930s], which there was. One of my pupils just told me that they got letters from German relatives saying Hitler was the best thing that ever happened to Germany–no unemployment, no vice, etc. [My pupil] Mildred is worried because people here are saying: "Hitler wasn't so bad–it was only about the Jews he was bad, we need someone like him." 

I think it is far more important for me to pinpoint what Hitlerism really was, than to have Janna undergo a moral revolution. Tell me what you think.

Love, Mim

Posts on The Borrowed HouseNew Edition of The Borrowed House (Purple House Press) . Letter 1 . Letter 2 . Letter 3 . The van Arkel Portrait

Order a copy of the new (October 2016) edition of The Borrowed House.

1 comment:

  1. In a letter to her daughter Brigid Marlin, Hilda van Stockum wrestles with how to tell the story of Janna in "The Borrowed House". The issues she raises are remarkably up to date. We still face some of the same questions.

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