trauma

Touching an “Authentic” Swastika

[7 minute read]

CW: Nazism, Neo-Nazism, Swastikas

I’m currently writing this blog post from a hotel room in Durham, N.C. I’m here over Spring Break to do some archival research at the Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. The Abraham Joshua Heschel Papers live here, and it is an overwhelming and expansive collection. The collection guide here shows a preview of the breadth and depth of the papers in the archive.

This is my first time doing archival research. It is amazing.

It is hard for me to put into words why I like it so much, but I want to share an experience I had while here at the archive.

(I am still learning about archival research, and I know that all the unpublished material in the collection is under the copyright of Dr. Susannah Heschel, Abraham Joshua Heschel’s daughter. So I won’t be sharing anything too specific here, and of course won’t be sharing any photographs or scans of my work.)

I am looking at Folder 3 of Box 19, described on the finding guide as containing

Officials documents including a Polish citizenship document tracking movement between Germany and Poland; Anmelde-Buch (enrollment book) which lists several of Heschel’s professors at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentems zu Berlin including Leo Baeck , Ismar Elbogen, and Julius Güttman; Arbeitsbuch, which lists Heschel’s professional training in Frankfurt am Main; Heschel’s Ausweiskarte (identification card) at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentems; and a certificate (Zeugnis) for the Deutches Institut für Ausländer an der Universität Berlin which attests to Heschel’s satisfactory completion of requirement at Realgymnasium in Vilna.[1]

I have earbuds in my ears and am half-listening to a podcast episode I’ve listened to about a hundred times before as I carefully, and nervously, flip through the materials. I feel a bit like an imposter. I wonder if everyone else here has done plenty of archival research before. They probably have lots of articles published in peer-reviewed journals, and may even have jobs. They are probably almost done with their dissertations, and even their first books.

I smile as I look through the materials surrounding Heschel’s early academic education in Berlin. I feel almost proud of Heschel for these early academic achievements, as if I knew him personally. I continue flipping through these materials. I flip another page over and look down and – freeze.

There is a small book, it looks about the size of a passport, staring up at me. It is an official document. Arbeitsbuch, it reads. In the center of it is a crest, an eagle perched atop a swastika.

***

I knew that Heschel fled Nazi Germany. I knew this. I suppose if I had been asked if Heschel had any official documentation from the Reich, I would have shrugged and said, “Well, probably.” But seeing this document – and seeing it nestled in a folder amongst more cheerful documents about Jewish Studies in Berlin made my stomach turn.

When I gingerly touched this document I thought to myself that this was the first “authentic swastika” I had ever touched. The first swastika was on a document made by The Third Reich.

***

In the days leading up to my trip to Durham, I restarted playing the video game Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus. In it, the Nazis won WWII. You play a supersoldier with an artificially engineered body trying to start a revolution in the United States, which now operate as a colony of the Reich.

My husband was originally interested in the game after it generated some Internet buzz. Apparently, some White Nationalists were disturbed about a game centering on killing Nazis. Adi Robertson, writing for The Verge, published an article entitled “Watching internet Nazis get mad at Wolfenstein II is sadder than the game’s actual dystopia.”

Robertston writes:

“The saddest thing about Wolfenstein’s YouTube comments isn’t the offended white supremacists. It’s the fact that in 2017 you can write “I can’t wait to kill some Nazis in a video game” as though that’s a meaningful political stance — which is exactly what a lot of the most popular comments are about. The second saddest thing is that you’ll be proven right by someone named “Pepe Von Europa.”[2]

And it’s true that the game is very overt with its message that killing Nazis in order to overthrow their regime is moral. As Kallie Plagge writes in her review of the game:

“Above all else, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus takes a very hard stance on the righteousness of killing Nazis. It never falters, not once asking whether violent resistance is the wrong way to fight back against oppression – and the game is stronger for it.”[3]

And so, while playing the video game, I “killed” Nazis. A lot of them. And I saw a lot of swastikas. Some were on people I “killed,” others were on buildings I “crept” by, and still others were on “official” materials I “found” and “examined” in the game. Occasionally the swastikas even seem to shout out to you: all bold and startling against a bright white or black backdrop.

This swastika is different than the other swastikas in that game, I thought to myself when I saw the swastika on Heschel’s Arbeitsbuch. It’s more… subdued. The lines are thinner. It looks… ordinary. And it was ordinary, in a horrifying way. It was a piece of official documentation, and even though it had a swastika on it, it still looked like something bureaucratic, ordinary, and everyday.

And in all its ordinariness, in all its slight bizarre delicateness, it was terrifying. Much more terrifying and startling, somewhat paradoxically, that the swastikas that seem to bombard you as you play Wolfenstein II.

After I saw it, I needed to step out of the reading room and get a drink of water.


[1] Description of File 3, Box 19. Guide to the Abraham Joshua Heschel Papers, 1880, 1919-1998 and undated. https://library.duke.edu/rubenstein/findingaids/heschelabraham/#aspace_ref478_be8

[2] Robertson, Adi. “Watching internet Nazis get mad at Wolfenstein II is sadder than the game’s actual dystopia.” The Verge. June 12, 2017. Accessed March 14 2018. https://www.theverge.com/2017/6/12/15780596/wolfenstein-2-the-new-colossus-alt-right-nazi-outrage.

[3] Plagge, Kallie. “Rise: Review of Wolfenstein II: The New Collossus.” Gamespot. October 26, 2017. Accessed March 14, 2018. https://www.gamespot.com/reviews/wolfenstein-2-the-new-colossus-review/1900-6416796/.

How We Talk about Trauma: Gaslight and the Importance of Maintaining a Bi-focal Critical View

[7-10 minute read]

Recently, my coursework on Hollywood Melodrama engaged me with reading portions of Helen Hanson’s book, Hollywood Heroines: Women in Film Noir and the Female Gothic Film.[1] This text represents an amazing work of scholarship, connecting well-researched critical feminist histories, studies in the formation of literary and filmic genres, and close-readings of the narrative representations of heroines in Classic Hollywood films.

Hanson’s history of gothic fiction, which makes up the majority of her second chapter, related several functions of the gothic mode:

  • “In its ability to express, evoke and produce fear and anxiety, the gothic mode figures the underside to the rational, the stable, and the moral” (34).
  • “In Gothic fiction certain stock features provide the principle embodiments and evocations of cultural anxieties” (34).
  • “The narratives of gothic literary fictions and films commonly deploy suspicions and suspense about past events. . . In its moves across the present and the past, and its tension between progress and atavism, the gothic forces witness [of] the present as conditioned and adapted by events, knowledge or values pressing on it from the past. . . It is within this retrogressive narration that the gothic embodies cultural anxiety, and it is this that mobilizes its potential as social critique.” (35).

In all of these forms, the gothic mode[2] traverses between the past and present, highlighting tensions between society’s desire for progress, and an ever-present fear of change. In this way, it serves as a mirror for cultural anxieties; a mirror which frequently attracts the attention of new and veteran scholars alike.

Dracula is one famous example frequently discussed in college classrooms; the text thrives on the anxieties of the British public in the late Victorian period. It addresses fears of foreigners through the figure of Dracula, an aristocrat from Eastern Europe. It reflects the fear of new modes of emerging femininity in the form of the New Woman as embodied in fragmented forms by Mina Murray and Lucy Westenra. Even concerns about tensions between religion and rationality find voice in the pages of the novel.

anxiety1Bela Lugosi as the foreign and inscrutable Dracula (1931, Universal)

However, these “cultural anxieties” of the past represent fears that the novel both critiques and re-inscribes in equal measure. Dracula is a foreign danger, but he is foiled in part by the American foreigner Quincey Morris. Mina’s technical literacy as a New Woman becomes essential for the defeat of Dracula. More importantly, we can now look back on these “cultural anxieties” and acknowledge the foolishness of their sources: sexism regarding women’s positioning outside the domestic sphere, and a xenophobia of foreigners moving into Britain from all corners of its crumbling empire. These anxieties feel “backward” now: an ideology from another time.

While these instances from criticism of a single specific text do not constitute a full definition of “cultural anxieties,” they do help to situate the term within its common usage. “Cultural anxieties” usually indicate societal fears that a contemporary reader can acknowledge as dependent on historical context. These fears may no longer function in the same way in the current cultural environment – one which the terminology implies has ostensibly progressed from the past.

The tendency of historiographic critique to locate anxieties in a moment from the past continued to haunt me as I moved forward through Hanson’s argument. This notion of “past-ness” lent to topics by the use of the term “cultural anxieties” felt particularly troublesome as I engaged Hanson’s reading of the 1944 film Gaslight.[3] This film revolves around Paula (Ingrid Bergman) and her relationship with the abusive Gregory (Charles Boyer), who uses deception, contradiction, and misdirection to convince Paula that she is losing her mind, and that her grip on reality has faltered.

anxiety2Gaslight poster, 1944 (MGM)

As Hanson approaches her discussion of female gothic films, Gaslight among them, she quotes feminist film critics Tania Modleski and Diane Waldman, who suggest that the female gothic cycle in Hollywood “expresses anxieties of shifting gender roles, and the social upheaval of World War II, from a female perspective.” She goes on to quote them directly: “The fact that after the war years these films gradually faded from the screen probably reveals more about the changing composition of movie audiences than about the waning of women’s anxieties concerning domesticity” (47-8). Not only are the anxieties displayed in Gaslight rooted in the specific moment of Post-WWII America, they also revolve specifically around an “anxiety concerning domesticity.”

This exemplifies the trouble that I came to while thinking about our role as critics: Just as Paula is discredited for her emotional responses in Gaslight, so too is the film discredited from its ability to comment on an ongoing and ever-present feature of patriarchal society by its relation to the term “cultural anxiety.” By tying these films to notions of anxiety, and a “retrogressive narration” that focuses on the past, contemporary critics and modern scholars alike miss something vitally important. Paula’s experience is not some rumination on past treatments of women alone. It is not tied solely to the shifting gender norms in Post-WWII America. It is a visceral consideration of the everyday violence suffered by women under patriarchy.[4]

anxiety3Gregory corners Paula in an early scene of accusation. (MGM)

How many women have been told they are over-reacting, being too emotional, or not thinking clearly? How many women have had their experience of reality challenged by men and other women in misogynistic terms? How many women do not even trust their own minds because of this behavior? (There seems an easy tie-in here with the ways that domestic violence victims blame themselves for the behavior of their abusers, internalize the abuse, and even succumb to Stockholm syndrome). This is a constant and consistent experience for women living in a patriarchal society that values rationality over feeling. By tying these films to anxiety and the past, these texts are stripped of their commentary on this insidious — and constantly active — aspect of the patriarchy.

Instead of allowing for the recognition and critique of current violence against women, the historiographic location of Gaslight as a film about Post-WWII “cultural anxiety” may instead serve to elide the accusatory and critical nature of its content, and its application to our present moment. While our habit to historicize serves as a vital and useful aspect of the discipline, it may be equally important as feminist scholars to acknowledge the ways that these cultural anxieties go unresolved across time.

In the end, this reflection becomes less about the use of any one term (although the build-up of rhetorical weight and precedence placed upon, and into critical terms certainly merits further consideration). Instead, what it has prompted me to consider is the very nature of historicizing patriarchal violence. By historicizing a text so thoroughly within its time, we reap the rewards of insights that only a text’s context may grant us. However, we also run the risk of limiting the text’s ability to witness to a larger, historically mobile female experience of marginalizing violence. Hanson argues for this form of critique as well. She soundly rejects the psychoanalytic readings of early feminist engagement with female gothic melodrama (which often produced a deterministic reading) in favor of suggesting a critical vision that offers “a narrative trajectory as a female journey to subjectivity. This journey has a change in relation to socio-cultural shifts in gender relations coincident in the period” (xvi). Here, her attention calls for a scholarships that locates without functioning deterministically; one which approaches a text both in the local context of its era, and the trans-historical mode of its critique.

If current readers and critics keep this bi-focal view, looking at texts in both their local and trans-historical forms, we gain the ability to ask why a film so tied to the gender politics of 1940s America can still speak so directly to women’s experiences in 2017.


[1] Hanson, Helen. Hollywood Heroines: Women in Film Noir and the Female Gothic Film. No City: I.B. Tauris, 2007.

[2] The “female gothic” rises out of this gothic mode. First discussed by Ellen Moers in her book Literary Women (1963) the term female gothic refers specifically to texts written by and for women.

[3] Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play Gas Light originated the term now used in common parlance to describe the manipulative psychological abuse which functions by instilling in the victim a doubt of their own experiences of reality. This play serves as the source material for the 1944 film, directed by George Cukor.

[4] My argument here is meant in no way as a disavowal of the arguments presented by Hanson, Modleski, or Waldman, but rather a reflection on the rhetorical weight of the terminology that our discipline utilizes and the methodological practices we employ.