I was 18 years old when I came across the following quote by Tsuji Kunio, a Japanese scholar of French literature and an author.
“Nazi officers who committed their atrocity at Auschwitz would listen to Bach and read the poems of Goethe in the evening. Here, literature had no power to influence their behaviour. In fact, what liberated the Jews was the Allied force and its industrial and military might. For these reasons, I began to lose faith in literature”.
Rubbing salt to his wound were the words of Jean Paul Satre who said “literature does not mean anything to children who are dying from starvation”.
It would take some time before Tsuji as a young novelist would salvage himself from such state of despair. He confesses that it was only when he visited the Parthenon in Athens where he found some hope for a role that literature can play in our lives. He felt that this ancient shrine and its noble beauty were created not as a result of mankind’s prosperity but in conflict with its evilness and its efforts to win over that. He saw the Parthenon stood against the barren lands of Greece as if it was built to overcome the hardship of reality. Perhaps there is spirit that can confront the demons in our real lives, he thought.
I never agreed with this conclusion that he extracted out of his agony. It was because the question he posed initially overwhelmed me as a teenager that his own answer did not calm me. I found it difficult to share his thoughts as they were abstract and personal. It took much longer years before I could settle this harsh question; Nazi officers who sent thousands of Jews to the gas chamber had sensibility for art.
In hindsight, the answer was simple. You agonise over such behaviour of the Nazis but was Henry Ford any different from them? He and Adolf Hitler were “pen-pals” because they admired each other. Ford Motors, together with GM, actively sold their military products to both the Allies and Axis when the auto workers in America were told that they had to make concessions to their conditions during the war as they were all fighting the common enemy. Worse still, after the war, these firms sued the US government for bombing and destroying their factories that were located in the Nazi-occupied territories. Such ugly and endless greed for profit by multinationals is surely “evil” but has any literature ever addressed that?
Furthermore, let us not forget those hundreds of slaves that built the Parthenon. Has anyone ever healed their hardship of their forced labour? Likewise, there were thousands of foot-soldiers in the German army that would live in barracks during their services whose best “literature” to recreate their long and hard working days was perhaps cheap porn (No Jefferson Airplane or the Doors in those days). It is obvious that Tsuji’s mind never left the upper-class in the hierarchy of society, be it the Greek aristocracy or the Third Reich.
After all, his own initial instinct was correct. There is not much that literature alone could do to influence the injustice and hardship that the masses are often confronted with in our lives. Tsuji would eventually become a prestigious novelist and an expert in French literature but I see no trace of his efforts to address the “evilness” that followed the Holocaust in our modern history (Equally, I would not submit a simplistic statement to suggest that literature can attain its life if it was integrated into a movement for social changes).
More than 30 years later, I am sitting in a cafe at Grand Place in Brussels. My dinner meeting finished earlier than expected and I have time to relax for a couple hours on my own. As I look-up its Brussels town hall, the sun sets in and the darkness of the night slowly but surely replaces the glow of the sky. It is 8pm and the lights are lit on the tower. I have been here many times but have I ever been touched so much with the elegance of this architecture in the past?
And I wonder why.
Actually, I know the reason why. Sometimes, you feel like the evils you see in life just multiply and hard to cleanse. It could be that for the first time my state of mind overlapped with that moment Tsuji came across the Parthenon in Athens. He made a complex interpretation to untangle his confused mind but perhaps the beauty of the Greek shrine simply gave him a moment of relief? That is how I felt at Grand Place.
Then I headed back to my hotel. The night was getting chilly. The summer is over here. I hummed my favourite song from the musical, Les Miserables and thought about my friends that I met recently and those yet to meet.
Do you hear the people sing
Lost in the valley of the night?
It is the music of a people
Who are climbing to the light.
For the wretched of the earth
There is a flame that never dies.
Even the darkest night will end
And the sun will rise!
<Finale – Les Miserable>