2004: Diary Of A Man In Despair

by Michael Doliner


December 13, 2004   


(Swans - December 13, 2004)   Friedrich Percyval Reck-Malleczewen started his Diary of a Man in Despair in May 1936 and wrote intermittently until October 1944 when the Gestapo arrested and then shot him. The Diary was published posthumously in 1947. It is a history of what it was like to live in Germany as the Third Reich gathered to a head. Reck's Hitler is a living-dead ghost with "a jellylike, slag-gray face, a moonface into which two melancholy jet-black eyes had been set like raisins." (1) The mesmerizing hypnotist of other accounts is completely missing. George W. Bush, our great leader, is a comparable monster in a comparable stage of his career. He also has a bit of bloat, but no more than is usual for presidents, all of whom seem to deteriorate rapidly in office like picked mushrooms exposed to light. Reck found Hitler physically repulsive and thought his madness rooted in sexual impotence. Bush is also repulsive. Like Hitler he is a murderer and a torturer brim full of hatred. Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo are obvious examples, but it shows even in his press conferences, where he humiliates the attendees. Those journalists who attend must truly love their jobs to put up with him -- or they are secretly S&M bottoms. Like Hitler, Bush is impossible to "be" with. This may be an inevitable trait of "The Great Leader." Once, before Hitler came to power, Reck was a guest in the home of Clemens von Franckenstein, a composer, when Hitler, with a riding whip, a floppy hat, and a collie, forced his way into the room, launched into a tirade before the astonished dinner guests and then stormed out. "When he had gone, we sat silently confused and not at all amused. There was a feeling of dismay, as when on a train you suddenly find you are sharing a compartment with a psychotic." "A feeling of dismay" is a good description of sharing time with George W. Bush, even electronically. The shot of the Bush family in the White House on election night revealed an intensely uncomfortable gathering. One had the feeling that the video crew relieved, momentarily, a night of profoundly banal chitchat punctuated by excruciating silences all concealing a stream of hatred seething over the bedrock of unquestioned family loyalty. And "psychotic" is also apt given Bush's complete lack of empathy. David Hackworth reports that neither Bush nor Rumsfeld has the time to sign the letters of condolence to the families of soldiers killed in action. They have lackeys who stamp their signatures instead. (2) The story of Bush mocking Karla Fay Tucker just before her execution is chilling.

Reck-Malleczewen loathed Hitler, but others succumbed to Hitler's repulsive charms. Bush also has something that disarms all critical observation, something that makes you shrug at all his failings, something quite charming. He's just an ordinary guy. He's trying his best to do a very difficult job -- give him a break. Hitler, comically, puffed himself up into the farce of a great man whereas Bush pretends, remarkably well, to be an ordinary fellow. Whereas the Germans looked for a crude simulacrum of earlier greatness, Americans hunger for pretend ordinary joes. Bush père tripped on his unfamiliarity with the grocery scanner, the very type of an ordinary guyish faux pas. Kerry's involutions were too clever and his sincerity way out of whack. Even his long face was elitist. Fatal to the ordinary or "good guy" is any hint of wheels turning behind the forehead that might give the capacity for secret judgments. The good guy can criticize, but only openly, and must demonstrate, as Bush does, the absence of the capacity for critical thinking. Incapacity for thought is a virtue in a president. Bush won the debates with Kerry by appearing like a guy hard at work forced to interrupt serious tasks for nonsense. His irritation looked good to the ordinary guyish faction. Although Kerry made an effort, empty headedness is hard to fake. Bush's slightly bow-legged walk is also a masterful good guyish touch for, being apelike, it put him down among the people. A man walking erect is a snob. The Democrats might consider bow-leggedness as a criterion of "electability" in their presidential candidates of the future. But no one will match Bush for ordinary guyishness. He is the master of the art.

As soil for the planting of totalitarianism, the supermanism of the Third Reich suited the era after the fall of the exhausted Austro-Hungarian Empire just as ordinary guyism suits our exhausted democracy. The ubermensch is the German form of the American ordinary guy, a feel-good pseudo-idea that acts as a sort of gluten that binds together the mass. All Teutonic Germans were ubermenschen and all real Americans ordinary guys. Both are ferocious warriors, but nobody is better than anybody else, dirty outsiders excepted. Ordinary guyism is nothing more than what Reck sees as "mass-man apathy." "What appears to be stoicism is merely the expression of the condition of mass man: neither good nor bad, but basically and with a certain satisfaction at being so, nothing." Being nothing, nothing in our lives has any importance, so we feel nothing. That's where Hitler and our guy Bush come in. They get the crowds all worked up. Reck comments that, "in Berchtesgaden, recently, crazed women swallowed the gravel on which our handsome gypsy of a leader had set his foot." Hitler could whip a crowd into froth with his oratory. Bush, with teleprompters blinking, might be able to do the same to his obedient minions. Since God talks through him he may someday go beyond. Until now he's had to be satisfied with the orchestrated adulation of the obedient delegates to the Republican convention and that of the cheering troops who shared the rubber turkey with him on Thanksgiving morn. But the excitement is growing now, and it's going to be big. His fans are counting on Bush to go all the way.

Ubermenchlichkeit has an advantage over ordinary guyishness in that it inflates ones self-importance and thus allows the Great leader to lift up high emotion. Luckily, we have Evangelical Christianity to make up for this lack. Evangelical Christianity is socially tolerated and induced dual personality. On the one side, nothing, just an ordinary guy; on the other, Jesus and ecstasy. You've got to let Jesus into your heart and once you do he is your copilot or alter ego. Ordinary guyism manures the soil for the planting of this second personality. The ordinary guy is admittedly nothing and no one and happily so. As Churchill said of Clement Atlee, he is "a modest man with much to be modest about." It is difficult for him to see himself with a high destiny. Bush has been credited with a lot of bad behavior in his youth including using family connections to escape the Vietnam War. A drunk, he was headed down and out to pasture until he realized, after a binge, that he was nothing, just an ordinary guy. Filled with humility, he found Jesus. Bingo, born again, he emerged as a new man. He was still an ordinary guy, but, channeling Jesus, he was reborn and all kinds of extravagant possibilities opened up. The new guy got a clean slate and the promise of a bright flash of light. All his mistakes belong to the old foolish guy who hadn't yet taken Jesus into his heart. The born again former washout was welcomed back into the fold. Jesus had transformed his well-earned humility into supreme self-confidence. This self-confidence is not really his, but belongs to Jesus, who is directing him to fulfill his cosmic destiny as a vehicle for the divine will. Thus even though he is nothing in himself, he now partakes of a divine destiny. As a bonus he is now relieved of all responsibility for his actions. Burned out before, he is now full of self-righteous love and anger. And this Jesus, it seems, wants the world to end in the rapture. Won't that be exciting? If sane people are to take the asylum back from the inmates they will have to make such sincere and abiding religious conviction an absolute disqualification for public office.

The whole thing is "faith" rather than "reality" based. Maureen Dowd called George W. Bush the "boy emperor" and the moniker seems apt. Hitler tried, with ludicrous results, to dress up like the military aristocracy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but his uniform made him look like a train conductor instead. Bush, with no military experience whatsoever, has military fantasies too. Being American he is not Ludendorff, but Tom Sawyer gathering his gang together to prick their fingers, write their names in blood, and then set out on a glorious trumped up adventure. It is all imaginary, all "faith based." We fight for freedom, democracy, and all that is good. Never mind the emptiness of the words; never mind the real body parts strewn about. We don't notice those; carnage is "reality" not "faith" based, hence invisible. Bush needs a lot of vacations to play on his play ranch, land on aircraft carriers, or appear out of the darkness with rubber turkeys. It's all ordinary guyish in the extreme and the ordinary guys love it. Life for Boy Bush is all play, that is to say imaginary or "faith based" in an American boys-will-be-boys way. Never having experienced war he can play it as full of glory. Meanwhile poor Huck Finn is in real trouble on the river all alone with Jim.

Underneath the dream, reality spawns its own offspring. The whole Third Reich was a seething pit of vice and decadence. "A thin sauce of ideology covered lewdness, greed, and fathomless lust for power." We Americans have all that, too. We have our weird sex and we take a back seat to no one when it comes to "greed and fathomless lust for power." Our whole country should be wrapped in yellow tape for it is one big crime scene with most of the crime at the top. Those of us who can afford it enjoy sex-tourism in Thailand or pick up a new body part in any one of a number of Third World countries where they grow children to supply them. But we have gone way beyond all that. We also suffer from an exhaustion that permits us to be satisfied with a ghostly simulacrum of our vices. Our mice crawl over cyberspatial kiddy-porn and we drool in the dark at snuff movies and "The Apprentice." We satisfy our vices alone in cubicles by looking at flickering screens. A deadness to human feeling allows ever more violations of even minimal human dignity to go unnoticed. In a healthy country Abu Ghraib would have caused an uproar. Not a peep. "Oh, they will perpetrate still worse things, and worst, most dreadful of all, they will be totally incapable of even sensing the deep degradation of their existence," Reck comments. As an example he describes a woman whose inattention while she dallied with her lover allowed her three-year-old child to drown in a river. "...that very evening I saw her promenading with her friend in front of the windows behind which her dead child was lying." We have one Sgt. Aynett as quoted in the British Daily Telegraph: "I got my kills, I'm coming down. I just love my job." Does anybody notice anything wrong? No, we all fix our gaze on the faith based world in which we are bringing freedom and democracy to the benighted heathen. The idea that we are going to instruct the world in how to live is truly hilarious.

When they became obvious, Ronald Reagan directed our attention away from our real problems -- those Jimmy Carter called our "malaise" -- and bid us gaze upon the "city on the hill." Americans lapped it up with a spoon. Denial caused early onset Alzheimer's, the disease of the totalitarian subject. The pretty flickering images are distracting and pass through our minds like reels of film. Life is a series of sports highlights. Here's Reck: "This is how we live in Germany today. Monday a gigantic victory is announced. Tuesday not a soul can remember what it was. Huge numbers of prisoners are reported captured; no one believes the figures. Day in day out, trumpets on the radio announce more victories -- and we switch off as soon as we hear the first notes of the fanfare, with a feeling of insult." Sound familiar?

Reck knew that behind the macabre cave spectacle industrialists had allied with Hitler and were despoiling the land. That too is still so, only in spades. What Reck called the "termite nest" that chews the world up and leaves a pile of sawdust and filth is still the form of the human world, only now the parasitic industrialists have their own parasites, the financiers. The whole earth longs to be rid of the termite nest, and it soon will be. But what will be left, and what will human beings do then?

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Notes and Resources

1.  All Quotes from Diary of a Man in Despair are from the 1970 translation by Paul Rubens published by MacMillan.  (back)

2.  "With Deepest Sympathy," by David H. Hackworth, Soldiers For The Truth, November 22, 2004 (link valid as of 12/7/04).  (back)

America the 'beautiful' on Swans

Iraq on Swans


Michael Doliner has taught at Valparaiso University and Ithaca College. He lives with his family in Ithaca, N.Y.

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Published December 13, 2004
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