Explaining the [Nazi] perpetrators' actions demands ... that the perpetrators' phenomenological reality be taken seriously. We must attempt the difficult enterprise of imagining ourselves in their places, performing their deeds, acting as they did, viewing what they beheld.
An effort not only to think about but arrive at an understanding of how the "unthinkable"-Nazi genocidal atrocity-ever occurred, Martin Amis's novel, Time's Arrow, is narrated in reverse time; the novel begins at the death bed of the character Tod Friendly, whose life literally rewinds before his eyes. (His name changes in accordance to the different identities he appropriates through the course of his life while fleeing prosecution for Nazi war crimes-from "Tod T. Friendly" to "John Young," from John Young to "Hamilton de Souza," and lastly, from Hamilton De Souza to his original identity, "Odilo Unverdorben.") Amis presents a text where the protagonist's life is moving backward and all logic and normative reality is reversed. By progressing backwards, the narrative style in and of itself comments on the Nazi's paradoxical version of "progress"--that is, the revitalization of archaic myths in the name of national renewal. Indeed, the narrative's reversals only begin to "make sense" when Tod reaches the moment of his past when he was a Nazi. For Nazi "rationality," as Amis points out time and time again, blurred the lines between creation and destruction, as destruction was often rationalized as a means to create. Such "logic" underlies the notion that genocidal mass murder will lead to racial (Aryan) revival as well as the idea that violence is the way to national renewal-e.g., rebuilding the German Nation via militarism.
Time's Arrow is narrated from the perspective of a co-consciousness (and sometimes ghost conscience) that exists as an exile within Tod's body. At the beginning of the novel, the consciousness-split occurs at Tod's deathbed as the narrator becomes aware of his separation: "Something isn't quite working this body of mine won't takes orders from this will of mine. Look around, I say. But his neck ignores me. His eyes have their own agenda."(1) As his mind leaves the scene of the death bed and flashes backwards through time, the confused narrator initially cannot understand why he views himself "walking backward in the house" or the meaning of the strange mumbling he overhears: "Aid ut oo y'rrah?" (How are you today?) (pp. 6-7). The narrator soon figures out, however, that the "pitiable chirruping" is, in fact, "human speech," and, upon this realization, he immediately attains fluency in a backwards language that turns out to be strangely familiar-indeed, a language he sometimes dreams in (p. 7). Apparently, then, these counter-intuitive thought processes are hot new, but rather are a latent component of Tod's unconscious (that sometimes surface in dreams) that have also dictated, somewhere in the past, his wakeful experience. What is a counter-intuitive world for the narrator, however, is actually the intuitive world for his double and the people of his double's memories: "We're getting younger ... And all the other people are getting younger too, but they don't seem to mind, any more than Tod minds. They don't find it counter-intuitive, and faintly disgusting, as I do ... The other people, do they have someone else inside them, passenger or parasite, like me?" (p. 8). As the narrator (Tod's "passenger" consciousness) negotiates his alien status in the rewinding world of memories, he realizes that that which is insane to him is actually sane to his double and to those who share this world with his double: "Tod is sane, apparently, and his world is shared. It just seems to me that the film is running backwards."
That the narrator views this world as counter-intuitive indicates that he is on the side of Tod's split personality that managed to avoid indoctrination in Nazi ideology. Robert Jay Lifton, in his comprehensive work, The Nazi Doctors, explains that "the key to understanding how Nazi doctors came to do the work of Auschwitz is the psychological principle I call `doubling': the division of the self into two functioning wholes, so that the part-self acts as an entire self."(2) Accordingly, Time's Arrow seemingly presents a fictionalized account of Lifton's work.(3) For it is only through "doubling" and "psychic numbing" that Tod (then "Odilo") was able to effectively perform his work as a Nazi doctor, which necessitated his adherence to a fundamentally un-Hippocratic oath. During his war years Tod had learned to contain, control, and adapt his conscience to Nazi ideology by functioning as a divided-self-literally, of two minds. Hence, the narrating split-consciousness, which formed when Tod was a Nazi doctor, surfaces from its latent period as Tod's backwards journey through life reactivates the counterintuitive (or Nazi-intuitive) discursive mode. From the perspective of "the part self [that] acts as an entire self," the narrative has the doppel ganger effect of a ghost consciousness haunting a body it used to call home (prior to the Nazi years).
The following example of this reversed narrative structure is important insofar as it reveals how the distinction between creation and destruction became blurred under Nazism. The split-subjectivity appears to be the reason that the narrator refers to himself as "we" in the upcoming passage, but Amis may be also indicting the tradition of the royal "we" with its investiture of life-giving and life-taking authority (this matter will be examined later in the essay). Tod is moving from his house (located in the United States, which was Tod's final settling place after years of escaping prosecution by war tribunals) and bids farewell to his garden; he sheds tears which "fall" in reverse, that is, from the ground back to his eyes. Tod's tears, as the narrator initially suggests, are of distress over his having to leave the flourishing garden that he so diligently crafted. Yet, in reverse form, as my comments in the brackets shall indicate, the creative process becomes a destructive one; the garden is un-created as its seeds are tediously unsowed:
On the day we moved ... Tod slipped out into the garden-the garden on which he had worked for so many years. He lowered himself on his knees, and, sniffing hungrily, richly [...] It was beautiful ... Dewlike drops of moisture formed on the dry grass, and rose upward through the air as if powered by the jolts in out chests. The moisture bathed out cheeks, deliciously, until with our tickling eyes we drew it in. Such distress. Why? I assumed at the time that he was crying for the garden and what he had done to it. The garden was heaven when we had started out [that is, in the end], but over the years [now passing in reverse], well, don't blame me is all I'm saying. It wasn't my decision. It never is. So Tod's tears were tears of remorse and propitiation. For what he'd done. Look at it. A nightmare of wilt and mildew, of fungus and black spot. [Tod's double views the gardening process in reverse mode:] All the tulips and roses he patiently drained and crushed, then sealed their exhumed corpses and took them in the paper bag …