A Hidden Heidegger in Bernhard Schlink's the Reader?

By Scherr, Arthur | The Midwest Quarterly, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview
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A Hidden Heidegger in Bernhard Schlink's the Reader?


Scherr, Arthur, The Midwest Quarterly


ALONG WITH THE distinctions of being chosen by Oprah's Book Club and made into a sexually explicit movie with an Academy Award-winning performance by Kate Winslet, Bernhard Schlink's novel Der Vorleser [The Reader] has received a great deal of attention from literary critics. Numerous writers interpret the novel as an apologia for Nazi Germany. They stress Schlink's callous dismissal of the sufferings of the Jews of Hitler's Europe, culminating in The Holocaust, as in scholarly critiques by Alison, Brockmann, and Donahue. Though not noted by those critics, it is highly likely that the protagonist's father, a philosophy professor dismissed by the German Ministry of Education for recommending the works of the famous seventeenth-century Dutch Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza, is a surrogate for the famous German Existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). Michael's father was perhaps a composite of Schlink's father and Heidegger, although William C. Donahue, all expert on The Reader, asserts that the best literary critics avoid assuming a literal identity between Schlink and Michael Berg, or between any authors of fiction as their protagonists' alter egos. This essay argues that, in melding the figures of Michael's fictional father, Sehlink's own father, the Rev. Doctor Edmund Schlink, and Heidegger, Bernhard Schlink imbues them with an undeserved aura of innocence, as Michael does to the character of Hanna (previous critics have amply demonstrated the latter). And, since The Reader as a work of historical fiction tends toward "Holocaust denial" or at least "Holocaust exoneration" for the mass of Germans, future generations of readers, less well-educated, erudite and creative than Heidegger and Schlink, could similarly trivialize mass murder.

The inclusion of sex, soap-opera type moralizing, and a veneer of historical realism, leads the reader to assume that popular novels like The Reader have no philosophical or political agenda: in this case, Heidegger's tendency (which Schlink follows) to downplay the horrors of the Holocaust as one of many inevitable atrocities that take place during war, exaggerated by the media and Jewish pressure groups. Consequently, the unsuspecting masses are fed facts in the guise of fiction, or, perhaps more often, fiction in the guise of facts. It appears that Michael's father formed a composite of Schlink's own father, Edmund the theologian, and the great German philosopher Martin Heidegger. By creating "Michael's father," a "good" man who admired Spinoza and was mistreated by the Nazis, Bernhard Schlink perhaps justified in his own mind the passivity of his father, Heidegger, and the entire German people in the face of Nazi tyranny, World War II, and the Holocaust. And neither Oprah nor the millions of casual readers of The Reader were the wiser.

Akin to Heidegger's apathy on the Jews and the Holocaust, Michael's father's characteristic attitude toward his family's well-being and other matters apart from his daily task of being a philosophy professor is aloofness. We never learn how he felt about the Nazi regime and the Holocaust, except that he was fired from his job as a university lecturer for planning a lecture about the Jewish philosopher Spinoza, which he likely did because of his philosophical importance rather than because he wished to champion the Jews or publicly oppose Nazism. We are given no reason to suppose him a political activist. From the brief physical description Michael gives of his father, he appears similar to Heidegger, with "his graying hair, his face, carelessly shaven as always, the deep lines between his eyes and from his nostrils to the corners of his mouth" (141).

In The Beader, Michael's relationship with his father is conflicted. Michael finds him distant and preoccupied: a cold, Heidegger-like philosophy professor, who never has time for his wife and children. Michael respects his intelligence, dedication to his work, and sober judgment.

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