The Reader and Oedipus Rex

This is the funniest and the dumbest review I have read of The Reader

Maybe I’m lacking in moral complexity (or maybe this is a uniquely German story that translates poorly to an American context), but The Reader‘s central problem (which seems reducible to “I shagged a Nazi”) strikes me as a bogus one. If Michael can say, truthfully, that he knew nothing about his lover’s past, doesn’t that effectively absolve him of guilt?


It’s funny because the reviewer is lacking in moral complexity, and it’s dumb because this film is so not reducible to “I shagged a Nazi”.

There’s a queasy moment during the trial of Hanna Schmitz when she is being questioned about how she selected the prisoners who would go to the death camps where she asks the judge – “what would you have done?”  Of course, criminal cases don’t deal with the hypothetical, and in a trial concerning specific crimes of passion the answer to this question can easily be avoided, but in a trial that concern the actions of an individual that were representative of a society?  Well, that’s tricky.  There’s a certain tendency when this question is turned around for everybody to look at the judge at this point, a German man of a certain age, and think – “Actually, what were you doing during the war?”

And now we are getting to what the film is about.  What is it like to be a German child of World War Two?  There must have been a moment in the life of each member of Bernhard Schlink’s generation (he was born in 1944) when they realised that their parents were adults during the period when the Nazis were in power, and there must also have been moments when they realised that even if their parents weren’t in the Gestapo they probably also weren’t plotting the overthrow of Hitler and smuggling Jews across the border.  But then, of course, they are your parents, the people who love you most in the world, and whom you love in return.

This is the problem of the movie. It is not a movie about the Jews in World War Two; it is a movie about the Germans after World War Two.  What do you do when you can never absolve the ones you are compelled to love, of crimes of the most abhorrent kind?  From the moment of horrified revelation in the courtroom Michael’s life is torn apart.


At the moment at school I am doing a one man performance of Oedipus Rex for my Year 12 Classics class.  We take a section each day and I “perform” it to them.  They are hooked.  It is such a fantastic play, so taut and filled with rising dread, so awful to watch Oedipus come to his moment of realisation and tear himself apart.

Studying Oedipus Rex with my Year 12 students has made me realise how alien aspects of Greek culture are to us.  Oedipus Rex can read like a very modern play, but if you see a production done in the original style then it is pretty clearly a different order of work much more to do with ritual, and song, and action of the Gods.  The simple fact of the actors and chorus wearing large masks makes the performance far more like witnessing a series of tableaux.

The world of the ancient Greeks is such a pitiless place.  What do we make of Oedipus’ fate nowadays?  There is really not a lot to indicate that he deserved what he got.  He was a little short tempered, perhaps a little prone to disparage the oracles, but he seems to have been a good ruler.  In fact it all seems to have happened because, well, the Gods said it would.  The cheering conclusion of the chorus is this:

All the generations of mortal man add up to nothing!

Show me the man whose happiness was anything more than illusion

Followed by disillusion.

These lines reminded me of The Reader.  Was the last time that Michael was truly happy the moment before he recognised Hanna Schmitz in the courtroom on trial for Nazi war crimes?  After that moment was anything ever really the same for him?  After that I suppose Michael was looking for something to make everything better, to take away the awkward sickness of the memory of his love.  But the world is still an ancient Greek one, and without pity.  After nearly two decades Hanna Schmitz, days from her release from prison, meets Michael again, and realising that he does not love her but in fact expects her to show remorse or say that she has learnt something while she has been in prison, snaps,

It doesn’t matter what I think. It doesn’t matter what I feel. The dead are still dead.

Later a Jewish survivor of Hanna’s actions says to Michael:

What are you asking for?  Forgiveness for her? Or do you just want to feel better yourself? My advice, go to the theatre, if you want catharsis. Please. Go to literature. Don’t go to the camps. Nothing comes out of the camps.  Nothing.


Was there a moment when the chief Te Puni or the chief Wharepouri was standing on the beach at Pito-one watching the European ships sitting on the flat waters of Port Nicholson, with the row boats bringing in more and more settlers to fill up more and more land, to demand more, to take more, was there a moment when they realised that they had made a mistake?  Was there a moment when they realised that they had agreed to a tidal wave that would sweep centuries of their beliefs and values into the sea?

Do we, so modern, believe in fate or free will when it comes to the movements of history?  Was there really any choice for the likes of Te Puni, or had fate thrown an irresistible force against the Maori?  Is there any choice for us now, or have we already created the fate that will overwhelm us?  The individual may have free will for all I know, but it seems to me that the individual also lives in a world of vast, impersonal forces and we may as well call them fate for all the chance we have of standing against them.

E.M. Forster and 3 Day Potty Training

I have read two things quite intensely recently: a collection of essays by E.M. Forster, and a copy of 3 Day Potty Training.  While Forster hasn’t specifically referred to potty training in any of his essays (hard to believe, but true) and has instead tended to talk about the Nazis, and freedom, and the League of Nations, I have come to realise, while on this toilet training journey, that Forster has a lot to offer to parents looking for child-rearing tips.

The first clutch of essays in the Forster book were written between 1938 and 1945 and are mainly about why the Nazis are bad, and what is important in a civilised society.  The flagship essay is called What I Believe, and begins:

I do not believe in Belief.  But this is an Age of Faith, and there are so many militant creeds that, in self-defence, one has to formulate a creed of one’s own….  Tolerance, good temper and sympathy – they are what matter really, and if the human race is not to collapse they must come to the front before long.

The most famous section from these essays is this:

Personal relationships are despised today.  They are regarded as bourgeois luxuries, as products of a time of fair weather which is now past, and we are urged to get rid of them and to dedicate ourselves  to some movement or cause instead.  I hate the idea of causes, and if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.

Forster ardently believes in the individual and opposes causes and beliefs that attempt to eradicate personal relationships and promote uniformity.  I suspect that the individuality Forster has in mind is the quietly pottering along individualism of the eccentric Englishman who is muddling through rather than the stereotypical brash individualism of the American.  As a fan of individualism Forster is a fairly ardent supporter of democracy.  I say fairly ardent because, remember, Forster doesn’t like causes, and he can see democracy’s faults (his collection of essays is called Two Cheers for Democracy).

[Democracy is] less hateful than other contemporary forms of government, and to that extent it deserves our support.  It does start from the assumption that the individual is important, and that all types are needed to make a civilization….  The people I admire most are those who are sensitive and want to create something or discover something, and do not see life in terms of power, and such people get more of a chance under a democracy than elsewhere.

Forster extends creating something to decently raising your children or quietly helping a friend.


3 Day Potty Training is written by an American woman who promotes a potty training system that is messy, full on and takes… three days.  We introduced Eleanor to this system about two weeks ago.  It is a very strict system.

Through working with thousands of parents, I cannot tell you how many times inconsistency has resulted in delayed or prolonged potty training….  Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you can use this method and cling to the security of using diapers or pull-ups….  No.  Avoid the padded “training” underwear as well.  I consider pull-ups and padded underwear as “crutches”.

I consider pull-ups and padded underwear as pull-ups and padded underwear, and not as proof of my mental weakness, but then I am a poor deluded parent who needs telling.

For some reason, parents believe that keeping a child on the toilet helps with the potty training process.  It does not….  Don’t let them read books while sitting on the toilet, as this can backfire.  You may feel that it is ok to keep the child on the toilet  if you just “know” they are going to go.  Don’t do this.

DON’T.  DO.  THIS.  YOU NAUGHTY, NAUGHTY PARENT.  Still, there are moments of light relief in this booklet.

I have a few strategies for dealing with bowel movements.

Me too.  Actually, no, I just have one strategy, and it’s not this:

Get a stick and paint it.  Put it by the door with a note that it’s a magic potty wand and that when he holds it, it helps him poop without it being scarey.

Sure.  Like pooping will ever stop being scarey.

After a few days with the method Eleanor pretty much got it and stopped needing nappies most of the time.  On the other hand it was also really beginning to stress her out at nights, and make her unhappy.  Her behaviour deteriorated and she was becoming increasingly unmanageable.  Soon she began to become defiant about wearing undies and began demanding nappies again.  As worried parents we stressed and fretted and felt like we had failed the 3 Day Potty Training guru.What should we do, we wondered?  Persevere with the method in all it’s proud consistency, or weaken?

We weakened.  We took it easy on Eleanor, and gave her some choices, and let her wear a nappy when she wanted to.  After a day she was back to her normal temperament, and after another day she herself asked to go back to underpants and now seems perfectly content.


E.M. Forster, I realised at the end of this gruelling process, had not only been talking about fascism, and God, and officious pen pushers in his essay on his beliefs, he had also been talking about the 3 Day Potty Training book.  After all “I do not believe in Belief” is simply a cry against the dogma or the cause that puts belief above the personal relationship, and what could be a more personal relationship than the one between a parent and their child?  And yet how easy it is to be swept away by a cause.  I’m old enough now to know that I will never know what I’m doing, but I can still trick myself into thinking that I do for brief periods.  I have often thought in the last two years that most advice about raising a child is largely subjective and can be safely ignored, but even knowing this I can still get conned by an expert.  Despite moments of clarity I will never, it seems, be immune to the insistent charms of the dictator.  However, I will do my best, and keep my Forster handy, for in the way of the potty E.M. Forster is eternally wise. 

In the end, thank God, with the good advice of family, and a little of our own fortitude, we were able to display the guts to betray our country, and the good sense to stick by Eleanor.