Trivializing Tragedy: Michael Lewis on Germany

Michael Lewis was the guy who got the coffee for the guy who got the coffee at the old Salomon Brothers in the 1980s, and parlayed his observations of the local fauna into an iconic bestseller, Liar’s Poker. He never had a clue about what was going on at that flawed and fascinating institution, but neither did his readers, and the anecdotes told themselves. Since then he’s haunted the columns of glossy magazines, wandering farther and farther afield. In the September issue of Vanity Fair he wanders off the deep end in a potty-mouthed (literally) examination of the German national character.


Somehow, the alleged German obsession with excrement explains Nazism as well as Germany’s attitude towards its insouciant southern neighbors, in Lewis’ account. It might be the most trivial response to grand historic tragedy ever to pay $2 a word, or perhaps any sum at all.

I doubt Lewis speaks more than a dozen words of German, but he has found an obscure tract by an anthropologist who thinks that the reason Germany got into deep doo-doo is the doo-doo itself:

A small book with a funny title towers over many larger, more ponderous ones. Published in 1984 by a distinguished anthropologist named Alan Dundes, Life Is Like a Chicken Coop Ladder set out to describe the German character through the stories that ordinary Germans liked to tell one another. Dundes specialized in folklore, and in German folklore, as he put it, “one finds an inordinate number of texts concerned with anality. Scheisse (shit), Dreck (dirt), Mist (manure), Arsch (ass).… Folksongs, folktales, proverbs, riddles, folk speech — all attest to the Germans’ longstanding special interest in this area of human activity.”

Now, the Germans are famously clean and orderly — respectable housewives polish the steps on Saturday — but Mr. Lewis’ academic source is, well, something of a Scheisskopf himself. When it comes to scatological humor, the Germans have nothing on the French, and in particular on the greatest of French Renaissance writers, Francois Rabelais, who offered a lengthy and mock-learned discourse on all the possible ways to wipe one’s self (in Chapter 1.xiii of Gargantua and Pantagruel).


The problem in Europe, Lewis concludes, is that the German compulsive requirement for order has run smack up against the profligate Greek enjoyment of life, and the two peoples just don’t understand each other. It pains me that trees are murdered to print this sort of thing.

“And I’m supposed to care, because…?,” the reader rightfully interjects at this point. It’s important because Germany’s tragedy bears directly upon America’s culture wars. The late Allan Bloom argued in his best-selling book The Closing of the American Mind that that American intellectuals were singing from a cheat-sheet with bad English translations of German originals. As Peter Watson writes in his sprawling 2010 survey The German Genius, “The United States and Great Britain may speak English, but, more than they know, they think German.” All of the silliness about following your bliss, about finding authenticity, about liberating yourself from alienation — every slogan and Shibboleth of the American cultural left — came from Nietzsche and his spiritual descendants, as Bloom argued.

One of the great contributions of the late Leo Strauss — Allan Bloom’s mentor — to American intellectual life was to make clear how dependent Americans were on German thought. If, as J.M. Keynes said, the most practical man of business is usually the intellectual slave of a defunct economist, then the most committed world-beater on the left is the slave of a defunct philosopher — probably Nietzsche. My objection to Strauss is that he, too, is the intellectual slave of a defunct German philosopher, namely Martin Heidegger, for Strauss sought a secular tradition that might replace the authority of Revelation which Strauss repudiated. That, in my view, leads ultimately to perverse conclusions, but that’s a long story.


As an observant Jew, I’ve drawn attention to the importance of modern German culture in shaping Modern Orthodoxy, which tries to learn from the best of the ambient culture. Most of the greatest minds of Eastern European Orthodoxy studied at German universities before 1933, and the difficult (but not always hostile) engagement of Torah culture with German philosophy often bore important fruits. The matter of Richard Wagner, the most influential cultural figure of the 19th century who overshadows us still, requires us to look at Germany in depth.

The best and the worst came out of the broader German cultural sphere: Soren Kierkegaard (a Berlin-educated Dane), the Swiss Karl Barth, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and, yes, Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. And the towering leader of Modern Orthodoxy during the second half of the 20th century, the “Rav” Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, did a doctorate in German  philosophy at Berlin. Physics still struggles with the legacy of Heisenberg and Schroedinger and Pauli, while mathematics still wrangles with Goedel and Hilbert.

Even in its decline, demographically and otherwise, Germany remains important, both as a participant in world events but also as a tragic object lesson. To attack Germany with the intellectual flair of a chimpanzee diminishes our capacity to make sense of the world in which we live. It’s a gauge of our intellectual vapidity that the editors of Vanity Fair would let the likes of Michael Lewis get away with this sort of thing.



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