The Religion & Culture Web Forum
Complicity and Moral Memory
by M. Cathleen Kaveny (University of Notre Dame)
This month, Professor Cathleen Kaveny of the University of Notre Dame theorizes on memory and morality through a close reading of Christa Wolf's autobiographical novel of Nazi Germany.
This piece will become part of an early chapter (possibly the first chapter) of my forthcoming book on complicity with wrongdoing. In the piece, I am engaged with a book written by East German author Christa Wolf, entitled Patterns of Childhood in which she deals with her childhood and adolescence growing up in Nazi Germany. The book is extremely complex in structure, moving among various periods in the author's life: her visit to her hometown as an adult in the 1970s, her childhood in the 1930s and 1940s, and her attempt to grapple with her own memories when sitting down to write the book after her visit. The book has a dreamlike, almost stream-of-consciousness quality to its structure, which I have tried to evoke, to some degree, in the first five or six pages of my own essay.
I found that it was fruitful to engage this book for a number of reasons. First, through its complicated narrative structure, the book captures very well the late 20th century sense of pervasive and puzzling complicity. Second, in its agonized thrashings of memory, it captures the paralysis many of us experience in trying to decide how to morally analyze, how morally to come to terms with, this pervasive sense of complicity. Third, the questions the book raises about the moral identity of the author/narrator, and about her efforts to come to terms with her own past, point to the inadequacy of our current moral frameworks to deal with the question of complicity, or even to specify precisely what is the matter with it.
More broadly, I am hoping that the discussion of Patterns of Childhood illustrates the need for moralists to develop a more adequate way of addressing problems of complicity, something for which the novel reaches but never finds. I hope to spend the rest of the book attempting to develop such a way.
An invited response to Professor Kaveny's essay by Father James Keenan of Boston College may be found in the archived discussion board for this Forum (pdf). The commentary will run through the month of March, after which it will continue to be accessible through the Web Forum archive.
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