- We were both crucified by the truth. [Barry Hannah, “The Water Liars,” a short story about how “how the worst truth to be confronted with is always the one you already know.”]
- When all this is over, people will try to blame the Germans alone, and the Germans will try to blame the Nazis alone, and the Nazis will try to blame Hitler alone. They will make him bear the sins of the world. But it’s not true. You suspected what was happening, and so did I. It was already too late over a year ago. I caused a reporter to lose his job because you told me to. He was deported. The day I did that I made my little contribution to civilization, the only one that matters. [Iain Pears, The Dream of Scipio (2002).]
Nobel prize-winning author Günter Grass admitted in 2006 that he had served in Hitler’s Waffen SS when he was seventeen years old. His literary works and his memoirs primarily explore the theme of coming to terms with the past.
Günter Grass, memoirs:
Analysis of Günter Grass' work:
- Stuart Taberner, ed., The Cambridge Companionto Günter Grass (Cambridge University Press, 2009).
- Noel L. Thomas, The Narrative Works of Günter Grass: A Critical Interpretation (John Benjamins Company, 1983).
- Jonathan Kay, Among the Truthers: A Journey Through America’s Growing Conspiracist Underground (Harper/HarperCollins Publishers, 2011): a study in how people drawn to conspiracy “theories” often are reflecting their own personal struggles.
- Diana B. Henriques, The Wizard of Lies: Bedrnie Madoff and the Death of Trust (Henry Holt & Company, 2011), on the Ponzi scheme as a monument to self-delusion.
- Neil Casey, ed., The Journals of Spalding Gray (Alfred A. Knopf, 2011). His first wife said he was "confessional but not honest."
- Karl Marlantes, What It Is Like to Go to War (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2011).
- Matt Young, Eat the Apple: A Memoir (Bloomsbury, 2018): “In this brutally honest memoir, the author grapples with his experiences in the Marine Corps.”
- Nora Krug, Belonging: A German Reckons with History and Home (Scribner, 2018): “ . . . Krug’s new visual memoir, is a mazy and ingenious reckoning with the past. Born three decades after the Holocaust, she traces the stubborn silences in German life and investigates her own family’s role in the war.”
- Richard Beard, The Day That Went Missing: A Family’s Story (Little, Brown & Company, 2018), in which the author seeks to understand the accidental drowning of his nine-year-old brother, when the author was eleven: “the book is not only a memoir but a chronicle of how lost memories can be recovered.”
- Mitchell S. Jackson, Survival Math: Notes on an All-American Family (Scribner, 2019): “One of the most striking facets of Jackson’s book is the way he bares himself — and here he most clearly answers Audre Lorde’s request of black men to commit to internal work that can result in change and accountability.”
- Adrian Tomine, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist (Drawn + Quarterly, 2020: “. . . the key to Tomine’s fiction is the rage and fragility beneath the pristine compositions.”
- Suleika Jaouad, Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of Life Interrupted (Random House, 2021): “When Silver Linings Don’t Cut It, Honesty Helps.”
- Gina Frangello, Blow Your House Down: A Story of Family, Feminism, and Treason (Counterpoint, 2021): “. . . I have cheated, I have lied, I have done damage. I have been selfish and ruled by my desires . . .”
- Matthieu Aikens, The Naked Don’t Fear the Water: An Underground Journey with Afghan Refugees (Harper, 2022): “Aikins poignantly frames the question many of us have been wrestling with since the chaotic events of 2021: ‘What does it mean to be free in our world? The refugee is freedom’s negative image; she illustrates the story of progress that we tell ourselves.'”
- Eve Fairbanks, The Inheritors: An Intimate of South Africa’s Racial Reckoning (Simon & Schuster, 2022): “about South Africa’s racial reckoning through intimate portraits of those involved.”
From the dark side, on a large scale:
- Clint Smith, How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With the History of Slavery Across America (Little, Brown, 2021): “The book’s standout quality is the range and sincerity of its encounters. Smith walks with tourists, guides, teachers, scholars, ex-convicts, local historians and heritage zealots, managing to catch nearly everyone in a moment of unscripted candor.”
- Harald Jähner, Aftermath: Life in the Fallout of the Third Reich, 1945-1955 (Alfred A. Knopf, 2022): “It was a startling disappearing act, one for the ages. Right at the moment when Hitler killed himself in his bunker on April 30, 1945, Germany was magically transformed from a genocidal Reich to a place where there were barely any Nazis to be found.”
Documentary and Educational Films
- An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s exploration of climate change and our failure to address it
- Waltz with Bashir, about a war veteran recovering his memories
- Salesman: a door-to-door Bible salesman gradually accepts his inadequacies for the job
- The Imposter: three years after a thirteen-year-old boy disappears, a young man claims to be he, testing people’s willingness to believe what they wish to believe
Technical and Analytical Readings
From the dark side:
- Robert Trivers, The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life (Basic Books, 2011): “Trivers’s scope is vast, ranging from the fibs parents and children tell to manipulate one another to the “false historical narratives” political leaders foist on their citizens and the rest of the world.”
- Norman Rockwell, Triple Self-Portrait (1960)
- Konstantin Somov, Self-Portrait in the Mirror (1934)
- Marc Chagall, Self-Portrait with Muse (1917-18)
- René Magritte, The False Mirror (1928)
Film and Stage
- Nayak (The Hero), in which a famous actor comes to terms with himself during a train trip to receive an award
- Dead Man Walking, in which a convicted murderer confronts his own actions
- Hiroshima Mon Amour, a film that delves so deeply into the theme of coming to terms with the past that it blurs the distinction between the past (1945) and the present (1959)
- To Live, about wasted personal opportunities in a tumultuous culture
- Juliet of the Spirits, Fellini’s dark-side treatment of self-confrontation: “I want to suggest to modern man a road of inner liberation, to accept and love life the way it is without idealizing it, without creating concepts about it, without projecting oneself into idealized images on a moral or ethical plane.” The film addresses marital infidelity, apparently an issue in Fellini’s life, leading critic Roger Ebert to call it “a bald-faced exercise in Fellini's self-justification. When Juliet has fantasies, they're Fellini's fantasies. That's why at the end it isn't Federico who is burned alive.” Perhaps this explains the disjointed quality of the film. Well, at least Fellini was thinking about self-confrontation.
- Arguably, Fellini was more honest in I Vitteloni, a much earlier comedy, with “autobiographical elements,” about slackers and drifters. Though “unfaithful to real life,” the film offers ‘theatre truth.’”
- The Entertainer, about a man who could not accept his career failure
- The Bad and the Beautiful, a look at the film industry from within
- The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, about the dangers of suppressing emotion
- The Homecoming: the film maker “has a single purpose: To create uncomfortable emotional states within us, to fabricate for us (against our will, if necessary) a cluster of painful feelings”
- Secrets and Lies: a revelation forces a family “to confront the lies and evasions that have kept them apart all these years”; “when common sense and good hearts win over lies and secrets – we feel almost as if it had happened to ourselves”
- A Streetcar Named Desire, about a deluded Southern belle and her boorish brother-in-law who crudely points it out
- Sunset Boulevard, presenting a near-caricature of self-delusion
- Sans Soleil (Sunless): a series of seemingly disjointed images make up this film, in which the filmmaker “pretends to be examining the quality of contemporary life, though what he actually is doing is examining his own”
Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is an allegory for self-confrontation. In this scene, in which Scrooge is an unseen observer at the Cratchits’ Christmas celebration, we see the process beginning:
"God bless us every one!" said Tiny Tim, the last of all. He sat very close to his father's side upon his little stool. Bob held his withered little hand in his, as if he loved the child, and wished to keep him by his side, and dreaded that he might be taken from him. "Spirit," said Scrooge, with an interest he had never felt before, "tell me if Tiny Tim will live." "I see a vacant seat," replied the Ghost, "in the poor chimney-corner, and a crutch without an owner, carefully preserved. If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, the child will die." "No, no," said Scrooge. "Oh, no, kind Spirit! say he will be spared." "If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, none other of my race," returned the Ghost, "will find him here. What then? If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population." Scrooge hung his head to hear his own words quoted by the Spirit, and was overcome with penitence and grief. [Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (1843), Stave III: The Second of the Three Spirits.]
Scrooge’s next stop is a visit at his nephew’s Christmas party:
It was a Game called Yes and No, where Scrooge's nephew had to think of something, and the rest must find out what; he only answering to their questions yes or no, as the case was. The brisk fire of questioning to which he was exposed, elicited from him that he was thinking of an animal, a live animal, rather a disagreeable animal, a savage animal, an animal that growled and grunted sometimes, and talked sometimes, and lived in London, and walked about the streets, and wasn't made a show of, and wasn't led by anybody, and didn't live in a menagerie, and was never killed in a market, and was not a horse, or an ass, or a cow, or a bull, or a tiger, or a dog, or a pig, or a cat, or a bear. At every fresh question that was put to him, this nephew burst into a fresh roar of laughter; and was so inexpressibly tickled, that he was obliged to get up off the sofa and stamp. At last the plump sister, falling into a similar state, cried out: "I have found it out! I know what it is, Fred! I know what it is!" "What is it?" cried Fred. "It's your Uncle Scro-o-o-o-oge!" Which it certainly was. Admiration was the universal sentiment, though some objected that the reply to "Is it a bear?" ought to have been "Yes;" inasmuch as an answer in the negative was sufficient to have diverted their thoughts from Mr. Scrooge, supposing they had ever had any tendency that way. [Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (1843), Stave III: The Second of the Three Spirits.]
This is from Uncle Tom's Cabin:
“It’s all nonsense to talk to me about slaves enjoying all this! To this day, I have no patience with the unutterable trash that some of your patronizing Northerners have made up, as in their zeal to apologize for our sins. We all know better. Tell me that any man living wants to work all his days, from day-dawn till dark, under the constant eye of a master, without the power of putting forth one irresponsible volition, on the same dreary, monotonous, unchanging toil, and all for two pairs of pantaloons and a pair of shoes a year, with enough food and shelter to keep him in working order! Any man who thinks that human beings can, as a general thing, be made about as comfortable that way as any other, I wish he might try it. I’d buy the dog, and work him, with a clear conscience!” [Harriett Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Life Among the Lowly (1852), Volume II, Chapter XIX, “Miss Ophelia’s Experiences and Opinions Continued”.]
Günter Grass, literary works:
- Günter Grass, The Tin Drum (1959).
- Günter Grass, Cat and Mouse (1963).
- Günter Grass, Dog Years (1965).
- Günter Grass, The Plebians Rehearse the Uprising (1966).
- Günter Grass, Local Anaesthetic (1970).
- Günter Grass, From the Diary of a Snail (1973).
- Günter Grass, The Flounder (1978).
- Günter Grass, The Meeting at Telgte (1981).
- Günter Grass, Headbirths, or the Germans Are Dying Out (1982).
- Günter Grass, The Rat (1987).
- Günter Grass, Show Your Tongue (1989).
- Günter Grass, The Call of the Toad (1992).
- Günter Grass, My Century (1999).
- Günter Grass, Too Far Afield (2000).
- Günter Grass, Crabwalk (2002).
J.M. Coetzee’s autobiographical trilogy, Scenes from a Provincial Life:
- J. M. Coetzee, Boyhood (Viking Adult, 1997): “ . . . Coetzee portrays himself as a sickly, bookish boy, precocious at school and something of a tyrant at home, where the fierce love of his mother enlists him against an affable but weak father.”
- J. M. Coetzee, Youth (Penguin Books, 2003): “ . . . while ‘Youth’ tells of a young man desperately trying to become a writer, it gives no evidence that he has any literary talent. In fact, he spends the entire volume, which ends when he's roughly 23, at a creative and psychological impasse.”
- J. M. Coetzee, Summertime (Viking Adult, 2009): “Great men in the winter of their lives often treat the writing of their memoirs as a kind of victory lap, but whatever J. M. Coetzee is after in this third volume of his genre-bending autobiography, it is not self-congratulation. The first two volumes, unadornedly titled ‘Boyhood’ and ‘Youth’ (and, in contrast to this one, labeled nonfiction), were marked by Coetzee’s decision to write about himself in the third person. In ‘Summertime’ he takes this schism one bracing step farther, by imagining himself already dead.”
- Kamala Nair, The Girl in the Garden (Grand Central Publishing, 2011): a young woman must confront the dark secrets of her past before marrying.
- Laini Taylor, Daughter of Smoke and Bone (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2011): “a breath-catching romantic fantasy about destiny, hope and the search for one’s true self”.
- Dana Spiotta, Stone Arabia: A Novel (Scribner, 2011): “ . . . a work of visceral honesty and real beauty”.
- Mary H.K Choi, Yolk: A Novel (Simon & Schuster, 2021): “Flung together by circumstance, housing woes, and family secrets, will the sisters learn more about each other than they’re willing to confront? And what if while helping June, Jayne has to confront the fact that maybe she’s sick, too?”
- Paula McLain, When the Stars Go Dark: A Novel (Penguin Random House, 2021): the author confronts her own demons.
- Semezdin Mehmedinovic, My Heart: A Novel (Catapult, 2021): “Though it deals with tragedy, ‘My Heart’ is never depressing, partly because of the beauty of the language . . . and partly because of its depth and honesty of emotion, its intelligence and generosity of spirit, and the precision and originality of Mehmedinovic's observations.”
- Ed Lin, Death Doesn’t Forget: A Novel (Soho Crime, 2022): “Overlapping external mysteries consume Jing-nan’s attention, but internal ones roil him, too. Should he expand his business? What to do about his beloved co-workers, mired in their own troubles? Should he go back to college at the behest of his girlfriend?”
- Alba de Céspedes, Forbidden Notebook: A Novel (1952): “The written record of Valeria’s feelings and observations makes it impossible for her to ignore her discontent: the chill she feels in her marriage, her warring impulses toward her children, the guilt and pleasure she finds in her work.”
- Jane Harper, Exiles: A Novel (Flatiron, 2022): “. . . what makes the book memorable is Harper’s skill at plumbing personal mysteries — for instance, why a friendship has ebbed, or how not knowing the fate of a loved one affects a family.”
- Daisy Alpert Florin, My Last Innocent Year: A Novel (Henry Holt and Co., 2023), “is a heartfelt chronicle of a writer who realizes that her stories about girls with feelings matter every bit as much as the ones written by the guy who annotates The New Yorker.”
From the dark side:
From the dark side:
- Edgar Lee Masters, “Harlan Sewall”
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
Tracy Chapman is an African-American woman who know poverty early in life, then used her life experience to create compelling popular songs.
- “Tracy Chapman” album
- “New Beginning” album
- “Crossroads” album
- “Matters of the Heart” album
- “Telling Stories” album
- “Let It Rain” album
- “Where You Live” album
- “Our Bright Future” album
- Live at Oakland Coliseum Arena, 1988
Steve Earle caused many of his own troubles, but then used that experience to create touching country-blue collar songs.
- “The Mountain” album
- “Copperhead Road” album
- “Essential Steve Earle” album
- “I Feel Alright” album
- “Washington Square Serenade” album
- “Guy” album
- “The Low Highway” album
- “Terraplane” album
William Walton, Violin Concerto in B Minor (1939, rev. 1943) (approx. 28-33’), was composed on commission from Jascha Heifetz, perhaps the greatest violinist of the time. The composition may reflect Walton’s concerns: “Writing a concerto for someone with the stature of Heifetz was daunting for Walton. He worried that he would not make the solo part difficult enough or spectacular enough, leaving the piece unworthy of Heifetz and his legend. According to his wife, Walton actually considered giving the piece to another violinist so as not to offend the commissioner but eventually convinced himself that he had ‘exhausted the possibilities of what one could do on a violin,’ which meant he could show it to Heifetz without fear.” The central musical idea of confronting the self is especially prominent in Heifetz’s 1950 performance conducted by Walton – his penchant for dramatic flair suits this work perfectly. Other top performances are by Heifetz (Goossens) in 1941, Francescatti (Ormandy) in 1959, Chung (Previn) in 1972, Kennedy (Previn) in 1987, Bell (Zinman) in 1996, Kang (Daniel) in 1997, Ehnes (Tovey) in 2006, Little (Gardner) in 2013, and Kim (Edusai) in 2019.
Beethoven, Piano Sonata No. 31 in A-flat major, Op. 110 (1821) is an extended internal struggle (performances by Schnabel, Richter and Hess).
Hindemith’s three piano sonatas:
- Piano Sonata No. 1, “Der main” (1936)
- Piano Sonata No. 2 (1936)
- Piano Sonata No. 3 in B flat minor (1936)
- Granados, Goyescas, Los majos enamorados (The Gallants in Love), Op. 11 (1911)
- Kutavičius, Lokys the Bear (2000): We realize too late that the bear’s evil spirit is the self.
- Widor, Symphony No. 3 in E Minor, Op. 13/3 (1872, rev. 1887)
- In a similar vein as Walton’s Violin Concerto is Elgar, Violin Concerto in B Minor, Op. 61 (1910). Again, Heifetz offered a top performance.
- The process of self-confrontation is never complete. Walter Saul drew the inspiration for his Violin Concerto (1980) and Metamorphosis (1974) from his conversion to Christianity; musically, we can hear the struggle to confront internal realities, however successful or unsuccessful the efforts may be.
- Vine, “Inner World” for cello and chamber orchestra
- Laderman, Partita for Solo Bassoon
- Stanton, Echoes of Veiled Light, for percussion trio
- Barre Phillips, “Inner Door” and “Outer Window”, from the album “End to End”
- Raga Gujari Todi is a late morning raag, often portrayed as a young woman sitting on a pad of leaves, singing and playing a vina. “This late morning raag produces a mood of thoughtfulness that reaches deep into the heart. Texts set to this raga strip away all subterfuge and make man see himself as he is and search within for the truth.” Linked performances are by Hariprasad Chaurasia, Bhimsen Joshi and Begum Parveen Sultana in 1992.
Works by Wilhelm Killmayer:
- "Brahms-Bildnis" for Piano Trio (1976)
- "Vanitas Vanitatum", Five Romances for Violin and Piano (1987)
- Piano Quartet (1975)
- String Quartet (1969)
- Trio for Two Violins & Cello (1984)
Pianist Ivan Moravec: “His playing tended more toward the introspective, as if he were having an intimate conversation with the music, and he invited you in to listen.”
- “Portrait” collection
- Collection with Marriner and Academy of St. Martin in the Fields
- Piano recital of Mozart, Bach and Schumann
- Chopin, 19 Nocturnes
- Choipin, 24 Preludes, Op. 28
- Russ Lossing, “Changes”
- Frank Kimbrough, “Ancestors”
- Jordan Bak, “Impulse”: five contemporary pieces for solo viola (Bak), and two for viola and piano (Bak and Ji Yung Lee). It is “a contemplative insight into the concept of the present moment told through the soundwaves of the viola.”
Music: songs and other short pieces
- Billy T. Band, “Reckoning”
- Carlos Salzedo, 5 Preludes for Harp, No. 3: Introspection