Harry Slochower, a Guggenheim scholar who in 1952 was fired from his teaching position at Brooklyn College for pleading the Fifth Amendment before a Senate subcommittee investigating Communist activity in education, died at 90 on this date in 1991. A professor of German and comparative literature, Slochower sued about his firing and, four years later, was reinstated with more than $40,000 in back pay by order of the U.S Supreme Court. He was immediately suspended again, however, for allegedly making false statements under oath at the same Senate hearing. Slochower moved on to become a psychoanalyst and taught at the New School from 1964 until 1989. He was the editor of American Imago, a psychoanalytic journal, from 1964 until his death, and served as president for many years of the Association for Applied Psychoanalysis. Slochower was an expert on Thomas Mann and wrote five books of literary criticism as well as Mythopoesis: Mythic Patterns in the Literary Classics. For a timeline and history of government investigations into Communist teachers from the 1930s to the 1980s, click here.
“The hunger for bread is gradually being met by the development of technology which is liberating the energies of our natural resources. But there is a deeper hunger which is not being satisfied by these achievements. It is the hunger to be oneself, to be creative.” —Harry Slochower, Mythopoesis
As the 20th century faded into the 21st , two writers with communist backgrounds won the Nobel Prize in Literature: José Saramago in 1998, a member of the Portuguese Communist Party since 1969, and Elfride Jelinek in 2004, a member of the Austrian party from 1974-1991 whose oeuvre was largely produced while she was still a member. Though both were novelists who were communists (or ex-communists, though not repentant), neither could fairly be described as communist novelists.
Jelinek (b. 1946), a harsh critic of Austrian society, is the author of novels that revolve around male-female relations, around the fatal and, for her, fated combination of sex, violence, and degradation. Saramago (1922-2010), best known for his novel Blindness, is the author of dystopic allegories and novels that explore the nature of identity. The Nobel Prize committee spoke of his “parables sustained by imagination, compassion, and irony,” and how his “oeuvre resembles a series of projects, with each one more or less disavowing the others but all involving a new attempt to come to grips with illusory reality.” In both cases, overt politics, for Anglophones at least, were hidden, though they were crucial to both writers. Since Saramago’s death in 2010, we have had the publication of two political books: first Notebook, his commentaries on the events of the day, including his particularly acid take on Israel’s actions, and now the tardy translation of his 1980 novel, Raised from the Ground. [click to continue…]
Simone Weil, a French philosopher and social activist who fought against fascism in the Spanish Civil War and then turned to Christian mysticism (although she never converted from Judaism), was born in Paris into a secular Jewish family on this date in 1909. She lived only thirty-four years, but her writings became widely known in the 1950s and ’60s. In her teens, she was a Marxist and a pacifist; in her twenties, she became critical of communism, and conducted a debate-in-print with Leon Trotsky, who had stayed in her parents’ home in 1933. After Hitler’s rise to power in Germany that year, she became deeply involved in helping German leftists flee the Nazi regime. Also in that year, she participated in the French general strike, and took a 12-month leave of absence from her teaching position to work as a laborer in two factories. Weil narrowly escaped being killed in the Spanish Civil War, and then had a series of religious awakenings that convinced her of the reality of mystical experience. The ascetic lifestyle she adopted may have helped bring about her early death by cardiac arrest, at which time she was working for the French Resistance in London. Pope Paul VI called Simone Weil one of his three greatest influences; Albert Camus called her “the only great spirit of our times.”
“It is an eternal obligation toward the human being not to let him suffer from hunger when one has a chance of coming to his assistance.” —Simone Weil
Ingrid Pitt, a child survivor of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp for three years who became what the British press called “the Queen of Scream” as an actress in horror movies, died at the age of 73 on this date in 2010. Pitt was the daughter of a Polish Jewish mother and a German father who were arrested trying to flee to England in 1937. After the war, she joined the Berliner Ensemble and worked with Helene Weigel (Bertolt Brecht’s widow), but Pitt’s outspoken criticism of East Germany’s communist system prompted the police to seek her arrest on the night of her stage debut in Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children.” To escape them, she jumped into the River Spree with her costume on and was rescued by an American lieutenant, whom she then married. In the 1970s she performed in several British horror films, and “her striking, barely clad screen presence and vampirical Middle European accent — it was her real accent — secured her an international cult following that seems likely to remain undead for years to come,” according to the New York Times‘ Margalit Fox. Pitt also wrote wrote several books, including a memoir, Life’s a Scream (1999).
“I think it’s very amazing that I do horror films when I had this awful childhood. But maybe that’s why I’m good at it.” —Ingrid Pitt