Paging Mary McCarthy! Barris and Hitler: Strange Triction

Where is Mary McCarthy now that we need her? Now that we seem to be entering into a moment in culture in which truth and fiction are routinely blurred to the point that an entirely new hybrid genre seems to have been created: one that might be called “triction.” A limbo realm with no fidelity to history and evidence, a twilight zone in which Vidalian conspiracy theory, Spielbergian U.F.O. abduction mythology, all the shades and varieties of simulation, fabrication, “adaptation,” Internet hoaxes, partial or complete invention, and “historical fable” co-exist with and undermine actual history.

There can be serious consequences to this: The entire Trent Lott matter, for instance, rests on a historical fable. Mr. Lott was finally, belatedly busted for praising Strom Thurmond’s racist, segregationist Presidential run, but for years Mr. Lott has somehow been given a pass for his pet cause, the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library, because of the Gone with the Wind historical triction fable that there was something noble and principled about the leaders of a state (the Confederacy) dedicated to perpetuating crimes against humanity.

Where is Mary McCarthy? In fact, she’s not that hard to find these days, and that’s something to celebrate. She can be found defending truth against triction avant la lettre on stage in Nora Ephron’s smart and funny rendition of Ms. McCarthy’s celebrated feud with Lillian Hellman, Imaginary Friends . A play that features a high-heel smack down between the two wisecracking literary dames, and a soft-shoe shuffle between two inter- changeable figures called “Truth” and “Fiction.” All revolving around a lawsuit that stemmed from McCarthy’s disgust with Hellman’s defense of Stalinist triction over the mass murders committed during the Purge Trial period. A disgust that grew over Hellman’s use of triction in her memoir Pentimento , making herself into an anti-fascist heroine in one episode (“Julia”) by stealing the details of someone else’s courageous life for her own purposes. McCarthy was practically put into the poorhouse by Hellman when the latter sued McCarthy for calling her a liar. McCarthy refused to back down in her defense of truth against triction, and it cost her dearly-probably shortened her life. Meanwhile, Hellman grew rich over the book and film profits derived in part from the “historical fable” about her heroism.

And Mary McCarthy can be found in her own words, in an impressive collection of her work recently published by The New York Review of Books , entitled A Bolt from the Blue and Other Essays , edited by A.O. Scott.

The choice of the title essay was particularly pleasing to me, since “A Bolt from the Blue” changed my life in an important way when I happened to come across it in high school in The New Republic : It introduced me to the profound pleasures and mysteries of Nabokov’s Pale Fire . Not that I could fully appreciate either Pale Fire or “A Bolt from the Blue” at the time, but the dazzling, offhand brilliance and clarity of McCarthy’s essay (which, as I’ve documented previously in these pages, holds up remarkably well in the light of later scholarship) initiated me into a lifelong, deeply rewarding, multiple-rereading immersion in that inexhaustibly challenging and pleasurable novel-a sublime fiction about triction, you might say.

So Mary McCarthy’s still with us, but she’s still a lonely voice for making the distinctions between truth and fiction. Not simpleminded moralizing distinctions, but an ability to appreciate the subtleties of each.

“All reflection, including poetic mimesis,” McCarthy wrote in “A Bolt from the Blue,” reflecting on the Shakespearean origin of Nabokov’s title, “can be regarded as theft from reality, which in turn is always stealing ideas and plagiarizing from itself.”

Which brings us to Chuck Barris and Hitler, two recent subjects of contemporary triction. What would Mary McCarthy think of the two strange films I saw recently, both state-of-the-art triction, involving these two strange historical characters? I know this is a bit of an unusual juxtaposition, Barris and Hitler, but the consequences of blending fiction and triction were brought home to me when, on successive nights, I saw screenings of the Chuck Barris biopic Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and the new Hitler film Max , both of which are opening at the end of the month, and both of which I found posing, in different registers, difficult questions of truth and triction.

I have to admit that I really enjoyed the Chuck Barris film, but I also found it really disturbing (which may have been the filmmakers’ intent; I’m not sure).

You know the story, right? Chuck Barris is the media hustler who made a pile in L.A. inventing The Dating Game , The Newlywed Game and The Gong Show . But in his long-ignored early-80′s autobiography, Mr. Barris claimed, with complete seriousness (or at least an unbroken deadpan pose, or a deeply deluded, hallucinatory psychotic certainty-one of those) that while chaperoning Dating Game winners to European capitals, he was also committing assassinations for the C.I.A. That he killed no less than 33 people for his country.

What’s fascinating, but also greatly disturbing, about Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is that it, too, offers this account of Barris with complete seriousness, or an unbroken deadpan pose, or deluded psychotic conviction (one of them, although maybe all three). It was written by Adaptation ‘s Charlie Kaufman and directed by George Clooney-another figure who demonstrates either complete seriousness, an unbroken deadpan or psychotic delusion in regard to Barris’ 33 assassinations claim.

In the publicity materials for Dangerous Mind , director Clooney tells us, “I’ve asked Chuck about the specifics of the story and he would look me in the eyes and not say anything. I believe it is Chuck’s story. I believe it was important for him to tell it and fun for us because the story is so wild. There is something shockingly fascinating about someone of his wealth and fame who would want to say this about himself. Whether it’s true or not is in Chuck’s head.”

“Whether it’s true or not …. ” This echoes the famous Newsweek conclusion in its issue devoted to the bogus Hitler Diaries back in 1983-”diaries” whose fraudulence Newsweek had only become aware of after committing itself to publishing an entire issue about them. And so at the last minute, in one of the landmark moments in the evolution of contemporary triction, Newsweek ‘s editors added a line that triumphantly finessed the troublesome truth question: ” Genuine or not, it almost doesn’t matter in the end,” because the diaries “remind us of the horrible reality …. ” But, of course, it does matter.

“Whether it’s true or not … ” This is the permissive watchword of the culture of triction. I may be giving Mr. Clooney too much credit, but I think what he’s saying is: I can’t come out and say it in person or in the movie, because it would spoil the fun, but I think this guy Barris is a world-class loony whose self-delusion, or deliberate deception, or psychotic self-conviction, is useful for my purposes -and your entertainment. Like I say, I think that’s what Mr. Clooney is thinking. I think if you take the most hopeful view of human nature, he’s counting on the fact that he doesn’t have to come out and say it in so many words, because his audience is intelligent enough to get it without a wink and a nudge.

And yet …. Once you open the gates to anything under the mantle of “whether it’s true or not” without even appearing to care whether it’s true; when you look at the nonsense that people are capable of believing about assassination conspiracies and the like these days, taking Barris seriously may be helping to create a monster, a Frankenstein of triction. When you take a look, as I have recently while writing about Gore Vidal’s loony 9/11 conspiracy theory (Nov. 11, 2002), into the sewer of Internet conspiracy culture; when you read letters from idiots who take this stuff seriously, it makes you despair of ever trying to make anyone care “whether it’s true or not,” whether or not anything’s true. And suddenly you find yourself a citizen of the country of triction, the trackless land of the casual lie that nobody but the likes of Mary McCarthy gets angry about anymore-and she’s dead.

Max is a different case. It doesn’t pose as the literal truth about Adolf Hitler, although it makes implicit claims to have found the inner truth, the higher truth. It doesn’t call itself history; in its publicity materials it calls itself a “historical fable” that mixes fact and fiction. It’s set in the last months of 1919, which are undeniably crucial months in the triction-riddled Hitler biographical record. It was in those months that Hitler made his astonishing transition from the previously insignificant failed artist and lowly army corporal who returned to Munich after the war as an embittered nobody-and suddenly leapt onto the stage of history to become the charismatic spokesman for the previously somnolent German Workers party, turning it into the National Socialist juggernaut that brought us the war and the Holocaust.

Max tries to answer the question of what happened in those months-what made Hitler Hitler ?-by inventing a one-armed German Jewish war veteran, Max Rothman (John Cusack), who befriends a starving, homeless war veteran, Adolf Hitler, who has dreams of being a great artist, as well as some unfortunate views on the Jews.

The film has come under attack from certain Jewish groups on the grounds that there’s something wrong, even forbidden, about representing Hitler before the Holocaust, because any such representation must inevitably “humanize” him-in part by separating him from his victims. Similar criticisms have been made of the forthcoming CBS miniseries said to be based on the first volume of Ian Kershaw’s admirable biography of Hitler-because it wouldn’t present the Hitler of the Holocaust (which doesn’t take place until Mr. Kershaw’s second volume).

As someone who has been critical of idiot postmodern representations of Hitler and Nazi evil (see my essays here in The Observer on the Jewish Museum’s “Mirroring Evil” exhibit, March 18 and April 1, 2002), I know a lot depends on how these things are done. But my feeling is that to forbid any explorations of Hitler, any serious attempts to come to grips with his evolution without rubbing our noses in his millions of victims at every moment, is, in some way, to give Hitler more power over us than he merits. It becomes a kind of diabolical sacralizing, a perverse or inverse deification of Hitler that makes us unable to gaze upon his face.

Of course, I could be prejudiced about this. Three years ago, as I’ve written in these pages, I went to Munich with the director Jim Sheridan, who had optioned the rights to make a film based primarily on a couple chapters of my book Explaining Hitler , the chapters devoted to the anti-Hitler Munich journalists of the 20′s and 30′s, who were the first to attempt to investigate, explain and oppose Hitler during his rise to power. Nothing much has happened in the three years since, and I’m not wildly optimistic that Mr. Sheridan will come up with a script that satisfies him or me. But nonetheless, I hoped to avoid comment on Max , which might be seen as a rival project.

But then I got a call from a reporter from The Forward who’d interviewed Max ‘s writer/director Menno Meyjes (who’d previously written The Color Purple ), and who told me that Mr. Meyjes had told him that he’d been inspired to write the movie after reading my book, Explaining Hitler . At the time, I hadn’t seen the film, so I declined to comment. Then, when I finally went to a screening of Max , I opened the publicity material and found the following quotation: “Meyjes comments: ‘The biographer Ron Rosenbaum quotes Hitler’s architect Albert Speer as saying “If you want to understand Hitler, you have to understand he was an artist first.”‘”

Oddly enough, I couldn’t find that quote in any of the entries for Speer in the index of my book, although-lacking perfect recall of my own book and Speer’s-I wouldn’t doubt he said it (although, as I point out in my book, Hitler thought his true talent was for architecture, not painting). But it was clear that if my book (which is not a “biography” of Hitler so much as a critique of biographical theories of Hitler) was going to be invoked as a kind of validation of the movie by Max ‘s director and its publicity materials, I felt entitled to comment on it.

The most generous thing I could say about Max is that it asks the right question: What made the nonentity Hitler turn into the Hitler of history? Nobody has given a completely satisfactory answer to that question(mostly because of the lack or credible evidence), and the focus on Hitler as artist in the political sphere is not without interest. I’ve explored in my book the connection between Hitler as a failed artist and the way Hitler’s Reich turned evil into a kind of art. But there is about every Hitler explanation a danger of reductionism to a single all-encompassing Answer-and if Max asks the right question, it tends to give a reductive answer. A less generous thing to be said about Max is that it reduces things to what might be called the Soho view of the Holocaust: Hitler killed the Jews because he couldn’t get a show.

I think the problem begins with the historical, or ahistorical, nature of Max ‘s “historical fable,” with what you might call its venture into triction. Yes, the period between the German defeat in November 1918 and Hitler joining the German Workers (pre-Nazi) party in December 1919 is one of the many black holes in the Hitler historical record. But is there any evidence that he spent any of this time returning to his ambition to be a painter, the key premise of Max ? Or that he had any relationship with Jewish art dealers at that time? Back in Vienna 10 years earlier, there is conflicting anecdotal evidence about his relationship with Jews who sold his paintings and postcards. But there is nothing in Max itself to indicate that its theory of Hitler’s metamorphosis has any historical basis. It is essentially triction. But someone without a background in the facts could walk away from Max believing that something like this relationship existed-and changed Hitler’s life.

On the most basic level, the Max Rothman character is responsible for raising Hitler’s hopes that he can be a major artist. On a more emotional level, he seems responsible for urging Hitler to dig more deeply for the unexpressed rage inside him and get it out onto his canvasses. Instead, of course, Hitler takes it out on the world. So, on some level, it is the Jew, Max Rothman, who turns Hitler into Hitler. On the most literal plot level, through no fault of his own, Max deeply wounds Hitler by failing to show up at a crucial meeting to book a show for him. The poor, confused, angry young artist is shown waiting hopelessly for the Jew who promised him a show and has cruelly let him down.

In discussing certain recurrent trends in Hitler theories in my book, I identify two troubling tendencies: to see Hitler as a victim, and to find a Jew to blame. Here, we have both at once. Yes, Hitler’s upset about the Treaty of Versailles, and he has a really antisocial personality, and he doesn’t seem to like Jews and girls, and he’s, like, really angry , man-but if only he had gotten that show, he could have channeled that anger in a healthy direction. Art could have saved us all! It’s really a kind of comforting thought: We just have to make sure that the future Hitlers of the world get enough crayons, and that those snooty galleries loosen up a little and give angry outsiders a better chance (even a group show!), and we won’t have to worry about any starving artists turning to genocide.

It’s a comforting vision about human nature; nothing dark inside there that a little art therapy can’t solve. And the whole thing about Hitler killing the Jews later on: Sure, there was a lot of trash talk around, but it wasn’t centuries of anti-Semitism, something vicious at the heart of German and Christian culture, at the heart of human nature, that was responsible for the Holocaust and needs to be investigated more deeply. It was just this one bad apple, this artist-and you know artists -who got all bent out of shape because he didn’t get his show. End of story.

The filmmakers make much in a self-congratulatory way of the fact that they are giving us a Hitler who is human, no devil “born from a sulfur fire,” as Mr. Meyjes put it in an interview with Salon .

And one must admire them for risking ridicule with dialogue meant to make this point, such as when Mr. Cusack, as Max, tells Hitler (Noah Taylor), “You’re an awfully hard man to like, Hitler, but I’m going to try.” (Try saying this out loud without laughing.)

I will forbear going into the fact that Mr. Meyjes seems to have bought into one of the great philosophical trictions of our age, “the banality of evil,” the Hannah Arendt cliché derived from Arendt’s foolishly credulous belief in Adolf Eichmann’s discredited lie that he was “just following orders.” (Readers can find my full views on that question in my Aug. 23, 1999, column in these pages, “Eichmann and the Banality of ‘The Banality of Evil.’”)

But you have to give Mr. Meyjes credit: He believes in banality, and he gives us banality. If George Clooney’s line “Whether it’s true or not … ” is the watchword, the epitome, the ideology of the new culture of triction, that line from Max -”You’re an awfully hard man to like, Hitler … “-may be its finest hour.