I’ve been reading a lot about Adolf Hitler lately.
I’m not turning into a neo-Nazi or anything like that. There’s actually a good reason I’ve been reading about Hitler, which I’ll talk about in public soon enough. Suffice it to say, I’ve become a little bit of a Hitler buff. I actually have an opinion on stuff like whether or not he had only one testicle (maybe) or if he escaped to South America (definitely not).
One of my favorite books about Hitler is called Explaining Hitler by Ron Rosenbaum. It’s part of an emerging genre of books that aren’t so much about Hitler as about what Hitler means or represents. I’ve also enjoyed Imagining Hitler by Alan Rosenfeld, The Meaning of Hitler by Sebastian Hafner and The Hitler of History by John Lukacs. These books focus not on Hitler himself but on the pervasive legend and image of Hitler.
One of the lingering questions about Hitler is whether he really hated the Jews and believed that by exterminating them he could make the world a better place, or if he was just using the already existing anti-Semitism in Europe as a means to power.
Those who believe that Hitler was just pretending to hate the Jews call him a mountebank. A mountebank is someone who sells you an idea by pretending to believe in it himself even though he really doesn’t.
This can be a very useful strategy. Because a true believer in an idea like anti-Semitism tends to get too carried away with his passionate hatred to be truly effective in winning over others. Whereas if you don’t actually believe in such an idea, you can cynically manipulate others who do believe in it without falling into your own trap. Maybe Donald Trump is a mountebank. I don’t know.
In the world of Hitler research, Ron Rosenbaum offers us two people who at first appear to represent these polar opposites. Hugh Trevor-Roper who wrote The Last Days of Hitler believes that Hitler was completely sincere in his hatred of the Jews. Trevor-Roper doesn’t support or agree with Hitler’s views. But in his book, he presents a Hitler who really does believe he is on a mission from Providence (Hitler didn’t like to use the word “God”) to make the world a better place by ridding it of the Jews.
On the other end of the spectrum Rosenbaum first presents us with the vision of Hitler from Alan Bullock’s extraordinarily successful biography, Hitler: A Study in Tyranny (the partial inspiration for Philip K Dick’s Man in the High Castle, now a popular Amazon series). In that book Hitler is presented as a pure opportunist. He doesn’t care one way or the other about the Jews. But he knows that the longstanding hatred of Jews is something he can use to gain power, which is his true objective.
However, when Rosenbaum interviews Alan Bullock, he finds that Bullock has revised his opinion. He now sees in Hitler a man who simultaneously both hated the Jews and was cynically exploiting pre-existing anti-Semitism as a means to an end.
To illustrate how this can be, Bullock uses the image of fast moving water. He tells Rosenbaum about a eulogy he delivered just a few hours before their interview. As Bullock delivered the eulogy he became aware that he was at once completely sincere in his words of admiration for the deceased and concerned with whether or not he was connecting to his audience as a lecturer and performer. Bullock describes it as being like light on a fast moving stream flickering with different shapes and intensities. You can’t really pin it down.
Western philosophy, which has become the mainstream throughout the world, doesn’t like contradictions. Aristotle famously said, “It is impossible for the same thing to belong and not to belong at the same time to the same thing and in the same respect.” This idea is at the heart of the scientific method. And it has worked for hundreds of centuries.
However, Dogen Zenji, the founder of the form of Buddhism I’ve studied for the past thirty years, is all about contradiction. His writings are full of it. He often boldly describes situations in which things are both one way and the complete opposite at the very same time. The best example comes from Genjo Koan in volume one of Shobogenzo in which he says:
When all dharmas are [seen as] the Buddha-Dharma, then there is delusion and realization, there is practice, there is life and there is death, there are buddhas and there are ordinary beings. When the myriad dharmas are each not of the self, there is no delusion and no realization, no buddhas and no ordinary beings, no life and no death. The Buddha’s truth is originally transcendent over abundance and scarcity, and so there is life and death, there is delusion and realization, there are beings and buddhas. And though it is like this, it is only that flowers, while loved, fall; and weeds while hated, flourish.
I wrote a detailed analysis of this passage in my book Sit Down and Shut Up and I wrote another analysis of it in my forthcoming book Don’t Be a Jerk, so I’ll let you read those instead of boring you with yet another analysis here. Suffice it to say, Dogen was a contradictory guy.
I find it fascinating that Western historians and scientists just now seem to be discovering what Dogen wrote about 800 years ago and what other Buddhists were saying long before that. Maybe it was necessary for us to go as far as we could with Aristotle’s formulation before we were able to see its flaws.
Aristotle’s ideas have more to do with how we describe reality than what reality is actually like. It reminds me of something I learned early on when I started trying to be a writer.
If you want your story to be understood it’s important that each character has one name and one name only. Amateur writers often make the mistake of thinking they need to spice up their prose by constantly renaming the same character.
Bradley Scott Warner walked to the store. Brad looked at the newspapers. Warner decided he needed some milk. BSW thought about whether to get whole milk or 2%. But the Zen blogger left without buying anything.
Science works the same way. You need everybody to be on the same page if a number of people have to communicate their findings to each other. We all have to know precisely what we’re talking about.
This creates an illusion that objects and even people are just one way or another, and never two contradictory ways at the same time. In order to think about things and people we have to think about specific aspects of those things and people and ignore other aspects.
I think Alan Bullock’s revised idea of Hitler as simultaneously a true believer and a callous manipulator and mountebank is more believable than the idea that he must have been either one or the other but not both. I think Dogen would probably have agreed.
Or maybe he wouldn’t have.
Or maybe he’d have both agreed and disagreed at the same time.
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February 3, 2016 Ventura, California Ventura College
February 28, 2016 Houston, Texas Houston Zen Center
March 5-6, 2016 Austin, Texas Austin Zen Center
March 9, 2016 El Paso, Texas
March 18-20, 2016 Mt. Baldy, California SPRING ZEN & YOGA RETREAT
March 25, 2016 Venice, California Mystic Journey Bookstore 7:00pm
April 22, 2016 New York, New York Interdependence Project
April 23, 2016 Long Island, New York Molloy College “Spring Awakening 2016”
October 23-28, 2016 Benediktushof Meditation Centrum (near Würzburg, Germany) 5-Day Retreat
Every Monday at 8pm there’s zazen at Silverlake Yoga Studio 2 located at 2810 Glendale Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90039. Beginners only!
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