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Diversity in the Stacks: Writing to Create Change

Writers who engage in defensive esotericism find ways to communicate with two audiences to avoid persecution: they write an accessible, publicly-oriented exoteric text, and a concealed esoteric text to their circle of receptive readers.

Five books are stacked with their spines lined up. Each of the books is a James McBride title.

We commonly think about literary text as operating on multiple levels. On one level, there are the details of plot and characters. On another level, the author conveys something else to the careful reader, through metaphor, symbolism, language, and other means. It is an art to write a text that speaks to readers at a variety of levels. There is another kind of writing, maybe less commonly considered, that is referred to as “esoteric.” Arthur Melzer calls esoteric writing a secretive mode of communication. Examples of this mode of writing can be found in the most ancient texts and into the present century. Melzer describes four types of esoteric writing. A writer may engage in defensive esotericism, a protective device to obscure the true meaning of a text to avoid condemnation from higher officials or the public. Melzer also describes protective, pedagogical, and political esotericism. Thomas Mann engages in pedagogical esotericism in Magic Mountain through his two debating pedagogues, Naphta and Settembrini. In chapter after chapter, they hammer out their beliefs trying to win over Hans Castorp, their skeptical but willing pupil. Much of the conversation in the Magic Mountain is philosophical. Because there are so many viewpoints and the narration has a humorous outlook, Mann can distance himself from any of the viewpoints expressed. They come through the voices of exaggerated and unlikely characters. This essay focuses on writers who engage in defensive esotericism. These writers find ways to communicate with two audiences to avoid persecution — they write an accessible, publicly-oriented exoteric text, and a concealed esoteric text to their circle of receptive readers.

In his On Tyranny, first published in 1948, Leo Strauss takes up esotericism in his critical analysis of Xenophon’s Hiero or Tyrannicus. In 1964, it was republished with Alexandre Kojève’s Tyranny and Wisdom and Strauss’s restatement of his original Xenophon text; and then again in 1991, with the addition of Strauss’s and Kojève’s correspondence. This collaborative text shows the two men considering ideas of great importance, and through their exchange of ideas, thinking and rethinking their own conclusions. Strauss’s work on Xenophon was not heavily reviewed when it first came out in the series, Political Science Classics. Writing shortly after the end of the Second World War, Strauss interprets a subtext critical of tyrants that he suggests Xenophon communicated through rhetorical silences or, as Strauss calls it, writing between the lines.  Xenophon presents a dialogue between the poet Simonides and the tyrant Hiero. The basic text consists of a struggling tyrant seeking advice on how to rule from a poet who willingly provides counsel. The critique of tyranny is provided through the words of the tyrant himself, who responds positively to the poet’s guidance. In addition, Xenophon provides more distance between his text and the disapproval of contemporary tyrants by placing his dialogue in the past with a well-known historical tyrant. Strauss uses Xenophon’s critique to assist his goal of drawing attention to the tyranny of his own time and place. Strauss notes that the analysis of tyranny by “the first political scientists was so clear, so comprehensive, and so unforgettably expressed” that tyranny could be understood even by those who hadn’t experienced it. But when tyrants became a reality in 20th Century Europe, “with a kind of tyranny that surpassed the boldest imagination of the most powerful thinkers of the past—our [contemporary] political scien[tists] failed to recognize it.” And so, Strauss notes, many contemporaries have had to look to the classical literature to find an interpretation “of the horrors of the twentieth century.” The writers of the present either didn’t recognize tyranny or they were afraid to engage with it.

Strauss wrote more explicitly about writing between the lines in his 1941 article, “Persecution and the Art of Writing.” In this article Strauss specifically addresses the disappearance of the freedom of speech in “a considerable number of countries.” In these countries, he writes, truth is established through repetition and the silencing of opposing viewpoints. In such a society, how does a person maintain independence of thought and in what ways is it possible for one to speak the truth? Strauss writes that an author can express their thoughts and counter narratives “without incurring any danger, provided [they are] capable of writing between the lines.” In fact, in times of persecution, this may be the only means of sharing the “truth about crucial things.” This approach to writing might appear in texts written for a broad audience, the exoteric text, with the critique of the existing conditions hidden within the text for a specialized audience, an inner esoteric text.

Reinhold Grimm describes the postwar debate between the writers who stayed in Nazi Germany and those who left—the inner and outer emigrants—in his chapter, “In the Thicket of Inner Emigration,” in the book Flight of Fantasy: New Perspectives on Inner Emigration in German Literature 1933-1945. Grimm explores the question of whether it was possible for a writer to stay within Germany and avoid complicity with the extreme police state of the regime. He examines a sample of authors who were able to share their truths through illegal methods or through the use of “the language of subversive servitude…sklavensprache.” Many authors wrote using fable, allegory, parable, or historical fiction in order to draw historical parallels with the present. Grimm notes that while many authors wrote between the lines, many failed to sufficiently hide their critiques and suffered imprisonment or death for their efforts.

In particular, Grimm explores the work of the writer and editor Rudolph Pechel, who describes how writers were able to share subversive messages through the journal Deutsche Rundshau. Pechel writes that there were two ways to influence readers: warning through historical examples from all periods and geographical locations; criticizing dictators from the past and highlighting their injustices; and focusing on high ideals and the possibilities of humanity “to allow readers to draw the right conclusions.” Concealed messages require skilled reading because the hoped-for messages could be too obscure or disguised to the point of meaninglessness.

In his article “Categories of the Non-conformist: The Historical Fiction of Inner Emigration,” John Klapper echoes Leo Strauss as he describes the need for the authors who remained in Nazi Germany to target an esoteric like-minded audience who would be looking for the connections between the lines and for a general audience that was sympathetic to the regime in power. Klapper notes that it became particularly popular to do this with historical fiction; authors would wrap their messages in enough historical color and detail to convince censors that their main subject was their historical fictionalized event and then their hidden message was embedded into obvious mistakes, anachronisms, and inconsistencies to guide perceptive readers to make the intended connections.  

But some writers braved inevitable consequences through unmasked text. The short-lived White Rose Student Movement in Nazi Germany sought to encourage non-violent, passive resistance, especially among students and professors. Part of their approach was to write and distribute leaflets. The pamphlets bluntly criticized the Nazi regime and predicted that the war would end in Nazi defeat. These straightforward messages were always coupled with long quotes from accepted and established texts, from the Bible, Aristotle, and regime-accepted German writers such as Novalis, Goethe, and Schiller. Most of the White Rose members were arrested and tried. In 1943, Sophie and Hans Scholl, along with the leaflet writer Christoph Probst, were seen distributing the leaflets and were arrested, quickly tried, and executed.

Inge Scholl, Hans and Sophie’s sister, documents this short-lived student movement in her book, The White Rose: Munich 1942-1943. This book was originally created in 1947 to share with German teenagers recovering from the war. Scholl’s goal was to give the young readers an opportunity to see something other than a society complicit with terror. Scholl’s documentary text reproduces six leaflets. The leaflets demonstrated an urgent and clearly stated message that also sought to reach people through commonly held beliefs and values. In Leaflet three, the text excoriates those who acknowledge the evil but shrug it away: “[W]hy do you allow these men who are in power to rob you step by step, openly and in secret, of one domain of your rights after another, until one day… nothing at all will be left but a mechanized state system presided over by criminals and drunks?” This statement is followed by a quote from Aristotle’s Politics that describes the tactics of the tyrant, and that demonstrates the parallel transgressions happening in the present day.  

Hannah Arendt echoes the writers of the White Rose leaflets decrying the withdrawal from politics. In Men in Dark Times, a collection of essays through which Arendt examines writers from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, she writes, “In our century, even genius has been able to develop only in conflict with the world and the public realm, although it naturally finds, as it always has done, its own peculiar concord with its audience.” In contrast to her image of the writer in conflict with the world, she describes the people of the “Western World” who see “freedom from politics” as a basic freedom and along with this retreat from the world a rejection of any obligation toward society or civic engagement.

Of course, subversive intertext is not limited to the writers of the past. James McBride mixes humor with bitter truth in his novels The Good Lord Bird and Deacon King Kong. In both of these novels, McBride looks at the conditions of slavery, segregation, and the relationships between Black and white Americans. In The Good Lord Bird, McBride describes a practice among the enslaved of speaking between the lines to enable their ability to communicate one message to the enslavers and another message to those subjected to it: “Truth is, lying come natural to all Negroes during slave time, for no man or woman in bondage ever prospered stating their true thoughts to the boss. Much of colored life was an act, and the Negroes that sawed wood and said nothing lived the longest.”

Words do have power and they can have consequences. In 1940, Archibald MacLeish gave a speech in which he expressed concern for the influence of gifted, sensitive, persuasive authors of his own generation, such as Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Erich Maria Remarque, and Ford Madox Ford, who described their feelings of despair and betrayal following their experiences in the First World War. MacLeish acknowledges the sincerity and validity of these feelings, but he also held these writers responsible for turning a whole generation toward what he called a state of mistrust in the “slogans and tags” that promoted and justified WWI and a lack of belief even in the possibility of truth. MacLeish is concerned with the spread of fascism and fears that this interwar generation will neither recognize the concepts they should embrace nor the ideas they should oppose: “To suspect not only the tags, not only the slogans, but even ‘all words’ is to stand disarmed and helpless before an aggressor whose strength consists precisely in destroying respect for the law, respect for morality and respect for the Word.” Words will be used to mislead and to serve ignominious causes, but they can also aspire to be foundations for beliefs that lead to a greater good.

Reading an abstract or scanning an article or chapter will introduce you to the purpose and arguments for a text, but it will not enlighten you to the nuances of the argument, or the writer’s meaning or intent. If a writer seeks to share a truth or a specific interpretation, we won’t pick it up by scanning or reading a summary. We can read a string of connected words or we can read for deeper meaning. What is the message behind the story or text; how does the writer interpret or clarify aspects of the human experience or our human interaction with the world? We can take time and focus our attention to discover the full meaning behind and between the words. How do we interpret the quote from McBride? Is it funny, is it insulting, or does it demonstrate a critical survival skill, a powerful use of words that lulls one audience and at the same time provides protection to another community? The “slow movement” of the later 20th century promoted taking a slow approach to multiple activities from cooking to conversation. Why not slow reading? Slow reading allows us to uncover the messages of writers past and present, whether they are writing history, philosophy, or literary texts. We may need to learn about a writer’s context to fully understand their perspective, and we may need to read a paragraph, chapter or an entire text more than once to fully absorb all that the writer is sharing. Strauss looked to Xenophon as a means of understanding the conditions of his own time; we might gain a better understanding of ourselves and our times through the slow and careful reading of writers of today, the past, and from throughout the world. We can begin to understand the power of words both in and between the lines.

Works mentioned and other texts of interest:

•    Arendt, Hannah. Men in Dark Times. Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968. 
•    Asimakoulas, Dimitris, and Margaret Rogers. Translation and Opposition. Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters, 2011.
•    Carpio, Glenda, et al. Laughing Fit to Kill: Black Humor in the Fictions of Slavery. University Press, 2008
•    Donahue, Neil H, and Doris Kirchner. Flight of Fantasy: New Perspectives on Inner Emigration in German Literature, 1933-1945. Berghahn Books, 2003.
•    Kind-Kovács, Friederike, and Jessie Labov. Samizdat, Tamizdat, and Beyond: Transnational Media During and After Socialism. Berghahn Books, 2015.
•    Klapper, John. Nonconformist Writing in Nazi Germany: the Literature of Inner Emigration. Camden House, 2015.
•    Klapper, John. “Categories of the Non-conformist: The Historical Fiction of Inner Emigration." German Life and Letters 67:2 April 2014,159-182. 
•    Knighton, Rachel. Writing the Prison in African Literature. Oxford: Peter Lang Ltd, 2019.
•    MacLeish, Archibald. “Post-war Writers and Pre-war Readers." New Republic, June 10, 1940 (789-790). 
•    McBride, James. Deacon King Kong. Riverhead Books, 2020.
•    McBride, James. The Good Lord Bird. Riverhead Books, 2014.
•    Melzer, Arthur M. Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014.
•    Mowry, Melissa M. Collective Understanding, Radicalism, and Literary History, 1645-1742. First edition. Oxford University Press, 2021.
•    Mukherjee, Arun. Towards an Aesthetic of Opposition: Essays on Literature, Criticism & Cultural Imperialism. Williams-Wallace, 1988.
•    Nah, Darren. "Aristotle as Realist Critic of Slavery." History of Political Thought, 39: 3, 2018 (399-421).
•    Rawson, Claude Julien. God, Gulliver, and Genocide: Barbarism and the European Imagination, 1492-1945. Oxford University Press, 2001.
•    Rutter Giappone, Krista Bonello, et al. Comedy and Critical Thought: Laughter as Resistance. Rowman & Littlefield International, 2018.
•    Scholl, Inge. The White Rose Munich, 1942-43. Translated by Arthur R. Schulz. Wesleyan University Press, 1983.
•    Stein, Mark, and Susanne Reichl. Cheeky Fictions: Laughter and the Postcolonial. Brill, 2005.
•    Stratton, Matthew. The Politics of Irony in American Modernism. Fordham University Press, 2014.
•    Strauss, Leo. On Tyranny, an Interpretation of Xenophon's Hiero. Political Science Classics, 1948. 
•    Strauss, Leo. “Persecution and the Art of Writing.” Social Research: An International Quarterly of Political and Social Science 8: 4, November 1941. Republished in Social Research, 82:1. Eightieth Anniversary of Social Research (SPRING 2015), (79-97)
•    Too, Yun Lee. Xenophon's Other Voice: Irony As Social Criticism In the 4th Century BCE. Bloomsbury Academic, 2021
•    Weitzman, Erica. Irony's Antics: Walser, Kafka, Roth, and the German Comic Tradition. Northwestern University Press, 2015.
•    Worth, Chris, Pauline Nestor, and Marko Pavlyshyn. Literature & Opposition. Clayton, Vic., Australia: Centre for Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies, Monash University, 1994.



January 24, 2024