Western Civilisation in the Twenty-First Century Conference

I will be speaking at the University of Adelaide History Department’s Western Civilisation in the Twenty-First Century conference on 20-21 February, 2020. My paper will deal with nationalism and racism as manifest in various extreme heavy metal subcultures. The event looks fascinating with lot’s of interesting speakers and topics.

More details can be found on the event page:






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Nazi Show Trials and the Politics of Condemnation

Roland Freisler was one of the more unsavoury personalities of the Third Reich-era. This achievement was no small feat given his competition: Himmler, Bormann, Goebbels and Streicher were all strong contenders in the crappy personality department. Nevertheless, Freisler occupied a unique place in the pantheon of Nazi functionaries as the odious Judge responsible for condemning thousands of political prisoners to their death.

Born in lower Saxony in 1893, Freisler saw action in the German Army throughout the First World War, receiving the Iron Cross first class. Captured by the Russians on the Eastern Front, Freisler used his time in captivity to learn Russian and cultivate an intellectual interest in Marxism, and some doubt exists as to whether he actually became an ideological sympathiser by way of a dubious associations with Russian military forces. Following his return to Germany in 1920 Freisler resumed his legal studies at the University of Jena. He received his doctorate in 1922, which was eventually published as Schriften des Instituts für Wirtschaftsrecht (Fundamentals of Business Organization). A respectable career in the legal profession followed, in which Freisler distinguished himself as both ruthless and articulate.  Freisler’s biographer Helmut Ortner describes the young lawyer as being “extremely competent in his field and a skilled public speaker,” as well as being a master of “stalling tactics and the art of the probing question”[1]-skills Freisler would use to great effect in coming years.

During this period Freisler involved himself in the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP) via a role on the Kassel city council. A skilled political strategist, Freisler was able to steadily increase his profile within the Nazi party and when Hitler made Chancellor in 1933 Freisler was rewarded with a post as the Director of the Prussian Ministry for Justice. Freisler functioned as a fanatical advocate for the Nazification of Nazi law and helped institute legal changes that would reflect the ideology of Nazism- many of which related to so-called ‘inferior races.’[2] In terms of historical memory, however, Freisler’s lasting legacy is as the noxious president of the Volksgerichtshof– the People’s Court. It was the People’s Court which hosted the infamous Nazi show trials, which are known to history as the stuff of dubious legend.

imagesThe Nazi show trials were nothing more than exercises in party propaganda. Film recordings of these events[3] depict a lonely, crestfallen defendant who had been condemned to death from the moment of arrest. Facing a panel of Nazi-appointed judges and legal staff, the accused were berated, screamed at and mocked in what appears to be little more than an exercise in inflicting humiliation and shame. Behind the defendant lie the courtroom audience and press- many of whom gathered for the purposes of obtaining enjoyment through watching the condemned receive Nazi justice. When called upon to present their defence, the accused faced the intimidating task of facing Freisler disdainful glare. Surrounded by antagonism, many of the defendants were reduced meek whimpering in the face of Freisler verbal ferocity. Appeals to reason, lack of evidence or clemency were utterly in vain, as the proceedings inexorably hurled toward their pre-determined outcome. Many of the accused were at pains to express their loyalty toward ‘Volk und Vaterland,’ and many could appeal to their military service during the Great War as a sign of sacrifice for the nation. That this meant nothing in Freisler’s ‘People’s Court’ merely reflected that the trials were not about prosecuting specific crimes but were instead oriented toward condemning the failure of individuals to reflect Nazi ideology in a sufficiently fanatical and zealous manner.

It is the public nature of these trials which attest to the essentially voyeuristic nature of law and punishment. The punishment being meted out to these alleged ‘criminals’ was in actuality an exercise in entertainment and sadism- twin elements of Nazi justice in which the public was also complicit through their willingness to inform on their friends and family at the slightest misdemeanour. In the Nazi ‘courts’ it was not enough for the prisoner to receive their inevitable sentence swiftly and with minimum of fanfare. Rather, what was essential was that the accused be stripped of their dignity and credibility in the most public way possible- the legal equivalent of the guillotine in the village square. For Freisler, the true crime of the accused was not simply their arrestable offence but related instead to a broader failure to conform to the type of individual required by the Nazi dictatorship. And of course, I use the word ‘individual’ loosely here, as the ideal ‘individual’ for the Nazis was one who did not think critically or independently, but instead unquestioningly submitted themselves to the Führerprinzip.

In his study of the history of the prison, Discipline and Punish, the French philosopher Michel Foucault gives expression to the idea that justice primarily functions as societal revenge toward an individual who dares to defy the moral conventions of the time. The reflections raised by Foucault remain pertinent in our own time of pervasive outrage and mercilessness:

The judges of normality are present everywhere. We are in the society of the teacher-judge, the doctor-judge, the educator-judge, the social-worker judge; it is on them that the universal reign of the normative is based; and each individual, wherever he may find himself, subjects to it his body, his gestures, his behaviour, his aptitudes, his achievements. [4]

According to Foucault, the criminal is judged both officially (according to the law) and the members of the society in which the ‘crime occurred.’ This dual dynamic can be observed in the show trials, as the filming and public spectacle allowed for the maximisation of shame and degradation- and all for the most trivial of misdemeanours (where they did occur at all). The goal was the non-existence of the accused- both literally and symbolically. In the process of condemnation, they became a persona non grata– one without a history or a future. This all had the additional benefit of acting as a fairly effective deterrent to others who might contemplate acting on their rebellious convictions.

The question now becomes: far have we evolved from the era of Nazi show trials? The answer is perhaps not as clear-cut as we might think. Any response to this question must give primacy to the role of technology in our society. The possibilities for self-expression inherent in the age of social media, for example, have also brought with it the curse of superficial moral condemnation, in which the failings of an individual are broadcast to great swathes of people ready to pounce on the accused. What has emerged is a ‘people’s court’ of our own making- one which runs parallel to the state legal system. The new court of public condemnation functions as a space for mass humiliation and degradation, in which those who have failed to meet the moral expectations of a particular group fall prey to humanities lust for blood. Today’s accused remain immortalized in digital memory- broadcast around the world to suffer a condemnation perhaps far worse than any fate that could be meted out by Freisler’s court. And if the reality of this seems overwhelmingly bleak, we can perhaps take small comfort in the manner of Freisler’s death. The Nazi parties toughest and most fanatical Judge died during a bombing raid as he was trying a case in court- a somewhat satisfying end for a truly obnoxious individual. Apparently, no-one mourned his passing.[5]



[1] Helmut Ortner, Hitler’s Executioner: Roland Freisler, President of the Nazi People’s Court (Yorkshire: Frontline, 2018),

[2] In these effort Freisler found inspiration United States racial segregation laws. See James Whitman, Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), 103–6.

[3] For an assessment of the role of film in the administration of Nazi justice see Peter Drexler, “The German Courtroom Film During the Nazi Period: Ideology, Aesthetics, Historical Context,” Journal of Law and Society, Vol. 8 No. 1 (2001): 64–78.

[4] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (London: Penguin, 1977), 304.

[5] Granberg, Jerje, “Berlin, Nerves Racked by Air Raids, Fears Russian Army Most,” Oakland Tribune, 23 February 1945, p. 1.


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Writing Passionate History: The Example of Jules Isaac

Must the writing of history always be undertaken in a spirit of cold detachment, or is there a legitimate place for the use of passion as a guiding force in the pursuit of historical inquiry? Traditional wisdom would suggest that objectivity is paramount in the interpretation of historical events and that conclusions become clouded and biased when objectivity is compromised through the influence of subjectivity. While I agree that the need to remain impartial in the study and interpretation of historical materials is fundamental, I wonder If it might not be possible to write genuinely passionate history while remaining faithful to the ideals of academic vigour.

I raise these questions because my thinking on this topic has been challenged recently through my study of Jules Isaac’s The Teaching of Contempt: The Christian Roots of Anti-Semitism. At the outbreak of the Second World War, Isaac had already distinguished himself as a writer of essential textbooks on French history, yet the anti-Semitic climate of Vichy France would present confront Isaac with an existential tragedy that would forever alter the course of his academic pursuits.  Attempting to seek refuge from Nazi persecution in the French town of Riom, Isaac’s wife and children were arrested by the Gestapo as he was out for a walk. Despite his pleading with the Nazi Government for their release, they all died in Auschwitz.

url1The trauma of this event utterly disoriented Isaac, who was stricken with profound and lasting grief. Yet the devastation of losing his family was to prompt a drastic reconsideration of the trajectory of his intellectual interests. Even though Isaac was already in his senior years at the time of the war, the real impact of his legacy was to be felt in the years to come. Having already been interested in the Christian roots of anti-Semitism for many years, Isaac used the tragic death of his family as an underlying motivational force, which fuelled a new passion for examining how the history of Christian theology has codified anti-Semitism. Isaac’s wife perhaps had a sense of his future significance before her death. Before her deportation to the Auschwitz death camp, Isaac’s wife left him a note which said to “save yourself for your work; the world is waiting for it.” (1)

Isaac’s study on the theology of Anti-Semitism is the outcome of his struggle to come to terms with the nihilistic, murderous rampage of Nazism, which symbolized for him the natural endpoint for systematic anti-Semitism. The study utilises a series of theses and correlating responses to illustrate the various strands of anti-Semitic theory. For example, Isaac chooses to place under the historical microscope the widespread theological view that the Jewish diaspora commenced in A.D. 70 after their military defeat in Judea. Instead, Isaac suggests that the dispersion of Jews had commenced far earlier, thus calling into question the established view that the dispersion of the Jews was a result of ‘Divine retribution.’ Isaac continues his study with an examination of the alleged decadence of the Jews during the early Christian period and the age-old notion of the Jews as murderers of Christ. (2)

The intellectual coherency and clarity of Isaac’s study are undeniable, but what immediately struck me about the text the passionate zeal which emanates every page. Isaac makes no secret of his overarching mission to challenge the various theological justifications for anti-Semitism, and the depth of this conviction fuels his intellectual pursuits to the extent that might make a more clinical historian uncomfortable. Does the display of such passion then corrupt the final text? The beauty of Isaac’s work is its deep engagement with representative Catholic and Protestant scholars, each of whom is profiled not just for their contributions to anti-Semitic theological trends but for their status as bearers of historical traditions- many of which may be subconsciously reflected in unquestioned attitudes and doctrinal assumptions.

Despite Isaac’s intellectual rigor, there remains the danger that a passion that arises from an a priori commitment to a religious or political cause can distort both methodology and conclusions. Does this danger- which Isaac manages to avoid- warrant a complete disavowal of passionate history? I maintain that it does not. Yet if we allow for the possibility of the experience of deep passion as motivating historical research, under what circumstances should this be endorsed? I contend that writing history in a passionate way is justifiable when the subject relates to matters of significant moral and ethical import. In the case of the Holocaust, for example, historians have an obligation to incorporate a moral perspective when dealing with subjects of such magnitude. To remain silent on the ethical lessons of the Holocaust would be to detract from its tragedy and would reduce research to the cold reiteration of facts without any requirement of moral education. (3) Of course, all of this is to say nothing of the impossibility of entirely objective historical writing, which is always motivated by the researcher’s often unexamined personal biases. At the very least, Isaac’s work demonstrates a successful attempt at fusing unbridled passion with scholarly integrity and goes part of the way in de-stigmatizing the rightful place of emotion, moral commitment, and passion in the art of historical research.



(1) See Claire Hutchet Bishop’s introduction to Jules Isaac, The Teaching of Contempt: Christian Roots of Anti-Semitism(New York: McGraw Hill, 1965), 9.

(2) Martin Luther, On the Jews and Their Lies, translated by Martin H. Bertram, in Luther’s Works (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971), 47:267.

(3) Robert P. Ericksen acknowledges this in the preface to his work treating the role of German Churches and Universities in the Third Reich. Robert P. Ericksen, Complicity in the Holocaust: Churches and Universities in Nazi Germany (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), xiv.



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Die Botschaft Gottes: A Translation of Introductory Material

In 1940, theologians from the Jena-based Institute for the Elimination of Jewish Influence on German Church Life published an edited version of New Testament titled Die Botschaft Gottes(The Message of God). [1] The purpose of the translation was to offer German Christians a way of reconciling Christian doctrine with the ideology of National Socialism. It was also important for political reasons, demonstrating to the leaders of the Nazi Party that Christianity could be made to reflect and endorse the anti-Semitism of the time. Die Botschaft Gottes drastically revised many of the texts within the traditional New Testament canon, with a particular emphasis in removing positive references to Judaism and Jesus’ Jewish background.

88930779_8148DieBotschaftGottesA key element of my doctoral research is to provide an in-depth exegetical and theological analysis of the content of Die Botschaft Gottes. As yet, there is no extant English translation of the work, despite some vital contributions by a number of influential scholars within the field. [2] My research hopes to make a contribution to this field of study by shedding some much-needed light on the content of this controversial work. I offer here a translation of the introductory notes written by the editorial team based at the Jena Institute. [3] This material assists in establishing the context and aims of Die Botschaft Gottes.

Foreword to Die Botschaft Gottes

 Many German people are deeply moved by questions of God and eternity, the underlying reasons for our life, and its purpose and meaning. Their questions are an indication that they long for a renewal of the religious life of Germans. This work is dedicated to them and represents a new translation of selected essential parts of the New Testament.

 When Luther published the New Testament translated by him on the Wartburg in 1522, the German people took hold of it in a flash, and it became the decisive step on the path to his Reformation – for with his translation of the New Testament, he opened up the source of his work to the German people. This act of Luther remains untouchable in its form and language.

However: How many German people can still relate to the New Testament in the language and form that Luther gave it? The treasure contained in it is in earthen vessels; these threaten to obscure it as times change. We present this work because we are convinced that there is an eternal treasure in the earthen vessels of the New Testament. The goal is to present the divine truth of the New Testament, the message of God, in a new language and in a new form to the questioning German man or woman. Thus, it contains the divine truthof the New Testament. The passages in which this divine truth has found a lasting expression are selected and translated; this expression can take hold of us, just as it has taken hold of the generations before us. This divine truth is extracted from the earthen vessels of a world view and an awareness of life that are no longer ours because God has placed us within a different history and has shaped us through it. Just as the divine truth of the New Testament, as the message of God, has “awakened and changed” the people of past generations in their worldview and in their awareness of life towards faith and love, it also wants to prove its liberating and blissful power to our hearts.

The selection and design of each section reveals that they have made use of the rich insights and knowledge that German theological studies and religious research have gained about the genesis and content of the New Testament. However, the aim of the work is not a scientific study but a religious contribution to the clarification of German religious questions, demonstrating how the New Testament’s divine truth and the message of God contained in it, are and can be “the power and wisdom of God.”

The material is divided into four parts: The first part contains the message and story of Jesus of Nazareth as presented in the first three Gospels. The second part is the fourth Gospel, which bears the name of John and presents a self-contained picture of Christ. The third part conveys the interpretation and testimony of the divine truth that appeared in Jesus Christ, as it grows – awakened by the apostles – out of the experience of the first Christian communities. Finally, the last part, through its connected text, offers an insight into the first decades of the Christian movement and represents an appendix to the actual work, which is dedicated to the “message of God.” These four parts are designed according to the aspects mentioned above. The individual considerations that guided our work are laid down in a document published by the same company, Das Volkstestament der Deutschen [The Testament for the German People or The People’s Testament for Germany].”

The work, created during the time of the decisive German struggle, aims to be a service to the soul of the German people. Our motto for the task that springs from our responsibility to our people and their life of piety is Martin Luther’s saying: “I have translated the New Testament into German to the best of my ability and conscience. In doing so, I have not forced anyone to read it; instead, I have left it free [to everyone] and have only done it as a service to those who could not do it better[themselves]. No-one is forbidden to come up with a better one” (open letter on translating). An inner connection to Luther’s work, who throughout his life worked on improving his Bible translation, has inspired us to our work.

While working on the translation, we have seen many sections in a new light. We can therefore only hope that those who read attentively also experience something of this. May it also shed some light into their lives and show them why we do not stop announcing the message of God in Jesus Christ.

So, we would ask you: Take it and read!

Learn with Jesus to believe in the Father and seek His eternal kingdom with Him!

Walter Grundmann                 Erich From

Wilhelm Büchner                    Heinz Hunger

                                                Heinrich Weinmann

 In the year of the decisive German struggle 1940



[1]Institut zur Erforschung des Jüdischen Ein flusses auf das deutsche kirchliche Leben, Die Botschaft Gottes(Leipzig: G. Wigand, 1940)

[2]See Susannah Heschel, The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010), Robert P. Ericksen, Complicity in the Holocaust: Churches and Universities in Nazi Germany(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), Doris L. Bergen, Twisted Cross: The German Christian Movement in the Third Reich(Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1996)

[3]The editorial team included Walter Grundmann, Erich From, Wilhelm Büchner, Heinz Hunger Heinrich Weinmann



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A Haunting in an Empty Church

When I was in primary school I used to practice my drums at Church. My Dad was the senior minister there, allowing me to be in the privileged position of being able to access the building out of hours. For my parents, this was a far better solution than me making my ‘infernal racket’ at home. It suited me too. There is a certain joy that comes from playing with true abandon…one is utterly unconcerned with volume or other such restrictions and is truly free to indulge the extent of one’s musical whim.  The Church offered this opportunity and I accepted it with relish.

In those days I lived in a small town in which everything was quick and easy to get to. To get to the Church from my home I rode a shitty BMX with white tyres. The trip took about 20 minutes. I took a windy path which traversed both streets laced with standard country-town homes as well as more isolated parkland which lie in the shadows of St. Paul’s Anglican Grammar School. This educational behemoth stood arrogantly perched on a hill as if mocking those unfortunates who could not afford its prohibitive fees. Once clear of the parkland I would commence the final ascent up Bowen Street which lead to Church.

brookerpark_cropped_optimized-1If I were to re-trace this route now I am sure it would appear trivial compared with the vastness of the distance in my childhood mind. The 5 minutes or so it took to clear the parkland felt as if I had entered a strange unknown, darkened world. The sparseness of this hidden nook contrasted so distinctly with the homely and familiar streets just beyond its border and resulted in a sense of undefined expectancy. The park also felt truly eerie, although I cannot precisely explain why. The dirt track was lined with dense native trees, which were themselves parallel to a mostly-empty creek bed. It should have been a quaint environment, and it likely was for the few who did venture into this neck of the woods. For me, however, the dark green overhang and afternoon shadows remained faintly unsettling, and I was always relieved when I would emerge from its clutches.

Soon enough I would arrive at my destination. Upon entering the Church I would always feel both intimidated and claustrophobic, although I was also determined to override these uncomfortable sensations with an assertion of my own toughness. Despite this resolve, however, the feeling that something wasn’t quite right refused to depart from my consciousness. Part of this was undoubtedly due to the geography of the Church itself. Sitting on the opposite side of the same mountain which housed St. Paul’s, the Church was surrounded by grassland which led down the mountain toward the local Golf course. This lonely space created a sense of vulnerability which was not helped by the fact that the Church building itself featured copious amounts of windows. No matter where one was positioned in the Church, there was a corresponding window which allowed for the possibility of external observation. During the daytime hours, this was a nice feature as it allowed vibrant streams of sunlight to penetrate the dim interior of the Church. One could also stare out the windows at the golf course, which offered charming views of its lush greenery.  By late afternoon, however, the shadows would lengthen and the darkness would steadily increase as if Satan himself had gathered his demons and was launching an assault on the house of God. The soft, faint orange glow from the ceiling lights did little to remedy the fading twilight, and one had little choice but to accept that the Church had lost its battle to the dark realm.

ae224b6ccb35de4698c8579c95694333_-victoria-baw-baw-shire-warragul-warragul-church-of-christ-03-5623-4073htmlThe Church was a relatively new building-some ten years old- and was built with contemporary aesthetic tastes in mind. Sparse but functional, it featured a central worship area, offices, kitchen, a playgroup area, and a large foyer. As as child I remember thinking that the ceilings were ridiculously high, and that my psychical presence in the building was insignificant. The imposing structure was intimidating, and each time I entered its confines I could never really shake the feeling that I was doing something wrong. This was no place for trivial musical pursuits but was instead the very heart and soul of all serious Christian activity. At least that is what I was told.

This feeling of guilt was never quite strong enough to dissuade me from my purposes. So, parking my BMX at the front door I would barge straight into the foyer and do a quick walk-around to make sure nobody else was on-site. This was an essential risk-management strategy, as I had already been told off for bashing the drums too loudly by an old dear who was hidden away in one of the rooms on one occasion.  I was accused by her of disrespecting ‘the Lord’s house-‘ a charge which was hardly an isolated event.  After repeated run-ins with the senior folk of the congregation, I had learned from a young age that old people own the Church and that one had to cater to their tastes if one wanted to have a peaceful time of it.  Undertaking a brief reconnaissance for the presence of these white-haired gate-keepers was a necessary step in protecting myself from additional outrage.

If the coast was clear, I would dump my back-pack by the side of the Churches drum kit and commence my assault. As a delightful red ensemble of 1980’s vintage, the Sonor drum kit provided me with all the tools necessary to unleash percussive hell. I would mostly try and recreate the beats I heard on my favourite recordings of the time, although my drum teacher had given me a book of rudimentary exercises to work through as well.

It was as the sun was fading one late afternoon that I first experienced a menacing presence. The drums were situated along the side of the Church stage, and to play them would require having one’s back to the empty seating area and Church foyer. In these twilight moments, the shadows would gradually eliminate the last vestiges of light, and I would take this as my cue to get the hell out of there. Even though the Church building was relatively new,  it felt as if it was embedded with an oppressive presence. On the afternoon in question, I had immersed myself in my drumming for longer than expected and felt a spontaneous yet distinct feeling that I was being watched. As I continued playing, I turned my head to face the back corner of the Church, which housed a door leading to the kitchen. Whatever might be causing this feeling was coming from that section of the Church. I heard things banging back there, even though I had already checked the building for surprise guests. I told myself that it must have just been a draft of wind. In actuality, I had no idea what was happening.  I told myself that my mind may have given itself over to creative embellishment, but I knew deep down that something just felt wrong.

When this sensation first struck me I felt a tingling throughout my body as my nervous system registered its cognisance of an imminent threat. In spite of the masses of space, I felt instantly claustrophobic. The air felt thick with a stifling warm air, despite the relatively cool temperature. I was frightened and I knew that I was somehow not alone in the Church. Telling myself over and over that I was overreacting, I  decided to keep drumming, as if in defiance of the mysterious spirit encroaching upon me. My bravado was misplaced, however, and I felt the physical symptoms of panic rising within me: quickened breath, hot sweats, and rapid heartbeat. The feeling was growing stronger and more real. I couldn’t deny it any longer. I packed up my belongings and made for the door. I walked slowly at first- one last attempt at denying the reality of the situation. But as I approached the door I quickened my pace to an eventual jog. I shoved at the double doors, convinced that they would somehow refuse to open and I would remain a captive of the Church and its oppressive spirit. Yet the doors easily gave way with my push. I burst forth into the open air, leaving the claustrophobic darkness of the Church behind.








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Kafka’s Metamorphosis and the Acceptance of Tragedy

Franz Kafka’s short-story Metamorphosis is a harrowing depiction of a bizarre physical and mental transformation. A salesman by the name of Gregor Samsa awakes one morning to find that he has inexplicably developed into an insect. No explanation is given as to why or how this process occurred, and despite the absurdity of the event, it is clear from Samsa’s exploration of his new insect-like body that the transformation is frighteningly literal. As if awaking from a nightmare, Samsa attempts to scratch an itch on his stomach but is revulsed to find that he now has the choice of multiple limbs to choose from. He tries rolling over onto his back, but this too proves difficult and painful due to his newly formed convex body.

From a literary perspective, Metamorphosis is bleak, irrational and claustrophobic- all hallmarks of Kafka’s ability to capture the futility of modern existence via the art of literature. It deals not only with the protagonist’s psychological response to his transformation but also with the dismissive and cruel way in which he is treated by his immediate family, with which he shares a house. Perturbed and disgusted by Gregor’s new condition, his family locks him away in his room where he appears destined to see out his days crawling on the walls as a cursed error of natural evolution. Confined to the status of a freak, the only small degree of kindness Gregor initially experiences is through his sister, who despite her natural shock and revulsion, supplies her brother with the necessary food needed for his survival. The situation is made more complex due to Gregor’s position as the families sole bread-winner. Dependent on him for their income, they must seek additional work for themselves to make ends meet.  The narrative follows a complicated interplay of reactions toward this human-insect hybrid. The family remain disgusted, but this disgust is diminished by a residual love; Gregor is, after all, their son. He has taken a different form, but (presumably) his personality has remained the same. In time, Gregor accepts his transformation and is depicted as playfully climbing the walls and ceilings as an exercise in self-entertainment.

metamorphosisInterpretations of Metamorphosis are varied, as is befitting a writer as complex and brilliant as Kafka. The famous Russian author Vladimir Nabokov, for example, has suggested that Metamorphosis is best understood as a statement relating to the place of the artist in a mediocre world determined to extinguish the daring and creative fire of its truly exceptional innovators. Dismissing symbolic or transcendental interpretations of the narrative, Nabokov prefers instead to find meaning in Kafka’s depiction of a real-world struggle between the free spirit of art and the restrictive chains of societal convention. (1) Contrary to Nabokov, my interpretation is far more simplistic- perhaps even insultingly so for literary aficionados. It is, however, slightly more positive and hopeful in its reframing of the transformation process depicted in Metamorphosis. I locate meaning in Kafka’s text via the gradual adaption of both Gregor and his family to what initially appears an event of such grotesque horror that any reconciliation amongst them is out of the question. Aside from the families response to their son’s perverted new form, we might assume also that Gregor himself would inevitably abandon all hope for himself; suicide must have presented itself as the logical way out.

The revulsive insect form, as I interpret it, is representative of the status of individuals who remain outcasts from society. It depicts with appalling accuracy the status of one condemned by the masses- for whatever reason- to a life of obscurity. Yet it is also the instantaneous nature of the transformation that makes this story so challenging. In becoming an insect, Gregor faces a tragedy that instantly threatens to ostracise him from everything and everyone he has ever known. In renders any kind of fulfilling future impossible, and yet in spite of this finality, we find subtle signs of adaption to a new way of being in the world. This is evident in the family eventually allowing Gregor’s bedroom door to remain slightly open so that he may catch glimpses of them. I find myself clinging to this minor aspect of the story as a positive sign of the human spirits ability to cope with even the most brutal of calamities. It is also a reminder that reconciliation- in whatever form this may take- is always a possibility.

Metamorphosis is a narrative marked by horror and bleakness, both of which are characteristic of Kafka’s prose. Nevertheless, it is possible to find traces of hope if one looks hard enough. In refusing to let tragedy be the final word, Metamorphosis captures a sense of the profound ability of humanity to adapt to that which at first appears to consign us to ruin and oblivion. Kafka never allows his readers the superficial illusion of a happy conclusion- to do so would be a fundamental betrayal of the often harsh realities of existence. What matters here is the art of survival: how can we find ways to accept that which befalls us irrespective of its seeming decisiveness for our fate? Although widely known for his depiction of the futility of life, Metamorphosis shows that Kafka was perfectly capable of attesting to the resilience of the human spirit in spite of the overwhelming temptation to abandon hope.

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Netflix’s Fargo and the Morality of Crisis

‘I got a cold mind

to go tripping cross that thin line

Sick of doing straight time.’

Bruce Springsteen, Straight Time.

I have recently been enjoying the Netflix T.V. series Fargo. Set in rural Minnesota, Fargo explores a range of different storylines (allegedly based on true stories) which highlight the ambiguity, complexity, and raw emotion involved in moral decision making.

What unites the central protagonists in each instalment of Fargo is the experience of a traumatic, unplanned event which presents them with a moral crisis. In the first series, an unfortunate character named Lester Nygaard murders his wife with an ax to the head. Up until this point, Lester has lived a relatively inconsequential life as a seller of life insurance in small-town Minnesota. Impotent and ineffectual by nature, Lester has endured years of his wife’s abuse and mockery due to his inability to “be a man.” She taunts him constantly: why can’t you be more like your brother? You know he earns more than you right? You only fuck me from behind cause you are not man enough to look at me in the eyes… and so on and so forth. It’s true that the viciousness of her comments betray a deep hurt, and this may well be justified. But as viewers of the unfolding drama our sympathies- at least initially- are intended to lie with Lester.

In response to the constant denigration, Lester had been doing what all nice guys do: he suppresses his rage.  Instead of putting his wife in her place by challenging her perception of him, he simply accepts her derision meekly and with a feebleness that makes you want to reach into the screen and punch him in the face to provoke some kind of a response which would indicate the presence of a backbone. There appears to be an inner emptiness to Lester, as if the core of his being was a formless ghost. External stimuli don’t seem to be able to penetrate through to whatever substance may be present somewhere in his heart. Lester is aloof, sad, and distracted by a compulsion we don’t understand. Perhaps it is this inner sense of hollowness that has allowed Lester to be consistently abused by his wife for so long.

This dynamic all changes on that fateful evening in which his wife receives an ax strike down the middle of her skull courtesy of the long-suffering Lester. Even as he is brandishing the ax in her face his wife still taunts him with his weakness. “You’re not man enough to hit me, Lester” she mocks. With a maniacal glee, she continues to unleash her venom on Lester, but a line has been crossed. Lester’s rage has seeped over into that part of the brain that discounts reason and consequences as mere trifles. He strikes once, twice, three times;  on and on his onslaught comes, inexorable in its force and hatred. After decades spent asserting her superiority over her lowly husband, Lester’s wife falls to the floor in a bloody mess.

The moral conflict now arises for Lester. Horrified and astounded at his actions, he now faces the first of multiple moral dilemmas: does he call the police and confess, or attempt to disguise the crime? Whatever his future decision may be, there is no turning back. The moral crisis has arisen in an instinctual, reflexive moment. It is as if the years of suppression have been slowly building to a crescendo of explosive violence which would snuff out one life and forever change another. Ultimately, Lester chooses to commit to the dark path. A moral line has been crossed, rendering future actions incapable of redeeming Lester, who is now a murderer. Instead of trying to make amends, Lester abandons all to the voice inside him that drives him toward evil.

Yet however tempting it may be for viewers to consign Lester to the realm of moral oblivion, this is not a simple case of moral black and whites. Indeed, life rarely is. From a philosophical perspective, the moral issues raised by Fargo concern how we understand our internal drives as individuals. Is it our selfish desires which define us, or should we also take into account our capacity for selflessness? What does it mean to label someone as “good” or “bad”? Do these categories do justice to the complex interplay of drives which inhabit each of us? What criteria do we use when making our moral judgments? Was Lester justified in seeking revenge?

It seems to me that these are important questions to ask in an age which is so quick to identify scandal and moral outrage in others. Fargo probes beyond surface level morality by highlighting the distinct potential we all have to commit acts that our rational brain may find repulsive. This series exposes the lie that all we need in order to make upright moral decisions is to maintain a clear head and cool detachment. Unfortunately, moral decisions are so often made in the heat of the moment according to instinctual responses that we find hard to control. This does not justify them, of course, and Lester remained a murderer who needed to be stopped. Yet by decreasing the distance between ourselves and the realities of moral failure, Fargo prompts us to consider on a deeper level the complicated dynamics that fuel our moral worldview.



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On Becoming Who One Is

In 1971 the Who’s Pete Townshend wrote the following lyrics:

‘Please don’t say that you know me

Cause I don’t even know myself.’

Known for his turbulent and often troubled life, Townshend’s angst and confusion reflect the difficult journey many of us face throughout our life due to a sense of confusion as to who we really are as individuals. For me, Townshend’s pithy lyrics beautifully capture the sense of personal transitoriness that defines our existence: What do I believe? Why am I capable of such selfishness as well as disinterested kindness? What is it that lies at the core of my being? In summing up the myriad dichotomies that face each individual, Nietzsche put it most succinctly in Thus Spoke Zarathustra when he wrote that life is the process of ‘becoming what one is.’ Kierkegaard too- that most tormented of existential philosophers- struggled with the idea of personal becoming. On the one hand, Kierkegaard could write that the most common form of despair is ‘not being who you are.’ On the other, he suggests that ‘what labels me negates me.’ These ideas exemplify the dilemma at hand: we strive to live in line with our values and beliefs, but at the same time our internal conflicts and drives appear to negate any possibility of a clear definition as to who we are as individuals.

For some, such talk is meaningless. One simply is who one is. Surely this is self-evident? How can one be something other than what one is? Perhaps such notions are just representations of philosophers playing their silly games? To such views, I express my unabashed jealousy. I wish I could live a black and white existence. To be truly sure of oneself from the beginning until the end is a luxury that-at least from my perspective- brings confidence and internal peace often borne of ignorance. This must surely make the living of life easier and more straight-forward. For many of us, however, the luxury of self-knowing remains elusive. It is not an impossible end, it just requires patient reflection and the ability to learn- a lifelong journey, if you will. It also presupposes that life- and individual actions undertaken within this life- are not to be fit into neat categories which determine whether a person is good or bad, evil or innocent.

Truly, there is nothing more frightening than to reflect back on one’s life and wonder if the part played by you was not, in fact, an actor in disguise. The horrible things you have done, the pain you have caused, the selfish decisions you have made…. has this all not been the dastardly work of an impostor who has claimed similarity to you but whose inner character is but a sinister shadow of who you really are? To feel such a way requires one to feel a sense of shock at the destructive potential we each harbor. It presupposes a degree of conflict amongst the various subconscious drives that compose the human heart. Certainly, this sense of dissociation tormented St. Augustine, who wrote that the first task in life is to be dissatisfied with oneself. The permanent sense of discontent and confusion about one’s own identity is not intended to keep us mired in guilt and shame, however. Known for his strong sense of sin and its personal consequences, Augustine also writes that the second task in life is to put up with the trials and temptations of this world that will be brought on by the change in your life and to persevere to the very end in the midst of these things.’ (3) The point, as I read it, is not to pretend that we are a perfect unified whole, but to instead recognize our internal dissonance and find a way to move forward in spite of it.

Where does this change Augustine speaks of come from? For Augustine, sin (understood here as chaos resulting from the conflict amongst competing internal drives) continued to be a condition plaguing the individual, but its potential to define the core of one’s being was rendered powerless by the redemptive work of Christ.  What this means for me is that no matter however much I may struggle with temptation or selfishness, I know that these things do not ultimately define me, irrespective of the judgment of others. These traits may certainly have negative consequences in my life, but ultimately my self-understanding comes from being loved by God in spite of my failings.


1. Frederich Nietzsche,  Thus Spoke Zarathustra (London: Penguin, 1964) IV.1

2. Kierkegaard’s concept of despair is outlined in Sickness Unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition of Edification and Awakening by Anti-Climacus (London: Penguin, 1989)

3. Saint Augustine, Commentary on Psalm 59, 5.

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Made Me Smile #3


A Woman sitting opposite me on the train. It is peak hour. She is reading a novel which is apparently the funniest thing in the world. She cannot control her laughter, despite her best attempts at reigning it in to save face on the crowded train. Laughing in spite of herself, she remains unaware that she has brought a smile to my own face. I wonder if all the worlds ills can be healed with spontaneous outbreaks of laughter.


It is 11pm at Flinders Street station. I have just missed my train and have to wait half an hour for the next service. I assume a seat and begin to read my book. To my left are two young men- I would place them at about 21 years of age. They look like and speak like bogans. They are clearly heading home from a night out in the city. I give them a quick glance up and down and then resume reading, whereupon I am interrupted by the shorter of the two. ‘Oi mate,’ he says, with a mixture of friendliness and aggression. ‘Do you want a Ferrero Rocher?’

Somewhat startled I turned to face the voice. In front of my face is a gift box of Ferrero Rocher chocolates. The contrast between these bogan personas and the box of chocolates makes me smile to myself. I eagerly accept the chocolate and continue my book, thankful for their kindness.


I am heading into the city to meet a friend for coffee. Being new to Melbourne I am still yet to get my bearings. As I head down what I think is the right street, I notice two elderly men who are volunteering as city guides. I approach one of them and ask for directions. His name is Peter, and he warmly welcomes me to Melbourne and provides me with a detailed map of where to go. I am touched by his by both his helpfulness and friendliness.


The owner of the second-hand bookstore welcomes me with an almost excessive warmth. She asked me if I need help with anything, and I tell her I am after a book on modern German history. She sets about locating anything of relevance with a determination that I find both awkward and endearing. She buries herself in piles of books, all the while muttering to herself in what sounds like a made-up dialect. She emerges some ten minutes later with a classic biography of Bismarck. It’s just the sort of thing I need. I smile, thank her and promise to come back.


My brother puts his arm around me as we bellow out the lyrics to Hall and Oates’ ‘Kiss on My List.’ We are in a small bar in inner Melbourne. We are merry, after consuming several beers. We are celebrating our reunion after over a decade of me living interstate. We have both had a long and difficult journey in life but at this moment none of that matters. We are free. We smile, laugh and abandon everything to the joy of being together.





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True Crime as Entertainment

I have always been a true crime buff. As I child, I distinctly remember my Dad regularly bringing home a periodical magazine titled Murder Casebook. Each edition of Murder Casebook would profile a different serial killer, with the first volume relating to the heinous crimes of Peter Sutcliffe, aka The Yorkshire Ripper. The idea was that readers would collect the various installments of the series and then compile them in a special limited edition binder that would neatly compile the magazines together.  I remember being instantly transfixed by the presence of these magazines in our home and would endeavor to read each new edition as soon as I possibly could. The exploits of these notorious figures evoked in me a strange combination of feelings which I suspect will be common to many fans of true crime: revulsion, fear and a perverse fascination. In my view, it is the interrelatedness of these three responses to true crime narratives which account for its increasing popularity. There appears to be something profoundly human about our intrigue with brutality and darkness.  In any case, I suspect that many of us who consume such material undertake an internal but uncomfortable process of self-examination as we sit through the various documentaries and biopics: do I have a dark side? If so, what is it? How can I be so sure that I will never become like these evil personalities?

51jus4yTLHL._SX375_BO1,204,203,200_Fast-forward in time some 30 years and we find ourselves in an age in which the magazine periodical is largely obsolete. In its place lies the world of the Internet, with its myriad of forums, fan pages and (of course) streaming media. A simple Google search for “true crime” will yield a staggering amount of results, with each varying greatly in credibility. For true crime fans, the Internet functions as an abyss which one enters in full knowledge of the fact that one can never hope to trawl through all the available information.  However, both the nature and prevalence of the true crime genre within digital platforms such as Netflix has in recent times caused me to reflect on the ethics of true crime as an entertainment medium as well as its long-term effects on the psyche. I have begun to wonder whether, from an entertainment perspective, true crime is actually a form of fetishism which we consume not so much because we are fascinated by the depths of the human psyche, but because we enjoy the feeling such material brings us. We are voyeurs of darkness, and we enjoy true crime because we are, simply, enthralled and captivated by the reality of violence and death. There are no ethical principles involved in our consumption. That is a lie we tell ourselves to feel better about viewing-as personal entertainment- the stories of someone else’s depravity.

It is true that serial killers have always had their fans. The trial of Richard Ramirez- L.A.’s notorious Night Stalker- was marked by the presence of adoring groupies who were (presumably) attracted to a combination of Ramirez’ internal darkness as well as his impossibly chiseled jawline. More recently, various fan accounts on the trashy website Tumblr have highlighted the problem of the glamorization of murder. A myriad of pages exists, for example, which discuss the desirability of Ted Bundy as a sexual partner. Such expressions of warped psychology remind us that there is an inherent ethical quandary involved in consuming true crime media. This quandary is centered on the tension between credible reporting on true crime cases on the one hand, and a slide into glamorizing the criminal on the other.  I propose no solutions to this dilemma, other than that if true crime is to have any integrity as a genre, it must fulfill two important criteria. First, it must avoid the tendency- subtly evident in many of the more recent documentaries- to hero worship the murderers themselves and revel in the violent details of their crimes. This is merely gratuitous and demeaning. Second, true crime must give voice to the deceased victims: who were they? what were their personalities like? Who loved them in life and what legacy have they left?  In so doing, the true crime genre can balance the inevitable horror of its narratives with an equal emphasis on the real human lives that have been so devastatingly cut short.

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