where the writers are
Chain-Making, Chain-Breaking

How much does the past constrain the future? To what degree are we bound by the chain of causality? In many forms—inherited guilt, pathways of desire, the freeedom of art—the past week has brought these questions to my attention.

The more I ponder them, the more I am convinced that the answer encompasses opposites. We cannot escape the influence of heritage and upbringing. But when it comes to our actions, neither are we doomed to repeat the past.

Consider Felix Moeller's remarkable 2009 documentary, Harlan: In the Shadow of “Jew Süss.” (You can stream it on Netflix, and the DVD is widely available.)

It explores the life and legacy of Veit Harlan, one of prewar Germany's most successful filmmakers, who directed the 1940 film Jew Süss, one of the most pernicious pieces of antisemitic propaganda ever made. As a favored director of the Nazis (he made 20 films under the Third Reich), Harlan received generous state support, which included rounding up Jews from the ghetto of Nazi-occupied Prague to serve as extras. In the film, he is reported to have said they loved working with him.

Jew Süss tells the story of a Duke who becomes indebted to, and eventually controlled by, a Jew who exploits the situation for personal gain and also persuades the Duke to allow Jews to resettle in Württemberg after being banished. The Jew pursues a Gentile woman (played by Harlan's last wife, the Swedish actress Kristina Söderbaum) who steadfastly refuses him. He entraps and rapes her, after which she drowns herself. The townspeople rise up, the Jew is arrested, tried, and executed for defiling the woman, and the Jews are once again sent into exile.

Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels adored the film, making it mandatory viewing for SS officers.

Harlan: In the Shadow of “Jew Süss” features perhaps a dozen of the filmmaker's descendants. It is the range of responses to their infamous ancestor that makes the film so interesting. Veit's oldest son, Thomas, became a Nazi-hunter and political revolutionary; in the film he describes Jew Süss as a "murder instrument." The youngest son, Caspar, is an environmental activist who connects his own activism to the shame of his family's legacy. A middle son, Kristian, an architect and industrial designer who lives in Zurich, is much more outraged by his half-brother Thomas's public condemnation of their father than by his father's transgressions: to Kristian, the family betrayal is far less bearable than the betrayal of liberty.

The other members of the Harlan clan occupy nearly every possible position on the spectrum of guilt, responsibility, and atonement. In mitigation, some of them recount Harlan's earlier association with Jews: he had studied with Jewish theater director Max Reinhardt, he had a first marriage to a Jewish actress (who subsequently died at Auschwitz). As we learn from the film, some of his descendants married Jews (including his niece Christiane, director Stanley Kubrick's widow), some becoming Jews themselves. One granddaughter, Jessica Jacoby, is film critic for a Jewish newspaper in Berlin. She is among those condemning Harlan's lifelong refusal to accept responsibility, his tendency to posit himself as a victim of the Nazis. But others take his side. Some members of the third generation have little knowledge or connection with the family legacy. One grandson, jazz guitarist Chester Harlan, speaks Italian, English, and French, but not German; we see him apparently learning much of the story for the first time. Others say that Harlan's crimes were serious, but stress that it was he who committed them: they are obliged to acknowledge his responsibility, they say, but not accept it as their own.

Everyone is somehow connected to the legacy, "visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the third and upon the fourth generation" (to quote Deuteronomy 5:9). But some express that connection as a feeling of wounding by association (they were taunted in school, urged to change their names), some as a desire to defend their ancestor, some to understand him, some to take overt action against him, some to help repair the world as an act of familial repentance. The film is a typology of responses to the same heritage, no two alike.

And of course, the family Harlan stands in for the entire German people, three generations after the Holocaust.

History and art are crammed with stories of the desire to expiate ancestors' bloodguilt. Yet the concept of inherited guilt has never made sense to me: how can I be held accountable for what happened before my birth? It is based on categories: the guilt adheres to one's name, gender, race, nation, and is felt in proportion to one's identification with those categories.

The film made me think again about my own family, the way I exempt myself from that category. I remember an occasion on which my mother attempted to persuade me to take part in one of the baroque deceptions that were my family's ordinary reality. When I refused for the umpteenth time, she looked me in the eye and said, "I just happen to be one of those people who think blood is thicker than water." The result of all that urging, I suppose, is that I just happen to be one of those people who doesn't. Compassion, connection—in my world, they just don't hinge on blood.

The story I tell myself is that I broke with my family: rejected by them for my disloyalty to their way of life, I ultimately chose to stop trying to create a caring connection where none was possible. I see myself as having taken a very different path, and by now, having traveled a great distance from the family tree. I hear myself say certain things that draw a line between myself and my long-dead forbears: for instance, I like to joke that I am so obsessed with ethics and scruples (if I realize that I've been given an extra nickel in change, I'll walk back to the store to return it) because I came up in a household that utterly lacked them. Some of the men I grew up with made a mess of their lives with gambling; apart from buying a lottery ticket on the rare occasions my dreams have instructed it, I've bet money on cards or other games perhaps twice in my life. When I won a handful of silver dollars one summer in Reno, I promptly gave them away.

All of these stories are signposts I have erected in my mental landscape, to mark my distance from my genetic inheritance, and it's true: in many ways I am very different from my family. So far as I know, there aren't any other art-obsessed public intellectuals in my line, nor others who've earned their keep giving advice. (You would have had to be insane—or doing research in social pathology—to elicit my family's advice on how to live.) But when I look back through the lens of Harlan: In the Shadow of “Jew Süss,” I see that just as with that dishonored clan, my family of origin was deeply formative for me, a powerful training-ground. The fulcrum of choice was to embrace or reject their influence: expressing my freedom, I chose to see it as an object lesson in how not to live. But I could not ignore it.

Mostly, it seems, the conventional expectation is that people will follow in the footsteps of their forbears, rather than pivoting and proceeding in the opposite direction. We tend to assume that correlations are causative. Indeed, because lines of connection can always be drawn, there's a worldview that sees virtually everything that happens as falling action, as the playing out of earlier events.

But lately, everywhere I look, I see people breaking the chain of causality, taking steps to behave in ways that differ remarkably from any expectations likely to be established by their families or general convention.

Online dating world is fruitful in this way, as visitors to that realm may learn things about strangers that would otherwise never be evident. In the past two weeks, I have been pursued in that environment by three men in their twenties. At first, I thought it was a joke, or perhaps a conceptual art piece. I decided to ask a few questions, including the one that must qualify as the worst possible buzzkill under the circumstances ("Surely I must be older than your mother?").

The online conversations were interesting, establishing the obvious, I suppose: Erotic nature being mysterious, some people just torque that way. Not me, it seems, (Terentius' humani nil a me alienum puto notwithstanding). But it did make me think about all the attention that is given to age in online dating sites. One is asked to specify a range, and the vast majority of men choose numbers a decade or so below their own age, extending up to a year or two short of their age. The range I've listed extends about half a dozen years in either direction from my own age (whether that is typical for women, I cannot say, as I have not studied their profiles). Contemplating an age gap of several decades makes this precision seem rather silly, doesn't it? Remove the question from the dating context, and no doubt, you and I have both met individuals our own age who seem downright immature, as well as old souls with wisdom and gravitas belying their chronological youth.

But what I find most interesting to imagine is the cocktail of desire and chutzpah that must run through a young man's veins to inspire him to the undoubtedly frequent rejection he will experience trying to satisfy his interest in a woman several decades older. Odds are, these young men's mothers would have envisioned them settling down with nice girls their own age, as most of their heterosexual peers are likely to have done. The conventional expectation is very strong, so much of a chain-maker that many—perhaps most—people don't see it as a matter of choice: for them, there is something distasteful about breaking the age barrier. And still, there are chain-breakers on the path of desire, exercising their freedom of choice.

Part of my obsession with art derives from the absolute liberty it affords to step outside conventional expectations. It's not that art worlds escape the chain of causality. To the contrary, academic art discourse in particular revels in it, treating artmaking as intrinsically derivative, always under pressure to achieve a novelty that can never be attained. Speaking at universities, I've often encountered young artists challenged by their professors for imitating an established artist whose work they'd never in fact encountered. Even the counterargument is measured: in a famous 2007 Harper's essay , Jonathan Lethem asserts that there is no conflict between originality and appropriation (and then cites a source for every appropriated sentence—nearly every sentence—in the essay).

But whether or not an artistic choice is influenced by prior work, the opportunity always exists to step outside of expectation, pursuing creative desire, so long as one is willing to accept the consequences. A week or so ago, the New York Times Sunday Magazine featured a piece on Philippe Jaroussky, a French countertenor (i.e., a man who sings like a woman, in a soprano voice; here he is, singing a Vivaldi aria). Jaroussky, like virtually all of the growing cadre of countertenors (there is more interest in this voice and repertoire today than at any time since the 18th-century heyday of the castrati), was set on his course the first time he heard such a performance, in his case, by the Martiniquan sopranist Fabrice di Falco ( here he is, performing "Summertime").

Jaroussky was 18 at the time, and a prize-winning violinist, but according to his story, without hesitation he stepped off the chain of expectation and onto the strange and beautiful path he has followed ever since. At the time, he could not foresee the rising popularity of his craft; his decision might just as well have condemned him to a life of being regarded as an oddity or freak, without the external compensations he has received.

"Freedom," said Jean-Paul Sartre, "is what you do with what's been done to you."

For your edification, David DQ Lee singing the aria "Cara sposa" from Handel's Rinaldo. Lee, a Canadian of Korean heritage, was inspired to his pursuit by a first viewing of the film Farinelli.