Imagination and History: Heidegger's Glasses
Over twenty years ago, when I’d written just one collection of short stories, I heard a woman’s voice from deep below the earth. She lived in Germany during World War II and was helping people answer letters to the dead. I knew her name. I could feel her claustrophobia. I also heard some of the letters. I wrote sixteen pages and stopped because I knew this woman lived in a world with so many strands only a novel could do it justice. I could even hear the length, like a few musical notes surrounded by hours of silence. But I only knew how to write short fiction.
I wrote other books. But the sixteen pages kept turning up in my studio, as if attached to springs. They turned up on the bookshelf. They turned up in a tax pile. They turned up under my printer. They even turned up inside a flyer from my son’s school--a long flyer, pleading for ecologically-packed lunches. They began to feel like a letter from the woman in the mine, asking me to tell her story. The paper grew more brittle and the typewriter print more antiquated. From time to time I saw her writing in a large room with other people. I always read the sixteen pages. I felt drawn to them. But I always put them away.
A few years ago, someone at a Christmas party told me that the philosopher Martin Heidegger once had a revelation that was caused by his own eyeglasses. As soon as I heard this, I saw the title Heidegger’s Glasses and knew I was going to write a novel. I had no idea what it would be about; but I was sure it involved World War II. I didn’t think about those sixteen pages I’d written so long ago until I’d finished writing the novel and received the galley proofs from my publisher. Then I found the sixteen pages--again on invisible springs--as if they were determined to remind me that they were the origin of the book. I read them over and realized they were a DNA of almost everything that became Heidegger’s Glasses. I also realized that even though they were about an imaginary world, that world was launched by real events in World War II. I hadn’t known about these events when I wrote those sixteen pages. I only found out about them afterwards, when I began to write the novel
So what is fact and what is fiction?
Perhaps most importantly, the Reich never answered letters from the dead. But they did make people write letters--often just before they died. This procedure, called Briefaktion or Operation Mail, forced prisoners to write to their relatives, extolling conditions in the camps and urging them to come join them voluntarily. The letters, misaddressed or otherwise undeliverable, were usually returned to Berlin, from where they’d been mailed. The result was thousands of unanswered letters, most from people who had died. (Innumerable prisoners had to write letters as soon as they arrived and then were led to the gas chambers. The result is that they weren’t given numbers and there aren’t any records of their arrival or extermination.)
The Reich also relied on séances and information from the astral plane. Erik Hanussen, Hitler’s most important clairvoyant, predicted his rise to power and had a Palace of the Occult where he held séances until the Reich murdered him in 1933. The Reich was also fascinated by Lanz von Liebenfels’ concept of Ultima Thule, a place of extreme cold where a race of supermen lived. During the war a group called Die Thule-Gesellschaft (The Thule Society) met regularly to channel advice about war strategies from the astral plane
The contents of my novel were drawn unconsciously from those sixteen pages. But the contents of my novel locked me into research where I found out about Operation Mail and the Nazi belief in the occult--both surprises to me.
I’d also done the kind of unwitting research that many writers do when they’re drawn to a subject long before they know they’ll write about it. A few years after I wrote those sixteen pages, I’d felt compelled to read everything I could find about World War II. I saw every documentary I could. I’m particularly indebted to a book I discovered called The Lodz Ghetto: Inside a Community Under Siege, published in 1991. Except for some photographs, this book consists solely of documents in chronological order. These documents detail the dissolution of Lodz where 200,000 Jews were forced into slave labor before deportation to extermination camps.
The documents are coded diaries or poems interspersed with decrees from the Reich about food rations, work hours, and deportations. Since the decrees are reproduced as photocopies, one has a sense of reading them as a prisoner in Lodz--crowded against other prisoners, clamoring to see a notice on a bulletin board.
Like key points in a novel, each decree signals an increased tightening of the vise. I read this book so often these decrees became a visceral introduction to the momentum that’s essential to longer fiction. But I read and re-read only because I was fascinated.
If the decrees helped me understand momentum, the coded diaries helped me understand people--people as they managed to be their best selves under ghoulish conditions. The diaries were well-written and full of detail. Many were by writers enlisted by the Reich as official Scribes to chronicle life in the ghetto. The woman in my original sixteen pages had been living among Scribes, so this was an interesting coincidence. The chronicles (not published) were full of praise for Lodz and ghetto life. But the coded diaries were about starvation, round-ups, and deportation. One Scribe was a famous Austrian writer named Oskar Rosenfeld who had an extraordinary depth of vision. His sensibility flowed into an important character--along with that of one another person.
The other person in this collaboration of character was someone I’d known in my twenties and then forgotten. But when I read his obituary in the New York Times, I realized he’d been an important force in my life, and in my sense of compassion for people in the camps. This was Stanley Adleman, whom I met long before I ever published, on a hot summer day in New York City. When I brought my broken typewriter to his Amsterdam Avenue store, I had no idea he repaired typewriters for almost every working writer in the city. I was young, in a crisis about love, and in no condition to understand anything about machines. But Stanley Adleman explained and re-explained every gear and wheel until he was sure I understood what was wrong with my typewriter and what needed to be done to fix it. Stanley Adleman seemed to hold me with his eyes and telegraphed a necessity for understanding that was so urgent, I forgot about my crisis and listened until my typewriter and its mechanisms--usually mysterious--became lucid. From the periphery of my vision, I saw blue numbers on his arm. When I left the store, I felt strangely free of concerns. And after I read his obituary, I remembered everything about him---including the fact that after that day I was never unhappy when my typewriter broke because I would be able to see him. I also realized I felt a kinship between his sensibility and that of Oskar Rosenfeld.
If indeed the imagination is the weather of the mind, then we all contend with the storms and rain and sun of our imaginations. And because the imagination is part of the world, we contend with the imaginations of people and groups who are distinct and sometimes far away. The imagination has uncanny instincts that allow it to leap beyond the limits of the mind. It can find doors to other centuries, read forbidden books, and meet improbable people. Writing Heidegger’s Glasses has been an adventure in discovering the fluid boundaries between the life of the imagination and the facts of recorded history.
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