Disorientation in the Face of Catastrophic Human Tragedy – A Reading of Günter Grass

Günther Grass’s novel, The Tin Drum, explores the schizophrenic nature of the human existence, particularly under conditions of war and horror. Grass’s takes his reader on a tour de force journey of wartime Germany, where a cast of characters are employed via multiplicity to demonstrate the range of human behaviors as well as to demonstrate its absurdity at the height of human deprivation. Stacey Olster also attempts to showcase this dissonance in her article, Inconstant Harmony in the Tin Drum. In it, Olster makes the case that Grass’s use of an unreliable narrator provides a successful vehicle to comment on the unity of the human condition: a chaotic one. While Olster’s article is filled with a number of insights, I would disagree that neither Grass achieves a sense of unity—by proxy of chaos or otherwise—nor harmony in the Tin Drum, but rather leaves the reader in a state of disorientation in the face of such catastrophic human tragedy.

Olster’s argument turns mainly on the axiom of music or sound. To be more precise, Olster draws parallels between Oskar’s life and that of musical scales. Oskar’s obsession with returning to the womb is made allegorical with that of a tonic note in a musical scale. Similarly, all action or friction in the novel is equated with the dominant note (the seventh note) of the chord, vis-a-vie Oskar’s great grandfather, Joseph Koljaiczek, the arsonist. Where Olster sees notes in a scale, I see multiplicity: the inability of Grass to foster a coherent vision of the world nor of his characters. Even the primary narrator is more akin to single notes than to that of a scale (which is comprised of multiple notes played at the same time): “I gathered that they were fighting in the corridor … Hesitantly at first, then with more confidence, Oskar entered the dead-letter room” (Grass 210). Here, Grass has Oskar shift from first to third person narrative within the very same passage. This not only demonstrates the schizophrenia that Grass ascribes to the separate voices of Oskar, but is untrue to the very definition of harmony: that it is the sounding of more than one note or tone, “in which the two [or more] tones are sounded together” (Piston 4). Grass’s technique then is much more akin to the dissonance of multiple keys struck individually at separate times, not arranged in to a cohesive vision; a scale.

Olster’s contention of harmony is also challengeable from another aspect of musical analogy: musical key. Olster claims that Oskar, “structure[s] the melody of his piece around the dominant chordal tone, thus imparting to his composition a musical quality far different from the completed sound of the tonic” (Olster 67). This concept would only stand ground if Grass’s novel had a cohesive vision, a single point from which the narrative departs from. Grass however falls in line with the majority of modern authors in which their writing depicts a world in which there is no central theme, no central vision. This trend has been in play in the European context for the last several centuries as William Chittick describes in his book, Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul:

“The history of European thought is characterized by the opposite trend. Although there was a great deal of Unitarian thinking in the medieval period, from that time onward dispersion and multiplicity have constantly increased. “Renaissance men” could know a great deal about all the sciences and at the same time have a unifying vision … The result is mutual incomprehension and universal disharmony (emphasis mine). It is impossible to establish any unity of understanding … Since people have no unifying principles, the result is an ever-increasing multiplicity of goals and gods, an ever-intensifying chaos.” (Chittick 13).

I am invoking Chittick’s passage here to demonstrate the lack of vision that Grass has. I mean this not as a condemnation but as an observable fact and indeed, a characteristic that Grass put into The Tin Drum deliberately. A short example of this is the siege on the Polish post office, during which several characters die, is described as a “colossal joke” (Grass 216). Grass treats this entire scene with a great deal of humor and absurdity. To say that amidst the chaos of the assault Olster claims some mode of harmony is had hard to justify; a musical piece that is set in a certain key must follow and obey that key as a general outline. I can find no such consistent examples in The Tin Drum that corroborate harmony, inconstant or otherwise.

Olster’s comments on Grass’s use of the Catholic Church and Catholic theology are also a point of contention. Where Olster see’s the Church as an attempt to “recapture the triadic fullness of harmony through inclusion rather than exclusion” (Olster 69), I see Grass’s use of Catholicism as a means of indicting the Church on their silent and tacit approval of the atrocities that were committed under their nose. Oskar implores Jesus to beat his drum—a sign of an active God—only to be disappointed: “Time passed, I say, but Jesus did not beat the drum” (Grass 130). Olster sees the Catholic Trinity as the three notes in a chord: “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost” as “three separate notes into one chord” (Olster 69). I do not see any proof from the text that symbolizes these three tones being acted on at once (again, referring to Piston’s definition of harmony) and in fact, shore up support of Grass’s un-unified world; as Hans Magnus Enzensberger wrote: “Gass ist kein Moralist/Grass is no moralist” (Enzensberger 224). To infer that Grass was making a gesture to the Holy Trinity would be to placate Grass as a romanticist, something he is known for being the opposite (Mews 84).

Olster is correct to point out that apparent unwillingness to grow is seated in a lack of “exemplars” (Olster 71). Grass depicts for us a world that is depraved, though he is cautious not to clumsily portray the Nazis as “evil” and the Jews as “good”, or how Alexander Gelley describes Grass’s technique, where he “scrupulously eschews both the demonic (in portraying the Nazis) and the pathetic (in portraying the victims), he can still arouse our horror and pity” (Gelley 117). Instead we see further examples of unharmonious behavior in a number of the adults—Oskar’s “exemplars” (Schmuh’s over indulgence of the sparrows) to Jan’s cowardice at the assault on the post office. Both of these examples further support the theory of Grass’s world being a dissonant landscape.

Another aspect of the lack of harmony in The Tin Drum is the method and manner in which the characters communicate with each other, namely Oskar. The protagonist’s two methods of communication result in either destruction, vis-a-vie his glass slaying voice, or from the “non-meaningful utterances” (Bance 148) of his drum. Indeed, Grass’s world lacks so such disharmony that the characters themselves become caricatures of the absurd, unable to communicate through normal means of speech. Further more, the drum, which is a monophonic instrument, capable of producing sounds that are scarcely tonal and almost always singular, significantly challenges Olster’s abstraction of harmonies of any stripe. Instead, the drum symbolizes Oskar’s inability to cope and communicate with the adult world around him. In fact, one may say that the drum is the method by which he does communicate with his world, which is why he is so misunderstood. An example of this is the contest between Matzerath and Oskar, in which the drum is threatened to be taken away when the drum itself presents a hazard to Oskar: “It was feared I would cut myself on the treacherously sharp edges of the tin” (Grass 54).    This obsession of Oskar over his drum reinforces the notion of it being a fetish of sorts, one by which he retains a magical and youthful attachment to the fantasy world he imagines he lives in.

Muslim Development Course – Round One: Class Notes

Course Objective: to encourage the development of Muslim thought, action, and behavior, both individual and social, in such a way that our practice of Islam reflects a deeper and more personal understanding, ownership, and embodiment of the divine principles on our part, found in the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings upon him.

Here’s a short list of the things we’ll look at in this course: Who are we? Before we can understand Islam we must know ourselves. Prologue – Life in the Hijaz: to what extent does jahili life play in our understanding of Islam? Revelation – big “R” versus little “r”: Allah as the God of nature and human history. Topography: Getting a lay of the land: the Prophet’s heritage and the build up to the Revelation. Introduction to Qur’anic Language: re-textualization: how did Allah make use of preexisting terms and ascribe new meanings to them? How is this important for us to understand? Introduction of Muslim Morals and Ethics: themes from the early Revelation.

  • Day One
  • Day Two & Three
  • Day Four

Day One

Here are some quick notes of the topics we talked about today

Taqwa: What’s In A Word?

We took a quick look at the word taqwa, from a few lines of Jāhiliyyah poetry, and examined what it meant. In the Mu’allaqah, Zuhayr said:

و قال سأقضي حاجتي ثم أتقي * عدوي بألف من روائى ملجم

“I will satisfy my vengeance [on my brother’s killer by taking his life!], then I will defend myself from their reprisal with a thousand horses, all bridled in support of my cause!”

Wa qāla sa-aqdī hājatī thumma a’ttaqī ‘aduwwī bi alfin min rawā’ī muljami.

The important thing to note here is the use of taqwa– it’s the word that Zuhayr uses to “defend himself”.  To help define this, let’s look at what al-Tabrizi says, concerning taqwa:

الإتقاء أن تجعل بينك و بين ما تخافه حاجزا يحفظك

“Taqwā is the idea that you [A] place something — a barrier — [C] between yourself and that which you fear could destroy you [B].”

What al-Tabrizi is us is that taqwa is a type of self-defense or self-preservation system or technique to ward off destruction by placing something between yourself and that impending doom. For the Muslim, this is nothing other than protecting oneself against the Punishment of Allah on the Day of Judgment through the practice and accumulation of good deeds. Our example of this from the Qur’an was from suwrah al-Baqarah:

و اتقوا يوما لا تجزي نفس عن نفس شيئا و لا يقبل منها شفاعة و لا يوخذ منها عدل و لا هم ينصرون

“Defend yourself against a day that will come where no soul shall be of assistance to another whatsoever – nor shall it put forth an intercessor in its place – no compensation will be taken from it – nor shall there be anyone to come to its aid.” [Q: 2:47]

Here, Allah is commanding man to defend himself against His punishment on a day in which there will be no help, intercession, or aid from another person. In other words, protect yourself before it’s too late. For other similar uses of taqwa, see these verses: 2: 24, 2: 103, 2: 189, 2: 281, and 3: 131 for further examples.

Day Two & Three

The History of Modern American Thought — Deism and the Legacy of Enlightenment Thought in Europe and America

The European Enlightenment was an intellectual movement that sought to put the faculty of human reason at the forefront of interpreting and understanding reality.  Through this process, reason and reliance on rationalism came to put Christianity and its religious thinking at something of a “disadvantage”.  The disadvantage stemmed from Christendom’s inability to respond to the claims of Enlightenment thinkers.

For our purposes, Deism, from the Latin “deus“, meaning “god”, can be thought of thus: a belief system in which one recognizes the existence of a supreme being or creator without the need for any formal or “organized” religion.  Deists [those who practice Deism] claim that belief in God can be achieve through the sensoria or the human senses [again, with an almost total reliance upon the faculty of observation] alone without out any external influence.  Deism also rejects the notion of the supernatural: Revelation, revealed books, prophets, miracles, and the like.  They draw no discerning line between the supernatural and the superstitious.  For the Deists, to believe the Qur’an is the word of God would be just as superstitious as believing in “lucky stars or numbers”.

While the Enlightenment’s heyday was during the 1700’s, some scholars put its time line as from the middle 1600’s to the early 1800’s.  It died out by the early 19th century but its descendants continued on to what came to be known as Deism.  In fact, Deism, with its similar reliance on rational thought, had a tremendous influence on the Founding Fathers of the United States.  Some, such as Benjamin Franklin, were essentially card carrying members, while others, such as Thomas Jefferson—more an admirer of Deism—actually belonged to one of its descendants: Unitarianism.  It is Jefferson’s and his compatriots’ adherence to Unitarian thought—whose values are rooted in Deism—that played a role in how they defined the separation of Church and State.  For in Unitarian/Deistic thinking, there is no revelation; no Divine Law.  Thus, there could be no good reason to include religion in the decision making process of government.  This, along with a desire for religious freedom [amongst other reasons], explains how they chose to exclude religion from government.

Summary

  • rejects revelation, miracles, prophets, etc.
  • puts complete reliance on human reason to be able to know the cosmos and God
  • the Enlightenment lasted from the middle 1600’s to the early 1800’s
  • while the Enlightenment declined in popularity, it was succeeded by Deism
  • Deism went on to have tremendous influence: the Founding Fathers; 19th-century-thinker Charles Darwin [1809—1882], who was an English Naturalist [another descendant of Enlightenment/Deistic thought] who is responsible for the theory of evolution, eventually became an atheist. Darwin’s theory on evolution removed any potentiality for God remaining active in the cosmos [a remote or absent god]
  • was a driving force behind the separation of Church and State

So why do we need to know all of this?  The answer is that if we are to both understand ourselves better—to know the history of our own thought processes—as well as to give more effective da’wah, then we must know the method and history of how people think. In this case, American people.

Along with this greater understanding of America’s intellectual history is a need for understanding Islam [the Qur’an and the life/Sunnah of the Prophet] that also encompasses its themes and history. In today’s class we looked at the two major themes of Qur’anic revelation: the Makkan period, and the Madīnan period.

Makkah: the Revelation begins in Makkah, a small city located in a forgotten part of the world. At this time [7th century c.e.], Arabia and the Arabs were of little to no importance outside of the Hijaz.  But as one of my teachers told me, there was a great wisdom in Allah choosing the Arabs as the people who would first receive His Message. It took a group of nobodies and made them somebodies.  The Arabs of this early period were instilled with a sense of dignity [different than pride!]—a dignity that comes from making God central to one’s life—which is what carried them out of the Arabian peninsula and out to the known world.  This God-centered dignity is quite different from nationalistic types of identity, where one’s sense of worth and pride are not necessarily rooted in a practice that seeks to please Allah.

The early Makkan suwrahs are mainly concerned with trying to awaken the human being to the Ultimate Reality—there is no god but God and Muhammad is His Messenger—and bring his or her understanding of reality into conformity with that reality.  The world has been created by a Creator, a God, and it was not done so without purpose:

والذين يذكرون الله قياما وقعودا وعلى جنوبهم ويتفكرون في خلق السماوات والأرض – ربنا ما خلقت هذا باطلا سبحانك فقنا عذاب النار

“And those who remember God, either standing, sitting, as well as sitting on their sides and is given to frequent contemplation about the creation of the heavens and the earth respond: ‘O our Lord! You have not created this without purpose. You are without peer or similitude so protect us from the punishment of the Fire.” [Q: 3: 191]

This process of “reorientation” by Allah seeks to take the mundane [normal] world of humans and transform it into one where everything is a sign that speaks to us of God’s existence:

تسبح له السماوات السبع والأرض ومن فيهن

“The seven heavens and the earth proclaim none other than lā ilāha illa Allah as well as whoever is in them.” [Q: 17: 44]

In fact, as we noted when looking at Muslim history, when Muslims veered too far off course and began to concentrate more on “conquering” than on empowering, things “fell apart”.  The great empires of al-Andalus [Muslim Spain] and the Ottomans dissolved over internal strife.

Another theme to the early Revelation is to set free and empower the human being from slavehood to this life.  One of Islam’s primary objectives is to open up and set free human beings:

إذا جاء نصر الله والفتح

“When comes the help of God and the Opening.” [Q: 110: 1]

In this verse, many English translators have translated the word “fat’h” as “conquering” or “victory”.  But in fact, its root of f-t-h is more akin to “opening”.  And in particular, the opening here is referring to the Opening of Makkah, upon the Prophet’s [s] final return to Makkah.  This retaking of Makkah was a bloodless transference of power.  The result was literally, the opening of the minds and hearts of the Makkan people to the message of Islam.  When they saw that the Prophet [s] was not interested in subjugating them but rather delivering them into Islam, the numbers of Muslims grew tremendously.

This theme of opening has been repeated before.  In fact, one of the early scholars of Islam, a companion of the Prophet [s], said that the “manifest victory [opening] was not the retaking of Makkah, but was in fact, the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah:

إن فتحنا لك فتحا مبينا

لّيغفرَ لك الله ما تقدم من ذنبك و ما تأخر و يتمَ نعمته عليك و يهديَك صراطا مستقيما

و ينصُرَك الله نصرا عزيزا

“Without a doubt, we have granted you [Muhammad] the clear, manifest victory. In order that Allah might forgive you for what you have done regarding your sin, as well as pardoning any later ones, and complete His favor upon you and guide you to a straight path. And so that Allah may help you with a great assistance.” [Q: 48: 1‐3]

The man who initially arbitrated for the Quraysh [against the Muslims] was Suhail Bin ‘Amr. In his initial meeting with the Prophet [s], he refused to acknowledge him as the Messenger of Allah, instead the Prophet had to settle for putting “in the name of your Lord” and “Muhammad Ibn ‘Abdullah” on the contract.  While this enraged some of his companions, he saw it as achieving a “manifest victory”: giving the Muslim a legitimate seat at the Ka’abah.  For without it, the Muslims would have always been seen as an “other” in Arabia. Now there were no psychological or cultural barriers between being an Arab, a Makkan, and being a Muslim.

In the years that followed the Prophet’s death [s], the Arabian peninsula threatened to revert back to its pre-Islamic ways.  It was through the courageous efforts of some of the companions that kept Islam alive.  One such companion was the aforementioned Suhail Bin ‘Amr.  After seeing how the Prophet dealt with the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah and finally, with the Opening of Makkah and its people, Suhail became Muslim [his son, Abu Jandal, had converted some years before].  So when Suhail fought to keep Islam alive after the Prophet’s demise [s], he was struggling for his own deen, his own religion.  If we want our youth and new shahadahs to strive for Islam, we must impart to them a sense of ownership of Islam.

ربنا زدنا في علمنا وانفعنا به

“O’ Our Lord!, increase us in knowledge and make us benefit from it!

Day Four

In our last class, we discussed the importance of making room for our brothers and sisters, even though they may not appear to be people of significance. We discussed the story of al-Arqam Ibn al-Arqam, the cousin of the Prophet’s [s] cousin, who, out of generosity, donated his house in Makkah, at the foot of Mount Safa, to the service of Islam. This house, named Dar al-Arqam, of “The House of Arqam”, was the first safe heaven for the Muslims to gather, pray, and spread their da’wah.

We also discussed the Treaty of Ḥudaybiyyah. This was a pact what was signed by the Muslims and by the Quraysh to allow the Muslims access to the Ka’abah. Quraysh had elected Suhail Ibn ‘Amr as their representative to barter and negotiate with the Muslims. Famously, this is where the Prophet [s] agreed to sign his name as Muhammad Ibn ‘Abdullah [s] instead of Muhammad, the Messenger of God. There was a number of concessions that the Prophet made that day but in the end, it achieved his goal of successfully delivering the message of Islam to the people of Makkah. In the end, Suhail himself became Muslim after he saw how the Prophet negotiated and how he dealt with the people of Makkah at the Fatḥ al-Makkah.

Some interesting facts about the Treaty of Ḥudaybiyyah:

  • There was to be a truce of 10 years between the Muslims and Quraysh.
  • Those who wished to leave Makkah and go to the Prophet [s] in Madinah but did not obtain permission from someone of authority in Makkah, the Muslims must send them back. If, however, someone from Madinah wishes to leave Muhammad [s] and the Muslims and return to Makkah, s/he may do so freely.
  • Suhail Ibn ‘Amr, while making this treaty, held some animosity towards the Muslims because his own son, Abū Jandal, had become Muslim.

Moving on from above, we next discussed the more subtle nature of tawhid. Most of us are familiar with the notion that tawhid means “oneness”, or as it relates to Islam, the “Oneness of God”. Tawhīd, however, means more than simply stating one recognizes that God is one, but that one’s actions, one’s internal thoughts reflect this truth. For Muslims, tawhid points to Allah, the One God, and therefore, for Muslims, life takes on a special type of focus, where one is always aware of his or her Return to God.

ثم إلينا مرجعك فننبئكم بما كانوا تعملون

“Then you will be returned to Us and We shall inform you all of what you used to do.” [Q 10: 23]

On the other hand, we talked about the term, takthir [تكثير]. While shirk may be the theological opposite of tawhid, takthir is its linguistic opposite and can allow us to think a bit more clearly on the subtle dangers of shirk by talking about it through the lens of takthir.

In many ways, takthir denies any purpose to life by refusing to point back, from the many, to the One.  Instead, it sees that there are many “gods” and from them, many more things abound.  The Qur’an refutes this, by stating life most certainly does have a purpose as well as a Creator:

و يتفكرون في خلق السموت والأرض ربنا ما خلقت هذا باطلا

“And they reflect upon the creation of the heavens and the earth, saying: ‘O our Lord! You have not created this without purpose!'” [Q3: 191]

Islam should bring the many into focus, into a view that points to The One versus, as Muhammad Iqbal said:

“The various natural sciences are like so many vultures falling on the body of Nature, and each running away with a piece of its flesh.”

Finally, some words from our esteemed imam, Imam al-Ghazzali wrote, concerning this life:

“The should take care of the body, just as the pilgrim on his way to Makkah takes care of his camel; but if the pilgrim spends his whole time in feeding and adorning his camel, the caravan wil leave him behind, and he will perish in the desert.”

In a collected hadith, the Prophet [s] relates to us:

أثقل ما يوضع في الميزان يوم القيامة تقوى الله و حسن الخلق

“The heaviest thing to be weighed on the Scale on the Day of Judgment will be taqwā of God and goodness of character.”

من ظن أنه بدون الجهد يصل فهو متمن – و من ظن أنه ببذل الجهد يصل فهو مستغن

“For the one that thinks that he will achieve his goal without effort is a wishful thinker – and for the one that thinks that he shall, by the expending of effort, be successful, is presumptuous.”

Reading List

Finally, let me say it was my pleasure to teach this course on behalf of the Quba Institute. It was the first time I taught this course, and thus it was something of an “experiment”. Please feel free to leave me your feedback and comments and of course, if you have any questions about what was covered, please contact me.