Daddy’s girl

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Julie Burchill

Julie Burchill (57), one of the most famous journalists in Britain, describes herself as a militant leftist. During her long roller coaster of a career as a strident, attention-getting columnist, she’s bounced from the Sunday Times to the Mail on Sunday to The Guardian to The Times and back to The Guardian before then settling in at The Independent. (These days she appears frequently in the pages of the conservative weekly The Spectator.) Her departures from many of these papers were acrimonious in the extreme; she’s publicly slammed her employers and once or twice has publicly admitted that the work she did for them was lazy, tossed-off crap.

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Margaret Thatcher

Not only does she constantly outrage centrists and right-wingers; she also routinely incenses her fellow men and women of the left – standing up, for example, for Margaret Thatcher, for the Falklands War, for the invasion of Iraq, for Israel, and for Brexit. She has more than her share of prejudices and has been frank about them, insulting such groups as Irish people and transsexuals in sensational fashion. She’s converted to Christianity and then left it and pondered a conversion to Judaism; she’s claimed to have become a lesbian and then quit that after six months; she had one son apiece with each of her first two husbands (she’s now on spouse #3), and eventually abandoned not only the husbands but also the sons, the second of whom, tragically, committed suicide last year.

burchillbk3Many critics have suggested that Burchill’s chatty, heavily self-referential columns – which are often so packed with English slang and English pop-cultural references as to leave an American reader baffled – generate more heat than light and amount to a bunch of sound and fury signifying nothing. She’s admitted that she moved “from enfant terrible to grande dame without ever being a proper grown-up.” She’s obviously a pretty irresponsible human being, and she’s definitely an attention-seeking egomaniac; and, as she explained in her column for September 5, she was also, once upon a time, a useful idiot.

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Josef Stalin

When she was 12, she wrote, she was a “daddy’s girl, eager to elicit some emotion from my loving but reserved father.” The only thing that really worked, it turned out, was idolizing Stalin as much as he did. A “gentle giant…who literally wouldn’t have hurt a fly,” Burchill’s old man, a distillery worker, was indeed a useful idiot who spent “much of his leisure time acting as the chief cheerleader of a man who was responsible for the deaths of about 20 million people.” To avoid being “bought by the bourgeoisie,” he turned down every promotion offered him, and at the end of his life counted it a victory “that he had not made any advancement up the class ladder.”

But Julie Burchill didn’t just pretend to be a Stalinist when she was in her father’s company. No, she took it with her when she went to London to become a journalist. More tomorrow.

Hellman’s charmed afterlife

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Lillian Hellman

If she had supported Hitler, she’d have had no career whatsoever once the war was over, and would have been remembered posthumously as a reprehensible aider and abetter of murderous totalitarianism. But since the murderous totalitarian favored by playwright Lillian Hellman was Josef Stalin, her death in 1984 occasioned rhapsodies throughout the major media.

And in the years that followed, the praise kept flowing. There were several biographies, a couple of which treated her poisonous politics and perpetual prevarication seriously but most of which sought to find excuses for her and even to demonize her critics. There were plays about her, and a TV movie – described by one critic as “fawning” – about her relationship with mystery writer and fellow Stalinist Dashiell Hammett.

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The TV movie, with Judy Davis as Hellman and Sam Shepard as Hammett

In 2001, the PBS series American Masters celebrated Hellman as “a woman who stood against an unjust government and was able to maintain her dignity and artistic vision.” How did PBS handle her lie-ridden memoirs? Like this (emphasis ours): “Though criticized for inaccuracies, these books were influential not only for their depiction of an exceptional and exciting artistic time, but for their tone, which many associated with the beginnings of the feminist movement.”

Not only was she a pioneering feminist, she was a serious political player: “her political involvement was integral in the fight against fascism at home and abroad.” Really?

In sum, PBS’s Lillian Hellman was “a woman who could overcome the hurdles of her time and succeed on her own terms.” Maureen Corrigan seconded the claim for Hellman as a feminist, calling her “an icon for women of my generation, coming to feminist consciousness in the 1970s,” and praising her for remaining “a bold creature of the 1920s long after Betty Boop became domesticated into June Cleaver.”

Better, apparently, to be a “bold” Stalinist than just another Fifties housewife.

pentimentoAnd so it went. Lesley McDowell, writing in The Independent in 2010, excused her lying with the argument that all writers “make myths out of people’s lives, especially their own.” In 2011, Sarah Churchwell spun Hellman’s chronic mendacity by saying that her memoirs “helped to usher in the era of postmodern autobiography that…reflects on memory, truth, authenticity and fact: instead of confident assertions of mastery over her own experience, Hellman’s autobiographies are unstable, shifting, questioning.”

In other words, to view her lies as lies is so old-fashioned; rather, we should see her as exploring “the tricks that memory and consciousness play.”

In a 2012 tribute entitled “Profile in Courage,” The Economist focused not on her Stalinism and prevarication but on her crucial function as “a role model to feminists in the 1970s” and her noble belief that “it was the duty of engaged citizens to fight racism, alleviate poverty and protect civil liberties.” Here’s how The Economist dealt with the Stalinism and lying: “She made some foolish choices [our emphasis], but Lillian Hellman was often on the right side of history.”

hellman9Balderdash. This is a woman who spent the first part of her adult life promoting one of the most bloodthirsty monsters in human history and who spent the second part of her adult life rewriting the story of the first part.

Let it never be forgotten, moreover, that the Stalinism and the deception were of a piece: elaborate misrepresentation (such as the establishment of fake “peace organizations” and the holding of fake “peace conferences”) and the systematic rewriting of history are fundamental elements of Stalinism. So is the habit of viewing one’s political opponents as enemies and of seeking not just to defeat them in elections but to bring about their utter ruin. To quote Carl Rollyson: “She presented herself as an independent woman, but what independence is there in a political position that amounts to fealty to the party of a foreign power?”

Unraveling the lies

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Lillian Hellman

As we’ve seen this week, the playwright Lillian Hellman was not just a Stalinist but a shameless fabricator, inventing out of whole cloth an account of her purported adventures during the Spanish Civil War and a thrilling tale of amateur spycraft under the very noses of the Nazis. In 1981, Martha Gellhorn called her out on her Spanish fairy tale; two years later, a new autobiography by one Muriel Gardiner made it clear to anyone with common sense that the narrative of Hellman’s supposed real-life friend Julia, as told in Hellman’s memoir Pentimento and then in the hit movie Julia, had been appropriated wholesale from Gardiner’s own life story. Hellman, however, continued to insist that everything she wrote about herself and Julia in Pentimento, notably their involvement in that espionage caper in 1937 Germany, had happened just as described.

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Muriel Gardiner

Then, in 1984, came an epic piece in Commentary by Samuel McCracken, who – combining Gellhorn’s and Gardiner’s material with research of his own – proved in elaborate detail that the whole thing was, indeed, one big lie. He began with the obvious unlikelihood of there being another person with a story so similar to Gardiner’s:

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Samuel McCracken

To accept the striking parallels between Muriel Gardiner and Julia as mere coincidence would require something like an act of faith. We must believe that all during the 1930’s, one of Muriel Gardiner’s fellow students in Vienna was, quite unknown to her, also at the center of the anti-Nazi resistance. Moreover, we must believe that this other freedom fighter escaped the notice of the documentation archives of the Austrian resistance – for Dr. Gardiner tells us that the director of those archives knows nothing of her presumed Doppelgänger. Indeed, he has taken pains to ask many survivors of the resistance whether they knew a second American woman, and the answer has always been “No. Only ‘Mary.’”

(Mary was Muriel Gardner’s nom de guerre.)

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Hellman with Dashiell Hammett

Going line by line through Hellman’s Julia story, McCracken noted that he had tried without success to find any record of certain persons and establishments named therein. Examining Hellman’s own detailed chronology of her 1937 visit to Europe, moreover, he discovered that it conflicted at every turn with available records – train schedules, steamship passenger lists, the dates of a theater festival she supposedly attended, and so on. Hellman claimed to have seen a Moscow production of Hamlet of which (it turned out) there was no historical record.

With equal effectiveness, McCracken stepped back from these particulars to point out the absurdity of the entire cloak-and-dagger story. Why smuggle money at a time when “it would have been perfectly easy for Julia to have money brought to her in Vienna by an open courier”? During Hellman’s trip from Paris to Berlin, several of Julia’s confederates turn up to whisper instructions to her or to covertly hand her a note: why didn’t one of them just take the money to Berlin? Why bring an amateur like Hellman into the picture? And so on.

No sensible reader could study McCracken’s painstaking dissection of Hellman’s Julia story without recognizing that he had established, once and for all, that Hellman had put one over on everybody – that she hadn’t just exaggerated a bit here and there but tried to sell as autobiography a made-up story more melodramatic than all her Broadway plays put together.

Last act tomorrow. 

Inventing Julia

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Mary McCarthy on the Dick Cavett Show

“Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the,’” said novelist and critic Mary McCarthy on a 1981 telecast of the Dick Cavett Show. She was talking about her old literary acquaintance and political adversary, Lillian Hellman, the Stalinist playwright turned memoirist. After Hellman sued, Martha Gellhorn, who had been Ernest Hemingway’s third wife, rode to McCarthy’s rescue, devoting sixteen pages in an issue of Paris Review to a detailed takedown of Hellman’s purported autobiographical account of her adventures with Hemingway in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. When Gellhorn read Hellman’s account, she saw at once that it was sheer fiction. Because Gellhorn had been there.

Writer and correspondent Martha Gellhorn is shown in this undated photo. (AP Photo)
Martha Gellhorn

That wasn’t all. Comparing one of Hellman’s memoirs, An Unfinished Woman, with another, Pentimento, Gellhorn “discovered instances in which Hellman apparently had been able to be in three places at once: in the Moscow embassy, with Julia, her anti-fascist agent/friend in Vienna, and in Spain.”

There were also a number of details that Gellhorn, a sharp-eyed reporter, recognized as bogus – for example, “Hemingway and Hellman could not have stood on their balcony in Madrid watching the fireworks from bombing (as Hellman claimed) since the bombs in Spain did not give off light.” Gellhorn concluded that Hellman had spent three weeks in Spain, tops, and that if she’d witnessed any military action whatsoever, she hadn’t understood the first thing about it.

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Carl Rollyson

The most famous story in any of Hellman’s memoirs concerns her purported lifelong friendship with a woman she identified only as Julia. As Hellman told it in Pentimento, Julia joined the anti-Nazi underground while studying medicine at the University of Vienna; in 1937, she asked Hellman to smuggle a large sum of money into Germany to help save the lives of some of Hitler’s victims, and Hellman bravely agreed.

Then, in 1983, came a memoir, Code Name Mary, by another hand – Muriel Gardiner, an American psychiatrist. Her story was strikingly similar to Julia’s: while studying medicine at the University of Vienna in the late 1930s, she’d become active in the anti-Nazi underground. 

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Julia (1977): Jane Fonda as Hellman and Vanessa Redgrave as Julia

This raised a problem. Gardiner was a real person with a real history in the anti-Nazi underground. If there’d been another female American med student in Vienna who was also in the underground, surely (a) it would have been (to say the least) a remarkable coincidence and (b) the two women would have known each other. But Gardiner had never crossed paths with anybody who might have been the real-life Julia. Nor had she ever met Hellman.

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Hellman in a 1979 ad for Blackglama furs

But one person she did know was Wolf Schwabacher, a friend of  hers who also happened to be –guess what? – Hellman’s lawyer. Over the years, Schwabacher had told Gardiner a lot about Hellman; and after Gardiner’s book came out, it seemed painfully obvious that Schwabacher had also told Hellman a lot about Gardiner.

Despite widespread speculation to this effect in the media, however, Hellman insisted that she had never heard of Muriel Gardiner, and had absolutely not based Julia on her. Fiercely, Hellman stuck to her story: Julia had been a real person, a person whom she’d known and loved since they were girls together, and with whom she had collaborated in 1937 in a courageous anti-Nazi caper. And that was that.

But that wasn’t that. Whether Hellman liked it or not, the walls were beginning to crumble, the truth beginning to out. And people who understood Stalinism, and who were aware of the intimate relationship between Stalinist ideology and reflexive untruthfulness, were starting to get Hellman’s number. 

More tomorrow. 

Every word a lie

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Lillian Hellman

Yesterday we began looking at Lillian Hellman, the Stalinist playwright who was widely lionized for standing up in 1952 to the House Un-American Activities Committee and who, a couple of decades later, made herself even more of a heroine with a series of extraordinarily self-regarding memoirs. The third, Scoundrel Time (1976), was, as the critic Hilton Kramer later noted, “a malicious and mendacious book” that was “written to even old scores with her anti-Stalinist ‘friends.’” In it, Hellman charged members of the anti-Stalinist left with having done too little to defend their Stalinist colleagues who’d been summoned to testify before House and Senate committees.

hellmanbkAmong those at whom she aimed her wrath was Partisan Review editor William Phillips, who had a good answer to her accusations – or, rather, several good answers. First, he wasn’t interested in standing up for Communists’ “right to lie” about being Communists. Second, he didn’t believe that Communists had “a divine right to a job in the government or in Hollywood—any more than I felt I had a right to a high-salaried job in an institution I believed to be an instrument of capitalist power and exploitation.” Third, he “could not take seriously those Communists and fellow-traveling celebrities who were playing with revolution, for it did not seem to occur to them that being for a revolution might have consequences.” Fourth, Hellman and her fellow American Stalinists had been brutal in the 1930s to the non-Stalinist liberals from whom they now, a decade or two later, expected support. (As Phillips wrote, they’d “branded us as the enemy.”)

Finally, Hellman and her fellow Stalinists were “apologists for the arrest and torture of countless dissident writers in the Soviet Union and in other Communist countries….just as she asks how we could not come to the defense of McCarthy’s victims, one could ask her how she could not come to the defense of all those who had been killed or defamed by the Communists? How could she still be silent about the persecution of writers in Russia?”

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Dick Cavett

Phillips’s riposte was only the beginning – the beginning of the end, that is, of Hellman’s reputation as a heroine of truth and justice. The next big step came on an evening in January 1980 when writer Mary McCarthy, another one of the anti-Communist liberals whom Hellman had targeted, appeared on the Dick Cavett Show and was asked which modern writers she considered overrated. She mentioned several names, among them that of Hellman, whom she calledtremendously overrated, a bad writer, a dishonest writer.” When asked by Cavett to elaborate, McCarthy said that every word Hellman wrote was “a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’”

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Mary McCarthy

Hellman sued. People close to the matter said it was obvious she was out to ruin McCarthy, who was far less well-off than she was. Those familiar with the ways of Stalinism weren’t surprised. As one of her many biographers, Carl Rollyson, has observed, Hellman’s writing of Scoundrel Time and her lawsuit aginst McCarthy were typical of high Stalinism, which is all about “not merely punishing your enemies but trying to annihilate them as you claim the high moral ground.”

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Norman Mailer

The lawsuit dragged on for years, with the judge dismissing claims that McCarthy’s comments amounted to literary criticism protected by the First Amendment and that Hellman was a public figure and therefore a fair target. In a New York Times article, Norman Mailer tried to patch things up, like Sinatra reuniting Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Meanwhile McCarthy, seeking material to support her defense, went through Hellman’s memoirs looking for lies. One person who helped her was Martha Gellhorn, a journalist who’d been Ernest Hemingway’s third wife. In one of her memoirs, as it happened, Hellman had told a story about her sojourn in Spain with Hemingway during the Spanish Civil War. Gellhorn, who’d been there at the time, was uniquely qualified to see just how far Hellman’s account strayed from the facts. More on that tomorrow.

One woman’s conscience

She’s been called “the most famous American female playwright of the 20th century” and “the first woman to be admitted into the previously all-male club of American ‘dramatic literature.’” She was also a diehard Stalinist.

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Lillian Hellman

Born in New Orleans in 1905 and raised there and in New York, Lillian Hellman attended Columbia and NYU, then worked briefly at a Manhattan publishing house before marrying a young PR guy and heading out to Hollywood with him. Finding a job as a reader at MGM, she lost no time in organizing her colleagues into a union. When she met the mystery writer Dashiell Hammett, a fellow Stalinist, she left her husband for him. It was Hammett who urged her to start writing plays, and who helped her to write them.

During the 1930s and 40s she wrote a series of plays, among them The Little Foxes (1939) and Watch on the Rhine (1941). At the time most of them were Broadway hits – and several of them were made into successful movies – but their mixture of over-the-top family melodrama and heavyhanded political moralizing hasn’t worn well. They were masterpieces, however, alongside The North Star (1943), a crude piece of work that is described on its Wikipedia page as “an unabashedly pro-Soviet propaganda film.” 

Meanwhile Hellman was an active member of the Communist Party. As The Economist has noted, “she joined the party after the worst of Moscow’s purges and show trials.” She later claimed not to have been aware of the trials, in which political rivals of Stalin were falsely convicted of treason (most of them were ultimately executed); but in fact she signed two statements, published in the Party newspaper The Daily Worker in 1937 and 1938, that defended the second and third Moscow show trials as having been entirely fair.

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Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine in the 1961 film version of Hellman’s play The Children’s Hour

Indeed, her defense of Stalin’s reign was absolute and unwavering: she called Stalinist Russia “the ideal democratic state”; visiting Moscow in 1944, according to The Spectator, she “seems wilfully to have ignored evidence that artists and writers were being killed off. Years later she stood by the Russian government’s cover stories and even made up some of her own. She was given rare access to the front lines when the Russian army was camped outside Warsaw, and never described what she saw there.”

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Paul Johnson

As historian Paul Johnson puts it in his 1988 book Intellectuals, “she did everything in her power, quite apart from her plays and scripts, to assist the CP’s penetration of American intellectul life and to forward the aims of Soviet policy.” She was active in CP front groups, attended at least one CP national conventional, helped fund a “pro-CP propaganda film,” berated a New York Times correspondent who refused to toe the Moscow line about Spain, and supported the 1939 Soviet invasion of Finland, saying, “I don’t believe in that fine, lovable little Republic of Finland that everyone gets so weepy about. I’ve been there and it looks like a pro-Nazi little republic to me.” (In fact, Hellman almost certainly never went to Finland.) After Stalin died and his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, gave his famous speech condemning Stalin’s brutality, Hellman actually upbraided Khrushchev for his disloyalty.

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Bette Davis in the 1941 film version of Hellman’s play The Little Foxes

Called in 1952 to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, she published a letter in the New York Times saying she was willing to discuss her own political views and activities but refusing to turn in other Stalinists.I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions,” she famously wrote. Other high-profile American Communists had taken the Fifth, too, and become anathematized; by spinning her own silence in this way, Hellman managed to turn herself into an international symbol of conscience.

unfinishedwomanShe liked that. And in later years, when the victims of the Hollywood blacklist became heroes, Hellman wrote a series of memoirs – An Unfinished Woman (1969), Pentimento (1973), and Scoundrel Time (1976) – from which she emerged as the most toweringly courageous of them all, a stirring moral heroine who, it turned out, had not only written anti-fascist plays but also put her life on the line in the life-or-death struggle against Hitler. Even if you deplored her Stalinism, you had to admire her valor. John Hersey, reviewing Scoundrel Time in the New Republic, called her “a moral force, almost an institution of conscience.”

There was only one little problem: virtually everything of consequence that she wrote in her memoirs was a lie.

More tomorrow.

Salvaging Heidegger?

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Martin Heidegger

We’ve been exploring the curious case of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), whose public loyalty to the Third Reich and support of its anti-Semitic policies didn’t keep him from being a hero to philosophers and philosophy students around the world, some of whom managed to convince themselves that his Nazism hadn’t been prolonged, or deep, or authentic, or important to his work. These fans, however, were rocked by the 2014 publication of a set of his diaries – known as the Black Notebooks because of the color of the blank volumes in which they’d been scribbled – that provided ample evidence that Heidegger had, in fact, been a genuine and profoundly dedicated devotee of Nazi thought (Jew-hatred included) throughout the Hitler era, and that he viewed this ideological proclivity as inextricable from his own philosophical oeuvre.

hitler1One of the reviewers of the Black Notebooks was Joshua Rothman, who recalled in The New Yorker that reading Heidegger had supplied him with one of the two or three most profound intellectual experiences of his life. “I was in my late twenties, and struggling with a dissertation on the nature of consciousness (what it is, where it comes from, how it fits into the material world). This had turned out to be an impossible subject. Everything I read succeeded only by narrowing the world, imagining it to be either a material or a spiritual place—never both.” (Why not study neurology? Oh, never mind.) Then he read Being and Time. It was as if, having been trapped on the ground floor of a building, I had found an express elevator to the roof, from which I could see the stars. Heidegger had developed his own way of describing the nature of human existence. It wasn’t religious, and it wasn’t scientific; it got its arms around everything, from rocks to the soul.” He then turned to another Heidegger book, The Essence of Truth, wherein Heidegger “proposed a different and, to my mind, a more realistic idea of truth than any I’d encountered before. He believed that, before you could know the truth about things, you had to care about them.” (This seems wrong on the face of it: after all, it is possible to know, say, that Ashgabat is the capital of Turkmenistan without caring in the least about this information. But again, never mind.)

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Joshua Rothman

Rothman reported on a recent confab at which philosophers had gathered – in a sort of philosophical equivalent of an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council – to figure out what to do about the explosive contents of the Black Notebooks. His account shed a fascinating light on the mentality of academic philosophers. One prominent participant started off by making clear the importance to him of career considerations. “I’m the director of the Martin Heidegger Institute,” he said, “and I actually want to be that for a longer time.” The audience laughed. “If we would say that Heidegger really was an anti-Semitic philosopher, then,” he added, “yeah, that would be really a catastrophe, in a certain way, for me.”

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Babette Babich

Rothman appreciated the honesty of this admission; yet the ensuing remarks by many of the philosophers in attendance exhibited a reflexive desire not to get at the truth, however intellectually uncomfortable and professionally inconvenient, but to rescue Heidegger from himself – to find some way to preserve and esteem his philosophy in spite of his Nazism and anti-Semitism. One prominent philosopher, Babette Babich, made an argument that Rothman summed up as: “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

1EN-625-B1945 Orwell, George (eigentl. Eric Arthur Blair), engl. Schriftsteller, Motihari (Indien) 25.1.1903 - London 21.1.1950. Foto, um 1945.
George Orwell

Yet the baby and bathwater metaphor is utterly inappropriate here. A baby and bathwater are two different things. A philosophy is of a piece – a man’s commitment to Nazism cannot be neatly separated from the rest of his thinking about life. However much some of Heidegger’s admirers may wish to isolate his Nazism from the rest of his philosophy, then, it’s an impossible task.

But no great loss. There are many other potential life guides out there – among them writers like George Orwell, who saw totalitarianism (in all its forms) for what it was, despised it, and expressed his contempt in clear, unpretentious language from which most philosophers would be well advised to learn.