Discussion Pieces

Comments on the paper “Female Film Stars and the Dominant Ideologies of 1950s America”
by Jessica Freame
Eras – Edition Three

I enjoyed reading the article about female film stars of the 50s; however, it irks me that to this day, that people are still hanging that “virgin” tag on Doris Day.

When the sexual revolution hit in the late 60s, people turned their backs on Ms Day, simplistically deriding her film persona as that of the perennial virgin. It’s a view exemplified by Oscar Levant’s wisecrack “I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin.” That’s a funny line, but it’s all wrong.

Doris Day was the only movie star of her time who consistently played independent career women, never desperate for a husband — yet people have distorted that fact and as a result have underrated her. As you’ve probably presumed by now, yes, I’m a Doris Day nut, but I’m tired of that old misconception. Once again, your journal was quite interesting, very well-written and thought-provoking. I’m glad I discovered it.


Howard Green,
North Hollywood, CA
Thursday, 16 July 2009

Comments on the paper “The Ambiguity of Intellectual Engagement: Towards a Reassessment of Isaiah Berlin’s Legacy”

by Jonathan Hogg
Eras – Edition Six

I can’t agree with the author’s claim that Berlin viewed liberalism as well as his own methodology as “natural.” For one thing, the methodology, a version of Romantic hermeneutics, assumes a sharp division between the human and natural sciences; it is a form of the former. Moreover, in his later writings, Berlin made it clear that he does not believe liberalism to be deducible from pluralism, which is to day that his pluralism requires recognizing a wide variety of political ideologies as valid, even if he himself had a preference for liberalism and Zionism. One’s personal choice of ideology depends on one’s interpretation of a given political context. For Berlin that meant liberalism vis-à-vis Britain and Zionism vis-à-vis Israel. For more on this, see my “Political Philosophies and Political Ideologies,” Public Affairs Quarterly 15, no. 3 (July 2001): 193-217.

The suggestion that Berlin is an unthinking, uncritical Zionist seems to me unfair. For one thing, the notion that Berlin was self-contradictory because he was not consistently an “active” or “passive” intellectual makes no sense since Berlin himself wouldn’t have recognized these two categories. For another, the critique is belied by the quotation from Wolheim cited in the paper, in which Berlin is said to have “strongly disapproved of some of the means by which [Israel] came about, and a number of the means by which it sought to preserve itself.”

The author may be interested to note that, in parts, his critique of Berlin, especially those aspects concerned with “fixed” concepts and conservativism, dovetails somewhat with my own critique of his philosophy in my From Pluralist to Patriotic Politics (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).
I hope these comments have been helpful.

Charles Blattberg
Associate Professor of Political Philosophy
Department of Political Science
Université de Montréal, CANADA
Mon, 14 Mar 2005

Comments on the paper “Primo Levi: Waving or Drowning? Survivor Archetypes in Representations of the Holocaust”
by Rachel Taylor
Eras – Edition Two

Before turning to my main point, I would like to emphasize that I am by no means an expert on Primo Levi. I have simply used two of his books (Survival in Auschwitz and The Drowned and the Saved) in a class I teach on history and memory.

Based on that reading, I wonder if Taylor’s argument -that “[u]ltimately all survivors of the Holocaust locate themselves in and/or are located in one of two extreme archetypal ways”– really works for The Drowned and the Saved. In that work, Levi discusses “the grey zone” — that zone of limited collaboration between prison guard and prisoner to be found even in Auschwitz. Here, Levi is talking not simply about trusties, snitches, capos, and the like. He is also talking about himself: Levi survived in part because he had technical and scientific skills prized by the Germans.

The fact that Levi and others entered this “grey zone” makes it difficult to represent them as pure heros or pure victims. Indeed, by calling analytic attention to this realm, Levi seems to be warning against reducing any survivor’s life to extreme archetypes. This does not make the concentration camp any less horrible: it makes its representation, however, more complicated and indeed more troubling.

Just some thoughts from a passer-by.

Shawn McHale
Assistant Professor of History and International Affairs
The George Washington University
Washington, DC USA

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Response no. 1 to Shawn McHale’s comments

When Primo Levi or anyone else talks about the grey zone, it does not make the representation of the horrors more complicated. I would even state that describing these collaborations makes Auschwitz (as a synecdoche of course) more realistic and more human. Indeed, the uniqueness of the experiences of the victims could be taken away a little bit by facing this reality. Something similar happened from my point of view with the discussion of the concept of ‘the banality of evil’. By making at least some part of the evil banal, you get a better understanding of the perpetrators. The ‘grey zone’ is nothing more than a ‘banality of the good’. It would make the victims humans with all their wrongs and not just harmless victims. To understand, to represent, is being able to relate to something. And this could be a step in the right direction. Of course this is an area to be studied with a lot of caution because of the danger of abuse by, for example, revisionists, but still: I think to understand the evil, the horrors, or the suffering of the victims people have to become a part of it.

Hans Tieben
Nijmegen University
Thursday 6 February, 2003

Comments on the paper “Primo Levi: Waving or Drowning? Survivor Archetypes in Representations of the Holocaust”
by Rachel Taylor 
Eras – Edition Two

Primo Levi suffered from severe depressions all his life, before and after the war. There were thoughts of suicide in the writings of his youth. I agree with your premise that he was neither a victim nor a survivor of the Holocaust but rather both. More importantly for us, however, he was also an artist and a moral human being. His contribution to the world’s moral evolution is diminished by attributing his insights solely to his sufferings in the concentration camps. He suffered over all human failure, even all human imperfection, and he would have had something to say to us whether he had been a victim of the Germans or not. From my own experience with depression and the drugs that treat it, I believe medical science will someday prove that certain kinds of depression are so tied to suicide that one is driven to take that particular step for no discernible reason, even in the sick mind of the depressant. It becomes an obsession in itself, so that the final struggle is not about one’s pain. It is about the will to live versus the pull of suicide. The thought is not that I can’t go on living with the horror in my mind, but rather, I can no longer prevail against the powerful, magnetic attraction of suicide. To take that step becomes an achievement, a conquering of some mystery. That is how, or so I believe, that Levi could plan for the future and despair all on the same day. Perhaps most of his days were like that.

Martha Sjogreen
Petersburgh, New York
Sunday, November 3, 2002

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