First, a confession.
Sunday, April 15, 2012
First, a confession.
When I was on the crew team in college, I spent a significant amount of time doing stair workouts in a building officially named Altschul Hall. If you've ever done stair workouts, you know there are few training techniques more punishing. So when members of the team referred to Altschul as "Auschwitz," I laughed.
So now, whether you have lost all respect for me for trivializing the Holocaust or see the humor as well, you probably won't be surprised that I was not offended by the name of Larry David's character in the newly released Three Stooges movie: Sister Mary-Mengele.
There are strong reasons why some may argue I should have been offended.
Dr. Mengele's role as the angel of death, choosing which victims at Auschwitz head left or right -- which to the gas chambers, and which to forced labor -- may be a patently humorless sub
ject. Worse, Mengele's evil doesn't stop there. He of course also conducted sadistic medical experiments on twins. Holding a Ph.D. in physical anthropology from the University of Munich and a medical degree from Frankfurt University, where his mentor was an expert in twin studies, Mengele turned the Hypocratic oath inside out. "Do no harm" became "harm as much as he can imagine." If Dante Alegari wrote The Inferno today he'd have to invent an entirely new circle of hell for Mengele.
I can see why some would say Mengele's circle of hell is beyond the reach of comedy. To make light of Mengele is to risk separating us from understanding the true nature of his evil. Even more damaging, it could give the impression we are callous to the profound, indescribable suffering of his victims.
I can also sympathize with those who say that incorporating Mengele into a joke is part of a troubling trend overexposing the Holocaust. Data points in this trend range from the Seinfeld "Soup Nazi" to the charges made on the floor of the House of Representatives that the national health care law is a Nazi plan. Over-use of references to the Holocaust, whether intended to entertain or to malign, bleaches the Holocaust of its true significance.
But to make the Holocaust sacrosanct is to circumscribe it in a way that will also lead to a fundamental disconnect from its meaning in our lives. If we can only engage it in hushed or stentorian tones of solemnity, we limit our access to it. Placing it on a pedestal reduces our ability to be affected by it in ways that could truly change our lives. Humor knocks a subject off its pedestal. Yes, at times this reduction can go too far and we must be suspicious of it. But it can also increase interaction, and curiosity, and openness, all of which lead to that teachable moment where we find true understanding and the empathy at its heart.
From this perspective, I'm tremendously excited by the possibility that some people in the audience for The Three Stooges might be provoked to ask, "'Sister Mary-Mengele'? What does that mean?" Such questioning worked for me; this Jewish boy learned a lot more about Catholicism by taking apart Tom Lehrer's song, The Vatican Rag, than I ever would have learned without it. Tom Lehrer's parody of sacraments such as confession or transubstantiation didn't diminish them to me. It prodded me to understand them. Parody relies on the tension between the joke's exaggeration and the reality behind it. I couldn't truly 'get' The Vatican Rag until I understood the sacred truths at its heart.
There's another, very important reason I can't rebuke The Three Stooges Movie. The horrors of the Holocaust can own and control us. These horrors can continue to victimize us. Ask anyone who's had a Holocaust nightmare as a result of reading or watching a movie about the Holocaust. To knock a subject off its pedestal is to own it or to control it, to some degree rob it of its dominating power. Ultimately, through humor, the Holocaust can stop victimizing us. And when we are no long punished by it, we can return to it and glean new understandings, in ways that we never could have before.
And that's no joke.