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Totalitarian Speech

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Michal Glowinski

Totalitarian Speech brings together a range of texts on totalitarian manipulations of language. The author analyzes various phenomena, from the hateful rhetoric of Nazi Germany to the obfuscating newspeak of communist Poland, finding certain common characteristics. Above all, totalitarian speech in its diverse manifestations imposes an all-embracing worldview and an associated set of dichotomous divisions from an omniscient and authoritative perspective. This volume collects the work of over three decades, including essays written during the communist era and more recent pieces assessing the legacy of totalitarian ways of thinking in contemporary Poland.
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5. Through the Eyes of the Executioner

Extract



(On Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones)

1

The most talked-about novel in the world in recent years is an extraordinary work. Indeed, it is no surprise that it should have evoked such strong and contrasting reactions, ranging from rapture to uncompromising rejection – and not just for aesthetic reasons. Among the various motives for disapproval, moral considerations have often come to the fore. Critics have advanced numerous contradictory evaluations. Some call it a masterpiece, while others declare it kitsch. Some claim that it is a great novel about a murderous history, while others insist that it is the story of a psychopath, a work that stoops to the level of pornography and aims to stun the reader with its brutality. Appraisals of a book are rarely so conflicting. Their very extremity says much about the work, which refuses to leave the reader in the realm of intermediate states. Instead, it consistently provokes violent reactions, making it difficult for anybody to maintain the analytical calm so desirable in criticism – and even more difficult to find the middle ground between kitsch and masterpiece. There would seem to be no way to reconcile what is magnificent in the book with what is vague, mannered, trashy or simply calculated for cheap effect. Yet certain facts remain beyond doubt. The book is brilliantly written, and it reads extraordinarily well.83 Above all, it is an important work that has provoked thought and discussion. How many such novels have appeared in our...

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