Saturday, October 21, 2006

My WSJ review of the writings of Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt

I first discovered the writings of the Swiss playwright and novelist Friedrich Durrenmatt in ninth grade high school German class, reading first The Visit of the Old Lady and later The Physicists. I loved the tragi-comic irony of Durrenmatt's 1950s and 60s plays, and in later years I read his novels off and on. I've read his work since 1970; Durrenmatt has largely since disappeared here in the US and in the English language. (Actually, it has seemed to me that he might have been eclipsed somewhat even in Switzerland - I gave a lecture a couple of years ago in Switzerland, French-speaking part, to be sure, and made a point of quoting Durrenmatt, but so far as I could tell, my lawyer audience did not seem to have a clue who I was talking about.)

So it was a pleasure when the Wall Street Journal book review called, at Christopher Caldwell's lovely suggestion, to ask if I would like to review a new University of Chicago Press three volume selection of Durrenmatt's plays, fiction, and essays. It came out today, Saturday/Sunday, October 21-22, 2006, in the Pursuits section of the Journal, here (subscriber link). (The University of Chicago Press has set up a website on Durrenmatt, here - it's very good, worth a visit to find out more about this major post-war European writer.)

Mixed in with the discussion of Durrenmatt's aesthetics, I also make a comment about Swiss neutrality, and then the concept of "humanitarian neutrality" (I first took up this topic of humanitarian neutrality in an academic article, here). That brief comment in the review is this:

But of course Swiss neutrality has a powerful moral logic of its own, exemplified by the humanitarian efforts of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Humanitarianism, in short, may require neutrality as a condition of its very existence. But that hardly means that neutrality is the highest virtue, the most admirable moral position, in conditions of conflict.

While neutrality may make humanitarianism possible, it will always be a derivative virtue in a world containing evil, a deliberate and knowing suspension of moral judgment for the sake of moral good, such as the relief of suffering. But if evil is not to triumph, we cannot all be neutral. Someone must fight for what is right: If there is to be a Red Cross, there must also be a Churchill. The Swiss sensibility can be reluctant to acknowledge this imperative, and sometimes has been known to accept a lofty moral relativism as the highest good of all. D├╝rrenmatt himself was not entirely immune to this way of thinking.

(Update: Dean notes below in comments that I said Cambridge UP, not Chicago, in the original post. Apologies, brain on hold, was actually staring at the three volumes on my desk as I mis-blogged yesterday. Corrected in original post, and thanks Dean.)