Monday, September 30, 2013

Russell Shorto on Liberty and Individuality

Anne Frank in 1941
Frans Dupont/Anne Frank House
New York Times

In the guise of a travel article, "The Ghosts of Amsterdam" (NYT, September 27, 2013), Russell Shorto pens a lovely, meditative piece on the intimate connection between liberty and individuality, concluding with thoughts on the symbolic meaning of Amsterdam triggered by a walk taken there by him and his daughter:
Eva and I walked past the Anne Frank House . . . and found a canal-side cafe. Of course, our walk had been in part a typical parental ploy to instill something meaningful in a child. I asked Eva what she thought about it. She answered by saying, "Have you read Oliver Sacks? He's amazing."

I instantly recognized the non sequitur as a classic teenage gambit to thwart parental pedagogy, but it still worked. I was disoriented: surely it hadn't been that long ago that she was enthralled by "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants." Since when had she grown up to become a reader of neuroscientific case studies? Who was this person?

Then I recalled something that Otto Frank had written. He was the only member of the family to survive the war. He'd been stunned when he read the diary that his teenage daughter had left behind, and said it made him feel that he had never really known her.

What surprised him, was, I think, the very thing that made the diary an international sensation. It vividly displays both what Amsterdam's history has always been about and what the Nazi occupation so vibrantly threatened: the mysterious complexity that is the individual human being.

This girl who would soon have the life crushed out of her represents not just the others who died without leaving words behind, but all of us. She showed us what human individuality is. And she did it, surprisingly enough, in the same way Rembrandt did: by painting a portrait.

As her father was shocked, and embarrassed, to discover, her diary reveals a full, deep, complicated person, who insists on continuing with her adolescent's journey of self-discovery even as the swastikas paraded by outside: "It's funny, but I can sometimes see myself as others see me. I take a leisurely look at the person called 'Anne Frank' and browse through the pages of her life as though she were a stranger."

If ghosts who represent stages in the rise of individual freedom still haunt the streets of Amsterdam, making the city itself far greater than the sum of its museums and tourist sites, for me the spirit of this girl stands out above all the others because, in addition, she showed how fragile that freedom is.
At a time when theocratic views pressed upon the world by fanatics who would murder, and have murdered, to kill liberty and individuality, we should reflect deeply on Shorto's words . . .



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