The Dwindling Prominence of Historical Memoirs in a Post-Historical World: Claude Lanzmann’s “The Patagonian Hare”

The Patagonian Hare: A Memoir
by Claude Lanzmann
Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux; 544 p. 

Memoirs used to belong to the realm of the accomplished. In this sense, an essential question has always haunted the memoir i.e. why should I read about your life? We used to know the answer. After a singular life of historic importance a person felt obligated or entitled to write their life story. Now memoirs belong to the young, to the not yet accomplished. Whereas memoirs of the past usually signified an active achievement, today’s memoirs most often entail passive trauma. Critics argue over what this says about our society, whether it smacks of narcissism, or perhaps of personal freedom, a realization that every story contains the potential for complex insight. Regardless of this interesting argument, once in a while a traditional memoir, in this instance that of Claude Lanzmann entitled The Patagonian Hare, comes our way to remind us of the greatness of the individual. (Mark Twain’s recently released 100-year-old autobiography serves as another perfect example.)

One of the results of this shift in memoirs is the fact that we expect today’s memoirist to apologize in a sense, or at least to justify their books (Think of the endearing hemming and hawing of Dave Eggers in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius). Give us a unique tragedy, or come from a insulated closed enclave; tell us that, in essence, you in no way differ from the normal person and that you feel the same ambivalence about writing a memoir as we do in reading one; or else go write a personal blog. Consequently, when you do read a more classical memoir like Lanzmann’s you feel a slight shock at his “arrogance.” At no point does Lanzmann question the importance of his life, or of his choices. In fact, like a well-adjusted human being he takes pride in his accomplishments and airs his regrets and shameful moments without a need for public atonement. He states plainly, without any pretentiousness, “The question of courage and cowardice, you will have realized, is the scarlet thread that runs through this book, the thread that runs through my life.” We can all say this about our lives, but Lanzmann refers this quote to his years in the resistance against the Nazis, to his fighting for the Algerian cause, to his battle to create Shoah.

Impressively, Lanzmann spends the first 400 pages of 500 not talking about Shoah, but talking about a fascinating life that built the foundation for his monumental work. Most people know of Lanzmann as the director and creator of the film Shoah, a nine and a half hour documentary that receives frequent mention of one of the most momentous movies of all time. But Lanzmann, a lover of Simone de Beauvoir, also cultivated a close with relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre, and consequently took over the influential periodical Les Temps Modernes, a periodical co-founded by Sartre and de Beauvoir. In this memoir we learn also of Lanzmann’s role as a leader of young troupe of resistance fighters who fought bravely against the Nazis in numerous battles. From the life of a guerrilla soldier, Lanzmann moved onto the worlds of academia and journalism. There he distinguished himself not only through his precocious intelligence, but for his ability to collect brilliant friends.

He made his early mark through distinguished freelance journalist in which he wrote investigative stories about places and people others couldn’t or wouldn’t access. Lanzmann in this period wrote important pieces on the young Dalai Lama, and a grisly murder by a member of the Church, a shocking scandal that said institution attempted to keep quiet.  Lanzmann, ever the consummate artist, doesn’t just tell us about his talents, but launches into a lengthy journalistic piece offering a frightening and fascinating view of contemporary North Korea as he jumps back and forth in time.

In this memoir, we find not only a truly humane developing Lanzmann, but also a portrait of the beautiful idiosyncrasies of Sartre: He couldn’t take directions from anyone, but not out of a sense of “manliness”, but out of a sense of the need for existential autonomy, or his penchant for amphetamines to use the “full employment” of his brain. In regards to de Beauvoir we learn about her obsessive need to push boundaries, her need for danger, bordering on idiocy, and her bouts of inconsolable existential depression that would last until she cried herself empty.

Lanzmann writes, as one would expect, with the tools of a movie director. His sight for setting, his eye for the minute detail, his grasp of the fluctuations of a story all evince a true artistic insight. Lanzmann provides a heady whirlwind of well-crafted details that can often straddle the line between memoir and fascinating fiction. On the other hand, at some points, in this tome, I felt that certain stories were unnecessary, then as I tried to recall parts of the book, I found myself gravitating towards these mundane, almost, negligible stories. Lanzmann admits to his inability to choose, to, “murder his artistic choices”, as he puts it, but despite the length of the book most, if not all of the parts fit.

Much of this need to accumulate and set these details in ink comes from an obsessive needs to play the witness, to provide a testimonial to heroes lost and times and tragedies past. Lanzmann writes with a clear sense of purpose, to record, to testify not only to the history he participated in, but to the history living all around him. It is this component of the book, on top of everything else, that makes this book not only beautiful, but important. Lanzmann’s book is populated by characters from the past that each in their own right deserve their own memoir simply on the merits of their historical achievements. I don’t only refer to his famous friends or lovers, but also to the countless heroes he met on a day to day basis. I know this is a function of his time, but Lanzmann lived in a historical period, whereas, most of the people we know live in either an ahistorical or a post-historical one. Not in the Fukuyama-inspired sense of the phrase, but in the sense that while history continues to happen, it happens out there in Haiti, in the Middle East, in Iran, Iraq, but not in New York (9/11 serving as the exception that proves the rule.)

For the most part, of course, we like the situation this way. Who would choose to live in a conflict-ridden society? But living in a post-historical world carries along certain consequences, such as  generalized apathy and cynicism. Without external excitement or challenges we turn our restless minds to addictive amounts of entertainment or endless self-obsession leading to a slacker’s ennui. As writers note, only in extremis can we truly know our potential, and while no one would choose extreme situations, we can’t help but notice the effect of this hole in our life. So many young writers, ironically, feel burdened by history, likely because we do not live in history but outside of it, looking in. Lanzmann’s memoir attests not only to a rich private life, but to a varied and important historical one, a life of choosing to take part in history, not just resigning oneself to playing a passive role.

However, at certain points Lanzmann either gets tired, lazy, sloppy, or simply runs out of structural ideas. He lists the actors or actresses whose careers he either cataloged or helped jettison, and lists his other accomplishments or obsessions, which he conflates, during this time. (He ghostwrote for Cousteau, wrote about a plethora of authors, and grew obsessed with the theater which led to his strange marriage to Judith Magre.) Some parts of his life sound downright manic: impulsive, euphoric, a bit delusional and full of unbounded energy that often led to danger for himself or others.

Another trend that emerges is Lanzmann’s tendency to write fluidly, and coherently on unambiguous moral matters, but less so, to the point of immaturity, on moral ambiguity. His liberal, underdog, communist tendencies often put him on the side of people or groups that only later does he find out are either inhumane, fascist, or immoral. In this vein, though he laments his involvement with Cuba, or some of the more fringe elements of the Algerian War for independence,  he never fully fleshes out the muddy morality of these conflicts, but instead feels content to say, I didn’t know. Moral ambiguity leaves him speechless, in a sense. He admires modern Beijing, early Castro, Algerian leaders before they denounced Israel, Fanon despite his tendency towards urging violence, Cousteau before his anti-Semitism — and then, when he learns of the greyness of these people or institutions he backs down, but with a whimper, leaving us to look for the courage he so persistently touts. What instead emerges is Lanzmann’s charismatic ability to insinuate himself in any historic occasion, with any person, whatever his political beliefs. Lanzmann saw the human side to a story with a literary eye, which often clouded his more journalistic intentions. He describes his own method the way we think of method actors, as immersive, as wholly empathic, which leads to great understanding of a personality, but often to muddled views of politics and morality.

He also wears his flaws as explicitly as his accomplishment, though he might not refer to them as flaws. He womanized, took risks with other peoples’ lives, visited prostitutes, and indulged in bullfighting. All of these circle around his great flaw, a flaw he cannot see because it defines his life: his inability to see past the rigidity of his artistic vision. He judges everything by two standards, courageousness and artistic value, which for him equals truth. Consequently, he describes survivors not willing to tell their stories on camera as weak, or women translators not willing to translate disgusting slurs as too emotional. This leads Lanzmann to force many a survivor of the most horrendous situations imaginable to not only retell, but relive their stories for art’s sake (The same boat, on the same river, singing the same song the SS officer forced him to sing while digging graves for other Jews.) Lanzmann, ironically, acts as ruthless dictator with his subjects, lulling them into a sense of perhaps true camaraderie, but ultimately to attain his artistic goal of testifying to history.

The last 100 pages or so chronicles the making of his masterpiece, Shoah. Lanzmann spent almost 12 years researching, interviewing, shooting, and then editing the film, and still spends a considerable amount of his time defending the film against polemics (mostly from Poland). This section acts as insightful and important commentary to his film, if one has the “courage” to watch all 9 and 1/2 hours of it. It truly fits that this serves as the climax of his memoir. He chooses not to focus on his personal life but rather his public life because in his mind, the two blur to the extent that his art represents the greatest statement about his life. As someone said to him after seeing Shoah, “this movie justifies a life.” I truly believe Lanzmann thinks this about his life and life in general. He belongs to a previous generation, one of the great and grand artistic gesture, where Men lived Romantic lives full of torrid affairs, moving from women to women, from country to country, from adventure to adventure, cocksure of their opinions, and afraid of moral ambiguity. We don’t meet many people like this nowadays, and in a sense, I can’t help but feel wholly ambivalent about that.