The Willful Child

Many years ago, the distinguished German film maker Alexander Kluge brought to our attention a brief tale from the Brothers Grimm titled “The Willful Child” :

In German, the title is Das Eigensinnige Kind, and the etymologically complex concept of Eigensinn is central to Kluge’s nuanced, beautiful and therefore little known philosophy of history. Within this philosophy, the action and agency of the child’s buried arm offers far more significance than mother history’s punishing rod; all in good time.

Hans Magnus Enzensberger explores the tension between history and eigensinn in his extraordinary novel about the various modulations of resistance embodied by the family of Kurt Freiherr von Hammerstein-Equord during the years of the Third Reich, resistance that included espionage on behalf of the Red Army and the participation of two sons in Stauffenberg’s unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Hitler on July 20, 1944.

In a recent interview, Enzensberger explains, “Eigensinn is a word that doesn’t translate very well into English. It’s not selfishness. It’s not obstinacy. It’s not intransigence. You might say it’s a sense of having your own value system. That’s a quality that I find very interesting, because it’s almost beyond a person’s control. When I first came to England after the war, people used to speak of someone being a ‘man of character’: that might be a good translation. In spite of the pressures within his milieu, Hammerstein somehow didn’t budge. He couldn’t. It saved him from the opportunism of the other generals. Of course, they would have killed him off if he hadn’t died in 1943.”

In relation to our roaming investigations into the history and science of obedience, the person ‘of character’ might be described as an individual for whom there are no situational influences nor social expectations that will subsume her/his own conscience. As Enzensberger stresses, this is not a question of being stubborn or contrarian or merely idiosyncratic; rather, that certain behaviors and responses are simply not possible, entirely unscriptable for individuals endowed with abundant eigensinn. Such people are very difficult to transform into “agents” of another’s will, or to be sucked into fanatical movements, hysterias, security manias and other ideological delusions.

As Enzensberger writes about the aristocratic silence of the Hammersteins, “There remains an unspoken remainder which no biography is capable of unravelling; and perhaps it is precisely this remainder upon which everything depends.” During a time when the Naked Crowd remains ever ascendant, we pause to sing a hymn of quiet praise to that “unspoken remainder” and to the child’s arm pushing willfully through the dirt.


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