A recurring motif in the novel is the idea that images function as memory. For example, Michael remembers a younger Hanna through “pictures” on a “mental projector,” and for post-Holocaust Germany, images of Nazi atrocities “derived from Allied photographs and the testimony of survivors” become part of the nation’s collective memory, serving as both a record of knowledge and a warning to avoid past mistakes. As a law student, Michael and his classmates use the image and the gaze as a means to bring Nazi war crimes to light by pointing to and reinforcing this collective memory: “Even when the facts took our breath away, we held them up triumphantly. Look at this!” As a facilitator of memory, the gaze is thus presented by the novel as the acknowledgment or recognition of evil.
However, the gaze can also lead to the desensitization of its viewers and thus the dehumanization of others. Unlike his classmates, who “kept being horrified all over again” because they attended the trial on a weekly basis, Michael becomes numb to the horrors of Nazi war crimes because he attends the trial every day. He no longer feels the same righteous, voyeuristic fervor he once brought to uncovering the atrocities of the Holocaust. The defendants, who were exposed to the Holocaust’s atrocities on a daily basis, and the trial’s regular spectators are also subject to this numbness, which makes them more susceptible to dehumanizing others. As Michael recalls from survivor literature, “the gas chambers and ovens become ordinary scenery” for the perpetrators, who became used to committing murder. Desensitized to the trial’s horrific evidence, the spectators also engage in dehumanization (though to a much lesser degree) in their demonization of Hanna and the other defendants. By showing the gaze’s potential both to uncover and to cause evil, Schlink presents the gaze as a double-edged sword, one that must be used economically in order to reinforce, rather than anesthetize, our humanity.
The Image as Memory and the Gaze ThemeTracker
The Image as Memory and the Gaze Quotes in The Reader
I remember that her body and the way she held it and moved sometimes seemed awkward. Not that she was particularly heavy. It was more as if she had withdrawn into her own body, and left it to itself and its own quiet rhythms, unbothered by any input from her mind, oblivious to the outside world. It was the same obliviousness that weighted in her glance and her movements when she was pulling on her stockings. But then she was not awkward, she was slow-flowing, graceful, seductive — a seductiveness that had nothing to do with breasts and hips and legs, but was an invitation to forget the world in the recesses of the body.
It is one of the pictures of Hanna that has stayed with me. I have them stored away, I can project them on a mental screen and watch them, unchanged, unconsumed. There are long periods when I don't think about them at all. But they always come back into my head, and then I sometimes have to run them repeatedly through my mental projector and watch them.
After a time I thought I could detect a similar numbness in other people.… The effect was strongest on the judges and the lay members of the court. During the first weeks of the trial they took in the horrors — sometimes recounted in tears, sometimes in choking voices, sometimes in agitated or broken sentences — with visible shock or obvious efforts at self-control. Later their faces returned to normal; they could smile and whisper to one another or even show traces of impatience when a witness lost the thread while testifying. When going to Israel to question a witness was discussed, they started getting the travel bug. The other students kept being horrified all over again. They only came to the trial once a week, and each time the same thing happened: the intrusion of horror into daily life. I, who was in court every day, observed their reactions with detachment.
When I think today about those years, I realize how little direct observation there actually was, how few photographs that made life and murder in the camps real…. We were familiar with some of the testimony of prisoners, but many of them were published soon after the war and not reissued until the 1980s, and in the intervening years they disappeared from publishers' lists. Today there are so many books and films that the world of the camps is part of our collective imagination and completes our ordinary everyday one…not just registering, but supplementing and embellishing it. Back then, the imagination was almost static: the shattering fact of the world of the camps seemed properly beyond its operations. The few images derived from Allied photographs and the testimony of survivors flashed on the mind again and again, until they froze into clichés.
Only occasionally, when I was driving my car, or when I was in Hanna's apartment, did thoughts of it get the upper hand and trigger memories. I saw her on the bench, her eyes fixed on me, saw her at the swimming pool, her face turned to me, and again had the feeling that I had betrayed her and owed her something. And again I rebelled against this feeling; I accused her, and found it both shabby and too easy, the way she had wriggled out of her guilt. Allowing no one but the dead to demand an accounting, reducing guilt and atonement to insomnia and bad feelings — where did that leave the living? But what I meant was not the living, it was me. Did I not have my own accounting to demand of her? What about me?