By the spring of 1945, the Second World War was drawing to a close in Europe. Allied troops were sweeping through Nazi Germany and discovering the atrocities of SS concentration camps. The first to be reached intact was Buchenwald, in central Germany. American soldiers struggled to make sense of the shocking scenes they witnessed inside. They asked a small group of former inmates to draft a report on the camp. It was led by Eugen Kogon, a German political prisoner who had been an inmate since 1939. The Theory and Practice of Hell is his classic account of life inside.
Unlike many other books by survivors who published immediately after the war, The Theory and Practice of Hell is more than a personal account. It is a horrific examination of life and death inside a Nazi concentration camp, a brutal world of a state within state, and a society without law. But Kogon maintains a dispassionate and critical perspective. He tries to understand how the camp works, to uncover its structure and social organization. He knew that the book would shock some readers and provide others with gruesome fascination. But he firmly believed that he had to show the camp in honest, unflinching detail.
The result is a unique historical document—a complete picture of the society, morality, and politics that fueled the systematic torture of six million human beings. For many years, The Theory and Practice of Hell remained the seminal work on the concentration camps, particularly in Germany. Reissued with an introduction by Nikolaus Waschmann, a leading Holocaust scholar and author of Hilter’s Prisons, this important work now demands to be re-read.
The impact of the Trump era will probably be remembered as crimes and outrages, but what it did to our psyches may be harder to recall. It did a lot to our psyches. The most valuable real estate Donald J. Trump ever acquired in his shady, shoddy career as a developer was the terrain inside our heads. And like so much else he got hold of, he wrecked it. During those four years of his presidency, our perception of time became disrupted and corrupted until it seemed to get stuck, stumble over itself into incoherence, loop, or crumble.
David J. Morris in his The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder calls trauma “a disease of time.” With PTSD, the past refuses to become the past or stay there, and the traumatic event forces itself back, like a zombie rising from the dead, into the present, or the present of the source of trauma has never receded to become the past, either as something receding into the distance or incorporated into one’s historical narrative. When the Biden inauguration happened, I was surprised to find that I was not uplifted or relieved, but freed to feel how hideous the whole thing had been, how damaged I felt—and I heard from many others who had the same experience.
A hundred days since the end of that era and the beginning of the Biden Presidency, the texture of everyday life then does feel at times remote, almost unbelievable, and when some national event transpires, it’s a huge relief not to have the incendiary idiocy of Trump’s commentary added to it (which is a reminder that it was both a presidency the senate could have ended in early 2020 and a long run on Twitter that Jack Dorsey could have ended before he finally did, after the insurrection of January 6).
To those who opposed him, the years felt like a constant barrage of insults to fact, truth, science, of attacks on laws, on rights, on targeted populations from Muslims to trans kids, on the environment, on scientists, on institutions that might protect or promulgate any of these preceding things, and on memory itself. It was a disorder from which we were forever trying to emerge into order, like people clawing a slimy bank, only to slump back into the ooze.
The phrase “drain the swamp,” repeated over and over by the most corrupt administration in a century or more, was part of its promulgation of confusion, its swampiness. The pandemic felt like the final phase, throwing us deeper into uncertainty, isolation, anxiety, and a sea of lies and denials—and mass death. Because so much of what happened in our hard-hit country could have been avoided by a more compassionate and competent administration, it was part of the chaos.
Trump was constantly endeavoring to erase and revise the past and thereby to undermine the capacity of any of us to remember it or reference it. In 2016, he acknowledged that the Hollywood Access tape was real, and a year later he suggested maybe it was a fake, and in the summer of 2019 he falsified a weather chart to make himself right in what he said about a hurricane, and then doubled and tripled down on the petty lie. The Washington Post ran a headline last April that invited viewers to “watch Trump deny saying things about the coronavirus that he definitely said.” CNN put it thus: “President Trump falsely denies saying two things he said last week.”One got tired of outrage, and then more outrages came. This week was a hungry cannibal that devoured last week.
The political goal was presumably to discredit all sources of information other than himself, to build up a barrage of little lies so that when he floated his big lie he would have prepared the ground and recruited the suckers. His personal goal was surely the vanity of wanting to have never been wrong and the superpower of always being right—George Orwell speaks of the theological nature of totalitarians, who must constantly alter the past to claim to be always right in the present. But also it seemed that for Trump, who was at core a hustler, grifter, and salesman, truth and falsity were not categories into which he sorted reality. There was only what was expedient in the moment to promote himself and his agenda, as well as a psychopath’s or rich boy’s expectation of utter unaccountability. Which is to say he didn’t particularly seem to know, and it was the nihilism of sales pitches unanchored in reality that we were all dragged into, or rather contaminated by.
Whether or not you were buying what he was selling, he was winning by making noise and getting away with it. So something had happened and then it had not, and his followers on Twitter and in the House and the Senate would go along with whatever the current version was. The term gaslighting, hitherto mostly used mostly to describe bullying and manipulation in private relationships, became a term for what a politician and his party were trying to do to the public. To cite Orwell again, the Memory Hole in this era was Trump’s big mouth, swallowing up facts and spewing out delusions. With that mouth at its national headwaters, the river of time became a river of molasses and then a tar pit—it became the swamp plenty of us flailed furiously in without seeming to get anything other than more stuck. The past being constantly sabotaged, in other words, was one way time was disordered.
His obsessive tweeting, often in the early hours of the morning, meant that bizarre and venomous interjections into the political process could erupt at any time of day or night, that at any moment the ground might again shift beneath us. You would think you’d rounded up the facts like sheep, and then some would stray or a wolf would come in the night and devour a few or it would turn out to have been a flock of wolves all along. While the White House traditionally produced news on a weekday work schedule, there was no longer any recognizable workday, just a random spray of firings, scandals, denials, insults, executive orders, reheated lies from his mornings watching Fox and Friends, and more than 300 days without a press conference in which the media could demand explanations according to the customary rites.
It was like living in the aftermath of an earthquake, when the aftershocks can come at any time, or in a place where explosions happen unpredictably, or with an unstable abuser, and in fact it was living with an unstable abuser, who was on one hand not in the house with us and on the other hand was our president and the most powerful person on earth. It kept you on edge. It kept you thinking about him and them, speaking of the psychic real estate they occupied, and thinking about that also kept you from thinking about other things—about deeper meanings, longer timeframes, broader perspectives, things that were less tethered to electoral politics and the USA in this very moment. Alligators, speaking of swamps, drag their prey into the water; this dragged us all into the shallows. I felt like I and we became more banal and superficial, because this sense of having to attend to yesterday and the last ten minutes and tomorrow in national political life and struggle to refute another lie meant that everything else got pushed back, including deeper involvement in local and international issues.
The sheer volume of these outrages and eruptions also meant that it was hard to keep track of it all, which was surely part of the plan; how could you remember last week’s scandal or last month’s crimes when today something amazingly corrupt had just happened or been revealed? Or perhaps it only seemed unprecedented because it was so lurid that hindsight was blinded. What would have been the most memorable and shocking scandal of any previous presidency would disappear in the glare of the newest scandal; for example, Trump’s astounding weekend phone call trying to bully Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State to change the vote tally was forgotten in the drama of the coup attempt he also instigated a few days later (the coup attempt did add coherence to the stuffing of the Pentagon, a couple of months before, with thugs loyal to Trump rather than law or country, for those who in January remembered November).While the White House traditionally produced news on a weekday work schedule, there was no longer any recognizable workday, just a random spray of firings, scandals, denials, insults, executive orders, and reheated lies.
But this last attempt to stop Joe Biden from assuming the presidency was part of the sheer overload that made people forget the first attempt, in the fall of 2019, with the wielding of aid to Ukraine as a lever to try to force the president of that country to comply with a smear campaign. Someone remarked to me in the fall of 2020 that their college students did not remember that Trump had been impeached earlier that year for his Ukraine crimes, which meant they had surely also forgotten that Trump was trying to stop Biden almost before the campaign started, which meant that the pattern or maybe the arc and intent went undetected. In normal life—or at least a more sedately paced life—something happens and we commit it to memory, incorporate it into a narrative of meaning, but this stuff came at us too fast to process.
The present seemed so intense it left little room for the past, and sometimes that meant that this week rubbed out almost all memory of last week. Which made time seem both incredibly fast, in an action-movie car-chase-with-explosions way, and interminable with the sense that the barrage might never stop. In the first months of the Trump presidency, I saw a journalist joking on Twitter, “I went out to lunch. WHAT HAPPENED?” because the sheer unpredictability meant you might miss something dramatic if you took your eyes off the drama for even the length of a lunchtime.
For a lot of us this meant we entered a state I called “informational hypervigilance,” convinced that I needed to read the news constantly, scan Twitter for the very latest, check in after any absence to see what happened while I was out running or buying groceries. I read news obsessively, which meant that I didn’t read books nearly enough, and the very mindset of a reader was undermined by this jumpy, twitchy news surveillance. I heard from others that they too felt they had forgotten how to read, in the sense of how to pay attention to long complex narratives.
The writer and filmmaker Astra Taylor said to me earlier this year that what she was trying to do with her writing during the Trump Administration was to make sense out of it all. Sometimes I felt as if I could, with enough hours cutting from one news outlet’s website to another to all the journalists and politicians I follow on Twitter, do exactly that, find and document the pattern that would somehow make it sensible and something we could respond to adequately. But I was and we were Sisyphus, forever pushing boulders of coherence up a slippery hill, and the supply of boulders seemed inexhaustible, and they had a tendency to roll down again.
Other times I felt more like a sentry, keeping watch over it all, convinced somehow that the fact I was watching mattered (it did result in numerous articles and a lot of social media posts, but the fate of the world could have staggered along if I took more time off to read history or do something else pleasant).
Trump wanted to hide forever in his presidential immunity from the lawsuits, civil and criminal, waiting for him just outside the gates of the White House.
The links between Trump and his associates and the Putin regime was part of the incoherence. There had been more than enough news stories before the election to convince those who were paying attention—apparently vanishingly few were—that there was a strong case that the Trump campaign was in cahoots with the Putin regime and the election had been corrupted. The newspapers reporting those stories tended to play them down. Stories that should have blown up on the front pages and had follow-up stories to flesh them out—like Senator Harry Reid’s insistence on Halloween 2016 that FBI head James Comey was sitting on “bombshell” information the public had a right to know—were just dropped casually along the way to the election. Shortly thereafter came the news that Obama had called Putin on the nuclear phone to tell him to stop meddling in the election, and surely that was both major news and strong confirmation, but few seemed to notice it.
And then came investigation after investigation, by both media outfits and government institutions, and often a new source or small piece of the picture was delivered as though the whole story was new, or people forgot that we already knew its general outlines, players, and many of its details, or could have if we’d paid attention. Even after the Biden inauguration, when the Guardianreported that a former KGB agent asserted that Russia cultivated Trump as an asset for decades, people indignantly exclaimed to me that this information should not have been withheld. I replied that there had long been more than enough evidence for us to know all along; this was confirmation, not revelation. But they had forgotten. We were forever discovering and forgetting and rediscovering this story, as though a kind of amnesia had seized us, and that was another way that time itself seemed disordered. It was as though we were living in a version of Groundhog Day in which, unlike the plot of that movie, we would never get the story right enough for it to escape the cycle.
Another source of meaninglessness was how many things that normally had consequences turned out not to in the Trump era. Violations of the Hatch Act, emoluments violations, nepotism, scamming, lying to Congress, sometimes literal assaults on a free press, and all the rest kept taking place, brazenly. Key participants in the Russian business—Flynn, Manafort, Stone—got pardons, and there were indications that in some cases pardons may have been promised in advance. Cause and effect relations are one of the ways we track time, and in the moral universe that means consequences; the lack of consequences for innumerable violations of law and acts of public criminality was another form of temporal disorientation.
The blunt assault on fact and truth and meaning was moral nihilism and intellectual gibberish, a strategy of brute force that said you could have whatever version of reality you wanted, including one in which victims were really perpetrators and vice-versa (like trying to steal an election by pretending it had been stolen or preventing people who have the right to vote from voting by claiming they don’t—the wildly corrupt attorney general of Texas recently had his staff spend 22,000 hours looking for voter fraud, at the end of which they turned up 16 cases of wrong addresses). It’s worth remembering that did not begin with Trump, since the Republican Party has long promulgated lies about, to name a top few, climate change and the impact of huge numbers of guns in civic life and the vanishingly small issue of voter fraud and the largely positive economic impact and low crime rates of immigrants.
Another way time has form is in looking forward to what is to come, and this too became scrambled; it felt as though anything might happen, and the ways in which the past—for example past presidencies—unfolded was no longer a guide to much of anything. There was a reasonable fear that 45 might try to suspend future elections and make his reign as long as his lifespan, but also the sense that abused victims have that escape may be impossible, that the situation was irremediable, and this too stretched the elastic that time had become. This was why in the immediate aftermath of the transition of power, a lot of people began to obsess about Trump running again and winning, which by 2024 seems to me to be extremely unlikely for a number of reasons.
Did laws matter? Did the Constitution? If they didn’t matter now would they matter later? One got tired of outrage, and then more outrages came. This week was a hungry cannibal that devoured last week. There had previously been a pattern to a scandal, which was an event that stood out, had consequences which prevented sequels, and suddenly there were endless scandals in that cloud of inconsequentiality.
The Trump era ended with an extraordinary attempt to stop history. I had always heard “make America great again” as a promise and threat to make time roll backward to an America where only white men wielded power and cis-gender heterosexuality was enforced by threat, violence, and law (which it still is to some extent, but the fact that this is changing is what drives the backlash of MAGA). Of course Trump wanted to hide forever in his presidential immunity from the lawsuits, civil and criminal, waiting for him just outside the gates of the White House, so he had a very specific history to stop.
And then very real violence—the January 6 coup—was used in an endeavor to make the Trump era without end, the election have no meaning, the facts be whatever raging white men armed with bear mace and flagpoles repurposed as spears wanted them to be. It was inane—a few hundred or thousand brawlers were not going to change the outcome of history in a way satisfactory to the world’s other nations or the public here—but their belief they could was part of the madness of people convinced that facts can be bullied too. It felt as if the United States was a woman who had filed for divorce from her abuser, and here he came in all his furious confusion, convinced he could terrorize her into patching things up.
There may be one salutary consequence of those four ugly years: the blithe confidence that “it can’t happen here” is gone, and people are more aware that rights and truth and justice need defending and are more willing to do the work. Dread is a sense of wanting time to stand still, lest worse things come; and loathing is a desire to get away from the monstrosity already present. Those were the bookends to the Trump era and in between them was this turmoil in the White House, and the government more broadly, but also in the nation and in our own heads. Let us not forget.
Rebecca Solnit’s first media job was in fact-checking and her last book is the memoir Recollections of My Nonexistence. She’s sent a lot of mail to her nieces and nephews during the pandemic. http://rebeccasolnit.net
THE HEAVENS—Expressing annoyance at losing nearly a millennium of good work following the discovery, The Lord God Almighty was reportedly frustrated Wednesday after a Google search revealed that octopuses already exist. “Goddamnit, I’ve been filling up Moleskins with sketches of suction cup-covered tentacles and spineless bodies for centuries and no one thought to tell me this had already been done—unbelievable,” said The Supreme Being, who became visibly disappointed after typing “beak suction 8 legs” into His laptop’s browser, resulting in thousands of images of a marine mollusk exactly matching the planned creation. “When this crazy eight-legged monster came to me in a dream, I thought ‘There’s no way anyone already came up with something this far out.’ Boy, I could not have been more wrong. Octopus is a much better name than flibberflap, too. No wonder St. Peter was acting all cagey when I mentioned my idea for this crazy creature.” At press time, God had decided to just add a few legs and the ability to squirt ink and hope that he could chalk up any other similarities to convergent thinking.
Why are humans so slow to react to looming crises, like a forewarned pandemic or a warming planet? It’s because we’re reluctant to rethink, say organizational psychologist Adam Grant. From a near-disastrous hike on Panama’s highest mountain to courageously joining his high school’s diving team, Grant borrows examples from his own life to illustrate how tunnel vision around our goals, habits and identities can find us stuck on a narrow path. Drawing on his research, he shares counterintuitive insights on how to broaden your focus and remain open to opportunities for rethinking.
This talk was presented at a TED Institute event given in partnership with BCG. TED editors featured it among our selections on the home page. Read more about the TED Institute.
*** General suggestions / observations ***• This cycle is based on empirical data meaning enough data was observed and recorded to make it possible to suggest attitudes and reactions. Keep in mind that we all have free will and thus results will vary from one individual to another.• The graph shows the energy high at the beginning of the cycle (not unlike any other astrological aspect) followed by a slow down before it gets strong and again this reflects years of tracking and noting feedback from our many students.• If you are making a decision during this time you might want to let it set for a day or two then check your decision again to see if it still makes sense. However, you can feel into the ebb and flow and find good times to work on self emotionally in both the low and high points. Impatience, emotion and acts without thinking are common.• With practice you can feel when the energy is there to help bring completion to tasks, goals and projects you may be working on.
Perhaps his most piercing insight and sagest advice — not only for the recipient, the 19-year-old cadet and budding poet Franz Xaver Kappus, but for every human being with a beating heart and a restless mind — comes from a letter penned on August 12, 1904.
Rainer Maria Rilke
Long before modern psychologists extolled the creative benefits of melancholy, Rilke explores the value of sadness as a clarifying force for our own interior lives. He turns his illuminating gaze to the vast swaths of life we spend completely opaque to ourselves, and writes:
You have had many and great sadnesses, which passed. And you say that even this passing was hard for you and put you out of sorts. But, please, consider whether these great sadnesses have not rather gone right through the center of yourself? Whether much in you has not altered, whether you have not somewhere, at some point of your being, undergone a change while you were sad? … Were it possible for us to see further than our knowledge reaches, and yet a little way beyond the outworks of our divining, perhaps we would endure our sadnesses with greater confidence than our joys. For they are the moments when something new has entered into us, something unknown; our feelings grow mute in shy perplexity, everything in us withdraws, a stillness comes, and the new, which no one knows, stands in the midst of it and is silent.
Almost all our sadnesses are moments of tension that we find paralyzing because we no longer hear our surprised feelings living. Because we are alone with the alien thing that has entered into our self; because everything intimate and accustomed is for an instant taken away; because we stand in the middle of a transition where we cannot remain standing. For this reason the sadness too passes: the new thing in us, the added thing, has entered into our heart, has gone into its inmost chamber and is not even there any more, — is already in our blood. And we do not learn what it was. We could easily be made to believe that nothing has happened, and yet we have changed, as a house changes into which a guest has entered.
Many decades before psychoanalyst Adam Phillips championed the importance of “fertile solitude,” Rilke argues that only by cultivating that basic capacity to be alone with our own experience are we able to notice those otherwise imperceptible yet utterly transformative shifts in the heart:
We cannot say who has come, perhaps we shall never know, but many signs indicate that the future enters into us in this way in order to transform itself in us long before it happens. And this is why it is so important to be lonely and attentive when one is sad: because the apparently uneventful and stark moment at which our future sets foot in us is so much closer to life than that other noisy and fortuitous point of time at which it happens to us as if from outside.
His words vibrate with double poignancy a century later, amid a culture where to be uncertain is the greatest sin of all — never mind that uncertainty is the crucible of self-transcendence; a culture that has commodified the cultivation of happiness and industrialized the eradication of sadness:
The more still, more patient and more open we are when we are sad, so much the deeper and so much the more unswervingly does the new go into us, so much the better do we make it ours, so much the more will it be our destiny, and when on some later day it “happens” (that is, steps forth out of us to others), we shall feel in our inmost selves akin and near to it. And that is necessary. It is necessary — and toward this our development will move gradually — that nothing strange should befall us, but only that which has long belonged to us.
But most enlivening of all is the readiness with which Rilke acknowledges the vital relationship between knowledge and mystery. On the cusp of the twentieth-century physics revolution, mere months before Einstein completed his graduate thesis, Rilke draws an elegant parallel between how we get to know the world and how we get to know ourselves:
We have already had to rethink so many of our concepts of motion, we will also gradually learn to realize that that which we call destiny goes forth from within people, not from without into them. Only because so many have not absorbed their destinies and transmuted them within themselves while they were living in them, have they not recognized what has gone forth out of them; it was so strange to them that, in their bewildered fright, they thought it must only just then have entered into them, for they swear never before to have found anything like it in themselves. As people were long mistaken about the motion of the sun, so they are even yet mistaken about the motion of that which is to come. The future stands firm … but we move in infinite space.
We must assume our existence as broadly as we in any way can; everything, even the unheard-of, must be possible in it. That is at bottom the only courage that is demanded of us: to have courage for the most strange, the most singular and the most inexplicable that we may encounter.
Sadnesses, Rilke argues, are just part of the strangeness in which we must make ourselves at home in order to have a full life:
If only we arrange our life according to that principle which counsels us that we must always hold to the difficult, then that which now still seems to us the most alien will become what we most trust and find most faithful. How should we be able to forget those ancient myths that are at the beginning of all peoples, the myths about dragons that at the last moment turn into princesses; perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.
So you must not be frightened … if a sadness rises up before you larger than any you have ever seen; if a restiveness, like light and cloud-shadows, passes over your hands and over all you do. You must think that something is happening with you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand; it will not let you fall. Why do you want to shut out of your life any agitation, any pain, any melancholy, since you really do not know what these states are working upon you?