Brennt Paris?

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What do you do when struggling with an opponent and the opponent wins? What do you do when you lose? How do you handle defeat? There are several different ways to respond to losing. Some people deny it, notably many wealthy, powerful, and famous people. They put a spin on the facts. But they are not alone, far from it. Many people take this route. However, denial is not, in fact, a way of handling defeat; it’s a failure to deal with it. So, let’s say you acknowledge it; you confess that you have lost the struggle; you’ve been bested. What do you do?

You might brush yourself off, rise from the mat, and continue your business. This approach can work, especially if the loss was not about your core business, not an essential belief, not a part of who you are or how you identify yourself. Alternatively, you might be willing to admit you lost a battle but not the war. The war will continue. We see this in America in the ongoing struggles surrounding the issue of abortion and in Israel over changes to the judicial system. But let’s assume it wasn’t only a battle but the war, the whole shebang. It’s 1865, Appomattox; you surrender. End of story?

You lost; you lost the war. Is there anything you can do? Sixty years ago, I was knocked out in a fistfight with a boy my age. Recently, while speaking with my sister, I mentioned the boy’s name and asked my sister if she remembered him. She replied, “Yeah. That’s the boy who kicked your butt, right” or something along those less-than-laudatory lines. Sixty years ago, mind you; my sister still remembers it, and it still annoys me. It sticks in my craw, one might say. One thing that grew out of that loss, however, was beneficial. It wasn’t my response; instead, it was my Dad’s. He bought me my first set of weights for body-building. Within a few years, I had a muscular, not Schwarzenegger-muscular, but still respectable body. On the floor behind me, as I write this, are some dumbells I occasionally pick up and move around—remnants of a defeat.

This way of responding to failure by improving oneself is good, so it seems to me. Yet another beneficial response can occur if one reevaluates the fighting in which one was engaged and asks the tough questions. Was my position correct, ethical, and worthy? I grew up in Mississippi, surrounded by many proclaiming that the South would rise again. The South’s rising again is a noble sentiment if it includes honestly examining its history and working hard to correct past errors. Suppose, though, that it represents a longed-for return to the past, the way things used to be; well then, not so good.

“Is Paris burning?” (German: Brennt Paris?) is a question attributed to Adolf Hitler, יִמַּח שְׁמוֹ. There is a dispute over the person to whom Hitler directed the question. Some say he asked the German military governor of Paris, General Dietrich von Choltitz; others maintain he asked it of his chief of staff, General Alfred Jodl, in August 1944, as Paris was falling to the Allies. Hitler wanted the city destroyed before the Allies recaptured it. For current purposes, it doesn’t matter to whom the question was directed, but rather the nature of the question. This behavior is yet another response to defeat, taking vengeance. Vengeance is punishment inflicted in retaliation for an injury or offense: retribution “Vengeance.” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 7 May. 2023.

The desire to take vengeance against one’s opponent is a characteristic, visceral response of the vanquished. It is so natural that there are multiple places in the Bible where readers are warned against it and are told not to take vengeance into their own hands. God will handle retribution if appropriate, we are told. One of the most significant statements about revenge occurs in Moses’s speech, recorded in Chapter 19 of the Book of Leviticus, verse 18: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” (NRSV). Whoa! Now that’s asking a lot.

In 1950, the Swiss playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1921 – 1990) published his play Romulus der Große (Romulus the Great). The play’s timeline is the Ides of March 476 and the day following. It is about the end of the Western Roman Empire. Be cautious, though; Dürrenmatt is not writing as a historian. His approach to history is much like that Shakespeare took in his historical plays. Dürrenmatt makes this evident; the work’s subtitle is An Ahistorical Historical Comedy in Four Acts. 

In Act III, the emperor’s wife, Julia, bids Romulus farewell as he prepares for bed. She is leaving for Sicily, where she intends to continue resistance against the Germans, as she puts it, “at any price.” The emperor chides her. Upset with his attitude, she calls him a defeatist. Here’s his reply.

I’m only weighing our options. If we resist, our fall will only be bloodier. That may be magnificent, but to what end? You don’t set a world on fire when it’s already lost.

Dürrenmatt, Friedrich. Friedrich Dürrenmatt: Volume 1 . University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition. 

The emperor’s point is clear: you need not be vindictive once you have lost something you hold dear. Hitler’s generals understood this. They didn’t burn Paris. 

I have used the last sentence quoted above, translated a little differently, as the epigraph for my work of flash fiction titled “Already Lost.” “Already Lost” was initially published in Gravel magazine (September 29, 2017) by the University of Arkansas at Monticello. The magazine closed in November 2019, and the story has been unavailable online since then, but not anymore. Thanks to Mr. Phil Slattery of The Chamber Magazine: Contemporary Dark Fiction and Poetry, who has reprinted the story in the magazine’s May 5 issue.

The story describes a therapy session between a psychiatrist and a patient suffering the aftereffects of something he was forced to watch as a child. The story is available by clicking here.

How we handle defeat affects us and those around us, for better or worse, now and sometimes forever.

All the best,
Gershon Ben-Avraham

Author: Gershon Ben-Avraham

Gershon Ben-Avraham is an American-Israeli writer. He lives in Beersheba, Israel, on the edge of the Negev Desert. He and his wife share their lives with a gentle blue-merle long-haired collie. Ben-Avraham earned an MA in Philosophy (Aesthetics) from Temple University. His short story, “Yoineh Bodek,” (Image) received “Special Mention” in the Pushcart Prize XLlV: Best of the Small Presses 2020 Edition. Kelsay Books published his chapbook “God’s Memory” in 2021. חב"ד‎

2 thoughts

  1. Thank you for this and for the story “Already Lost”. I suppose most people would consider that they have to deal with defeat at least as often as not. I also suggest that the way a person faces victory is important as well. Perhaps if the Treaty of Versailles at the end of WWI had been less motivated by a wish to crush Germany, AH would have received less support.

    Liked by 1 person

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