Transgression: Exploring Guilt, Self-Discovery, and Conflicting Socialization – An Interview with Author Ben Stoltzfus

We recently had the privilege of interviewing Ben Stoltzfus, a distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Riverside, and an accomplished novelist, literary critic, and inter-arts scholar. Among his many published works, his latest novel, Transgression: Hitler, Mirka, Mireille, and Me, has garnered critical acclaim and was awarded the Silver Award. The novel explores the intertwined lives of a group of young people during World War II and delves into themes of guilt, self-discovery, and conflicting socialization. In our interview, we had the opportunity to discuss Stoltzfus’s inspirations for the novel, his writing process, and his insights on the themes explored in the book.

1. If you had to describe yourself in three words, what would they be?

Professional. Progressive. Kind.

2. The book “Transgression” has unfolded the hopes, desires, and internal conflicts that teenagers tend to have with their personalities within a peer group. Why did you choose to narrate the story specifically through a fourteen-year-old boy?

Because it was a fourteen-year-old boy who experienced the conflicting desires and fears that he describes.

3. The way you have described seduction as an art ultimately has much more to it than merely bad or good things. According to you, is seduction moral?

The dictionary defines “to seduce” as enticing someone into sexual activity. It may be moral or immoral depending on the circumstances. One of two consenting adults may seduce the other. We know that occurs, and it is, generally speaking, not immoral. If an adult seduces a minor in the United States, that action is currently defined as a crime. The character, Mirka, a woman in her twenties, seduces the narrator who is in in his early teens. That is immoral. Mireille’s role as a seducer of a minor is less clear. She is nineteen, and he fifteen. She is recovering from the trauma of Luc’s death, while the narrator laments the loss of Mika. He is arguing with Archangel and Satan, waging moral battles within himself. The books Mireille gives the narrator to read, and the books that Miss Hovnanian gives him to read are the catalysts for his recovery. They describe behaviors, relationships, and ways of thinking that he could not have imagined. Eventually he comes to understand what is possible and what is not; what is acceptable and what is not; what is immoral and what is not.

4 .  The book titled “Transgression” has taken us on a journey that blends literature and spirituality together, as the former encourages opening oneself with one’s soul, whereas the latter is about uniting with the supreme soul. Have you ever imagined your book without soulful literature?

If we define spirituality as the quality of being concerned with the human spirit or soul, as opposed to material or physical things, then yes, the narrator is concerned about what will happen to his soul. He has been taught that if he has premarital sex, his soul will go to hell where, because of his transgression, he will suffer excruciating torments for eternity. Despite the fear induced by these teachings, he is unable to reconcile his newly awakened sexual desires with the knowledge of perdition. The dilemma is driving him crazy, crazy in the sense that his feelings are derailed, his grades are suffering, and he can’t sleep. He compulsively looks at the tiles on roofs of buildings, fearful that a loose one might fall on his head and kill him in a state of sin.

5. The most significant theme that the book highlights is how the world’s big issues influence our personal choices, troubles, relationships, and even bonds of love and happiness. How difficult was it for you to write about the relationships and contradictions between war and personal struggles?

World War II, the big event of the narrator’s teens, besides his seduction, was not his choice. He suffered the consequences of Hitler’s choice to invade Poland, France, and the Soviet Union. Hitler and his accomplices were also the driving force behind the death camps in Europe and the extermination of some six million Jews. Transgression highlights those insane policies as objective correlatives (a literary device that evokes emotion by means of symbols) of the private war the narrator is waging within himself—Archangel on the one hand and Satan on the other. These two antagonists are wrestling with each other for possession of the narrator’s soul. They and the descriptions of warfare—death, loss, and suffering–are the objective correlatives of the narrator’s inner torments.

6. The most soulful and emotionally charged aspect of the book is the inclusion of language intensely filled with poetry and metaphor of botany collection, flowers, nature, and unexplored sites all over the world. Why did you choose to have a comparative analysis of your personal experiences with flowers and birds?

If war is the objective correlative of the narrator’s fear and suffering, birds and flowers are the objective correlatives of happiness and desire. When Mika takes the narrator around the world, that is a metaphor for sex. The geographical descriptions of their different journeys are the objective correlatives for protracted sexual engagement. The flowers and birds do not necessarily represent the author’s experiences. These are literary figures that correspond to the narrator’s feelings of pleasure. They are crafted by the author.

7. These days, when books and novels try to fit into a one-dimensional view, “Transgression” books have given a multidisciplinary and multidimensional perspective from historical, cultural, psychological, and sociological angles, which all expose the elements of doxa and dogma. What kind of research did you do for the book?

The only research I did was to consult Wikipedia for the exact dates of battles, names, and places during World War II, such as, for example, Hitler’s suicide, the sinking of the battleship Tirpitz, and the end of the war, September 2, 1945. As a Ph.D. in French, a Professor of Comparative Literature, and a literary critic I have published many books and monographs that incorporate multidisciplinary perspectives. My critical literary discourse has always been infused with psychological and sociological perspectives. It was therefore easy to describe the narrator’s desperate attempt to overcome the baneful influences of doxa and dogma. If doxa stands for the opinion of the majority and dogma for precepts that must never be violated, then it is easy to see that the narrator’s early sex transgresses both. The reader of Transgression must never lose sight of the fact that it is an adult person writing about the tribulations of a fourteen-year-old boy; nor should the reader mistakenly identify the narrator as author.

8 . The book quotes “He says: You are nothing…Your nation is everything…I am German, you are German and, together, we must love the Fatherland…Today we are in a life-and-death struggle that threatens to annihilate the inherited human order of our society. A lower species—a virus—has sickened our civilization. It must be eradicated. Our task is surgical, and when the vermin is eliminated our sick Europe will regain its health.” Why do you think war not only invades countries and territories but our minds as well?

The quotation you cite is Hitler speaking to the German people. He was determined to eradicate the virus that he claims had infected Germany, Europe, and beyond. The hyperbole of his discourse about Jews being responsible for Europe’s existential problems in the 1930s seems to have persuaded most Germans about the legitimacy of his claim. His dogma became doxa. Eric Fromm, in Escape from Freedom, documents the psychological state of mind of the German people at that time.

9. The boy’s family socialization and peer socialization are conflicting with self-discovery, as the book quotes “My father is sterner than Abraham, and he says that illicit sex is a sin. Were I to confess, I know I would be sacrificed like the ram on the altar of the Old Testament. Sometimes I flagellate myself, and yet in vain do I try to erase Mirka’s image, the mole on her neck, and the sweet smell of her unruly hair. She is the flower of evil in the garden of my misery. Obedience became bondage, and the dictum, thou shalt not, stuck in my craw. Each word was a link in the chain of His authority and my undoing. It was a servitude I could not abide.” Do you think teenagers have long-lasting impacts of guilt feelings?

That depends on whether the teenager, as an adult, can slough off the noxious effects of a harmful doxa. I was talking one day to the spouse of a colleague of mine at the university. She, a devout Catholic and an alcoholic, said, “Ben, I’m so afraid. I know I’m going to hell, and I can’t do anything about it.” I was surprised by her confession because Catholicism has the Confessional that absolves sinners of their guilt. Whatever the name was/is for her “hound of heaven,” she seemed to me unable to shed the fear and guilt that was pursuing her. In Transgression the narrator sheds his fear and guilt because he concludes that all values are man-made, not God-given; that doxa, as Roland Barthes points out in his essays, is arbitrary and can vary from one culture to another; moreover, most values are transmitted by the family, schools, the church, and various organized groups. Many values in Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism, for example, may overlap, but they are sometimes in conflict, and when they are, we have seen recently what can happen in Afghanistan, Syria, and India: a clash between different cultures that results in war or the oppression of minorities. But not all values are harmful. Every self-directed person chooses their own moral code, and the values they choose may indeed resemble those of a particular group, but not because they have been told to do so. I would suggest that other-directed people tend to be conformist rather than self-reliant, and that other-directed people are happy to follow prescribed codes. That is the lesson Eric Fromm talks about in Escape from Freedom.

10. Sometimes, in the journey of being obedient and in good graces, we often forget to question our surroundings, but the boy is seen challenging the context itself as he quotes “Isn’t killing a sin? What happened to the dictum thou shalt not kill? Isn’t that one of the Ten Commandments? Are killing and dying for your country an exception? If so, why is obedience more important than life itself? Are you no more than a cog in a vast machine? Expendable? Is that what it means to die for your country? Is that what patriotism is?” Why have you addressed these questions in your autofictional novel?

I have addressed these questions because the narrator is in Beirut during World War II. Beirut was an R & R city for Allied soldiers fighting in Africa, Europe, and Asia. The BBC news was about the war. Soldiers were dying. The boy’s father is a pacifist, an admirer of Gandhi and his doctrine of non-violence. It seems inevitable that a teenager would raise these questions because he himself will soon face conscription and must decide if “dying for his country” is the right choice for him.

11. What were the sources and references of your spiritual and cultural learnings that allowed you to explore not only the aesthetic cultural aspect of the Middle East but also significant elements of Hinduism, such as Banaras, Kashi, the Bay of Bengal, Calcutta, and the association with the Krishna leaf?

His father worked for the Red Cross in Palestine during World War I. In 1919-1920, after the 1917 Russian Revolution, he worked in Istanbul with a Mennonite refugee committee for Russian refugees. In 1924 the narrator’s father and mother went to Bulgaria where he taught Comparative Religion at the American College of Sofia. The narrator’s uncle was President of the American College for Girls in Beirut. The narrator and his parents traveled from Sofia to Istanbul, Aleppo, Beirut, Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, the Sea of Galilee, and Cairo. Family conversations focused not only on the war but also on cultural matters of the Middle East and on the differences and similarities in the world’s major religions. As for the boy’s soul passing by Banaras, Kashi, Calcutta, the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean, etc., on his way to Ouagadougou in central Africa, that journey of suffering was imposed by Archangel on the boy’s imagination, to show what was in store for him in eternity if he did not repent: freezing temperatures on Mount Everest and the scorching heat of the Sahara Desert were but a prelude to unending agony.

12. You have frequently used the Nightingale as a metaphor for love, loss, and unforgettable memories. Where did you develop such a deep connection and understanding of birds and their meanings in your life?

The nightingale is a bird of Europe, and in Bulgaria the narrator sometimes woke up in the middle of the night, listening to the trilling song of the bird. It also warbled in Beirut. The narrator buys a book on birds. His mother reminisces about the nightingales of Shiraz that she and her husband heard during their honeymoon. In Transgression bird songs, like the flowers, became symbols of love and nostalgia. When the narrator discovers that Shakespeare, Keats and other poets used the bird as a symbol, he uses the Nightingale as a symbol of happiness.

13. The conversations between you, Archangel, and Satan are often challenging, with neither side coming to a definitive conclusion. For instance, “He says: I won’t let Archangel browbeat you. You loved Mirka, and love is never wrong. The Bible says: God is Love…I am relieved that Satan is arguing with Archangel. His presence will relieve the tedium and discomfort of a long, hot drive through the Syrian Desert. Archangel says: You misconstrue the meaning of love. There is caritas, a word that means love and charity for your fellow man, and there is lust. Lust is a sin, caritas is a virtue.” Do you believe that Archangel and Satan are voices within our heads, or do they represent external voices in our surroundings?

Probably both. Doxa can be internalized. In Transgression I use this internalization to dramatize the conflict in the boy’s mind between the two warring factions battling for his soul. But the opposing points of view, represented by Archangel and Satan, would not exist unless they were already extant in the social discourse.

14. You have beautifully described the heart-wrenching nature of departures, such as “Life separates those who are in love very softly, without a sound.” Which departure was the most challenging for you to put into words?

Departure as separation is always difficult, and because the narrator loved Mirka, leaving her was hard. However, that separation lacks the poetic vibrancy of his departure from Beirut, when leaving Mireille was framed in the context of Apollinaire’s poetry: love, like the river Seine, flows under the Mirabeau bridge, and only memories remain. So, leaving Mireille was the more challenging departure.

15. The book “Transgression” exposes the political nature of religious hypocrisy, as you have written, “If a bad person pretends to be religious, and people don’t know he’s bad, he can pass himself off as the real thing. He’s like counterfeit money. Pretending to be something he is not while people around him act in good faith. Good currency circulates with the bad. She says: Nothing changes until the truth is revealed and the counterfeiters are caught. I say: What bothers me is that I don’t know where the truth lies.” Have you ever been conflicted with your father’s ideas but unable to rebel against them?

Yes, in the beginning the narrator is conflicted because he is unaware of alternatives to his father’s teachings and those of the Catholic church. It’s only after reading the books of famous authors and understanding their ideas that he builds the framework of an opposition to dogma. André Gide’s Counterfeiters is the perfect example of bad currency replacing the good. The novel demonstrates that the counterfeiters of moral values, the impostors, often hide behind a screen of religion. Molière’s play Tartuffe is the perfect example; and Gide’s works are on the Vatican Index for a reason. They challenge the authority of the Church.

16. The book involves a philosophical exploration of the ideas of writers such as Goethe, Milton, Moliere, and Baudelaire. How have their ideas aided in your liberation as a person?

Each writer cited in Transgression brings a different perspective to the narrator’s effort to free himself from doxa. Mireille urges him to read Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil and Sade’s Philosophy in the Boudoir. Miss Hovnanian, his English teacher, guides him toward Goethe’s Faust, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and D.H. Lawrence’s The Escaped Cock. To explain how each book’s philosophical exploration helped the narrator find his soul, I would have to rewrite passages of Transgression. I suggest reading the novel to find out.

17. You and Mireille share not only a deep love but also an intellectual bond, as evidenced by your discussions on controversial novels such as “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and “The Flowers of Evil.” Do you believe that their shared curiosity in learning beyond prejudices brought them together?

In the beginning there is a physical attraction. Also, Mireille wants to improve her English and the narrator wants to improve his French. Loss also helps to bring them together. Luc, a man Mireille loved, has died of cancer, and the narrator has been separated from Mirka, the woman he loved. It is when the boy and Mireille read books together and discuss their meanings that their love blossoms. Mireille is already free of doxa, and the books she recommends, The Flowers of Evil and Philosophy in the Boudoir, expose the narrator to ways of thinking beyond the confines of Church dogma. Baudelaire, Sade, Apollinaire, and others do bring the narrator and Mireille together.

18. During the war, when Hitler’s ideology of hate and genocide dominated, the book emphasized teachings such as “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also…My father goes on to quote Matthew and Luke: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you…My father pauses: In an age of violence, that was Jesus’s radical message. And it took hold. Almost two thousand years later, half the planet is Christian. Think about it.” How have your father’s teachings influenced your relationships with your surroundings and nature, and which teachings do you wish to always hold on to?

The Sermon on the Mount has been seminal as well as the nonviolence inherent in the New Testament. Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr., three of the foremost advocates of civil disobedience and nonviolence were influenced by Christ’s teachings, as was I. At Amherst, after the end of World War II, I received the usual “Greetings” from the Draft Board and was ordered to report for induction. I claimed Conscientious Objector status, and after the requisite hearings in Boston, it was granted. During the Korean War of 1952, my draft board reclassified me, arbitrarily. I appealed. I was not drafted. It’s evident that, after long reflection, I have retained parts of my upbringing even though I have rejected others.

19. Why did you compare war to hell in “Transgression,” a book that challenges the glorification of war and power while questioning the justification for killing innocent people?

Because “War is hell” is a common saying. War is death, loss, suffering, and woe. If there is a hell on earth, it would be war.

20. At the age of fourteen, you explored the meanings and differences between love, lust, fondness, and desire. How do you think one can understand such things?

There is always the dictionary. But insofar as these are feelings, the best way to understand the differences is by experiencing them or reading about them. Even at the age of fourteen, the narrator experienced all of them.

21. You referred to Miss Hovananian and Mireille as saviors who have rescued you and are open to mindfulness. What are the best conversations you had with both that you would like our readers to explore?

Hard to say. The conversations between the three characters take place in the Beirut sections of the novel. They are ongoing and of a piece, interrelated. With Mireille they deal with love, loss, Baudelaire, Sade, and Apollinaire. With Miss Hovnanian the conversations are about literature, meaning, writing, and the relations between them; life itself. All the conversations help the narrator free himself from doxa and define his own identity as a person.

22. One quote that shows your love for books is emotionally stated as, “Now that I have found my own soul, I’m looking for the soul in the books I’m reading. Do books have souls? Probably.” What is the soul of your book “Transgression”?

I state somewhere that my soul is not going anywhere because soul is all around us, not going anywhere. The soul of a book is therefore whatever the book means to the reader. I would not want to limit the meaning of Transgression by defining its soul ahead of time. I suggest each reader decide for themselves.

23. You and your father are greatly inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s ideas of nonviolence, truth, satyagraha, and civil disobedience. Do you think oppression can be tackled with nonviolence and satyagraha?

Gandhi challenged colonialism and the power of the British Empire with nonviolence, and India gained its independence in 1947. In the 1950s Martin Luther King Jr. challenged Jim Crow policies in the South with nonviolence. Schools that were once segregated have been integrated. Although much remains to be done to achieve equality between Whites and Blacks, the general acceptance of new hiring policies in the workplace, and the dictum “Black Lives Matter,” are steps in the right direction, due, I believe, to the early policies of nonviolence.

24. My father says, “People are not always rational.” I say, “Are you governed by reason?” He says, “I try.” I say, “Is it reasonable to believe in God?” He says, “It’s not a question of reason, it’s a matter of faith. Pascal said, ‘The heart has its reasons about which reason knows nothing’.” In contemporary times, do you think people tend to ignore indigenous communities’ culture and personal intuitions due to rationality?

There is ample evidence that indigenous communities’ cultures are marginalized. Native Americans are still struggling with alcoholism and substance abuse after the settlers in North America systematically killed them and herded them into Indian enclaves. Prejudice and neglect are ongoing. Asian minorities are also targets of abuse, not to mention African Americans and the racism of Whites who lost the Civil War, but thrived under Reconstruction, and still refuse to treat Blacks as equals. Unfortunately, the irrationality of racism, bias, and prejudice exists. It must not only be contained, but it must also be reversed.

25. Transgression” concludes with sentences full of hope and a desire to understand the complexities of life. You wrote, “Writing Transgression was a catharsis. I wanted to show readers how to expunge doxa, i.e., ready-made values and beliefs transmitted by family, schools, and the church; especially when doxa interferes with the maturation and well-being of a teenager.” Do you think it is easier to learn new things than to unlearn socially constructed values in the world of learning?

Transgression demonstrates that unlearning socially constructed values is harder that learning new things. The narrator, after Freud, compares the brain to a magical writing pad on which written sentences or images can be erased. If you look closely, however, despite the erasure, small traces remain, almost undetectable, but still there. So it is with the neurons of the brain. You think you have erased something but the memory of it persists, small feelings that ambush you when you least expect it. The narrator compares the process to removing old train tracks and replacing them with new ones. Even so, the process is slow and arduous. You are like a hospital patient who needs rehabilitation to function again properly. It can be done. Even so, learning new things is easier because you don’t have to unlearn former feelings and ways of doing things that interfere with the building of a new self.

26. “Transgression” is a mixture of two genres: autobiography and fiction. How did you come up with such an interesting fusion?

Fiction is often autobiographical, even if the author labels it “a novel,” because writers write about what they know; and what they know or think they know best is themselves, their experiences, and the things they have learned. I did not invent the term “autofiction.” It has been around for some time. In calling my novel “autofiction” I wanted to draw attention to the reality of World War II, Hitler’s rants, the death camps, my journey as refugee from Nazi-occupied Europe to Istanbul, Aleppo, Beirut, Cairo, and New York, and the end of the war. The dropping of the A-bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were real events. The feelings the narrator describes are also true. The love scenes, the dialogs, Archangel, and Satan, however, are fictional. In this regard I’d like to call attention to the two love scenes between the narrator and Mireille (pp 183-185). One is ostensibly real, the other one imaginary. I wrote both passages, and, in retrospect, one is as real as the other, or, I would argue, as imaginary as the other.  Words convey meaning. However, because the language that describes an event is never the event itself, it doesn’t matter if it is described as imaginary or real. Both require language to be intelligible, and unless the author differentiates between the two, as I do in Transgression, the reader can’t know which one of the two is true or false. In this case both are imaginary.

27. Do you have other writers in the family?

My stepson, Matthew Herschler, is a writer. He is a poet and is now writing a book on the American Constitution. His twin brother, Mark Herschler, a guitarist, writes music and has recorded many discs. Stephen Mattern, my third stepson, a professor at Oglethorpe University, is writing a monograph on China and the politics of Xi Jinping. My son, Jan Stoltzfus, has written a short story and a novella. My wife, Judith Palmer, is an artist. She and I have collaborated on a pictonovel, Romoland: her art, my text. Our granddaughter, Allie Kirschner, is an artist. She and I collaborated on 53 graphic tales and fun puns about cats, entitled Alliecats. Eva, our other granddaughter, has written an amusing booklet about cooking with eggs.

28. What advice would you give to aspiring writers, particularly those who may be struggling to find their own voice or develop their own unique style?

Read voraciously, everything and anything. Books are the best teachers. Become an authority on something and write about it. Improvise, and don’t be afraid to experiment. Trust your feelings and listen to your own voice. Proust once said that instinct is the best guide.

Readers who are interested in exploring the themes of guilt, self-discovery, and conflicting socialization can purchase Ben Stoltzfus’ award-winning novel “Transgression: Hitler, Mirka, Mireille, and Me” on Amazon. The novel is available in both paperback and Kindle versions.

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