Michael Neder, Hillbilly Elegies, Murderous Children, the Question about a Good Society

If again we remember the Biedermeier era in Austria Micheal Neder comes to mind as a peculiar figure. He was born in Oberdöbling, then a suburb of Vienna, as a son to a shoemaker. Neither his father nor his stepmother treated him particularly well. Despite that he remained the most loyal portraitist of the lives and times of the common people and the lower classes. His talent as an artist was discovered when he went to school, he was sent to the academy and started a semi-successful career as a painter (Waldmüller, for instance, did not hold Neder in high esteem although he was well respected by others). Unsure about the solidity of his talent and whether it could earn him a living he abandoned art and became a shoemaker himself for a while and returned as a more mature painter to the art scene again some years later. For the rest of his life he remained a truthful portraitist of ordinary folks – craftsmen, peasants, maids, proletarians, etc. He depicted their sorrows, the monotony and repetetiveness of their lives, their occasionally empty eyes, as well as their joys, their innocence, their festivities or them becoming philosophers in their own right when sitting together with a beer. It is correct that Neder does not come in with the grandezza and majesty of the other renowned artists of this time, Waldmüller, Amerling, Danhauser and the like, his art was no Gedanken/Ideenkunst either but stemmed out of sentiment. There are no indications that Neder got heavily influenced by the intellectual life of this time, in a sympathetic way he stubbornly remained true to his vision. Although he of course mastered academic painting he deliberately remained „naive“ most of the time as the most adequate fashion to depict what he wanted to depict. That makes up for his special place in the history of Austrian art. He was an honest artist and his work radiates honesty.

Michael Neder´s humble beginnings and the torment he underwent as a child may, on this occasion, be associated with an article I read a while ago about the lives and times of the so-called white trash population in America, largely unknown territory for me before, so that I also read J.D. Vance´s book Hillbilly Elegy the article refers to (the other book I could not get so easily so far). Hillbilly Elegy is an illuminating and sympathetic book and helps you to better understand people and view them with some sympathy even if they are, effectively, broken. It effectively raises epistemological and sociopsychological questions as the hillbillies and the white poor in America are effective reality deniers, which serves the hygienic function of not effectively having to confront their misery but is dysfunctional in not offering them any help to find any way out of it. Deindustrialisation is one thing but the other thing is that, contrary to wide held opinion, there are plenty of jobs for these people which they cannot take for utter lack of discipline and manners. Contrary to his opinion, and the opinion generally held by the hillbillies (and others), J.D. found out that politicians usually DO care for their people and try to improve their lives, the problem is rather that, among humans, there are limits to what you can achieve with them (there are, of course, also voices who diss J.D., yet of course also they have to be handeled with some care). I would also like to help people and improve everyone´s life but I don´t know how to do it effectively. As it seems to me social problems are rather not the problem caused by a system but by a general culture and mentality among a people. And as it seems to me the people most intelligent at solving their problems are (among Western Europeans) the Swiss. I think the key to a good society is that there is a keen sense of individual responsibilities as well as a collective responsibility. The Swiss have both, due to Calvinism a „protestant ethics“ of capitalism and individual responsibility and due to the history of their defensive battles, where they had to stand, as different peoples/Kantone themselves united against foreign powers, notably the Hapsburg Empire, they have a strong sense of collective responsibility (and, as they were equal footmen who triumphed collectively over the aristocratic knights, a strong sense of egalitarity). See that the formation of a benign culture is contingent, and few people/s have the luck to get born in a supreme culture. I have to dive into this complex of thoughts deeper and will do so in the future.

Another story of outcast humanity is the case of „Child from Hell“ Mary Bell which attracted my attention via my Sociopathic Children Facebook group. In 1968 Mary Bell from Newcastle, England, strangled 4 year old Martin Brown shortly before her eleventh birthday, tried to murder the little sister of her friend Norma a little later and then, together with Norma, murdered and mutilated 3 year old Brian Howe. She (and Norma) boasted with what she/they did, cynically insulted family members of the dead boys and at the same time tried to confess to the police, one letter of confession they signed with Fanny and Faggot. No one believed them, notably as Mary was well known as a habitual liar and boaster who had a highly problematic relationship to most other children whom she hit, beated, bite in an obvious attempt to attract attention. As her ongoing cynicism about the murders became too blunt police took the hints more serious and began to interrogate the girls more systematically (with Mary trying to blame Norma for the murders at first). It turned out Mary was a deeply disturbed child and she got sentenced for manslaughter at Her Majesty´s Pleasure, effectively an indefinite sentence of imprisonment (Norma was absolved but got into conflict with the law later again and was then put under psychiatric supervision). She was released 12 years later, got married and gave birth to a child (the marriage was divorced later). She was granted anonymity but sold her story to the press for money years later, producing an outrage again (and putting her daughter who originally was unaware of her mother´s past in an uncomfortable position). Meanwhile Mary Bell is grandmother. In a book about her published years after the incidents it was thoroughly revealed how Mary was tried to be abadoned or killed several times as a child by her mother, as well as that her mother was a prostitute and dominatrix who forced Mary to engage in violently sexual acts with her clients. Her father was a petty criminal. When Mary was first sent to a community home she developed deep affection for the director whom she viewed as a surrogate father. When she was sent to a juvenile hall some years later (which got opposed by the director) she relapsed into her old habits, broke out of prison at one occasion (and at that occasion also lost her virginity). A female police specialist says girls are a minority out of children who kill, but when they do they usually start earlier and are more violent.

(And now, on occasion, I get reminded about the Winsconsin Death Trip, a documentary I recommend, not only for reasons of enhancing knowledge and awareness but also because the film has a very peculiar atmosphere. Mariana says the book is cool, but I have not read it so far.)