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I think that one of the ways in which the climate of The Reader brings out the futility of this concept is by displaying it on personal and political levels. The belief that there can be an appropriation of the past in a very tidy and efficient manner is shown to be a potential hopeful solution, but one fraught with failure. In both political and private contexts, there is some level of hurt and abandonment present. The former was the embrace of Nazism and the latter was the lack of closure in Hana's and Michael's relationship. The desire to use "the law" as a way to legislate both, in a sense, is shown to be futile. The court system seeks to fully understand both why the actions of the Nazis happened and seeks to also provide some level of remedy for this unspeakable atrocity. In much the same way, Michael uses his own understanding of philosophy and academics to create a sense of remedy for his own past, and avoid an emotional grip of the magnitude of the situation. The legal system approach is a failure in redressing Nazism, as Hana is made out to be a chief culprit in the death of many, and she acquiesces to this to avoid accepting her illiteracy. In the same way, Michael thinks that he can seclude himself in academics and legal philosophy to avoid his own emotional guilt and responsibility. In both conditions, the past cannot be "mastered." It exists outside of the realm of modern appropriation. As both approaches are revealed to be failures, a new approach is posited. In both political and private pain, individuals must accept responsibility for what they have done and must embrace the fact that human capacity for cruelty is profound. Accepting this is of vital importance in defining what it means to come to terms with that which is past.
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