An Impossible Project
By Laurent Cohen | 04/02/2010
To make people hear the sound of absence, to investigate the emptiness and to grant to silence the role of another language. Laurent Cohen on culture after Auschwitz
Although he spent 11 years working on “Shoah,” Claude Lanzmann always pointed out that the monumental film he directed was not at all intended to provide an explanation for the destruction of the Jews, because, in the deepest philosophical sense, that “event” was meaningless – in other words, it had nothing to do with logic – and human language, thought and knowledge are doomed to failure if they seek any meaning in the Holocaust. In January 2000, in a meeting with French high school students, Lanzmann said that there was something profoundly obscene in the desire to understand the Holocaust. Actually, he argued, the desire to understand “it” constitutes a refusal to deal directly with the issue; it is a desire to circumvent it, to avoid it altogether. As far as he was concerned, the refusal to understand “it” was a fundamental precondition. When the film's producers asked him what the term “Holocaust” meant, he replied that he did not know. They were stunned, he recalled, and they claimed that no one would then be able to understand what the film was all about. Lanzmann answered that this was precisely what he wanted: He wanted no one to understand the Holocaust. Generally, he referred to his film as “the thing.”
From the 1950s onwards, an entire culture has been built around the industrial killing of millions of Jews. However, from an overall perspective, this culture – which consists of books of poetry, novels, paintings, sculptures, philosophical essays, films and plays – has proven completely powerless in the face of its “object.” So much so, in fact, that the inability to deal with this “event,” to grasp it, to decipher it, has become the Holocaust's principal feature. The problematic nature of presenting the Holocaust can be illustrated in various ways. First of all, in the artistic sphere. In the poetry of Paul Celan, regarded as one of the most important poets of the 20th century, we can observe the phenomenon of verbal reduction, a tightening of verbal expression. In those poems where the memory of the Holocaust is most prominent, the process of verbal reduction is very extreme. According to one character in Thomas Bernhard's 1984 novel, Cutting Timber (which has been published in another translation as Woodcutters), Celan was a poet without words.
In one poem, which appears in his collection, Open Closed Open (first published in Hebrew in 1998), Yehuda Amichai writes: “Paul Celan, toward the end the words inside you became scarcer/and each word in your body became so heavy/until God laid you down like a heavy load/perhaps only for a moment/in order to catch his breath and to wipe off the sweat from his brow.” In fact, Celan's last poems border on silence and sound like mystical formulas, which many scholars compare to the hermetic style of the Zohar or Hekhalot literature (Jewish esoteric and revelatory texts written in Hebrew and Aramaic sometime between late antiquity and the early medieval period). In a collection entitled Light-Compulsion, published shortly after Celan's suicide, we read: “Extract/the wedges of light:/the floating word/belongs to the twilight.” This poem appears in Hebrew Soreg-Safa, translated by Shimon Sandbank and published by Hakibbutz Hameuchad and Siman Kriah in 1994 (p. 93). In another poem in that collection (p. 89), Celan writes: “Once, when death attracted the masses,/you sought shelter inside me.”
In the realm of music, silence – lasting for many hours – became a central element in the works of the American-Jewish composer Morton Feldman. The goal that Feldman, who also created his compositions in the shadow of Auschwitz, set for himself was paradoxically to make people hear the sound of absence, to investigate the emptiness and to grant to silence the role of another language, perhaps the role of a metalanguage. Incidentally, he is a composer who writes music without notes; in a number of full orchestral scores, he provides precise details as to how a particular note should be played but without writing down the note he is referring to.
In the world of theater, special mention should be made of Charles Reznikoff, the great New York poet-playwright who, together with George Oppen and Louis Zukofksy, founded the legendary Objectivist group in the early 1930s; this group had a major impact on modern American poetry. In Hebrew, one can read Reznikoff in a selection of translations of his poems by Benjamin Harshav; the selection was published in 1990 by Am Oved. In 1975, a year before his death, Reznikoff published his poem-play Holocaust, which consists entirely of testimony from Nuremberg War Crimes trials and the trial of Adolf Eichmann. In this extreme case, the Jewish artist undertakes the role of historian, refusing to change even the minutest detail in the testimony of the survivors of the Holocaust. Here the artist has one aim and one aim only: to enable the survivors' testimony to be heard directly and totally – in other words, to extract this testimony from the judicial setting, from the courtrooms where sessions were held behind closed doors, and to thrust it out into the world without any comment or alteration.
According to Jean-Paul Auxemery, who translated Reznikoff into French, the poet is not a judge. The poet allows the characters to speak, to enable the reader to hear the characters' words, which are the essence of human pain and suffering. Actually, Auxemery points out, the poet allows us to watch fate taking shape right before our eyes. The pure expression of the facts exposes in the same way as a source of pristine light exposes an object to our gaze, and the poem says only what can be said.
The Holocaust as aporia
All of the culture that has sprung up around the memory of the Holocaust is an extreme case of aporia: The death camps are a counter-universe whose language is intended only to proliferate death, to turn it into something omnipotent. As Celan writes in his famous poem, “Death Fugue,” “death is an artist from Germany.” The language of this counter-universe fulfills a role that is starkly different from the traditional role of language – to draw people closer, that is, to cultivate a human society that has chosen the path of life, not death. In Auschwitz, the Final Solution became an idiom, a norm, and murder was the standard, because this counter-universe was based on an unprecedented commandment in human history: “Thou shalt kill.” We find the language of Auschwitz incomprehensible, even impossible, because, at every level, its sole object is to proliferate death. Thus, to write about the Holocaust is to engage in an exercise that borders on metaphysics. Like God, who is unique and who is beyond all human categories, the mechanism that invented the gas chambers is beyond our understanding. Some of Celan's poems relate to this specific point and to the futile attempt to solve the riddle of Aushwitz: “What I inherited/is something that is cross-beamed/it is unique/there is a riddle I must solve/whereas you, who are wearing sackcloth,/are knitting a sock of total mystery” (Soreg-Safa, p. 98).
To write about the Holocaust is not something that can be done in a lecture hall, in an art gallery. It will always be something that is indirect and partial. Nevertheless, since the end of the Second World War, many artists – in all the various fields of creative endeavor – have been driven by a quasi-religious urge to devote their lives and their creations to perpetuating the memory of the extermination of the Jews. In these creations, the traditional verse, “I have always set the Lord before me” (Psalms 16:8), has become “I have always set Auschwitz before me.” Primo Levi formulates this message, using a biblical model: “You will engrave these words in your heart/you will recite them in your homes, and wherever you journey/and whenever you lie on your bed and whenever you arise from your slumber/and you will transmit them to your children.” (See his Poem no. 6 in the collection of his poems that was first published in Italy in 1984, At an Uncertain Hour, and which includes extracts from his books, If This Is a Man and The Truce.) Here the aporia is most prominent: In an absolute sense, to write about the Holocaust is a superhuman act, while to refrain from writing about the Holocaust is perceived by many poets, writers, artists and philosophers as an act of moral failure, as a desecration and as an expression of support for the erasure of the memory of the Holocaust. Thus, as it has succinctly been phrased by Jorge Semprun, the Spanish author who was a member of the Spanish anti-Nazi underground and who was incarcerated in Buchenwald, to speak about the Holocaust is impossible and to refuse to speak about the Holocaust is to commit a forbidden act.
In the speech he delivered on the occasion of his receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in December 1986, Elie Wiesel declared that no previous generation in human history has ever had to deal with the paradox of the Holocaust in such an urgent manner. In that address, Wiesel noted that, following the liberation of the concentration and death camps, all authors – including the witnesses to the Holocaust – were rendered mute. Suddenly, he recalled, human language struck everyone as anemic, emaciated, and covered with thick, hideous makeup. This enigma is given dramatic expression in the classic book by Wolfgang Hildesheimer, Masante, which was published in Germany in 1973. It was immediately acclaimed and described as the most unusual text that has ever appeared in the world of German literature and as a literary classic that is not a book. Some people perceived Masante as a bitter illustration of Theodor W. Adorno's famous phrase that the attempt to write anything after Auschwitz is to commit a barbaric act. In any event, Masante is a story/non-story about a book that could never be written or even presented in outline, about a book that could never be created, because the words themselves had been murdered in Auschwitz, because in the post-Hitlerian world, the desire to write, irrespective of what happened in the concentration and death camps, is doomed to disintegrate because of the intense mourning over the death of language, because of the intense mourning, in fact, over the death of human understanding.
Here we touch upon the close connection between writing/non-writing about the Holocaust and madness, or even suicide, as an escape route from history, which enabled the emergence of, and gave birth to, the Final Solution. According to Jean Amery, a prominent modern European author and critic, writing about the Holocaust is writing about the borders of the soul, as he demonstrates in his most important book, a collection of essays entitled Beyond Guilt and Atonement (which was published in Hebrew in Tel Aviv by Am Oved in 2000; it was first published in 1966). In that collection of essays, on the central issue of how we can even think about Auschwitz, he has a number of short essays dealing with subjects such as torture, sanity and the power of hatred, and on the inevitability and impossibility of being a Jew. In a novel-essay, Lefeu, or the Demolition (1974), Emery writes about a Jewish painter who is a Holocaust survivor and who, after the war, refuses to evacuate a building that is on the verge of collapse and which serves as a parable of history. The option the painter chooses is silence and madness. His last work, which was a harbinger of his impending death and which was published in 1976, is incisive, sometimes cruel; it is entitled, On Suicide: A Discourse on Voluntary Death. Two years later, he committed suicide in a hotel room.
In Celan's case, the tragic trio – the memory of the Holocaust, madness, death – is exposed to the reader and grants Celan's work an exclusive tonality, unprecedented in the history of poetry. In her letters, poet Nelly Sachs, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966, describes the development of her mental illness, which would eventually lead to her death. On June 23, 1962, on one of the many occasions of her being hospitalized in a psychiatric hospital, she writes that it is impossible to understand how the threat that has pursued her for years and which has caused her to be hospitalized so many times – a threat that she likens to a telegraph and to the messages it sends day and night (messages about the Gestapo's methods of emotional torture) – has recently and completely changed, because she is now protected from the sounds of the telegraph. Nevertheless, she admits, it is extremely difficult for her to take even one step in the direction of the electrified fence, because, each time she takes a step, she relives those horrible experiences. In the course of the previous week, she writes, she has reached new heights. Wherever she looks, she can see the red color used so prominently by Hieronymus Bosch, the color of blood. She sees it in every vehicle, in every motorcycle, in the gardener's tools, on the bench; she sees red everywhere.
The gods of Treblinka, Auschwitz and Dachau
In addition to the characteristics of the post-Holocaust Jewish culture that have been referred to above, the following point should be made: In many respects, and in its profoundest dimensions, this culture is religious in nature. In other words, it is a culture where God plays a central role, although, in this particular case, God is cast in the role of the cosmic defendant. An atheistic syllogism appears in Levi's works: Auschwitz is the blood-soaked evidence that God is a fiction (If there was an Auschwitz, then there can be no God). In contrast with that syllogism, we can see the emergence of an entire post-Auschwitz theology in Wiesel's initial writing. In that theology, the exalted God becomes the murdering God. Celan attacks God, as he writes in his poem, “Zurich, the Stork Inn,” which he dedicates to Sachs; he calls for a rebellion from inside Jewish belief itself. In fact, he sometimes turns Orthodox Jewish motifs, such as divine mercy, into motifs of accusation that he points upward to the heavens, at God. In Auschwitz, God desecrated his own Torah, argues Celan, and thus Jews who truly believe in their religion have no choice but to substitute the praise they once directed toward God with abuse and curses directed at that same God; furthermore, they must replace their assumption of the yoke of the divine kingdom – their assumption of the body of Jewish commandments – with a spiritual rebellion (see, for example, his The No-One's Rose , especially the poems, “The Fountain's Bubbles” and “Crowned Out.”) In one of his poems, Amichai writes, “The numbers on the forearms of the prisoners of extermination/are God's telephone numbers/phone numbers that you can call without getting any answer/and now those numbers have been disconnected, one by one.” Similarly, Celan formulates a theology of crisis, a theology of a God who does not answer our prayers, who cannot save us, who is blind to the death of his people, the so-called Chosen People, and – what is worse – who is an enemy. In an interview that was broadcast on the French-German Arte television channel on March 1, 1995, Wiesel recalled the moment when he asked himself the same question that the ancients asked themselves: Can God become disgusted with himself? Wiesel added that, while he was thinking where was God in this whole picture, he was actually asking himself what if God was not on his side but on the side of the murderer.