I have always felt that the Holocaust was (and is) essentially nonrepresentable for those who did not suffer in the Inferno, an event of such unthinkable consequence and horror that anyone who did not experience it could scarcely claim the right to speak about it. For by doing so we almost inevitably cheapen it, turn it into worn and soiled currency, lapse into unforgivable glibness irrespective of our sincerity or ethical engagement. How can one speak about that which one has not only not undergone but cannot truly imagine? The point was forcefully made by Hannah Arendt in her Essays in Understanding, where she articulated her belief that “the ongoing problem—finding a mode of representation adequate to the transgressive nature of the phenomenon which, at the same time, does not fall into mystification—is endemic to the material and perhaps unresolvable.” Such indefeasible horror would appear to resist both language and mind—unless, we might think, one has been reduced to the level of the bestial.
In the words of Bernhard Schlink from The Reader, addressing the incommunicable nature of the Holocaust, “We should not believe we can comprehend the incomprehensible, we may not compare the incomparable… because to inquire is to make the horrors an object of discussion…instead of accepting them as something in the face of which we can only fall silent in revulsion, shame and guilt.” Or as George Steiner put it in an incisive and harrowing essay called “The Long Life of Metaphor,” the problem “as to whether there is a human form of language adequate to the conceptualization and understanding of Auschwitz, as to whether the limits of language do not fall short of the limits of the Shoah experience, is now ineradicably installed in Jewish existence.” According to Steiner, we are still trying to come to terms with “the exit of God” from language.
Indeed, even God Himself, according to Yiddish poet Simcha Simchovich in a collection appropriately called Remnant, may have been unequal to the monstrousness of the event:
God Himself hid his face, in panic,
on that day.
Further, it seems to me that any honest and committed attempt to engage with the reality of the Holocaust, in whatever degree so unscaleable an effort is remotely possible, would require one as a Jew to change one’s life drastically, categorically, irreversibly. Assuming that he or she is somehow capable of assimilating even partially the sheer and brute occurrence of this Inconceivable, how would it then be possible to live in the daily sunlight untouched by the weighty and tenebrous shadow of History? To write poems in defiance of Theodor Adorno’s famous dictum that after Auschwitz poetry was no longer possible? To concern ourselves with market brands? To root for the home team? One recalls Rabbi Mordecai Levy of Zemyock’s rhetorical question in André Schwarz-Bart’s The Last of the Just, “And tell me, Brethren, how a truly Jewish heart could laugh in this world?” And yet we do laugh, write poems, attend sports events, and shop happily. Life, as they say, goes on, despite the premonition that those who suffered in the camps might turn from us in posthumous rejection of a contentment masked by occasional professions of anguish and condign donations. The paradox is not easily avoided.
Primo Levi phrases the question with terrible intensity in Shemá, a title poem based on the central Jewish prayer “Hear, O Israel”, in which he demands of those who “live secure/In your warm houses” and who “return at evening to find/Hot food and friendly faces” to recall the incendiary words in which he brings to mind the cataclysms of Jewish history, words that should be burned into the Jewish soul:
Engrave them on your hearts
When you are in your house, when you walk on your way,
When you go to bed, when you rise.
Repeat them to your children.
Or may your house crumble,
Disease render you powerless,
Your offspring avert their faces from you.
In essence, how can literature and communal speech come to terms with that which resists imaginative and psychological closure? This is very near to the great German-Jewish poet Paul Celan’s perhaps unresolvable question: how can language itself escape moral and ideological pollution or manage to convey that which is incommensurate with the conceptual or evocative power of the word? Celan, of course, was thinking of the German language he loved so profoundly but felt had become too morally contaminated to be handled without the prospect of contagion and too intellectually suspect to be used as a medium of reference. The renowned German-Jewish critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki confronted this reductive conundrum in his extensive oeuvre, in particular The Author of Himself, by reacting in the opposite way. Rather than paring his words to the bone or ceasing to write altogether, he determined instead to use the German language superbly—as if one could separate a language and a literature from a history and a people.
But with respect to the Holocaust, the question involves any medium of representation or reference, any language whatsoever. How can one, in the words of Celan’s exegete and translator John Felstiner, “name the eclipse without profaning it”? And as Alan Munston remarks somewhere, the Holocaust “is very difficult to write about, because it requires not the large gesture, but great tact.” But to what extent is such tact even possible? The acclaimed American-Jewish thriller novelist Daniel Silva in his A Death in Vienna opted to rely on a simple descriptive record of life in the camps, a victim’s transcript almost devoid of commentary. There is no attempt to purple up the atrocity; spareness suffices. Perhaps this is as close as we can get to “tact”—though even here, the imagination cannot contain the enormity of the unconscionable.
Moreover, the experience of the Holocaust is not only intrinsically nonrepresentable in any artistic or discursive medium but must also be recognized as an inherently Jewish experience before it can even be approached as one of “universal import,” which latter would lead to a more generic and softer form of indignation, dread or loathing. The effort to extend the Holocaust threat to apply potentially to all peoples is dangerously misguided since the only people in the world who have to face the threat of genocide, generation after generation, are the Jews. The Armenians will not face another genocide. The Tutsis (and the Hutus in Burundi before the Rwanda slaughter) need no longer fear the specter of annihilation. Aboriginal societies in the West do not have to worry about another impending wave of extermination.
But for the Jewish people, the prospect of genocide is a menace that never dissipates. Rather than adulterating their concern by pretending to be socially enlightened and flattering themselves on their ostensibly higher calling under the rubric of “social justice,” Jews should not make a fetish of universal tolerance when the whole point is particular survival—especially now, not only with regard to the Muslim Middle East but in Europe as well where a conceptual Zyklon B is in the air. The evidence for a renewed, 1930s-like upsurge of antisemitic rhetoric and activity, as noted by reputable commentators like David Hornik, Giulio Meotti, Jonathan Tobin, Robin Shepherd and many others, is starkly undeniable. “European intellectuals may think they operate on a different level from street thugs,” writes Tobin, “But the logical next step from the hounding of Jews on the editorial pages and in academia is clear.” Shepherd, for his part, is apprehensive that the antisemitic virus may spread to the U.S. The fact remains. “The Holocaust and the anti-Semitism that led to it,” writes Ayaan Hirsi Ali, correctly, in The Caged Virgin, “cannot be compared to any other form of ethnic cleansing.” To fasten on its presumptive universality without first understanding its Jewish dimension is to dilute its singular and interpellant character.
The quandary deepens for the Jew who is, in some mysterious but ineluctable way, morally beholden to those who perished in the camps, as if, as Jews, we feel that those of us who died died for those of us who didn’t. How does one come to terms with a revelation of such unforgiving magnitude? The tendency is to move in two directions at once, away from the Holocaust through assimilation or sentimental trivializing and toward it in virtue of the compulsion to assuage the guilt of survival and to retrieve or forge an identity from communal suffering. Gershom Scholem put the matter with his customary clarity in his 1963 “Letter to Hannah Arendt” in which he states the contradiction of a people who manifest “on the one hand, a devotion to the things of this world that is near-demonic; on the other, a fundamental uncertainty of orientation in this world.” The dilemma of negotiating the relation between wanting to live the good life and needing to remember the evil one is likely insoluble.
But the Holocaust will not go away. We are still asking the question, though with renewed urgency, that the Psalmist posed in Psalm 44: “why sleepest thou, O Lord?…Wherefore hidest thou thy face, and forgettest our affliction and our oppression?” One might also mention Charles Hartshorne’s “process theology,” the theory of a God Who is mutable and developing and Who suffers with us in the course of a shared History—which leaves us with an evolutionary Being who just happens to be immortal. Even the most radical fringe of Reform or Reconstructionist Judaism would have trouble defending so thin and undemanding and humanized a form of religious faith. Abraham Heschel goes so far as to propose that “Judaism is God’s quest for man,” which tends to encapsulate man within his own historical parentheses, though the argument elaborated in his book God in Search of Man cannot, in my estimation, let Divinity off the hook any more than a God subject to Darwinian laws is thereby absolved.
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