January 2013

Even Nameless Horrors must be Named

Written by Steve Sem Sandberg

To what extent can an aestheticisation of mass murder be seen as acceptable or valid? Is it question of content or purpose, or rather about who is doing the actual writing? And if one kind of aestheticisation is legitimate, on what basis should another be disallowed?

This is a complex question. Those seeking to answer it can easily find themselves drowning in noncommittal goodwill statements of the “this must be shown” variety, without touching on the complications involved in all literature based on things that really happened. Just as there is no such thing as pure literature, literature that tells the truth and nothing but the truth, so there is no such thing as innocent literature. Everything written about historical events has consequences for the way those events are to be interpreted. To believe anything else would be naive.

Many of my generation, born in the early 1960s or before, will remember the huge impact made by the television series The Holocaust when it was shown around 1980. It triggered initiatives to deepen our knowledge of the Holocaust, the results of which we see today, but also unleashed a wave of excessive sentimentalisation. Our receptivity to what is now termed witness literature is dependent on increased social acceptance of this kind of storytelling; but what is socially acceptable is ultimately what has already been allowed to appear in the media in some shape or form. Today we are surrounded by Holocaust kitsch on a scale we can scarcely appreciate. This kitsch permeates our understanding of what happened, at all levels. The Holocaust is something we would rather solemnly commemorate than actively remember; Auschwitz is turning into a place of pilgrimage, a place in which to exorcise evil rather than investigate it, while the concrete suffering in that and other places is reduced, with the help of popular culture, to images of boys in pyjamas and little girls with plaits.

Perhaps this sentimentalising, trivialising trend can be defended to some extent on pedagogic grounds. We have to find ways to come to grips with evil for it not to become abstract and hence intangible. But the consequence of our collective ritualisation of remembrance is that it inhibits our own individual relationship to, and responsibility for, what actually happened. From what we perceive as a moral duty to give this unprecedented event the space it deserves, we adopt a submissive position that we prefer to see as humility. Instead of talking about the war, and the actual victims of war, we restrict ourselves shamelessly to our own way of relating to what happened, often with self-flagellating phrases along the lines of: “who am I to talk about...”, “what right have I to...” etc, as though the whole discussion of what made the Holocaust possible only becomes tangible when it can be linked back to some psychological problem within ourselves.

This is cowardly. We demand of every testimony that it shall be authentic. But by insisting that only those who personally experienced something have a right to tell the story, we are saying that we are not at heart touched by it, that it is possible to draw a line between us and them. Because they are victims, and thus by definition beyond our own horizon of understanding, then the only attitude demanded of us is that of noncommittal genuflection.

The major problem is not that we don’t know enough. The question ought really to be why we find it so necessary to convince ourselves that we don’t know. What is it that we see in what we do know that makes us think we cannot understand it?

Our understanding and knowledge of the Holocaust has expanded considerably in recent years, and in interesting directions. Yale historian Timothy Snyder, for example, claims in his Bloodlands that what makes Auschwitz unique, from a strictly historical point of view, is not the fact that mass murder was committed there on an industrial scale, but that so many individuals (relatively speaking) were still able to survive the mass murder, individuals who were later able to convey their testimony of what had happened in the world. Only now, broadly speaking since the collapse of the Soviet Union, has it been possible to understand how unique, in all senses of the word, these testimonies are. When those researching the subject chart the landscape of the Holocaust far into Ukraine and Belarus, they find nothing but an interminable landscape of mass graves, dead and burned villages and towns. From this scorched earth there are simply no testimonies at all.

So now we have a paradox. While historians are increasingly preoccupied with the rule, the fact that nobody survived, other versions of the Holocaust focus increasingly on the exceptions to that rule. Not on the survivors’ testimonies about those who did not survive, which would be logical, but on what the survivors have to say about their own survival. But the story of the Holocaust is not the story of a miraculous rescue mission like the one Schindler mounts in Stephen Spielberg’s film. Nor is the Holocaust the story of a pianist who plays so beautifully that even a hardened Nazi sheds a tear. Nor is the Holocaust, to look at it from another side, the story of how a woman becomes a Nazi guard just because she never learned to read. All these stories are exceptional stories, accounts of modern miracles. They are the result of grafting the external narrative structure of the survivors’ stories onto the dramaturgical demand of popular culture that every story should end in salvation and atonement. These stories become insidious, even downright dangerous, the moment they aspire to the higher purpose of making us understand what took place, and thereby try to seek social acceptance for what is essentially a sophisticated lie.

We live in an age obsessed with healing, and try any means of seeking atonement, scared out of our wits by the slightest suspicion that there might be none. This, I think, is one explanation of why the Holocaust has in recent years come to play an ever larger role as a theme of, and metaphor for, that fictive self-insight which popular culture is so obsessed with trying to articulate and even propagate.

It seems probable that our emotional response to popular culture’s interpretations of the Holocaust will always be marked by the duality I have been trying to highlight. The events described in the witness literature, for example, are so unparalleled that we have a moral obligation to hold them up as examples. But sometimes, paradoxically enough, the power of the example can be so great that it creates distance where there should not be any. And this distance can, in turn, prevent us from understanding the heart of the matter, namely what applies to all great catastrophes: that they are not exclusively tied to, or even conditional on, the historical periods in which they occur. Nor can we reduce them to special cases of a general law, whether we call that law racism or fascism or anything else, and then believe that such a definition says everything there is to say, and that all we need to do beyond that is simply to repudiate its pronouncements
on moral grounds.

In my eyes, the only meaningful way of relating to the stories of Primo Levi, Imre Kértesz’ great novel Fatelessness, Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales or Herta Müller’s novels and short stories from totalitarian Romania is to read them as testimonies of a total collapse of human conduct and responsibility: a collapse of such a nature and on such a scale that it transcends any attempt to explain them exclusively in terms of historical, political or psychological concepts; a collapse that is like a contagion, and like a contagion penetrates our self-knowledge at all levels. That is why those hunting high and low for the “authenticity” in all texts that deal with totalitarianism and subjugation are on such a terribly wrong track. In reality, the only reality that counts, there are no unblemished witnesses, as it is perfectly possible to be a victim yet not wholly blameless. And ultimately there is no language, either, through which pure, unsullied experience could find expression. As Herta Müller has put it on more than one occasion, most recently in her essay collection Immer derselbe Schnee und immer derselbe Onkel (Always the Same Snow and Always the Same Uncle), language is often the last thing to remain uninfected by this contamination.

Anyone who wants to engage critically with this literature has to realise that outlawing metaphor is not enough to bring out “the truth” about anything at all. Literature that is meaningful does not arise out of some kind of refining process. It does not restore, or create safe havens. Literature that is meaningful tears down boundaries and knocks our self-knowledge off course. This is where the moral force of literature and its aesthetic justification lie. “I don’t want to view the world reasonably, so that it can look back at me,” writes Imre Kértesz in his Gályanapló (Galley Boat Log). “I don’t want atonement. I want existence, opposition...”

I believe, with Kértesz, that it is time to lift the aesthetic state of emergency that has surrounded witness literature for so long. The important thing is not who does the writing, nor even what their motives are. The important thing is the literary efficiency of the texts. How far do they succeed in giving people back the contours of their own existence, or as Kértesz puts it: giving the individual his life, his fate? Literature can either be steered by a genuine will to open up new access points to, and broaden our view of, the reality that is portrayed. Or it does its best to shut away reality by making it a museum object, rendering the past inviolable (and thus intangible), or by making the case for some form of atonement that is in fact little more than a veiled desire to embellish, and by embellishing simply to set amnesia to work by other ways.

We choose for ourselves the sort of literature we want.

This is is an extract from an article by Steve Sem Sandberg that appeared in Eurozine: http://www.eurozine.com/articles/2011-09-23-semsandberg-en.html