In 1995, during my final year as an undergraduate English major at SUNY Buffalo, I asked in my literary journalism class (what we then called creative nonfiction, and still do some places), if the undoing of deconstruction shouldn’t leave behind the atomized building blocks of a “reconstructive” aesthetic, a rebuilding in our own, liberated image. I was a naïve twenty-year-old, my literateness largely feral. Eighteen years later, I have a much better sense of what deconstruction actually is, and why my professor so wryly dismissed my suggestion: he didn’t want a new construction that might emerge from leveled, liberated plains left behind by deconstruction and postmodern text. He simply wanted deconstruction to go away so that we could get back to the important work of representing the world in clear, declarative prose.
I sympathize with my professor’s desires, which seem to me to articulate Chomsky’s belief in “innate human values, like creativity,” in his desire to believe in an innate human nature embodying progressive attributes. And I also sympathize with continental postmodernism: if the best hope for a discourse that empowered marginalized groups and nationalities lay in German Enlightenment and its discontents, in Hegel’s followers and Nietzsche’s, and if those best hopes could be co-opted for Hitler’s Nazism and Stalin’s workers’ paradise, if the wonder and beauty of phenomenology was most ecstatically expressed by Heidegger describing Nazi soldiers reciting Holderlin…well… well, why bother? Why not just choose play? As Russell Brand recently responded when asked by Jeremy Paxman, a political critic for Newsnight, why, as a political radical, his position as a non-voting celebrity comedian made sense: “If it’s all fucked, why not have a laugh?”
Still, sympathize though I might, that figurative throwing up of the hands in the face of the potential dangers of action seemed (and seems) inadequate to me as a writer, as a thinker, and as a human being. It also seemed, and still does, better than the prissy moralizing inherent in the neo-Victorian approach to representations of injustice, of horror, of evil, that we see in, say, The Raj Quartet, Sophie’s Choice, and The Confessions of Nat Turner, or even Solzhenitsyn’s work; not that my long-ago professor advocated for any of these texts specifically.
I also now know that I wasn’t entirely alone back in 1995. While I was naively asking for something more, W. G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn was being released in German, and eight years prior, David Grossman and Cynthia Ozick had almost simultaneously published Holocaust novels centered on the Polish Jewish author and Nazi victim, Bruno Schulz. If Sebald, Grossman, and Ozick weren’t asking my question exactly, they were asking two closely related ones:
- First, what comes after the postmodern novel if the postmodern novel’s philosophical positioning is not exactly wrong but also not adequate?
- Second, if all we have with which to try something new is what’s come before—the language, ideology, mythology, narrative, and cultural history that culminated in WWII—what then can we make?
- And, if I may add a third, for me, and perhaps for them, how does one grapple with an event, specifically, the Holocaust, that infuses and informs everything and yet is rapidly fading into, or rather from, memory?
Memory (and its implicit subjectivity) has always been at the center of postwar responses to the Holocaust. Holocaust museums are devoted to the memory of the event, but what they mean by memory is not the physiological act of recalling former experience, but installation of a memory in those who have not experienced the thing itself. It is no mistake that since its 1968 inception, Meir Kahane’s Jewish vigilante movement’s motto has been “Never Again,” a companion corruption of the Holocaust survivors’ motto, “Never Forget.” The JDL version relied upon the “not forgetting” implicit in their slogan for agency. When they attacked the “oppressors” of Jews, they didn’t justify their actions in terms of current harm or danger, but on the basis of historical harm. In 1968, twenty-three years after the Holocaust, the young toughs of the JDL authorized their vigilante violence by reference to an event that they could only “remember” by accessing the memory of the generation before them. The JDL still exists, but by the 1980s its vigilante fervor had largely lost its relevance, following an arc into obscurity not unlike that of other armed movements of the sixties. Perhaps the wane of physical action predicated the intellectual response that I wish to examine in this essay.
Grossman, Ozick, and Sebald were similarly limited to the experience of those who had experienced WWII and the Holocaust: Ozick was born in New York City, and was only in her late teens at the end of the war. Sebald was born in Germany, but in 1944, and Grossman in Israel, ten years later still, in 1954.
Perhaps this necessity of transplanted memory stems from the remarkable absence created by the Holocaust: Its victims, those who might remember, were killed in such contiguous mass that nearly all of those who might remember the dead were amongst the dead. As a percentage of victims, actual survivors of the Holocaust are extraordinarily few. Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 documentary, Shoah, makes this remarkably apparent. Released after eleven years of production, and running nearly as many hours (nine), it refused to use historical footage, relying solely on interviews. This exclusive use of subjective memory, relayed through the limited medium of speech, combined with the exhaustive (and exhausting) mass of the film, has the effect of demonstrating just how little memory actually existed. At most death camps, everyone was killed. Auschwitz has become so synonymous with the Holocaust largely because it, uniquely, wasn’t solely a death camp, and thus there are survivors to talk about the place. By contrast, between 800,000 and a million Jews were sent to Treblinka of whom all but a couple of hundred were murdered. 200,000 or 300,000 Jews were sent to Chelmno of whom no more than five survived the war.
Consider this: world Jewish populations have not yet quite reached, nearly seventy years later, their pre-Holocaust numbers. During this same time, overall world population has multiplied by seven.
Without a clear “who” to do the remembering, the question becomes “if” and “how,” a problem that echoes the line from the Passover Seder, “God brought me out from Egypt,” a line that suggests the possibility of suffering an act done for which one could not possibly be physically present. This raises the question of what it might mean to say, as Ozick, Sebald, and Grossman seem to say, “The Holocaust happened to me.”
Still, I suspect that for many the question of how, aesthetically, to respond to the Holocaust, and to the postmodern aesthetic that followed it, probably seems passé: a “so what?” in response to postulations of what postmodernism might be, and thus what the response to it might be. Personally, I only loosely connected it to the period post World War II even though I bridled at the philosophical restraints that I felt it imposed upon me as a writer—imposed not purposefully, but because I bought poststructuralism’s arguments, both those aesthetic, which were about the importance of play and invention, and, more importantly, those existential, central to which was the impossibility of agency, and the magnitude of the mistake of trying to effect change through art. Why such a mistake? Because the apparent alternative was some version of Social Realism, a category that, for me, has broadened from the socialist texts produced by the former communist block countries to include all realist production motivated by an explicit, already arrived at, social justice motivated message. Social Realism, these arguments claimed—and I believed—was misguided because:
- It and its ilk made (make) for bad (dull) art.
- It reinforced hegemonic systems and a Hegelian notion of history by reinforcing the narrative structures through which that oppressive power made itself seem natural because the system in which it existed was necessarily hierarchical, with the only real opportunity for difference being in who managed to occupy which tier. (Note that the American intellectual’s romance with social justice by judiciary means translates to expanding the class of those to whom full civic rights are afforded, not changing the structure in which such rights exist. In other words, it privileges assimilation over reconstruction. For more on this, read Gregory Flaxman’s excellent 2006 essay for symplokē, “The Future of Utopia”).
- Worse still, to pretend that Social Realism—or any production of art—is meaningful action towards social justice prevents actual, substantive action by substituting art for deed, convincing audiences that they’ve taken action merely by virtue of passively consuming art, and thereby convincing others to substitute artistic production for action.
(Note: It’s important to state, as I’ll state again later, that I still largely agree with these complaints about Social Realism. In general, I agree with the dangers of activist representation outlined above. It’s simply that I no longer believe that those dangers ought to serve as an excuse to not engage those portions of human experience, that, as Georges Bataille would say, include anguish and evil. And, I no longer believe that Social Realism is the only alternative to postmodernism by which to engage that portion of experience.)
It wasn’t until I finally saw Shoah in 2007 that I began to fully comprehend the depth and magnitude, the foundational nature, of the relationship between postmodernism and WWII’s horrors (and Stalinism’s). In watching Shoah, I began to see what performing absence might look like, aesthetically. It connected for me, at least on an intuitive level, and it created an urgency within me. I started really caring, frantically caring, about what a post-postmodern might be, and of what actually made postmodernism postmodernism beyond a set of aesthetic moves.
The moves—fragmentation, self-reflexivity, destabilized subjectivity, auto-generative text, awareness (and destabilization) of a reader, concrete text, absurdism—were built onto modernism’s innovations, and were all initially devised to point at the materiality of the text itself. This effect led to Francois Lyotard’s proposed distinction of postmodernism from modernism based on a shift from epistemological inquiry (what knowledge is and how it can be acquired; or, in the case of modernist text, how the text knows what it knows) to ontological inquiry (what makes a human, human; or, in the case of a postmodern text, what makes the text, text). His distinction, however, centered on the presence in a work of aesthetic devices that have since been appropriated by the literatures of other cultures to different ends.
I began to wonder if the common element of these continental postmodern texts wasn’t their particular aesthetic moves after all, or even their privileging of textual materiality, but rather their deployment of those devices and that privileging in a fashion designed to prove the text’s political and ethical inconsequentiality precisely because texts were material, and thus could be nothing more than text unless a reader chose to make them so.
That suspicion forced me to reconsider whether texts could have agency; and if they could, and did, then mustn’t they have ethics as well? And what would that look like? And what could that look like?
Even then, I still viewed the Holocaust as something that preceded me, something that I never would, and never should, write about—an overused rhetorical trope, too often trotted out to justify problematic political action. But, in 2010, between projects while waiting for my debut novel, Sarah/Sara (Ig Publishing), to come out, a sentence came to me while I weeded my parking strip: “Seven days before his thirty-fifth birthday, Jacob Paul discovered, to his dismay, that his life was the dream of a man slowly gassed in the back of a box truck headed from the Chelmno extermination camp to a mass grave in the Polish woods.”
It was the kind of sentence that I wanted nothing to do with. I certainly didn’t want to write anything (fictional) in which I was the protagonist. A week later, the sentence was still there. Two weeks later, it had found a friend. Three weeks later, I gave in and began writing the sentences down. Three years later, I’ve finally finished that novel, Chelmno Dreaming (at least, I think, for now). In the interim, however, near the beginning of 2012, I took a break from Chelmno Dreaming to begin work on a memoir about the interconnections of my relationships with religion, outdoor adventure, terrorism, and 9/11. I started writing about my adolescence in Portland, Oregon, and the freedom public transit to remote fishing holes offered, and what I found I was doing was spewing bile about the Holocaust’s umbrage over everything I did growing up. It was the old Lithuanian man who gave me a ride home from the Sandy River when I’d missed the bus, and who, while showing me his fishing gear, opened the doors of the roaring furnace in his basement (he used it to melt lead for sinkers, and to heat his home). It was the men in our congregation who insisted that I learn how to use a rifle. It was the way I daydreamed escape routes from synagogue during services—an act that also required imagining the way the commandos might come to kill us all. What I wrote shocked me. It wasn’t what I wanted to write. Two months into the project, I stopped, not for lack of momentum, but out of antipathy towards the product of that momentum.
Though regardless of genre, I can see now that I had been looking for answers to those questions about postmodernism ever since that 2007 watching of Shoah. That inquiry led first to an essay that argued for a definition of postmodernism based upon a work’s implied claims about its agency rather than by its aesthetic moves (“Jacob Paul and his Friends Work out the Difference between Post and Modern,” Massachusetts Review, Spring 2012), and then to a new approach to the memoir project (and the novel), and then to an essay about mimesis (“Columbus Day: Mimesis Is Thievery,” Bendinggenre.com, October 2013), and then to this piece, which began as a review of Gabi Gleichmann’s debut novel The Elixir of Immortality, translated from the Norwegian by Michael Meigs and published in the U.S. last month by Other Press. I was excited to read and review Gleichmann’s book because I hoped it would do what Shoah had done for me, and what Grossman, Sebald, and Ozick had done after that, which, in the simplest of terms, was to struggle with ideas in a way that forced me to struggle with them too. Ozick herself had blurbed Elixir, which was promising. And the jacket copy claimed the book told “the real story” of the Spinoza clan—all 800 years of it. A Holocaust novel by someone born after the Holocaust who doesn’t simply write about the Holocaust.
Alas, Elixir did not offer what I was looking for, but figuring out why, attempting to figure out why, forced me to clarify what it was that I wanted that book to do. It led me to this extensive not-a-review of Elixir of Immortality. And what is this, this not-review? It’s an argument that starts with these notions:
The postmoderns aren’t wrong. It is terrifying to think that ideas exist in their expression rather than some Platonic form; and that, therefore, like any other signifying system, once expressed, ideas depend for meaning upon the subjectivity of those who encounter them, meaning that ideas suggested with the best of intentions can end up authorizing horrible, unthinkable things. Ergo, it is terrifying to put ideas about the world beyond a text’s margins within those margins.
Yet to conclude that because subjectivity exists, because the creators of ideas, art, and text do not necessarily have any control—let alone absolute control—over how those ideas are encountered and repurposed by others, to conclude that therefore the individual is completely unbeholden to any notion of agency, ethics, or morals, well, perhaps the decision to reach that conclusion is a response not just nihilistic, or feeble, or cowardly, but complicit with oppressive power in the very fashion it claims its rejection rejects.
I’m not arguing against the aesthetic innovations of postmodernism or its texts. If I take issue with anything, it is with the particular relationship continental postmodern texts bear to mimesis, ethics, and agency. I want to suggest the reasonableness—perhaps necessity—of an anxiety about the dangers of that philosophical and aesthetic position, an anxiety that also internalizes the anxieties that led to the postmodern position in the first place, an anxiety that has mandated and mandates further aesthetic innovation, innovations I believe Lanzmann, Ozick, Grossman, and Sebald develop.
That anxiety is my own anxiety. To some extent it has always been my anxiety, manifesting as a question of how to speak/why bother to speak/can we speak/mustn’t we speak. It’s an anxiety that’s gained shape and edges and intensity these last ten years.
I took my PhD qualifying exams May of 2007. As that date approached, I crammed the remaining books on my list with increasing speed. During the final phase I was reading, by necessity, more than a book a day. While this shocked none of my PhD committee—they knew me, and they knew exam study—when one member learned that my cram pile included Emmanuel Levinas’ 1961 Totality and Infinity, he insisted that I not read it all until after my exams, promising not to test me on it. At that point, I didn’t even know how the book had made it onto my exam list, much less what it was about. At any rate, it didn’t take much to convince me to postpone reading it until the summer following.
The summer prior, I’d ridden my bicycle by myself across the desert from home in Salt Lake City to San Francisco. The long, slow, solitary days had induced a kind of ecstatic and horrifying boredom that felt both powerful and a little bit mad. I’d decided that solo bike touring was more Ayahuasca than party drug, and should be treated with commensurate respect. But, at the far end of my exam reading, I found myself at a kind of intellectual wit’s end. I wanted a vacation from challenging reading, and I was too souped-up on challenging reading to find easy narrative interesting. It all bored me: film, pulp, TV. Plus, the woman I was living with was spending the summer bicycling from the Baltic up to Germany with one of my best friends. The only reasonable thing to do seemed to be to buy a one-way ticket for my seasonal visit to the east coast and then bicycle home to Salt Lake.
I rode the way I’d write a novel, not choosing a route but a destination (home), several waypoints (Buffalo and St. Paul), and a potential climax (the 6000-foot climb over the Beartooth Pass between Billings, Montana, and Yellowstone National Park). I carried on my bicycle as little as I could. Even so, camping gear, clothing, sundries and two full water bottles summed to seventy pounds. This is remarkably light for a loaded touring bike. It’s also a tremendous amount of weight to pedal 3,000 miles.
For evening reading material I carried the Levinas, in part because I’d promised to read it, and in part because though it weighed more than most paperbacks, it was also clearly dense enough to last as long as I might ride.
Totality and Infinity is Emmanuel Levinas’ full bore attack on that foundational building block of Enlightenment thought, the Hegelian totality, the sum of a set of antitheses and its synthesis, which Levinas argues is inextricably tied to the eschatological longing of apocalyptic faith: Hegelian totality as death cult masquerading as reason. “Argues” feels like such an inadequate word to what Levinas actually does, which is something closer to what the prophet Ezra must have done in the last days before the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem.
As philosophy, Totality and Infinity was everything my anxiety had craved: each convulsed word shuddered out from a Derridean (or, really, Heisenbergian) knowledge, an awareness that a system forced to observe itself from within itself can not only never be adequate to its task, but necessarily changes the subject of its study by dint of its observation. Yet, instead of making that awareness the point of his essay, and focusing on exteriority as had most of his contemporaries, or ignoring the problem as facile, as had those branches of philosophy not invested in structuralism and its discontents, Levinas grappled towards an understanding of interiority—and not just interiority, but interiority of the other. His is ultimately an act of invocation: the experience of others, his efforts demonstrate, is radically unknowable. This unknowability becomes an infinite. Infinity, in turn, undoes totality, eviscerates its neat, austere march towards eschatology. Infinity, the impossibility of the project of understanding interiority, thus becomes the antidote to the death cult. The impossible project of knowing the other becomes the only endeavor worth attempting. And yet, that interiority is not a fixed infinite, but also within the system observing it, also subject to change. What does the language aware of all this look like? Like this:
The alterity, the radical heterogeneity of the other, is possible only if the other is other with respect to a term whose essence is to remain at the point of departure, to serve as entry into the relation, to be the same not relatively but absolutely. A term can remain absolutely at the point of departure of relationship only as I.
Applied to poetics, the manner of Levinas’ language implies that every act of mimesis not only adds a representation, a replacement if you will, but changes the original such that if the original persists in any form, its form is now also a replacement, while the content of that language argues for a kind of impossibility of representation, because the alterity of the other, the extent to which the subject of representation cannot be known, is radical, not relative. And yet, and yet because the wonder of that radical otherness, unknowable, is a wonder only experienced through encounter, through relation to a fixed “I,” a subject, acts of mimesis—them the unique province of encounter with that which lies beyond touch—are therefore as imperative as they are impossible.
(There’s a rabbit hole here about surfaces, and reflectivity, and the way in which mimesis doesn’t replace the interiority of the original but the reflected surface of the other, which is, of course, the experience of that other by both the other and other others. See? Rabbit hole!)
Each night on my bike tour, I’d read a quarter of a page, or half of a page, often several times over, trying to decode the sentences, the paragraphs. It was a struggle just to get the sense of them. I’d then pass out in my tent to whatever my iPod shuffled. The next day, alone on the road for hour after slow hour, I’d contemplate the prior night’s reading. And out of that evolved these truths that were at once the mainstay of postwar theory and that theory’s opposite: the subjectivity of the other is ultimately unknowable; the person who dictates the mode of documenting an event, the historiographer, is a survivor, radically outside of the event he chronicles (even if that event is personal); if language is inadequate to experience, to subjectivity expressed, then the language arguing for that understanding is itself inadequate to even its own adage.
And yet, unlike everything else of this oeuvre I’d read, this wasn’t a clarion call to abnegation, abjection, and renunciation. Levinas did not seek liberation through diminution. Rather, his convulsed speech managed to argue for the sacredness of everything unknowable, everything ineffable, of the interiority of other beings. And because every encounter with a conscious being was an encounter with an unknowable other possessed of an ineffable experience, every encounter was an encounter with the divine, was a moment for humility and of wonder. No one could claim knowledge of the experience of another. No one could claim knowledge of the Holocaust. No one could claim the memory its victims. That inability to know made the subjects of that attempted knowing divine, located deity within the radical unknowability of the experience of the other, and not just the other of the Holocaust, but the others of one’s everyday life.
Though Levinas’ work was the bravest, most wondrous, humblest, hardest thing I’d read, and though it was a clarion call to something, anything, beyond the rejection of agency so adeptly championed in Robbes-Grillet’s 1965 collection of essays, For a New Novel, which argues that the only relationship between text and the world is additive, that texts are additional realities, not reflections of the realities beyond their covers, and thus cannot be beholden to any goal or ideology other than their own aesthetic play, a rejection so often beautifully enacted in the infinite shell games of postwar Europe’s best novels—novels like Lolita, Mahu or the Material, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, and The Tin Drum—still, Totality and Infinity was philosophy, not narrative. And though, like the canon of poststructuralist philosophy within which it struggled, its form performed its argument, the formal innovations in Totality and Infinity were not really a useful set of aesthetic innovations that could be repurposed in a novel to solve for the ethical and philosophical problems Levinas raised.
Enter David Grossman’s See Under: Love.
David Grossman’s 1986 novel, See Under: Love (English translation 1989), which I’ve previously written about for Numero Cinq, follows Momik the child of Holocaust survivors through four formal experiments. In each of these, the text attempts to discover what the Holocaust is, the key to which understanding lies in a mentally-shattered survivor who’d once been a writer of children’s stories, Anschel Wasserman, who a young Momik calls “grandfather.” Momik believes that Wasserman told a last, perfect story to the Commandant of Treblinka, a Herr Neigel. Momik spends the novel attempting to write this story, a pursuit that begins in the book’s second experiment with Momik’s attempt to rescue Bruno Schulz from his murder by a Gestapo officer. This escape is effected through Momik’s imagining of Schulz escaping death by traveling to see Munch’s Scream, and then leaping into the North Sea.
On the one hand, Grossman’s book seems to make the mistake of so many Holocaust descriers: Look! Bruno Schulz, a genius, was killed in a senseless act! Think what great books the world has been denied because of the Nazis! As if every life murdered by the Nazis didn’t equally deserve to live, as if some lex talionis-based system of jurisprudence didn’t just dictate the remuneration for life lost, but determined the worth of saving a given life. But, Schulz’s death is gruesome in a way that exemplifies what the Holocaust was: because Schulz was an expert muralist, a Gestapo officer claimed him as his house slave. That Gestapo officer’s rival also had a Jewish slave. The officer who’d enslaved Schulz killed the Jew his rival had enslaved out of spite towards the rival. In retaliation, that rival officer shot Schulz. Schulz isn’t a metaphor; he’s an example of Germans thinking that killing a Jew is a more civil, more humane, way of getting back at a rival than resorting to violence against that rival. What right do any of us have to tell that story? To make art of that story? The hell with right, what capacity do any of us have to convey Schulz’s death?
Grossman’s aesthetic solution is to, through attempting to replace the impossibly lost, highlight the elision of the actual events, their inaccessibility, their unknowable-ness. His multiple attempts manifest as a variety of narrative modes that sum to an aesthetic and textual exhaustion. This exhaustion serves to invoke the sensibility of the one thing that cannot be confined to literal language: what the Holocaust actually is. This invocation, this understanding through metaphoric action, means invoking the Holocaust itself. In the first experiment, “Momik,” Momik does exactly this. He reads what he can find about the Holocaust, and filtering it through his little boy brain, he tries to piece the “beast” together in the cellar of the apartment building managed by his parents in which he lives. He hangs images on the walls. To these he begins to add animals in cages: a baby raven fallen from its nest, a cat, a lizard who sheds its tail as soon as Momik captures it. He cares for these creatures, penned in the dark. He labels them. He wonders whether his cruelty isn’t the beast itself. The apartment building is in a Tel Aviv neighborhood populated by Holocaust survivors. While most of the survivors, including Momik’s parents, are mostly functional, a contingent, including “Grandpa Anschel,” are radically broken, whether because, like Grandpa Anschel, they’re essentially mute, or because they’re prone to midnight, naked, mid-street ravings at the tops of their lungs. To the young Momik, their behavior appears spectacular and closer to the “truth” of the Holocaust. And, because these old, ravaged Jews seem closer to the kind of “Juden” Momik believes the “Beast” preys upon, it is upon them that Momik focuses as he tries to understand the “Beast.” It’s no accident that these characters best hold the reader’s interest as well. (It’s also a clever move to make the most “Jewish” characters the most narratively interesting.)
Momik brings these broken victims down to see the museum of horrors and caged live creatures. Before them, he opens the cages, but the caged animals, afraid of each other, refuse to move, crying and screaming, until the basement fills with fear. Momik begins to wish that the people he’s brought down to the cellar would perform like Jews, so that he could finally see what a “Jude” was. When Momik’s audience witness the horrors, they begin telling stories, they begin keening and wailing, until Momik sees them as repulsive and stands sneering over Anschel Wasserman, screaming at him. And then, when the old people surround him in a circle that makes him feel safe from the beast until he opens his eyes and sees their pitying gaze, Momik “knew with all of his nine-and-a-half-year-old alter kopf intelligence that it was too late now.”
Momik understands what “the beast” is, and that he cannot undo what he’s just done. It’s crucial to understand that the Holocaust is not contained in Momik’s collection, or even in the animals he torments, but that the Holocaust is an act, that it is performed through the interaction between that collection of horrors and the people Momik subjects to them. To understand it, Momik must recreate the experience of the Holocaust, for him and for them; and to recreate the experience of the Holocaust, he must occupy the role of its perpetrator.
The moment of understanding for Momik, for Grossman, and for us, his readers, requires that we, too, recreate the Holocaust and become guilty of that perpetration. And so, to the extent that we understand, to that extent we are guilty through understanding. If the Seder offers a precedent for saying “this happened to me,” then Grossman’s book suggests the story of Lot’s wife: to look back at God’s destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is to share their fate. And yet, Grossman’s book suggests, to not look back, to not try to understand, is to refuse to engage the conditions of one’s existence, which also smacks of immorality, or worse still, of inhumanity: to not try to understand evil is to be evil. The rejection, then, is even more complicit in the Holocaust than is the guilt of invoking it. Somewhere in this paradox-laden web of guilt and complicity is a realization that the invocation is ultimately of something ineffable, and that ineffable thing, the sense of the unknowable-ness of the experience of others, also invokes the divinity of that otherness, a divinity located not in the events, but in the interiority of those who suffered the events.
Here’s the thing: by choosing to try to know, we become guilty, and know that we are guilty. By not trying, we are still guilty, but avoid having to realize that guilt. So we must become necessarily guilty. Lot tries to save his neighbors. Failing to do so, he flees and does not look at the punishment of those left behind. Lot’s wife recognizes that she is already one of those destroyed, and so looks back. It’s more moral to gaze, Grossman’s book argues, though we may consequently be turned to a pillar of salt, than to not witness the destruction.
As a matter of aesthetics and craft, pulling this off isn’t an easy task. It asks that the text not just point out the problems, or relay the story of the thing, but viscerally perform something beyond the text’s capacity to explicitly state. Shoah certainly does this by causing its viewers to realize the enormity of who the film can’t interview, thus performing their absence. Were Shoah to show historical footage, it would grant a simulacrum of access to the actual thing, and thus preclude access to the absence.
Perhaps what I mean here by “simulacrum of access” is not altogether different from Socrates original complaint about art in the Republic. There, he claims that art is a “mimesis of a mimesis,” or a representation of a representation (the actual thing in the world) of an ideal form. Thus, art is simply imitation. While by “simulacrum” here I don’t exactly mean imitation, I do mean to add an additional layer of distance between viewer and subject matter. It’s a meta-simulacrum, a shadow of a shadow, to play off the metaphor of the cave. I guess I do mean imitation, but by imitation, I mean counterfeit, but counterfeit not in the precision of replication so much as in that it replaces the thing it claims to be.
That simulacrum, of which I’d accuse, say, Schindler’s List, allows the audience to feel repulsed at the actions of others. It allows them to feel that whatever happened is beyond their imagining, beyond their imagining because they haven’t been forced to imagine it. This allows that audience an unassailed position from which to safely judge what others, never they, do. This, I believe, allows an audience to become an “innocent” beneficiary of the Holocaust, makes of the audience members Holocaust consumers allowed the pleasure of “knowing,” and passing judgment, and thrilling at the horror of it, and feeling morally superior, without cost. It is exactly the passive consumption of art that I mentioned earlier, the substitution of artistic production for action.
Shoah and See Under: Love demand active engagement.
I am deeply uneasy with the notion of passive consumption of the Holocaust. My friend and former professor, the poet Jacqueline Osherow, once told me of how her relatives, who were survivors, praised Schindler’s List. But, she’d complained to them, isn’t that film bullshit? Of course it is, they told her, but who would ever go see a movie about what the Holocaust actually was? It’s because they’re right, because they, like the assembly of ancients who gently encircle Momik in his basement while he stands over Grandpa Anschel, would view with great pity anyone who sought out the Holocaust that I find myself so opposed to Schindler’s List and its ilk: it’s one thing to ignore the Holocaust, but to make of it a story of redemption? Of a German’s redemption?
After reading Grossman’s book, I found my way to Cynthia Ozick’s 1987 novel, The Messiah of Stockholm, via Bruno Schulz. Ozick’s book also grapples with the philosophic questions that drive Grossman; and, though she arrives at different aesthetic innovations, her results align with his. Her book also operates by creating a paradox that invokes an ineffable truth of the Holocaust. In the novel, Lars, an orphaned book reviewer, convinces himself that his real father is Bruno Schulz. Possessed of this belief, Lars sets off to learn Polish and to seek out Schulz’s lost, last novel, The Messiah, which Lars presumes to be a perfect final work. But, ultimately, his only access, first to Polish, and then to the manuscript itself, is through the absurd intrigue of an outlandish family of con artists. He realizes that they are cons, and a family, even as he finishes an ecstatic first read of The Messiah. Because the manuscript has come to him through frauds and cons, Lars becomes convinced of the manuscript’s fraudulence, and therefore his own. He burns it, failing to realize that the only real thing is the manuscript. He burns it even though the reading experience is ecstatic, and does meet his wildest expectations. Thus, Ozick manages to suggest that the only way to access that lost in the Holocaust is to become a fraud, to barter with frauds, and to ultimately destroy the very thing one wishes to rescue from the Holocaust—the price of the hubris of attempting to mitigate the loss caused by the Holocaust is to be a perpetrator of the Holocaust.
The family who provide Lars with The Messiah are themselves survivors. Their means of escaping the German’s killing become the network of their postwar smuggling and counterfeiting operations. The disguises that they adopt to survive the war become their only mode of interacting with the world. They set up their elaborate con to deliver to Lars a real manuscript because they believe that no one will ever believe them shy of them conning. One gets the sense that if they resemble the strange characters in a Chagall painting, it is because like Chagall’s figures, they are in the sky, placed there by Nazi smokestacks. In The Elixir of Immortality’s perhaps best move, it echoes those smokestacks in its mute author’s literal smoking of the secret sacred text after which the novel is named, using its pages as rolling papers.
And, lest the reader assume that The Elixir of Immortality is guilty of Shindler’s List-ism, I want to clarify that it is not. It’s a book that engages the same problem of the loss of the record of the loss, as do Shoah, The Messiah of Stockholm, and See Under: Love. Though, ultimately, it loses its nerve, or perhaps simply lacks adequate capacity, in the face of the enormity of its project: even as it tries to perform the absence created by the Holocaust—or rather, the long history of European persecution of Jews—it begins filling that absence with an endless series of short anecdotes, most of which summarize an entire biography, especially towards the end. And, rather than positioning guilt (and thus, accountability) in the reader, it simply makes its (many) protagonists given to do evil as often as good: it concedes the purity of its replacement heroes. This feels like the difference between struggling with ideas in direct ways that force me to also uncomfortably struggle with them, versus transposing those struggles onto characters who then grapple with them off-stage. It’s an easy way out—akin to describing things as Kafka-esque rather than describing them as Kafka would.
Performing the absence of the Holocaust is hard. Forcing an active, potentially guilty, readerly engagement is really, really hard.
Then there’s Sebald.
Perhaps it makes sense that Sebald, as the child of Nazis rather than the child of survivors, would attempt to access the horror of his origins by an exhaustion of the texts available to him rather than through an invocation of a text written and destroyed. If the oppressed people’s loss is in the preemptive erasure of their potential expression, then the perpetrators’ loss is in the inadequacy of their thinking—and, I’m not in any way implying that Sebald is a perpetrator of oppression, or a Nazi, or anything like that. In a way, the two concepts, that of erasure and inadequacy, amount to the same thing. Grossman certainly seems to suggest this in the pitying gaze of the ancients to which Momik opens his eyes and discovers that he is not safe from the beast even within their circle: that the inadequacy of thinking lies in believing that being the Nazi, being evil, somehow insulates one from the horror of evil acts. In this sense, Germany was both guilty of the Holocaust and also absolutely ravaged by the horrors of the war they began. Rather than balancing, the two things become cumulative.
In the cases of both erasure and inadequacy, the thing that should be accessed, needs to be known, should have been known, can’t be accessed. In The Rings of Saturn, the unnamed narrator uses the sights along a walking tour in England to trigger breathtaking meditations, ruminations that travel through centuries, millennium, of human thought, thought in every discipline of human study, documented in every manner of human expression. And yet these inquiries can never quite yield answers. Even though they depict a world succumbing to the annihilation wrought by people, by civilization, by thought, they make clear that this isn’t the extent of what they have to offer, want to offer, or believe. The thing that they cannot say lies just past them. Nowhere does the book make this clearer than in its attempt to understand Roger Casement, the one Victorian official who insisted, at great personal cost, on descrying colonial behavior in Africa. Each answer the book attempts it rejects as inadequate until it finally settles on the notion that Casement did what he did because he was an invert.
The absurdity of the answer points at the answer the book cannot say, or rather that the book refuses to explicitly say because it cannot say it adequately: Casement did it because he was good. The reader must either accept that Casement’s homosexuality explains away his altruism, or, in rejecting that, invoke within themselves a truth that transcends what is effable.
All of these works make this move in some fashion. They all propose Levinas’ refrain: that which is in conflict, that which we can’t quite say, ideas seemingly opposed, aren’t antitheses in pursuit of some deterministic end, but indicators of all the points absent between them. The opposition points not at totality, but at the infinity from which what we can say is so minutely culled. Like Levinas, these books seem to propose that our mistake is not in seeking, like Kant, the “good,” but in imagining we might be up to the task of confining it to a cage.
Taken in sum, these five works set, if not a comprehensive suite of aesthetic devices, a fairly useful metric for when such devices are successful. The post-postmodern, the contemporary Holocaust novel, the account by the survivor of the Holocaust or of whatever, ought do the following:
It should perform absence.
It should perform the impossibility of knowing.
It should be aware of the necessity of trying anyway, and try.
It should be aware of the guilt inherent in trying, and try anyway.
It should make the complicity inherent in not trying worse still.
It should possess humility commensurate with its inadequacy to its subject.
It should invoke all of these things in the reader, so that the reader possesses and performs them too.
And maybe, if it isn’t too much to ask, it should add some measure of wonder and beauty.