27 Jan 2015

Ruth Klüger – HOLOCAUST AESTHETICS

Av: Yvonne Ihmels

För  tiotalet år sedan utkom professor emerita Ruth Klügers självbiografiska Weiterleben, Leva vidare, ut på svenska. En berättelse om en 12-årig flickas upplevelser av Auschwitz tillsammans med sin mamma. Boken innehåller plågsamma redogörelser för livet i lägret men den är också en berättelse om det ibland komplicerade förhållandet mellan en mor och en dotter. Boken utkom […]

För  tiotalet år sedan utkom professor emerita Ruth Klügers självbiografiska Weiterleben, Leva vidare, ut på svenska. En berättelse om en 12-årig flickas upplevelser av Auschwitz tillsammans med sin mamma. Boken innehåller plågsamma redogörelser för livet i lägret men den är också en berättelse om det ibland komplicerade förhållandet mellan en mor och en dotter. Boken utkom 1992 och för ett par år sedan deltog Ruth Klüger i ett minnesprogram kring Förintelsen. Hon berättade när vi möttes att hennes mamma levde fram till 2000 och att hon försökte hålla boken hemlig för henne. Hon ville inte att hennes amma skulle läsa att hon framställt henne i en dålig dager. Men på något sätt hade hon kommit över boken ändå, men hon läste aldrig i den,bläddrade bara, berättar Ruth Klüger. I hennes tal på årsdagen 27 januari valde Ruth Klüger att tala kring  holocaustestetiken, en medvetet provokativ titel, för ett resonemang hur man som överlevare och författare beskriver Förintelsens fasor.

  Med benäget tillstånd återger vi hennes tal nedan.

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Professor emerita Ruth Klüger               Foto:Yvonne Ihmels

I have called my remarks HOLOCAUST AESTHETICS which is a deliberate provocation, for isn’t it an oxymoron and might you not ask, what can be aesthetic about the Holocaust? More than any other literary content, the Holocaust as subject overwhelms the pleasure that we expect of the aesthetic experience. And that is the question I want to raise as the basic problem we face when we speak about Holocaust literature or when we produce it.   And yet, none of us would have come to this seminar, if we didn’t believe that literature is one of several ways which we have to understand  our experience and to bring order into our memories of the past.

 

         Let me illustrate the dilemma from my own experience. Not long ago, I was signing copies my memoir of my  childhood in Nazi Europe which deals with my survival of three concentration camps including a 12-year  old’s unlikely  escape of the gas chambers of  Birkenau.  A young woman came up to me with her copy of the book to  have it signed.  As I did so, she said to me with a winning smile: “I love the Holocaust.”  As you can imagine, my jaw dropped;  of course she didn’t mean that she loved the event, all she meant to say was that she loved to read books about the Holocaust.  But her naïve and undisguised pleasure brought up the question: Should she love to read about the Holocaust?  Isn’t art, even tragic art, meant to make us feel good and should we in any shape or form feel positive and empowered or cathartically purged when we contemplate the extinction of a people?   My impulse was to say to this woman: You shouldn’t. Stop reading these books if you enjoy them.  And I remembered a student in a Holocaust literature course I taught who had the honesty to admit that he was troubled by the fact that he enjoyed reading the violent scenes in Jerzy Kosinsky’s “The Painted Bird.”  The novel is very graphic and the  next time I taught this course, I didn’t put it on the reading list, even though I still liked it.  For I didn’t want to risk evoking a sadistic pleasure in my students.  This would not have been a consideration for me in any class other than one on Holocaust literature.

         On the other hand, and in direct opposition to my reaction to the woman who loved the Holocaust and the student who enjoyed the depiction of  inflicted suffering,  is the view of a colleague in my academic department.  He was in the Hitler Youth as a child and as a young man in the Wehrmacht and admits that in those days he was a convinced Nazi.  I met him many years later and for a long time now he has been a friend with whom I am mostly in agreement  on many issues.  He says: “The Nazi period was only an episode in German history, twelve years of a thousand.  Of course to you,” he adds condescendigly, “it was more.  But that’s a matter of perspective,” implying that his is the better perspective, because it includes more years.  And to him I want to say: No, no let’s not forget, let’s remember with all the means at our disposal, including literature, which is his and my field.  For it is the crime and the great calamity that counts, not the time that it took to commit it.  It’s no excuse for a murderer to say: “I have lived for forty years and it only took me half a day to kill my family and my neighbors.  The rest of the time I was innocent.”  Isn’t the Holocaust a central event in Germany’s history, regardless how long Hitler was in power?  So we argue, and I am uncomfortable because of my inconsistency.

         Let us call it the Adorno problem.  Or maybe you want to call it Adorno’s cop-out.  Most of you, I am sure, know what I am talking about, but let me summarize it. After reading one of the most impressive literary works about the Holocaust, Celan’s poem. “Todesfuge” (Fugue of Death) Theodor Adorno, the founder of  Critical Theory,  famously proclaimed that  to write poems after Auschwitz was barbaric.  He modified this pronouncement later, so that it might read: Let’s not have any poems about  (rather than after) Auschwitz.  That’s still pretty authoritarian but not quite as bad as it sounds at first.  For it comes in a context about the dialectical relationship of enlightenment and barbarism and how one can paradoxically morph into the other.  But the reason why the sentence has produced so much controversy and commentary and is still worth discussing today is precisely the question I posed at the start and that is not easy to answer and leaves us with a squeamish feeling, no matter how we answer it, that is, the question whether imaginative literature is a permissible vehicle for the recollection of mass murder.  Adorno didn’t say that Celan’s “Fugue of Death” was a poor poem or even a second-rate poem. Perhaps he was even shocked by his own deep aesthetic response like all sensitive readers of Celan’s work, and presumably mistrusted these emotions: Should one react positively to what has grown on such soil?   And so he threw in the towel and declared that this enjoyment was barbaric.  Yet the question remains valid and the dilemma is real and must be seriously weighed.

         A rebuttal to Adorno must begin with the premise that poetry is one possible means of interpreting experience – more than that, of coping with experience.  And who is to say that some experience is proper for such interpretation, while other kinds had best be left to the archivists only? From a personal standpoint I might ask, ‘Why do you wish to ghettoize, in a literary way, my childhood experience, but consider everyone else’s, including your own, fit subject for poetry?  Why may poetry interpret war, death, sickness, sex, any number of unappetizing psychological states, but not the camps?“  Are you not playing God in Paradise, telling us that we may eat everything that the Garden provides except this fruit, from this tree, which tellingly is called the Tree of Knowledge.  Knowledge of Good and Evil, knowledge of  the camps, in our case.

         But, you might argue on the other side, isn’t the literary treatment of  genocide a kind of escapism?  Now  poetry – and by extension prose literature as well – has always been a means of escape from  misery and seemingly unbearable grief, a way to transcend material hardship through mental effort.  Many former inmates of the camps, myself included, can bear witness that it functioned in this way.  I was incessantly reciting and composing verse as a child in the camps. And if it was right during the war, how could it become wrong after the war?  Well, the answer might be: Because in one case it was an aid to surviving, in the other case it may be cheap escapism.  My counterargument to this answer is:  It always depends on what you escape from and where your means of escape leads you.  If you escape from a prison into freedom – whether actual, physical freedom or freedom of thought –, escape is not only justified, it’s desirable.  That is what art does, it gives us a kind of freedom of movement, a place where thought and emotion meet and “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” are left behind and at the same time better understood.  The other kind, what we usually mean and what we disparage when we call it “escapism,” provides us with easy solutions and with voyeuristic sensations.  These sensations include the sadistic and the sentimental, and the Holocaust lends itself to exploitation by both. The art of literature advances the truth, its flip side is a bunch of lies, one is poetry, the other is kitsch; we as readers and critics have to decide which is which.  The discussion about the artistic or literary memorialization of the Holocaust often gets mired when we categorically refuse or hesitate to apply the critical standards with which we approach other literary works.              

         Another eminent Jewish writer who has weighed in on the question is Elie Wiesel who maintains that no novels can or should be written about Auschwitz.  He recommends that only historians and survivors are in a position to do justice to the great Jewish catastrophe. But historians, too, often use aesthetic means to convey their intentions and those intentions are often as selective as those of novelists.  As for survivors memoirs, some choose to write about their experiences in fictional form, in the third person.  There is also the late Jorge Semprun, or Imre Kertesz or the Austrian Fred Wander.  And here in Stockholm we must not forget the incomparable Cordelia Edvardson, who switches in her memoir from first person to second and then to third person, an effect that she uses to extraordinary aesthetic advantage )and from whom I learned that verse can have a place in such memoirs).  These are literary elements used to enhance the historical impact. 

         Should we question the validity of these books because of  their methods of presentation?  We don’t, for we feel they are not deceptive as in the notorious case of  Bruno Dössekker, alias Binjamin Wilkomirski, a Swiss non-Jew  who invented a Holocaust childhood out of whole cloth and caused a justifiable furor when the fraud was discovered.  When his book was published it was greeted with words  that were more appropriate to fiction than to history.  For instance, from the New York Times:   "Wilkomirski recalls the Holocaust with the powerful immediacy of innocence, injecting well-documented events w. fresh terror and poignancy.  Constructed like flashes of memory, his book unfolds in bursts of association, the way children tell stories… He writes with a poet’s vision, a  child’s state of grace." 

         Wilkomirski’s German publisher Suhrkamp was warned early on that there was something fishy about this autobiography.  They stopped the presses and sent a scout to Israel to consult historians and psychiatrists, people  who, however,  can only have guessed whether these memories were plausible, not if they were true. Then they asked the author to write a postscript and went ahead with the production of the book.

         Yet in this postscript Wilkomirski virtually warned the readers that they are not necessarily reading a fact-based book, though he didn’t call it a fiction either.  He wrote: "Legally accredited truth is one thing  – the truth of a life another.” [“Die juristisch beglaubigte Wahrheit ist eine Sache, die  eines Lebens eine andere.”]  This is a fancy way of saying: never mind the facts that can be verified, it’s what’s in my head that matters and who cares about the relation between the two? 

         When  fictional and historical categories become  inextricably entangled, does it matter which is which?  Of course it does.  After Wilkomirski’s work turned out to be a fraud, some critics tried to salvage it as a work of fiction.  They argued, if it was good writing when we thought it was a memoir, then it must be good fiction, now we know it’s invented.  But the opposite is true.  Once the book was seen as historically false, it became at the same time literary kitsch.  What had seemed to be a child’s sincere outcry now seemed a manipulative imitation of suffering, exactly as it would in real life, if we hear someone crying and it turns out that he has fooled us.

         Equally vexing to me is the book of one of the most highly regarded Auschwitz survivors, the Polish non-Jew Tadeusz Borowski. His  stories about the camp, originally entitled “A World of Stone,” is composed as fiction, with structured plots, individual characters and direct dialogue.  Many of  the outrageous bits about Jews in that book may be invented; they are arguably anti-Semitic, for they show Jewish prisoners as the most corrupted.  It’s still a great book which may be why this aspect is swept under the rug.

         The Holocaust is such a major perversion of  civilization in our own time, that any misplacement of the facts strikes us as an intolerable violation.   I often stop reading a book where I recognize a willful or negligent misuse of  the Holocaust background.  The facts, whether they   play a major or a minor role, even  when they are just used as a sort of  decoration, a significant reference in another context,  should be checked,  they shouldn’t be falsified or in any way manipulated. For example,don’t put women into men’s camps, only because the names of the latter are better known.  Or put gas chambers into camps where there were none.  Or mix up gas chambers and crematoria.  All meddling with the evidence denotes contempt vis-à-vis the very horror for which the author professes  his or her humanitarian concern.  It means that  the author was too lazy to look up the evidence or that he values his emotions higher than your, the reader’s claim to fathom what went on in the camps.

         So where does that leave us?  What does fiction owe to the facts and where may factual accounts avail themselves of fictional devices? 

If we ask these non-poetic questions directly,  the so-called "aesthetic experience” begins to lose its independence, frays at the edges, and merges and overlaps with other experiences. 

         In spite of Elie Wiesel’s warning, the bad news is that we can’t expect a lasting interest in mere invormation.  Memory haunts us if the fabric of society has been torn in our own time, but in the long run memory rests or at least becomes blurred, the weights shift, different events become foregrounded, others move to the back burner.  And maybe that’s just as well.  The present memorial cult seeks to inflict certain aspects of history and their presumed lessons on our children.  But its favorite mantra, “Let us remember, so the same thing doesn’t happen again,” is unconvincing.   To be sure, a  remembered massacre may serve as a deterrent, but it may also serve as a model for the next massacre.   We have seen this happen more than once since the end of  World War II.  And as for fact-based literature, who appears more often in film and fiction, the good or the bad,  Raoul Wallenberg or Dr. Mengele?

         The good news is that writers and critics of  Holocaust literature are in a unique position to reexamine these general problems and break new gronnd. For don’t these questions ultimately relate to all  imaginative works?    

         And that is the exciting challenge for future authors and critics.  They will have to judge both:   the historic view  and how a given work interprets and perhaps transcends and expands the event, aesthetically.  As the generation of survivors is dying, the next generations may find a touchstone to the reconciliation of  these two perspectives through examining the Shoah, or ultimate evil,  through art. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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