Critics, Monsters, Fanatics, and Other Literary Essays - Cynthia Ozick 2016


One of the most quoted comments of the twentieth century—Theodor Adorno’s “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”—has lost its relevance, if not its force, and is now obsolete. This stringently cautionary sentence derives from “Cultural Criticism and Society,” the essay in which it is embedded, together with a still more caustic remark: “Even the most extreme consciousness of doom threatens to degenerate into idle chatter.” Does poetry, then, equate to idle chatter? And to extend these notions further: after Auschwitz, do the multifaceted realms of literature, including the novel, all boil down to idle chatter?

However Adorno, the formidable German-Jewish philosopher of aesthetics, might have regarded such a proposition, it is not as outrageous as it may sound on first hearing. Adorno set down this dictum in 1949, when the ovens had scarcely cooled, and the now entrenched “Holocaust,” in its uniquely capitalized meaning, had not yet been established—partly because for a long time no single naming could sufficiently encompass it. The legal term “genocide,” coined in 1946 by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish-Jewish lawyer—forty-seven members of whose family were murdered—was ignited in the crucible of the German depredations, but is nowadays more broadly intended. Paul Celan, the Romanian-Jewish poet who survived only to drown himself afterward, avoided any representation or characterization, settling, with acid anonymity, on “that which happened.”

But whether that-which-happened is named or not named, the events themselves have failed to be quarantined. The abysmal sadism symbolized by the two sparse syllables of “Auschwitz” should, by its savagery, silence every pen—though even now, habituated as we are to an infinity of images of Nazi inhumanity, both actual and imagined, we still cannot fathom the full nature of what we have come to call the Holocaust. And no pen, for good or ill, has been silenced: Adorno’s pronouncement has been ten thousand times defied, dismissed, and finally undone. Literature, history, memoir, biography, film, theater, opera, painting, philosophical meditation, psychological speculation, sociological analysis—whatever the approach, all proliferate oceanically. The farther the Holocaust recedes from us, the more is written and sung and dramatized. Even one of the most searing of Holocaust poems, “Written in Pencil in a Sealed Boxcar,” by Dan Pagis—an Israeli poet who himself endured three years in Transnistria—must, in representing the unspeakable, submit to utterance, however broken:

Here in this transport

I am Eve

with my son Abel

if you see my elder son

Cain son of Adam

tell him that I

And here it is necessary to look again at Adorno’s declaration—not the phrase that is his most renowned, but the one far less so, though perhaps more crucially telling: Even the most extreme consciousness of doom threatens to degenerate into idle chatter. Barbaric cruelty is, for its victims, merciless yet finite—a shooting, a hanging, a hacking, a gassing, a rocketing, a bombing, a beheading. But idle chatter leaves an endless cultural trail, and worse, it crushes into trivia whatever it fingers. Horror too can turn into careless trivia. When history is abused, it becomes no better than the gossip of the lie; it influences what we believe.

But what of fiction, what of the novel, what of the mighty rush of imagination that is reputed to render truth by other means? Do the rights of history preclude, or even erase, the rights of fiction? This is a question in perpetual motion, a question that never dies, and some years ago I was moved to invoke it yet again:

On what basis can one disdain a story that subverts document and archive? On what basis can one protest a novel that falsifies memory? If fiction annihilates fact, that is the imagination’s prerogative. If fiction evades plausibility, that too is the imagination’s prerogative. Fiction has license to do anything it pleases. Fiction is liberty at its purest. Why should the make-believe people in novels be obliged to concur with history, or confirm it? Characters in fiction are not illustrations or representations. They are freely imagined fabrications; they have nothing to do with the living or the dead; they go their own way. Is the novelist to be compelled to honor typicality? Or faulted for choosing what is atypical? The novelist is neither sociologist, nor journalist, nor demographer. Imagination owes nothing to what we call reality; it owes nothing to history. The phrase “historical novel” is mainly an oxymoron. And there the matter ends.

Or does it? Why, then, do we recoil from comic inventions that spoof the perpetrators of the Holocaust? Or from improbable Holocaust scenes and themes? Why does satire of the Holocaust—acrid wit, the enemy of the fool and the knave—nevertheless make us uneasy? Perhaps for this reason: what is permissible to the playfully ingenious author of Robinson Crusoe—fiction masking as chronicle, the implausible pretending authority—is not permitted to those who touch on the uprooting and obliteration of six million Jewish lives, and the extirpation of their millennial civilization in Europe. The Roman playwright Terence said it first and fastest: Aliis si licet, tibi non licet—what others may do, you may not do. To laugh at the funny little man with the funny little mustache and the frenzied gesticulations gives the funny little man the last laugh: it is he who successfully lived out his heinous dream of mass gassings.

The novel is not, after all, a sealed jar. As much as it is the product of culture, it also alters culture by its implicit criticism of manners, motives, and beliefs: only think of Gatsby, Frank Alpine, Dorothea Casaubon, Gilbert Osmond, Raskolnikov, Bartleby, Kurtz. The novel can educate the heart—meaning the enlargement of its sympathies—or it can deceptively shrink those sympathies. (As in E. M. Forster’s The Longest Journey, wherein a woman usurps her fiancé’s integrity simply by uttering “we.” A scene of such subtlety that one may be led to suppose it a demonstration of the unity of love.)

And a “Holocaust novel,” so called, has the power to corrupt history, and thereby the reader’s heart, by its contradiction of what is actual and factual: Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader, for instance, a widely praised fable that exonerates an Auschwitz SS guard by reason of her illiteracy (she was innocent of what she was signing up for)—and this in a society boasting, at the time, Europe’s loftiest literacy rate. In Alice in Wonderland, say, or The Hobbit, the fictive imagination is the handmaiden of delightful implausibility. In a Holocaust novel, imagination’s implausibility can turn out to be the henchman of lie; and then the guileless reader, more tabula rasa than scholar, will fall prey to mistaking the illusory for the reasonably credible. Worse yet, it can sometimes happen (vide Martin Amis) that the writer’s unassailably honorable and feelingful intent—to expose outright human wickedness—is subverted by imagination’s wandering lure.

Even more perilous is the most evocative device of language: metaphor. Is there any distance between the Nazis’ characterization of Jews as “vermin” and the use of Zyklon B, a common household insecticide, to suffocate Jews in sealed cages? In metaphor’s most notorious incarnation, it adopts the definite article: “the Jew,” to which any appalling attribute may be attached. Metaphor is also closely connected to imposture, one thing masking as a dissimilar thing in order either to enhance perception (“rosy-fingered dawn”) or to darken it. Consider, though warily, William Gass’s Middle C, a novel premised in part on the notion of imposture, where “Jew” stands as an emblem of both universal victim and universal deceiver. Gass’s purely metaphorical Jews conjure a vision of uncanny rites and costumes, and of a clannish cabal devoted to vindictive excommunication: nightmarish scenes made stranger yet by the circumstance that these prevaricating “Jews” are in reality Austrian Gentiles pretending to be Jews. Is a hate-mocking irony at work here, irony as still another instance of metaphor’s protean guises? Doubtless: its images, nevertheless, are unhappily drawn from the anciently familiar poisoned well of “the Jew.” And to mock is not always to dispel.

When Celan chose not to name the unspeakable, this too was a kind of mockery, though a profoundly and intimately painful one, acknowledging the absence of a merciful protector-God during one of the most deliberately barbarous periods of human history. Judaism in its uncompromising monotheism is careful not to depict God, either in image or word, lest the naming of God lead to a description of what is deemed to be beyond human envisioning or understanding. Yet the overwhelming human need to name cannot be resisted, and is, in fact, divinely mandated: recall that the God of Genesis gave to Adam, the First Human, the task of naming everything he saw, bestowing a cognitive value on plant and animal and earth and stone and sky and water. But did this privilege apply also to naming Adam’s thoughts, and might the Thought of God have been one of those thoughts? The Bible does not say, so it is a paradox—a double paradox—that what may have been given to Adam is withheld from his progeny: any utterance of the unutterable name of God. When Moses appeals to God to speak His name, the reply is the mysteriously nameless Tetragrammaton: I am that which I am. Hence the second paradox: that the least avoided and most common God-utterance in Jewish practice is not, as one would expect, the Nameless One, but simply ha-Shem, the Name.

Celan, then, was being bitterly and blasphemously and mockingly unforgiving in his refusal to give a name to the the atrocities of the camps—because ha-Shem by His silence had so betrayed His people that the immaculate namelessness which honors the sanctity of God Celan would confer also on the foulest evil of the murderers. Or so he may be read, evidenced by “Death-fugue,” the most piercing of his poems. Its baleful refrain, der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland—Death is a Master from Germany—displaces the cosmically sublime Hebrew liturgical phrase “Master of the Universe” (melekh ha-olam). Here among the chimneys the Master of the Universe, banished by jackboots, no longer speaks nor rules nor shelters nor saves; it is Death, coming out of its lair in Germany, who is Master. And where names are usurped or erased, numbers will suffice: the tattoos on the arms and wrists of the doomed.

But what of the names that are known, and understood, and fathomed to the dregs, yet are purposefully denied utterance? Like the poets Pagis and Celan, the historian, philosopher, sociologist, and novelist H. G. Adler was among the tattooed, and though left alive, was irreparably marked by both Theresienstadt and Auschwitz. A native of Prague, he fled the Soviet oppression that followed the German defeat and escaped to London, where, in addition to massively conceived scholarly work, he completed his Holocaust trilogy: partly autobiographical, partly metaphorical. Here—in Adler—is no American writer, reared in peaceable safety, imagining false Jews running away from the imminent German annexation of Austria; and here is no British writer, similarly reared in peaceable safety, imagining the private lives of SS officials and their families. Whatever it may mean to have “experienced” Theresienstadt, whatever it may mean to have “survived” Auschwitz, it is a knowledge that Adler possesses in the marrow of his bones. And like Celan, like Pagis, he will not utter outright the name of that knowledge. In the vastly suffering scope of The Wall, the third volume of Adler’s trilogy, the bodily wails of dread and desolation are metaphorized as an ever-lurking wall. A symbol. An image.

Peter Filkins, Adler’s American translator, notes in his introduction to The Journey, the first of the three related novels, that nowhere in Adler’s fiction “are the words Nazi, Hitler, Germans, Jews, camps, gas chambers, ghetto, et cetera, ever used.” He reminds the reader that “Adler and Adorno corresponded, and it was on this position that they came to deep disagreement. Adler believed it not only possible to write poetry and literature after Auschwitz but that it was necessary, for only with the full engagement of the imagination would it be possible to elicit even a glimmer of the true nature of what had been suffered and, yes, survived… . In this way,” Filkins continues, “Adler’s work is about Theresienstadt and not about it at the same time.” And in this way metaphor (or metonymy, as Adler has it) can become the enemy of memory; also the enemy of history, or memory-made-retrievable. Jews living or dead are not Everyman. They are not symbols. They are not the means of art, and when they are the object of the imagination, they can sometimes end in peril. (“Vermin.”) They live and they die, like all other human beings, in their individuated and particularized historical explicitness. It may be that in a time to come, and in the absence of the explicit, Pagis’s “sealed freightcar” will merely puzzle; Celan’s “Meister aus Deutschland,” with its tropes of music and dance and vipers, may be thought to be a choirmaster or a choreographer or even a zookeeper; and Adler’s impassioned yet abstracted trilogy will have dissolved into that flattened commonplace: man’s inhumanity to man.

When narratives are sham, when namelessness suffices and metaphor clouds, then what is left if not Adorno’s idle chatter?