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Ruth Wisse on poetry after Auschwitz and the use of the term Holocaust

June 11, 2015

Just thinking a bit more about representing the Holocaust and I found these words by Ruth R Wisse.

“Had Theodor Adorno been writing in Yiddish or Hebrew, we would never have had his formulation “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Adorno’s maxim derives from his own epistemology, from disillusionment with his own brand of cultural criticism, or perhaps from the taint of his German language or from the rhetoric of the Frankfurt School. Adorno’s dictum recalls the radical saying of his colleague Walter Benjamin: “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” Benjamin was speaking as a historical materialist, making the argument that cultural treasures represent the spoils of the victor, that they owe their existence “not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries.” Adorno’s essay, echoing Benjamin’s apprehension about democratic society and the culture that is produced under market conditions, throbs with dismay over the “sinister, integrated society of today,” “the open-air prison which the world is becoming,” and the way that traditional culture – “neutralized and ready-made” – has become worthless. It is in this context, and not in any consideration of Jewish martyrdom or Jewish writing, that Adorno uses Auschwitz as the ultimate metaphor. Meanwhile, poets in Jewish languages found that poetry alone resisted the degradation, and at least one of them, Abraham Sutzkever, attributed his very life to that proposition. David Roskies, a scholar of Yiddish and Hebrew sources, demonstrates how the literature of Hitler’s victims stands against “against the apocalypse,” assimilating even this unique catastrophe into an unbroken literary tradition that begins with the destruction of Solomon’s Temple in 586 B.C.E.
By and large, literary scholarship has echoed Adorno in homogenizing the Holocaust, posing such questions as whether the horror of the Lager and the extermination process can be rendered in language, within prevailing linguistic and literary forms. An ever more generalized inquiry into the capacity of language, in the abstract, to represent the Nazi genocide ignores the influence of actual languages in determining how the question continues to be answered. Such an approach tends unconsciously to replicate the reductionism of Nazism by assuming that the writers became what they were subjected to. It responds to Nazism’s singling out of the Jews by refusing to deal with their Jewishness at all, reinforcing the negation of the Jewish people through the refinement of abstraction rather [-p.197] than physical extinction. I would like to advance a different view and argue that the nature of literature during and after the war depends in large part on the language and context within which it was written, as well as on the author’s relation to his language, whether Jewish or non-Jewish and whether native or acquired after the war, and that where problems of language reflect conflicts of identity, they predate the war and were not caused by Hitler alone. And if we are to accept as a category the literature of the Holocaust, we should be equally prepared to recognize its function of reversing Hitler’s plan of annihilation and overturning his definition of the Jews. Jewish resistance to Hitler was mounted primarily through literature, Jewish writing forms the bulk of Holocaust literature. This part of the Jewish canon is the hardest to contain, since everything that claims authenticity as testimony asks to be included.
I am in complete sympathy with the philosopher Berel Lang’s suspicion of the term Holocaust, because “its theological or at least mediating over-tones… are confined to the viewpoint of the victims, and they fail to suggest the specific role of genocide as it figured in the deeds of the Third Reich.” Lang shows how Holocaust terminology transposes the destruction of the Jews from the political realm in which it occurred into the religious realm. I use the term reluctantly, to analyze what others since the 1960s have called by that name. But the problem goes even deeper than Lang suggests, ignoring not only the political war against the Jews but the substantiveness of the Jewish people whom Hitler tried to eliminate. The term Holocaust seems to craft a new secular version of the crucifixion, a version in which the Jews are cast as the sacrificial figure in a denationalized saga of evil and innocence. As against the syncretic concept of the Holocaust – a religious burnt offering that is wholly consumed – the terms Shoah (meaning “destruction” and used in this context in Hebrew in Eretz Israel as early as 1938) and khurbn (the generic Yiddish term for national catastrophe) yield diachronic conceptions of what the historian Lucy Dawidowicz called the war against the Jews and what Lang calls the Nazi genocide against the Jews. Both Shoah and khurbn derive from the Bible, with different weights of memory attached. All language is national, in the sense that it is generated and spoken by a group of people; all “literature of the Holocaust” is shaped by a particular culture, however complicated it may be by the author’s crisis of identity.” (pp.196-197)

Ref: (emphases in blue bold mine; italics in original) pp.196-197 Ruth R Wisse (2000) The Modern Jewish Canon: A Journey Through Language and Culture. New York, London etc. The Free Press (ISBN 0684830752)

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