Persecution, Extermination, Literature

237 pages,
ISBN: 0802007228

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More than War Stories
by Diana Kuprel

"The struggle for man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting."-Milan Kundera

In his 1962 essay "Commitment", Theodor Adorno wrote that while "to write lyric poetry after Auschwitz [was] barbarous," literature must resist this verdict, for "the abundance of suffering tolerates no forgetting." Adorno, like many others before and since, expresses the fundamental impasse between the impotence of literature and the obligation to record when faced with the Holocaust. The Holocaust, then, inhabits a uniquely ambiguous space and time. Situated at the periphery of all moral boundaries, beyond the powers of imagination, conceptualization, and explanation, it is the very place where discourse ceases; yet it is also the threshold where discourse must begin again. Though past, it is a paradigmatic event that resists ending, that continues to bear down on the present, to live on in our consciousnesses and consciences. The Holocaust, therefore, raises the intricately related matters of silence and forgetfulness, and so also the ethical and artistic problems of how to counter these two dangerous tendencies most effectively.
The last decade in particular has seen a steady stream of literary accounts in every genre and of varying merit, many anthologized, that take up the challenge to represent the "unrepresentable" and to fulfill the obligation to bear witness to an "event-without-a-witness", as Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub have called it (in Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, & History). Among the theoretical works that have emerged to consider these testimonials is Sem Dresden's Persecution, Extermination, Literature (originally published in 1991 in Dutch). Sensitive, comprehensive, thoughtful, and thought-provoking, the book discusses the complex issue of how to approach literature on the persecution and extermination of Jews during the Nazi regime; Dresden treats this as a unique and particularly problematic case of war literature. While he limits the study to narrative works, he judiciously includes graffiti, short notes in latrines and trains, inscriptions on buildings-traces that speak powerfully and immediately to their authors' plight-along with the more conventional genres of the diary, memoir, and "fictionalized" novel and short story. He argues that the subject of persecution and extermination, and the experience upon which it draws, make it impossible to use customary criteria in judging a work or art, or in deciding what can be judged as a work of art. Dresden's aim is twofold: to establish the conditions in which Holocaust literature was produced; and to explain the implications of the reader's responsibility to the writing. He raises such inextricably connected matters as: the relation between authenticity and truth as either truth-claim or historical accuracy; literature's connection to memory and reality; the purpose and capacity of such literature to testify and to actively invite a continual self-questioning on the part of readers distanced in time, space, and experience. Speaking about the fragmentariness of this literature when discussing its self-avowed inability to record the whole, Dresden importunes the reader to make "additions and forever renewed efforts at completion." The work of witness, he argues, must continue in the reader's consciousness.
For the most part, Dresden does an admirable job in elucidating these delicate and difficult subjects as he negotiates his way through an impressive range of texts. In his unabashed zeal for comprehensibility and comprehensiveness, however, he occasionally commits some avoidable methodological slips. Several times, his argument gets bogged down by digressions into, for instance, a simplistic exegesis on the romantic concept of poetic genius (regarding the notion of "ineffability") or a long apologia for his use of theatrical terms to describe the role-playing that Jews had to engage in in their struggle to survive.
His analyses of the primary texts tend to be superficial and generalizing and function rather as an index for the reader. To give but one example, in his nod to Paul Celan, one of the few poets he admits into his study, he spends several lines telling us that he is sparing us an explanation of nineteenth-century French symbolism (though he is very wise to dispense with one). Then while he aptly states that the "condensation of images in [Celan's] work is so great, the poetic texture has become so dense, that the consequence is necessarily a strong enclosure, and for that reason the reader needs many, and many kinds of, keys in order to gain access"-one need only read Celan's "With Letter and Clock"-he gives no indication, however briefly, how or to what purpose the condensation takes place. The point is vital, as Celan's poetry works to reorient the German language from within, by burning into it the atrocities of the extermination: as Celan acknowledges, his language had to "pass through the thousand darknesses of deathbringing speech" before it could emerge "enlarged" and ready for poetry.
A final quibble has to do with an oversight. Although Dresden deals with works from a number of different countries, he does not write about the effect on the commemorative work of its distance from the place of extermination. What, if any, differences are there in how the Holocaust is represented in literature written in Eastern Europe, Western Europe, or North America? Or by survivors and children of survivors? (Spiegelman's Maus is mentioned, but the central relationship between survivor and child and the author's self-reflexive strategy are not.) Dresden makes the significant observation that, during the Holocaust, people felt an unusual compulsion to record. The desire to bear witness to the historical, to fix in writing what was being wiped off this earth in order that it not vanish without a reconstitutable trace, is captured by Zofia Nalkowska in her Wartime Diaries (Nalkowska is a Polish writer whom Dresden does not mention, though she wrote, as early as 1945, one of the true masterpieces in anti-fascist world literature, Medallions): "Air raids wipe out towns. People die in various ways, under any circumstance. Nothing remains. And the whole thing for me can be encapsulated in this. Namely, that I write. And on this it ends. This is everything. And yet it is. By writing, I salvage that which is. The rest is beyond my reach. The rest is relegated to silence" (May 1944).

Diana Kuprel is a Ph.D. candidate at the Centre for Comparative Literature at the University of Toronto.


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