More “History or Imagination”

22 Apr
Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death by Otto Dov Kulka

Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death by Otto Dov Kulka

I wonder when those symbols etched on a page or screen configure to ‘The Holocaust’, how many people have a clear idea of what is represented by that (arguably) unique rubric? Being a 2G Jew (a category of which I have only recently become aware) I most emphatically have an in-my-gut response when I start to think about The Holocaust. Though it is both a cottage industry of narrative and an area of scholarship, The Holocaust almost by definition raises questions and poses conundrums and dilemnas that plumb depths of human darkness that a clear instructive barely penetrates

In any case, innumerable books and films (not to mention the mountains of documentation and archives of documentary film footage) have been fashioned since the end of World War II. Since holocaust narrative is not a subject that sings to me two recent books have broken through my indifference 80­ year­old survivor of Auschwitz­Birkenau and emeritus professor of history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem,Otto Dov Kulka,has published a slender memoir Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death: Reflections on Memory and Imagination (Harvard University Press) that eloquently erases the boundary of historical scholarship and personal testimony and recollection. As Thomas Laqueur elucidates:

The historian Kulka contemplates the great tension in all Holocaust scholarship, that between treating it as ordinary history that can be known through ordinary means – the study of ideology, political dynamics, imperial and economic strategies – and treating it as an event of sublime horror that can only be grasped, if at all, through the collection of testimony and with resort to claims of “unrepresentability”. Has he avoided writing this book all his life, he asks, just as he had side­stepped, as a boy, the mountains of skeletal corpses that had not yet been burned?… Kulka has survived, he tells us, by keeping professional history on one side (relegated here to the appendix) and privately guarded memory and experience on the other (now here exposed to the full light of day)

A Thousand Darknesses by Ruth Franklin

A Thousand Darknesses by Ruth Franklin

The other book that enthralls is New Republic Senior editor Ruth Franklin’s A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction by (Oxford University Press). MS Franklin has for years been a thoughtful and useful commentator on literary matters and and this aggregation of essays and commentary on the literary fiction associated with and spawned by it. From Tadeuz Borowski and Jerzy Kosinski through the high priest of the Holocaust, Elie Wiesel, to Bernard Schlink and Jonathan Safron Foer, this tome is an accessible survey of a very specific literature, one whose engagement within a deranged moral universe is its own special hardship.

Franklin observes:

If we have learned anything in the last 65 years,it is that—as even this brief and incomplete list of works demonstrates—there is an infinite number of stories to be told about the Holocaust. Recall Adorno’s overused dictum…:Nach Auschwitz ein Gedicht zuschreiben ist barbarissch.Notie he wrote…’a poem. Sometimes I imagine that he might,perhaps subconsciously, have meant the statement literally. It would be horrific to write only one poem after Auschwitz.But to write a hundred poems, a thousand poems, a million poems, a million—that might be better because it would take an infinite number of works of literature to represent the vast multiplicity of voices and experiences that constitute the Holocaust…Paul Celan said that it, the language, remained, not lost, yes in spite of everything. But it had to pass through its own answerlessness, pass through frightful muting, pass through the thousand darknesses of death bringing speech.The thousand darknesses are the stories of the Holocaust;endlessly echoing, ever terrifying, infinitely valuable

Chimneys and Barbed Wire

Chimneys and Barbed Wire

Currently reading The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner (Scribner)

5 Responses to “More “History or Imagination””

  1. spinoza1111 April 25, 2013 at 12:36 pm #

    Since I’m German-American, my questions are such questions as, is there a German essence that produced the Holocaust. Could there ever be more than one. Could the victims of “a” Holocaust (assuming the highly questionable maxim that there could be > 1 Holocaust) be other than Jews.

    Taking the by-now antique linguistic turn, we realize that we’re in search of a way to use the word “Holocaust”. Or must we legislate its use, and forbid others to use it as a common noun? Or do you mean the Shoah?

    • robertbirnbaum April 25, 2013 at 12:54 pm #

      Of the multitudinous questions that present themselves to me I am more inclined to wonder if the Holocaust is unique (not withstanding defining it as the WWII slaughter of Jews)

      Also, of subsequent generations (post Baby boom) what does the Holocaust mean. Legislating the use of the word holocaust wouldn’t seem to solve any confusion. People do remain free to define things as they please ala Alice in Wonderland.

      Ed I see you are still alive and kicking.Good work.

      • spinoza1111 April 27, 2013 at 2:47 am #

        Does that leave out the four million gay, “defective”, POWs, Seventh Day Adventists, etc., who were also murdered to make 10 million the rough total? Is the Holocaust equivalent to the Shoah?

        My interest would be as a teacher, like Confucius, rectifying names and defining terms, or better getting the class to agree on a set of terms.

        Indeed I am, receiving excellent medical care (hormone and now chemo), tumor still hard but smaller. I find that doing philosophy extends my lifespan, perhaps, and unlike Hawking I can’t do physics. Reading Being and Time (cue “Sein, Sein, Sein undt Zeit” to the tune of “Duke, Duke, Duke of Earl”). It’s so challenging as to hold one’s interest at least for short sprints. Didn’t Fahrhang Zabeeh teach a class on this at Roosevelt?

        Love your blog. May get taken by our volunteers on a trip to Hong Kong’s only book megastore, Eslee in Causeway Bay, can look for this and other titles. I do not order online, since I refuse to use credit cards.

  2. robertbirnbaum April 27, 2013 at 4:10 pm #

    I am thinking less about the facts of the Holocaust then how people today perceive that period in history and if the stories that are coming out now help or hinder understanding the horrors of 20th century warfare and the depravity and cruelty that ran rampant.

    Fargang Zabeeh, Wow! Its been a while since I encountered that name. Now also, I recall I wanted to fuck Nancy Metzel. Arthur Jacobsen convinced me to buy a BMW motorcycle and I had to sit through Stuart Temple’s boring logic classes. I visited with Elmer Klemke a few times and found him to be profoundly despairing.Was college fun?

    • spinoza1111 April 28, 2013 at 3:16 am #

      1. I should’ve taken Farhang’s class on phenomenology
      2. I didn’t want to screw Nancy…too old. You’ll remember what a sprat I was, 19 YO when I lost my cherry the same night the astronauts landed on the moon with an art history major at U of C. Then made out in Grant Park with an Orthodox girl.
      3. No classes from Arthur.
      4. We were both in Temple’s class on Symbolic Logic, and I went on to read Quine’s Set Theory and its Logic with Dennis. I assisted you with proofs from time to time and got A star for proving the validity of induction in Quine’s system. This persuaded me to get into software where I could fribble around with formal languages until Kingdom Come.
      5. I reconnected with Bill Moor a while back (and then disconnected since he’s still a thug) but he told me that Elmer had been deeply into religious philosophy starting with Kierkegaard. Later on he had to teach it a lot since at Iowa State where he went after defying Weil on the latter’s attacks on humanities, the students weren’t interested in philosophy but were interested in religion, and they could use phil of del as fulfilling the phil requirement.

      Klemke died in 1999 of his long term illnesses.

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