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Thursday, October 7, 2010

On the possibility of culture after Auschwitz

A prisoner at Auschwitz:
Krystyna Trzesniewska
, born on February 2, 1929, registered as a prisoner at Auschwitz on December 13, 1942, executed on May 18, 1943.

Berlin Zeughaus Museum.

A very famous quote from Theodor Adorno, totally taken out of context: “Nach Auschwitz ein Gedicht zu schreiben ist barbarisch.” (To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric). It has been interpreted as an injunction against writing poetry, or as the proclamation of a taboo on cultural expression. It is not. Not only does the lack of context result in hiding the reasons why the statement was originally advanced, but it further disguises the fact that Adorno meant it as an aporetic statement: No poetry can any longer be written, but it must be written. This latter point is clearly made in an excellent article by Elaine Martin, Re-reading Adorno: The ‘after-Auschwitz’ Aporia, FORUM: Fear and Terror, National University of Ireland, Maynooth).

My particular interest in the issue is based on the reasons which underlie Adorno’s initial statement, the answers to the question which naturally arises therefrom: why is it barbaric to write poetry after Auschwitz? Here, two issues are necessarily highlighted: the failure of a culture that is complicit in a monstrous crime, and the impossibility of using that culture’s language or discourse after it has been used for the perpetration of such monstrous crime. To the aesthetic dilemma is added a moral quandary, and both extend beyond the German context. The issue of form, the poisoning of the language and the taint on the culture, is the aesthetic quandary. The question of whether there is a danger of romanticizing the crime sets up its ethical dimension.

From the Belvedere Palace in Weimar, the palace of the Dukes of Sachse-Weimar, where Goethe was often a guest and where he served as Privy Counselor (Geheimrat) to Duke Karl August, the monument to the victims at Buchenwald is clearly visible.

[be sure and click on the photo for enhanced viewing]

Buchenwald Concentration Camp Monument, visible from the
grounds of the Belvedere Palace in Weimar.

German Culture and Buchenwald, and Auschwitz? German Culture and the Shoah? How was this debasement possible? That is not so much the interesting question any longer, one that can only lead to trite answers and tired liberal-humanistic shibboleths. The important fact is that it happened, because it shows that even the greatest and richest cultures can fail. When a culture commits mass murder and genocide, it has failed. After Auschwitz, Adorno argues, to write poetry in the German language is to attempt to create beauty in a medium that has been tainted and corrupted.

It is tainted and corrupted unto silence and paralysis. In what manner has this occurred? As Elaine Martin points out in her article, for Adorno, the language became a tool of instrumental reason the function of which was to make a ‘thing’ out of a human being, one that served, in other words, to reify humanity. This language, this discourse, can thereafter no longer be used to express “the knowledge of its own impossibility.” The destruction of the traditional notion of the individual’s autonomy, which is by far the least of what occurred at Auschwitz or Buchenwald, the fact that the one who utters the language is no longer a human being but a 'thing,' makes it impossible for the language to record how such an expression is itself no longer possible. Auschwitz destroyed the very possibility of the poet.

"The impossibility of portraying Fascism stems from the fact that in it subjective freedom no longer exists. Absolute lack of freedom cannot be represented." (Adorno, Minima Moralia, 148. Elaine Martin trans.)

The extinction of the very possibility of poetic discourse, arguably the consequence of reification, is both cause and consequence of the extinction of the culture that sustained it. Insofar as language makes us, - determines the structure and context of our cultural upbringing-, a tainted language gives birth to a tainted culture. A language in bondage, itself the offspring of a failed culture, can only engender a new culture which is also in bondage. How can any cultural or artistic discourse have any credibility after it commits a monstrous crime? What else can that culture say? How can it create beauty? How can it even entertain? In this regard, there is a revealing anecdote, I believe it’s from Bruno Bettleheim, about his walking with another prisoner at Buchenwald and politely greeting a camp officer as the latter walked by. “Now I finally understand Hegel’s dictum, that 'the real is rational and the rational is real,'” one of the prisoners says to the other. “When the prisoner doffs his hat at the executioner, then the real has become rational.” A culture so debased, where criminal behavior becomes the accepted norm, can no longer produce Beauty.

How then is it possible to ‘get back to normal?’ How is it possible to start writing poetry again?

Theodor W. Adorno

Theodor Adorno’s “post-Auschwitz” aporia consists in the fact that the culture cannot acknowledge the crime it has committed because it cannot express itself autonomously any longer in its own language, and yet poetry must be written in order to articulate the crime, and thus acknowledge and stand witness to it. In short, poetry cannot be written, but it must be written, so that it bears witness to what has been done. From this there is no exit.

Botero, Abu Ghraib, 2005


In his paintings of 2005, (above) Botero has beautified the crime of Abu Ghraib, by aestheticizing the actual event and its horror, a crime which is not yet atoned for. The beautification of that which is criminal is a forgiveness, though the artist no doubt was making in this instance a clearly critical statement. It shifts the viewer's value-making system from the ethical realm to the aesthetic. The painting is judged aesthetically; the crime is out of consciousness, if even for a second. Botero's work here illustrates Adorno's understanding of the 'aporia.' The poem cannot be written, but it must be written.

The "post-Auschwitz" aporia transcends the peculiarly horrifying context of its own historical origin. Poetry must bear witness, but the corruption of its language by the enormity of the underlying crime, and the mere possibility that it may romanticize or beautify its subject matter, brings about a dumbfounded silence. Today, we stare into a similar void. The noise of the culture industry will only continue to obfuscate a silence which is in fact, by and large, a total void of culture.

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