Monday, February 18, 2008

On the memorialization of the Holocaust:

Norm challenges Tony Judt's arguments:

(1) For the question why people should be so sensitive about the destruction of European Jewry is not a good one, and the irritation behind it is not an impulse worthy of respect. These are responses based either on ignorance or on something worse than ignorance... 'the powerful incentive [there was] in many places to forget what had happened, to draw a veil over the worst horrors'.

(2) Judt himself allows that in 'moral terms' (his emphasis) it is proper that the central issue of the war should now be Auschwitz. If on this account we get some poor history, that is simply an inevitable product of the moral focus that is a proper one according to Judt himself. Unless, that is, he thinks that, its moral centrality notwithstanding, there is just too much attention being given to the Shoah today. But we need a reason, in that case, for thinking that this much attention is too much. And we don't yet have it.

(3) ... look at the list of items that Judt compiles to show the profligacy with which public discussion has recourse to the word evil. This list includes: Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Chechnya, the Congo, Sudan, Saddam's Iraq and North Korea. .. To speak the word 'evil' in any of these cases doesn't seem the least bit exorbitant... why it should be a difficulty or a worry to anyone that, for example, genocide is spoken of as evil, or an evil, is entirely mysterious.

(4) I don't know what audience or set of interlocutors [Judt] has imagined for himself, but if there are people who believe that anti-Semitism is the only evil in the world and the greatest threat to Western civilization, I doubt there would have been many of them listening to his lecture on Hannah Arendt

(5) But to say this without noting that there is also anti-Semitic hostility to Israel, in the Arab world and in the West, some of it perfectly overt and some of it more discreet, is to pretend that anti-Semitism is a smaller problem than it is. To lament such misuses of the Holocaust without mentioning the misuses in the opposite direction that equate Israel with the spirit and the methods of the Nazis is to see with only one eye. The same goes for writing as if the most serious sources of anti-Semitism might be arguments used by defenders of Israel or an over-emphasis on the Shoah. Really? This is a centuries-old hatred, and yet here we find ourselves in a situation where it is defence of the Jewish state and memory of the genocide against the Jews that are the stimulants of anti-Semitism; these, at any rate, are Tony Judt's sources of choice.

Is there too much about the Holocaust - too much writing, too much memorializing, too much reference? The whole weight of what Judt has to say pushes towards the conclusion that there is, though without his providing... a single compelling argument for this. But my own answer to the question is: no, there is not too much. I offer a moral and a political argument in support of that answer.

Morally - humanly - if you were to spend an hour of every day during a lifetime remembering, learning, lamenting, teaching what was done to the victims of the Nazi genocide you could not encompass all the cruelty and all the pain of those years.

We do better to take note of Primo Levi's poem '

Consider that this has been:
I commend these words to you.
Engrave them on your hearts
When you are in your house,
when you walk on your way,
When you go to bed,
when you rise.
Repeat them to your children.

...This is true not because of what happened to those Jews, but because of what happened to those people;

An afterthought, from George Szirtes

Encounters I have known or witnessed.

X: The working class has suffered much more than the Jews have.

Y (The majority of whose family was wiped out in the war): Yeh.

X: Jews have no monopoly on suffering.

Y: No, they don't.

Y smiles in relief at such a satisfactory conclusion to the conversation. End of conversation. They drink and talk of something else.

X (thinks): Y is a very good man in his late seventies. There is no point in upsetting Y with any personal point-making. Beside who would want to cast such things into balances and make points? (But X remembers the conversation nonetheless.)

Exeunt omnes

I am puzzled:

What exactly does X remember? And why?


A day later:

What do poets do?

Poets, I've been told by a poet in the context of a conversation about Poe's The Imp of the Perverse , are intuitively cognizant of the "chemical" elements that construct our soul, seem to understand analytically the workings of the human mind, yet are always strangely detached from what he describes. A poet is someone who goes to the edge, and comes back with a report.

George Szirtes is a poet and happily provided a report of how the above character X's multi-layered mind works in layer-to-layer analysis:

X knows Y's background, not perhaps in intimate detail, though Y has very rarely referred to it and is unlikely to do so. But that only makes things worse for X. He feels Y has an invisible grip on him, or rather that he might have such a grip, and the possibility of that is even worse. He fears Y might address him from some moral high ground of suffering, both racial and personal, and therefore imagines Y playing the victim card. The victim card is the Joker. He wants a moral game without Jokers. He suspects Y would not play the victim card, but that may only be because Y is subtler than that. Y wonders whether X is projecting Y as a sly character. Like much of his race, X might think (thinks Y). But voicing that thought, however silently, however briefly, makes X feel worse still. He blames Y for this (suspects Y). X might well be thinking: Look what you made me do! And after all, is it not true (the little demon grows a shade bigger) that they have a tendency to slyness? And cruelty. Just look at Israel. Just think of the uses to which the Holocaust is put. X feels a certain solidarity with John Berger, Norman Finkelstein, etc etc. Why should a man not think the truth?

Y, for his part is also stuck between truths. He is quite aware of the possible misuse of his racial and personal history and is convinced it would be unjust to lay this on anyone, least of all on someone who has shown him kindness in the past. On the other hand the history is as it is and he can't make it disappear. In fact it is getting harder to make it disappear.... X's comments worry him and prey on his mind. He cannot help remembering them, just as he cannot help knowing what he does know. He cannot help feeling a little frightened and wondering if this is how holocausts begin.

I've encountered X-types before. In fact, I even quote them from time to time on my blog. I don't possess the refined mind of a poet so I plainly call them closet-antisemites, the ones who get all indignant about Jewish resistance to Rachel Corrie's memorialization, who are the first to buy Jimmy Carter's books about Israel or project barely-concealed exultation for Mearsheimer&Walt's doctrines, who mock Jews for being over-sensitive when Muslims refer to them as "apes and pigs" and are always in a rush to "contextualize" the Holocaust whenever that term makes an appearance.

But it's the poet's surgical laser-eye that can really do them the justice they deserve.


At 8:38 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I dont think the Holocaust is or was the central "moral issue" of WW2. I think the attempt to make it so, correlates well with the corruption of the history of the US Civil War as being about wasnt. However they are both important parts of the whole.


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