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To Write Poetry after Auschwitz is (NOT!) Barbaric

A lecture prepared for presentation at the University of Virginia

Presented on February 28, 2017, this lecture is a continuation of Goldfarb’s long term project to understand the conditions and consequences of free and creative culture, including his early books, such as On Cultural Freedom and his most recent, Reinventing Political Culture. 

I am very pleased to join you today and share my reflections on the importance of, not only poetry, but art more generally, as it helps us confront the social condition of collective memory in dark times.

I am especially grateful for Irit Dekel’s invitation to give this presentation. First as my student and now as a respected colleague and dear friend, she has taught me a great deal about the dilemmas of remembering after barbarism.

I open by disagreeing with Theodor Adorno’s provocative proposition about art and the Holocaust: “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” I am not sure that this is actually a disagreement with Adorno as a thinker, just with his startling fragment.

I believe, that contrary to Adorno’s infamous provocation, art after modern barbarism is imperative, although as Irit has demonstrated in her work, this is a messy, complicated business, complications that my friend and colleague, Jeff Olick, also here, has contributed a great deal in illuminating. What I most like about Jeff and Irit’s work is that they both confront what Iddo Tavory and I call the social condition, as it applies to memory.

By the social condition, we mean the tensions built into the fabric of social life, and, as an outgrowth of such tensions, the dilemmas posed for social actors, both as individuals and in groups. The point of our inquiry is to highlight the importance of studying the social condition as a primary object of inquiry, to study the tensions and dilemmas as a primary object of inquiry, not to try to explain them away with causes or solutions. As we explore this problem we have in mind such examples as education in a democracy, working to care for ones children and providing equal opportunity, voluntary association and public accountability in civil society organizations, Israel’s struggle to be both Jewish and democratic, and in our case today, remembering and forgetting difficult pasts in pluralistic, democratic society.

I will support my judgment about the importance of art after Auschwitz by exploring how specific works of art have made it possible to confront difficult pasts, helping their creators and their publics to confront the problem of memory and forgetting. Indeed, I will show that it is exactly in significant works of art that difficult pasts are addressed with nuance and creativity, moving their audience beyond clichéd reflection, enriching public memory, and opening up more promising relationships between the past and the future.

This lecture is an exploration based on a paper I wrote during very different circumstances, before the election of Donald Trump. Thus, these thoughts are qualified by critical reflections on the present moment, the challenges of remembering modern barbarism in a world in which postmodern tyranny and authoritarianism are ascendant.

Just six months ago, things were very different. These days I am less sure about art’s power and the power of critical reflection and memory. I am hoping to open up a discussion about this, here and now, in our post truth times. I invite you to take part, as I imagine Adorno as one of our interlocutors.

Since this is not a soap opera, with a dramatic ending, allow me to summarize the argument you are about to hear. Reflecting on three major works of art, I show that art informs memory beyond clichés. It illuminates the social condition of memory, the inevitable dilemmas of remembering some things, while forgetting others. Art does not provide easy lessons, but questions and presents alternative understandings and commitments. Now in the age of the Trump, I wonder about my own position and confess a renewed appreciation of Adorno. I will return to that in my concluding remarks.

I want to talk about three exemplary works that enrich collective memory: Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida and Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial. These works of art bring people together, making it possible to speak and act in each others’ presence in their differences, as they deal with dilemmas of social life. Such works of art also open up the possibility of a more democratic political life, confronting the social condition of memory of difficult pasts in ways that make it less likely that the pasts will repeat themselves.

Beloved is Toni Morrison’s masterpiece. It ’re-remembers’ (a term Morrison introduces in her text) slavery, and makes this act the central task of the main character of the novel and of the novel’s readers. The book has been broadly recognized as a, if not the, great American novel, and probably was the major reason why Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Despite this near universal praise, a negative review by Stanley Crouch reveals how it is that art can play an important role in facilitating remembrance of the barbarism of slavery.

According to Crouch, Morrison’s writings are saddled by overly sentimental depiction of African-American suffering, drawing from a literary tradition established by James Baldwin, and a stereotypical portrayal of ‘bestial black men,’ influenced by feminist writings of black women. He concedes that “Morrison, unlike Alice Walker, has real talent, an ability to write a novel in a musical structure, deftly using images as motifs,” but he condemns the writing for what he terms “maudlin ideological commercials.”

Crouch reviewed the book as if it were a bad TV movie. He summarizes Beloved without its musical structure, satirizing it as melodrama. It is a novel about an escaped slave, treated well at first by a benevolent master, but then brutally abused when the master dies, and the cruel overseer takes over. The heroine Sethe escapes pregnant, slave catchers intercede, and she kills her baby in childbirth, instead of condemning her to the life of a slave. Then the long lost father of her children, Paul D., mysteriously returns from the dead and a semblance of a life returns when ‘beloved,’ the ghost of the murdered baby possesses Denver, Sethe’s surviving child.

And then Crouch offers his satirical acclaim: “Relive some of America’s most painful moments — slavery, the Civil War, the efforts made by ex-slaves to experience freedom in a world that was stacked against them from the moment they were sold as work animals. But, most of all, thrill to the love story about the kinds of Americans who struggles to make this country great. (Sethe, Paul D. and Denver walking hand-in-hand).”

This is like summarizing Romeo and Juliet as the story of two mixed up kids from opposite sides of the tracks who end up killing themselves. Any story can be trivialized by such summary, as it overlooks the artistry, with only banality remaining.

Beloved is formed not as a linear narrative, but a painful circular nightmare, recalled and analyzed. The reader meets characters with uncertainty, not knowing who and what they are, as they only slowly reveal themselves and their relationships. Time and setting are unclear, as are the motivations of the narrated action. The story is told and retold. New details are slowly revealed. Brutalization, powerlessness, and the distortion of normal human relations are given artistic shape. The story is told as it is subjectively remembered in bits and pieces, giving both the reprehensible actions, and their legacies, life.

We observe how under the strain of racism the understanding between black men and women becomes next to impossible. This is revealed poetically, not polemically, opening up collective memory to include the deeply problematic intersection between race and gender relations in America. And since the distorted relations examined include centrally the relations between a mother and her children, ‘Beloved’ is the ghost of Sethe’s murdered child, even more centrally it addresses the additional intersection of generational transference.

In the case of Beloved, art facilitates memory, which makes possible the constitution of human dignity, despite the most horrific of human experiences: rape and infanticide, as Morrison ‘re-remembers’ the pains and consequences of slavery, giving memory artistic life. The reader explores the difficulty of memory and the unclear problems of responsible actions and their tragedies. Questions are illuminated. Solutions are not presented.

 Ida, a film by Paweł Pawlikowski, illuminates the social condition in a different place and at a different time, concerning different atrocities. But like Beloved, the film makes remembering possible. As it focuses on the personal to illuminate the political, it re-remembers.

Ida is a novice, preparing to soon take her vows. Raised as an orphan in the convent, she is informed that she has a living aunt who had chosen to never visit or even reveal herself to Ida. Before taking her vows, her superior instructs Ida that she must try to meet her aunt. Ida did not know of her aunt’s existence and only goes on the visit because she is told she must.

The film is about the mysteries between Ida and her aunt, as they are embedded in the Poland of the recent past. It touches troubling issues, the Holocaust and its memory, Polish suffering in and responsibility for those dark times, and Jewish responsibility for Stalinism. All this runs through the specific relationships between Ida and her aunt, and their family and their Polish neighbors.

In its form, as well as its content, the film remembers. Released in 2014, the action takes place in the early 1960s and the dramatic focus is on events that happened during and soon after World War II. It is filmed in black and white, and has the look and feel of films made in the nineteen sixties, comparable to the early films of the great Polish film makers of that period, Roman Polanski and Andrzej Wajda.

Indeed, the action moves slowly and at times the beauty of the cinematography resembles exquisite still life photography, of Polish fields, roads, and thatch roofed peasant houses, and expressive faces. The storyline is straightforward, with formal realism, but the images are too fine to actually seem real. In the storytelling and the filming an austere minimalism prevails, drawing us back in time. Not surprisingly, given that it covers some very difficult memory problems, Ida has been criticized from multiple directions, as anti-Polish and anti-Jewish, as well as for its aesthetic.

The story of a Polish family that saved a Jewish one, until it decided it couldn’t any longer, and murdered all but the infant daughter, Ida, has been condemned as anti-Polish.

The portrait of the aunt, as a Jewish anti-Nazi, Communist partisan turned Stalinist prosecutor turned cynic, who drinks too much, sleeps around too freely, and takes full advantage of her privilege, too neatly fits the anti-Semitic stereotype of Żydokomuna (the Jewish Commune).

Critics worry what others might think of the focus on this story and these characters. The film has been condemned because the murdering Polish family is taken to be representative of Poles, the Jewish aunt of Jews.

Yet the concreteness of the specific individuals and their stories, and the specific fates of these characters enable the viewer to remember tragic history and illuminate the dimensions of its tragic outcomes. It creates a field of memory, which reveals much that is forgotten in the Polish — Jewish memory conflicts, made possible by the art of the film.

Shifting to a very different art form: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC was conceived in the then still fresh aftermath of a controversial war. The conception, creation and on-going significance of the Memorial, as a  social creation, responds to the social condition as it applies to the memory of a war. It in fact has changed the way wars are remembered, and has proved to be a model for how societies memorialize and commemorate difficult pasts.

The memorial was built with ambivalence, shared both among the general public and the officials who promoted it. Because of the war’s unpopularity, the returning soldiers had not been officially recognized for their service. The Memorial was designed by architect Maya Lin to right this wrong.

The goal was to recognize what distinguished this war from all other American wars — a defeat, broadly unpopular, polarizing the public. But simultaneously to recognize the ways it was similar — primarily there was great sacrifice, with tens of thousand killed and wounded, and many more enduring the war’s traumas. Also, as in previous American wars, a significant part of the public understood the war as having been just, supporting it to the end and continuing to support it to this day. The monument embraced and represented the tensions, but at the same time, somehow has managed, to reconcile them, even as they have continued to be present.

The memorial is striking in its simplicity, designed for a specific corner of the national mall, composed to the contours of the topography, being in the end a simple list of the names of the Americans who died in the war.

Lin’s minimalism yielded aesthetic and social power to her design. She eloquently illuminated her intentions in creating her masterpiece in an article written soon after the completion of the memorial, but published years after, in 2000. She underscores her intentions to appeal to a broad spectrum of political opinion: “I wanted to create a memorial that everyone would be able to respond to, regardless of whether one thought our country should or should not have participated in the war.”

Wanting the memorial to fit into the contours of the Washington Mall and its natural beauty and symbolic importance, she worked with the setting not against it. “I had a simple impulse to cut into the earth.”

And further: “I never looked at the memorial as a wall, an object, but as an edge to the earth, an opened side,” she writes. “The mirrored effect would double the size of the park, creating two worlds, one we are a part of and one we cannot enter. The two walls were positioned so that one pointed to the Lincoln Memorial and the other pointed to the Washington Monument. By linking these two strong symbols for the country, I wanted to create a unity between the nation’s past and present.”

An element of the design competition was that the monument had to include all the names of the fallen. In Lin’s conception, “The need for the names to be on the memorial would become the memorial; there was no need to embellish the design further. The people and their names would allow everyone to respond and remember…The design is not just a list of the dead,” she continues. “To find one name, chances are you will see the others close by, and you will see yourself reflected through them. I knew the timeline was key to the experience of the memorial: a returning veteran would be able to find his or her time of service when finding a friend’s name.”

About the overriding importance of the polished black surface, Lin explains: “I always saw the wall as pure surface, an interface between light and dark, where I cut the earth and polished its open edge. The wall dematerializes as a form and allows the names to become the object, a pure and reflective surface that would allow visitors the chance to see themselves with the names. I do not think I thought of the color black as a color, more as the idea of a dark mirror into a shadowed mirrored image of the space, a space we cannot enter and from which the names separate us, an interface between the world of the living and the world of the dead.”

And finally, Lin notes her response to the work, not as its designer, but as a visitor to the memorial: “the first time I visited the memorial after it was completed,” she recalls, “ I found myself searching out the name of a friend’s father and touching it. It was strange to realize that I was another visitor and I was reacting to it as I had designed it.”

Memorials as material artifacts work when they are socially received as meaningful by their intended publics. The brilliance of this unconventional memorial is that it understands and cultivates such meaningful social reception, even its creator found herself drawn in.

The memorial’s aesthetic facilitates a confrontation with the social condition of remembrance of a very difficult war. The great success of Lin’s memorial is revealed in the way it has been embraced by a broad public, who continue to remember and forget differently but are able to do so together.

Memory, Art and the Social Condition

Beloved, Ida, and The Vietnam Veterans Memorial each address a difficult and painful past. Each involves memory disputes concerning what is remembered and what is forgotten. These works do not resolve memory conflicts, but they do make it possible to see them in new light, feel about them differently, embrace alternative points of view, live with and against them in surprising ways. They present a crack in encrusted memories, making it possible to look around and see things differently together, as was Lin’s self-conscious intention.

While not all art accomplishes this and while there are other ways to confront the problems of memory and forgetting, art’s critical autonomy, as Adorno illuminated, and its endurance, as Hannah Arendt highlighted, do provide an opening for such accomplishments.

Art demonstrates its autonomy when it follows the logic of its formal invention. This was the central observation of Theodor Adorno and his critical theory colleagues. Art’s critical potential is associated with this observation. When the arts develop following their own imperatives, they do so apart from the functionalities of the institutions of systemic social reproduction, both of the state and of the economy; that is, as long as art develops freely, the logic of its development, creation and appreciation offers an alternative to the logic of capitalism and the state. And as we have seen here, it also offers an alternative to the logic of prevailing and contested collective memories.

To fully appreciate this, it is important to also recognize the position of Hannah Arendt that art’s endurance through time keeps this alternative open. She offers a different, but complementary perspective on the critical attributes of art and how it can enrich collective memory about difficult pasts. For Arendt, art is non-instrumental work. Its deep cultural significance lies in its uselessness. It’s work as an end in itself, creating artifacts in the world beyond utility, tools without specific purpose. Through such work, a world of meaningful artifacts is created. Through such work, when it endures, cultures persist and develop through time.

Through such work, a distinctively human world is created.

This is exactly what Morrison’s critic, Stanley Crouch, missed. Beloved does this work and makes an enduring contribution to remembering the difficult past of slavery. It is Morrison’s artistry that makes the novel a novel, not a polemic to remember the suffering of slavery and the texture of the suffering, the way it poisoned the relationship between men and women, parents and children. We return to the novel because it is a work of art. It is hard to imagine future novelists not reading and responding to the work, future readers of literature ignoring it. Although we may be mistaken in this, it is the accomplishment of the writing, how it responded to novels past (ironically Couch noticed this as well) and will serve as an inspiration or a foil for novels future. It creates a part of our cultural world that is not defined by political or economic imperatives, and also, crucially for us here, beyond the clichés of one-dimensional collective memory.

Ida also opens memory through art. The film’s beauty, the poignancy of the drama between Ida and her aunt, the sympathetic complex ways the Polish family accounts for its treatment of Ida and her family, the equally complex and sympathetic ways Ida’s aunt’s communist conviction and disillusionment are portrayed, ending with her suicide, Ida’s apparent turn from her upbringing and Catholic belief, and her return to the church, all filmed in rich shades of grey, makes for a great film, very much in the tradition of classic films past, Polish, Central European and beyond. It challenges memory clichés of the Polish patriot and anti-anti-Semite, suggesting alternatives.

And the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a response to memorials past and has fundamentally challenged the memorial as a human artifact. Its formal innovations and excellence, responding to the demands of conflicting memories, the physical and symbolic environment in which it is located, and the artistic and architectural formal traditions, makes it one of the great public art works of the twentieth century. And this is revealed in the work itself for the professional critics and the judges that originally awarded Lin with the commission. But even more significantly, it becomes clear by the way the work continues to attract visitors, how they use it, with tens of thousands of people leaving meaningful objects to mark the name of a loved one or to just pay respect (all of which has been collected and are now housed in a special warehouse).

Notably the visitors to the memorial site visit the wall in silence or speak in hushed tones, while they speak more loudly and more openly pose for photos and take selfies in the part of the site made up of the more conventional sculpture and the American flag. Lin’s work has become a sacred space for people to remember together differently, about a difficult past. This could only be accomplished through a work of art.

Yet, I admit, that now, in the age of Trump in the U.S., and Kaczynski in Poland, and Netanyahu in Israel, among many other quasi and not so quasi tyrants, in many other places, with threats to liberal democracy escalating, I wonder whether the subtle rendering of memory of difficult pasts, can withstand memory dogmas, as they legitimate new forms of authoritarianism.

It is a matter of official policy that those who explore the tragedies of Polish anti-Semitism defame the nation.

In the U.S., the free media are now understood by our highest officials as enemies of the people, and clearly academics are the enemies’ fellow travellers, at best.

People who question patriotic memory are becoming enemies of the people.

This obviously requires clear and direct political responses. Demonstrate, write to your representatives, join and support a political party or a social movement, resist, organize. Artistic response, or more precisely art’s standing in this is less instrumental, less partisan, less tendentious, ambiguous, but perhaps, just as important, in my judgement, and more enduring.

I have highlighted how art informs memory, and suggested that it can and has supported more inclusive, deliberate and informed democratic practices, democratic politics in fact. Now things are different: facing repression, art doesn’t inform, but defies politics. Or at least it should, if it is not to be barbaric.

Not so far from here, on the National Mall in Washington, there is a slash in the ground and a list of names that questions the dangerous simplicities of jingoistic nationalism, as it is an expression of a regressive patriotism.

Ida examines a tragedy of Polish Jewish relations in a land very far from here, apart from xenophobic politics and the memory practices that justify them, while the ruling party in Poland works to purge Polish cultural life of “anti-Polish elements,” including, tragically, the director of the Polish Cultural Institute in Berlin for presenting “too much Jewish themed content,” i.e. the filming of Ida.

Beloved also takes us far from this place. Taking us back in time, it poetically reveals the dilemmas of remembering, with shame and rebellion, the complex legacies of slavery, as the Barbarian in Chief proclaims he is “the least anti-Semitic person you’ve ever seen in your entire life” and “Number two, racism, the least racist person.” Further he pursues a genuine cultural war, attacking the media as the enemy.

Art stands against barbarism, but the continuity of barbaric elements of culture, of the arts, of poetry, broadly understood, persists. We live in a time of political polarization and action imperatives. Art, as it constitutes memory and supports critical reflection on the social condition, turns on a light, against the political and cultural blindness, characteristic of dark times.

Yet the darkness is descending, Adorno’s fear, which I share.

Jeffrey Goldfarb

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