Art After the Holocaust (1)

This is the first in a series of posts.

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Art—at least that art that has been purified of all artifice and flashiness, all grandiloquence and gaudiness—can call us back from the sort of forgetting of ourselves that shames us, and into the sort of forgetting of ourselves that honors us. It can call us back from forgetting ourselves negatively and into forgetting ourselves positively—back into forgetting ourselves precisely by honoring our obligations, and paying what we owe.    

In the little Colorado mountain town of Nederland, about thirty minutes drive from my wife’s and my main home in Longmont—a small city just east of the Rocky Mountains, of which we have a fine view from our living-room window—there is a refurbished old carousel open to the public. It is called the “Carousel of Happiness” and was brought to Nederland by Scott Harrison, a man about my age, who served in the United States military during the war in Vietnam. According to the website for the Carousel of Happiness, "as a young Marine in Vietnam” Harrison at one point “received [from home] a tiny music box that he held to his ear to distract him from the horror of the war going on around him.” What the music box played was Chopin’s “Tristesse,” which of course translates as “Sadness” or “Sorrow.” Despite that title—or perhaps even because of it—listening to that music while he was surrounded by all the violence of war brought to Harrison’s mind “a peaceful image of a carousel in a mountain meadow.”

After the war in Vietnam, Harrison eventually found an old carousel in Utah, then “spent the next 26 years hand-carving animals to bring it back to life" in Nederland, where it now stands. Above his Carousel of Happiness there, one can read a line from one of Nietzsche’s notes, probably written sometime during 1888, his last lucid year before his breakdown in Turin, Italy, in January 1889. The translation over the Nederland Carousel of Happiness reads: “We have art, so we are not destroyed by the truth.”

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Taken uncritically in the context of the story about how Scott Harrison used his music box with Chopin’s “Tristesse” to “distract” himself from the horror of what was going on around him, Nietzsche’s line might be taken to mean that the purpose of art is to provide just such “distraction” from our concerns, worries, and responsibilities. Taken in that way, the line would attribute to art the job of providing us with a sort of narcotic allowing us to escape from the truth and the pain of having to face it—that is, a way for us to “forget ourselves” in that distractive sense.

However, for Nietzsche it is only a degenerate form of art (such as he eventually came to see at work in the later operas of Richard Wagner, most especially Parsifal) that seeks to provide such escapes from the truth, such avenues for forgetting ourselves in the distractive sense.

In contrast, in the Greek tragedy wherein Nietzsche saw art’s highest development, no such escape from ourselves, no narcotic against painful truth, is at work at all. Rather, art in the highest sense is what gives truth itself a place to take its stand, as it were. Art in that highest sense is the creation, the drawing forth, of a place where truth can set itself into work, we could say—to borrow a later, post-Nietzschean way of speaking from Heidegger.  

 In the preceding series of posts, on "Holocaust Remembrance," I cited remarks by both Jean Améry, written after he had lived through Auschwitz, and Sigmund Freud, written even before World War II broke out, after the Nazi Anschluss of Austria with Germany had driven Freud from his native Vienna, leaving him to die an exile in England. I suggested there that both sets of remarks, Améry’s and Freud’s, especially when taken together, articulated an important truth about the Holocaust. It is a truth, I in effect argued, that we are all still today, more than seventy years later, challenged to remember. That is, it is a truth that is still waiting upon us to remember it—to remember it really, at the level of our conduct and behavior themselves, not just in our words (though, as a matter of fact, it is all too often forgotten even at that purely verbal level as well).

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Before trying to say again wherein that challenge really consists, I would like to observe that neither Freud’s remarks nor Améry’s were casually made. Both were carefully written, with careful thought and attention given to what was being said, and how it was being said. Neither set of remarks, that is, was itself without art.

That is so, I suggest, not just in the trivial sense that, following Aristotle, we are easy with: the tradition whereby we distinguish between what occurs by “nature” and what takes place only with the help of “art,” which is to say of skill or craft. Freud’s and Améry’s lines are not only matters of “art” in that sense. Rather, they are also—especially when heard concretely, with an ear tuned by the knowledge of just who is speaking, and under just what historical conditions—instances of “art” precisely in what we might call the Nietzschean-Heideggerian sense. That is, both bring an important and difficult truth to stand there clearly. Both face us and tell us—as Rilke says the “archaic torso of Apollo” does in his poem of that title—that we must change our lives.     

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To be continued.