Art After the Holocaust (4)

This is the last of a series of posts.

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To remember the Holocaust means to come to dwell in the chaotic no-place of a place that art after the Holocaust creates, and to build together a human home there, the only place such a home can be built any longer today, this day that dawns only “after” the Holocaust. Those who truly remember the Holocaust are not those who speak its name over and over and over again, most often on days especially said aside for just such recitals. Rather, they are those who live in the never again to be closed yawning gap between worlds that the Holocaust opened up.

Genuine remembrance of the Holocaust can be done and is being done not only by those whose poems or other works of art are “about” the Holocaust in any ordinary sense. Poems, for example, in which the Holocaust is genuinely being remembered are being written by some poets who never even mention the Holocaust in their poems, and kept alive in memory by readers who have ears to hear what those poets are saying in those poems.

It is not those who go around repeating over and over such slogans as “Never forget!” who are truly remembering the Holocaust. It is, rather, those who do what they can not to forget themselves in a shameful way by failing to honor their commitments and obligations, and instead to forget themselves with honor by doing daily whatever it is they may be given to hear themselves called to do. Those who truly honor the memory of the Holocaust are those who, even if they have never so much as heard of the Holocaust, do hear the call to take up their own obligations and responsibilities to foster truly open, human community—hear that call especially when they are given pause to catch their breath amidst all the chatter of the day, and to encounter the silence.

The job of the poet who remembers the Holocaust—which is to say the job of poetry that truly comes after the Holocaust, and does not just join the long list of its precursors—is not to write only poems that take their terms and images from the Holocaust itself. Using the Holocaust merely to provide such material to write poems about is just that: using the Holocaust. It is often no more than exploiting the Holocaust in order to further one’s own selfish interests. But that is not just selfish. It is offensive: obscenely so.

It is obscene to use such horror and suffering as the Holocaust as no more than a storehouse of handy tropes and images. It is obscene in the same way it is obscene to use the Holocaust as no more than a good way to sell tickets to Hollywood blockbusters, or to sell books, or to get promotions up the professorial ranks, or anything else of the sort.

It is obscene to use the Holocaust at all. It is obscene to use it, instead of letting it take hold of us, and use us. It is obscene to use the Holocaust, and not to let it use us to keep open the wound, the chaos, the yawning gap that the Holocaust itself was, is, and ever will be—no matter how often we forget ourselves shamelessly by forgetting our obligation always to remember the Holocaust.

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If our own talents and inclinations, our own vocations or callings in the more restricted sense, make us into poets, as they made Celan, for example, then the Holocaust calls upon us to remember it by struggling with the selves and the languages we were born with and into, struggling with them in the effort to make them into occasions—God, serendipity, or synchronicity willing—in which those who come upon us or our works just may themselves be given a turn of breath, a moment of vision, an arresting of attention. The use to which the Holocaust puts poets, for the sake of its own remembrance, is just that.

The Holocaust uses poets to provide places where such moments of vision, such turns of breath, may suddenly and unexpectedly bring all us others among whom the poets live—who in the vast majority of cases are not at all poets ourselves—to pause. They provide us places where, for at least a moment of breath-turn, we forget ourselves with honor, by forgetting, at least for that moment, all our daily self-interested preoccupations enough to drop all our chatter and listen at last to the silence that calls us.

In such places we are at last able to hear the shattering silence in which alone all the dying and the dead speak to us still living, calling us to attention. We finally have room to hear that silence calling us to obedience, from Latin ob-, “to, toward,” plus—at least by the most widely accepted derivation—audire, “to listen.”

Poets after the Holocaust write poems. Those poems, in turn, need us. They need us to hear them, and above all to hear, through them, the silence that they break, and break for that very purpose.

Paul Celan, for one, knew that.