From Resistance to the Holocaust by Phillip Lopate

Theodor Adorno once made an intentionally provocative statement to the effect that one can’t have lyric poetry after Auschwitz. Much as I respect Adorno, I am inclined to ask, a bit faux-naively: Why not? Are we to infer, regarding all the beautiful poetry that has been written since 1945, that these postwar poets were insensitive to some higher tact? Alexander Kluge, the German filmmaker, has explained what Adorno really meant by this remark: any art from now on that does not take Auschwitz into account will be not worthy as art. This is one of those large intimidating pronouncements to which one gives assent in public while secretly harboring doubts. Art is a vast arena; must it all and always come to terms with the death camps, important as they are? How hoggish, this Holocaust, to insist on putting its stamp on all creative activity.

On the other hand, reams have been written arguing that you can’t make art out of the Holocaust. Eli Wiesel once declared, “Art and Auschwitz are antithetical.” Perhaps people would like to believe that there is some preserve, some domain that ought to be protected from the artist’s greedy hands. Actually, a whole body of splendid art about the tragedy of the Jews under the Nazis has been made. One thinks right away of Primo Levi’s books, the poems of Paul Celan and Nelly Sachs, Tadeusz Kantor’s theatrical pieces, films like Resnais’s Night and Fog, Ophuls’s The Sorrow and the Pity and Hotel Terminus, Losey’s Mr. Klein, Corti’s trilogy Where To and Back…Maybe not a lot, true, but then not much great art came out of the debacle of World War I. We should not forget that 99 percent of all art-making attempts are failures, regardless of subject matter.

It has also been argued that the enormity of the Nazis’ crimes against the Jews calls for an aesthetic approach of an entirely different order than the traditional mimetic response. This seems to me nothing more than a polemic in favor of certain avant-garde or antinaturalist techniques, hitched arbitrarily to the Holocaust. Yes, Paul Celan’s cryptic, abstract poems are powerful approaches to the concentration camps, but so are Primo Levi’s direct, lucid accounts. I would not like to think that every stage piece about the Holocaust must perforce follow the stripped, ritualized strategies of Grotowski’s or Kantor’s theatrical works—effective as these may be by themselves—out of some deluded idea that a straight naturalistic approach would desecrate the 6 million dead.

Art has its own laws, and even so devastating an event as the Holocaust may not significantly change them. For all its virtues, the longeurs, repetitions, and failures of sympathy in Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah are not exonerated, no matter what its apologists may argue, by the seriousness of the subject matter, as though an audience must be put through over eight hours of an exhaustively uneven movie to convince it of the reality of the Holocaust. A tighter film would have accomplished the same and been a stronger work of art. Lanzmann might reply that he is indifferent to the claims of art compared to those of the Holocaust; unfortunately, you can’t play the game of art and not play it at the same time.

copyright Phillip Lopate, 1997, and currently available in Portrait of My Body from Anchor.