Synopsis of Class: February 6, 2001

Today, we discussed two more cultural representations of the Holcocaust: poetry and music. As usual, a number of issues were raised about Holocaust representation. In particular, we distinguished four major issues that we can say direct one's understanding of Holocaust representation:

Directness or Accuracy of the Representation (faithfulness to the referent)     Meaning/ Signification (how do we make sense of the period, make it understandable to the present?)
Audience Response (pragmatic effect on the audience)     Faith or a Belief in the Unrepresentable (should we turn to faith or, conversely, should we see the Holocaust as unrepresentalbe—hence Holocaust iconoclasm)

Each of the four poles entails different questions from the others. As I pointed out in a recent e-mail to you, responding to questions from Becky Clemens, it may be that one cannot make a proper decision about the viability of any representation of the Holocaust without first asking oneself what is most important:

1) ACCURATE REPRESENTATION? Is the best representation the one that is truest to the period, the one that represents the period most directly and realistically? What constitutes "accurate representation"? Does this mean representing exactly what happened when or does accuracy mean correctly representing the emotions of the victims? Inevitably, any history needs to select some things to represent over others. What should govern these decisions?

2) AUDIENCE RESPONSE? audience reception? Or is it more important to think about a work's effect on the audience? According to this logic, it may be that the most faithful, direct representations (for example, Night and Fog's historical film of actual bodies from the camps) are actually harmful, since they create a sense of unreality on the part of the viewer and lead us to turn all Germans into monsters (thus absolving ourselves of any culpability or responsibility of our own: alors, qui est responsable?). Spielberg, for example, is extremely interested in what effect his film will have on his audience, which I think is why he chooses to tell the story of Schindler. He wants to explore what constitutes a "righteous gentile" so that viewers will have a model in mind that will then allow them to counter oppression in the future. The same may be said about the shower/gas chamber scene; Spielberg is less concerned with actually representing an extermination than he is with making each audience member believe s/he is about to be exterminated. What's the difference between these two ways of representing the exterminations? Is one better, more ethically correct, or more pragmatically effective than the other?

3) MEANING? Or is it most important to make sense of the incredible horrors of the Holocaust. Is this the best way to avoid something like this from happening again (as alltagsgeschichte--the history of everyday life--sometimes claims)? Or should one NOT try to make sense of the Holocaust because doing so somehow belittles the horror (and the ultimately incommensurable complexity) of the period?

4) FAITH AND ICONOCLASM? Should one critique ANY representation since any film with actors (and, arguably, any re-presentation of the period whatsoever) will, by necessity, include re-workings of reality. This is the version of criticism regarding Shoah representation that I term "Holocaust iconoclasm" in my essay which you have in the second part of the course Reader. Lanzmann uses this critique when he states that the Holocaust erects a ring of fire around itself and that Spielberg was wrong to represent directly such things as the Krakow liquidation and subsequent cremation. (Indeed, he even states that, had he found an actual historical film of an extermination, he would have destroyed it.) Spielberg makes a similar point in the Village Voice interview I have provided on the web site. How should one represent the period then? Should we forget it? Should we turn to non-referential media like music, abstract art, mouse masks, or stark memorials? Conversely, is faith in a truth greater than our reality an issue? Do we have to establish some greater morality as response to the despair that can affect us when we respond to the Holocaust? Consider, for example, the turn to prayre or belief in so many of our representations: the ending of the Diary of Anne Frank, the opening of Spielberg's Schindler's List, Górecki's Symphony No. 3, and McCullough's Holocaust Cantata.

Some of the additional issues that the class discussed in relation to Górecki's Symphony No. 3 and McCullough's Holocaust Cantata include:

1) does music allow a listener greater freedom to empathize with the plight of the victim, as Michelle Purdue suggested? Michelle felt that the images presented to a viewer by film imposes a single interpretation on the events, thus taking away from a reader's ability imaginatively to access the period. Elizabeth Horn countered, however, that music can also be an imposition—a discursive imposition—as in the kitschified ending of The Diary of Anne Frank. Both Baudrillard and Adorno warn against this kitschification. As Adorno puts it in today's reading, "Today, every phenomenon of culture, even if a model of integrity, is liable to be suffocated in the cultivation of kitsch" (318). It is because of the danger of aestheticization that Adorno is also famous for stating that "to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric." Baudrillard goes even further, comparing the aesthetic nature of the movie soundtrack to extermination: "One no longer makes the Jews pass through the crematorium or the gas chamber, but through the sound track and image track, through the universal screen and the microprocessor. Forgetting, annihilation, finally achieves its aesthetic dimension in this way—it is achieved in retro, finally elevated here to a mass level" (49). He says the same thing about television: "Same process of forgetting, of liquidation, of extermination, same annihilation of memories and of history, same inverse, implosive radiation, same absorption without an echo, same black hole as Auschwitz. And one would like to have us believe that TV will lift the wight of Auschwitz by making a collective awareness radiate, whereas television is its perpetuation in another guise" (49-50).

2) Michelle also brought up the issue of translation in relation to the Holocaust Cantata, mentioning the many different "filters," as she put it, that that piece had to go through before achieving the final form (various translations, a new arrangement, placement into a unified work as "cantata"). She wondered if such manipulations took away from the full effect (the truth) of the original songs. She also wondered if McCullough was thus imposing a single, unified meaning or trajectory to the diverse material. Of course, the same issues could potentially be raised about Celan's "Death Fugue," since it connects his poetic representation of the Holocaust to music on a number of fronts (he uses refrain-like repetitions, he refers to music, and he calls his poem a "fugue"), although it's also true that, in proper postmodern fashion, he undercuts the aestheticization of music in a number of ways, as Shoshana Felman argues in her brilliant reading of the poem (see "Education and Crisis," pp. 26-38).

3) Ann Blakley pointed out how easy it is to forget the Holocaust by telling self-exculpatory stories about it, as do the villagers in the scene in Lanzmann's Shoah where Simon Srebnik is silenced by a group of villagers telling their own version of events. I asked whether we can say the same of Górecki's decision to impose Roman Catholic prayres onto the Nazi period (the lamentation of the Holy Cross Monastery from the 15th century in the first movement and a child's prayer invoking the Virgin Mary in the second movement). Is Górecki, who grew up next to Auschwitz, thus superimposing a transcendental Christian grand narrative onto the Holocaust that serves to make us forget the predominantly Jewish victims of the Nazi pogroms?

4) We also discussed the use of the child as "victim ideal," as James Young puts it in the discussion printed in the Village Voice. Why do so many of the representations we have examined turn to the child as the prototypical victim? Examples include the red-coated child in Spielberg's Schindler's List, Stevens' The Diary of Anne Frank, Benigni's Life Is Beautiful, Górecki's Third Symphony, the narrative voice-overs and final added pieces in McCullough's Holocaust Cantata.

We finished by comparing three different efforts to represent what Lanzmann terms the "blindingly dark sun of the Holocaust," Lanzmann's own use of clay model in the third part of Shoah, Spielberg's gas chamber scene in which we are led to believe that we are about to see an extermination, and the pile of corpses that Guido Orefice in Life Is Beautiful comes upon in the fog. How do each of these representations deal with the desire to represent—and the simulataneous fear of representing—the "dark sun of the Holocaust" directly?


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