decoys of perception: poetry after …..

Could poetry be written after Auschwitz? Theodor Adorno’s famous assertion did not necessarily mean that no poetry could be created about the holocaust. Its a touchy grey zone; a metaphorical voyage of the damned where like Odysseus you tie yourself to the mast of the craft to survive the fatal singing of the sirens; to restrain a mad desire, vague, powerful and raw urges, mistaken for love;  It might be almost impossible to capture, but possible to begin to approximate the true nature of the holocaust through an art form. Is “don’t forget,” the best response. Don’t forget oppression,  persecution,  intolerance, authoritarianism….hardly “banal” but these memories inevitably result in disagreements over the hierarchy of suffering.

Boris Lurie. Adieu Amerique. 1960. Read More:

This ladder of suffering opens up a Pandora’s box on the relation of aesthetics to politics and returns tragedies like the holocaust back into a commodity reflecting Walter Benjamin’s famous quote: Mankind['s] … self alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic. Communism responds by politicizing art”. The path of least resistance is an ingenious solidarity with the victims. Its a comfortable solution rather than examining the institutional and systematic mechanisms that give rise to disruptions in societal consciousness and implicate, by extension our passive complicity in crimes of the nation state; hence, the emergence of the lie under the guise of lofty national declarations.

…If ever I would stop thinking about music and politics/I would tell you that I pooped in my own dog dish/And sometimes I would rather face not eating/Than face licking it clean/And admitting when I’m selfish/And I’d tell you that I’m suffering/From the worst type of loneliness/The loneliness of being misunderstood/Or more poignantly/The loneliness of being afraid/To allow myself to be understood…Michael Franti, Music and Politics.

---Boris Lurie. Untitled. 1967. Michael Greenstein:A. Alvarez suggests one way out of Adorno's huis clos: "The difficulty is to find language for this world without values. . . . Perhaps the most convincing way is that by which dreams express anguish: by displacement, disguise, and indirection." If Alvarez's tentative "formula" seems to provide one way out, then Eli Mandel, in a description of his own poem, has found a similar solution: "It would be a series of displacements. . . . It would be a camp poem by not being a camp poem." Mandel's theory of derealization, disorientation, and fragmentation echoes not only Alvarez's suggestion, but also Klein's epigraph to The Second Scroll, "Where shall I find Thee?" This kabbalistic quest becomes more acute during a period of God's eclipse when absence dominates the universe so that the question about God's whereabouts may be displaced by the poet's linguistic question: where shall I find the words to express this absence? Fragmented verse and negatives begin to explore a poetics of absence where memory must somehow fill the historical void created by genocide and deicide. Read More:

Elaine Martin quoting Adorno: “Whoever calls for the resurrection of this guilty and shabby culture becomes its accomplice, while whoever denies culture directly promotes the barbarism which culture revealed itself to be. Not even silence gets us out of this circle, since in silence we simply use the state of objective truth to rationalise our subjective inability, thereby once again degrading truth into a lie.” Read More:

---Clayton Patterson: But what can happen is you end up with something like Spiegelman’s Maus, in which Jews in the concentration camp were portrayed as mice, the lowest form of rodent. Boris was very offended by that. Boris Lurie: That is really insulting. To me that is pornography, the real pornography, not a woman being laid by a man. Maus is a packaged thing, in which Spiegelman calls the Jews mice, the few Jews who had the courage to go into hiding - and you had to have courage to go into hiding, because the fear was that, if you were caught, they would shoot you on the spot. It could happen and I believe it did happen. In order to hide for two years you had to have a lot of courage - you’re not a mouse. It’s your own volition, it’s your own will.---Read More:

Probably the most comprehensive understanding of this “decoy of perception” was written by Raul Hilberg which avoided laying the blame like the cold warrors and affluent burghers in Germany splitting hairs on  how to treat a few notorious individuals at liberty. One Eichmann sacrifice should be enough to appease. No?  Hilberg moved the focus and redefined the contexts from individual guilt to patterns and institutions:

It used a model drawn from Neumann to organize this vast evidence and show how the four major institutions, acting as a single bureaucratic machine, organized the Final Solution in four inevitable and sequential stages (definition, expropriation, concentration, and destruction). Hilberg directed attention away from Hitler, zeal, ideology, and cruelty and toward a process organized by officials. Whether Hitler ordered the Final Solution was less important than that ‘‘with an unfailing sense of direction and with an uncanny pathfinding ability, the German bureaucracy found the shortest road to the final goal.’’ Those who made possible the destruction included hundreds of thousands of officials of typical background and outlook; his notion of ‘‘bureaucrat’’ went from Himmler to priests, postal clerks, and train drivers. Few were specialists, and they juggled other duties as they conceived and applied a welter of rules about Jews. In passages that initially attracted no attention, Hilberg made clear that his ‘‘bureaucrats’’ included Jewish leaders, whose ‘‘attempts at forestalling not only availed nothing but actually fitted into German plans . . . speed [ing] . . . the process of destruction.’’ Read More:

…If ever I would stop thinking about music

politics/I would tell you that the personal revolution/ Is far more difficult/And is the first step in any revolution/…If ever I would stop thinking about music and politics/I would tell you that music is the expression of emotion/And that politics is merely the decoy of perception. ( Michael Franti )


---David Katz: Was it intuition, because a lot of people didn’t know but sensed something very bad was going to happen? Boris Lurie: By 1943 you knew what would happen, at the beginning you didn’t know what was going to happen. So some people took the initiative upon themselves, voluntarily, to go into hiding. You had to have a lot of guts, and you had to have some money or some goods, or some contact with Christian people who would hide you. But you had to have a strong character to say ‘I’m not going along, I’m going into hiding.’ And this guy describes it as sort of a joke, they’re fearful people, they’re mice hiding in mouseholes. Nevertheless, this book has been adopted by the liberal establishment, because it avoids everything. They don’t care whether you call a person a mouse who’s been hiding from the law for many years in Poland. David Katz: How much of survival do you think was cunning and intelligence and how much was luck? Boris Lurie: Luck was the main thing, obviously luck. And cunning and intelligence were, let’s say, second. Cunning and intelligence wouldn’t have helped you one iota without luck.---Read More:


Kuspit: It seems clear that Lurie’s Dismembered Women have social as well as personal import: it is society that reduces women to sex objects, degrading and dehumanizing them, just as the Jews were degraded and dehumanized in the concentration camps. Women’s bodies are the sites of Nazi atrocities, like the bodies of Jews; Lurie paradoxically identifies with women for they too are social victims. It is worth noting, as Sandor Gilman points out, that, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Jews were regarded as “feminized males,” and as such as inferior and defective as women, and like them “at risk for hysteria…a uniquely feminine nervous disease.” Hitler accepted this idea, and “linked Jews with prostitutes and the spread of infection,” as Gilman notes, which is why they had to be wiped out, a medical necessity that was also a “social cure.”Read More:

Boris Lurie. Railroad Collage. 1959....David Katz: Were people shocked when you did these juxtapositions of Holocaust imagery and pin-ups? Boris Lurie: Yeah, they were. I would say they were shocked. Everybody was shocked about the exhibition. They were shocked, that’s true, and I would say that the ordinary artists were the ones who liked it least because they felt threatened by this . . . After the war in America and even in New York it was a taboo subject. Probably the Jews just didn’t want to hear about it any more. Most of the people that I knew in the art world never knew that I was in a concentration camp. It was never talked about. So at that time everything opened up....When I came here after the war, all of a sudden sexual intercourse was based on your ability to spend! If you wanted to go on a date, the minimum that you had to spend was 10 dollars. You had to spend some money, or the girl wouldn’t go with you, simple as that. So there was tremendous sexual pressure, especially if you were a young man and you came from Europe, where everything was wide open. According to our thinking this should also come out in art, it shouldn’t be hidden under the carpet. Read More:

…Kafka once defined himself as a “typical example of a western jew,” “this means that i don’t have a moment of peace, that nothing comes easily to me, not just the present and the future, but even the past, that thing that each man receives as his birthright: even that i have to conquer, and perhaps that is the hardest task.” for kafka, ethnic identification was a burden imposed on him by gentile society. no, he did not reject who he was, he rejected, as most jews do or should, the “legal” authority of the “owners” of the identity to grant it or withdraw it from a person in accordance to their own definitions. (Hune at Martin Buber Dialogical Ecology)


Lurie. Bound in Red. 1962. ---Michael Greenstein:Emmanuel Levinas, a French philosopher who survived the Holocaust, writes extensively about the absence of God and the need for dialogue or discourse to mediate this absence. Where Orthodox Judaism relies on the Torah, secular poets offer writing as their mediation to overcome absence in this I-Thou relationship. To counter this universal void Irving Layton projects in his verse a self-image who participates in adialectic of potential and completion, Klein's "pilpulistic antitheses." As Seymour Mayne perceptively notes, "The 'I' or persona is almost invariably involved in the poem itself. It is at the center of the action, and this encounter of the persona and experience, of the personal and the world, suggests that some suspension of disbelief is involved." In theology the poet suspends disbelief in an eclipsed God, in poetry he creates metaphor where tenor and vehicle almost meet. "Analogy as dialogue with God" is Derrida's formulation of this I-Thou relationship. Read More:

Kuspit:Growing up in a concentration camp, one cannot help feel traumatized by life, and develop a certain horror of it—the horror of life, as Baudelaire called it, that was the flip side of the romantic fascination with it—and Lurie is a romantic despite the painful realism of some of his imagery. However horrible, Lurie clung to life, and even had, as Irving Stone said Van Gogh did, a “lust for life.” But it was a lust informed by an impulsive destructiveness that uncannily suggests the chanciness of life in a concentration camp, and, ironically, what the psychoanalyst Anna Freud famously described as identification with the aggressor, suggesting the dialectic of Nazi sadism and Jewish trauma—indeed, the trauma of being an alien and alienated Jew in a Christian society, and especially in rabidly anti-Semitic Nazi society—that informs Lurie’s art. On one level Lurie’s work shows the so-called Stockholm syndrome in action—the persecuted individual takes on the traits of the persecuting society in order to survive in it—while on another level it shows the opportunity for independent thinking (and art making) the Jew has by reason of being an outsider. Read More:


In his new work, Hilberg was able to show that hundreds of officials handled Jewish issues as part of their daily work and hundreds of thousands implemented their decisions. Nobody resigned or protested or felt he initiated policies or murdered or did much at all aside from routine business. A number of retired Reichsbahn officials even told Hilberg of their wartime decisions and knowledge. The result was not Arendt’s version of banality but a range of bureaucratic personalities, motivations, and skills, a huge collectivity running on its own logic. His conception had been to apply Neumann’s model to another ordinary German institution, the research was meticulous, and the results powerfully suggestive. Read More:

Czerniakow’s daily entries from September 6, 1939, to July 23, 1942, are dry and factual but cannot minimize the agony of a community leader trying to bargain with front-line Nazi officials for tiny concessions. Like many private papers, the contents range from quotidian lists of the diarist’s health to remarkable entries about daring Jewish couriers or duplicitous officials and of corruption by Poles and Jews as well as Germans. In all, the entries and introduction are a stunning, sympathetic portrayal of a tragic figure, incorruptible, often naive or mistaken, repressed—he raged against Polish collaborators and corrupt Jews, but never against Germans—and trapped. Czerniakow’s last few months were filled with terror as he and the community saw that ‘‘resettlement’’ meant murder. His July 23 was at first similar to other days. Having begun deportations, Nazi officials demanded that Czerniakow immediately find 5,000 more Jews to fill a transport leaving at 4 p.m.; he had meetings; he wrote in his diary. It was later said that the SS instructed him to kill children in an orphanage with his own hands. That evening he committed suicide, earning a generous reassessment from a rival. Like most of Hilberg’s subjects, this had a grim ending because of both the suicide and Czerniakow’s inability over thirty-three months to win concessions. The chairman’s efforts at best bought time only for a few. The diary did not lead Hilberg to alter his longstanding view that resistance had been small, late, and largely ineffective
and that ghetto leaders had been forced to participate in ‘‘a form of organized self-destruction,’ Read More:

Adorno:I have no wish to soften the saying that to write lyric poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric; it expresses in negative form the impulse which inspires committed literature. The question asked by a character in Sartre’s play Morts Sans Supulture, ‘Is there any meaning in life when men exist who beat people until the bones break in their bodies?’, is also the question whether any art now has a right to exist; whether intellectual regression is not inherant in the concept of committed literture because of the regression of society. But Enzensberger’s retort also remains true, that literature must resist this verdict, in other words, be such that its mere existence after Auschwitz is not a surrender to cynicism. Its own situation is one of paradox, not merely the one of how to react to it…

……by turning suffering into images, harsh and uncompromising though they are, it wounds the shame we feel in the presence of the victims. For these victims are used to create something, works of art, that are thrown to the consumption of a world which destroyed them. The so-called artistic representation of the sheer physical pain of people beaten to the ground by rifle-butts contains, however remotely, the power to elicit enjoyment out of it. The moral of this art, not to forget for a single instant, slithers into the abyss of its opposite. The aesthetic principle of stylization, and even the solemn prayer of the chorus, make an unthinkable fate appear to have had some meaning; it is transfigured, something of its horror removed. This alone does an injustice to the victims; yet no art which tried to evade them could confront the claims of justice. Read More:

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