On Writing: Language and Survival

Saturday, 15 October 2011


Holocaust Memorial North end Boston Ma

I have to preface this post by saying that it was compelled by an email I received. This was not a pleasant email. In fact, it was a blatantly anti-Semitic one, written by someone in response to one of my Holocaust posts. The person who wrote this email basically wanted to deny the Holocaust even occurred. I get that putting my opinions out there so strongly leaves me open to such emails, and while it was hard to read, I wasn't personally offended. I was offended on behalf of those millions of people whose existence and murder this email sought to deny. Every time someone denies the Holocaust occurred, it's like killing its victims all over again, doing them a further injustice. After thinking about this email for a week or so, I also realise that the intention of such an email is to scare me into silence about the topic. Well, I don't believe in such silence.

The problem with talking about the Holocaust is that it is shrouded in silence. Claude Lanzmann once referred to the Holocaust as having a ring of fire around it, making it impossible to represent accurately. I suspect this is why silence is the easier option. How do you begin to represent something so completely incomprehensible? And yet, the Holocaust was the ultimate act of rationality: it was a highly-organised and efficient mode of killing. That's what scares me the most about it. Looking at all the immaculate details the Nazi maintained in their systematic murder and torture of people makes me feel as if language failed humanity. Those endless, rational lists of numbers and names are fascist.

It's because the Holocaust was so brutally rational that many poets have approached its representation through lack of coherent language. Through a dismembering of language, I suppose. To me, their poems read as a defiance of the Nazi's well-organised records, in which language was wielded with an inhuman clarity. But also, their poems are an expression of the limitations of language in expressing the inexpressible. One of the most personally moving poems I've encountered on the Holocaust is this one by Irving Feldman:

-this page
I write and
the silent
who couldn't cannot
whom silence
and I
cannot what nevertheless
I nevertheless
how can I

Feldman enacts the breakdown of language in the face of the Holocaust in such a poem. And yet, he also displays the need to express the Holocaust, to seek to work through its silence, even if it is through a garbled language and poetic structure that does not make sense. If his poem shows us the inability of language to convey what occurred, it also stands as a testimony of what occurred, and the need to couch it in language and representation. To me, this is a form of survival for those who died.

One of my most treasured novels is Nicole Krauss's The History of Love, which also weaves the Holocaust into its narrative in inventive ways that signal the power of language as a form of survival, yet its ultimate frailty. My favourite line in the novel is actually Krauss's dedication. Before four images of her grandparents, Krauss writes: "For my grandparents, who taught me the opposite of disappearing". I'd like to think that even a tentative, incoherent, and incomplete probing around the silences surrounding the Holocaust is the opposite of disappearing. I'd also like to think that it's a form of reclaiming the art of language in a manner that stands for life, rather than death.

Image credits: Holocaust-Mahnmal (top image) and Holocaust (bottom image).


Amelia said...

I have been reading your project d'amour for quite a while now, and given that I'm an art history honours student with a best friend who's a lit honours student, pretty much everything you post has been achingly relevant to either one or both of us. But now, as I sat checking my google reader, whilst procrastinating from writing an essay about anselm kiefer, photography and post war aesthetics (in the light of adorno's statement about lyric-poetry-post-auschwitz). Have you got some kind of crazy mindreading powers or what? Thankyou for the thoughtful, insightful posts -- all of them, but this one especially. And on a lighter note, thanks for the well timed reminder to get off the internet and back into Kiefer!


Nancy Baric *negfilm said...

yes i think the best reaction one can have regarding those who choose to ignore history and fact...no i should say well-documented facts! is incomprehensible. sorry hila, i don't even know what to say...i keep on shaking my head and shrugging my shoulders.

Niina said...

Your writing really makes me stop and think although at first this topic might seem to be a little farther to me than you. But of course it´s not like that at all and thank you for making (even pushing) me to remember that. Bringing these matters into blogosphere takes courage.

Danielle P. said...

One of the things that shock me most (there are many) about the Holocaust is the fact that these atrocious, perverse, insane acts were planned and performed by people who looked and sounded perfectly rational. By all rights, they should have been raving lunatics! It genuinely sends shivers up my spine. How can an intelligent human being have any part in this? It's just so incomprehensible that words fail me. Feldman's poem brought tears to my eyes; I could imagine his fingers twitching in frustration as he attempted to put on paper the thoughts and emotions whirling inside him.

The History of Love is such a wonderful, sad, funny, moving book. I came to it after listening to Nicole Krauss' appearance on Book and Authors' Bookclub on BBC Radio 4. Have you heard it? Here is the link if you are interested (scroll down to 5 June). She speaks about The History of Love, including the dedication, and answers questions from a small group of readers. I highly recommend it.

Thank you for once again writing such a beautiful and thought-provoking post, Hila. I bet the person who wrote you that email regrets it now ;-)

Thea said...

Oh, goodness, I can already feel tears in my eyes. I'm afraid I am guilty of resorting to silence, because it's true, language fails me. It's almost impossible to find words when faced with atrocious crimes against humanity. Emotions pile up. But thank you, Hila, for sharing Feldman's poem. It really is beautiful. Powerfully clear and concise in its confusion of language. (And on another note, I cannot even comprehend how anybody can deny the holocaust? Do the facts of history not speak for themselves?)

SARAH said...

Thank you for another provocative post. I'm a nonfiction editor who gets dozens of holocaust essays a month, and I can tell you - people really want to put the holocaust into words. I think writers succeed most when they're not writing "about" the holocaust, because, like you said, it's ineffable, it's huge, its tragedies are larger than language. But when the writers tell stories, that's when language and the lives it represents come alive ("the opposite of disappearing") in a powerful way.

Tana said...

Hila, thank you for this post, for sharing Fieldman`s words.

Amelia said...

I always believe that history repeats itself and if we don't learn anything from the past to better ourselves, we will always repeat it.

I think the problem with crimes against humanity is that they're treated as if they're taboo. Even if the History Channel has a sort of insane obsession with what Nazi Germany did to Jewish people, it never touches on what happened to the gypsies, the disabled, the homosexuals in that same period. I've heard very little on TV about the Armenian Holocaust, Pol Pot's massacres or most recently the Rwanda Genocide and the Bosnian Genocide.

I think the problem with admitting such evil is the fact that we have to admit that in each and all of us exists the possibility of such evil. As another commentator said earlier, the people who committed such atrocious acts were supposed to be lunatics, not rational human beings.

I don't believe this is the true nature of humanity, but if we ignore it, we will always make the same mistakes, ignore the signs and so on.

Fortunately, as the comments on your blog show, there's a lot of people who don't ignore such issues.

Acacia said...

The horror lies in that rationality, which Holocaust deniers can't accept. As a descendant of a family decimated in Auschwitz, the history was a large part of my childhood and I came to a conclusion that I believe is the motivation for the deniers, extermination is the next logical step of racism. To admit that is to admit that their hate ultimately leads down that path.

We can't be silent. Ever.

hila said...

amelia: ha, I wish I had crazy mind-reading powers! Getting comments like this one is what convinces me to go on writing this blog, so thank you so much.

nancy: I didn't know what to say either when I got the email. But I think saying nothing sort of lets him get away with it, if you know what I mean.

niina: oh, not that much courage really :) but thank you.

danielle p.: I sure hope he regrets it, but I doubt it. And yes, they should have been raving lunatics, but they weren't. they were perfectly rational human beings who went home to their families. I think calling them insane (and Hitler) is a way of minimising just what they did - they were fully aware of their actions. That's what makes it so very frightening.

Thanks for that link about Krauss, I'll check it out.

thea: oh please don't feel bad, I was just saying that I think silence was the response this email wanted, and I wasn't going to give him that response.

The facts of the holocaust should speak for themselves, but unfortunately, there are all sorts of reasons why people seek to deny them.

sarah: I love knowing this - that you get a lot of stories about the holocaust. I think you're right, it's hard to write 'about' the holocaust, maybe it's more possible to approach the silences around it.

tana: I'm glad they moved you.

amelia: yes, you're completely right. There's genocide going on today and I'm always baffled why there's such silence on the topic in the news.

acacia: I agree. Emails that deny the holocaust just reinforce my belief that we can't be silent.

Danielle P. said...

Hila, I meant that he probably regrets his email because, rather than shutting you up, it prompted you to write this beautiful post, which sparked thoughtful and touching comments...

hila said...

ah, understood, sorry :) who knows what goes on in his head though (a scary thought). but you're right, the comments here are so touching.

andrea despot said...

I'm not sure if it's because of a light gust of wind that just flew in through the window next to me, or this post, but I'm left with goosebumps. What you've written here about the surrounding silence, failure of language, and disappearing so strongly captures the Holocaust.

Thanks so much for "being the opposite of disappearing," for not being silent about this. Yours, Feldman's and Krauss's words have really moved me...

E. said...

Thank you for sharing Feldman's poem. Beautiful.

x E.

Linda said...

I am beginning to wonder if people who deny the holocaust simply want to reserve the option of perpetrating another one, since the denial is so contrary to all facts, evidence, witnesses, and testimony. I am so sorry that someone would so despicably write something like that to you, and I think you are both courageous and right to react by committing to shrinking the circumference of silence about this catastrophic evil.

hila said...

andrea: thank you andrea, their words move me too.

e.: I love it too.

linda: thank you, but I really don't think I'm courageous at all. There isn't any other option but to speak about these things when someone seeks to deny them. I'm with you, I really question the real motivation of those who deny the holocaust.

andrea said...

You know this already, but you are one of my favourites. <3

Sofia said...

The question of language after the Holocaust is such an incredibly interesting one. Not least in Germany, where poets were left with a language that had actively killed, destroyed. Many phrases are still unusable today because they had been used, abused in propaganda and murder.
thanks for the article

hila said...

andrea: thank you andrea!

sofia: that's such an interesting point - I often wonder what strategies need to be employed when language has been used in the name of violence. Thank you so much for leaving this comment and pointing this out.