Represent the Holocaust? | The hiker

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I inaugurate here, for the benefit of the aggregators of philosophy who are working this year on the question of course “The Representation”, a small series of extracts in the form of cards from my work The Depression Crisis (republished, increased and revised in pocket collection, La Découverte 2019). I thus put within your reach, you who could have been my fellow student and who mash up in your turn the bitter potash of the program, a few rudiments touching this swarming as much as a fading notion, well worth occupying your mind for a few months .

By what end can we grasp the fleeting representation? I have just recorded with Antoine Spire a section of his television program “Tambour battant” which is rightly devoted to him (it will be broadcast at the beginning of next July), and I have read my work for this: pedagogically, and out of a wider audience, why not start from my Chapter IX, “Crossing of Terror”, where the ability to represent collides with the unthinkable reality of the Shoah?

The dilemma of testimony

Is the Holocaust representable? How to tell it, paint it, film it, pass on the experience? In The Concentration Universe (Editions de Minuit), David Rousset warned his reader in 1946: ” [Les déportés] walked in the fantastic setting of all ruined dignities. They are separated from the others by an experience that is impossible to transmit ”. Primo Levi may have, better than others, formulated the difficulty experienced by survivors to simply bear witness: not only is their memory overwhelmed by the evidence that, no matter what they say, will not believe them, that no one will be able to hearit, because it would be necessary, beyond words, to have lived it, but an insidious guilt is attached to their survival: “I repeat, we, the survivors, we are not the true witnesses. […] We are the ones who, through prevarication, skill or luck, have not hit rock bottom. Those who did, who saw the Gorgon, did not come back to tell, or became dumb, but it was they, these “Muslims”, these submerged, the full witnesses “(Shipwrecked and survivors. Forty years after Auschwitz, Gallimard 1989, p. 82).

The loss of human dignity seems even greater among women, and it sometimes happens that on their return, they are suspected of having survived in exchange for sexual services – argument of the sulphurous film by Liliana Cavani, Night porter (1974). In general, the story of the survivors embarrasses, or does not interest. The manuscript of If he is a man was first refused to Primo Levi in ​​1947 by Einaudi, and this book had to wait until 1956 to really start. The double bind of the survivor touching the testimony is extreme: to say nothing is to collaborate with his executioners; to tell is to sweeten, to inscribe the inexpressible in the reassuring thread of history.

Primo Levi

The images of the camps, which circulated abundantly since the summer of 1945, suffered from being reproduced without principle: the legends lacked or remained fanciful, the emotional shock was preferred to the documentation, and this choice of horrifying was paradoxically going to fuel denialist delirium who will incriminate these inaccuracies, as Clément Chéroux explains very well in the catalog of the exhibition Memory of the camps (Marval 2001, see in particular his article “On the good use of images”).

The more terrible the image, the less we care about explaining or documenting it; we prefer to create an archetype, a concentrate of abomination, but we thus delay the work of memory and history, and the pathos short-circuits knowledge. Likewise, in Night and Fog (1956), Jean Cayrol’s commentary does not mention the word “Jew”, and the role of Vichy is completely hidden; lyrical or symbolic, the flagship film by Alain Resnais does not really serve the intelligence of extermination. The isolation of the witnesses becomes radical. It is snowing on the trauma, as we see in Claude Lanzmann’s film vegetation and snow gently cover the sites of industrial death.

Increase negation?

Unspeakable, unthinkable, unrepresentable … These words attached to the Holocaust sharpen our problem, but they also give arguments to laziness. To repeat, after Adorno, that one cannot write poems after Auschwitz, is tantamount to adding to the cheapness of the silence and the collapse expected by the Nazis. What a strange victory would be theirs if the camps were in no way objects of “representation”? The question is not to ban it – in the name of what unspeakable? – but to sort between the available images and the choices of each other. Because, as Pierre Vidal-Naquet strongly emphasized in his preface to Geneviève Decrop’s book, From Camps to Genocide, the Politics of the Unthinkable (Grenoble University Press 1995, p. 7), ” [le génocide] was thought, so it was thinkable. ” The controversy vigorously fueled by Claude Lanzmann, his blunt condemnation of the film by Steven Spielberg Schindler’s List (1993), the charge of iconoclasm then brought against him by Jorge Semprun put his film Holocaust (1985) at the center of our questions and provide several answers.

Claude Lanzmann

“The Holocaust is unique in that it builds up around it, in a circle of flames, the limit not to be crossed because a certain absolute of horror is untransmissible; to pretend to do so is to commit the most serious transgression. Fiction is a transgression, I deeply believe that there is a ban on representation. […] To testify, do we invent a new form or do we reconstruct? I think I have made a new shape. Spielberg chose to rebuild. But to rebuild is, in a way, to make archives. What if I had found an existing film – a secret film because it was strictly forbidden – made by an SS man and showing how 3,000 Jews, men, women, children, died together, asphyxiated in a gas chamber at the crematorium 2 from Auschwitz, if I had found that, not only would I not have shown it, but I would have destroyed it. I am unable to say why. It goes without saying ”(article by Claude Lanzmann,“ Holocaust, impossible representation ”, The world March 3, 1994).

This resounding statement by the author of Holocaust clearly differentiates his gaze from other ways of hearing history or testimony. First, and to be more obvious, the improbable “document” mentioned by him could only be the work of the executioners, and Lanzmann absolutely refuses to endorse their gaze. But he also takes a stand against a reconstruction of the type proposed by Spielberg, soa fortioriagainst films which, from Kapo at Holocaust, fictionalized the Holocaust. Opposed to the reconstruction, Lanzmann intends to make us touch, in the present testimonies and by the survivors of this History, the little that remains. Holocaust constitutes less, in this respect, a “representation” than a film entirely shot at present of the enunciation (of the witnesses), therefore a film which questions each spectator on its own degree of presence (or absence) at the major event of the century, an event which also remains an absolute repeller (for looks, for Memory). The scene infigurable of the “death fight”, where the dying died in the dark while climbing on each other, is the subject of a story, that of Filip Müller who survived the Sonderkommandos teams, and which describes in front of the camera of Lanzmann the appearance of the victims at the opening of the gas chamber.HolocaustIn the name of the ethics of representation, therefore, substitutes the document for fiction and the narrative for the image.

With what images?

The question of the image seems indeed crucial: traumatic, it risks cutting the speech, or weighing on our critical faculty of ideation. Fascism was also based on obscure resources of fascination; at the release of Alain Resnais’ film, Night and Fog, Jean Dutourd was already worried about a possible contagion: would showing such a film “give ideas”? In the most denouncing images can always slip the propaganda virus.

By his declarations, Lanzmann sets himself apart from two other positions also present in the representations of the Shoah: he does not wantexplain– boomerang effect of a certain educational goodwill (“Faced with the Shoah, there is an obscenity of the project to understand. Not to understand was my brazen law”, he writes in The world June 12, 1997). He will therefore be satisfied with to show ; but he resolutely turns away from a problem of proof, one does not argue with the negationists.

The crucial point around which the paradoxical aesthetic of his business revolves is to know how to show, or touching the enormity of the disappearance called “Shoah”. At the heart of a century dedicated to the unprecedented rise of recording technologies, the genocide will have left so few images! Photography and film, if prolix on other subjects, barely touch it: the extermination of the Jews was accompanied by a extermination of extermination, what psychoanalysts, after Lacan, call the foreclosure (this erasure which does not content itself with repressing, but which abolishes any clue or side effect of its own dynamics).

The Nazis meticulously erased the traces of the “final solution”, they wanted to make the testimony of the survivors impossible. The camp space was itself a forbidden area of ​​narratives and images or, more precisely: the place of a planned and organized denial of the representation for each conscience, those of the Nazis as well as their victims. On the executioners’ side, extermination was the subject of constant euphemisms, and a real murder of the word; if many Germans knew, few “realized” what the final solution really meant. Among the victims, a large number will no doubt die just a few hours after getting off the train, without having taken the measure of what awaited them at Treblinka or Birkenau. For those who can be said to have lived in Auschwitz and the death camps, the terrible conditions of survival largely destroyed their capacity for representation. The characteristic of terror, we know, is to prohibit ideation: the world ceases to be double, semiotic or mediatized, suffering and hunger lock the individual as close to his body, in a life of reactions more than projects, obsessions more than reflections or play – the “Muslim” designating the individual in his dazed stage, chained to the miller concentration camp.

Engraving by Isaac Celnikier

The Holocaust suffers from an extreme, constitutive, visibility and intelligibility deficit. Unlike the art of IIIe Reich, marked by an emphasis of representation, overexposure of force or fullness, well attested in the film shot in 1934 by Leni Riefenstahl, The Triumph of the Will – these images of the Reich seek to invade the spectator as the Reich prepares by them to invade Europe -, the world of the camps occupies in this universe the pole of anti- or non-representation. Faced with the Aryan bruised on his conquering icons, the Jew has no positivity, he embodies the parasite from outside corrupting this fullness, the critical and degenerate stateless person, the rodent;that, comments Jean-Luc Nancy in illuminating pages, which destabilizes the Reich, bled by it with its presence (see “Prohibited representation”, Art and memory of the camps, represent, exterminate, colloquium of the House of Izieu edited under the direction of Jean-Luc Nancy, Seuil, coll. “The human race”, Paris, 2001).

In the war of extermination that the Aryan is waging against the Jew, the images of strength, presence and cleanliness that literally inundate the Reich’s self-awareness have for corollary or during a dark side and a negative iconography, connoted by corruption, staining or mold in cellars. Repressed in the camps and towards the final solution, the Jewish world not only does not have access to representation, but everything is done, between the cattle wagons and the gas chamber, to destroy in each one the spark of ideation or the reassurance that humans normally draw from self-awareness. ” Yesterday ist kein warum » : the terrible word collected by Primo Levi in If he is a man(Robert Laffont 2002, p. 29) summarizes the prohibition which strikes death, representation, negation of thought. (“And precisely, driven by thirst, I warn a beautiful icicle on the outside support of a window. I open, and I have not detached the icicle any sooner, than a big and big fellow who pacing outside comes towards me and brutally tears me away. “Warum”, I say in my hesitant German. “Yesterday ist kein warum“(Here there is no reason),” he replies, pushing me roughly inside. “)

Any burst of consciousness becomes, in this context, a survival factor: the ability to dream – “Behind the eyelids barely closed, dreams spring violently (ibid. page 79) -, the maintenance of a belief, political or religious, provider of hope and principle of calling towards a future, or even the safeguard, even embryonic, of a play space.

Let us listen to Ariane Mnouchkine on this point: “I am thinking of this Jewish woman who ran a theater in the Vilnö ghetto. Yes, a theater. / Taking on her daily bread ration, she kneaded and molded little crumb dolls. And every evening this hungry woman animated these nourishing apparitions, bringing her actors of bread into her tiny theater, in front of dozens of hungry spectators like her and as she promised to massacre. Every night until the end. / We must keep track of this woman like an incurable wound. It is necessary because, if we forget the little bread theater of the Vilnö ghetto, we lose the theater ”(preface to the book Theater in France, under the supervision of Jacqueline de Jomaron, Armand Colin 1992).

We criticized the film a lotLife is Beautiful(1997) by Roberto Benigni without saying enough that by showing the camps through what was most lacking, the to pretend, the theater and the play, this burlesque and for some unseemly film pointed precisely one of the springs of the survival, where the reality crushes any representation.

Show or touch anyway

Faced with the icons of the millennial Reich that we can declare kitsch, so how to illustrate or represent the Holocaust? The story, the film, the monument, the image remain a duty in the face of the Nazis who in 1945 dynamited the crematoriums, the gas chambers and attempted to erase all archives; to despair of representation, to exclude the final solution from the world of speech and image in the name of who knows what sacred, mystical or defeatist vision, amounts to playing their game. But in what form to tell and show anyway? At a time when Disney is taking over the world, will we see a Holocaust memorial spring up like another theme park? The danger seems very real in the United States, tempted to appropriate the memory of the camps by adapting it. How not to aestheticize horror? How, at the heart of seeing, not to discourage but on the contrary to nourish the desire to know? How, through images, by definition always “full”, to make disappearance and absence touch? How to film from scratch and figure out the annihilation? How to show both the factsandthe infinite resistance they put up against our consciences and our categories of thought? How to suggest the immense open gap in European space and in civilization? How to mark before and after any image, any story, film or poem, the point of no return, the caesura or the impossible to close hole that the Shoah will have dug in the century?

If it is true that the representation, as we check in each chapter of this work, brings openness and breath, we would be wrong in the face of the Shoah to give it up, but all our questions – of the report, the testimony, the memory and an ethics of image and imagination – they are sharpened; the Holocaust does not put representation in crisis, but rather the challenge.

“I’ve always said that archive images are imaginary images. They petrify thought and kill all power of evocation, “Claude Lanzmann told me in a public interview, see Communicate / transmit, Cerisy conference of June 2000, reproduced in Mediology notebooks nº 11, Gallimard, p. 274). Some works on the other hand, on the ethical level, strongly suggest – because they are works precisely, not only reports or works of history, and which one transmits well only by works. Jochen Gerz, in the Monument against fascism, raised in a town near Hamburg, then the Monument against racism, in Saarbrücken, has explicitly worked on the paradox of figuring absence, or disappearance. In Hamburg, a column twelve meters high, covered with lead sheets, sinks slowly into the ground at the speed of 200 cm per year; from its inauguration in 1986, the six years of its visible existence therefore allowed the inhabitants to sign this column, or to carry inscriptions there using the styluses placed at their disposal – but also to discharge there overnight a flock of buckshot. The aggression and the dissonances of an active memory were thus recorded in the same way as the expressions of sympathy on this page today buried, and of which only remains the square section, like a flagstone embedded in the ground; the path of the monument follows that of the memory or memories, which cannot be summed up by any univocal figuration constructed in the open air.

Parliament of the Saarland

In Saarbrücken, on the alley which leads to the castle, former HQ of the Gestapo now converted into the seat of the Saarland Parliament, Gerz helped by students of Fine Arts took 2,146 pavers from the 8,000 of this route, to engrave on each the name of one of the Jewish cemeteries that existed on the territory of Germany in 1939, before putting it back in place, inscription turned towards the earth. Nothing therefore signals the operation, except a plaque which, from “place du Château”, officially took the name “place du Monument-Invisible” – and a register listing the 2,146 names of the cemeteries. Gerz does not seek to reconstitute the destroyed shtetls, he is satisfied to show the absence, the return to the ground; this memorial erected in oblivion, if such an oxymoron is possible, agrees strangely with the attitude of those who say they have seen nothing, felt nothing, have not been “aware”. Rather than cluttering up the space with amonument, prosthetic memory always pretentious, these show or perform as live the burial of the Holocaust, now “encrypted” in the soul or underground of Germany. Invisible as much as it was when extermination was going at full speed, among all those who lived eyes wide shut– to quote the welcome title from Stanley Kubrick’s latest film.

Holocaust similarly, Lanzmann’s film, would like to surround reality in its horror point, but it shows above all our infinite resistance to information, and how entropy as the landscape take their rights and gain on the memory. These works do not handle full images, which could tip over in horror or kitsch, but representations in the critical sense of the term, oblique and fragmented views that suggest how sight turns away or fails, and the little that remains under the gaze and in the words of those we see and hear on the screen – and who haveseen.

Make the absence palpable … It could still be, on Berlin’s Bebel Platz against the Staatsoper, this hole from which, brightly visible only at night, a bright light. Approach the slab of glass embedded in the ground, a cellar is discovered, of a dazzling white, with the walls dressed in white shelving, all equally empty. “In the middle of this square, says a metal plate, Nazi students burned the books of hundreds of free writers, journalists, philosophers and scholars on May 10, 1933”; and on another plaque, this quote: “This is just a prologue. Where you burn books, you end up burning men too ”(Heinrich Heine, 1820). This work by Micha Ullman, installed in 1994, ironically disappointed our desire to see but made us touch, “haptically”, what is missing.

“The dead do not sleep They only have this stone / Powerless to engrave the crowd with their names / The memory of the crime is the only prayer / By the way we ask you! “This quatrain, signed Aragon, is read on a plaque in the” French Quarter “of the Mauthausen memorial, where each stone indeed expresses a struggle between forgetfulness and the forces of symbolization or memory. Who will be right to finish, the poet or Kundera, when the latter writes: “Everything will be forgotten and nothing will be repaired. The role of reparation (and through revenge and forgiveness) will be held by forgetfulness. No one will repair the wrongs committed, but all the wrongs will be forgotten ”? ((Joke, Gallimard coll. “Folio”, Paris 1987, back cover)

Daniel Bougnoux

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