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Alvin H. Rosenfeld. A Double Dying. Reflections on Holocaust Literature. Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press, 1980. 210 pages.
Lawrence L. Langer. Versions of Survival. The Holocaust and the Human Spirit. SUNY Series in Modern Jewish Literature and Culture. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1982. 267 pages.
At first glance, the term "Holocaust literature" poses no problem. It seems as easy to define as war novels or prison diaries, subgenres set apart by their subject matter. In fact, however, scholars and critics of Holocaust literature make far larger claims for the books they treat than that they illuminate the worst crimes of the Nazis. Thus, Alvin Rosenfeld, in A Double Dying, writes: "Holocaust literature must be counted among the most compelling literatures of our day" (p. 4). He argues that although other types of literature express our lives in their variety, Holocaust literature "is needed to express our deaths, the characteristically violent, dehumanized deaths of the twentieth century" (p. 5). The claim for the special status of Holocaust literature would thus seem to be that it shows us representatively the results of modern man's extraordinary willingness to commit mass murder and not to stop at the extermination of civilian populations. Put this way, the Jewish catastrophe is a human catastrophe, summing up past cruelties and pointing to others of perhaps even greater destructiveness.
But and here we touch on one of the problems that beset this body of imaginative literature and the field of inquiry that has sprung up around it Holocaust literature also tells a more limited and specific story, the story of persecutions that set the Jews apart from other groups. Seen from a strictly Jewish perspective, the Holocaust is the worst of the pogroms but foreshadowed by all the others, adumbrated by centuries of persecution, not of minority groups in general by those in power, but specifically of Jews by Gentiles. This is obviously a far more exclusive view, and it often denies the relevance of a non-Jewish context to Jewish suffering. Those who object to "universalizing" the Holocaust argue that the unique features of this great massacre become blurred if we compare it to injustice and mass murder elsewhere, and that lesser suffering should in any case not be compared to greater suffering, test we forget the difference between the lesser and the greater. Universalizing, it is said, reduces both the scale and the specificity of the event and fails to do justice to its origins in antisernitism. It denies the dead their place as Jewish martyrs and reduces their identity even further, when it has already been reduced by the manner of their deaths.
One of the weaknesses of Alvin Rosenfeld's informative and thoughtful book is that it cannot quite make up its mind between these two views and that its author does not sort out the sources of possible conflict and self- contradiction in his work. Rosenfeld asks us to see the Holocaust in its largest possible ramifications, as an event that killed not only men but the "idea of man" (hence his title, A Double Dying), yet he denies that any non-Jewish context, even that of World War 11, is significant for our understanding of the Holocaust or its literature (p.20). On the one hand, "All novels about Jewish suffering written in the post-Holocaust period must implicate the Holocaust, whether it is expressly named as such or not" (p. 68). Thus, even a novel like Malamud's The Fixer, which deals with the unjust trial and persecution of a single Jew, may legitimately claim that it has some bearing on our interpretation of the Holocaust, according to Rosenfeld. On the other hand, books that touch on the violent deaths of 55 million soldiers and civilians during World War It, some by fire bombings, starvation, and atomic conflagration, ostensibly tell us nothing we need to know about the circumstances surrounding the Holocaust, or its legacy while the ritual murder trial of a single Jew in Tsarist Russia does. At the other extreme from universalizing the Holocaust is ghettoizing it, denying its larger significance while insisting that the world acknowledge that very significance.
While the two views I have sketched are not necessarily irreconcitable, they are certainly not identical. We need a debate about what constitutes a "unique" event, but Rosenfeld unfortunately does not address the problem directly, and thus his ideological standpoint gets in the way of his judgment instead of enriching it.
He acknowledges that he applies a standard of "authenticity," but this turns out to be an undefined concept that threatens to introduce an unwelcome element of moralizing. In spite of early assurances that the author will address his subject "seriously and also intimately but without exhibiting any affective response other than that which belongs to attentive listening and sympathetic understanding" (p. 9), he soon tells us that the birth of Holocaust literature "must be seen as a miracle of some sort, not only an overcoming of mute despair but an assertion and affirmation of faith" (p. 15). Thus a religious bias is apparent from the first. What Rosenfeld offers is not literary criticism in the ordinary or modern sense but a hybrid between that and a kind of theological exegesis. And indeed, two pages later he declares that the diaries of the Warsaw ghetto have "the aura of a holy text" (p. 17). Rosenfeld never decides whether the book is secular or theological. It is shot through with judgments that have a distinctly religious provenance, yet it aspires to a secular objectivity and often deals with works that do not concern themselves with problems of faith.
As might be expected, the moralizing component appears most markedly when Rosenfeld deals with books that he condemns as "inauthentic." One of these is Peter Weiss's The Investigation, the play that put the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials of the mid-1960s on stage. Rosenfeld does not give this work a sympathetic reading but condemns it, as various critics have done before him, on what are essentially ideological grounds, which he presents, however, as aesthetic and humanistic ones. Thus he claims that "the accused are presented as nondescript and almost anonymous victims themselves" (p. 156). But this is a misreading. It was Weiss's intention to show that the accused were fully responsible, even though they were co-opted by an evil system, and that each one of them, if he had wished to, could have either quit his job or alleviated the suffering of the inmates instead of deliberately aggravating it. This is why the accused not only have names, unlike the witnesses, but the actual names of the criminals who were tried.
In indicting a system that was larger than the Third Reich, Weiss meant to call attention to the scandalous fact that in the 1960s many known former Nazis held positions of influence and power in the Federal Republic of Germany. In other words, he wanted to make his play thoroughly uncomfortable for his intended West German audience, so that they could not come away with the feeling that they had witnessed a safely buried historical past.
While the Marxist theory on the origins of the Holocaust is not particularly convincing if one looks at all the facts, as Rosenfeld rightly points out, neither does any other theory satisfactorily account for the staggering magnitude of the crime. To blame Nazi ideology, as Rosenfeld does, is merely begging the question. In Weiss's view, Auschwitz constituted the ultimate reification of the human being under capitalism, because the prisoner's only value was his capacity for labor, and when that was gone he or she was discarded and literally made into a thing soap, lampshade, or mattress stuffing. This is not a foolish view, and certainly not one that should spoil the effectiveness of the play for non-Marxists. It has the merit of accommodating many of the facts about the camps, including the strange phenomenon of the "wealth" of Auschwitz, a place where everything precious, from diamonds to French cognac, was available to the "rightpeople in the midst of wartime scarcity throughout Europe. Weiss was clearly fascinated by this phenomenon, and his play stresses this warehouse character of Auschwitz, where men and women, too, were objects to be stored or disposed of.
As to the lack of conventional characterization, Weiss is wrestling with the task of making us aware of the extent and the anonymity of the suffering, so that a massacre will not be confused with murder. Our Western literature traditionally deals with individual cases and has developed methods for describing ever greater refinements of psychological pain, but it has no good precedents for dealing with extermination on a grand scale. It is this inherent difficulty rather than its Marxism that accounts for what Rosenfeld calls "the peculiarly lifeless quality of all the characters in the play" (p. 157), which is at least partly intentional. Peter Weiss's drama is surely a pioneering work, whatever its flaws. Rosenfeld, armed with the dubious criterion of "authenticity," would charge the playwright with "a failure of both artistic and moral vision" (p. 158) and doubts "that he ever envisioned the dead as having been alive" (p. 159). This kind of ad hominem argument should not be levelled at one of the greatest Jewish postwar writers, who until his recent death was obsessed with the fact that he lived in an age of atrocity and therefore saw a disturbing similarity in all acts of government-sponsored inhumanity.
Thus a disagreement that ultimately revolves on a question of ideology or faith (Weiss underemphasizes the Jewishness of the victims, though he does not entirely omit it, as some have claimed) has been made into a basis for moral and aesthetic judgment. The question of literary or aesthetic criteria is another grey area in this book. His main criterion, Rosenfeld tells us early on, is not aesthetic.
While no literature is beyond judgment, the particular body of writings under review here does not cry out in the first place, in my opinion, for aesthetic evaluation ... my principal interest is ... in trying to define the kind of knowledge we acquire in reading the literature of the Holocaust and in weighing the consequent gains and losses that are ours in its aftermath (pp. 9-10).
In practice, however, aesthetic standards are difficult to avoid when we deal with artistic works. Nor are they trivial or the icing on a cake that yields more robust nutrition when we fish for its moral nuts and plums. This is a truism that serious readers have taken for granted for about 200 years, ever since secular literature supplanted theological and moralistic works as the main reading staple of the educated. Rosenfeld is, of course, not unaware of this; engaged and embattled as he is he would be in an excellent position to tackle some of the complex and vexing questions that beset the interplay of fact and fiction, especially in realistic works, and nowhere more so than in Holocaust literature. But his chapter "The Problematics of Holocaust Literature" falls sadly short of examining any real problems: its author is too sure of his preferences to question their basis.
The Auschwitz play that Rosenfeld prefers is The Deputy, Rolf Hochhuth's outcry against church complicity in Nazi crimes. Here the basic premise raises no controversial hackles, at least not for a Jew. Apart from its criticism of the Pope, it is a conventional play with all too conventional ideas. Rosenfeld is obviously not as bothered as I am by its patronizing presentation of Jewish characters (are they really more lifelike than Weiss's witnesses?), but he might have pondered the implications of Hochhuth's demonization of Nazi criminals. Otherwise realistic characters become superhuman through the sleightof- hand of allegorizing and mystifying them. By making his main Nazi character, the "Doctor," into a paragon of sexual prowess, intellectual superiority, and clear-eyed, articulate cynicism, as well as actively enjoyed Evil, Hochhuth makes him fascinating and aesthetically attractive. His play, in fact, for all its moralistic fervor, never rids itself of the Nazi dichotomy of "Ubermenschenl/Untermenschen. Where Peter Weiss treats his Nazis with cold contempt, Hochhuth accords his Doctor a Faustian treatment and the secret admiration that goes into describing a great sinner.
Rosenfeld's case against Styron's Sophie's Choice is again marred by his unwillingness to test the book by what it tries to achieve rather than by what it ought to be. The novel has had its share of negative criticism, but Rosenfeld's is perhaps the sharpest. "If this book tells us anything at all about the Holocaust, it is that more is needed to penetrate so extreme a history than a transposition of erotic and aesthetic motives onto a landscape of slaughter" (p. 165). But Styron's book tells us something about the Gentile world's absorption of the event. Styron writes about a young American who in the late 1940s discovers that he is living in the aftermath of atrocity and feels compelled to make room in his own life for that knowledge and to live with the consequences. Rosenfeld complains that Styron's heroine is "a perverse type of sex object" because she represents "the desirabilility of the Mutilated Woman" (p.164). It is quite possible that Styron opened a can of worms when he wrote about the erotic reaction of men who have never been close to a concentration camp to women who have survived the camps. But if that is a taboo subject, as Rosenfeld's shocked outrage would indicate, the taboo may need more justification than its exploration. Certainly the sexual component of the book should not in itself be a cause for censure in a post-Freudian world where Styron is not the only one who believes that all profound sentiments are anchored in death and love. I am not claiming that Sophie's Choice is a great novel. But it does not deserve the label "exploitation of atrocity" that arises from a sense of proprietorship of the Holocaust ("If you can't write about it our way, don't write about it at all") and that leads Rosenfeld to charge Styron with "misappropriating" the Holocaust. It is not the critic's job to tell those who try to approach a subject imaginatively what it should mean to them, interrupting them as it were, while they are trying to tell us what it has meant to them.
Another case where Rosenfeld's bias works against a balanced reading occurs in his discussion of Sylvia Plath's poetry. Now Plath only marginally belongs in a book on Holocaust literature, since even the broadest definition cannot accommodate all works that contain references to the Holocaust. Yet it seems fair enough to discuss how this event has penetrated the literary consciousness of authors who are primarily concerned with other matters, and perhaps Plath is in some way exemplary. But Rosenfeld uses her poetry solely to show what ought not to be done. He objects to the use of Holocaust imagery in poems that deal with a private despair, such as her famous "Lady Lazarus" and "Daddy." There is an unforgivable disproportion, he feels, between a private grief and a historical catastrophe, the "passage," as he puts it, "from the private anguish of the suicide to the mass agony of destruction during the Holocaust" (p. 177). In Rosenfeld's view, one's personal sufferings and the death of a people are not comparable.
But these poems do not attempt a direct equation or even a literal statement. They present states of mind, not arguments about moral priorities. Such a misreading is the price paid by a critic who deliberately ignores "mere" aesthetic, literary criteria. Plath offers us a view of a suicidally unhinged mind, furnished by a variety of fears and horrors, some private, some public, and among them an awareness of the Holocaust. Is that not what we mean when we ask the world to remember? Surely we want more than the respectful reading of history books that are afterwards put back on the shelf. When we find that others are in a measure haunted by what has happened to Jews and claim it as their own out of human kinship, as part of their private terrors and visions of death, we should not be so quick to condemn them. Plath was one of the first to do this in poems that present the unravelling of a mind disturbed in a characteristically modern way, disturbed by what history has given us to digest.
If I have dwelled at such length on the shortcomings of Rosenfeld's book, it is because it raises some important questions that should be aired more explicitly. Yet Rosenfeld also writes criticism of a high quality when he is not quarreling with his authors. This is particularly true of the two chapters entitled "Poetics of Expiration" and "Contending with a Silent God," in which he sensitively explores Paul Celan's linguistic experiments as they relate to the Holocaust. Moreover, he selectively covers a great deal of ground, a broad range of material that can be called literary in a loose sense. He includes diaries and memoirs as well as poetry, fiction, and drama, and he ranges over several languages. Readers without a previous knowledge of the subject will find the book a good introduction, but even those who are knowledgeable are likely to discover works that they have overlooked.
Unlike Rosenfeld's work, Langer's book is neither serious nor important in itself; it is only interesting as a phenomenon and an example of what causes more and more people to speak disparagingly of a "Holocaust industry." It is a rhetorical exercise and polemical tirade, written in a style that makes it difficult to get at its substance, because much sheer nonsense is covered up by patches of purple prose. Here is a sampling of the style: "the victim negotiates the fatal rapids of annihilation, trying to keep the fragile craft of his life afloat" (p.55); a survivor who "seems unwilling to accept the totality of the death immersion" ("death immersion?"); "some stains on the soul of history are indelible" (p.57); "the humanistic impulse ... requires ... a notion of survival fusing ... vitality with decay, the resurrected phoenix with the crematory flames that forever warm its wings" (p. 135).
The truism that our traditional idea of the tragic cannot accommodate the facts of extermination gets more play than it deserves in a detailed denial that an inmate of Auschwitz had much in common with Oedipus. But then it is Langer and not the casual user of the word "tragic," who hardly has Sophocles in mind who uses the mythological imagery he has just declared out of bounds and says, with reference to the Sphinx, that "at Auschwitz the devouring beast held center stage, and no human resource seemed able to solve the riddle of its insatiable hunger" (p. 10). Langer blames George Steiner and others for using the term "Hell," an inaccurate metaphor, he feels, when talking of the camps (ibid.). But Langer himself speaks of the "limbo of atrocity" on the very next page. Hell no, Limbo yes? Toward the end of his book he has forgotten altogether what bothered him about other critics' choice of language, and he now writes, "If anyone ever were to write a definitive unholy scripture recording man's extermination and God's absence in Auschwitz ... Satan, that restless spirit, would finally get his turn to be an author" (p. 188). With Satan and the Sphinx invading the death camps, the point about the uselessness of the old mythologies for grasping modern genocidal slaughter has been drowned in verbosity. No academic who writes expository prose could get away with such language today on any subject other than the Holocaust. Langer, a professor of English, ought to know that criticism that attempts to sound like poetry is irritating and usually not taken seriously.
But what is most disturbing about this book is not so much its wrapping of lofty language as its misanthropic substance. There are some startling statements: "When exploring the Holocaust experience, we are not confounded by the question of why evil men kill ... but of why otherwise decent men agree to kill" (p.135). Some such question may be in place when we talk of fellow travellers and collaborators, or even about individual acts of violence committed in wartime, but put explicitly into the context of "the Holocaust experience," it is surely not one of the questions that "confound us." Our executioners were by definition not "decent men," even if their behavior in other situations gave the erroneous impression that they were. One cannot meaningfully say: "This man kills babies for a living, but he is otherwise a decent fellow." Isn't that what war crimes trials are all about? And while he thus seems to take for granted the intrinsic decency of Nazi executioners, Langer equally blandly assumes the corruption of their victims. For he writes, "how utterly the Nazi mentality corrupted moral reality for the victims" (p.72). I had always thought that it was Nazi and perhaps German but rarely Jewish morality that became corrupted by "the Nazi mentality."
I am not sure that Langer means everything he says, since the book is shoddy in documentation as well as style. (There are repeated confusions of names, dates, authors, and situations.) But two themes emerge fairly clearly. One is a denial that moral or humanistic values are relevant when discussing the camps. The other, related, issue is a disparagement of survivor reports whenever they attempt to put some order into their experience or draw any conclusions from it, no matter how tentative. Even though Langer himself points out correctly that everyone's camp experience was different, he nevertheless casts doubt on the authenticity of any account that doesn't conform to his own "version of survival," and that is essentially one that diminishes the individual and obliterates all differences between inmates. This is the reverse of the religious view which I questioned in Rosenfeld's book, for instead of seeing the prisoners as martyrs, Langer goes to the opposite extreme and looks on them a priori as dehumanized beings, incapable of any but the most brutally selfish considerations. There is, of course, an underlying premise of sympathy (or the book would presumably not have been published in a Jewish series), but it is based on the assumption of the absolute and equal corruptibility of all human beings.
In his preface, Langer warns against simplifications and categorizations, such as "viewing the destruction of European Jewry in the context of eternal verities like martyrdom, human dignity, or whatever rhetorical label we choose" and then proceeds to make astonishing and unverified assumptions of his own. He writes: "The Nazis left no room for the exemplary value of human behavior: the authentic martyrs in the death camps, who voluntarily chose death when through some compromise they might meaningfully have chosen life, may be counted on the fingers of two hands" (p. x). Mr. Langer, who disparages sources, has not taken much trouble reading them. Surely it is beyond dispute that many Jews, when they had the chance, preferred to stay with weaker relatives, risking and usually losing their lives. This was true of virtually all mothers of small children, but it was also true of children who chose to stay with older parents, when they could have been sent from death camps to forcedlabor camps, and it was often true of siblings and even of friends.
On page 9, Langer himself quite casually mentions the unsung case of a young woman who saved her sister by taking her place in a selection. Did he count her when he was checking off true martyrs with his fingers? Contrary to our author, the meaning of loyalty, sharing, and gift-giving assumed a new significance in the camps that it had never had before. Mr. Langer is oblivious to the coexistence of self-sacrifice and self-seeking in the camps, both of which were distorted out of all proportion by the circumstances. Langer's point of departure, a sweepingly amoral pose, ignores the efforts of the prisoners to preserve or recreate values, and therefore feeds into the very contempt for victims that Langer elsewhere deplores. It bears saying that if one compares the accounts of inmate behavior in many U.S. high-security prisons to that of Jews in the camps, it becomes quite evident that moral values and the habits of civilization continued to exercise an extraordinary hold over people who lived, after all, under worse conditions than exist in the worst U.S. prisons and who were helplessly exposed to their murderers. European Jews did not act like criminals either before or during the Holocaust. Does one need to stress this?
Although life in the camps constituted a terrific assault on all previous standards, religious or humanistic, these did not always lose out, or lost out only partially, to the need for self-preservation. Langer seems to imply that the camp experience, ipso facto forced a person to abandon all values and any sense of dignity: this is simply nonsense. Values changed, but I doubt that they ever disappeared, except, possibly, sometimes during the last stages of starvation. Langer's impatience with details obliterates any difference between acts of kindness and acts of cruelty among inmates. And this is perhaps the ultimate contempt: to focus exclusively on conditions and to refuse to make distinctions among the individuals who were affected by them. One of Langer's favorite metaphors, "the indelible stains on the soul of history," is particularly odd in a context that denies to the inmates of concentration camps the characteristics usually associated with a soul.
He also denies them the possibility of making choices and acting as moral agents. But then he gives an odd example of how choice was abrogated. It involves a Jewish woman who killed another woman's newborn baby to save the mother. It would seem that this action does involve the element of moral choice which Langer says did not exist in the camps. It is, in fact, a variation of a standard type of ethical dilemma, usually resolved in favor of the mother. What is different here are the circumstances and the certainty that the infant would have died in any case, while killing it immediately gave the mother a chance. But the principle remains the same: a voluntary act performed for a consciously adopted reason and for another person implies a moral choice by a moral agent. But, it was "a deed of naked necessity," according to our author. Necessary for the woman who committed it? If words are used in such a slippery fashion, any example of a decision made by an inmate can be brushed aside as a "choiceless choice" (p.72), a formulation so nonsensical that even Langer has the grace to put it in inverted commas.
Occasionally Langer shifts the argument without warning; he moves from asking whether (and denying that) moral choice and a modicum of inner freedom were possible, to denying their value by claiming that they did not help anyone survive. This is, of course, an entirely distinct question, a utilitarian rather than an ethical matter. The confusion of the two leads Langer directly into his heated attack on Victor FrankI and Bruno Bettelheim.
This reviewer is not a devotee of logotherapy or an admirer of Victor Frankl, but Langer's attack is so total and so ad hominem that one cannot help asking why a rather conventional book should arouse such ire. Is it because Langer seems bothered by any attempt to fathom the mental processes of the inmates of the death camps? Any thought and feeling that did not relate to hunger and terror and self-preservation is suspect to Langer, and he assumes it to have been invented with hindsight. Yet he is patently wrong. In the camps, as everywhere else, human beings engaged in every mental activity available to them. They prayed, they played chess, they recited poetry and cooking recipes, they sang, they built castles in the air, and they discussed politics and philosophy. At the very least, these activities helped pass the time; at best, the prisoners derived strength from them. Whether there is any lesson to be learned from this fact or any moral value to be assigned to the ability to detach oneself from one's surroundings when these have become unbearable, is a subject for debate. Frankl and Bettelheim in their different ways do think so, Langer does not. He alternately assumes that the capacity for detachment was worthless and that it did not exist, that everybody's mind automatically atrophied as soon as he set foot in a death camp. Langer states baldly: "For every Father Maximilian Kolbe,... there were literally millions of victims too paralyzed by the unprecedented ordeal before them to exercise Frankl's last spiritual freedom of controlling their attitude toward their fate" (p. 23).
But what do we actually know about the attitudes of those who died in the gas chambers? By definition, none of them returned. We do know that many went singing, praying, and comforting their children; and that some went in a silence which, instead of paralysis, as Langer assumes, may have denoted that concentration which many people hope to achieve in their last hour. And even if all such attitudes broke down in the last death agonies of the gas chambers, the final convulsions would not invalidate the previous attempts to resist the surrounding murderous madness. Since the final experience of those who were mass-murdered is neither known nor knowable, it may in that sense be said to constitute a mystery that should be left alone. It is one aspect of the camps that may rightfully be called "unspeakable." Yet it is about the dead and their dying that Langer's rhetoric reaches its most fanciful heights. Not satisfied with the claim that their spirits were killed before their bodies (with the exception of one canonized priest!), he goes so far as to refer to "the extinct species the victims of the Holocaust" (p. 129). But they were not a separate "species" they were our brothers and sisters. They did not cease to be human when they entered Birkenau, except in the eyes of their tormentors. Phraseology of this sort, even if the point of view is obscurely sympathetic, has a way of making "Untermenschen" once more of those who died as Jews in Hitler's Europe. This is the flip side of sentimentalizing them into martyrs.
Conditions of life in the camps, on the other hand, are well documented and can be discussed exhaustively. But Langer is intent on telling us that camp life is ineffable, and this semi-mystical excuse causes him to overlook the instructive variations of human behavior. He is bent on showing "that the Holocaust was a totally dehumanizing experience" (p. 35), a statement that is tautological if it refers to being murdered and otherwise untrue. This is the kind of imprecision that survivor reports help to dispel, provided one bothers to read them carefully. But one will not read them carefully if one thinks of the prisoners as a special category of human beings who should continue to exist in our imaginations as behind a barbed-wire curtain that is impenetrable and where our own values and ideas do not apply.
Accordingly, Langer uses some survivor reports to support his undifferentiated vision of camp life and impatiently misreads carefully formulated accounts that try to give a sense of the "feel" of a place like Auschwitz. For example, Primo Levi is at some pains to describe how hard it was for prisoners to integrate the scant news they had about the progress of the Allies into the lethal routine of their daily lives, even though their slim chance of survival depended on a speedy conclusion of the war. Langer sums up this somewhat complex but surely not incomprehensible dilemma by denying that the prisoners were capable of deriving hope from favorable news items. At least that is what the following passage seems to say: "At Auschwitz, the flow of chronological and historical time that governs our fives stopped, while space was hermetically sealed by barbed-wire fences that defined the frontiers of one's hopes and one's despair" (p. 7). But if the inmates' hope had not gone beyond the barbed-wire fence, it would not have been hope. The passage shows the reductive nature of Langer's understanding. Levi discusses the dilemma that the immediate needs of the hour, if they are urgent, do not leave enough room for news that affects the future, although both claims ultimately must be balanced. Where Levi had merely described a problem, Langer postulates the prisoners' incapacity to think of the future. And yet there has never been a situation where the present needed so badly to be redeemed by the future, where people lived for nothing but the future, and therefore were intensely concerned with it.
Langer's running commentary on Levi's classic is an example of the "unspeakable" style of Holocaust writing. It consistently simplifies the book according to preconceived notions that merely invert the spiritual/religious tradition they attack but use its vocabulary and substitute their own abstractions. Those who speak of human dignity in the camps, Langer says, "do not contend with the possibility of man being totally reduced even temporarily to a nullity" (p. 70). What is a nullity when applied to a human being? It sounds a little like Nazi terminology, but it turns out that it is Langer's way of summing up Primo Levi's vivid picture of a number of distinctly individual inmates, none of them a nullity in any sense of the word that I can understand. This is writing that proceeds from the premise that knowledge of human psychology and attention to detail can all be left behind in favor of a new sentimentality masquerading as awe that hides contempt and indifference.
As with Frankl, the attack on Bettelheim is not differentiated enough to yield an interesting argument. Essentially, Langer takes Bettelheim to task for having tried to sort out and judge what happened to him and others in Buchenwald. While Langer dismisses any moral imperatives as "abstractions" (p. 28), he suggests that we learn "to live with a double vision and to speak with two voices the voice of Auschwitz and the voice of civilization" (p. 28). This either makes no sense at all or amounts to advocacy of a peculiar kind of doublespeak. If the Nazi atrocities challenged and upset our traditional ideas of what men are capable of, then we must abandon some of these ideas or change them or sort out what we must give up and what we can retain. This is what Frankl and Bettelheim have tried to do. Whether they have done it successfully is not the issue here, for Langer disparages the very attempt.
One could go on, but the book is all of a piece. It ignores facts and details, brushes aside specifics, and, not surprisingly, ends by criticizing the personal letters of a minor German poet, Gertrud Kolmar, for not being relevant to Auschwitz, when the writer did not even know that death camps existed. The book ultimately reflects only on itself and is little more than an exercise about the unspeakableness of the unspeakable. This is the effect of what I have just called dropping a barbed-wire curtain across this area of our collective memory. It freezes the event, makes it unapproachable, and puts it into a museum of the mind, where we may point to it with our fingers and even show it to our children, but where we are strictly forbidden to handle the objects.
Where does this leave us? For all the difference in quality and outlook between the two books I have been discussing, they both illustrate that we need a more sober, a more academic, and a more literary approach to Holocaust literature. In spite of its present popularity, the study of this body of literature, including even its most significant works, has made no inroads to speak of on either mainline or avant-garde literary criticism. Teachers of world literature or modern literature in our colleges and universities do not seem to share the view that books dealing with the Holocaust are "among the most compelling of our time," and hardly ever include any of this material in their syllabi; it is taught in specialized "Holocaust literature" courses, largely attended by students who normally do not have much interest in literature. And yet Rosenfeld is correct: it is a quintessentially modern and deeply engaging body of work.
We should stop arguing that Holocaust literature is generically different from every other, and begin to point out how it fits in. Critics of this literature might address questions of reader reaction and reader predisposition. Since writers of works dealing with the Holocaust are perhaps more conscious than any others of their obligation to write "truthfully," they can teach us something about the principles governing the relation of truth and fiction. Moreover, Holocaust writing is in the vanguard of producing a literature that goes beyond the traditional limits of individual lives and feelings. In other words, we need to bring this literature into the canon of our discipline and treat it consistently with the tools of that discipline.
Holocaust literature will continue to be written in the years to come, and perhaps we have not yet even seen the the best of it. The scholar's task is to show both its relevance and its specificity, to give it a context and a place in our literary histories and theories without lessening the impact of its unique contribution