Biography 27.3 (2004) 657-660
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Since the Enlightenment the observation of the visual world has had a privileged status: it is a precondition and guarantee of knowledge and understanding. Being an eyewitness of something implies more or less automatic apprehension and comprehension of the observed situation or event. This link between seeing and comprehension, however, has been radically disrupted in the experiences of Holocaust victims.
In his most recent novel, 2003 Nobel Prize for Literature winner J. M. Coetzee builds his story around the eponymous main character, Australian writer Elizabeth Costello, who, in the course of the book, delivers several lectures in international settings. In a chapter entitled "The Problem of Evil," Costello goes to Amsterdam to present a talk to a conference of theologians and philosophers. She takes as her subject a novel she had been reading about the July 20, 1944, plot to kill Adolf Hitler, a novel that cast a "malign spell" upon her due to the visceral details it contains about the execution of the would-be assassins. The reading experience summoned one word to Costello's mind: obscene. This, in turn, causes her to speculate about whether "people are always improved by what they read." Her conclusion is a resounding NO: she believes that when the author wrote the novel, he "came in touch with something absolute. Absolute evil." And, when she read the novel, she says, "that touch of evil was passed on to me." Costello articulates the conundrum thus: "How can we know the horrors of the Nazis . . . if our artists are forbidden to bring them to life for us?"
Lurking behind this conundrum is, of course, the admonition (later retracted) from T. W. Adorno that "To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric." As evidenced by the fact that the dilemma posed by Adorno is now [End Page 657] being explored in Coetzee's metafiction, writers and their critics have deliberated for decades over the propriety of creating imaginative texts about the Holocaust. Until very recently, however, studies exploring visual images of the Holocaust—films, photographs, works of art, monuments, architecture —have been relatively few. Image and Remembrance: Representation and the Holocaust, edited by Shelley Hornstein and Florence Jacobowitz (both at York University in Toronto), makes a significant contribution to our understanding of such depiction of evil. The anthology accomplishes this task in several ways: the contributors are a distinguished international array of some of the finest minds working in Holocaust Studies today; the approaches are distinctly interdisciplinary, drawing from fields as wide-ranging as Jewish Studies, comparative literature, curatorial studies, philosophy, German, and film studies; the essays have been thoughtfully arranged to provoke new insights; and the topics of the essays are central to achieving comprehension of the issues at hand.
The editors open the text, which they describe as an anthology of art criticism, with a succinct and incisive introduction. Defining representation as "the active play between creating a fictional work and making reference to a real event," they bypass the by now stale debates about the possibility of representing the Holocaust, and instead offer essays which confirm that possibility by studying such art. The objective of Hornstein and Jacobowitz is not a comprehensive overview of the topic of art and the Holocaust, but rather a volume that explores "the practice of remembrance."
One of the ways in which they achieve this goal is to structure the collection so that it "reflects some of the fundamental concerns that continue to inform the urgency and necessity to remember." They have ordered the eighteen essays into four sections: I. Commemoration and Sites of Mourning; II. Personal Responses and Familial Legacies; III. Memento Mori: Atrocity and Aesthetics; and IV. National Expressions of Remembrance. Thus, rather than the more predictable organizing principle by type of art—a section on film, for example, and another on monuments (a choice editor Barbie...