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  • The Second War and Postmodern Memory
  • Charles Bernstein

Now light your pipe; look, what a steady hand, Draw a deep breath; stop thinking, count fifteen, And you’re as right as rain. . . . Books; what a jolly company they are, Standing so quiet and patient on their shelves . . . . they’re so wise . . . .

—Siegfried Sassoon, “Repression of War Experience” (1918)

We never discussed the Second World War much when I was growing up. I don’t feel much like discussing it now. It seems presumptuous to interpret, much less give literary interpretations of, the Systematic Extermination Process or the dropping of the H-Bomb, the two poles of the Second War.

When Stanley Diamond asked me to speak on “Poetry after the Holocaust”—to replace but also to respond to Jerome Rothenberg, who could not attend the symposium—my first reaction was to wonder what qualifications I had to speak— as if the topic of the war made me question my standing, made me wonder what I might say that could bear the weight of this subject matter. Diamond reassured me that the audience would be small: “For many the Holocaust is too far in the past to matter; for most of the rest, it’s too painful to bring to mind.”

My father-in-law, who left Berlin as a teenager on a youth aliyah and spent the war in Palestine, had a different reaction: all these Holocaust conferences are a fad. This reaction is as disturbing as it is right. The Holocaust has come to stand for a kind of Secular Satanism—everyone’s against it, anyone can work up a feverish moral fervor denouncing the Nazi Monster.

Yet I’ve been struck by just the opposite: that the psychological effects of the Second War are still largely repressed and that we are just beginning to come out of the shock enough to try to make sense of the experience.

We stormed the citadel under the banner of amnesia, Winning absolute victory over the Germans in 1943. Fantasy that could leave nothing out but the pain . . .

[Barrett Watten,Under Erasure]

Crysiles of cristle, piled
ankle high,
as wide as sound carries. Am I—
hearing it—algebras worth?

There is a wind
erases marks. I felt it on my cheek
Summers long
you can cross it

& still not approach time, de-solidified,

approaching mothish mists

felled, the way a price knocked down

puts purchase on its feet. Stammering

painful clamor by coincidents
  appraised. Refuse

  is a spilled constant.
  Let it loose.

[Benjamin Friedlander, “Kristallnacht”]

I don’t remember when I first heard about the war, but I do remember thinking of it as an historical event, something past and gone. It’s inconceivable to me now that I was born just five years after its end; each year, the Extermination Process seems nearer, more recent. Yet if the Systematic Extermination of the European Jews seemed to define, implicitly, the horizon of the past for me, the Bomb defined the foreshortened horizon of the future.

hear, where the dry blood talks
      where the old appetite walks . . .
where it hides, look
in the eye how it runs
in the flesh / chalk

      but under these petals
      in the emptiness
      regard the light, contemplate
      the flower

  whence it arose

      with what violence benevolence is bought
      what cost in gesture justice brings
      what wrongs domestic rights involve
      what stalks
      this silence
      what pudor or perjorocracy affronts
      how awe, night-rest and neighborhood can rot
      what breeds where dirtiness is law
      what crawls
      below . . .

[Charles Olson, “The Kingfishers” (1949)]

Fifty years is not a long time to absorb such a catastrophe for Western Civilization. It seems to me that the current controversies surrounding Paul De Man, and, more significantly, Martin Heidegger reflect the psychic economy of reason in face of enormous loss. In all our journals of intellectual opinion, we are asked to consider, as if it were a Divine Mystery, how such men of learning, who have shown such a profound and subtle appreciation for the art and philosophy of the West, could have countenanced, indeed be complicit with, an evil that seems to erode any possible explanation, justification, or contextualization, despite the attempt of...

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