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The Political Aesthetics of Holocaust Literature Peter Weiss's The Investigation and Its Critics* Robert Cohen In the mid-1990s a critic referred to The Investigation (Die Ermittlung, 1965), Peter Weiss's play about Auschwitz and Nazi mass extermination, as one of those rare literary works able to overcome the "confusion, silence, and despair" produced by the "naked testimony" ofwitnesses at Holocaust trials. Lawrence Langer, whose words are quoted here, should know. He himself had for a few days attended the Frankfurt Auschwitz trial which lasted from the end of 1963 through the summer of 1965 and on which The Investigation is based. In his article Langer holds that "Weiss lowers the barriers of the unimaginable" and "gradually narrows the space separating the imagination from the camp." The play, in Langer's congenial interpretation, crosses a border which prevailing views on representations of the Holocaust consider to be nearly impassable: it allows the imagination to be "drawn into the landscape ofAuschwitz," it transforms the "literal truth" of the witnesses' testimonies into the "imagined truth ofAuschwitz."1 Langer did not always see it that way. In The Holocaust and the Literary Imagination (1975), a foundational text in the academic study of the representation of the Holocaust in literature, Langer denied the very qualities of The Investigation that he was to praise twenty years later. Langer's erstwhile judgment started a trend. Over more than a decade other books which came to constitute the emerging discourse on the 43 Robert Cohen ethics and aesthetics of the Holocaust in literature followed Langer's example in rejecting Weiss's play ever more radically, among them Alvin H. Rosenfeld's A Double Dying, Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi's By WordsAlone and James E. Young's Writing and Rewriting the Holocaust? The attacks of these critics on The Investigation and its author are startling in their ferocity. In their view Weiss's play was a distortion and exploitation of the Holocaust for ideological reasons; it was artless, lifeless and mechanical and, most disturbingly, it wasn't even about the Jews. It had to be excluded from the canon of the new discourse. 1. Discourse politics The conceited effort by these critics to deny The Investigation any status in the emerging academic field raises issues about the process of institutionalization ofthe study ofHolocaust literature and its attendant canon formation, and specifically about the politics of inclusion and exclusion. These politics are most apparent in the discussions, uniquely central to the literature of Auschwitz, of facticity and authenticity, and of legitimacy: who is allowed to speak for the victims? the perpetrators? Who defines the victims and perpetrators? The politics of discourse also inform the debate over which master narratives, "Freudian, Marxist, formalist, structuralist, or linguistic"—Rosenfeld rejects all of these (19)—are appropriate for representations of the Holocaust. Rosenfeld's position suggests that not only the deaths of millions should be considered senseless but also attempts at finding explanations; particularly if those explanations would remove Auschwitz from the pure realm of religious, metaphysical, or mythological discourse, and insert it into a continuity ofsecular, man-made events. If the Holocaust is explained in rational terms, it seems, its enormity is somehow diminished. Discourse politics also play themselves out as a subtext in the four critics' discussions of the aesthetics of Holocaust literature, the forms, language, narrative and dramatic techniques and the conceptions of literary and dramatic figures considered acceptable in representations of the Holocaust . Those who would define the new discourse tended to erect almost insurmountable walls around it. A closer look at the language of 44 ___________________The Political Aesthetics of Holocaust Literature Rosenfeld's opening paragraph shows this gesture at work. In the first few lines alone the Holocaust is referred to as an "inexplicable and almost incomprehensible tragedy," as "not just death but total destruction ," as not just murder, but "annihilation on so massive and indiscriminate a scale" (3). This is a discourse of disempowerment, a discourse designed to intimidate and control.3 The Holocaust is constructed as a realm so incommensurate and inaccessible that only a chosen few may enter.4 There is a chasm separating this position from the view presented by a key witness in...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-1994
Print ISSN
0935-560X
Pages
pp. 43-67
Launched on MUSE
2011-03-30
Open Access
No
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