- Life Against Death:Review Essay
Aharon Appelfeld stands virtually alone in the desolating power of his fictional depictions of the Shoah. To some critics, of course, the description "fictional depiction of the Shoah" designates not merely an oxymoron but an outrage. To them, Adorno's famous dictum, Nach Auschwitz ein Gedicht zu schreiben, ist barbarisch, applies as much to fiction as to poetry. Others have suggested that Appelfeld "gets away" with writing fiction about the Shoah by, in effect, not writing about it. Those of his books which, like Badenheim 1939, or To the Land of the Reeds, treat of characters on their way to the camps, end with the arrival of the trains: "An engine . . . coupled to four filthy freight cars" (Badenheim), "An old locomotive, drawing two old cars . . . it went from station to station, gathering up the remainder" (Reeds). Beyond that point, there is only silence: the action of the novel ends, as if stopped dead in its tracks. The camps themselves remain, it seems, beyond the reach of Appelfeld's imagination.
How far does this objection diagnose a weakness, possibly a fatal one, in his work? One might excuse this aspect of his work as demonstrating merely a decent reticence, entirely proper in the circumstances, despite the general tendency of our culture at present to confuse any kind of reticence with failure of nerve.
But a more positive line of defense suggests itself. The culture of Christian and Enlightenment Europe, the matrix culture from which the Shoah emerged, strikes me, as one of its non-Jewish inheritors, as a culture perhaps overly impressed with death. Judaism is—it is conventional, but also broadly [End Page 148] true, to say—a religion of life. Characteristically, it sees death, not as something to be dwelt on, to be studied, a phenomenon from which something might be learnt; but simply as the limit of life: the point at which this life stops. The fundamentally Christian world in which I was brought up seems, on the contrary, at times almost to regard death as the center, the goal, the defining moment of life. One thinks of the old story of the Abbot of Downside addressing his fellow headmasters: "You have all spoken of how your schools educate boys for life. At Downside, on the contrary, we educate them for death." While Spinoza, true in this to his Jewish heritage, taught that the free man occupies himself with life, and thinks of nothing less than death, the belief that there may be something to be learned, some insight to be gained, from meditating on the mere fact of death, continues unabated in the matrix culture.
From that belief it is a short step to the thought that to wield death as an instrument of political power is to wield also its supposed power to draw away the curtain from hidden knowledge, to show us things about ourselves and our world that only the triumph of death could show us. Adorno himself was by no means a stranger to that thought. "Hegel, whose method schooled that of Minima Moralia," he says, in the Dedication of the latter work, "argued against the mere being-for-itself of subjectivity on all its levels." And in the previous paragraph he identifies "the concentration camp" as having, in effect, demonstrated the historical correctness of this thought of Hegel's. "The overwhelming objectivity of historical movement in its present phase consists so far only in the dissolution of the subject . . . The subject still feels sure of its autonomy, but the nullity demonstrated to subjects by the concentration camp [my italics] is already overtaking the form of consciousness itself."
The alleged "barbarity" of writing a poem after Auschwitz pales into insignificance, it seems to me, when set beside the extreme ambiguity of the attitude to the Nazis betrayed by these remarks. In effect, they credit the Endlösung, and by extension its authors, with having revealed the Nature of Reality and demonstrated it to be...