What is this post for?
Yesterday marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, and as a writer with some Jewish heritage I felt as though I should mark it by writing a poem or something. Perhaps that was my first mistake. Poems, stories and the like that spring from “I should really write about this issue”-type thought processes are rarely successful, at least not for me. In fact, they rarely get beyond that initial thought, and maybe a rubbish first line that will be swiftly deleted. Maybe if I’d felt the more abstract spark of inspirational “ooh” and then put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) without thinking and come out with something organically, even if that something had turned out to be total crap (and there’s a strong possibility it would have), then it might have had some worth. But thinking “I should”, as though I’m somehow obligated to bless the world with my personal take on the matter, as though anyone cares… well, that’s bollocks really, isn’t it?
Now I’m not trying to hijack such a solemn anniversary and use it as a flimsy pretext to wank on about my creative process and artistic hang-ups. That would be vulgar and disrespectful in the extreme. But it did get me thinking about artistic responses to things like the Holocaust, and more broadly about how, in this age of instant Twitter reaction frenzies and the weird self-sustaining thinkpiece ecosystems that immediately sprout up every time something vaguely newsworthy happens, everybody always feels compelled to offer their own personal take on things. Politicians rush to register their disgust, their delight, their joy, which usually comes across as pretty cynical. Nineteen-year-olds feel duty-bound to give us a paragraph about how they felt about the death of Nelson Mandela, or the reign of Margaret Thatcher (why am I specifically picking on nineteen-year-olds, as though they’re as bad as politicians? A more pertinent question might be: why aren‘t you picking on them?). Are these responses all false and useless and unworthy of discussion? Of course not. But I can’t help but feel that a lot of the time it’s more about bandwagon-jumping, or a kind of narcissism, than anything else. It’s people desperate to stand up and be counted, to be seen to care. People want other people to notice how affected they’ve been by something, even though the actual effect that the event has had on them personally is nebulous at best, non-existent at worst. I’ve certainly been guilty of indiscriminately posting links to articles about the latest thing that’s made me angry, along with a couple of paragraphs of carefully-worded invective about how much it’s pissed me off and why. Is my anger genuine? Yes (but then I would say that, wouldn’t I). But why am I so desperate to tell everybody how angry I am? Is it to make them angry too, so we can all share in the anger, and have a big angry party together? I don’t really know. It’s all a bit weird. I’ve also been guilty of wanting to express my anger about certain issues by writing poems, and not really coming out with anything particularly deep or meaningful, more bursts of rage that rhyme. Are they worthwhile? Or if I’m not offering any kind of solution beyond “um don’t do that thing plz thanx”, should I just shut the heck up?
The compulsion to create a piece of art in response to something, to paint a picture or write a poem, is at least a little different from registering your disgust on social media, I think. I’m not trying to suggest that it’s inherently more noble to write a poem than an angry Tweet, not at all. A shit poem is just as worthless as a shit Tweet (or is it? Yes, it is. I think. But does it actually matter whether it’s a shit poem or not? I don’t know. I’m not coming to many conclusions here. But then again, I never promised to). But making art is, at least partly, a way for people to make sense of the world, to vocalise and articulate feelings that they might not be able to express otherwise. Doesn’t mean it’s not still selfish, some of the time. But it’s a process. Then again, so is writing an eloquent Facebook post, in a way. So what’s the difference? Again, I don’t know.
More to the point, exactly what the hell can I offer that would in any way do justice to the subject matter at hand? That, I think, is the most important consideration when thinking about creating a piece of art about something as monumental, as horrific, as inexplicable, as existentially challenging, as the Holocaust. What could I possibly add to the conversation? It’s an act of organised barbarism that defies imagination. What right do I have to offer my own personal take on it? Would I be doing it for selfish reasons, for personal catharsis? Or so people would think “ooh, he cares”? If so, then how unutterably distasteful would that be? And if I were trying to do something broader than myself, to try to sum up the horror in some way, to find some kind of truth at the heart of the matter… what would that entail? What would it mean? How do you stare into the pure black depths of what human beings are capable of doing to one another and convert it into something constructive? Is it an insult to try and make some sort of sense of it? Should it remain ultimately unknowable? If so, why? Are we more at risk of repeating these mistakes if we understand them or if we don’t understand them? If we understand them, truly understand them, does that mean we’re capable of them, whereas not understanding them means we’re not? After all, it’s not as though humans have stopped being absolutely fucking despicable to one another in the interim.
In these situations, I think we have to seriously and carefully consider our intentions. Maybe even to the extent that we entangle ourselves in analytical knots and are eventually so paralysed by our own contradictory thought processes and rhetorical questions that we can’t offer anything approaching a definitive statement. If I were to write a piece about the Holocaust, I would need to seriously think about why I was doing it. It could be argued that nobody needs me to tell them how horrific the Holocaust was (although obviously I only know it was horrific in the abstract rather than through personal experience). It could also be argued that everyone needs to talk about how horrific it was – the further away the event gets, the less real it becomes, and the harder it is for people to truly empathise, rather than simply treat it as a historical matter, somefing what ‘appened In The Past, innit. And, as some of the coverage of yesterday’s commemorative events – kinda tactlessly, I thought – pointed out, many of those who suffered the horrors of Auschwitz first-hand and lived to tell the tale probably won’t be with us for much longer. So perhaps it is incumbent on us – and by us I don’t just mean writers, or people with a bit of Jewish heritage, I mean everyone – to keep discussing these things, keep educating each other and ourselves, keep staring this unimaginable travesty directly in the face, in the hope that we can keep proceeding towards a world where there is no possibility of such a thing occurring again. It could even be argued that now, at a time of rising anti-Semitism and general xenophobia at home and abroad, with geopolitical tensions at boiling point and people seemingly more likely to bite their neighbours’ faces off than lend them a cup of sugar, it’s more important than ever that we discuss things like the Holocaust, and attempt, however clumsily, to express them through art, and through discourse. And even, perhaps, through bollocks meandering blog posts. Or am I just justifying my own crap?
What do you think? I would really, genuinely like to know.
In related stuffs, if you want to see an example of a potentially weird exercise (it certainly sounds problematic in theory) that ended up being haunting and incredible, check out Holocaust – A Music Memorial Film from Auschwitz, a 2005 production that stitches together various classical music performances filmed in Auschwitz itself, along with first-hand accounts from survivors. It’s a stunning, harrowing piece of work. And considering the way those who ran the camp were able to pervert the performance of music, there’s something truly stirring and redemptive about the musicians, many of whom are Jewish, reclaiming these nightmarish spaces and filling them with music. The closing performance by Maxim Vengerov of the chaconne from Bach’s D minor Partita No 2 is transcendent. Not for the faint of heart, but worth the tears you’ll shed.
I’d also recommend Hitler’s Children, which aired on the BBC a few years ago, and follows the lives of some of the descendants of reviled figures like Himmler, Goering and Hoess. It shows the stigma from which they’ve suffered throughout their lives, and the efforts they’ve made to distance themselves from their ancestors’ legacies and make amends. Another difficult watch, but there are some parts that manage to be quite uplifting, weirdly enough.
Also, you can currently watch Holocaust: Night Will Fall on 4oD. I haven’t seen it yet but am planning to, it’s about the military film units that went in and filmed in the camps when they were liberated, and about a film that Sidney Bernstein – with some help from Alfred Hitchcock – attempted to make about the atrocities committed there, which ended up being shelved for decades because it was too ‘politically sensitive’.
Might need to cue up some Thomas the Tank Engine to watch after that one, along with a stiff drink.