Yet what a difference there is between the playful iconoclasm of modernists during WWI, and the anguish pervading the work of their immediate successors. The "dissonances of the age" had clearly grown in a world torn apart by competing social systems and strident ideological claims, with their cortege of wars, crises, collective hysteria and fanaticism. When such writers as Antonin Artaud, Georges Bataille, Celine, and Simone Weil embodied "the passions and contradictions of European society," they imbibed the madness, violence, hatred and humiliation which were about to rock Western civilization, unleashing atrocities on an unprecedented scale.
None of these writers were even aware of the Nazi genocide. Yet from the mid 1920's until well into the war their work seems to anticipate the Holocaust, responding to it from a distance, "like victims signaling through the flames" (Artaud).
Since WWII the genocide has been documented, and the series of decisions which culminated in the death camps have been gradually pieced together. Yet aspects of the Nazi horror which were intuited by it's literary prophets sometimes elude its historians: "For the Nuremberg laws," Pierre Vidal-Naquet recently remarked, "were still laws, as were those of Vichy, and the members of the Einsatzgruppen still saw the people they murdered in the terrifying face to face of torturer and victim. But the majority of the German inhabitants in Auschwitz never saw Jews and Gypsies die in the gas chambers."
The controversy raised a few years ago by a group of German historiographers arguing for the precedence of Bolshevik massacres is another example of the way in which historical research can banalize evil. Evoking Jacques Lanzmann's film, Vidal-Naquet concluded: "Between time lost and time regained stands the artwork, and the test Shoah imposes on the historian is the obligation he finds himself to be at once a scholar and an artist, lest he irremediably forgoes a fraction of this truth he's looking for."
Since the need to bear witness was a powerful incentive for survival, many survivor's testimonies have come to light. But what of those "set apart from the rest of the world by an experience impossible to communicate" (David Rousset) "A kind of infinite, untransmittable knowledge" (Robert Anselme). Can one ever account for the unimaginable? "Unimaginable," Anselme bitterly comments, "a word that doesn't divide, doesn't restrict. The most convenient word."
Behind the unspeakable is an even deeper dread -- will they listen? In an Auschwitz dream, Primo Levi found himself at home with friendly people. He has "so many things to recount: but I cannot help noticing that my listeners do not follow me. In fact, they are completely indifferent: they speak confusedly of other things among themselves, as if I was not there. My sister looks at me, gets up and goes away without a word... Why is the pain of everyday translated so constantly into our dreams, in the ever - repeated scene of the unlistened to story?"
It has often been said that the unique nature of the Holocaust "challenges our imagination with a nearly impossible task" (Lawrence Langer). "There can be no fictional narrative of Auschwitz," Maurice Blanchot asserted. And Adorno: "After Auschwitz there is no word tinged from on high, not even a theological one, that has any right unless it underwent a transformation." I believe that these words -- these transformed fictional narratives -- exist, and that they already existed before Auschwitz. Artaud hallucinating his own death or Bataille his own dismemberment, Simone Weil embracing the abjection of assembly line work or Celine carried away by an insane racist rage -- these writers were not acting on their own either. By making the unimaginable their very subject, these artists provided us with that fraction of truth which scholars of the Holocaust are vainly seeking.
The intensity of these writers' affects is a far cry from "that detached and distant manner characteristic of the Lager... the underground art of economizing on everything, on breath, movement, even thoughts" that Primo Levi describes in his account of Auschwitz. Yet a case could be made that the writers were expressing, before the fact, the suffering of the "hollow men," making it, in Artaud's words, "knowable and approachable by a certain sensibility."
Susan Sontag asserted that Artaud's work "offers the greatest quantity of suffering in the history of literature. So drastic and pitiable are the descriptions he gives of his pain," she added, "that readers, overwhelmed, may be tempted to distance themselves by remembering that Artaud was crazy." That Artaud acted crazy is undeniable -- after all he was an actor. "I'm not as crazy as you think," he once wrote Louis Jouvet, which didn't prevent him from collapsing after a hallucinated voyage to Ireland. Georges Bataille aspired to madness whereas Celine was a natural and Simone Weil treaded the line between idiosyncrasy and madness. A holy folly seemed to haunt the four of them, but was it madness or haste? Were they aware how precious little time they had to create new myths as safeguards against the massive desymbolization of the culture, of which fascism was one disastrous product. Artaud's theatre of cruelty, Weil's immersion into a community of suffering, Bataille's obsession with wounds, Celine's demented warnings; all of these were modernist "vaccines" meant to build the immunities of the social body against the incoming threat. But the cures could be poisonous. When Celine stopped attributing evil to human nature, giving it a name and a race, his anti-Semitic pamphlets anticipated the final solution.
Jean-Paul Sartre called "Guilty," one of Bataille's wartime journals, a "martyr-essay," and indeed each of these writers experienced the turmoil and political fanaticism of their times, and the disintegration of their own being, as a "sacred crisis." They explored the limits of guilt and self-sacrifice. Simone Weil, who died in England in 1943 of self-imposed hunger, exemplifies their uncompromising, even fanatical stand. As early as 1933 she had warned against the "mystical exaltation" of the Nazis, whose ideology she considered an ersatz religion. Bataille ambiguously recognized them as the first serious threat to Christianity. In 1943, from the Rodez asylum, Artaud rightly hailed Hitler as the Anti-Christ.
In his "Genealogy," Nietzsche probed the origin of moral ideas, questioning the value of the notions of good and evil in "our sinister European civilization." Bataille followed suit, but warned his reader that he intended to show the opposition between good and evil "under another light." Yes, but which light? Nietzsche never treated morality as an "intimate" problem; nor did he put much faith in man's interior world, the breeding ground for that terrible sickness, bad conscience. Nietzsche's concern wasn't for man's soul, but for the whole human species' chance of reaching "that peak of magnificence of which he is capable." Would Nietzsche have examined the question of ethics, not in terms of action, but as Bataille did, "in reference to being -- or beings"? In the first essay of the "Genealogy," Nietzsche dismissed in advance those "changelings" called subjects as mere linguistic fallacy. "There is no being," he wrote, "behind the doing, acting, becoming... the doing is everything."
The other light by which Bataille explored the question of morality was therefore the light of inner experience. Yet Bataille didn't consider that radical shift a betrayal. "Nietzsche," he said, expressed an "extreme, unconditional human yearning... independent of moral goals or of serving god," but he couldn't always maintain himself at this summit. Although indifferent to all political stakes, he couldn't always reach beyond the stage of action which necessarily "suppresses our being entirely." Bataille, in short, offered to supplement Nietzsche's occasional failings by realizing within himself the consequences of Nietzsche's doctrine.
So far, Bataille wrote, morals had been leading from one point to the next, providing the goal and the itinerary. After Nietzsche, morality led nowhere. This realization could drive one to madness, anguish, ecstasy or dereliction, yet it constituted the supreme moral experience, "the disarming freedom of meaninglessness and an empty glory."
In March, 1944 Bataille presented a portion of his essay on Nietzsche, provocatively titled "Discussion on Sin," to an assembly of philosophers, some of them Christians like Gabriel Marcel. Also present were Jean Hippolyte and Jean-Paul Sartre, whom Bataille met there for the first time. "Why sin?" Hippolyte asked, noting a Christian ambiguity in Bataille's speech. Bataille admitted that by sin he meant "a condition experienced with great intensity."
"That changes everything," Sartre exclaimed. It did. Bataille reformulated the question of morality in terms of what he considered the moral summit: sacrifice. The distinction between good and evil, operative in the context of vulgar morality, was inadequate to express intense experiences that rip beings apart. In Bataille's hands, these notions became nearly interchangeable, floating signifiers like flags of the communal energies and intensities liberated through calculated killing.
All societies are founded on collective crimes which are subsequently denied by their many beneficiaries. Complicity and denial are constitutive of morality: concern for utility is merely there to suture the wound. This was true for Christianity, which recognized evil generically, in light of redemption, but refused to acknowledge its presence at the heart of the religious experience. "There's in Christianity," Bataille argued, "a will not to be guilty, a will to locate guilt outside of the church, to find a transcendence to man in relation to guilt." This accounted for the Church's inability to deal with evil, except as a threat coming from the outside. Doing the Church justice "in total hostility," Bataille assumed guilt and anguish as his own, daring Christianity to experience Christ's sacrifice as the equivocal expression of evil. By the same token Bataille found himself occupying the very symbolic space the church had assigned to the Jews. Fear and anguish were Bataille's stigmata -- God's festering wounds.
The era was birthing a crisis far beyond the reach of any lone individual. Collective seizure. Epilepsy on a mass scale. "We are surrounded by whole countries of anaphylactic dolts," Celine wrote in 1933, "the least little shock sends them into endless murderous convulsions." Saturated with ideology, the civilized unconscious kept running amok at the slightest touch, people throwing themselves en masse, insanely, blindly, amorously, avidly into death and destruction. "Unanimous sadism."
Rationality was not lacking. It was part of the disease. "When we are entirely moral the way our civilization understands it, desires it and soon will impose it, I believe that we will explode entirely as well, out of wickedness... Religious neuroses appears to be a form of evil, I have no doubt. But what is it really?" Nietzsche asked. And what is religious neurosis on that scale? Like fascism itself, religion became bureaucracy, these may well be the symptoms of a crisis that we've never recovered from, just bypassed, forgotten, decodified, like everything else: the ultimate entry into the ahistoricity and hyper reality of late capitalist societies.
We've become so used to seeing open wounds on the mental screen that it may astonish us that Bataille and Artaud exhibited such wounds with a moral purpose. Artaud's gothic world of electroshocks and redeeming stigmata already belongs to another age, the humanistic era of death camps, death squads and deadly plagues. As Artaud himself foreshadowed in "To Have Done With the Judgment of God," we've learned how to manufacture death as well as life. Whether or not the culture can be cured of such an insidious sickness is uncertain. As Marcel Proust said of Swann's love, the disease is so much a part of our reality as to be utterly inoperable. It might be easier at this point to celebrate madness in our dead cultural heroes than to expose ourselves to their impossible truths.
|FAT Magazine, Vol. 1 No. 1
Editor-in-Chief Josephine Meckseper