“To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric” – Theodor Adorno
When one visits the Holocaust geographical areas, the crematoria and the camps, one is met with the massive wreckage and abandonment of Jewish cemeteries. It is wreckage that has found companion in drunkards, partying teenagers and even lunatic nationalists. A sense of absence lags whereby the future is not changed but inevitably abolished and gradually suffocated.
If Ardono’s witness statement is literary correct about Auschwitz, he must also be right about all genocides and inhuman practices upon all mankind. It implies that if there is no poetry after the merciless killings of Jews and Gypsies, if follows suit that the same applies to poetry after the Armenians and the Tutsis, to mention but a few. Every manmade catastrophe be it famine, slave trade or even star chamber, whose aim is the advancement of the national interest of a few is genocide. Consequently, every crime committed at the Auschwitz- rape, murder mistreatment – culminates the power possessed by a few to take human life after much suffering.
Poetry after such events makes up history. If its absence after such occurrences is the status quo, what then defines history? The integration of poetry in history or if you like history into poetry cannot be overlooked. While poetry intensifies language in the narration of events, history on the other hand is the intensification of memory. Guarding the fact that these two elements, language and memory comprise human beings, we cannot do without either of them. They are inevitably the backbone of society. As one scholar Mirko Grmek refers to the deletion of history and language as ‘memorycide’, so is the erasure of works of art after Auschwitz, specifically, Tadeusz Borowski’s short story titled, “This way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman”.
Many scholars would want to state that Adorno did not mean poetry. In essence, further elaborations of the same ultimately define sentimentality, or at other times, confession. Poetry embarks on the society indulging in a state of “Self-satisfied contemplation” whereby our eyes are opened to the moral inferiority and barbarity of Hitler’s rule is seen in the practices at Auschwitz (Horkheimer, & Theodor, 16). A character in Sarte’s play titled Morts Sans Supulture, asks, “Is there any meaning in life when men exist who beat people until the bones break in their bodies?” This question begs to inquire into the legitimacy of the existence of art, whether committed literature is not an offspring born out of intellectual regression in humankind. The Auschwitz is barbaric statement must be refuted as it is an expression of negativity with regard to committed literature.
This way for the gas, ladies and gentleman
Tadeusz Borowski wrote his short stories based on his experiences in Auschwitz and Dachau where he luckily survived. They are literary works published in Poland but have proved their enormity with regard to literary communication to earn a place in world literature. He describes in his writings being confined in this concentration camp as a world whereby compassion for the jailed individuals overrides one’s own will to live. Further, he describes the camp as uninhabitable area whereby prisoners eat, work and sleep while watching their colleagues being murdered. He sees the deletion of human dignity whose distinction from those who are already dead is defined by a thin line- a second bowl of soup, a blanket and a pair of shoes. He views the situation as one with an absence of normality.
Adorno’s statement with regard to an analysis of the short story “This way for the gas, ladies and gentleman” must be refuted. There is definitely poetry, for that matter art, after Auschwitz. However, it must be noted that a higher requirement from both the creator and the audience of the particular piece of art are required. For Borowski to survive the mistreatment in Auschwitz and also in Dachau, he had no option, but to do what he had to do- write about his feelings. Even after he survived the Auschwitz, he was frustrated by the communist government which led to his successful third attempt suicide. His works were critically scrutinized by the communist government officials, not because they were barbaric, but they rubbed them the wrong way. The officials considered them brutal.
There seems to be no morality in Adorno’s statement in the fact that Borowski even acknowledges that the survival of a few from confinement camps must not be seen as heroism or even a positive occurrence. He views his survival with such sadness to the fact that it was only a demonstration of how far individuals renounce their humanity for the sake of survival. The irony in the turn of Borowski’s life proves further that it was not about survival in the concentration camps, but of priding oneself in humanity, away from mistreatment and unjust practices. He states, “The world is ruled by neither justice nor morality; crime is not punished nor virtue rewarded, one is forgotten as quickly as the other. The world is ruled by power and power is obtained with money. To work is senseless, because money cannot be obtained through work, but through exploitation of others. And if we cannot exploit as much as we wish, at least let us work as little as we can. Moral duty? We believe neither in the morality of man nor in the morality of systems” (Bernstein, 37). Although he survived the camps and even the gas chambers, he eventually kills himself through more or less the same means that he survived from, in 1951 even before he reached thirty years of age.
Borowski writes in a way that suggests that he feels that the segregation between the Jews and the non-Jews in the camps was justified. However, there is some guilt in his thought processes seem to imply that he felt that such a feeling that he was better than those murdered was just a mechanism that one adopted in order to survive.
At one point, he states that he now loathes Plato, who had liked and admired earlier. In fact, he calls him a liar. “You know how much I used to like Plato. Today I realize he lied. For the things of this world is not a reflection of the ideal, but a product of human sweat, blood and hard labour. It is we who built the pyramids, hewed the marble for the temples and the rocks for the imperial roads, we who pulled the oars in the galleys and dragged wooden ploughs, while they wrote dialogues and dramas, rationalized their intrigues by appeals in the name of the Fatherland, made wars over boundaries and democracies. We were filthy and died real deaths. They were ‘aesthetic’ and carried on subtle debates” (Sofsky, 298). He therefore believes that all states of human existence have been built by human kind and the eventual destruction of human dignity is ultimately in the hands of the same human being. This is a reality that must be told to the audience by one who has suffered under such atrocities as witnessing killings and murders through all kinds of means. This renders therefore Adorno’s statement of poetry after Auschwitz as barbaric as inconsistent with human truths and a contributor to human regression and ultimate suffering of the majority in the hands of just a few political endowed with power.
Borowski works and therefore poetry after Auschwitz is indeed a necessity because it presents a certain aspect of honesty (although not confession) and such deep compassion as it opens more questions to the audience on the inhumane aspect of the humankind. He proves to the audience that in fact, all humans face the same atrocities – whether in death, heading for the gas chambers, love encroachment and even future dreams – the emptiness of the soul after the eventual loss of dignity (Bernstein, 52).“Between two throw-ins in a soccer game, right behind my back, three thousand people had been put to death” (Sofsky, 296). This is one of the statements in Borowski’s short story that describe the haunting experiences that he went through in the camp.
Ardono’s quote that to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric reminds many scholars of Heine’s aphorism in one of his works, “Almansor”, “Where books are burned, human beings are destined to be burned too”. Implications of such a statement involve the reader in a mind discussion on the impact of literary works throughout human history. It is in consensus with the fact that literary works serve ethical purposes with regard to human existence and the ultimate observation of human dignity and morality. Adorno’s thoughts are embedded in an illusion that to think that life shall go back to normalcy after war is utter idiocy (Horkheimer, & Theodor, 18). He believes that human dignity and therefore existence has gone down the drain with the death of the Jews.
However, a critical and keener analysis of Adorno’s imperative statement brings the reader to underscore on the importance of humankind to push its efforts on making sure that nothing as big as this catastrophe ever happens. It therefore brings us back to our earlier discussion on the connection between language and history. In essence, this quote serves to remind the audience that history and literature that touches on Auschwitz can be the solid reminder of a terrible past. In Adorno’s perspective, this is a good thing as it shall ultimately enable human race to build on principles that ensure that the same does not happen again (Horkheimer, & Theodor, 16). However, Adorno views it with such pessimism and therefore declares that it is only barbaric and will ultimately serve no purpose to make art based on Auschwitz, or any other genocide act, for that matter.
Adorno’s imperative statement that to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric is evidently refuted by the implications of Borowski’s short story, “This way up the gas chamber, ladies and gentleman” with regard to the moral and ethical reflections in the reader. It is evidently overridden by the ethical obligation and hence responsibility that the reader visualizes and attempts to achieve through Borowski’s experiences at the concentration camp in Auschwitz.
However, one must acknowledge that the fact that there is a high price to pay with regard to both the writer and the reader if the objectives of writings after Auschwitz are to be achieved. Borowski’s disappointment and frustration even after his survival lies in the fact that the communist government is still oppressive, a practice that makes him conclude that human dignity has ultimately been taken away from the society. In other words, justice does not exist. The concentration camp is a situation that has been rendered as humane and just by the existing law. It therefore follows that literary writings must be written even after such events for the purposes of taking back human dignity from oppressors and therefore morality as portrayed by Borowski. In its entirety, this paper seeks to allude that poetry must be written even after Auschwitz, but there is higher price to pay by both the writer and the reader.
Bernstein, J.M. Adorno: Disenchantment and Ethics New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Chaps. 8-9, pg. 32- 54
Horkheimer, Max & Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. Edmund Jephcott Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002, 11-18
Wolfgang Sofsky, The Order of Terror: The Concentration Camp, trans. William Templer. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997. 294-299