On December 3, 2013, Pierre Joris discussed Paul Celan’s poetry, with special focus on his response to the genocide of Europe’s Jews and others during World War II. Now PennSound podcasts presents a 20-minute excerpt of the hour-plus-long program. The video recording of the entire event is here, and the whole audio recording is here. The Kelly Writers House web calendar entry for the event can be found here. This episode is #36 in the PennSound podcasts series.
Robert Fitterman's Holocaust Museum (Veer Books, 2011) is composed of sets of captions from photographs in The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. The absence of the images has a powerful effect, evoking the erasure of a people and a culture through the Systematic Extermination Process. Over the course of Fitterman's book, lists become litanies, with intricate and horrific repetitions rippling through what simultaneously seems like dryasdust clippings. Fitterman's work is exemplary in its apparently inexpressive, understated approach. Page after page of catalog entries without photographs, names without faces, deeds without doers creates a work more chilling than the original installation, from which the captions are derived. Loss – erasure and absence – is made palpable by the marked suppression of the missing photographs.
The problems with representations "after Auschwitz" are well-rehearsed, hovering, like an angry hornet, around the crisis for representation posed by this particular series of catastrophic events and processes. Images, no matter how disfigured, mask the unseen, unspoken, and inexplicable but always -- here's the hardest part -- imaginable, reality: imaginable in consequence of being real. Imaginable yet ungraspable. Imaginable yet apparently out images' reach. Imaginable because we have no choice but to imagine, no matter how resistant our imaginations may be to the task. Imgined, in other words, through the not that Adorno called negative dialectics.
Recently I was asked to speak for a few minutes about a Jewish writer I believe should be better known. Primo Levi certainly is well known, but perhaps more known of than read, beyond, perhaps, Survival in Auschwitz, which maintains something of a life on high school and college curricula as a partner to, or substitute for, Elie Wiesel’s Night. (They are utterly not the same book. Nor the same kind of book. But they feel to teachers somehow like bookends.) In any case, Primo Levi wrote several other extraordinary books, the most powerful (and by far most formally experimental) of which is The Periodic Table. It is a modernist epic in prose. It has none of the immodesty of The Cantos or Ulysses or The Bridge or Paterson, but it seeks, through genocide and meditations on science pedagogy, to make a whole gigantic statement about what’s elemental of the meaning we make, and its parts, elements of a table that it itself a supreme fiction explaining the whole world, do not add up to a coherence but yet do embody the world. Readers of this commentary will have read my praise of this book before, so I will not dwell on it here. But I do happily present my 17-minute talk on the book. Because of the time constraint, I had to choose what to say about several parts that would be representative of the whole, so I concentrated on the final paragraphs of “Iron” (a chapter preceding Levi's stay at Auschwitz, which is reckoned in the chapter called “Cerium”) and the final paragraphs of “Carbon,” the last chapter of the book, and its most (shall we say) organic. Organic in theme and celebratory of the fictive present-tense-writing self in form. Here is that audio: MP3.
It happened that I screened Jonathan Silvers’s Elusive Justice just as I rewatched Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. I regularly teach a course on representations of the holocaust in literature and film; Spielberg’s melodramatic, reductive version of the Oskar Schindler story is one of the representations my students and I discuss. Spielberg knows exactly where he wants us to look, and indeed teaches us — forces us — to see the way he wants. We see the liquidation of the Cracow ghetto from Oskar’s point of view, omniscient, Olympian, commanding: from atop a hill (where he had been riding horses with his Polish mistress), a vantage enabling him and thus us to see everything at once. This view is distinct from that of the victim of the Aktion, who necessarily saw almost nothing except the chaotic and blindingly rapid-moving terror immediately in front of him or her. And to make certain that we see what we are supposed to, from the authoritative perspective we are simply given, Spielberg paints bright red (in a movie otherwise filmed in pseudo-documentary black and white) the coat of a little Jewish girl, so that we can follow her with our eyes, having no choice, and can identify with her innocence amid the guilt. It is supremely well intentioned, but nothing here is elusive. Schindler’s List marches straight toward the feelings it is designed to instigate in its viewers. There is no visual or thematic wandering. It is friendly toward sovereignty. It is about who has the power of life and death and its own flawless visual mode (strongly implying that it can after all be comprehended) makes no irony of that absolute power.
I've prepared a document that might nicely serve as a primer to Paul Celan's wartime experience and early poems. It includes a page-long summary of his life c. 1941-45 and then five pages from Pierre Joris' excellent introductory profile to his Paul Celan: Selections, followed by the texts of just two early poems. Here is that document (PDF).
Christian Boltanski's artwork/installation, "No Man's Land": a huge crane and a 25-foot-high mound of salvaged clothing rising from the floor of the Park Avenue Armory’s big drill hall. Every few minutes the crane’s giant claw will pluck a random assortment of shirts, pants and dresses from the mound and then release them to flap back down randomly. Visitors can watch the action — set to a ceaseless, reverberating soundtrack of thousands of human heartbeats — from ground level, standing amid dozens of 15-by-23-foot plots of discarded jackets that extend in all directions from the mound and that may - should - evoke refugee or death camps. "No Man's Land" was described in the New York Times: here.
Daughter of an Auschwitz survivor, Debbie Fischer, asks her father, as he lies dying, to tell her the real story of his time at the death camp. He has refused to tell her much all these years, always giving a blandly positive response to life in the camp. Here is the audio recording of her testimony about his testimony: mp3. (See my Holocaust site for much more.)
August 11, 1978. On the radio program, "In the American Tree: New Writing by Poets," Lyn Hejinian and Kit Robinson are our hosts, and the guest is Ted Berrigan. A PennSound recording of the show is available, and here--thanks to the work of Michael Nardone--is part of the transcription:
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HEJINIAN: We’re going to continue on now with our guest Ted Berrigan. This is "In the American Tree: New Writing by Poets."
Ted, you have a sequence of poems?
BERRIGAN: Yeah, I’ll read three poems from a book, which I just completed, I completed it three or four months ago, it’s called Easter Monday, and it’s fifty poems. And they’re all, most of them are close to the same size, which is about, well, my favorite size, which is about 14 lines. Well, they are sonnets, in fact, but they don’t really work at that too much. Not all of them are. Some are longer. None are shorter, but some are quite long, quite a bit longer, because they just got longer sometimes, and when they did I just let them be longer.
These fifty poems are, fifty was an arbitrary number I decided upon ahead of time based on a theory that if you do two or three works that are fairly similar, and that you liked them, even if you just do one, you do one work and you like it and do another one that’s similar to it, there’s no particular reason to do the next one, a second one, and there’s no particular reason not to do it. But if you feel you have a number then there, you can set yourself this arbitrary number and just decide, well, I’ll do fifty of these. Then you’re sort of clear as to what you’ll be doing for a while. I got this idea from a painter friend of mine.
So, I did fifty of these, and it took me a lot longer than I thought it would. I said that I would do fifty. It’s called Easter Monday because it’s really about second life, life beginning about the age of 40. And since it is personal, I mean it is the second half of one’s life, it’s about being young, a young older person. I was involved in a second marriage, second family, but even if I hadn’t been, it still could have been the same thing.
Consequently, it is like Easter Monday. Easter Friday you die. Easter Sunday you rise again from the dead and that’s really glorious and wonderful, but then Easter Monday you have to get this job and support yourself for the rest of your life.
The poems were all written in two or three or four years from the time I was 38 until last year when I was 42. So they are not all about one’s whole second life, but rather about being aware of coming into that.
When I say they are about something, I mean, I strictly mean “about”. I don’t know what each poem is about particularly. I could study them and tell you what each one is about, but that’s not what I’m willing to do.
Each poem is a very separate poem. They are not like my work The Sonnets where, although every poem can stand on its own, they were sequential and serial in a certain way. There is some repetition of things, but it’s really like fifty separate works which were done knowing I was going to do fifty, and therefore they relate that way. Now, I knew what the themes were, though I didn’t work at them too hard. I just knew what they were.
This is the first three. The first one is called “Chicago Morning.” It’s dedicated to the painter Phil Gustin simply because I was looking at a painting of his while I was writing because it was hanging on the wall over the typewriter, and so I actually used some things in his painting to refer to when I couldn’t think of anything else to say.