Irving Howe, "Writing and the Holocaust," Selected Writings, 1950-1990 (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1991), pp. 424-445.

First published in: The New Republic, October 27, 1986.

Robert S. Leventhal

Howe begins his essay with a recognition of how the subject itself "resists the usual capacities of the mind." (424) In dealing with this subject, we become entangled in a number of difficult problems "[...]for which no aesthetic can prepare us." (424) In other words, classical aesthetic theory is ill-equipped to deal with the difficulties of "writing and the Holocaust." Howe argues, with Hannah Arendt, Richard Rubenstein, and, most recently, Zygmunt Bauman that it is an error to "elevate" the Holocaust to an event outside of history, to make it into an occult phenomenon, even if, as Howe acknowledges, "[...] we lack adequate categories for comprehending how such a sequence of events could occur." (425)

Howe discusses Theodor Adorno's famous and yet still much debated statement that, "After Auschwitz [...]to write a poem is barbaric." For Adorno, to write a poem -- again in a sense still open to debate -- is "[...] to squeeze aesthetic pleasure out of artistic representation of the naked bodily pain of those who have been knocked down by rifle butts [...] Through aesthetic principles or stylization [...] the unimaginable ordeal still appears as if it had some ulterior purpose. It is transfigured and stripped of some of its horror, and with this, injustice is already done to the victims." Howe reads Adorno as stating the sheer difficulty of writing after the Holocaust, and as having opened up the entire question of the validity of an "aesthetic" response to literature of the Holocaust, i.e. the possibility that there might be a "voyeuristic sadomasochism" operative in such an aesthetic response. (429) Howe praises the realistic attempts of witnesses to communicate both their experiences and their internal world in Holocaust literature: "Holocaust writings make their primary claim, I would say, through facts recorded or remembered." (430) In this sense, Howe appreciates Elie Wiesel's Night as an example of realistic writing "[...] without rhetorical indulgence." (432) It might be argued that Howe has underestimated the degree to which Wiesel employs rhetorical and figurative language, and the degree to which his writing is governed by the power of ocular metaphors. In what is perhaps the crux of Howe's essay, however, skepticism concerning the realist empiricism of claims for authentic "representation" surfaces, and Howe poses questions of penetrating insight when he considers the subtle shift in Holocaust literature from testimony to witness. While Holocaust literary testimonies retain their value as "evidence," Howe claims the following: "...we find ourselves veering -- less by choice than by necessity -- from the brute external to the fragile subjective, from matter to voice, from story to storyteller." (433) It is here that Howe's modernism comes into focus; as we move from testimony to witness, from external "evidence" to voice, from the story itself to the subjectivity of the "storyteller," Howe suggests that we as readers are sent on quite a different response path than that of realist fiction: "Reading Holocaust memoirs we respond not just to their accounts of what happened; we respond also to qualities of being, tremors of sensibility [...] We respond, most of all. to a quality that moght be called moral poise, by which I mean a readiness to engage in a complete reckoning with the past, insofar as there can be one [...]" (433) Howe's "moral poise" asserts that we as readers actually move into this position of reckoning as we attend to the interpretive understanding of the experiences of the storyteller through the voice.

However, there are, as is inevitable, certain "blindspots" in Howe's arguably "modernist" position, a position which places emphasis on narrative genres and tends to exclude both drama and poetry. Howe argues that drama is simply not an appropriate genre for Holocaust literature. Specifically, Howe tells us that the "tragic" is particularly ill-suited for representations of the Holocaust: "The Holocaust is not, essentially, a dramatic subject [...] If the death camps and mass exterminations allow little opening for the dramatic, they also give little space for the tragic in any traditional sense of that term." (436-37) Unfortunately, Howe also devotes little attention to poetry itself.

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