Literary Criticism and Theory

Robert S. Leventhal

Department of German

University of Virginia

In this section on the responses of Literary Theory and Criticism, we will explore some of the significant discussions that have taken place since 1970 on the topic of literary representation and interpretation of Holocaust literature. One of the earliest contributions to this topic was Lawrence L. Langer's The Holocaust and the Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), a book that dealt with the major genres of Holocaust literature and many of the intepretive questions that inevitably arise when dealing with this body of literature.

Of particular importance is Langer's treatment of the various responses inherent within literary modernity. The fundamental question that arises is: is the function of literature to "represent" the Holocaust? If so, how can literature represent "extreme" events, catastrophic events such as the Nazi Genocide of the Jews? Regarding the reception of literature, the question is posed as to whether the "aesthetic" response of the reader is even legitimate at all given the atrocity of Auschwitz. This question, and all that it entails, was raised in a most provocative manner by the German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno in his Negative Dialektik, in Ästhetische Theorie, and in shorter essays. For Adorno, poetry after Auschwitz is no longer possible, in a sense that still requires interpretation, because of the aestheticization and stylization inherent in the production of "aesthetic" objects and their "aesthetic" value as objects of a form of pleasure. This is intrinsically problematical for Adorno, because at the very moment the Holocaust is made the object of an aesthetic pleasure, it is destroyed in its horrifying singularity, and the materiality and reality of the event is elevated into an aesthetic experience, whereby the barbarity of the Nazi crimes against the Jews is in some sense repeated and even legitimized, in the sense that the suffering is lifted from the individuals who actually suffered and transfigured into an "aesthetic" event. If you would like to read some representative quotes from Adorno's work on the subject of literary representations of the Holocaust, click here.

One of the great modernist critics, Irving Howe, wrote a significant essay entitled "Writing and the Holocaust," which has now appeared in his Selected Writings, 1950-1990 (New York: Harcourt, Brace Jovanovitch, 1991), pp. 424-445. If you would like to learn more about Howe's essay, including excerpts and an analysis of the most important points of that essay, click here.

In his book Act and Idea of the Nazi Genocide (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1990), philosopher Berel Lang offers a critique of figurative or metaphorical representations of the Holocaust in literature, urging that only a realistic, historically authentic mode of writing about the Holocaust is appropriate. For more on Lang's argument concerning the failure of figurative or metaphorical discourse with respect to Holocaust literature in Act and Idea, click here.

The literary critic George Steiner has responded to the Holocaust in both expository and fictional form: essayistically in his book Language and Silence, and in fiction in his provocative The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H. (New York: Pocket Books, Washington Square Press, 1981). In his book Reflections of Nazism: An Essay on Kitsch and Death (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), the historian Saul Friedländer has offered an interesting critique of what he views as Steiner's "elevation" of Hitler and Nazism to a "metaphysical" principle. And in his book Jewish Self-Hatred, the Germanist Sander Gilman has offered a critique of the "rhetoric of silence" that surrounds much of the writing on Holocaust literature. For more information on Gilman's Jewish Self-Hatred, click here.