Monday, 8 September 2008

God on Trial revisited

I am returning to this because I said I would and because I have been prompted by an artist friend's email. He agrees with my general assessment of the play, only pointing out the possible redundancy of the device of the contemporary visitors with which the play begun and ended, and which served as a brief interlude between scenes.

Yes, that's interesting, and probably right. It may be that, because the trial itself was a matter of rumour and legend rather than historical record (but what would historical records have made, if they did exist, of the conversations in those terrible huts!) it was felt necessary to frame it quite clearly as drama, as imagined, as something detached from, even distanced from, that which is known.

So what we had was a play within a play, something entirely the product of a writer's imagination. One might argue - and it wouldn't surprise me if Cottrell Boyce did argue this with himself - that imagining this specific trial ran the risk of trespass; that entering those huts with impunity, with, if you like, immunity, was a complex, awkward, intrusive act. When I was writing my own long poem Metro, I took my mother to the gates of Ravensbruck, but did not follow her in. There were places I did not feel entitled to go.

The delicate line Cottrell Boyce would have had to tread was the one between a realm that was specifically, temporally, Jewish, and the existential realm that pertains to anyone, in which the intensity of suffering becomes a pressing but open metaphysical question. He had to keep just on the latter side while feeling the presence of the former.

The fact that he succeeded as well as he did says much for his skill and tact. There were only two moments when the play threatened to spill out of the existential into the intrusive.

The first was when the following argument was put: If (ran the argument) it is the best of our kind who are being sacrificed for some future good, that would surely leave only the worst as survivors. The danger of this is reasonably clear. As put by an outsider it can be read as pejorative to those Jews (not Catholics like Cottrell Boyce) who did survive. The current lot are sneaks and thieves. The worthwhile ones are all gone.

It's a risk but had to be taken because, having imagined the trial, the thought was not only possible but - given the premise that many great minds and spirits perished in the camps - it was inevitable. The argument does rather suppose that those who are not regarded as great minds or great spirits are less valuable and that goes against the grain with me, as it will with many others. It was, let me put it this way, a delicate moment in the trial.

The other point was the Anthony Sher speech, the speech of the rabbi at the end. The charges laid at Yahweh's door are indeed terrible and not to be gainsaid, all the evidence being to hand in the Bible. How plead you, God? Guilty, as charged. End of story, or so you'd think. But when God is, most notably, accused by Job in the Bible, he does not deign to answer, responding instead with another question: Canst thou pluck out Leviathan with an hook?***

That was not offered as an answer in the play. All that happened was that, when summoned to death, the rabbi and the others covered their heads with their bare hands to indicate reverence and prayer.

What one asks - what I assume the writer asked of himself - was whether the rabbi's list of accusations was being levelled at the metaphysical God or, specifically, at the God of the Jews. For the rabbi it was clearly the God of the Jews. That, after all, was the whole point of his speech: Yahweh is, or rather was, our bastard.

What level of identification was being invited there? Who is included in that our? Is the outsider / trespasser / to be included? Or was the outsider being invited to say: So they were just as bad, serve them right, good riddance. Because this is the argument employed by the neo-fascist anti-Zionists.

Israel = Nazi Germany. Palestine = Auschwitz. That means it's all quits. Back to square one. Back to 1933.

I don't think Cottrell Boyce was implying that. I have no reason to think it. The quality of the play was the guarantee that no such implication was intended. Or so I think. That, of course, assumes that artistic integrity acts as a guarantor. It's the Lady Chatterley defence on another plane. The art project allows questions that would be impossible elsewhere.

As an artist I have to believe that. I have to believe it or I could not operate in the realm. But one eyebrow is always raised. It is, sometimes, an effort keeping it raised, but there's no choice.


*** As 1066 And All That used to say: Do not attempt to answer this question.


Sorlil said...

There is a passage in Primo Levi's essay on 'Shame' (The Drowned and the Saved) where he writes:

"The 'saved' of the Lager were not the best, those predestined to do good; the bearers of a message. What I had seen and lived through proved the exact contrary. Preferably the worst survived, the selfish, the violent, the insensitive, the collaborators of the 'grey zones', the spies".

I presumed this is what inspired that argument in the drama.

George S said...

Yes, I know.

But it sounds better coming from Levi than from someone outside. I would never dare say that. The writer would have thought deeply about it.

And of course Levi survived.