Saturday, 4 April 2009

Irony, Kertész and Arendt

In the course of replying to Dana I begin to think about Kertész, Arendt and irony.

Arendt's irony is bitter and heavy. She had not been interned in a camp and undergone the subsequent humiliations and deprivations. Imre Kertész was and has. There is irony in Kertész too, of course, but it is the very lightness, almost mildness of his irony that underwrites the whole story. And when the semi-fictional boy of his story returns from Auschwitz to Budapest it is his mild-mannered fury at his closest relations who immediately name his experience for him that touches and deeply troubles the reader.

Kertész's subsequent books are written in a different, ever more complex style. They are not easy to read. They are digging a tunnel through the slag-heap of language: laborious, dogged, precise work. It is, I think, his attempt at the redemption of language.

A Jewish school-friend of mine told me how his parents in the Sixties would take some Holocaust memoir with them on holiday so that they could flash it at German tourists on the beach. It seemed an incomprehensible act to me. His family had been in England since the turn of the twentieth century and had suffered no great harm. I thought that an affectation on their part. I could never imagine my parents doing anything of the sort, and they had both been there and done it and got the horrible T-shirt. They didn't buy German goods if they could help it, but that was a policy pursued without fuss, the whole principle all but internalised, without trace in language.

I think I do understand my friend's parents now. The books they flashed were not only accusation but shield. Shield against what? Chiefly against fear, the larger gesture a response to the larger shadows of not directly knowing but fearing.

Two days ago in a PhD supervision I looked down at my little finger and it was covered in blood. There was quite a deep long cut on it. I had no idea how it had happened. Perhaps it was on the edge of a sheet of paper. As soon as I noticed it, it began to sting a little. If someone had told me that they were going to cut my finger and then proceeded to do just that I am sure I would have felt pain, much of it - indeed perhaps all of it - in the anticipation.

Being at another friend's house several Christmases ago, the house full of guests and candles and burning lanterns and paper, I noticed that one lantern had actually caught light. I quickly picked it up, put it in a litter bin and carried it downstairs, thinking nothing, just doing. It was only after that that I imagined the room ablaze. It was only after that that an image, or elements of language, entered the situation. Had I spent the day before imagining a room full of people and fire I would have been too frightened to enter the house.

So Arendt's bitter irony is also a shield. I found the bitterness too heavy when compared to Kertész, if only because Arendt was seeing the restrictions on her movements as 'a refugee' as the magnified shadows of events outside her scope, stuff not directly known but feared.

Before the Holocaust became the Holocaust, safely stowed in the dictionary and the encyclopedia, it was a set of raw, horrible events, experienced by each individual in the present tense. They did not speak of it afterwards because they hadn't the language for it, because they instinctively felt that language was betrayal. You cannot solve by naming.

But there's nothing else. Eventually language will out or else the heart fossilises and dies. So out they come: name and name and name. Language is not a poultice: it is a venture across the thin ice. There! I have reverted to the Eliot lecture metaphor, but it seems peculiarly appropriate in this situation. Arendt jumps up and down on it at the safer edges of the pond. Kertész treads light where it is thinnest.


Julienne Isaacs said...

In his article "Everything That Really Matters’: Social Suffering, Subjectivity, and the Remaking of the Human Experience in a Disordering World,” Arthur Kleinman argues this:

“For many survivor authors, making meaning out of the most extreme and dehumanizing conditions that invert, betray, or unmake the most basic values and moral interpretations is more than hypocrisy. It annuls the very project through which meaning illumines or is illuminated by experience.”

What do you think about that? Is naming something the same as "making meaning" out of it?

I am only beginning to study this sort of memoir but it baffles me. It astounds me how much people fear incarceration, and the awful effects incarceration has on them: justified fear. And more vaguely it baffles me how we are meant to talk about it years later, what the best way to talk about it is.

dana said...

I think Naomi Wolf took a stab at naming these precursor activities in her recent book, about George W. Bush and Germany in the 1930s. Yes, it's very well to describe these events, and maybe even to find a name for them, too, to serve as a warning.

A faculty member at my former workplace, Jason Sommer, has parents who were both survivors, and he writes poetry about them

I remember being on a canoe trip once, float trip as they say here, years ago. I didn't know the people we were traveling with, and we camped after the first day at the mouth of the Gasconade river, where it empties into the Missouri. A talented cook brought her wok and made wonderful Chinese food over a fire. We pitched tents on mud flats studded with cut corn stalks. The next day, on the Missouri, we navigated the fastest water I've ever canoed in, past islands with banks of mud rising 10 feet over our heads, in light rain. The river was close to a mile wide, and near flood stage. A tugboat spotted us at one point. The captain told us over the loudspeaker to keep away from the channel as it preceded us. And the whole way I sat in back, steering and paddling hard, sitting on my life vest, because I was so sore from the previous day (and night) that I couldn't stand the metal seat. Later the sun shone, and we watched the bank go by as fast as if we were in cars. We took out at Washington, Mo., a few blocks from the apartment where one of us, a math teacher, lived. I didn't think much of it at the time, but it was the closest to drowning I've been before or since.

George S said...

I think Kleinman is being far too hard, Julienne. What else are people supposed to do? They have to talk. They have to make meaning.

But they also have to listen - the remaining members of the family of the boy in Kertész's novel were too keen to interpret for him in the terms they knew. That is our problem too. It is the perennial problem of language. And even the survivor authors have to listen: to the sound of the world, to language, to their own brevity in the scheme of things. Listening is most of writing.

Proper literature can make spaces for talking in so talking seems appropriate and true. There are many kinds of literature but the principle is always: make it new. There is no other way of making it appropriate. That's the difficulty.

The problem I had with Arendt was not her fault. I have retrospect and know what was to come. She did not. She only had the fear. But then I cannot help knowing.

That's one of my favourite Chagalls on Jason Sommer' book, Dana. Sounds an interesting poet. But you don't say what you did with your near-death experience, or rather, how it registered afterwards.

dana said...

Yeah, and I dragged on and on, didn't I? It gave me sweaty palms for years after, drowning being an experieince I'm not eager to have. I hadn't thought of it in ages until your burning lantern memory reminded me. I put it in as an echo, saying, yes, I've had a similar experience also leaving me retrospectively afraid.