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.