Friday, 27 January 2012
Holocaust Day 3
Your material is your sense of the world as it impinges on your memory and imagination. I can never completely separate memory and imagination and doubt they can be separated, except in the most naked yet vital way through research and record. But since research inevitably includes memory we are aware that, on each successive level, the imagination adapts and rewrites it, until it becomes metaphor, since it is metaphor we are constantly seeking if for no other reason that it offers meaning, connection and end.
There may be certain proprieties involved in the use of material. I have never written about conditions inside concentration camps. I don't feel I have at the right of appropriation. It could be argued that we do have such rights, and exercise them at each moment of our lives, but if I don't feel them I can't write out of them. Maybe my obligation to my parents prevents me. Maybe it is the sense of obligation to my mother that prevents me joining the rich seam of Jewish society that she rejected while being, in historical terms, part of it. I am certainly part of it. If this were 1944 it would be no use if my mother really were Lutheran, I'd be off on those cattle-wagons like the rest. Part yet not part.
In response to my poet friend who told me that the working class had suffered more than the Jews, I might have answered, 'It may be so, but no one has tried to wipe out the working class, to eradicate them entirely.' I didn't answer him then, being too taken aback, wondering if I had been guilty of something, making a false claim, 'playing the Holocaust card', turning to advantage a misfortune than was somehow, really, a kind of paradoxical fortune. And, most importantly, his idea that maybe that misfortune was nothing much after all. You're talking about my mum and her entire family there, I might have said. And didn't.
And maybe it isn't the great 'misfortune': no greater misfortune than that suffered by gypsies, gays, Armenians, and those innumerable tribes of people throughout the history of the world. The others were also mentioned and referred to at yesterday's event. It wasn't a Jewish love-in, the elevation, fetishisation and celebration of a victimhood with which Jews might blackmail the world into doing them special underhand favours. The fact was there were many present there who had lost people, were there because of lost people, or knew directly of lost people. No-one said - because this wasn't the occasion, because it never really is the occasion - that the Holocaust was not a single event in the lives of Jews, simply the biggest in a long series. Everyone there will have felt that deep in the bones, but no-one spoke of it. They don't. It's just a sense of the world.
Not even particularly a Jewish sense, by which I mean the sense born of an instinctive knowledge that one is fated to live in a constantly vulnerable minority that has survived on its wits. It may be just that Jews are likely to feel it at times like this. I mean the Elizabeth Bishop sense of the world as an icy sea in which knowledge is historical, flowing and flown. That sea freezes not only Jews. No-one survives in that sea. Jews are nothing special there.
In fact they're nothing special in the universe, the universe being the way it is. They are just like everyone else, only perhaps, at times, a little more so. The chief lesson one learns from the Holocaust is that it isn't a possession one can dispose of for credit, but a taste and an apprehension of the icy sea that washes at our shores every day of the year. This day we remember it, on other days we get on with the business of living.