Saturday, 22 August 2015

Answers to questions about the Holocaust, violence and the arts

These questions were part of scholarly research and were sent to me by email. I have the questioner's permission to reproduce this part of the questionnaire she sent me.

How have you or your family been directly affected by the events of WW2?

All my mother's family except my mother were murdered. She herself was incarcerated in two concentration camps (Ravensbruck and Penig)*. I think her suicide in 1975 was indirectly linked to that time. My father's father was killed in Auschwitz. His mother and sister found shelter in a protected house in Budapest though that was raided in late 1944 which was the occasion my mother was taken away (some of this is covered in the long poem 'Metro' 1988). My father served in Hungarian labour battalions serving just behind the front line in the Soviet Union. He was one of only three survivors of his own battalion. 

How do you think current attitudes towards the Holocaust, and the way that historical material is presented, can help us to avoid it happening again?

As survivors die our relationship to the events is bound to change and already has changed over the years. The best book on that is Eva Hoffman's 'After Such Knowledge' which is essentially about the second generation - my generation - and their perception of their parents' fate. The whole question is now tangled up with the situation in the Middle East and Israel in particular. Those who dislike Israel play down or question the Holocaust. There are, as you will know, books on this such as The Holocaust Industry which suggest that the idea has been exploited by some Jews for reasons of their own, and particularly by the USA and Israel. I myself disagree with that hypothesis as a general truth though there are probably instances where it has happened if only because there is always a range of human behaviour and there is no reason why Jews should be more saintly than anyone else. As to the question of historical presentation, all history is a mixture of presentation and misrepresentation, of proposition, adjustment, and re-adjustment on a groundwork of selected facts or available facts as recorded. Despite everything it could happen again. There are those who deny it happened the first time but would quite like it to happen now. That won't go away. 
What are the possible ethical implications of referencing the Holocaust when attempting to communicate concerns about prejudice today?

It is too easy to do that, just as it is too easy to leap to cries of Hitler! and Nazi! We all dislike prejudice, including the prejudiced. Prejudice, we think, is what the other person feels. Societies lay down legal norms and establish definitions and descriptions. We operate by those generally and modify those laws and norms as we go along. Instances of prejudice can be legally defined, described and argued over. Where people claim parallels with the Holocaust these should, I feel, be put forward and examined as neutrally as possible. Every moral claim can be 'weaponised' to put it in a particular contemporary way but no moral claim should be dismissed before being examined.

How do you feel that the context in which a message is delivered affects to response of the viewer - have we become de-sensitized to images of brutality?

The shock of brutality depends on the context. Violence of one sort or other is an aspect of human survival. As with prejudice, societies develop definitions, descriptions, and laws that are under constant revision. We are desensitised to some brutality not to others. Most of the time our senses adjust and readjust to forms of communication. A fist fight in an old Western worked within a convention that would be ineffective now. Are the viewers of the latest equivalent violence more brutalised than the viewers of Tom Mix and John Wayne? I doubt it. Messages, media, presentations, are just one part of a mass of other factors, general and individual. Images of brutality can be very powerful in one context and almost insignificant in another.

What are your thoughts about the role of the artist in society who deals with dark narratives?

It is not the darkness of the narrative but the capacity of the artist that is important. A great artist can paint nothing but cups and saucers yet the complex and ambivalent interaction of light and dark and, indeed, of cosmic distance, may well be present in such an image. Similarly, an artist dealing with 'dark narratives' may be trivialising the whole and turning it into melodrama or propaganda. Goya's greatest work deals with terrible human actions, especially in the etchings, but the early paintings convey the potential of such darkness in apparently quite playful scenes. Our attitude to artists dealing with dark narratives may also be influenced by how we perceive the artist's relation to the darkness. Goya is never smug about his own distance from the dark event. That makes a considerable difference.

*I discovered the film of the relief of Penig a few years ago. It was less complete than my link at that stage and without commentary. I kept wondering whether I was actually seeing my mother in it but I could not be sure. The Penig Film sequence of poems from The Burning of the Books works on the notion that history is a film director, Clio, who flits from festival to festival and that the Penig film is a discarded cut (among many others) from her blockbuster epic

1 comment:

Poetry Pleases! said...

Dear George

I think that most human beings are prone to prejudice whether we admit it publicly or not. I've just watched 'The Occult History of The Third Reich' on You Tube. It's fascinating - if you have a strong stomach. There are persistent rumours that Hitler managed to escape to Argentina and lived into his seventies. It is true that many thousands of Nazis found refuge in Central and South America after the Second World War.

Best wishes from Simon R. Gladdish