'But here, this experience will turn out to have been crucial, and massive, invading everywhere, devouring everything ... It's the experience of radical Evil.' J. Semprun, Literature or Life (New York: Penguin, 1997), 88.
'It is not memory itself which is essential but the reading, the interpretation of the facts of memory. The work of memory consists not at all of plunging into the past but of renewing the past through new experiences, new circumstances, new wonders or horrors of real life.' E. Levinas, 'Memory of a Past Not Gone Away: Interview with F. Ringelheim', Revue de L'Universite de Bruxelles, no 1-2, 1987, 13-14, trans. E. Fine in E. Sicher, Breaking Crystal: Writing and Memory after Auschwitz (Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1998), 185.
In discussions about the possibilities of writing after the Holocaust the notion of the caesura has proven to be a key concept. Generally, it is defined as a radical break that necessitates a re-thinking of the relation between past, present and future, as well as completely reconstituting ideas about evil and what it is to be human. At first, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, Adorno saw little role for art: 'The aesthetic principle of stylisation ... make[s] an unthinkable fate appear to have some meaning; it is transfigured, something of its horror is removed. This alone does an injustice to the victims ...'(1) He suggests that style, structure, all those features that can be defined as literary, have the tendency to attenuate the metaphysical horror that lies at the heart of the caesura: they make it comprehensible and bearable. The nature of the caesura can be further eroded by the continuum that formal elements establish with the traditions of existing literature. This scepticism of Adorno's about the possibility of representing the radical break that was the Holocaust did, however, alter. He came to recognize that 'Not even silence gets us out of the circle' and moved on to assert that 'It is now virtually in art alone that suffering can still find its own voice, consolation, without immediately being betrayed by it ... paradoxically ... it is to works of art that has fallen the burden of wordlessly asserting what is barred to politics.'(2) In the post-Holocaust world art might be the place where the enormity of the suffering, that was one of the true marks of the caesura, could be truly adumbrated and recognized.
Discussion about the potentialities of art beyond the caesura continues to set the terms of philosophical and critical debate within which writers to-day are seen to work. In recent years, the Holocaust as a caesura has been most extensively considered by two French thinkers, Jean-Francois Lyotard and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe. Like Adorno, Lyotard believed that it 'demonstrated irrefutably that culture had failed'.(3) It had immobilized aesthetic expression in 'untruth' and revealed the absurdity of understanding history as a 'liberating project'.(4) The Holocaust could not be rationalized as one event amongst others and, hence, its effect as a caesura was to have produced 'a debt' from which European humanity could not be freed.(5) In Heidegger and 'the jews' Lyotard is particularly anxious to show that all in the post-war world are implicated in the events of the caesura and are under an obligation to come to terms with their radically disorienting impact.(6)
Lyotard's conception of the caesura also laid stress on other factors. First, he argued that Auschwitz represented 'the moment of irruption of a new art'.(7) The administering of mass death like an industrial production line, the exploitation of human bodies as waste material, and the treatment of the by-products 'set the stage [for] what is beginning to become, and has already become art in the modern West, that is, technology'.(8) The moment of caesura marked the emergence of the contemporary - what elsewhere he terms the post-modern. 'The technico-economico-scientific megalopolis in which we live', he writes, 'employs these same ideals of control and saturation, of memory directed towards goals of efficiency.'(9) A further distinguishing feature of his conception of the caesura is what he saw as its 'off-stage management'.(10) The Extermination was a 'mise-en-scene', behind the shield of war, and this was characteristic of the history of European anti-Semitism, which repeatedly 'forgot' the tragic fate of the Jews. This carelessness ensured the repetition of pogroms, massacres and persecutions that made the Holocaust the dreadful end-product of an historical 'series'.(12)
Lyotard's caesura, therefore, is a perspective that includes awareness of the specific 'innovatory' aspect of the Holocaust, as well as the place it held within a tradition of European anti-Semitism. Auschwitz was both a 'differend' - an historical event that signifies more than what occurred there, as well as a culmination of European history to date. This definition of the caesura de-legitimizes previous discourse by posing 'a question of art ... another art'.(13) Lyotard repeatedly stresses the excess of the Holocaust, which continually confronts us with the need to put into language what cannot be acceptably 'phrased', so that representations of it will, inevitably, incorporate conflict, deferral and indeterminacy. Like Adorno, he is suggesting that such art will be 'an idiom for the unrepresentable', the place where a foreshadowing of the terrible suffering that took place can occur, in achieving this such art will be 'entirely different'.(14)
Lacoue-Labarthe's discussion of the Holocaust as a caesura is, like Lyotard's and Adorno's, marked by the identification of Auschwitz as 'a site of dissociation', but one which for him opened up 'a quite other history'.(15) He too argues that the disposal of Jewish bodies as waste material in an industrial clean-up operation signified that at Auschwitz technology had overwhelmed art, what occurred was 'a degradation of catharsis'.(16) However, his conceptualization of the caesura does not arise, as it does with Lyotard, from an understanding of it as the culmination of a tradition of anti-Semitism. Lacoue-Labarthe's stress upon its 'absolutely hyperbolic' nature, rather than posing an issue about representation, sets it apart from all that has happened before; it presages a different future in which 'beginning and end' will no longer rhyme.(17) He appropriates the caesura, as it was defined by Holderlin in his discussion of Greek tragedy, and he uses it as a metaphor for the disarticulation of history which happened at Auschwitz.(18) But whereas in Hegel, Holderlin and Heidegger it was the Germans, or the Volk, who were the tragic heroes, Lacoue-Labarthe argues that at Auschwitz the caesura was reconfigured and it was Jewish experience that became authentically tragic.(19)
Lacoue-Labarthe, therefore, sees the Extermination not as Lyotard and Heidegger saw it, as a consequence of other developments of which the Jews were victims, but as a 'pure event' that forever interrupted history and closed off 'all possibility of history'.(20) Only a 'nullity' remained, a 'fractured temporality', in which humanity was condemned to 'wander[ing] beneath the Unthinkable', lost in an abyss founded upon the absence of meaning that is a consequence of this terrible 'hiatus'.(21) The 'caesura-ed man literally does not rise up again, does not recover.'(22) In its motiveless excess the Extermination is of a different scope from any other genocide, so that it is not 'comparable with counter examples'.(23) Lacoue-Labarthe's definition of the caesura does not dwell upon deferral and contradiction. There is no equivocation in his statement that 'the Extermination is for the West the terrible revelation of its essence', or that we are 'the definitively caesura-ed heirs' of it.(24) The role of fiction from such a perspective is to represent to the West its own condition and that of humanity within it.
The ongoing nature of many of these issues can be seen in a recent debate in the pages of The Jewish Quarterly in a discussion entitled 'Writing the …