Unwanted Beauty: Aesthetic Pleasure in Holocaust Representation

Article excerpt

BRETT ASHLEY KAPLAN'S UNWANTED BEAUTY: AESTHETIC PLEASURE IN HOLOCAUST REPRESENTATION, URBANA: UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS, 2007

ERIC KLIGERMAN

In her rich comparative study Unwanted Beauty: Aesthetic Pleasure in Holocaust Representation, Brett Ashley Kaplan probes the import of aesthetic pleasure in shifting modes of Holocaust representation ranging from French and German literature and the visual arts to architectural sites in North America and Germany. Rather than contributing to an ethical rupture, Kaplan argues, "beautiful representations can enhance Holocaust remembrance" (2). Contrary to Hal Foster's demonization of beauty, Kaplan joins other scholars who see a resurgence of aesthetic pleasure in literature and art. However, Kaplan goes one step further by reading beauty alongside Holocaust representations. Unwanted Beauty complements other recent works that investigate various aesthetic strategies of witnessing the Shoah in relation to questions of affect. But counter to Weissman's Fantasies of Witnessing and Landsberg's concept of prosthetic memory, where each scholar examines how the nonwitness desires to feel the horrors of the Holocaust, Kaplan asserts that art does not need to terrorize in order to deepen our understanding of trauma. Instead, "'illicit' aesthetic pleasure of unwanted beauty" (3) helps in the construction of Holocaust memory and "deepenfs] [the] search for Holocaust understanding" (20).

Kaplan tracks the development of aesthetic pleasure from its use as a survival tool in the literature of primary witnesses to a device that catalyzes memory of the nonwitness. Following her theoretical discussion of the beautiful and sublime, she probes in chapter 1 how aesthetic pleasure in the works of Celan and Delbo assists in their survival; chapter 2 continues with an exploration of how the transformative powers of beauty in Semprun's novels help him come to terms with his traumatic memory; chapter 3 shows how Jabès's aesthetic allusions to the Holocaust shift the task of witnessing to the reader, who is compelled to uncover poetry's traumatic residue; chapter 4 examines the function of visual pleasure in Kiefer and Boltanski and the degrees to which they aestheticize mourning. Unwanted Beauty concludes with an analysis of the tensions between aesthetic pleasure and architecture as Kaplan rejects critics' tendencies to read monumental aesthetics as fascistic.

Kaplan's introduction presents the ethical implications of rendering the Holocaust into beautiful forms, and she repudiates the three interdictions against beauty most often invoked by critics: Adorno's critique that poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric, the position that the uniqueness of the Holocaust requires a new mode of representation to confront its horrors, and the assumption that beauty is indicative of a particular fascist aesthetics. While scholars such as Lyotard link the Holocaust to the crisis of representation by invoking Kant's sublime and exalting the disruption of the artwork, Kaplan denies the premise that beautiful art is a disservice to traumatic memory. Although her theoretical model would benefit from a closer analysis of what in particular constitutes beauty and sensual pleasure, her incisive, close readings of literary and visual texts help illuminate some of these distinct features of aesthetic pleasure.

Chapter 1 begins by returning to the oft-discussed polemic between Adorno's critique of poetry after Auschwitz and Celan's signature poem, "Death Fugue." But what makes this chapter so compelling are Kaplan's provocative readings of Delbo and Proust. Moving away from Freud's model of traumatic memory, Kaplan foregrounds instead the intricacies of Proust's figure of memory and its associations with sensual pleasure. The invocation of how pleasure evokes memory in Remembrance of Things Past-the nostalgia induced by a madeleine soaked in tea-functions as the template to how unwanted beauty influences Holocaust memory. …