The Caesura of the Holocaust in Martin Amis's Time's Arrow and Bernhard Schlink's the Reader

By Parry, Ann | Journal of European Studies, September 1999 | Go to article overview

The Caesura of the Holocaust in Martin Amis's Time's Arrow and Bernhard Schlink's the Reader


Parry, Ann, Journal of European Studies


'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. …

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