Magazine article The Spectator

Only Art Can Make Us Human

Magazine article The Spectator

Only Art Can Make Us Human

Article excerpt

The Holocaust seems, sometimes, not only to silence art but to silence thought, and a fortiori to silence thought about art. People quote Theodor Adorno's celebrated dictum, `Writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric', without investigating further, grateful to him, for once, for saying something they think that they understand and can even agree with. Yet, as the Holocaust recedes in time, it becomes the object of ever greater interest on the part of historians, journalists and hardly categorisable meditators on the human condition. And it's no longer true that artists don't dare to approach it in their art, even if the results are always questionable or worse.

In fact, before the extent of the Holocaust was widely known - and possibly thanks to that - Thomas Mann made a stupendous effort, and almost literally killed himself in the process, to understand how the great nation to which he had belonged had contrived, in an astonishingly short space of time, to descend into bestial barbarism. That is a major question amongst the many that are often lumped confusedly together, and Mann was only able to deal with it with all his resources of obliquity in Doctor Faustus, the great novel which is nonetheless fundamentally flawed, since it attempts to deal with the fate of Germany, and those whom the Germans destroyed, by drawing elaborate parallels with the history of music in the 20th century, especially with the development of the 12-note system. Not only did that alienate Schoenberg, who paranoiacally saw himself as the Faust figure who makes his fatal pact with the devil; it has alienated many readers since, to the point where they give up on what is, for all its weaknesses, an heroic attempt to understand the area where civilisation, at its most refined, borders on utter inhumanity.

Thomas Mann employs a bumbling narrator, the old-fashioned humanist Serenus Zeitblom, PhD, to tell the story of his friend Adrian Leverkuhn's diseased genius, his descent into madness and, most audaciously of all, to describe with astounding brilliance Adrian's fictional (of course) compositions. The last of them, a great symphonic cantata, The Lament of Doctor Faustus, has as its aim to `take back the Ninth Symphony', that totemic work in which Beethoven gave what many have considered humanity's most sublime message of hope. In the Lament, Beethoven's masterpiece is reversed, the celebrations of the opening overcome by the demonic unleashing of something so terrible that hope is obliterated, and the work fades into near silence, a Mahlerian effect but on a cosmic rather than a personal level, with only a solo cello which, Zeitblom finally claims, gives voice to `the hope beyond hopelessness, the transcendence of despair'.

Later artists have had a fuller, more hideously documented record of the Holocaust to confront, and have mostly drawn back, too appalled to make art to deal with it. Many of us non-artists have a strong suspicion of the sheer notion of Holocaust art, as we previously did of art about Hiroshima, on the obvious grounds that it is a virtual act of blackmail, defying us not to be moved when so vast a suffering is invoked. That still remains one of the biggest obstacles, I believe, to attempting to create a work on the subject.

When it is overcome, it is usually by artists who would have done better to respect their limits. In recent years, the novel The Reader by Bernhard Schlink was first celebrated as an extended meditation on cruelty and victimhood; Peter Hall wrote that `it objectifies the Holocaust and legitimately makes all mankind responsible' and even so dedicated an insister on the unspeakability of the Holocaust as George Steiner wrote glowingly of it. …

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