A Matter of Writing Life and Death

December 1, 2002 Topics: Society Regions: Western EuropeEurope Tags: AcademiaThe Clash Of CivilizationsTory

A Matter of Writing Life and Death

Mini Teaser: Primo Levi's biographers offer no improvement on the original, whose unabridged voice we need to heed more than ever.

by Author(s): Michael P. McDonald

Then there is "Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art", an exhibition recently hosted by the Jewish Museum in New York City. As the title suggests, the show featured 13 contemporary conceptual artists-some of whom are descended from families of Holocaust victims-who use Nazi era imagery to "invite the viewer to identify with the perpetrators." The "art" consisted of such puerile constructions as a series of faux lego boxes with pictures of miniature concentration camps made out of the children's play blocks, and phony Zyklon B gas canisters decked out in the signature colors and logos of luxury-goods stores such as Tiffany's and Chanel. Such meretricious kitsch is what we have come to expect of the art scene and is easily dismissed. Not so the catalogue that accompanied the exhibition.

As to be expected, the catalogue evinces a self-congratulatory tone that enthuses both about "a groundbreaking exhibition . . . filled with difficult, challenging art" and "the courage" of the show's artists, curators and organizers. One reads the by-now stock phrases about "multivalent meanings", "transgressive modes of presentation" and the necessity of crossing "taboo confines" by means of "taboo images." Lacan, Foucault, Bataille, Adorno, Horkeimer, Derrida-all the Academy's beloved continental thinkers-dutifully put in an appearance at some point. The result is that an asinine ("Were Nazis beautiful?"), condescending (these artists are out to "complicate the secure divide between good and evil that Western culture so comfortably assumes"), or offensive ("By teaching the Holocaust we have made it boring") remark appears on almost every page. And yet, somehow, every now and then, a bit of honesty breaks through:

Work about the Nazi and Holocaust era is part of a larger body of contemporary art that reflects today's historical amnesia and how current events have rewritten what we had assumed to be historical gospel. . . . Distance from historical events and divergent attitudes among different generations are clearly central to the changing and contentious definitions of experience and memory. . . . Until these artists came along, representing the Holocaust playfully had been taboo. Now it seems that a new generation of artists can relate to the Holocaust only [sic] in the mode of play.

One of the writers in the catalogue refers to ours as "a post-Holocaust culture", the suggestion seeming to be that we are "post" not in the chronological sense of "coming-after", but in a psychological sense of being "past" or "over it." Another of the catalogue's contributors complains that there has been too much rational information and education about the Holocaust and opines, incredibly:

In the face of that overdose, 'ignorance' is needed. An ignorance, not in terms of information about the Holocaust but of everything that stands in the way of a 'felt knowledge' of the emotions these events entailed.

Well, not all emotions; just those of the perpetrators.

Over the years, Levi developed what he called an "allergy" toward the pop Sixties sociology that facilely equated Italian factories with Nazi camps. He believed that graffiti of the sort "fiat=Auschwitz" only degraded the survivors' experience. It is not difficult to know, therefore, what he would think of a statement made by Tom Sachs, the creator of "Prada Deathcamp", another work in the Jewish Museum show, to a New York Times reporter: "I'm using the iconography of the Holocaust to bring attention to fashion. Fashion, like fascism, is about loss of identity."

Finally, consider "Body Worlds", an exhibition that consists of human bodies that have been flayed, preserved and put on display. The exhibition, which has attracted 8.5 million visitors since it began touring in 1996, is currently a hit in London and will be travelling soon to the United States. A German anatomist by the name of Gunther von Hagens is the brains behind the exhibit, having perfected a novel means of exhibiting cadavers by replacing body fluids with plastic. Keep in mind that the bodies, though they look like models, are those of once living, real human beings. One of the "exhibits" is of a pregnant woman with her womb exposed to reveal a seven-month-old fetus. According to one account, she is "put in a position with one hand behind her head that makes her look like she is posing for Playboy. But her chest is slit down the middle, and you see the curled-up fetus in her womb."

Von Hagens argues that his displays provide unique insights into the human body; he says that he is out to "enlighten people by means of aesthetic shock" and claims to be "honored" by what little controversy his freak show has generated. Of course, he has also enriched himself in the process, making, by some estimates, more than $100 million. In a sane world, von Hagens would be prosecuted for desecrating corpses, but for the fact that he has received prior legal consent from the deceased to exhibit them in this way. Too bad for von Hagens that Dr. Kevorkian is in jail; otherwise the twisted American doctor could supply the bodies directly to his German colleague without having to wait for them to die of natural causes.

Again, there is little doubt how Levi would react to "Body Worlds." When an exhibition of antique torture instruments arrived in Turin in the 1980s, Levi visited it for La Stampa. Thomson reports that seeing the leg-locks, thumb-screws and the like, "all fetishistically displayed in Turin's Museum of Fine Art, Levi felt disgusted. His review of the exhibition . . . evinced a saeva indignatio worthy of Dickens." Levi excoriated the curators for their opportunism and castigated the European collectors who had loaned the instruments to make money.

Thanks to such efforts as The New Republic's "Idiocy Watch" in the wake of September 11, we know how blasé many of our leading intellectual luminaries have become about mass murder. Yet movies and exhibitions of the kind referred to above make clear that such moral obtuseness is not the exclusive preserve of highbrows and that the moral transformation Burleigh described in Germany is again at work in the West. Just as fascist writers such as Ernst Jünger in Germany and Gabriele D'Annunzio in Italy did much to deaden moral sensibilities by aestheticizing violence in the years leading up to World War II, so too contemporary gallery owners and hip young film makers (one thinks inevitably of Quentin Tarantino) are doing much the same to us today. Which helps explain why it has become increasingly hard for many people to keep the plain hideousness of planned mass murder in sharp focus. To a shocking extent, even September 11, 2001 has already been archived, aestheticized and taken variously to the bank. And yet the shrug-of-the-shoulder reaction to this type of horror is a terrible thing and represents a radical defeat of human sensibility.

À propos of September 11, Walter Laqueur has observed that "there has been a cult of sacrificial death in battle in the history of most peoples all through recorded history", but it was Nazism that, in modern times, gave "strong impetus to this cult." The Holocaust was the central revealed truth about that criminal regime, and Levi is the indispensable writer for understanding it. Any attempt to keep a modern form of humanism afloat will, as Tzvetan Todorov wrote recently, "far from ignoring Auschwitz and Kolyma, take them as a starting point." To help to retain our humanity, to avoid a recrudescence of the brutalization of manners that occurred in civilized nations during the last century, and to prevent seemingly fixed moral thresholds from evaporating before our eyes, we can do no better than to read Primo Levi. His biographies, on the other hand, we can skip.

Essay Types: Book Review