Sunday, March 28, 2010

Life Isn't Beautiful by Cynthia Ozick

Since starting Writing the Holocaust in April 2009, one of the questions that my co-editor Charles Fishman and I have been interested in examining is how the Holocaust is represented. As part of this discussion, Charles posted his essay "Some Cautions on Writing Holocaust Poetry" and discussed questions of representation with poet Louis Daniel Brodsky in both Part 1 and Part 2 of the interview we recently published here.

Recently in the March 15, 2010 edition of Newsweek, novelist and essayist Cynthia Ozick published a compelling article called "Life Isn't Beautiful" about how the Holocaust is depicted.

Here are the opening paragraphs of her essay. The remainder is available online at Newsweek:

Life Isn’t Beautiful
Not all Holocaust art is authentic. In fact, much of it is fraudulent.

By Cynthia Ozick | NEWSWEEK

Written in Pencil in the Sealed Railway-Car

here in this carload
i am eve
with abel my son
if you see my older son
cain son of man
tell him that i

—Dan Pagis (from the Hebrew)

In "Commitment," his 1963 essay, the philosopher Theodor Adorno remarked that writing poetry in the deadly wake of Auschwitz would be "barbaric." Since then, "after the Holocaust, no poetry" has become a kind of overriding moral mantra, with "poetry" encompassing not writing alone but standing for art in general. Yet the making of art cannot be stopped by a powerful phrase, however renowned or revered: plays, novels, poems, songs, symphonies, films, paintings, sculptures, all stream from a source that will not be stilled. Imagination demands its rights: to impress, to move, to feel, to heighten, to interpret, to transmute.

And to lie.

Consider a handful of movies that profess to render the Holocaust. "Life Is Beautiful," a naive, well-intentioned, preposterous, painfully absurd, and ignorant lie. "Inglourious Basterds," a defamation, a canard—what Frederic Raphael, writing in Commentary, calls "doing the Jews a favor by showing that they, too, given the chance, coulda/woulda behaved like mindless monsters," even as he compares it to "Jew Süss," the notorious Goebbels film. "The Reader," like the novel it derives from, no better than Nazi porn, and drawn from the self-serving notion that the then most literate and cultivated nation in Europe may be exculpated from mass murder by the claim of illiteracy. As for Schindler's List, its most honest moment, after its parade of fake-looking victims, comes at the very close of the film, and in documentary mode, when the living survivors appear on screen.

So where can the truth be found? In Anne Frank's diary? Yes, but the diary, intended as a report, as a document, can tell only a partial and preliminary truth, since the remarkable child was writing in a shelter—precarious, threatened, and temporary; nevertheless a protected space. Anne Frank did not, could not, record the atrocity she endured while tormented by lice, clothed in a rag, and dying of typhus in Bergen-Belsen. For what we call "truth" we must go into the bottom-most interior of that hell. And as Primo Levi admonishes, only the dead went down to the Nazi hell's lowest rung....


The entire essay is available online at Newsweek. Please click here.

Ozick's most recent book is a collection of stories called Dictation: A Quartet.

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