Every advance in research that adds a new complication to our understanding of what happened on the Nazi side, or on the victims’, can potentially threaten our moral clarity about why it happened, obscuring the reality and fundamental inexplicability of anti-Semitic eliminationism.--Mark Lilla, NYRB, 21 November.
In a two-part article, which is a review of two films and some books, Mark Lilla presents us two competing approaches to the Holocaust: one -- represented by the author Hannah Arendt -- attempts "to find a schema that would render the horror comprehensible and make judgment possible;" the other -- represented by the film-maker Claude Lanzmann prior to the film (The Last of the Unjust) under review -- embraces a "refusal to understand." Without wishing to obscure the differences between Arendt and Lanzmann as presented by Lilla, the point of aiming and obtaining understanding, or not, is in some sense moral on their views. (I return to this below.)
As the passage above reveals, Lilla's position also embraces the "fundamental inexplicability," of "anti-Semitic eliminationism" by which he appears to mean the Holocaust of the Jews.* But in Lilla's approach the inexplicable has no stated moral purpose. In fact, in the passage above, Lilla offers us an asymmetry in the possible consequences of obtaining new facts, insights, even "understanding" of a historical event: (i) in the moral sphere they can undermine (or fortify) "moral" judgment; (ii) in the epistemic sphere, they leave untouched what is fundamentally inexplicable. To be sure, in the moral realm certain forms of historical explanation are presupposed; in particular, one needs a functional or teleological account why something happened before one can obtain "moral clarity" or not. But Lilla's position also involves the further claim that even with some such "understanding," an event can remain fundamentally inexplicable. We are not told much about what remains elusive such that a functionally or schematically understood event is still not just a mystery, but at bottom a mystery.
But the fact that Arendt may have deployed a too partial, if not mistaken, schema does not undermine her general aims:
Arendt believed that the Nazi experience could be understood, and had to be, since only through understanding can “we come to terms with, reconcile ourselves to reality, that is, try to be at home in the world.” This would mean reconciling ourselves, in some sense, even to the Holocaust. “To the extent that the rise of totalitarian governments is the central event in our world,” she once wrote, “to understand totalitarianism is not to condone anything, but to reconcile ourselves to a world in which these things are possible at all.” Lanzmann refuses to understand the Holocaust, let alone make peace with the world that made it possible.--Mark Lilla (NYRB, 5 December).
On this view, the aim of understanding is to become at home in the world. That is, we need interpretive schemata that help us to understand the behavior of historical agents such that show how their actions are possible for beings fundamentally like us. Once this kind of understanding is achieved, reconciliation with the world (not necessarily with the historical agents) is available. Note, two features about this position: (i) it is compatible with Lilla's position that embraces the Holocaust as fundamentally inexplicable. And (ii) if one has a schema that posits, say, social forces as fundamental explanatory posits that makes agents significantly unalike from us (zombies, austere homo economicus, etc.) or that abolishes agents altogether, then one may have a social scientific explanation of some sort but, crucially, not an understanding that makes our reconciliation to the world we are supposed to inhabit as agents possible.
Is to be at home in our world a desirable end? In Lilla's piece, the early Lanzmann is quoted in various ways in order to motivate a rejection:
All one has to do, perhaps, is pose the question simply, and ask, “Why were the Jews killed?” This shows its obscenity. There is an absolute obscenity in the project of understanding. Not understanding was my iron law during all the years of preparing and directing Shoah: I held onto this refusal as the only ethical and workable attitude possible…. “Hier ist kein Warum”: this, Primo Levi tells us, was the law at Auschwitz that an SS guard taught him on arriving at the camp: “Here there is no why.”--Lanzmann (quoted in Lilla).
Lilla explains that "what disturbs Lanzmann about standard historical treatments of the Final Solution is that, in trying to comprehend its chronological development, they unwittingly make it look inevitable, given the “factors” involved." (Lilla) Now, it's true that once a "chronological development" is embedded in a causal or functional/teleological explanation, it has a tendency to make the chronicled events appear inevitable; that's just what it is to be part of a causal relation.**
One might think, in addition, that despite the long history of philosophical efforts to show otherwise, once one goes down this necessitarian route, one, thus, renders moral responsibility of agents impossible. But one need not be a reader of Levi, to see that this can't be what Lanzmann has in mind. For, the absence of teleological explanation ('here is no why') is, in fact, the law as taught by the SS guard and accepted by Levi (and Lanzmann). On this view, at Auschwitz, necessity rules. The stance of Levi, who knew his Spinoza, is, in part, that even if a philosophy of necessity is espoused by a perpetrator, the victims can still appeal to it to make moral evaluation. In engaging with the Holocaust, Lanzmann explains that he adopts this "iron law" of necessity as a way to preserve "the only ethical and workable attitude possible." He does not state what he means by the "workable," but presumably we can infer he means, workable for his film-projects. Lanzmann need not council this stance, say, to a therapist.
Levi's Spinozism is evident in Lanzmann's claim that “the worst crime, moral and artistic, that can be committed when making a work dedicated to the Holocaust is to consider it as past.”--Lanzmann (quoted in Lilla). For, something is, (as long) as it has effects (see, e.g., Ethics 1p36). While some metaphysicians and historians may object, on this view in virtue of its ongoing effects, the Holocaust is part of a temporally extended present. By viewing it as past, one, thus, denies or at least circumscribes these effects. One can grant Lanzmann his "moral" point, while still allowing that some artist may one day find it necessary to efface the Holocaust.
Even if one grants Lanzmann his moral point, one might wonder why he claims that there is an "absolute obscenity in the project of understanding." I do not think that he has in mind the risk that by entering into the perpetrators's perspective on their aims, we end up exculpating them. Rather, if we enter into the perspective of the perpetrators we are (amongst other things) unavoidably exposed to their pleasures that are, in part, properly understood as pornographic. That is, Levi and Lanzmann both recognize that the perpretrators' schemata involve pleasing passions that deny their victims even minimal human dignity.*** We may say that it is part of Arendt's undeniable achievement to render Eichmann and to avoid such obscenity. But it turns out that in doing so, Arendt embraces the Weberian myth that bureaucrats are to be understood as rule-followers and this is, indeed, too partial an understanding.
Let's return to Lilla, who is less interested in the nature of such obscenity. Rather, he insists that "it can never be emphasized enough that the Holocaust is not an acceptable occasion for sentimental journeys. But here it’s made into one, which produces weird, cringe-inducing moments for the viewer." (Lilla). Now, Lilla does not explain why treating the Holocaust as an occasion for sentimental journeys is not "acceptable" even if these (let's stipulate) can produce cringe-inducing moments. For one cannot deny that movie producers will produce a lot more sentimental journeys in which (to quote Doris Day) memories are renewed in order to return home because that's what the market rewards. We the audience tend to desire sentimental journals; while not noble, it is not illicit. Sentimental journeys from Sterne to Doris Day involve some escapism because the homes we wish to return to are not just imagined, but child-like. (To be clear: that's a very different home than the one Arendt wants to reconcile us to, although Heidegger, too, is not above such sentimental escapism.)
While some may agree with Lilla's good taste, they may note that Lilla is not in a position to object to such escapism because his embrace of the "fundamental inexplicability" of the Holocaust appears as a far worse species of escapism. This charge is not entirely unfair to Lilla because he does not explain why he takes the Holocaust to be at bottom unintelligible.
The only hint Lilla gives is in his discussion of Arendt desire to "find a schema that would render the horror comprehensible and make judgment possible, in the end led her astray." Now, at second sight, it seems that Lilla thinks the very idea of making the horror comprehensible is part of the problem here. Undoubtedly, any schema will be partial, and this may well be problematic in lots of ways. But it does not follow that it is morally better to have no schema and leave the horror qua horror alone. For, as Spinoza teaches, something is not fully real if it cannot be understood. That is, keeping a distance from such horror is, in fact, (as Arendt notes) Eichmann's stance (and many others in our extended present(s)); not knowing is often a balm for possibly guilty consciences.
*From context, it is unlikely he merely means to be claiming that certain psychological states (anti-Semitic eliminationism) are inexplicable.
** What a "standard historical treatment" is, is itself subject to considerable controversy. I suspect many historians would object to the idea that their task is to offer either understanding of agents or a chronological development.
*** Both risks are explored in careful detail in Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello in part in response to Paul West's The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg. As Lilla notes, Levi did explore this obscenity (while having a clear sense of who is victim and who is perpetrator) in his writings: “obscene or pathetic figures…whom it is indispensable to know if we want to know the human species.”