Ein Mann wohnt im Haus der spielt mit den Schlangen der schreibt--Celan.
Yesterday, I posted a very lengthy (by our blogging standards) piece about the role(s) the purported contrast between understanding and explaining the Holocaust can play in the arts, ethics, and social science. It was framed as a response to a two-part review by Mark Lilla. I was careful not to motivate my disagreement with Lilla in political terms. In fact, I avoid mention of "politics," "Israel," "evil," "Hitler," (etc). Interestingly enough, three out of four published comments on the piece thus far (two by fellow NewAPPSies),* focus on political abuses of the Holocaust in Israel or Stateside (or elsewhere); these comments seem to target primarily what they take to be the political and legal implications of Lilla's position.
Among such presentations and self-presentations are works that we call 'art'--fiction and non-fiction alike. My post tried imperfectly in critical response to Lilla's approach to come to term with some of the complex (metaphysical, aesthetic, and ethical) commitments that go into such presentations and self-presentations without losing sight of possible forms of knowing, including social and historical science(s). Even if one denies the intrinsic significance of any of this, given that there are non-trivial politial ramifications, some space to discuss these commitments and the way they function and structure presentations is a non-trivial part of philosophical reflection on politics.
To give an example of what I have in mind here: given that Lilla is both concerned with the legacy of Heidegger's philosophy and the the nature of being 'at home' after the Holocaust, I assume that Celan's poetry (and its engagement with Heidegger) is part of the relevant frame of reference of his discussion and my response. In Todesfuge, Celan takes us into the realm of necessity--there is no sign of alternative possibility. He avoids the "sentimental journey" that Lilla abhors in the context of the Holocaust (although Celan thematizes it [e.g., the repeated "goldenes Haar Margarete"].
In the poem it is an open question if Celan allows the Holocaust, however understood (and the poem contributes to such understanding), to be explicable. This is not because Celan is a philosopher-poet and lacks the tools of a historian/social scientist. Part of the issue here is that in the poem Celan calls attention to the fact that the perpetrator(s)'s dream [e.g. "der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland"] become part of social reality not just in the poem's represented world, but also in the poem's self-presentation. That is, in order to make sense of the Holocaust, the poet also knowingly re-activates, in part, the venom that tempt scribblers and masters alike. In doing so, the poet keeps the Holocaust in the extended present.** But that means that a full explanation of the Holocaust also has to inscribe into these explanations the poet's poem and the activated venom. Once one recognizes the madness of such an enterprise, one might well be tempted by Lilla's stance (that is, treat the Holocaust as fundamentally inexplicable). I won't go over that again, here I just claim that if you take poetic presentations and self-presentations seriously, Lilla's stance is a live option.
It is tempting to repond: the Holocaust is past; now...now, we're just dealing with memories, political usages of these memories, and, perhaps, various legal issues (in dealing with stolen properties, compensations for injuries), etc. It is the case that for a variety of purposes it is very legitimate, even required, that we treat the Holocaust as past. One may even sympathize especially with the view, even thought it is not mine, that in some contexts it is even better to forget [HT Ori Belkind] the Holocaust in order, say, to make a healthier zionism possible or to give due weight to non-Jewish victims of, say the last eighty years.
To impatiently insist, however, that the Holocaust is at bottom past and that its lessons are now available to be learned, is to be a party in a metaphysical dispute and to legislate one's metaphysics and practical ethics toward presentations and self-presentations that ought, perhaps, be better seen as opportunities for engaged, further reflection.
*I removed quite a number of comments that engaged in name-calling against the comments.
** Obviously, thiere is contestable metaphysics here.