(In Place of a) Conclusion
The Unmastered Future
There is no total solution, but only a series of particular ones.Robert Musil, "On the Essay" Grammar does not possess a final tense.Italo Svevo, "An Old Man's Confessions" As we have seen, Yosef Yerushalmi is certain that the image of the Shoah is "being shaped . . . in the novelist's crucible." Although, as I argued earlier, there is little reason to assume that the novel is the uniquely suitable medium for this subject to the exclusion of other modes of representation, no doubt Yerushalmi has in mind the novel's rich legacy of formal experimentation in which the question of how to narrate an extended historical sequence is given both theoretical and structural priority. The depiction of a collision between vast and seemingly impersonal historical forces and a restricted set of vividly particularized individuals is one of the triumphs of the nineteenth-century novel, whose legacy and potential is far from exhausted. But questions of imaginative stance and narrative practice are ultimately much more significant than those of genre, and in order to contest the apocalyptic and backshadowing rhetorics in which the Shoah specifically, and Jewish history as a whole, have been figured thus far, a prosaics of language and cultural interpretation is indispensable. Prosaics, in this sense, would stress that in our culture it is not the attractiveness of extreme risk or the darkest teachings of violence and domination that are repressed. Exactly these issues have long constituted an enormous, if not actually the major, portion of our intellectual conversation about history as well as about the human psyche. What is repressed, though, is the value of the quotidian, the counter-authenticity of the texture and rhythm of our daily routines and decisions, the myriad of minute and careful adjustments that we are ready to offer in the interest of a habitable social world. The celebration of the everyday, prosaic world, with its undramatic practices and values, has been conducted most obviously in the novel, but it occurs as well in poets as diverse as Horace, Auden, and Yehuda Amichai. This is obviously not the place to specify in more detail the contours of a principled defense of the quotidian, but it is not only considerations of space and immediate emphasis that make me resist the inclination to attempt such a description here. My understanding of how a coherent defense of prosaic ethics ought to proceed would be directly contradicted by the kinds of global and abstract formulations that are part of any systematic overview. The internal coherence and governing impulses of our habitual experiences and practices are too particular, too closely interwoven with changing contexts and circumstances to be caught up in and persuasively accounted for by universal categories. The kind of ethics for which I am contending can better be enacted than formalized, and any adequate description must itself contain sufficient local depth and resonance to make vivid the lived world in which particular actions take place. In The Blue Book, Wittgenstein criticizes our "craving for generality" with its attendant "contemptuous attitude towards the particular case." He cautions us against trying to find a general concept behind all particular instances, saying that in logic, "the contempt for what seems the less general case . . . springs from the [erroneous] idea that it is incomplete." In attempting to find a flexible and undogmatic basis for ethical distinctions, the need to ground one's thinking in a deep respect for particular cases is even greater than it is in formal logic, since it is only through close attention to a plurality of specific instances that the terms of a prosaic ethics can be articulated without becoming self-contradictory. Musil, who shared many of Wittgenstein's concerns, makes what is a closely related distinction when he has Ulrich say, "There is no ethical program, but only an ethical condition." This is why literature, consisting, as it does, only of particular cases, is such a powerful repository of the kinds of exempla that the search for an "ethical condition" requires. Rather than a series of moral imperatives, it is more pertinent to point to novels like The Man Without Qualities, Remembrance of Things Past, or Confessions of Zeno, to uncategorizable works like Montaigne's Essays, to prose meditations / memoirs like Survival in Auschwitz, or indeed to many of the other texts mentioned in the course of this book, for a vital engagement with ethical questions. It is notoriously difficult to articulate these concerns without falling into a kind of restrictive and unself-questioning Arnoldian high moralism. But one important distinction is that contrary to much of what is considered "advanced" thinking in contemporary criticism, I believe that the role of theory should only be to illuminate practice, never to dictate it. For example, it is precisely the scrupulousness of Primo Levi's care for the specifics of individual experience and his reluctance, even when confronting the enormity of Auschwitz's daily horrors, to offer moralizing generalizations about human nature or history, that help make his writings about the Shoah so luminous. But we can also hear echoes of an analogous care in other texts, including, at the level of historico-philosophical argument, Amos Funkenstein's few but compelling pages on the Shoah. Funkenstein provides one of the rare examples of steadfastly prosaic reflections on the Shoah, arguing that no matter what the situation, "human life and the incommensurable value of each individual" must be regarded as absolute. He denies the significance of the schism "between authentic and inauthentic existences" fundamental to thinkers like Heidegger, and insists that "from an ethical point of view every life is authentic, a value in and of itself, not interchangeable with any other human life, a mode sui generis ." To respect what Funkenstein calls "the integrity and worthiness of each concrete individual life, however lived" is fundamental to prosaics, as is the rejection of the belief that it is a "crisissay, war and destruction, . . . [which] 'calls' man to his true self."Yet, as we have seen, the division between authentic and inauthentic lives is as basic to Badenheim 1939 or to Zionist attacks on the false consciousness of assimilated Jews as it is to Heideggerian-inspired existentialism, and the faith that moments of crisis and extreme stress will reveal the truth about human nature is almost constitutive of all writingwhether historical or literaryabout the Nazi genocide. However, what literature is particularly able to do is either reinforce or contest the patterns of thinking that nourish such a coercive understanding of our existence. Invested with the right proportion of passion and lucidity, a work of fiction can combine an absolute respect for the historical facts with a sense of the need for new narrative models within which to understand and articulate those facts. Moreover, the novel, in Walter Benjamin's understanding, is marked by a meticulous attention to the "incommensurability" and "perplexity" of individual existence, and the need to keep in mind that incommensurability is all the greater, just as its concrete realization is all the more difficult, when the historical fate of a large majority of the narrative's characters is a bureaucratically administered mass murder. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century Russian literature, to invoke a powerful supporting model, always kept alive a sense of the moral accountability of the act of writing, and in both prose and verse it managed to create a heritage of permanently renewed "tales of the tribe" in which the trials and "perplexity" of unmistakably individualized figures was immediately understood as emblematic of the nation as a whole. From Dostoevsky's Notes from the House of the Dead, to Akhmatova's cycle of poems "Requiem," to Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago, Russian authors and their audience never lost the certainty that prose fiction and poetry were equally indispensable for interpreting the horrors of their history. For twentieth-century Jewish history, and especially for the Shoah, narrative histories, survivor memoirs, films, and poetry can all participate along with the novel in telling the communal tale, and each will find itself pressed by the demands of the subject matter to extend the responsiveness and responsibilities of its own idiom. In this way, it is possible to imagine a series of texts (certainly no single one could suffice) that would begin the task of shaping our view of the Shoah in new ways. In fact, of course, the project of trying to write about the Shoah began in the ghettos of Eastern Europe simultaneously with the Nazi genocide itself. But particularly after the war, ever since the full horror of the death camps has become part of our general knowledge, the increasing availability of so many kinds of narratives, expressed in every medium, testifies to a common recognition of how significant the attempt at giving expression to the Shoah is for our culture. It is also an important reason why I am less distressed than are many others at the inevitable vulgarizations that have accompanied such an outpouring of narratives. It is true that these debased versions can displace and preempt more morally and intellectually responsible accounts, but since learning how to tell the story is in itself almost as significant as communicating a series of historical facts, even the more appalling lapses into exploitation and facile mythologization can have the salutary effect of discrediting certain tones and devices, thereby forcing more scrupulous artists to rethink their own premises.