November 21, 2006

Seeing the Sacred

The story comes in lovely simplicity and is embodied now in the ritual. Thanks given for a gifts of reprieve, humane encounter, the food of humanity, harvested from grace. The story says Tisquantum, a "native," emerges from the "wilderness," speaks to the Plymouth colonials in English, gives them the gift of harvesting corn, catching eels from the shore, becomes their interpreter and aids in the founding of the peaceful co-existence between the colony and the Wampanoag tribe.

Holocaust historian Omer Bartov recounts the following story of a seemingly grace-laden gesture. In the killing fields of Poland during the German Wehrmacht's push east in World War II anyone Jewish was deemed enemy, rounded up, and put in camps or shot in "actions." (During the war, such atrocities were in a sense hidden. They are still contested by those who wish to keep the reputation of the Wehrmacht safe from the crimes of the SS.) Jewish women in a labor camp outside Kracow are sent on a long march to the showers, bodies ravaged by the abuse, their feet torn apart by the wooden clogs they are forced to wear. Naked and bare the women realized German soldiers were adjacent to the showers, looking away, "perhaps out of embarrassment." Then, Bartov writes:

"one of the soldiers motioned them to come closer. [The women] froze in fear. But one of the young women ventured forward. As she reached the soldier, he took out a first-aid kit and dressed her bloody feet. And so they did with all the other women. This too happened; and although the same soldiers may have had plenty of Jewish blood on their hands, for one sacred moment in that war of genocide and destruction, they reached deep into their own humanity and helped to heal the wounded bodies and souls of a few doomed young women" (emphasis added).

The touch of a humane hand: the scholar writes about it as if we had witnessed something angelic emerging from the wilderness, the mass graves retreating into deep relief of consciousness, our imagination locked only on the scene of touch.

This is a habit of the imagination. Giorgio Agamben’s work on testimony, Remnants of Auschwitz, furnishes a powerful example of just this kind of temptation. At Auschwitz, he reminds us, there were "special teams" of camp inmates called the Sonderkommando, whose task it was to lead fellow Jews into the gas chambers and then dispose of the bodies. Once, during a "break" from this kind of "work"—so grisly as to be wholly unthinkable—there was a game of soccer between the SS men and the Sonderkommando. As if on a village green they played a game while prisoners and guards and the rest of the camp “community” bet, cheered, and watched. What sense can be made of this fact? How do we draw meaning from it? Agamben writes:

"This match might strike someone as a brief pause of humanity in the middle of an infinite horror. I, like the witnesses, instead view this match, this moment of normalcy, as the true horror of the camp. For we can perhaps think that the massacres are over—even if here and now they are repeated, not so far away from us. . . . But that match is never over. . . . It is the perfect and eternal cipher of the 'gray zone,' which knows no time and is every place. Hence the anguish and shame of the survivors . . . . But also hence our shame, the shame of those of us who did not know the camps and yet, without knowing how, are spectators of that match, which repeats itself . . . in the normalcy of everyday life. If we do not succeed in understanding that match, in stopping it, there will never be hope" (26).

For Agamben, “the match” in our time is all but invisible, and as spectators to barbarism we are deeply and continually implicated in what we will not see while focused on our humanity. In order to suggest what the Holocaust might mean, Agamben avoids such temptations, listening to what the survivors, through their witnessing, announce. Given what he calls the “non-coincidence between facts and truth, between verification and comprehension” how are we to understand the function of the survivor who bears the burden of witnessing? His reflections on testimony center around a silence, the unspeakable. This is as much a quality of what happened as it was something imposed upon those who suffered and died, or suffered and survived. This condition of silence is captured in the figure of the Muselmann, or what camp inmates called “The Muslim,” the camp inmate who had crossed an apparent threshold into a living death and who could not therefore grant testimony to their own destruction.
These individuals had become figures, or figuren, the dead who are the complete witnesses to human destruction. Utterly reduced, stripped entirely of humanity, they stood as a mute example of bare, biological life. Primo Levi describes them as the walking corpses present as a staggering realm of non-life. They were, he says, “an anonymous mass, continually renewed and always identical, of non-men who march and labour in silence, the divine spark dead in them, already too empty to really suffer. One hesitates to call them living: one hesitates to call their death death, in the face of which they have no fear, as they are too tired to understand” (Survival in Auschwitz; qtd. 44).

In the middle of the invisible war the "sacred" is seized, therefore, with great fervor and necessity. The cruelties recede for an instant and seem, then, like the decay or disruption of the civilized. At the same time, it is impossible not to think of Tisquantum and the systems that stole him away to Europe where he would learn English before teaching the English to avoid starvation. Or the bloody war of 1675 that followed other patterns of barbarity, and generated the new ones that followed, an emergency without end.