December 1, 2006

Doing Things with Words II

Seven years after "The Meaning of Working through the Past" Adorno was still tending to the German refusal to engage its genocidal past. In a 1967 essay on a past lost to the present, "Education after Auschwitz," he returns to the plaintive attempt to give depth to the 20th century's categorical imperative: never again, Auschwitz.

With angst at the cultural refusal to suffer "all the anxiety that [the reality of Auschwitz] warrants," Adorno confronts the capacity of language to bolster blindness and refuse a life for the horrors. Study the guilty, he says, for the potential for the second Holocaust, whatever its form, will come through the personality far too adaptable to ongoing systems of barbarity. The culture adapts itself to the very conditions which should unsettle it. One should be anxious, fearful of the systemic murder. Instead it is a matter of forgotten history, a cold truth, a blunt fact.

In the current climate Adorno's description of the personality that so frightens him should ring familiar:

"At any cost he wants to conduct supposed, if delusional, Realpolitik. He does not for one second think or wish that the world were any different than it is; he is obsessed by the desire of doing things, indifferent to the content of such action."

Adorno continues:

"People of such a [manipulative character] have, as it were, assimilated themselves to things. This is conveyed very precisely in the expression 'to finish off [fertigmachen,]' just as popular in the world of juvenile rowdies as in the world of the Nazis."

In Shoah, Claude Lanzmann shows us Franz Suchomel, SS Untersturmfuhrer of the Treblinka death camp. With words absent of affect, shame, or any sense of their confessing potential, Suchomel describes, quite vividly, how people were murdered at his camp. The past is exposed but in words that crush it into oblivion. Suchomel is the embodiment, to an uncanny degree, of the very precision Adorno charted as symptomatic and frightful. Of the women whipped into the gas chambers Suchomel says, in an almost musical, performing flatness:

"And always more blows . . .
Always running . . .
That's how they were finished off.
Yes, the technique. You must remember, it had to go fast. And the Blue Squad also had the task of leading the sick and the aged to the 'infirmary,' so as not to delay the flow of people to the gas chambers. Old people would have slowed it down. Assignment to the 'infirmary' was decided by Germans. The Jews of the Blue Squad only implemented the decision, leading the people there or carrying them on stretchers. Old women, sick children, children whose mother was sick, or whose grandmother was very old, were sent along with the grandma, because she didn't know about the 'infirmary.' It had a white flag with a red cross. A passage led to it. Until they reached the end, they saw nothing. Then they'd see the dead in the pit. . . .

They were forced to strip, to sit on a sandbank, and were killed with a shot in the neck. They fell into the pit. There was always a fire in the pit. With rubbish, paper and gasoline, people burn very well."