December 12, 2006

Tracing Our Little Hands

In a 21st century work on the Holocaust, the categories Catastrophe and Meaning (eds. Moishe Postone and Eric Santner, Stanford UP, 2003) are brought together to form a title and announce a structure. The destruction of European Jews retains its power precisely because it is "an impasse to understanding." It is a catastrophe immune, in many ways, to meaning; thought in ruins. On the other hand, one cannot but attempt to engage it, to think it, to stare into what it is that happened. In our world that happened, and in many ways, continues.

And so too the fascination continues. Inquiry into such horror evolves along with the shifts in its cultural appearance. As generation after generation makes use of this wretched past for its present necessities, scholars, in turn, try to lend meaning by focusing ever-increasingly on what has happened to the Holocaust since it ended: the politics of its representation and the climates within which it is called upon, rejected or denied, diminished in memory or isolated in monument, exalted for its singularity or turned into a minor variation on an immemorial theme.

The impossibility of being content with these meanings leaves thought with its sorry, endless task, something touching on the pitiable. Among the heaped ideas in disciplinary piles, there is either failure or a false conceit. Something is denied either way. There is often the recourse to a weak positivism, reflexive cant, or the tired expressions of learned truisms. Some secure structure lends sanctuary. Without such protections and assumptions there is only the briefest and barest rest at each station.

Those earnestly searching for a calculus to measure the immeasurable can become rightfully exhausted by the Shoah's refusal to yield to the contrivances and narratives, however small. Surely there should be some steadfast formulation, some assuring form for the labor.

"Auschwitz: the impossibility of rest," writes Sarah Kofman in Smothered Words. Kofman's father was killed in Auschwitz. She twice recounts that he was "buried alive" for trying to observe the Sabbath while in the camp. Un-mournable. No rest for him there, no rest for her melancholy. She first approaches this loss that cannot be acknowledged through her readings of Blanchot and Anthelme. In a later work, the autobiographical Rue Ordener, Rue Labat, she takes a different route, one closer to her own being, a being haunted by the history suggested in this self-image:

Rue Ordener, Rue Labat, written just prior to her suicide, is a book saturated with references to writing, drawing, and the demands of shaping and tracing memory. One moment poignantly recalls her father during the war, before his deportation. He sends letters to his lone surviving brother, who was then in Yugoslavia. "When he wrote to him from Paris," Kofman says, "my father drew our little hands on the letters as signatures." Much later, when Kofman's sister travels to Israel,

"she was able to retrieve some photos of my father that we didn't have any longer and to see his letters written in Yiddish with the drawings of our hands. We had forgotten that tender gesture of my father's, and it came back to me then, all of a sudden, that during the entire war I myself had never ceased drawing my hands."

That incessant tracing, making and remaking both one's own hands and holding to the learned gesture itself, is the only option for keeping such a past at hand.

Fittingly, the architect Daniel Libeskind calls on this idea to suggest how he came to imagine Berlin while designing the Jewish Museum there. Wanting to engage the trauma in the public space of today (Germany as it is, a nation inhabiting innumerable places where people lived and died and from which they were torn during the Holocaust), Libeskind situates his museum along the lines of a virtual grid of Berlin. This grid is the imaginable city of the past and the critical interpretation of its present. He writes of conjuring this place:

"I decided to look at the hand of Alfred Doblin, a handprint which he made of his left hand in the 1920s, and in it I saw all the lines which describe Berlin as he saw it. . . . One can see the lifelines of Berlin in that hand: the love lines, the lines of death, the lines of work. That left hand of Doblin's Alexanderplatz is, I believe, the real matrix that continues to hold out the promise of that place."

The promise for the place is an evolving response, including the experience of meeting, as if by turning a city corner, the absence, the loss, and the memorial possibilities within an imagination that decides to linger, to dwell, to see through the restless layers of burial. This is the labor of acknowledgment. It is never finished. That is the task at hand. With each step one may encounter what Libeskind calls the "void," the physical space of trauma, traversed through touch, like a repeated trace of what can never be repeated. Such a reach toward the past is bound to feel insufficient and rightfully anxious.

The small gesture of hands: the image of a pencil moved along paper to serve as a signature for a particular date, a particular assemblage of word and wish during the worst circumstances of separation and fear. What divides the individual acts from those repeatable realms where meaning dwells, where memory binds them together, where present writes the past? "In a line of writing," Giorgio Agamben suggests, "the ductus of the hand passes continually from the common form of the letters to the particular marks that identify its singular presence, and no one, even using the scrupulous rigor of graphology, could ever trace the real division between these two spheres."