January 21, 2007


In his 1956 German translation of the narration for the Alain Resnais film, Night and Fog, the poet Paul Celan makes a defining shift in the text of Jean Cayrol. Throughout the film, Cayrol, who survived Mauthausen, uses Resnais's assembled images to draw a portrait of the Third Reich's totalitarian aims, its elimination of enemies. At its close, as Resnais shows in a slowly panning color shot of the ruins of the Birkeneau crematoria, Cayrol asks, if one is right to assume the "old concentrary monster [le vieux monstre concentrationnaire]" were truly dead. Celan shifts the subject of the film from Nazi crimes against its adversaries to the destruction of European Jews when he changes the subject of Cayrol's sentence from concentrationnaire to Rassen-wahn, or race-madness.

As Celan biographer and translator John Felstiner notes, Celan otherwise strictly avoided using the word "race" with its Nazi stain.

That word and its attendant madness echoed yesterday with the widely reported news that Turkish journalist Hrant Dink was shot to death in front of the office of his weekly Turkish-Armenian paper, Argos. Just over a year ago, Dink, of Armenian descent, had been found guilty of "anti-Turkishness" for his insistence on recognizing the genocide of Armenians in 1915. As Robert Fisk reported in The Independent yesterday, Dink had long struggled to reconcile his homeland of Turkey and his Armenian background, working to find a language that would speak to both:

He did not like a line in the Turkish national anthem that refers to "my heroic race". He did not like singing that line, he said, "because I was against using the word 'race', which leads to discrimination."
Those rightfully calling for the recognition of that crime can invoke Hitler as the warning against forgetting. Often quoted is his speech regarding Germany's impending "settlement" of Poland in 1939, wherein he is said to spit out the rhetorical question, "Who after all is today speaking about the destruction of the Armenians?" But there is a deeper and more troubling link between Turkey and Germany. And so Turkey's trouble with its own past came long before Dink's murder or EU pressure to repeal laws forbidding expression and supporting denial. In fact, the European influence on Turkey, which needed notions of difference and discrimination to come into being, can be traced back to the late 19th century when the concept of Turkishness sought its models in the German Volk and its rationale in the writings of Arthur de Gobineau.

Seen from this perspective, Dink's vulnerability seems to have come less from the fact that he publicly espoused an "Armenian position" than the fact that he sought a logic beyond the old "racial" divides and the accumulated rage born of the long silence.

Again, as Fisk points out:
"At the time of his trial, Dink appeared on Turkish television in tears. "I'm living together with Turks in this country," he said then. "And I'm in complete solidarity with them. I don't think I could live with an identity of having insulted them in this country." It is a stunning irony that Dink had accused his fellow Armenians in an article of allowing their enmity towards the Turks for the genocide to have a "poisoning effect on your blood" -- and that the court took the article out of context and claimed he was referring to Turkish blood as poisonous.
His killer's confession turns on perception that Dink had insulted Turkish "blood." The metaphor moves from Dink's figurative usage through the surely fated misreading to the supposedly actual sting of murder-inspiring insult. And so, again, as always, the language of blood continues its mad course.