The Splinter In Your Eye Is the Best Magnifying Glass
by Richard Leppert
"To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric."
"The need to lend a voice to suffering is a condition of all truth."
— Theodor W. Adorno
The challenge to reference the Holocaust in art is troublesome in the extreme; atrocity and genocide defy representation in any form, and perhaps aesthetic form especially. A few examples of art that seem to meet the challenge come to mind, but really only a few: Goya's horrific painting, May 3, 1808 (1814), of the firing-squad massacre of Spaniards rounded up at random by troops of the French occupation and his astounding series of etchings, The Disasters of War (1810-20), and Picasso's Guernica (1937), of the Nazi air bombardment of a Basque village in a gesture of support of Franco—and a test run of the Luftwaffe for what was soon to be inflicted elsewhere in Europe and beyond.
In music, the challenge to represent genocide is still greater, and not least on account of music's non-representational character. Again, few examples are easily named, with the pertinent exception of Schoenberg's Die Überlebende von Warschau ("A Survivor from Warsaw," 1947), a kind of oratorio (and a brief one: only 7:26 duration, scored for narrator, men's chorus, and orchestra). Lawrence Siegel's Kaddish, like Schoenberg's piece, fundamentally attempts the impossible. In so doing it is bound to come up short, as it literally must, to the extent that the human mind ultimately cannot wrap itself around the concept of genocide, let alone its actuality, whether described in a history book or put into aesthetic form. That said, not to attempt to engage genocide's reality portends something far worse. What can be salvaged from the horror of genocide are gestures that might help to prevent its seemingly endless recurrence. Art—Kaddish—has something to say about this, and one of the better ways to understand how is to look briefly at the work of Theodor W. Adorno (1903-69).
Adorno, a German-Jewish philosopher, aesthetician, musician, and sometime-composer, lived in Los Angeles in the mid-1940s after having escaped from Germany. In California, he produced a book of aphorisms called Minima Moralia, its title a play on a treatise sometimes attributed to Aristotle, Magna Moralia ("Great Ethics"). Adorno's small book, written in the shadow of world catastrophe, developed from the principle, as he put it, that "When everything is bad it must be good to know the worst." The subtitle of Minima Moralia is Reflections from Damaged Life. Despite the book's pessimistic appraisal of late-modern circumstance, Minima Moralia is fundamentally a book about hope and social redemption warranted not least by looking squarely at what's wrong—by seeking to know, rather than to ignore or to choose to forget. All of this brings to mind Siegel's Kaddish. "Knowledge," Adorno said, "has no light but that shed on the world by redemption." There is an obvious spiritual valence to this remark, though Adorno was speaking not of religious belief as such but of social commitment.
The somewhat paradoxical title of my essay is a line from Minima Moralia. Embedded in a larger discussion, it's an invocation to the hope for social redemption through knowledge, and the determination to act upon knowledge for the greater good: to do so by seeking out what is in most urgent need of address. For Adorno, as stated and restated throughout his deeply moving book, the greatest urgency demanding attention is human suffering, the result of social injustice, both its everyday manifestations and in the form of general catastrophe.
"The splinter in your eye is the best magnifying glass": Adorno employs a visual metaphor. If the eye sees, it can see better with the aid of magnification. But he shatters the magnifying glass and a shard lands in the eye. The metaphoric painful result provides access to a specific form of knowledge: the knowledge of suffering. Adorno is concerned that we want to know, that we look rather than look away, that we face the pain that lies outside ourselves. Adorno is inviting a commitment to be willing to see the misery and the abiding injustice that infects the modern world. For him, the hope for a general social redemption arises from knowledge and from the uses to which knowledge is put. Above all, he once put it, "it is the sufferings of men that should be shared," 1 a responsibility, not coincidentally, that constituted for him a principal function of art, as he later pointed out by way of a rhetorical query: "But then what would art be, as the writing of history, if it shook off the memory of accumulated suffering?" 2 Great art, Adorno insisted, stares history directly in the face and speaks the unspeakable—and sometimes the unbearable.
At its best, art functions as a pervasive reminder of something better that neither it nor we can properly name but which we nonetheless can imagine. In this regard, Ernst Bloch, a mentor and friend to Adorno, once suggested that art's "utopian function [was] the unimpaired reason of a militant optimism." 3 For Adorno, art with any claim to truth estranged itself from the here and now, because merely to aestheticize (to make "pretty") present reality perpetuated a lie. Art worthy of the name vehemently opposes false clarity. "Art is able to aid enlightenment," Adorno writes, "only by relating the clarity of the world consciously to its own darkness." 4 It sees through that which is delivered to us merely as comfort food for the soul—a false comfort that he perceived as a disguise, a mask behind which hid inhumanity. For Adorno, art posited an "otherwise" to the present, and it did so, not least, by remembering the past. As he once put it, in an essay on art and social commitment, "Works of art . . . are instructions [for] the production of life lived as it ought to be." 5
There is no perfect art in an imperfect world, and that notably includes art that Adorno deeply admired—for example, Schoenberg's A Survivor from Warsaw. Here's the problem: Art renders indescribable suffering aesthetic. Such is not the least challenge to the representation of atrocity. As he put it: "The so-called artistic rendering of the naked physical pain of those who were beaten down by rifle butts contains, however distantly, the possibility that pleasure can be squeezed from it." 6 (Consider in this regard the 1997 film Life Is Beautiful, a movie that demonstrates this problem.)
Adorno regarded art as the repository for the faint semblance of a social happiness otherwise unavailable; at the same time he insisted that art could not provide what society denied. He recognized as well as anyone what stood in the way of the realization of utopian actuality, just as he insisted on the responsibility to work tirelessly toward that end. Art, as he saw it, wasn't going to make utopia happen, but art could help us understand not only what stood in the way but also what utopia's truth might look like. "Art," as he put it, "is the ever broken promise of happiness." 7 Great art, Adorno suggested, stares history directly in the face and speaks the unspeakable—and sometimes the unbearable; it does so for the sake of a promesse de bonheur, a promise of happiness. "The promise contained in the age-old protest of [art]," he once wrote, is "the promise of a life without fear." 8
Kaddish squarely faces the virtually unrepresentational horror of the Holocaust. The challenge Lawrence Siegel has set for himself—and, indeed, for us—is to put this history into a form that draws something hopeful from its hopelessness: less for its victims, who are beyond rescue except in our memories, and more for all who come after them. If art can accomplish just this much, it has without question accomplished quite a bit.
That mundane living is lacking life is an ordinary, indeed clichéd, experience. Art, at its best, engages precisely this lacuna—not in such a way as to alleviate the lack but to make its reality at once undeniable and potentially productive of something better. Art is the stuff of insight, just as insight is the prerequisite for any substantive engagement with history. Art, at its best, does not decorate social antagonisms, but highlights them; it helps to render the visibility of suffering insistent. Accordingly, the pleasures of art are to be had, Adorno argued, not in an untroubled prettiness that under better circumstances we might be able to both sustain and to afford with a clean conscience; instead, the true pleasures of art are properly located in the means—whether "pretty" or ugly—by which art never lets us forget that the most beautiful artifact of human activity is the promulgation of universal justice.