Norman Finkelstein: On "Holocaust"

That Reznikoff's world is one of endless wreckage becomes all too clear in his long poems, Testimony and Holocaust. In both, "wreckage upon wreckage" are hurled at our feet. The poems, particularly Holocaust, could be regarded as the endpoint of Objectivism's testimonial strain, as the subjectivity and presence of the poet virtually disappears, replaced by the dispassionate court records from which the texts are drawn. Like the angel of history, we can only stare, aghast at the sight of human violence and depravity as we are blown into an ever-worsening future. Yet this is not to say, as does Robert Alter, that "this is an extended exercise in masochism conducted under the cover of an act of testimony."According to Alter, "History, it would seem, had become a hypnotic vision of unrestrained murderous impulse for the poet: the ultimate breakdown of his whole problematic relation to the past is starkly evident in the flattened landscapes of disaster that take the place of round imagined worlds in these two long poems of his old age." Granted, Reznikoff's relation to the past is problematic, but Holocaust does not constitute a "breakdown." It is, I believe, a confrontation with history set at the limit of Reznikoff's art:

The bodies were thrown out quickly

for other transports were coming:

bodies blue, wet with sweat and urine, legs covered with excrement,

and everywhere the bodies of babies and children.

Two dozen workers were busy

opening the mouths of the dead with iron hooks

and with chisels taking out teeth with golden caps;

and elsewhere other workers were tearing open the dead

and looking for money or jewels that might have been swallowed.

And all the bodies were then thrown into the large pits dug near the gas chambers

to be covered with sand. (Holocaust 46)

Holocaust offers so radical a challenge to the conventional category of poetry (or, perhaps, of the aesthetic) that in reading it we must put aside most of our assumptions about literary texts and historical representation. Drawn entirely from records of the Nuremberg and Eichmann trials, Reznikoff’s poem demands a sort of religious silence from its readers, in much the same way that witnessing the event of the Shoah itself demands silence of those in the presence of such testimony. As George Steiner says in "Postscript" (1967), his essay on witnessing and representing the Holocaust, "The best now, after so much has been set forth, is, perhaps, to be silent; not to add the trivia of literary, sociological debate, to the unspeakable." By contrast, Steiner is critical of the dramatized, but still largely accurate, account of events in the French study Treblinka:

But because that evidence is mastered by the literary talent of the writer, because a narrative persona full of distinct rage and stylistic force interposes between the insane fact and the profoundly exciting economy, hence order, of the book, a certain unreality obtrudes. Where it is represented with such skill, intricate modulations affect the hideous truth. It becomes more graphic, more terribly defined, but also has more acceptable, conventional lodging in the imagination. We believe; yet do not believe intolerably, for we draw breath at the recognition of a literary device, of a stylistic stroke not finally dissimilar from what we have met in a novel. The aesthetic makes endurable.

In composing Holocaust, Reznikoff seems to intuit that "The aesthetic makes endurable," and yet given his understanding of the testimonial role of poetry, he is still obliged to produce a text in which what Steiner would call "a narrative persona"--that is, the voice of the poetic subject--faintly lingers. The order of the sections of Holocaust moves in a loosely chronological fashion, from "Deportation" and "Invasion," through "Massacres," "Gas Chambers and Gas Trucks," and "Children" to the last sections, "Marches" and "Escapes." The poem ends with an account of the Warsaw ghetto uprising and the escape of six thousand Danish Jews to Sweden with the help of their gentile fellow citizens. In other words, Reznikoff proceeds from the beginning of this saison d'enfer, to its darkest moments, to the new beginning of a period of struggle, hope, and recovery. Furthermore, a horrible irony can sometimes be heard just below the surface of the narration, as in this last stanza from the section called "Entertainment":

On Sundays there was no work and Jews would be placed in a row:

each had a bottle on his head

and the S. S. men amused themselves by shooting at the bottles.

If a bottle was hit,

the man lived;

but if the bottle landed below,

well, the man had it.

The ironic resignation of that "well" in the final line can only belong to a narrative voice that cannot lose itself entirely in the univers concentrationnaire.

Reading Holocaust throws us back on the rest of Reznikoff’s poetry with a renewed sense of his cultural predicament. As we have seen, identifying with Jewish history means suffering the loss of Jewish tradition. Compelled to bear the historical burden of Jewish identity without the inner strength provided by the continuity of Jewish faith, secular Jews like Reznikoff experience the intertwined processes of secularization and assimilation as a full-blown crisis of transmission.


Title Norman Finkelstein: On "Holocaust" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Peter Quartermain Criticism Target Charles Reznikoff
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 25 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication The Objectivist Nexus: Essays in Cultural Poetics
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