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Poetry and Barbarism: Adorno’s Challenge

nach Auschwitz ein Gedicht zu schreiben, ist barbarisch

— Adorno

In the English speaking world, Adorno is famously thought to have said that poetry after Auschwitz was impossible. In point of fact though, he actually said something perhaps even more problematic that “writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”.

Not surprisingly, these thoughts sprung from a deep sense of survivor’s guilt. Adorno often had dreams/hallucinations that his life post 1944 was a dead man’s dream that he had in fact perished in the war. His anguish was very real and is essential to understanding his life’s work.

The question for us however is whether or not Adorno was correct: was writing poetry after the Shoah an impossible, barbaric task?

Certainly any artistic production after the Shoah would have to be different.

Thinking deeply about the events that led to one of the great tragedies of Western civilization would lead to the gradual realization in the works of Todorov, Amery, Wiesel, Levi, Gide, Badiou, Finkielkraut, Sartre, Bauman and, of course, Adorno that something was generally and dreadfully wrong with that very same civilization; and that the German case was but an extreme example of a general trend.

Some of the famous commentators mentioned above felt that the fault variously lay with science, bureaucracy, instrumental reason, and capitalism. Others felt that the West, particularly through its experience with colonialism, generated a culture of genocide. Yet, whatever the ultimate reason or reasons for the Western urge to discipline, degrade, and finally destroy the other in their midst, one could argue that after Auschwitz many more people in the West became aware of this terrible destructive tendency and decided to take action.

Indeed, in a profound sense, the self-criticism of the West that gradually took place after the war could be said to have directly culminated in the events of 1968. Here after many years of painful self-examination a significant part of a whole generation of Westerners were to reject the past and in an act of Dionysian purification seek out new doors of perception and ways of being in the world.

Culturally, they were in part successful in that they were able to change the field of discourse having to do with the other whether black, gay, migrant, woman, Jew, Palestinian, or any other outsider or stranger. However, on the level of revolutionary praxis, the record is not so clear as hierarchic structures of domination and power lubricated by a global capitalist exchange system continues to prosper and thrive.

So what about the poets?

After Auschwitz, poetry perhaps must face two directions simultaneously. The elegiac and the hopeful.

With its mournful lyre attuned to the past, it should be mindful of the heinous crimes and helpless victims of the past.

With its inner strength for renewal, it should offer up paeans to the possible.

Thus, in the poetry of today, a critical self-consciousness of the past entwined with a hopeful Arendtian vision of regeneration could reopen a space for the rebirth of a new and vital civilization instead of an endless traumatic repetition of the barbaric.