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After Auschwitz

Theodor Adorno once argued that ‘writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’ and this line of thought has profoundly marked many — how can we sing, how can we compose, how can we engage in art, or the performance of beauty, after something so terrible, so dark, so full of death?  This type of thought has not only challenged the humanities and the more ‘artistic’ expressions of human creativity, it has also challenged our core beliefs: belief in God after Auschwitz is barbaric.  Or so the saying goes.
Now, personally, I have always found it a little odd that Auschwitz should challenge us to this degree.  After all, death-dealing tragedies, even massive genocides that claim millions of lives, are nothing new.  Therefore, to assert that Auschwitz overthrows all of our faith in beauty or goodness or a god who is both beautiful and God, suggests to me that we never truly confronted the issue of suffering and death.  This is further verified by the observation that those who have encountered terrible sufferings are often some of the most artistic and faith-filled people in the world.
Be that as it may, I want to go somewhere else with this post.  Keeping in mind the words from Adorno, read the following quotation from Vinoth Ramachandra’s book, Subverting Global Myths.  While discussing the flight to science — chemistry and physics — practiced by Primo Levi and others who were seeking an escape from the ideology of fascism (circa WWII), Ramachandra writes the following:

what Levi and his friends underestimated was the power of fascism and other political ideologies to co-opt the “clear, distinct and verifiable” methods of chemistry and physics.  Scientists played a leading part in the initiation, administration and execution of Nazi racial policy.  The Wannsee Conference, which decided the final solution of the Jewish problem, was attended by many scientists, and the extermination of Jews in the death camps was largely carried out by medically trained personnel.
Consequently, perceptive writers such as George Orwell sharply criticized the fashionable postwar denigration of the arts and humanities in favor of a “scientific education”.

Therefore, it seems to me that, after Auschwitz, WWII, and the rest of the 20th-century, the question we must ask ourselves is strictly related to the value of science.  On the German side, WWII gave us the scientific and medical technology necessary to wipe out an entire category of people.  On the American side, WWII gave us the scientific and military technology necessary to wipe out life as we know it.
If anything, Auschwitz teaches us the importance of faith, poetry, and art, because it reveals to us the result of an unchecked scientific mentality.  Odd, then, that references to Auschwitz should be used to challenge our faith in God, when Auschwitz itself was the result of a techno-scientific paradigm.
Consequently, we should be a little more than cautious around those who wish to argue that scientific advance holds the way out of our current sufferings.  We have seen the end result of this struggle (Kampf), and should have no desire to replicate it.

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  1. Reminds me of your favourite psalm: “How can we sing songs of the Lord while we’re in a foreign land?” – the initial sentiment is that singing poetry after the fall of Jerusalem is barbaric… but of course, this is actually a line in a song, perhaps the most moving song in the psalter…

  2. Your post brought to mind mental images of the two opportunities I had to tour Auschwitz. As one of the most disturbing trips in my life, I will never be able to escape the mental images of the death chambers and crematoriums. But more than that, I cannot get the pictures out of my head which lined the walls of the barracks where Jewish individuals were held. Each one stared intently into the camera, their expression a void, as if they understand completely their fate.
    While I walked out, I noticed a stand which had several books being offered for sale. One of the books was a book of poetry collected from those who spent time in work/death camps. They were all quite moving. After I finished reading them, I passed them on to a friend of Jewish descent, as I felt he would appreciate them as well.
    On a totally unrelated note, I’ve encountered the idea of “post-shoah” (after the Holocaust) theology in some of my readings. Basically, the assertion is that theology was deeply affected by that tragic event, and is thus unalterably changed.

  3. I visited a German concentration camp when I was a kid of about 7 or 8, and one particular photo has stuck in my mind ever since – it was of a group of Jewish people, lined up and facing a soldier with a rifle, who was killing them one by one. One of the Jewish men was looking at the camera with an expression that, to me, looked like a clown – he had a look of complete hysteria, like his face didn’t know how to express the unmitigated terror that was going on inside: I was so astonished by this that I’ve never forgotten it, and for me it represents the utter indescribable horror that went on there.

  4. Perhaps, although I am a little wary in that Ramachandra’s quote (who I seem to remember hearing a lecture from at Theological college) specifies scientists rather than science. I understand that there is no clear demarcation. Your overall point is, I think, right. But it is certainly not a new story but surely it is power and the desire for its perpetuation, not science per se, that is responsible both for genocide anf the dehumanisation of war in general.
    There is I think something to the ideal of science, like other forms of academic theory, being unecumbered with bias and politics. Of course, it is not light that but but we can dream.
    On a related note, responses to auschwitz such as you’ve highlighted IMO display something akin to ethnocentrism. Yes, genocides happen but not to us, not here, not in Enlightenment’s domain.

  5. Richard:
    Yes, I don’t want to simply replicate the supposed antagonism between religion and science. So, to be clear, my thoughts aren’t so much related to ‘science… unencumbered with bias and politics’ but are related to science as a religion, or as a controlling narrative.
    Good point about the ethnocentric aspect of our responses to Auschwitz.