Today marks Holocaust remembrance day, and we are asked to recall the 12million victims of the Death Camps in Germany & German occupied Europe, a uniquely horrible human horror.
6 million of the murdered were Jewish, with the remainder made up of other groups picked out for annihilation, such as Roma & Sinti, LGBTQ+, the disabled & mentally ill, Socialists & Communists.
Writing in the wake of The Holocaust, the philosopher Theodore Adorno wrote that ‘To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’.
Many interpretations of precisely what Adorno meant by this statement, which is among the most controversial and debated in literary history, are available online. Here’s my tuppence:
Poetry is inherently a positivistic & utopian enterprise. It posits that we can understand and relate to each other’s suffering and joys across time & space, across cultures & continents, across centuries and milleniums. That all humans are one and mean well, and that there will be such humans in the future that will read & recite the poetry we set down today and find wisdom, comfort, & inspiration in it.
The Holocaust put a serious dent in such utopian notions as the ultimate good of human beings, of a common humanity, of a future containing similiar sympathetic beings to ourselves who will cry at what we cry for, & laugh at what we laugh at. The Holocaust ruined, once & for all, the hope of a good human future that can make up for the evils of the human past & present.
There is no redeeming humanity, no way to forgive or recuperate The Holocaust. There is no future in which humans will not have been the species which committed The Holocaust. We are not good, & we will not become good, and as long as we exist atall we run the danger of committing more & more & greater & greater holocausts.
Any poetry written in the wake of The Holocaust without taking on board its moral & spiritual consequences is a poetry written in ignorance, a stupid poetry for a stupid culture which itself contributes to the emergence of further atrocities & genocides by propagation of the false consciousness on which genocides depend.
All poetry which implicitly or explicitly ignores the forces in its own culture out of which the barbarisms of oppression, war, genocide are bound, sooner or later, to unfold, is a barbarian poetry furthering the cause of barbarism.
Much ‘award-winning’ & ‘rave-reviewed’ poetry is, from this Adornian perspective, stupid poetry written by barbarians for ignoramuses, cheerleaded by morons.
With this perspective, Irish poets who ignore such things as the hundred year long annihilatory war of the Irish Free State against Travellers, or the role of Shannon Airport in Middle Eastern genocides, are barbarians willfully helping along these atrocities, according to Adorno.
But Adorno did not mean that poetry could absolutely not be written, just that poetry which ignored the suffering of the oppressed was not poetry atall, but merely polite, decorative, wily propaganda in favour of the crushing of the oppressed.
On the other hand, he later wrote that
“Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream”
I tend to agree with Adorno, although his judgements, made in the afterdark of WW11, seem harsh to us who live so freely and so comfortably in comparision to the oppressed, who suffer too much to write poetry.