User account

Slavoj Žižek: »Description without a Place«
»Description without a Place«
(p. 141 – 161)

On Holocaust and Art

Slavoj Žižek

»Description without a Place«
On Holocaust and Art

Slavoj Žižek discusses the aestheticization of the Holocaust. Contrary to the much-debated arguments which call into question the presentability of the unpresentable, Žižek defends the idea that an »aestheticization« of the Holocaust trauma is imperative. It is not poetry that has become impossible after Auschwitz, but prosa – because it runs the risk of reducing the Holocaust to documentary description. A minimum of aesthetic sensibility will prevent artistic approaches to the Holocaust from being perverted into aesthetic pleasure.

The famous last thesis of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus – »Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.« – involves an obvious paradox: it contains a superfluous prohibition, since it prohibits something which is already in itself impossible. This paradox truthfully reproduces the predominant attitude towards the aesthetic representation of the holocaust: one should not do it, because one cannot do it. Jorge Semprún’s Spanish-Catholic origin plays a crucial role in his reversal of this prohibition. Elie Wiesel said that there can be no novel about the holocaust: a text which pretends to be that is either not about holocaust or it is not a novel. In contrast to this claim that literature and the holocaust are incommensurable, Semprún argues that the holocaust can only be represented by the arts: not aestheticization of the holocaust, its reduction to an object of documentary report is false. Every attempt to reproduce the facts about the holocaust in a documentary way neutralizes the traumatic impact of the described events – or, as Lacan, another atheist Catholic, put it, truth has the structure of a fiction. Almost none of us is able to endure, even less to enjoy, a snuff film showing real torture and killing, but we can enjoy it as a fiction: when truth is too traumatic to be confronted directly, it can only be accepted in the guise of a fiction. A direct documentary about the holocaust would be obscene, even disrespectful towards the victims. When used in this way, the pleasure of aesthetic fiction is not a simple escape, but a mode of coping with traumatic memory: it is a survival mechanism.

This is why we need to correct Adorno’s famous saying here: it is not poetry that is impossible after Auschwitz, but rather prose. Realistic prose fails, where the poetic evocation of the unbearable atmosphere of a camp succeeds. That is to say, when Adorno declares poetry impossible (or, rather, barbaric) after Auschwitz, this impossibility is an enabling impossibility: poetry is always, by definition, ›about‹ something that cannot be addressed directly, only alluded to. One shouldn’t be afraid to take this a step further and refer to the old saying that music comes in when words fail. There may well be some truth in the common wisdom that in a kind of historical premonition the music of Schoenberg articulated the anxieties and nightmares of Auschwitz before the event took place.

How are we to avoid the danger that the aesthetic pleasure generated by fiction will obliterate the proper trauma of the holocaust? A minimal aesthetic sensitivity tells us that there is something false about a big epic novel on holocaust, in the style of the great 19th century psychological realism: the universe of such novels, the perspective from which they are written, belongs to the historical epoch that precedes holocaust. Anna Akhmatova encountered a similar problem when, in the Soviet Union of the 1930s, she tried to depict the atmosphere of the Stalinist terror. In her memoirs, she describes what happened to her when, at the height of the Stalinist purges, she was waiting in the long queue in front of the Leningrad prison to learn about her arrested son Lev:

›One day somebody in the crowd identified me. Standing behind me was a young woman, with lips blue from the cold, who had of course never heard me called by name before. Now she started out of the torpor common to us all and asked me in a whisper (everyone whispered there), »Can you describe this?« And I said, »I can.« Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face.‹ 

The key question, of course, is: what kind of »description« is intended here? Alain Badiou pointed the way: not a »realistic« description of the situation, but what Wallace Stevens called »description without place,« which is what is proper to art – not a description which located its content in a historical space-and-time, but a description which creates, as the background of the phenomena it describes, an inexistent (virtual) space of its own, so that what appears in it is not an appearance sustained by the depth of reality behind it, but a de-contextualized appearance, an appearance which fully coincides with real being, or, to quote Stevens again: »What it seems it is and in such seeming all things are.« Such an artistic description »is not a sign for something that lays outside its form« – Stevens again: »It is an artificial thing that exists, / In its own seeming, plainly visible […] More intense than any actual life could be.« 

Art is a »description« which extracts from the confused reality its own inner form, in the same way that, in his atonal music, Schoenberg extracted the inner form of totalitarian terror. At this level, truth is no longer something which depends on the faithful reproduction of facts. One should introduce here the difference between (factual) truth and truthfulness: what makes a report of a raped woman (or any other narrative of a trauma) truthful is its very factual unreliability, confusion, inconsistency. If the victim were able to report on her painful and humiliating experience in a clear way, with all the data arranged into a consistent order of exposition, this very quality would make us suspicious about it. The same holds for the unreliability of the verbal reports of the holocaust survivors: the witness who would be able to offer a clear narrative of his camp experience would thereby disqualify himself. In a Hegelian way, the problem is here part of the solution: the very factual deficiencies of the traumatized subject’s report on his experience bear witness to the truthfulness of his report, since they signal that the reported content contaminated the very form of reporting on it.

The aesthetic lesson of this paradox is clear. The horror of the holocaust cannot be represented; but this excess of represented content over its aesthetic representation has to infect the aesthetic form itself. What cannot be described should be inscribed into the artistic form as its uncanny distortion. Perhaps, a reference to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus can again be of some help here. According to Tractatus, language depicts reality by virtue of sharing a logical form in common with reality.

»4.121 Propositions cannot represent logical form: it is mirrored in them. What finds its reflection in language, language cannot represent. What expresses itself in language, we cannot express by means of language. Propositions show the logical form of reality. They display it.« 

We know that a picture of a sunset represents a sunset because both the picture and the sunset share a similar »pictorial form«. Similarly, a proposition and what it represents share a similar »logical form«: a proposition depicts a fact, and just as a fact can be analyzed into independent states of affairs, a proposition can be analyzed into independent elementary propositions. Wittgenstein draws here the distinction between saying and showing: while a proposition says that such-and-such fact is the case, it shows the logical form by virtue of which this fact is the case. The upshot of this distinction is that we can only say things about facts in the world; logical form cannot be spoken about, only shown:

»4.1212 What can be shown, cannot be said.«

So, if we read this proposition 4.1212 together with the final proposition (»7 Wherof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent«), the conclusion is that what we cannot speak about, we can show it, i.e. directly render it in/by the very form of speaking. That is to say, Wittgenstein’s »showing« should not be understood merely in a mystical sense, but as inherent to language, as the form of language. Let us return to our example of trauma: we cannot directly talk about a trauma, describe it, but this traumatic excess can be »shown« in the distortion of our speech about the trauma, in its elliptic repetitions and other distortions. In Le grand voyage, Semprún invented such a new form – a »logical form« of narrative that is adequate to the trauma of the holocaust by way of »showing« what cannot be directly described.

The narrative of the novel unfolds during the journey in a cramped and squalid boxcar carrying 120 resistance fighters from Compiègne to Buchenwald; Gerard, the first-person narrator of the book, is one of these prisoners. The narrative only fleetingly remains in the boxcar: in sudden temporal switches the first-person narration of Gerard lurches back and forth from the time before the war to various times after the war, from the moment of liberation in 1945 to two, three, sixteen, or an unspecified number of years later. These switches are rendered as moments of Gerard’s fractured stream of consciousness: as he undergoes the ordeal of the trip in the present, he remembers and »fore-members« (remembers-imagines the future), since the experience has fragmented him into a splintered self. Details of his life in past, present, and future flow through his mind like multiple currents in an unimpeded stream: he is simultaneously a partisan in the French underground, a deported prisoner of the Germans, and a survivor of Buchenwald. By recreating consciousness as an intersection of three time zones, Semprún renders the fluid timeless ordeal of the camp inmate who has lost his sense of life as a chronological passage from yesterday through today into tomorrow.

The topic of the »death of the subject«, of its dispersal in a pandemonium of conflicting and fragmented narrative lines, is usually perceived as the result of elitist artistic reflexions, far from real concerns of real people; the unique achievement of Semprún is to establish the link between this modernist revolution in writing and our most traumatic historical experience. The true focus of Le grand voyage is not what really happened on the way to Buchenwald, but how does such a terrible event affect the very identity of the subject: its elementary contours of reality are shattered, the subject no longer experiences himself as part of a continuous flow of history which devolves from the past towards the future. Instead, his experience moves in a kind of eternal present in which present, past and future, reality and fantasy, directly interact. In his theory of relativity, Einstein proposes to interpret time as a fourth dimension of space in which past and future are all »now«, already here; because of our limited perception, we just cannot see them, we can only see the present. It is as if, after going through the nightmare of the life in a camp, our perception widens and we can see all three dimensions of time simultaneously – time becomes space, we gain the uncanny freedom to move up and down along it in the same way we can err around in an open space, with past and future as different paths that we can walk on at will. There is, however, a price we pay for this freedom, a blind spot of this field of spatialized time: we can see all except the present of the camp itself. This prohibited present is, of course, death – being alive after Buchenwald is not the same as having survived it intact: the shadow of death taints the memories of innocent prewar friendships because Gerard learns later that many of his friends have been killed, and poisons his postwar life. The camp life is thus not so much the ultimate referent of all memories as the distorting screen which taints and spoils all memories. Semprún juxtaposes the pleasure of reading the childhood memories offered in Proust with the painful and deferred memory of his arrival at the Buchenwald concentration camp – his »madeleine« is the strange smell that recalls the crematory oven:

»And suddenly, borne on the breeze, the curious odor: sweetish, cloying, with a bitter and truly nauseating edge to it. The peculiar odor that would later prove to be from the crematory oven. […] The strange smell would immediately invade the reality of memory. I would be reborn there; I would die if returned to life there. I would embrace and inhale the muddy, heady odor of that estuary of death.«

What resuscitates the trauma are not merely the immediate painful associations of the details which recall the camp, but, even more, the power of these recent memories to »color« and thus spoil the ancient gentle memories. Robert Antelme, in his testimony L’espèce humaine, evokes a similar case of over-determination: the pleasurable memory of a lover ringing the doorbell has been indelibly colored by the painful memory of the police or the Gestapo ringing the same bell at the moment of one’s arrest. Both in this instance and in Semprún’s use of Proust’s ringing garden bell, survivors find that memory has been colonized by the experience of the holocaust: there is no way to retrieve the pleasant memory of a lover waiting at the door without simultaneously triggering the corruption of that memory by the holocaust.

The same shift from the linear narrative time to the fragmented synchronicity of different times characterizes the French vanguard cinema of the late 1950s and early 1960s, most visibly the work of Alain Resnais whose first film, the documentary Night and Fog, also deals with the holocaust. Resnais’s masterpiece, Last Year in Marienbad, is about a love couple whose affair is told in temporal slices of which it is not even clear what is their temporal order, what is past, future or present: the time structure of the narrative exists as total potential, a synchronic mass wherein past, present, and future are all equally available, and can potentially all be present. The scenario for Marienbad was written by Alain Robbe-Grillet, the leading author of the French nouveau roman who also directed films. No wonder Semprún collaborated with Alain Resnais: apart from writing two scenarios for Resnais, he was a non-acknowledged contributor to Resnais’ Je t’aime je t’aime. In discussing this film, Gilles Deleuze introduced the concept of »sheet of time«: such a sheet is a traumatic point in time, a kind of magnetic attractor which tears moments of past, present and future out of their proper context, combining them into a complex field of multiple, discrete and interacting temporalities. In Je t’aime je t’aime, such a »sheet« is the narrator’s traumatic memory of the death (murder?) of his beloved. Claude Ridder, a writer who, despaired after the death of his love, has attempted suicide, is approached to be a test-subject at a mysterious research facility involving time travel. The scientist’s plan is to send him back into his own past, exactly one year ago, for only one minute. Unfortunately, the experiment goes out of control, and Claude finds himself unstuck in time, bouncing between random moments of his life, re-experiencing snippets from his past, in a mixture of the moments of love, doubt, confusion, happiness, and even day-to-day routine, all in the form of tiny fragments, shuffled about or replayed like a scratched record. While the scientists, who run this botched experiment, frantically try to retrieve Claude back into reality, he gets more and more fixated on past moments, returning to them and repeating them endlessly. Does something similar not happen to Gerard in Le grand voyage? He also gets unstuck from the linear flow of time, caught in a temporal loop of interaction between multiple traumatic sheets of time.

There is more than just a formal parallel between these procedures in cinema and literature: Le grand voyage is a novel which was only possible after cinema, since it incorporates into the literary medium cinematic sensibility and techniques of montage, of flash-backs, of imagining the future, of visual hallucinations, etc. Another distinguishing cinematic feature of the narrative in Le grand voyage are sudden rises of details (images, objects, sounds): they are shown in close-ups, their excessive and intrusive proximity overshadowing the narrative context of which they are a part. One should resist here the hermeneutic temptation to read these details as symbols and to search for their hidden meaning: these details are exposed as fragments of the real which resist meaning. The meaning of their context – the terrible situation of shoah – is too traumatic to be assumed, so this sudden focus on material details serves the need to keep meaning at a distance.

The problem that the survivors of the camp encounter is not only that witnessing is impossible, that it always has an element of prosopopea, since the true witness is always already dead and we can only speak on his behalf. We encounter a symmetric problem also at the opposite end: there is no proper public, no listener to adequately receive the witnessing. The most traumatic dream Primo Levi had in Auschwitz was about his survival: the war is over, he is reunited with his family, telling them about his life in the camp, but his family members are gradually bored, they start to yawn and, one after another, leave the table, so that finally Levi is left alone. A fact from the Bosnian war in the early 1990s makes the same point: many of the girls who survived brutal rapes killed themselves later, after they rejoined their community and found that there is no one who is really ready to listen to them, to accept their testimony. In Lacan’s terms, what is missing here is not only another human being, the attentive listener, but the »big Other« itself, the space of the symbolic inscription or registration of my words. Levi made the same point in his direct and simple way:

»What we are doing to Jews is so irrepresentable in its horror that even if someone will survive the camps, he will not be believed by those who were not there – they will simply declare him a liar or a mentally ill person!«

Since Levi was not a writer, he did not draw the artistic consequences of this fact – but Semprún did it. During the »present« time of the boxcar journey in Le grand voyage, Gerard conveys his memories to an unnamed companion dubbed »le gars de Semur« (the guy from Semur). Why this need for an interlocutor? What function plays this guy from Semur about whom Gerard informs us at the outset that he will die upon the arrival at the camp? He clearly stands for the dwindling presence of the big Other, the recipient of our speech. In the concentration camp, there is no big Other, nobody on whom we can count to receive and verify our testimony. This is what makes even our survival meaningless.

This brings us again to the fate of the modern art. Schoenberg still hoped that there is somewhere at least one listener who will truly understand his atonal music. It was only his greatest pupil Anton Webern who accepted the fact that there is no listener, no big Other to receive his work and properly recognize its value. In literature, James Joyce still counted on the future generations of literary critics as his ideal public: he said that he wrote Finnegans Wake to keep them occupied for the next 400 years. In the aftermath of the holocaust, we, writers and readers, have to accept that we are alone, at our risk to write or read, with no guarantee in the big Other.

However, this lack of the big Other does not entail that we are irrevocably caught in the misery of our finitude, deprived of any redemptive moments. In his The Cattle Truck, Jorge Semprún reports how he witnessed the arrival of a truckload of Polish Jews at Buchenwald; they were stacked into the freight train almost 200 to a car, traveling for days without food and water in the coldest winter of the war. On arrival all in the carriage had frozen to death except for 15 children, kept warm by the others in the centre of the bundle of bodies. When the children were emptied from the car the Nazis let their dogs loose on them. Soon only two fleeing children were left:

»The little one began to fall behind, the SS were howling behind them and then the dogs began to howl too, the smell of blood was driving them mad, and then the bigger of the two children slowed his pace to take the hand of the smaller… together they covered a few more yards… till the blows of the clubs felled them and, together they dropped, their faces to the ground, their hands clasped for all eternity.«

One can easily imagine how this scene should be filmed: while the soundtrack renders what goes on in reality (the two children are clubbed to death), the image of their hands clasped freezes, immobilized for eternity – while the sound renders temporary reality, the image renders the eternal Real. It is the pure surface of such fixed images of eternity, not any deeper Meaning, which allows for redemptive moments in the bleak story of the Shoah.

There is, however, an ambiguity in this solution. Recall the final shot of Thelma & Louise: the frozen image of the car with the two women »flying« above the precipice: is this the positive utopia (triumph of the feminine subjectivity over death), or the masking of the miserable wreck the car IS in reality at that time? How can we have both dimensions together? Is there a parallel with an old Croat short avantguarde film about a man chasing a woman around a large table, the two of them madly giggling in a crazy play. The chase goes on, even when the couple disappears behind a table and we see only the man raising and lowering his hands, the giggling gets louder and louder; in the final shot, we get the dead woman’s mutilated body (the game turned sour and murderously destructive), while the giggling goes on…

  • concentration camp
  • Theodor W. Adorno
  • prose
  • shoah
  • figurability / representability
  • Wittgenstein

My language

Selected content
English, French

Slavoj Žižek

is a philosopher, theoretical psychoanalyst and culture critic. He teaches philosophy at the University of Ljubljana.

Other texts by Slavoj Žižek for DIAPHANES

Um das Thema »Politiken der Kunst« gruppieren sich die Texte der Nummer 1 der Zeitschrift INAESTHETIK. Gibt es einen politischen Auftrag des Kunstwerks? Wie bestimmt sich der Ort des Kunstwerks im sozialen Feld? Wie verhalten sich Kunstproduktion, Kunstkritik, Kunstwissenschaften und Philosophie zueinander? Ist Kunst zwingend kritisch: institutions-, markt- und ideologiekritisch? Oder setzt das Kunstwerk noch der Kritik und ihrem guten Gewissen Grenzen, die aus ihm eine riskante und vielleicht notwendig affirmative Praxis machen? Liegt der Sinn in diesen immer wieder mit dem Kunstwerk verbundenen Kategorien des Widerstands und der Subversion nicht auch in einer Art Selbstberuhigung, die es dem Künstler und der Künstlerin erlaubt, am politischen Spiel ohne wirklichen Einsatz teilzunehmen, sodass das politische Bewusstsein die Funktion einer uneingestandenen Entpolitisierung übernimmt? Wie affirmativ muss ein Kunstwerk sein, um subversiv oder politisch sein zu können?