Poetry as Offence


... we'll refuse [the poet] a chorus and ban teachers from using his works to educate our children. (Plato, Book II, The Republic, 55–6)

The critique of culture is confronted with the last stage in the dialectic of culture and barbarism: to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric, and that corrodes also the knowledge which expresses why it has become impossible to write poetry today. (Adorno, 1967, p. 34)

One of the most horrifying aspects of a visit to Dachau I made some years ago, when attending a meeting in Munich, was an SS notice inscribed on a wall that declared that anyone found writing or sharing poetry would be executed on the spot. Dachau, the first concentration camp, was opened 22 March 1933, only one year after Hitler's rise to power.1 It was essentially a camp for political prisoners and served as a model for the concentration camp system stretching across Europe. The concentration camp itself was a part of an extensive system of camps set up for specific purposes: labor camps; prisoner of war camps; transit camps; and camps which served as killing centers, often called extermination camps or death camps. The Danish Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies2 records:

A total of 22 (25) main concentration camps (Stamlager) were established, together with approximately 1,200 affiliate camps. Besides these, thousands of smaller camps existed in all parts of German-controlled Europe.

Giorgio Agamben, the Italian political philosopher, well known for his genealogy of the concept of ‘state of exception’ (Agamben, 2005) that he traces to Roman law invoked in times of crisis, and the development of ‘sovereign power’ (Agamben, 1998) following aspect of Foucault's bio-power, investigates the rise of the concentration camp, which he interprets as the space which is opened up when exception and crisis become the rule. For Agamben, the camp rather than the prison is the ‘nomos’ of political modernity where the administration of law and life become one. In Means without End (Agamben, 2000) he argues:

Reflection is needed about the paradoxical status of the detainment camp in its quality as an exceptional space. It is part of a territory which stands outside the normal rule of law but which is not therefore an external space. What is excluded there [...] is actually included by virtue of its own exclusion. The state of emergency is what, above all else, is captured in the order of the camp. The right to declare a state of emergency is the basis of sovereign authority, and a camp is the structure that realizes a state of emergency in its most permanent form.

In Remnants of Auschwitz, Agamben (1999) develops an account of an ethics of testimony and of bearing witness, now greeted with skepticism in an extreme politics of denial by various groups, including the European far-right-wing, whose ideology also helped to spawn the planned act of mass murder by Anders Behring Breivik of 69 Norwegian teenagers as an attack on ‘Eurabia’, multiculturalism, and cultural Marxism in the cause of preserving a Christian Europe.3

Agamben (1998, p. 181) is surely correct to maintain that the age has not yet come to terms with the experience of Auschwitz: today it is the concentration camp that is the biopolitical paradigm of Western modernity. The camp is a juridical political structure that has become pervasive in managing subjectivity and diversity. Agamben's work was brought to notice with the State of Emergency declared by the post-11 September political leadership of the Bush/Cheney and Blair administrations and as the dimensions of the global war prison at Guantanamo Bay detention camp began to emerge. Agamben locates the origins of the 20th century European concentration camp in Spanish campos de concentraciones in Cuba and in the British camps for Afrikaner prisoners in the Boer War. Yet others have indicated that ‘internment camps’ were first developed in Poland by the Russian empire during the 18th century to house Polish rebels before deportation to Siberia. Others claim that the first camps were set up by the US government to contain Native American peoples and especially the Cherokee,4 thus indicating that the camp (and ‘reserve’) played a significant role in the process of colonization.

On March 21 1933 Heinrich Himmler, The Munich Chief of Police announced:

On Wednesday the first concentration camp is to be opened in Dachau with an accommodation for 5000 persons. All Communists and—where necessary—Reichsbanner and Social Democratic functionaries who endanger state security are to be concentrated here, as in the long run it is not possible to keep individual functionaries in the state prisons without overburdening these prisons, and on the other hand these people cannot be released because attempts have shown that they persist in their efforts to agitate and organize as soon as they are released.5

In this juridical-political environment the Nazi regulation of life was total and the composition, recitation or sharing of poetry was an offence punished by instant execution. One can imagine the reasons: the potential of poetry to inspire, to achieve spiritual uplifting, to affect and touch us, to develop the bonds of solidarity.

Theodor Adorno is famous for his statement ‘to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric’. Adorno later recanted, stating that ‘Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as the tortured have to scream ... hence it may have been wrong to say that no poem could be written after Auschwitz’. Adorno's bald statement is a method for demonstrating that art and traditional aesthetics have no value in a world of such horror and inhumanity. It is not possible to go on writing poetry after the Shoah yet it is interesting to recognize that poetry itself and its value, its power to inspire, was understood by the SS, and that subsequently many survivors have been able to approach the grim reality of the Holocaust only in or through poetry (Gubar, 2003).

There is now an accepted genre of Holocaust poems and poetry6 written by survivors and prominent poets of the twentieth century that makes use of Nazi imagery to remember Auschwitz or to utilize its horror. Sylvia Plath's ‘Daddy’ is such an example: Ich, ich, ich, ich/I could hardly speak./I thought every German was you./And the language obscene/An engine, an engine/Chuffing me off like a Jew./A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen./I began to talk like a Jew./I think I may well be a Jew ... Or the poem by Sherman Alexie called ‘Inside Dachau’.7

The purpose of this editorial is not to review Holocaust poetry or indeed even to reflect on Adorno's famous statement but rather to contemplate poetry as offence and raise the question of what Plato called ‘the old quarrel between philosophy and poetry’ (The Republic, 607b5–6). For Plato ‘good speech’ and ‘good grace’ rest upon ‘goodness of character’ and therefore moral style or goodness in all its manifestations—springs from the nature of a person's soul. Plato's argument is against poetry and the Homeric tradition as a source of wisdom and education. The argument against poetry occurs at Book X: ‘We are, at all events, aware that such poetry mustn't be taken seriously as a serious thing laying hold of truth, but that the man who hears it must be careful, fearing for the regime in himself, and must hold what we have said about poetry’ (608a6-b2). Plato's critique manifests ‘a clash between what we might call comprehensive world-views; it seems that matters of grave importance in ethics, politics, metaphysics, theology, and epistemology are at stake’ (Griswold, 2008). The arguments are more complex than the sweeping assertion by Plato in Book X involving ruminations on mimesis and representation, discourse and dialogue, and rhetoric and the nature of writing—a set of arguments against which much contemporary debate is referenced. Plato wanted to call into question the tradition of Homeric and Hesiodic moral education where poetry had a fundament pedagogical role and the oratorical practices of the Sophists often combined with performance defined Greek culture.

As Ferrari (1989) acknowledges, Plato:

... recognises that human society is not possible without some form of poetry, but discerns in this fact a mark, so to speak, of our fallen state. Many philosophers have measured their distance from the poets; but Plato would put them beyond hierarchy altogether; would banish them—at least, would banish those he confesses to represent poetry at its greatest—from his ideal society.

Poetry must be put in the service of truth and socially desirable values, truths arrived at through reason, because it is based on mimesis and imitation and only deals with illusion and cannot be ethical. This constitutes Plato's epic battle with the poets for the control over the Greek paideia.

In German Romanticism, from the works of Friedrich Hölderlin and Georg von Hardenberg (Novalis) to Martin Heidegger, one finds a conception in which poetry and philosophy are not opposed in any sense, but rather poetry stands at the heart of philosophy as its educative vision. Like Plato's ‘quarrel’ this was also a struggle over culture in an attempt to provide a new synthesis of art, philosophy and science by returning to the medieval past to rediscover a conception of unity that could withstand the scientific rationalization of nature that emerged with the Enlightenment. As Hölderlin (1990, p. 93) puts it in Hyperion: ‘ “Poetry,” I answered, confident of my argument, “is the beginning and the end of philosophical knowledge. Like Minerva from the head of Jupiter, philosophy springs from the poetry of an eternal, divine state of being. And so in philosophy, too, the irreconcilable finally converges again in the mysterious spring of poetry” ’. Novalis (1960, p. 653) writes: ‘Poesie heals the wounds that intellect causes. It comprises contrary parts—supreme truth and pleasurable deception’.8 Heidegger (1976) sees in poetry the means to help shield thinking, and guide it beyond the end of philosophy. In ‘The Thinker as Poet’ he writes: ‘Thinking's saying would be stilled in its being only by becoming unable to say that which must remain unspoken’ (p. 11).