Adorno once wrote that “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” This statement is part of a broader focus of Adorno’s, and that of other social theorists and artists, to come to grips with the sheer horror of the Holocaust and modern suffering. Is it right, is it meaningful for art to exist after humanity’s witnessed such massive suffering? Recently, I came across a paper where the author wonders how we can make sense of reality itself after the cruelty of the Holocaust/Auschwitz. Adorno later said that suffering has a right to be expressed, and to be expressed through art.
There’s also the common refrain, if it weren’t for intervention in the world wars, “we would all be speaking German right now.” Throughout my pre-university schooling, on every 11th of November (or close to it), the school would organize ceremonies for Remembrance Day. “On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” the first world war ended, and so we commemorate the sacrifices of those who died defending our freedom.
I remember being wholly skeptical of the whole affair. I knew, see, that the British occupied South Asia until 1947. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be remembering, exactly, on Remembrance Day.
Of course, I speak English. India has the world’s largest English-speaking population. There are more Francophones outside of France than inside it, not in Quebec, but in Africa. So what’s German to us? What’s German fascism to us, when, as CÃ©saire forcefully lays out, the techniques and methods of fascism were first practised on those colonized — the wretched of the earth — by those same, self-styled defenders of freedom and democracy?
And what is Adorno’s statement if not hubristic and self-absorbed? Was poetry not barbaric after the Belgians slaughtered up to 10 million people in the Congo at the turn of the century? Was poetry not barbaric after millions were enslaved and transported in great ships like cattle, when millions died at the bayonets of the European colonizers? If poetry is to be barbaric, it was barbaric long before the Holocaust.
The kind of barbarism perfected at Auschwitz, after all, wasn’t invented by German fascists.