A Personal Dictionary

literature: n; 5.

We measure a great book by the quality of its shade. Terrible literature hurts our eyes precisely because of a lack of shade.

from A Personal Dictionary



Remnants of Auschwitz (the Witness and the Archive)
by Giorgio Agamben

175 p
1999; MIT Press
ISBN 1-890951-17-X

   Giorgio Agamben is one of those strange species of writers and thinkers— the one who can write truly great books (The End of the Poem) as well as truly horrible books (Infancy and History). The difference in the two resides not in the subject matter but in the style of writing, which is to say the presence or absence of clarity. And the style of writing is of course always indicative of the cohesion and integrity of thinking. It would not be excessive to suggest that the more lucid the writing, the more committed the thinker, and hence his thinking, towards his subject. Agambem’s book Remnants of Auschwitz is, thankfully, closer to the first category. However, the book also has a subtitle (the Witness and the Archive) and it is just such superfluity which betrays a bad conscience— a need to say more because the necessary has not been said.

incoherency: n; It is in those moments when all becomes clear, when inexplicables converge into a seemingly common purpose that a writer, a thinker, betrays the ability and the will to honestly and coherently engage the insoluble incoherencies of being alive.(A Personal Dictionary)

   The courage it takes to write and to think a truly difficult and intractable subject should not be forgotten. Yet, there is always something unsettling about thinkers who go into such absolute darknesses and yet remain paradoxically lucid. When one is truly in the abyss, even if only in one’s thoughts, one cannot purposefully avoid things. And it is just such a deliberate act of avoidance in Agambem’s Remnants of Auschwitz which concerns me here.

   I wish to elaborate on this absence, not because I wish to ignore the merits of the book, of which there are many, but because I find such a lacuna curious… and possibly fatal. It should be said that I actually checked that pages were not missing from my copy of the book, wishing that perhaps the problem originated at the printers, or at the bindery. But no, the omission is Giorgio’s, and perhaps not only his.

hatred: n; 3. The fact that prisoners in Auschwitz referred to those fellow prisoners who had crossed the threshold of humanity and were merely walking corpses as Muslims, is evidence that hatred is one of the last things to be killed in a man, if not the final thing. (A Personal Dictionary)

“The untestifiable, that to which no one has borne witness, has a name. In the jargon of the camp, it is der Muselmann, literally ‘the Muslim’ ”. And so Agamben introduces the subject for the second chapter of his book.

   The horrific reality of such beings is further elaborated with a description from Primo Levi, “their life is short but their number is endless; they, the Muselmanner, the drowned, form the backbone of the camp, an anonymous mass, continually renewed and always identical, of non-men who march and labour in silence, the divine spark dead in them, already too empty to really suffer. One hesitates to call them living: one hesitates to call their death death, in the face of which they have no fear, as they are too tired to understand”. Read out of context, this moving passage by Levi could read as something taken from a totalitarian anthropology textbook.

   One “hesitates to call them living”, but apparently there was no hesitation in calling them Muslims. Interestingly they were not called babies, or mothers, or kittens, or rabbis, or lovers… Quoting Wolfgang Sofsky, Agamben informs us that this class of beings were not called Muselmanner in all the camps: “at Dachau they were ‘cretins’, in Stutthof ‘cripples’, in Mauthausen ‘swimmers’, in Neuengamme ‘camels’, in Buchenwald ‘tired sheiks’ ”. With the exception of Mauthausen, the semantic field is obvious— so obvious, a comment would be the least one could expect. Specifically, the fact that during the destruction of European Jewry those in some of the camps who were the closest to annihilation were referred to as Muslims, and given the present geopolitical reality and the ongoing Jewish – Arab conflict (Agamben’s book was published in 1999) one would think such a situation might warrant a response. It does not take much to imagine that for those able to identify the non-human with Muslim, the colonization of Palestine, a country populated by such so-called non-humans (or cockroaches, as Golda Meir referred to the native Palestinians) would offer no serious moral difficulties. But, apparently such a consideration is beside the point. Or perhaps it is “a difficulty inherent in the very concept of a semantics of enunciation”— oh yes, that must be it. Furthermore, given that sometimes Agamben goes to great lengths and assumes often awkward positions to extend his arguments (invoking the existential crisis of Keats in his exegesis of the shame of survivors, for example), it seems unlikely that he would miss such an obvious historical resonance. But here is precisely where Agamben nimbly maneuvers himself in the dark, deftly avoiding the obvious.

   It is as though this particular darkness has been well visited, and that others have marked the way of passage. The subject is not treacherous at all, but habitual.

   If one reads and allows this absence to resound what follows can only become oppressively ironic. Statements arise as if only to achieve self-mockery. “What cannot be stated, what cannot be archived is the language in which the author succeeds in bearing witness to his incapacity to speak.” Indeed! And then again, Agamben seems oblivious to the even more ferocious irony when he writes, “it is certain that, with a kind of ferocious irony, the Jews knew that they would not die at Auschwitz as Jews” (but as Muselmanner, or Muslims).

   By failing to address the obvious, all other intellectual acts appear as evasions of this very failure.

   As the book progresses, in fact after the second chapter that deals with der Muselmann, Agamben clearly loses his way. His darkness becomes illuminated by the banal fluorescence of academic pseudo-ontologies and their accompanying jargon. It is as if he realized what was at stake in the second chapter, but turned away, and decided to write another book, the book of the subtitle, the book that was not necessary.

intention: n; 6. Our so-called good intentions are the most effective means of keeping us from effecting good. (A Personal Dictionary)

   Reading the testimonies of the figurative Muselmanner that conclude Agamben’s book— that is, reading the accounts of those who survived the hell of being Muslim—I cannot avoid, amidst the moving evocations, the feeling of absurdity.

   I imagine, on the drug-ravaged streets of Vancouver, those recent arrivals to the population of the annihilated referring to those lifeless forms creeping towards their death as Jews— it is that kind of absurdity I am referring to, and which Agamben, unfortunately failed to notice… or so I hope.

   I will end my commentary with the lines that Agamben uses to end his book, which are those of a camp-song sung at Auschwitz (as recounted by a surviving Muselmann, Bronislaw Goscinki):

What’s worse than a Muselmann?
Does he even have the right to live?
Isn’t he there to be stepped on, struck, beaten?
He wanders through the camp like a stray dog.
Everyone chases him away, but in the crematorium is his deliverance.
The camp infirmary does away with him!

perdition: n; “A world speaks its way to perdition” – Max Spalter.