Poetry After Auschwitz

The gruesome legacy of Nazism is unavoidable in any discussion of Western (and especially German) culture. Theodor Adorno was one of many figures to address this bloody imprint, in his maxim that ‘to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’. The specific meaning of this statement is much-debated, but its relevance is unquestionable.

The Dadaists, following the First World War, formed their movement based on the credo that mankind didn’t deserve art for their complicity in that maelstrom of carnage. The result was an upsurge in ‘anti-art’, which was labelled degenerate upon the rise of Nazism. While this intent was not echoed directly after the Second World War, it is easy to see Adorno’s credo as an invocation of the same sentiment – the perpetration of these evils, by humanity at large or by the Germans specifically, is so great that those responsible, for the fact that this was allowed to happen, do not deserve the catharsis found in art.

The critical slant of the statement is the fact that art can be used for catharsis, and can relieve pain and anxiety; most chillingly, it can do this by glorifying actions that cause this pain and anxiety through the brutality of their perpetration. The banality of evil and the subtle contributions of an entire people to the crime make everyone complicit to an extent, and make it to easy to brush aside an evil that makes such gradual demands. To remember and learn from the horror of Nazism is to see inhumanity in its more pleasant and unassuming guises, and so to never forget the ultimate conclusion of the power that, a decade prior to its fall, had a sufficient portion of the popular vote and outspoken praise, even by some of those outside its borders. To take solace in poetry, that which can nullify the horror of participation, however insidiously in this brutality, is a greater offense than drowning it in liquor or offering tear-stained prayers for forgiveness, because it allows a conscious denial of responsibility where such is plainly an affront to sanity.

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