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.