Holocaust Impiety In Literature, Popular Music and Film
By Matthew Boswell
Palgrave Macmillan – £53.00
This book is so very readable, it’s a shame its subject matter relates to that of such a dark and occassionally depressive persuasion. But might this in itself, account for Matthew Boswell having written a truly tremendous book? For if one can write on the trajectory of the Holocaust in such a refreshing and stimulating manner, one is obviously doing something very right, right?
Holocaust Impiety in Literature, Popular Music and Film, is, as it’s title suggests, a provocative and at times, quasi-controversial account of how the Holocaust has been represented through the arts. Be it Quenton Tarantino’s film Inglorious Basterds, The Sex Pistols song ‘Belsen Was A Gas’ or Sylvia Plath’s poem ‘Daddy,’ Boswell argues that ”while such works are oftetn shocking, the value of shock should not be lightly dismissed in the context of the Holocaust.
Broken into three parts (Poetry, Popular Music and Film), each of this book’s ten chapters resonates with something exceedingly powerful and provocative.
That (good) poetry is usually already both, allows it as a genre at least, the potential to cast a far more poignant dye by the mere essence of its actual execution. To say nothing of its subtlety and intelligence. The latter of which is particularly brought to bear in Chapter Two (W.D. Snodgrass, ‘The Fuehrer Bunker’) wherein Boswell philosophically writes: ”’Mother Teresa, asked when it was she started her work for abandoned children, replied, ”On the day I discovered I had a Hitler inside me.” This reference to the self-acknowledged capacity for evildoing of Mother Theresa ushers the reader away from an attitude of moral complacency. The epigraph also attacks postwar triumphalism and self-righteousness of America’s demonisation of the German nation; for much as one might wish to condemn the popular support the German public gave to the Nazis before they came to power and the subsequent lack of organised opposition to a bellicose regime, one does so with the benefit of hindsight.”
This is further substantiated when Boswell goes on to quote Snodgrass in reference to Randall Jarrell’s poem ‘Protocols,’ in which dead children desribe their journey to Birkenau, where they were murdered in gas chambers:
”To write this poem, you must first be willing to imagine yourself as a child in the situation – a real child, who might even enjoy parts of the trip. Then, you must be willing to imagine yourself a guard – this is the real test – and see how you would act. You must admit that moral weakness could lead you into such a position, could at least strongly tempt you. Until you are willing to admit that you share some part of humanity’s baseness and degredation, you cannot write about humanity’s dignity and gentleness. Of all the ulterior motives, none is more common, none more debilitating, none more damning, than the pretense to moral superiority.”
If nothing else, the above poses a considerable moral dilemma, especially where Snodgrass talks about imagining the situation as ”a real child” and ”the pretense to moral superiority.” This example – and believe me there are countless others throughout Holocaust Impiety – makes this book very much worth reading alone. Although this is further enhanced in the second part on Popular Music where (at the very outset), in relation to the fusion of the Holocaust and Punk Rock, the author writes: ”While the various punk responses to the Holocaust range from the mocking to the shocking to the world-rocking, as in the impulse to identify with the oppresors, each is in its own way an attempt to deal with this tragedy that affected punk’s lives whether they liked to admit it or not. No Holocaust, no punk.”
As a fan of the New York punk band The Ramones, I was more than interested to read the chapter entitled ‘American Punk: Ramones,’ wherein Boswell reveals: ”[…] the Ramones’ eponymous first album opens with the shouty stomp’Blitzkrieg Bop’ and closes with ‘TodayYour Love,Tomorrow the World,’ in which the Jewish Joey Ramone sings about being an SS man while the child of a family of Holocaust victims plays drums. Pounding to the beat of falling bombs, the half-Jewish, half-none Jewish Ramones encapsulate the dived nature of American punk’s preoccupation with the Holocaust. In an interview,Tommy Ramone once said, ‘most of my family was murdered in the Holocaust. I am barely here.’ On the other hand, Dee Dee never grew out of his childhood obsession with the battlefields of Germany and the remnants of war […].”
That Holocaust Impiety in Literature, Popular Music and Film approaches the on-going debate on the Holocaust from an array of (relatively) modern-day perspectives, accounts for making it so much more than an important and very stimulating read. That the book also draws on the philosopher Gillian Rose’s criticisms of what she termed ‘Holocaust piety’ and its claim that the only possible response to the Holocaust ‘is a respectful silence,’ is, as stated on the back cover, tantamount within the philosophical parameters of even trying to come to terms: ”[…] this book considers how irreverent works of fiction play an important role in shaping our contemporary understanding of the Nazi genocide and also of ourselves, prompting us to reflect on what it means to be human in light of the tragic events they reference.”