Theodor Adorno, the German philosopher, never actually said that there could be “no poetry after Auschwitz,” but even within his lifetime the misquotation spread so widely that he later took back the words that he hadn’t said: “Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream; hence it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems.” Nevertheless the bad quotation persists. I even used it—as a dark joke, to be sure—in my own first novel.
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What accounts for the persistence of the phrase? Partly, it’s just a good aphorism: brief, sharp, and memorable, at once counterintuitive and on the nose. In larger part, though, it’s that it pithily reflects a common attitude toward the Holocaust, especially popular among politicians, recently expressed by American President Donald Trump in an awkward speech during an awkward visit to Yad Vashem: “Words can never describe the bottomless depths of that evil or the scope of the anguish and destruction.”
Words, of course, can and must.
Casting the Holocaust into the voiceless past is the gravest example of the most cynical ploy in politics, through which leaders and governments set their own depredations against some far more unspeakable evil. How convenient that we can never speak of it! How fortunate that it has no history, no human participants, no antecedents, and no practical lessons. The Holocaust ceases to be history and becomes a mood. Its memorial becomes a set. Remembrance is a scene.
It’s ironically appropriate. There’s an element of mockumentary to Trump’s Israel visit, which has so far consisted of a great deal of bumbling about by both him and his hosts, from the goofy red-carpet greeting on the tarmac beside Air Force One to the uncomfortable shuffling and stage direction around the podium at Yad Vashem. (The latter reminded me of nothing so much as Shabbat services at a Reform temple, the rabbi and cantor trying, usually futilely, to get the congregants called to make an aliyah to the Torah into the proper positions around the reader.)
Christopher Guest could hardly have dreamed up a more perfectly absurd message for the memorial’s Book of Remembrance: “It is a great honor to be here with all of my friends. So amazing + will NEVER FORGET.” It makes George W. Bush slipping the note reading “Let freedom reign!” to Condi Rice seem like a modern Cicero in comparison.
The absurdity isn’t only the fault of Israel and Trump’s inept seesawing between a faction of genuine anti-Semites and a more traditional Republican base that fetishizes Israel and wishes American Jews could be more like their imaginary Israeli cousins.
It was equally present in Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia, where he gawped at the kingdom’s tacky splendor, sword-danced, made the same bland speech that every American politician makes when speaking to the leaders of majority Muslim nations, rode through a museum on a golf cart, and participated in a ribbon-cutting for the next film in the Mission Impossible franchise, an ersatz Saudi “anti-terrorism center” whose Hollywood backlot quality will be forever overshadowed by the now-famous photograph of its inexplicable glowing orb.
Next stop, the Vatican. Americans may be familiar with this location from such hits as The Da Vinci Code. At very least, the Pope is the actual leader of a world religion, unlike the sclerotic absolute monarch of Saudi Arabia and the bumptious prime minister of Israel, who most certainly are not.
The bruited spiritual quality of the first half of Trump’s grand tour, the idea that he’ll be charting new territory by popping in on the headquarters of three of the world’s great faiths, is one of its corniest and most insulting aspects: This Is Spinal Tap meets Eat, Pray, Love. As many American Muslims pointed out on Twitter, and in Haaretz, if the president wished to engage in outreach to the Muslim community, could he not have found a mosque in America? As an American Jew, I can’t help but wonder at the symbolism of skipping a White House Seder but motorcading over to the Western Wall to make a big show of loving the Jews.
This persistent conflation of the State of Israel with the Jewish religion—whose modern form and observances were forged in the Diaspora—is a hallmark of the American political class, and it’s even more galling on the tongue of a man whose view of Jews as people is at best stereotypical and retrograde. (He couldn’t even make a speech about the Shoah without mentioning how “successful” we are!)
It’s meant to rehabilitate an image tarnished by accusations of anti-Semitism, but it only serves to further emphasize the indifference to the spiritual, material, and political lives of the huge communities of Jews living right here in America. Some of these Jews are staunch Zionists, and some of us are harsh critics of Israel, but we do not, in the immortally dumb words of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, consider Tel Aviv our religious home.
Trump concluded his Yad Vashem speech with a litany of God Blesses characteristic of the Christianized oratorical style of American politics but a little weird in a Jewish context and a lot weird at a memorial for the Jewish dead. It speaks, I think, to the ultimately superficial quality of this man and his government.
At its core there are no beliefs, only a series of empty gestures at a false decency without a hint of grace. While Trump was in Israel, more details emerged of one of the most savage programs of domestic austerity in the modern history of the United States, supposedly the richest country of the world.
Trump cited Elie Wiesel in his speech, but perhaps we should turn to Primo Levi. “A country is considered the more civilized the more the wisdom and efficiency of its laws hinder a weak man from becoming too weak and a powerful one too powerful.” Which, at present, are we?
Jacob Bacharach is a writer based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He is the author of the novel The Bend of the World. Follow him on Twitter: @jakebackpack