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Thursday, October 04, 2012

On the death of character

On June 18, 1944, a detachment of prisoners from Auschwitz were unloaded at Kaufering, five kilometers from Landsberg  Germany, and collected into a concentration camp there. The prisoners were set to work building large underground bunkers that were intended to protect an airplane parts factory. According to a secret account kept by one of the prisoners, a priest, Jules Jost, about 28,838 Jewish prisoners were kept there, including 4200 women and 850 children.

At the same time, an army doctor named Gottfried Benn was stationed in Landsberg. Benn is of course one of Germany’s most famous twentieth century poets. In 1933, he had sided with Hitler, and written a famous letter addressed to emigrés writers – and really to Klaus Mann – in which he wrote that their complaints were besides the point. When they called Hitlerism “barbaric”, Benn wrote, they were betraying their own intellectual inadequacy and obsolescence: “… this is my counter-question, how do you imagine history moves itself? Do you think it is particularly active in French spa resorts? How do you imagine the 12th century, the transition from the Romanesque to the Gothic feeling: do you think that this was discussed? Do you think, in the North of the land from the South of which you now write to me, someone dreamed up a new architectural style? That we voted for domes or towers? That one debated over Apsides, round or polygon?”

The emphasized words were all connected to the weak mode of politics that Thomas Mann, in the Observations of a Non-political man, had connected  to the complex made up of civilization and the intellectual (associated with France) as opposed to culture and the bürgerlich (associated with Germany). But Benn had moved on from the conservatism of Mann – like Ernst Junger, he had moved towards a politics of masculine decision, in which things like debate, discussion, dreaming would be crushed. Crushing –this was what history did. It smashed. It crushed. And it shaped the way nature shaped.

Of course, Benn had left his enthusiasm for Hitler behind him by 1944, but he had not entirely left this idea that history and nature were one inhuman thing. And this ideology – with its proximity to the real crushing of human material going on in a concentration camp five kilometers from Landsberg – was part of the sweep of the Novel of the Phenotype he wrote, with its subtitle, Landsberg Fragments. In the first fragment he poses the aesthetic question in terms that resonate with his notion of a sort of anonymous collective history deciding on domes or towers, when he considers the notion of narrative itself: “Why knead together thoughts in someone, in a figure, in shapes, when there are no more shapes? Invent persons, names, relations, when they are simply futile?” In a sense, Benn is writing about the post concentration camp world –the world in which persons, names and relations truly are futile. And still, one has to ask whether we are not simply being asked, once more, to see an aesthetic category crushed by history; and whether “history” hasn’t been given virtues it does not have, causal powers that are, in truth, tautological: whether we aren’t being sold history as, in fact, the scheme of causes, which would mean that it naturally causes events. Cause, in other words, causes events.

Yet if we take a more generous interpretive approach, we see, in Benn’s notes, indications of a way of thinking about character that preceded the concentration camp. This way of thinking began to emerge in the modernism of the 1914 generation as a response to mechanization, to the artificial paradise of chemistry and consumerism, to newspapers and films, as much as to war.  In the post-war period, the same reasoning under different styles – structuralist, post-structuralist, Marxist – came to the same conclusion: that the bourgeois realism of the character was obsolete. Roland Barthes, in the first cool,scientific phase of his career treats the figure, the personage, in the realist tradition as one that is wholly constructed within the text’s discourse, radically dividing it from its off-the-page correlates: from the critical point of view, it is thus as false to suppress the personage as it would be to make it jump off the paper [faire sortir du papier] in order to make it a psychological personage (endowed with possible motives)…” (SZ) The paper that intrudes here and does such decisive ontological work allows us to understand on the personage on the paper functions in that universe – but in the same gesture it invalidates the ethos in which both sides, paper and off-the-paper, are joined in one social whole.

In Barthes second, hedonistic phase there is a retreat from this high modern ascetism. The text becomes, again, an object of pleasure – an off-the-page pleasure that is satisfied somehow on the page. The text becomes porous, readable, fragmentable, and paper becomes a more enigmatic matter altogether. This retreat does not erase the high modern moment but quotes it – delivering it to the maximum ambivalence in which all liminal creatures, zombies, vampires, leaders, characters, reside.  

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