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Brilliant After the Six Million

February 23, 1992|JACK MILES | Miles, a member of The Times' Editorial Board, is president of the National Book Critics Circle

Adrienne Rich, one of the nominees for this year's National Book Critics Circle poetry award, writes at one point:

It was a burden for anyone

to be fascinating, brilliant

after the six million

Never mind just coming home

and trying to get some sleep

like an ordinary person

Rich's collection, "An Atlas of the Difficult World" (W. W. Norton), did not win, but her line may stand for a Jewish preoccupation that has become an American preoccupation and, to an extent, dominated this year's competition. I choose the word preoccupation advisedly: Jewish intellectuals are not always directly occupied with the Holocaust. However, they are always pre -occupied with it. They are always, somehow, already thinking about it when they turn their thoughts to the day's work.

When the NBCC board met to choose this year's winners, we considered, in poetry, Allen Grossman's "The Ether Dome," including the several-part poem "Poland of Death," and the eventual winner, Albert Goldbarth's "Heaven and Earth: A Cosmology," which, in the sense just indicated, is never directly about the Holocaust and yet is never not about it either.

In criticism, John Updike's latest collection, "Odd Jobs" (Alfred A. Knopf), lost out to Lawrence L. Langer's "Holocaust Testimonies." Langer subjects oral histories taken from death-camp survivors to sophisticated literary analysis and concludes that heroism was not the key to survival in a place like Auschwitz. Langer may fairly be described as occupied with the Holocaust. Norman F. Cantor, author of "Inventing the Middle Ages: The Lives, Works & Ideas of the Great Medievalists of the Twentieth Century" (William Morrow), is preoccupied with it: A more descriptive subtitle for his work might almost be "How Antisemitic Medievalists Turn History Against the Jews." (Several Jewish members of the NBCC board, it should be noted, had reservations about Cantor's work.)

In biography, "Maus II" (Pantheon), the conclusion of Art Spiegelman's cartoon-novel about himself and his father, an Auschwitz survivor, deals explicitly with the Holocaust. The winning book, Philip Roth's "Patrimony: A True Story," a memoir of the life and dying of the writer's father, is, if not preoccupied, then at least intruded upon by it. At one point, Herman Roth asks his son to look at a typescript--Herman hasn't read it--written by a Holocaust survivor. The work turns out to be rank pornography. But that interlude of slightly macabre comedy is forgotten in the moving conclusion of the work when, after his father's death, Roth looks out across the Atlantic and thinks of other Jewish deaths.

I have heard Gentiles say that they are tired of hearing and reading about the Holocaust, but it seems to me I have heard the same, and just as often, from Jews. Louis Begley's terse, gripping autobiographical novel, "Wartime Lies," like "Holocaust Testimonies," had to stand against a powerful prior sense that everything necessary had been said. A little child when "Wartime Lies" begins, Begley's protagonist successfully masquerades as a Gentile from Hitler's invasion of Poland through to the fall of the Reich. "Wartime Lies" trailed both Norman Rush's "Mating" and the eventual winner, Jane Smiley's "A Thousand Acres," in the balloting, but this steel-gray novel--a finalist for last year's Los Angeles Times Book Prize and winner of the Irish Times-Aer Lingus International Fiction Award--will remain in the mind of anyone who reads it. A book about hiding, self-falsification and growing up frightened, it makes several unlikely but deep connections with the American Jewish experience.

Like Saul Friedlander, who has held the chair of Holocaust studies at UCLA, I dislike the word Holocaust as a designation for Hitler's attempted genocide. Derived from a Greek word meaning "whole-burnt," that word has its roots in ritual sacrifice. An animal killed and then burnt to ash, burnt to the point where none of it is left for human consumption, is visibly offered to God alone. To use the same word for a ritual prescribed in the Torah and for Hitler's unspeakable crime strikes me as blasphemy. I greatly prefer the Hebrew word shoah , meaning "devastation," which, though not likely to become the standard designation, has been in use since Claude Lanzmann's film by the same title.

It may be paradoxically appropriate, however, that no single word will quite do for a memory that outstrips language. The right word, if there were one, might lay the memory to rest, and, as this year's NBCC deliberations showed, it will not be laid to rest. American Jews bear its scars without having suffered its wounds. And so, in consequence, do all American artists and intellectuals. It's a burden to be brilliant after the six million.

Or, as the exuberant, prodigally gifted Albert Goldbarth puts it in the conclusion of his poem "The Nile":


wonder I love my people. We're

all woozy-eyed with partying by now, we're tired

empathetic heaps lounged out on

the pillows . . .

My sweeties, my grownups who

have come so far, what are we

here in midlife, but

the scars of healing from where we

once burned

our tongues on the Other Language.

It won't fade, this memory, and lying at the intersection of public and private history, it has not yet given to out literature all that it has to give.

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