“To write poetry after Auschwitz,” wrote German philosopher Theodore Adorno, “is barbaric.” Adorno’s famous decree was a sort of melancholic resignation, a belief that along with six million people, the Holocaust had expunged meaning itself, and exposed the lie of poetry’s power to civilise.
Adorno’s statement went even further: art had long been considered part of a countervailing force to cruelty, but given this most cultured of countries had conspired to industrially obliterate millions, Adorno thought the vain pretence of art—its civilising mission—was failed. To continue with the lie would be a form of barbarism itself.
Adorno’s absolutism was impractical, to say the least, and he would later revise his metaphysics to something more sensible: “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.”
It is a shame that we remember so well his first quote, but rarely the second. Perhaps to accept a contradictory line from the same man damages the pungency of the first, and presents an unsatisfactory reminder of our own complications and revisions.
Adorno is on my mind this Christmas, a time when the screams of the tortured are often more pronounced. For grieving families now staring at an empty chair beside the Christmas tree, it is a time painfully replete with significance.
It is also a time when grieving families might bitterly ponder the uselessness of the psycho-babble that saturates our culture, and in particular the concept of closure.
The uselessness of “closure” was recently the subject of a Bob Ellis column, in which he rightly described it as a glib myth. As I think about grieving families this Christmas, Ellis’ petition to our senses strikes me as an important one—a powerful exorcise of prevailing bullshit.
The concept of closure is a malign one, for it presupposes we might “close” anything. “Close”, by definition, is a neat and absolute act, but each of us is constituted—for good or bad—by the inheritance of genes and the untidy accrual of experience. We are where we’ve been, and we get to choose if we’re okay with that or not.
But “closure” detests this messiness, stands in proud, if deformed, opposition to it. The concept of closure is forged in the same shallow American credulity that mass creates self-help clichés and pills and then dispenses them like fast food. And like fast food, it is cheap and ubiquitous and offers little nourishment.
With “closure” the question becomes one of abandonment, or clean departure—of shedding a skin or unshackling a train carriage. But we are defined by how well we live with things, not by how well we forget. It is a question of getting better, stronger—but never one of ever being free from pain.
Do not read this as an ode to resignation, or a call for subjects of sorrow to forever define themselves as such. Quite the opposite. Transform your sorrow, as much as you can, into activity rather than nihilism. What I am saying is that pain is an irrevocable part of our lot, and Dr. Phil or Oprah or prescription pills do not have the final word to say on being alive.
I know first-hand that the idea of “letting go”—as the anaemic jargon has it—is repulsive and impossible for families who have suddenly, violently lost loved ones. In my experience they rage against consumptive grief in different ways and with different success, but most stoutly, slowly get on with their lives. Some transpose their grief into fierce and inexhaustible crusades, a sort of dangerous bearing witness; others are quieter in their response. For all, the idea of forgetting is absurd and disgusting—but they all know the cost of remembering too much.
We all grieve in different ways. Learning to live with grief, learning to transpose it constructively, is heroic and necessary but it is not closure. There is no such thing.
No, there will still be poetry because there will still be pain. Not the Holocaust, nor Prozac, nor the brazen vulgarities of American optimism will stop that.