Remembering the Third Reich American Style—Part One: The American Way of Remembering (1)

This is the first in a series of posts.

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One cop walked his dog over to the memorial that [Lesley] McSpadden had made for her son [Michael Brown, killed by another cop who’d pulled the teen-ager over for walking improperly on the street in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, 2014] and let it pee on the flowers and candles. After the rest of the policemen got into their vehicles to leave, car by car they rolled over what was left of the memorial. In the days to come, these memorials to Michael Brown Jr. would be destroyed over and over, as if to say, This is the American way of remembering.

—Jeff Chang, We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation (Picador, 2016)


Continuing compulsively to repeat something over and over again is one way never to forget it. If by “always remembering” we mean nothing more or less than just “never forgetting,” then such compulsive repetition is a fail-proof way of assuring ourselves that we will always remember.

By steadfastly refusing ever to become aware of what we are doing in the first place, we guarantee that we will never forget it. We can only forget what we have once allowed to come into our awareness. So if we simply refuse ever to get clear about just what it is we are really doing, we never have to worry about forgetting it either. Such memory manifests as compulsive repetition.

All that’s needed for the practice of that form of remembering is the cultivation of stupidity. By the definition that has long been my favorite, “stupidity” is “willful ignorance.” So defined, stupidity is not just not knowing something, which is the literal, etymological meaning of the term ignorance—from Latin ignorantem, “not knowing,” the present participle of ignorare, “not to know, not to be acquainted with, to take no notice of, pay no attention to,” itself deriving from in-, in the sense of “not,” plus Old Latin gnarus, “aware, acquainted with.”

There are various possible reasons for ignorance, for not knowing, as such. That includes something being “hidden in plain sight,” so that we need someone or something else to call our attention to it before we notice it, like the glasses on our face we keep searching for until someone finally points out to us that we’re wearing them.

Many years ago, when I was only 15, I went with my parents to Germany one summer, to visit my older brother, who at that time stationed in Frankfurt as a volunteer in the U.S. Army. Because I had taught myself some German in preparation for the trip, I became the designated family translator. On one occasion, my father needed something from the drug store, and I went with him to do any translation that might prove necessary. Standing right in front of the pharmacy counter, my father asked me to ask the pharmacist for whatever it was my father wanted. I did so, in my limited German. But then the pharmacist answered in fluent English. My father looked at me inquiringly, waiting for my translation. As my exasperation began to mount, I repeated exactly what the pharmacist had just said, using the same English words. My father then gave me some more to say to the waiting pharmacist. My exasperation burst out as I responded, “You tell him! He’s speaking English!” My father just smiled at his own ignorance, and took things from there.

That remains for me to this day a fond memory of my father, and of the gracefulness with which one can respond when one finds that one has gotten bent down just a bit, even despite all one’s own perfectly innocent intentions.

Such innocent ignorance is not the only kind, however.

There is also the sort of ignorance that is rooted in the desire not to know, because what is all too clearly there to be known does not happen to accord with what one would like to be true. It is the sort of cherished ignorance that insists, against all opposition and despite all evidence to the contrary, that what actually is the case is precisely what one wants to be the case, because that would serve one’s own selfish wants, desires, or needs (including especially the need always to think highly of oneself, despite all one’s misdeeds, failures, or vices). There is no innocence to ignorance of such a sort, as there was innocence in my father’s sort of ignorance. It is willful ignorance, the product of wanting not to know.

That is what I mean by “stupidity”: just such willful ignorance.

Precisely because it is so willful, such stupidity also has nothing to do with lacking intelligence. In fact, my own experience throughout my life is that intelligence actually makes such stupidity easier. That’s because intelligence is useful for discovering more and more ways to avoid coming to know what one does not want to know. In general, the more intelligent one is, the craftier one can become, including crafty in the ways of hiding oneself from oneself.

Stupidity, willful ignorance, is back of the American way of remembering, as Chan describes it in the passage with which I began.

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To be continued.

Faith in Trauma: Breaking the Spell

Trauma-Faith: Breaking the Spell

To enchant is to cast a spell. In turn, to disenchant is to break the spell of an earlier enchantment. In the first decades of the 20th century, Max Weber made popular the idea that modernization—with its ever more exclusive prioritization of science, technology, and instrumental rationality over faith, tradition, and belief—centrally involved a process of the “disenchantment” (Entzauberung) of nature. Ever since Weber, however, it can and has been debated whether modernization really broke a spell, or whether it cast one.

So, for example, in one of his writings on the rise of modern technology in volume 76 of the Gesamtausgabe (“Complete Edition”) of his works, Martin Heidegger makes explicit reference to the Weberian idea of disenchantment, only to argue against that thesis. Rather than a dis-enchantment (Entzauberung), says Heidegger (pages 296-297), what is truly involved in the rise of modern technology itself is instead an en-chantment (Verzauberung), a bewitching, hexing, or casting of a spell. That enchantment, according to him, is one whereby the very power at play in modern technology can make good on its own exclusive claim to power, as it were—just as, in the fairy story, the wicked witch, to secure her own claim to the power of beauty, casts a spell over Sleeping Beauty, the legitimate claimant.

According to Heidegger, that enchantment—the casting of the spell whereby what is at work in modern technology (as well as at work in all of the modern science and instrumental rationality that goes with that technology) seizes and secures its own power—goes hand in hand with the de-worlding (Entweltung) of the world, the de-earthing (Enterdung) of the earth, the de-humanizing (Entmenschung) of humanity, and the de-divinizing (Entgötterung) of divinity. “Technology,” writes Heidegger, “as the unleashing and empowering of energies [. . .] first creates ‘new needs’,” and then produces the resources to satisfy them: technology “first discloses the world to which it then fits its products.”

Badiou said essentially the same thing just last year in À la recherche du réel perdu (“In Search of the Lost Real”), his critique of our contemporary “entertainment world,” as he calls it at one point, using the English expression—a world-less pseudo-world actually, one ever more frenziedly devoted to the pursuit of Pascalian diversion from reality. In such a desolate pseudo-world, what falsely but inescapably presents itself as “reality” is in truth so utterly crushing that it permits no genuine, full living at all any longer, but only survival. Nor does such a divertingly fake world any longer have any room for any true faith. It only makes room for superstitions—precisely the sort of dangerously superstitious nonsense, for example, that United States Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia spouted at a high school commencement speech shortly before his recent demise, when he attributed the global success of the United States to the frequent invocation of God’s name by our Presidents and other public officials (see my citation of his remarks to that effect at the beginning of my earlier post, “An Anxious Peace: ‘God’ After Auschwitz”).

In a world already deeply asleep, under the bewitching spell cast by what Badiou lucidly calls “triumphant capitalism,” what we need is precisely dis-enchantment, the breaking of the spell. The spell that holds the world in thrall today is broken whenever, anywhere in the world, reality suddenly and unexpectedly breaks through to dispel (good word for it: “de-spell”) any illusion that happiness consists of endlessly buying what the global market endlessly offers for sale.

In Métphysique du bonheur réel (“Metaphysics of real happiness”)—a short book he also published earlier last year and in which he was already “in search of the lost real”—Badiou describes the illusion that the shock of reality shatters. It is the illusion wherein one takes the height of happiness to consist of the conjunction of the following factors, as he puts it in his introduction (p. 6): “a tranquil life, abundance of everyday satisfactions, an interesting job, a good salary, sound health, a flourishing relationship, vacations one doesn’t soon forget, a bunch of sympathetic friends, a well-equipped home, a roomy car, a loyal and cuddly domestic pet, [and] charming children with no problems who succeed in school.” In short, it is the illusion that one could be happy while living a life of crushing consumerist boredom, where nothing disruptive ever happens—life as no more than survival: outliving oneself from birth, in effect.

As opposed to any such pseudo-happiness of mere security and consumerist comfort in sheer survival, real happiness comes only as a by-product of true living. In turn, real life in itself begins only in the deliberate choice, the decision, to engage fully with reality, whenever it does break through our numbing consumerist spell to strike us. When it does, it reawakens us to the realization that, as Badiou puts it later (p. 38), “existence is capable of more than self-perpetuation.” When the consumerist spell that has held us in thrall is finally broken, we reawaken to the awareness that real happiness is nothing but the feeling that accompanies true life—a life fully lived “even unto death,” as the Christian biblical formula has it, rather than just survived.

Faith in Trauma: Breaking the Spell

Traumatized Faith

Allowed to come to term rather than remaining forever avoided and compulsively repeated, trauma traumatizes faith itself. Through trauma everything is changed, including faith. As belongs to trauma, however, it takes a while before that change can fully register, sometimes even a very long while.

Nietzsche said that the trauma he named “the death of God” might well take two thousand years to register fully. That is, it might well take that long for such stupendous news as that of God’s death to spread everywhere.

As is always the case with traumatic shocks, it is only in its recurrent after-shocks that so great a trauma as what Nietzsche calls the death of God can finally register. It is worth noting that the extent of the destruction engendered by a traumatic shock does not become fully visible until brought to the surface precisely by its after-shocks. In just that way, for instance, a building shattered by a major earthquake may not fall down until a later, much milder after-shock gives it the final push. It even took some time, after all, for the damage inflicted by the two planes flown into New York’s Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, to bring about their collapse, a time during which at least some of those who otherwise would have remained trapped inside were able to escape death, at least for some while.

In the sense that Nietzsche speaks of God’s death, God did not die in Auschwitz, as has sometimes been said. In truth, the God at issue died well before that. As shocking as it may sound to say so, Auschwitz was but an after-shock of what Nietzsche calls the death of God. To many eyes, that after-shock made the extent of the devastation wrought by God’s death visible, to be sure. However, it was not itself the real cause of the destruction it finally made visible to so many. That is why it is far easier to say that we will never again permit an Auschwitz, than it is actually to act to against its recurrence.

I began an earlier post this year (“An Anxious Peace: ‘God’ After Auschwitz”) by quoting some lines put in the mouth of Ikonnikov, a character in Life and Fate, Vasily Grossman’s great novel of World War II and the battle of Stalingrad, the battle that finally turned the tide against Nazi Germany and all its death camps. “On the fifteenth of September last year,” Grossman has Ikonnikov say at one point in the novel, “I watched twenty thousand Jews being executed—women, children and old men. That day I understood that God could not allow such a thing and that therefore he did not exist.” On that day Ikonnikov was given to see (to use another of Nietzsche’s formulations for restating the point of those lines) that the God familiar to him from his birth was no longer worthy of being believed in. After seeing what Ikonnikov saw that day, no one with any self-respect, or any respect for anyone else, could any longer entertain such a belief. They have become aware of what Nietzsche calls the death of that God. The corpse of that God will never be resuscitated.

In The Century, which first came out in French in 2005 and in English two years later, contemporary French philosopher Alain Badiou defined the 20th century as the century of “the passion for the real.” The fictional character of Ikonnikov embodies that passion, as does the entire great novel—Grossman’s Life and Fate—in which Ikonnikov is only one of many fictional characters. So does the work of Pier Paolo Pasolini, the Italian film director, writer, and public intellectual who was born in 1922 and murdered under still unclear circumstances in 1975, and to whose poem “The Ashes of Gramsci” Badiou devotes a lengthy discussion in a book he published just last year, À la recherché du réel perdu, “In Search of the Lost Real” (Fayard, 2015).

In “The Ashes of Gramsci,” as Badiou reads it, Pasolini speaks of what passes for a world today, this endless day of the global dominance of capitalism—a dominance far more entrenched today than it was in 1954, when Pasolini first wrote the poem. As Badiou describes it (pp. 43-44), “the characteristic of our [contemporary] world, let’s call it the ‘Western’ world, is to be and to want to be sheltered from all reality. [. . .] It is a world where reigns what Pascal once and for all named diversion. Today, one might as well say entertainment: ‘entertainment world’ [in English in the French text].” A few lines later Badiou adds that in the “triumphant capitalism” of our global society today: “There is nothing but diversion. There is nothing but the concern to keep oneself as distant from reality as possible.” Badiou says that “Pasolini will call that subjective disposition ‘replacing life by survival’,” which is to say replacing real life with a pseudo-life, one that is “able to do no more than continue the negative work of diversion.”

Badiou then cites a passage from the poem according to which, caught in such a pseudo-life of ceaseless diversion from all reality, “one senses the absence of all true/religion”—which is to say any religion that opens upon reality itself, and not upon some illusion. A supposed religion that opens only on illusion is no true religion at all, but only idolatry; and a faith that puts all its faith in an idol is no true faith, but only superstition.

To any such pseudo-religion and pseudo-faith, reality will always come as a traumatic shock, the after-shocks of which will eventually destroy the illusory religion and faith altogether. Only a traumatized faith can face reality—and be purified in the traumatic process. Just what remains of faith itself once it is so purified—once it is distilled down to its essence by the traumatic confrontation with the real—will be the subject of my next post.

Thinking Time, Drinking Time: A Beginner’s Thought (3)


Enlightenment is the realization that you’ve been enlightened all along, only didn’t know it.



You, most esteemed teacher, have brought everyone who travelled along under your leadership to the point of being confronted with the choice either to become a guardian of essential things, or to work against them. [. . . .] What let your leadership become what it is, is this: the content and style of your questioning directly compel us to face final confrontations and always demand the readiness for transformation or avoidance. None of us is ever certain whether it will be given him to find the way to where the model of your work—quite inconspicuously—constantly seeks to direct him: into the tranquility [Gelassenheit] to grow ripe for the problems.

—Heidegger, address at the formal Freiburg University celebration of his mentor Edmund Husserl’s 70th birthday on April 8, 1929 (in Gesamtausgbe 16)


The same year that I discovered philosophy, I also discovered alcohol. Together, those two discoveries would determine the entire subsequent course of my life to this day. They will continue to go on determining it for however many days I have left, though their two modes of determination will differ: philosophy determining me in my continuing to do it, alcohol determining me in my continuing to not-do it.

I discovered alcohol during the same trip to Europe I took with my parents when I was fifteen, described in my preceding post. After I made that discovery, it took twenty-five years of drinking to bring me to a point of final decision, where I at last was brought to face my own inner desolation, coupled with a matching lifelong lack of awareness that I had any option. Because I finally saw clearly that I had to do something, but had no idea at all of what that “something” might be, I sought help. Then, when help did in fact turn out to be available, I received it with gratitude—which is to say I availed myself of it.

Twenty-five years of pickling myself in philosophy no less than in alcohol helped teach me by that genuine gratitude for a gift consists of nothing other than accepting and receiving the gift fully, which means taking it up and using it. That is what I did when I was finally brought to that point of decision that made me ask, genuinely ask, for help, and was offered it.

I am not a slow learner. However, the school system, in league with a number of other systems into which I was thrown at my very birth, did everything it could to block me from learning what I most needed to learn, which I learned only by choosing to receive what I was given when I was brought to that final decision point. Given such bondage, the wonder is not that it took me more than forty years to learn my lesson. Rather, the wonder is that I was ever allowed to learn it at all. That it did was ultimately thanks to the conjunction of the two gifts that were given me when I was fifteen—the gifts of philosophy and alcohol—that I was finally permitted to learn, even despite all my schooling, how actually to live my own life, rather than just enduring it, waiting for it to end.

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“My control disease.” That is how psychologist J. Keith Miller, a recovered alcoholic, refers to his alcoholism in his book A Hunger for Healing (San Francisco: Harper, 1991, p. 5). It is an apt description. As I wrote in my own book Addiction and Responsibility (originally published in New York by Crossroad in 1993, now available in a print-on-demand edition from CreateSpace) when I first cited Miller’s descriptive reference, “whatever else they may be addicted [to], all addicts are addicted to ‘control.’ ” That is, as I went on to explain, they are all addicted—which by its etymology and history of usage literally means “spoken over to,” precisely in the way a slave is spoken over to an owner—the experience of feeling “in control,” or “under control,” even if (indeed, especially if) in reality they are not. Addicts are people spoken over to, and owned by, the compulsive need to experience that very feeling, the feeling that they are in or under their own control.

As I suggested already in Addiction and Responsibility, that goes a long way toward explaining the correlation researchers have found between addiction and two interrelated psychological traits: “field dependency” and “external locus of control.” Both have the status of significant risk factors for addiction. “To be field dependent,” as I then explained, “means to take one’s cues for how to behave from outside oneself, such as from the reactions of others, rather than from one’s own desires, emotions, and autonomous motivations.” As for the second trait: “To have an external locus of control means to perceive oneself as largely at the mercy of powers beyond one’s own control, rather than largely able to control one’s own destiny (an ‘internal locus of control’).”

The rates of occurrence for the two traits, field dependency and external locus of control, tend to vary proportionately. That is, they tend to rise and fall with one another. That certainly makes sense. After all, when we experience our own lives as not really our own, but at the mercy of powers beyond us (“external locus of control”), it is hardly surprising that we become especially sensitive to the cues our environment delivers to us about how we need to behave to keep on the good side of those powers (“field dependency”).

Nor is it any more surprising that the stronger those two interconnected traits grow—that is, the more one experiences one’s own life as being under external control, and therefore requiring one to be ever more vigilant for cues about how one is expected to behave if one does not want to run afoul of the powers exercising that control—the more likely it becomes that one will seek relief from the constant pressure. In other words, the more one will crave the feeling of being in and under one’s own control.

For addicts, it is precisely the practice of their addictions, whatever those addictions may be, that gives them, however fleetingly, that very feeling. So it is no wonder they get hooked!

No wonder, either, that rates of addiction continue to skyrocket in our globalized system of ever more mass-produced needs and ever more mass-produced products that falsely promise to fulfill those needs. In such a world-less world—where no one is “in control,” really—it is no surprise that we all experience such a yen to “pick up and use,” as addicts say. When learning becomes no more than schooling to consume, and teaching no more than the tooling of consumers, nothing else can be expected than that more and more students, coercively conditioned not to think, will be driven to drink instead.

Then the only hope left is that such students may finally drink enough that their drinking itself will become their greatest teacher, driving them to a final decision point. Finding themselves at last at that point, they really have to choice, in one sense. Either they choose to go ahead and choose—that is, to enter into the tranquility wherein they can sooner or later come to perceive and then to do whatever they must, each in each one’s own situation, to take back ownership over their own lives, and then to maintain it, day by day. Or else they just turn away again, refusing to choose at all, instead just heading back into oblivion, “blotting out the consciousness of [their] intolerable situation as best [they] can,” to use a formulation from Alcoholics Anonymous, AA’s “Big Book.”



For it does not admit of exposition like other branches of knowledge; but after much converse about the matter itself and a life lived together, suddenly a light, as it were, is kindled in one soul by a flame that leaps to it from another, and thereafter sustains itself.

—Plato, 7th Letter (341 c-d)


Art in the technological world stands at a point of decision it has never faced before.

—Heidegger, “Art and Technology” (in Gesamtausgabe 76)

The first step in making a decision is coming to the realization that we have one to make. The more crucial the decision, the longer does the process of coming to such realization take. But however long it takes, the realization becomes fully clear only when the options themselves, between which we have to decide, have finally come to be clearly marked out before us. What exactly our options are has to be made clear to us. Only then are we truly at the decision point, where we must go one way or another. Then, at last, we are finally left with no choice but to choose, or to pull the blanket of oblivion back over our heads. Either we choose to choose, which means we go ahead to take up and do whatever it is that has been put before us to take up and do at that point. Or else we simply relinquish our own choice, and draw back, perhaps with a deep sense of relief, into the oblivion from which we had just emerged to come to that decision point in the first place.

Those who are brought to such final decision points in their lives are confronted, in fact, with the choice either to gain that life itself, accepting full ownership of their own singular lives, “owning up” to them, or to dis-own their own lives—and thereby lose them. Then, however much they might gain by refusing to choose to own up to their own lives—all the money, fame, or other forms the Biblical forty pieces of silver might take for them, even if they gain the whole world—they will truly have profited themselves nothing.

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Capitalism [. . .] is the first socio-economic order which de-totalizes meaning: there is no global “capitalist worldview,” no “capitalist civilization” proper: the fundamental lesson of globalization is precisely that capitalism can accommodate itself to all civilizations, from Christian to Hindu or Buddhist, from West to East. Capitalism’s global dimension can only be formulated at the level of truth-without-meaning, as the “real” of the global market mechanism. This is why the famous Porto Allegre motto “Another world is possible!” is too simplistic; it fails to register that right now we already live less and less within what can be called a world, so that the task is no longer just to replace the old one with a new one, but . . . what? The first indications are given in art.

—Slavoj Žižek, Living in the End Times (London & New York: Verso, 2010, p. 365)

What most impressed me about Boots Riley and The Coup when I attended their Shadowbox concert at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) in San Francisco in the summer of 2014 was how they created a space where they and others, including not only other musical and non-musical performance groups but also the audience, could come together as a single co-creative community, as it were. Above all, whatever else it created, the very coming together of such a diverse bunch of people created their very co-creative community itself. There was nothing really in common to all those participating, except for this, that they all did participate, and thereby built a community together.

To explain that a bit more fully:

As I wrote in this blog at the time (in a post I called, with intentional redundancy, “The Après-Coup After The Coup,” part of an episodic post-series entitled “Pulling Out of the Traffic,” namely, the traffic in trauma) one good way of describing The Coup is as “a group of musicians that goes out of its way, whenever and wherever it performs, to share the spotlight, whose shine its presence generates, with other, lesser-known, more ‘local’ groups.” As I went on to note: “Rather than laying claim to all the glory for itself, The Coup would seem to glory in sharing the glory with others.” Thus, I wrote, one vitally important way The Coup establishes its own uniqueness is by actively being “a group that builds up groups,” builds up groups—including itself—by joining together with others in one united yet richly diverse performance community.

It was not only fellow musical performance groups that The Coup invited to perform with and beside them. Rather, what could rightly be called the “co-performers” for that evening—each of whose participation Boots Riley and The Coup publicly recognized and honored—included a puppet troupe and a comedian, as well as the visual artist who created the striking wall-murals that surrounded the shared space for performers and audience, and the production designer. What is more, as I wrote in my post, the others whom The Coup welcomed into the community they opened up “also included all the members of the audience who attended the two sold-out premier performances on August 16.” All the members of that audience themselves literally “played along” by their participation. Each audience member was granted the space, not just physically but emotionally and socially, to participate in her or his own way. Most did so, as I wrote in that earlier post, “by dancing, hopping, jumping, writhing, gyrating, hand-lifting, gesticulating, waving, noise-making, and in other ways noticeably moving around physically.” However, those like me, “who just stood there pretty much immobile,” were no less “co-performers” of the community as a whole.  With each and every one of us taking part in her or his own way, all alone together, we all helped build what, “at least for that few hours, [was] a richly diverse community of our own.” All alone together, we co-created what I called in my post a “communizing space,” that is, “a space, an opening, where community c[ould]—and in one manner or another actually d[id]—occur.”

In what passes for a world today, for a civilization, the only way that anyone—artists most definitely included, but also all of us in their audiences—can survive at all, is by selling what they do or are for money. That’s just the way our world-less world works. But there is selling yourself, and then there is selling yourself out. The two are not the same, however difficult it may sometimes be to learn the difference.

Those who are truly graced are those who along their way encounter a teacher to let them learn how not to sell themselves out, even when they are forced into selling themselves. When that happens, it is quite a coup! After such a coup, all that remains—but it is everything—is to remain in the truth that has just struck.



Men use up their lives in heart-breaking political struggles, or get themselves killed in civil wars, or tortured in the secret prisons of the Gestapo, not in order to establish some central-heated, air-conditioned, strip-lighted Paradise, but because they want a world in which human beings love one another instead of swindling and murdering one another. And they want that world as a first step. Where they go from there is not so certain, and the attempt to foresee it in detail only confuses the issue.

—George Orwell, “Can Socialists Be Happy?” (1943), in All Art Is Propaganda


When tranquility toward things and openness toward mystery awaken in us, then we may find ourselves going along a way that leads to a new land and soil. The creation of lasting works could send down new roots into such soil.

—Heidegger, “Gelassenheit” (in GA 16)

Those lucky enough to encounter true teachers are eventually led to the point where they have no other choice but one. Either they open themselves to receive the gift that is offered to them there, entering into the serenity necessary to address essential things. Or they refuse that gift, and retreat into oblivion, drawing it back over themselves like children drawings blankets over their heads in order not to see or be seen.

If students whose teachers have brought them to that point fail that test, it is not their teachers’ fault. But if at that point such students honor their teachers by choosing to choose, rather than just abdicating all responsibility, then they may find themselves, like Abram becoming Abraham, going along a way that eventually leads to the Promised Land. Along the way they will encounter obstacles. In one fashion or another, they will have to wrestle with angels, as it were, just as Jacob did to become Israel (“He Who Struggles With God”). If they persevere in the journey, however, they will win the prize, as St. Paul assures them in one of his letters. They will find a new land and a new home, where they can at last settle down and begin to build—and thus art in the fullest sense will happen again.

So in the end it all comes down to just this: whether those students choose to start along the way their teachers have led them to, and then persevere in their journey along that way, one step at a time, day after day. It will do such students no good to huddle together at the parting point to which their teachers have led them—huddle together trying to imagine what the land at the end of the way will look like, or how they are to grapple with the difficulties they may encounter along their way. Such shilly-shallying is just one way of retreating back into oblivion. It is nothing but a security blanket to cling to in order to soothe oneself, like Linus in Peanuts—just another of all the childish things that, to rely on St. Paul’s teaching again, we must put aside when we grow up.

Nor is getting underway to a land where a new world might be built a matter of trying to plan the route, or trying to take charge of the means of conveyance. Trying to plan a route makes sense only when one knows in advance where one is going; but that is just what one does not know, when one starts off for an altogether new world. The example of Columbus and the still unremembered genocides his plans for journeying to India unleashed should be warning enough against such presumptuous planning. Similarly, to take charge of the vehicle that is taking us to somewhere, we know not where, presupposes at least minimal clarity about just what constitutes that vehicle. What looks like what will convey us to our unknown destination may turn out to be no transportation device at all, but just some useless widget being pushed on us for some huckster’s easy profit. If we don’t know where we’re going, we also don’t know what will take us there.

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When Viktor thought about just how the new theory had come to him, he was struck by something quite unexpected. There appeared to be absolutely no logical connection between the theory and the experiments. The tracks he was following suddenly broke off. He couldn’t understand what path he had taken. Previously he had always thought that theories arose from experience and were engendered by it. Contradictions between an existing theory and new experimental results naturally led to a new, broader theory. But it had all happened quite differently. Viktor was sure of this. He had succeeded at a time when he was in no way attempting to connect theory with experimental data, or vice versa. The new theory was not derived from experience. Viktor could see this quite clearly. It had arisen in absolute freedom; it had sprung from his own head. [. . .] The theory had sprung from the free play of thought. It was this free play of thought –which seemed quite detached from the world of experience –that had made it possible to explain the wealth of experimental data, both old and new. The experiments had been merely a jolt that had forced him to start thinking. They had not determined the content of his thoughts. All this was quite extraordinary . . .

–Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate (trans. Robert Chandler, New York Review Books, 2006, pp. 347-348)

If, when we are brought to a final decision point, we are not to avoid our responsibility by wasting our time speculating about where we’re going, planning the route, or getting our cars or other conveyances ready to roll, then just what is to be done? In fact, by just asking that question—at least if that is really what we are doing, and not just stalling for time by pretending to be asking, or maybe just back-sassing—we are already doing it. Really to ask a question is to give up the illusion of already knowing the answer, and to give up the sense of control that comes from such an illusion. It is to become, instead, open to learning, ready to be taught—already underway.

Thinking itself is not planning. Nor is it the manipulation of representations or symbols. It is not a compulsive drive to become secure. It does not aim at establishing any order, nor serve any will to dominion and control. It is not an extension of business as usual by other means. It is not a regular weekday practice.

Thinking is a sabbatical practice, the fruit of rest and not of restlessness. It begins only after we are set free to go home, to a place not of business but of tranquility, of serenity rather than drivenness.

Just by letting go and letting ourselves be drawn at last into a place of serenity, we become thoughtful, which is already to begin to think. Then, wherever we are, it is 3 o’clock, and school is over. Now at last, it is time to think. That’s all.

Today, all alone together, we need to find a serene place where we can  start to think. Only then might we find the way to a new land and soil, where art might again send down roots and flourish among us so that we all—artists and audiences alike—might once again build a world together. We cannot know in advance where thinking will eventually lead us. We can only find out by beginning to think.

Just think!




Sanctifying Life (1)


In an Unwelt whose sole ultimate self-expression is a system of humiliation, torture, and murder, the maintenance by the victims of a shred of humanity is not merely the basis of resistance but already part of it. In such a world—this is the testimony of the mothers, the countless individuals who had a spokesman in Pelagia Lewinska, the fighters in the ghettoes and camps, and the Hasidim in Buchenwald and Lublin—life does not need to be sanctified: it is already holy. Here is the definition of resistance, sought after for so long.                                    Many performed the mitzvah of kiddush ha-hayyim by enhancing, defending, or even just barely clinging to life. Some could sanctify life only by choosing death.

—Emil L. Fackenheim, To Mend the World: Foundations of Post-Holocaust Jewish Thought (Indiana University Press, 1994, p. 225)

Some things in that passage from Fackenheim need a few words of explanation.

(1) An Unwelt is a non-world, a world de-worlded. It is a world stripped of all of what Heidegger would call its “worldhood” (“Weltlichkeit”), all of what really makes it be a genuine world in the first place, and not just a pseudo-world disguising a void of any world truly to be lived in. An Unwelt is a nega- or counter-Utopia (from the negative prefix u- or un-, “not,” plus topos, Greek for “place”), we might say: a true anti-place that is the wiping out of any place at all, rather than an ideal place realized fully in no actual place, but everywhere to be aimed at. Such an Unwelt, a no-place no-place, was Auschwitz, to give the paradigmatic example, which has become a name standing for any and every such world-consuming non-world of a nowhere. An Unwelt, then, is Auschwitz—whether that be limited to a Nazi death-camp in Poland, or gone global to envelop the entire planet. Wherever there is an Unwelt, there is Auschwitz. And wherever Auschwitz is, there is “a system of humiliation, torture, and murder.

(2) The “mothers” whose “testimony” is at issue are those Fackenheim describes a bit earlier. “Nazi thought took a serious view of Jewish pregnancies,” he writes (page 216). “Pregnant women at Auschwitz were sent to the crematorium on arrival or, if they managed to conceal their condition then and until birth, immediately on discovery and together with their babies. Orthodox rabbis, considering the situation, permitted abortions despite the stern Halakhic opposition to the practice.” The mothers whose testimony is at issue are those who nevertheless found precisely the strength to “refuse an abortion, give birth to her baby, and show the energy and ingenuity to conceal it for a day, a week, a month, or even by good fortune until all was over”.

(3) Pelagia Lewinska was a Polish noblewoman, a non-Jew, who survived being sent to the Nazi camp at Auschwitz. After the war, she wrote of her experience, including the following passage (which Fackenheim cites twice, first on page 25 and then, in a slightly more complete version, on page 217, which I will quote):

At the outset the living places, the ditches, the mud, the piles of excrement behind the blocks, had appalled me with their horrible filth. . . . And then I saw the light! I saw that it was not a question of disorder or lack of organization but that, on the contrary, a very thoroughly considered conscious idea was in the back of the camp’s existence. They had condemned us to die in our own filth, to drown in mud, in our own excrement. They wished to abase us, to destroy our human dignity, to efface every vestige of humanity, to return us to the level of wild animals, to fill us with horror and contempt toward ourselves and our fellows.

But from the instant that I grasped the motivating principle . . . it was as if I had been awakened from a dream. . . . I felt under orders to live. . . . And if I did die in Auschwitz, it would be as a human being. I would hold on to my dignity. I was not going to become the contemptible, disgusting brute my enemy wished me to be. . . . And a terrible struggle began which went on day and night.

Such a struggle was itself not only on her own behalf, we can say today in looking back upon Lewinska’s testimony, a testimony to go only with that of the mothers already mentioned. It was also on behalf of those very ones of her “fellows” who did not survive Auschwitz, and above all on behalf of those who, before they died, were indeed stripped of any possibility any longer to resist at all: the Muselmänner, those who had been tortured and humiliated to such a point that, through no fault whatever of their own, they were stripped of the very capacity to hear, let alone obey, any orders, from whatever source, to continue any struggle to live.

(3) By “the Hasidim in Buchenwald and Lublin,” Fackenheim is referring to a story he has told just before the lines quoted at the start of this post, about

an incident that occurred in a field outside Lublin, early in the war. A certain German officer named Glowoznik, having rounded up a group of Hasidim, ordered them to sing and dance. (He had heard about Hasidic songs. Also he shared Goebbels’s sense of humor.) The terrified victims began the kind of song the pious sing in the face of death—lomir zich iberbeten, Ovinu she-ba-Shomayim, “Let us be reconciled, Our Father in Heaven!” But their voices quavered, Glowoznik then shouted at them to sing louder, more heartily. [. . .] In the midst of this pandemonium suddenly “an anonymous voice broke through the turmoil with a . . . piercing cry: Mir welen sei iberleben, Ovinu sh-ba-Shomayim—‘We shall outlive them, Our Father in Heaven.’ ” A moment of silence. Then the song took hold of the whole camp in an instant, transporting it into a “stormy and feverish dance.” Glowoznik, now enraged, screamed at the Hasidim to stop.” Doubtless—though the chronicler [whom Fackenheim has been quoting] does not tell us—he succeeded in stopping them, in one way or another. But he could not destroy a moment of truth.

The truth at issue is that conveyed in Fackenheim’s lines cited above, about resistance in such an Unwelt.

(4) Mitzvah means “commandment,” and refers especially to any law, commandment, or order contained in the Jewish Torah, the first five books of the Bible. As so grounded, every mitzvah is regarded as binding upon all practicing Jews.

(5) Kiddush ha-hayim means “sanctification of life.” Just the page before he tells the story of the singing and dancing Hasidim of Lublin, Fackenheim cites a remark attributed to Rabbi Yitzhak Nissenbaum, something he is supposed to have said in the Warsaw ghetto under the Nazi occupation of Poland. That remark explains kiddush ha-hayim by contrasting it to kiddush ha-Shem. The latter literally means “sanctification of the Name,” in the sense of that word whereby the “name” proper to something is that which expresses its definitive essence, such as “Holy One” or “Lord” or, perhaps most appropriately in the case at hand, what Exodus 34:10 says God’s “name” (Shem) is, namely, “the Jealous One.” However, in the context of Fackenheim’s remarks, kiddush ha-Shem, “the sanctification of the Name,” effectively means the sanctification of the body—the body being sanctified by being offered it up in martyrdom, “to the glory of His Name,” as it is often put. Here, at any rate, is the remark Rabbi Nissenbaum is said to have made during the dark days of the Warsaw ghetto under the Nazi occupation:

This is the time for kiddush ha-hayim, the sanctification of life, and not for kiddush ha-Shem, the holiness of martyrdom. Previously, the Jew’s enemy sought his soul and the Jew sanctified his body in martyrdom; now the oppressor demands the Jew’s body, and the Jew is obliged therefore to defend it, to preserve his life.

In the very name of God, as it were, the Jews forced together into the Warsaw ghetto by the Nazis, were enjoined to sanctify life by continuing to live it as long as they could, every moment up to that one in which the Nazi’s succeeded in murdering them all, leaving only their corpses to honor God’s name—which they did, a point to which I will eventually return.



I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

—John 10:10 (NRSV)

To “preserve” one’s life in such a way as to sanctify that life itself is not necessarily to do whatever one can to go on living oneself, by any means necessary—including, perhaps, becoming a brutal capo in a death camp and helping the murderers murder one’s fellows, just to gain a temporary respite from dying oneself. Rather, as Fackenheim insists, in the lines that serve as the epigraph to the preceding section of today’s post, in Auschwitz “some could sanctify life,” and thereby succeed in performing “the mitzvah of kiddush ha-hayyim” not by continuing to struggle to stay alive themselves, whatever the cost, but rather “only by choosing death.”

Not every staying alive is a sanctification of life. Rather, as the example of Pelagia Lewinska teaches us, only a life lived in such a way as not to succumb to the coercion whereby the Unwelt attempts “to fill us with horror and contempt toward ourselves and our fellows,” is a sanctified, sanctifying life. When it is no longer possible to live such a life, then the sanctity of life requires, in fact, that one choose death. That is a mitzvah not only for Jews, practicing or not.

What is common to all those mentioned by Fackenheim in the passage I cited above? What is common to all the Jewish mothers who continued to refuse abortions even in the face of Auschwitz, and even though relieved of the religious duty so to refuse, as well as all those who, like Pelagia Lewinska, were able to continue the struggle to survive even in Auschwitz? What is common to them all, as well as those who fought the Nazis in the Warsaw ghetto or other ghettoes, or even in uprisings at Treblinka and other death camps, including Auschwitz itself? What is common to them all, and the Hasidim who sang with gusto in the field near Lublin? And, finally, what is common to all those resisters and, most especially, all those who, once sent to Auschwitz, could only choose death?

Above and before everything else, what is common to them all is this: They all sanctified life. They all—which means each and every one of them—sanctified that very life that, according to Fackenheim in another line of the cited above, does not even need to be sanctified, because it is already holy.



How slippery the paths on which you set them;

You make them slide to destruction.

How suddenly they come to their ruin,

wiped out, destroyed by terrors.

Like a dream one wakes from, O Lord,

when you wake you dismiss them as phantoms.

–Psalm 72: 18-20 (Grail translation)


“Sanctifying Life” is an ambiguous title. On the one hand, sanctifying can be used the same way the word throwing is used when we speak of throwing fastballs, for example. Taken that way, “Sanctifying Life” would refer to acts of marking, honoring, or acknowledging the sanctity of life, acts that “sanctify” it, making it holy, in that sense. On the other hand, the same title can be used such that the first word, sanctifying, functions as an adjective, so that it would be life itself that did the sanctifying. Then “Sanctifying Life” would mean life itself, considered insofar as life made other things holy by its touch.

Ultimately, if either sense is to be heard fully, the other sense must simultaneously be heard along with it. Thus, finally, the title means both at once, unconfused but inseparable—just as earth and heaven are unconfused but inseparable, or gods and mortals.

Life both is sanctified, and is to be sanctified, as a duty, because life itself sanctifies. Where life is, there is the holy. Life sets itself apart, which is what the word holy ultimately means: to be set apart. It therefore demands to be sanctified. That is, it calls out to be marked and honored in turn, in recurrent ritual and rite—thereby acknowledged and honored in its very own holiness, its own set-apart-ness. Sanctifying life in ritual and rite is sanctifying the sanctifying in turn, sanctifying it in its very being-sanctifying.

It is because life itself sanctifies that Fackenheim can write, in the lines I quote at the beginning of today’s post, that life itself “does not need to be sanctified.” Life itself does not need to be sanctified, which is to say first of all caused to be holy, after the fact of jus being, as it were. Life does not first need to become holy by being expressly set aside and apart in rite and ritual, precisely because “it is already holy,” as Fackenheim says—already set aside and apart.

However, it is not despite but because of life’s being already holy, already sanctified, that life of itself calls out, demands, and commands to be sanctified by us in turn, in ritual and rite—even if the ritual is performed in complete privacy and solitude, as it is by those who let go of their lives peacefully and willingly, to die, perhaps all alone and unattended, in a hospital bed, or on a battlefield. In the same way, those who are gravely ill are set apart by their very illness, made special by it. Just for that very reason, the anointing with oil of those so sick calls out to be performed by Christians who practice that particular sacrament.

A “sacrament,” to use the definition given in the catechism contained in the Anglican or Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, a is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us, ordained by Christ himself, as a means whereby we receive the same, and a pledge to assure us thereof.”

A sacrament is an “efficacious” sign of such grace, to use a term from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. According to the Catholic definition, sacraments are “efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is ‘dispensed’ to us.” Thus, a sacrament is a mark or sign the bestowal of which does not just “stand for” or “represent” the grace that it “signifies.” Rather, the sacrament actually effects the grace that it “signifies.” It actually graces those on whom it is bestowed, “dispenses” it, as the Catholic definition says. In the Anglican or as Episcopal definition, the same point is at issue when it is said that sacraments are given to us “as a means whereby we receive the same”—that is, the same “inward and spiritual grace” that the sign signifies.

The action, the “effecting,” accomplished in and by the performance of a sacramental act such as the anointing of the sick—or baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, reconciliation (also known as penance, or confession), marriage, or ordination, to list all of the traditional seven sacraments practiced in Catholicism and some other Christian denominations—can, of course, be taken to be some sort of magic act, whereby occult powers are manipulated through incantations and the like. They can be taken that way, namely, as devices to force the hand of hidden powers. Fortunately, however, sacramental ceremonies and acts need not be taken that way at all. Rather, they are open to non-superstitious, non-idolatrous ways of understanding them.

In one such non-magical, non-superstitious interpretation, performing a sacrament—that is, bestowing a sacramental sign—is (to use the sort of Heideggerian way of putting it that I favor) a matter of letting be what already is. Indeed, the definition of sacraments in the Catholic Catechism captures this immediately after what I have already cited above by saying (my emphasis added): “The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament.”

Put a bit differently (but still in my favored Heideggerian fashion), they are ways of building or erecting, of setting up and forth, of what already of itself calls out so to be set up and forth—just as Michelangelo is supposed to have said that in order to create his statue of David all he had to do was draw forth the figure of David from out of the block of marble in which it lay concealed, and whence it called out to him to carve it. It is not that the human act of performing a sacramental signing or marking somehow conjures up grace and forces it to appear. Rather, it is grace itself that commands being granted in and through being signed or marked—a gift that calls out to be dispensed and received.

Thus does life itself, as already sanctified, call out to be set forth in rituals and rites of recognition and celebration that sanctify it, precisely so that the sanctification life of itself gives may be dispensed and received. So giving of itself, life also already sanctifies whatever it touches and defines, giving it a sanctity that in turn calls out to be dispensed and received.

At its end, as its end, life even sanctifies the very death that ends it. As all life sanctifies, so is all death, life’s end, sanctified in turn. Every death is sacred, just as is every life—and even if the duty to dispense and receive that death as sacred goes utterly unfulfilled. That includes the deaths of those who die in utter humiliation, having been tortured until they are no longer anything more than bare life, and then murdered, as were the Muselmänner in Auschwitz. Even such death, like each and every death, calls out to be sanctified, precisely because the life such death ends has already sanctified that same death first.

Sanctified by the very life that it ends, death in turn is given the power to sanctify life. Death sanctifies life when it is a voluntary death, died for the sake of life itself, in affirmation of it. Jesus’s death on the cross was such a sanctifying death. So was the death of Socrates, or those Jews who died fighting the Nazis in the Warsaw ghetto, or for that matter the death of Martin Luther King. But so, too, was Jean Améry’s death, which came at his own hand—a suicide. And so is the death of everyone who just quietly lives her or his given life to its end, then finally accepts permission to let it go, dying peacefully in a hospital, hospice, or at home, in bed, perhaps surrounded by loved and loving ones.

            But that is also why Robert Antelme, a Frenchman who survived imprisonment in a Nazi camp as a prisoner of war, could write afterward, in The Human Race, that the very corpses of the dead, piled up in and around the camps themselves, waiting to be burned up in the crematoria (and many of which were ultimately just left lying there, eventually to be bulldozed into mass graves by the Allied forces after the camps were liberated), themselves testified unanswerably to the ultimate failure of the whole Nazi death-machine. The dead themselves, wrote Antelme, the very corpses of those who had been humiliated, tortured, and murdered, continued to bear witness not only to what the Nazi state had done, but also—and far more importantly—to the ultimately illusory nature of all such unholy, life-denying power.

In the very corpses of the humiliated, tortured, and then murdered, life continued to sanctify itself, and to resist all the power that sought to deny it.

*     *     *     *     *     *

To be continued.