Thanks to Peter Marcuse and Peter-Erwin Jansen who grant permission to publish this piece only for this publication on my homepage.
The question whether after Auschwitz, poetry is still possible can perhaps be answered: yes, if it re-presents, in uncompromising estrangement, the horror that was - and still is. Can the same be said about prose? Prose is much more committed to reality than poetry, consequently estrangement is much harder to achieve - estrangement which still is communicable, “makes sense.” It has been achieved: Kafka, Beckett, Peter Weiss (in Aesthetik des Widerstands).
What is involved is more than the “tragic experience” of the world of death and destruction, cruelty and injustice. The tragic experience of suffering is also the vision of its mitigation: Fate or the Gods, or Reason may still prevail (even the Greek tragedy has its negation in the ensuing Satyr-play).
But Auschwitz is the ultimate, is the refutation of Fate, the Gods, Reason; is the demonstration of total human freedom: the freedom to order to organize, to perform, the slaughter. That human freedom can be exercised with equal efficiency to prevent the slaughter, history still has to prove.
How can the immediacy be attained which undoes or suspends the sublimation without ceasing to be literature? For it is the immediacy that has to be caught here - as the starting point of all mediations (perhaps, as the ultimate reality, it defies all mediations). This immediacy is in the cry, the despair, the resistance of the victims. And it is preserved only in memory. To preserve and develop the memory of those who did not have a chance (and of the many millions who have no chance) is the legitimation of literature after Auschwitz.
It is nonsense to say we’re all responsible for Auschwitz, but we are responsible for preserving the memory. We? Those who know what happened, that it [is] still happening in many areas of the globe, and that there is no historical law which would perpetuate the Ultimate. Why should we refuse to live with the horror? Because there are, in spite of the sages of Marxist orthodoxy, not only men and women who are members of their class, who are existing in class relationships, who are shaped by the mode of production, etc. - there are also men and women who are the human beings in and against these conditions. They are supposed to be liberated and to fight for their liberation - not a class, not a bureaucracy. And they are those who have to organize (themselves).
Emancipation from the given conditions of life (which in the class society are necessarily repressive), transcendence beyond them toward more freedom, joy, tranquility are the drives which constitute subjectivity. This means that subjectivity is “in itself” (an sich) “political.” At least since Aristotle’s definition of man as logos echon, the Western tradition has restricted subjectivity to its rational features, and with Descartes, concentrated it in the Ego. In the last analysis a solitary Ego in a world of things, which has great trouble in getting together with other Egos, [DK: makes it difficult] to understand intersubjectivity. Hegel connects this conception in comprehending the subject as spirit, objectifying itself in nature and society. And phenomenology sees in the transcendence of the Ego the very essence of the subject as consciousness: enclosed in the domain of thought. But the transcendence of (“pure”) consciousness is only the abstract, purified form of a political process in the individuals, in which the individual introjects, and confronts his and her society.
Today system-conformist, repressive desublimation is becoming totalitarian. In multiple forms, it generates acaptive audience, which is condemned to see, hear, and feel the manifestations of immediacy. In literature, desublimation appears in the discarding of form. Aesthetic form demands that the general be preserved in the particular of a work, as a binding testimony to truth. This essential quality of the aesthetic is by no means only the imperative of a specific historical style but rather a matter of the transhistorical power of art to uncover dimensions of man and nature which have been buried or leveled. When this dimension is absent, the writing remains solely a private matter, the publication of which has the sole rationale of private therapy.
If literature should nonetheless maintain its particular dimension of truth and represent the breach between dominant consciousness and the unconscious, then its subject can only appear as a victim of existing society, an existence that embodies resistance and hope. The author registers what is done to the subject. This labor is not a matter of the private Ego and its immediate experiences; instead the Ego “opens itself” to the general and to reality. And reality, measured at the extreme, is Auschwitz - as reality and possibility. But then it is not representable - neither in realism nor in formalism. For image and world already conjure up the unsayable and the unimaginable.
Perhaps the possible presence of Auschwitz can be suggested in literature only negatively: the author must forbid himself from writing or describing trivialities - and such trivialities include some things he might think, do or not do. He cannot sing about parts of his body and their activities - after what Auschwitz has done to the body. He cannot describe his own love life, or those of others, without inviting the question as to how such love can still be possible, and without eliciting hate for whoever renders this love questionable. Nor can he sprinkle poverty and labor strife as “episodes” in his narrative. Given the desperation they entail, any such treatment would be untrue.
The taboos just mentioned are not brought extrinsically to literature. They are based in the mimesis function of literature: to re-present reality in the light of that negativity that preserves hope. Auschwitz cannot be excluded from this thinking or dismissed. Nor can it be represented without sublimating the unsublimable through formal construction. It can only be present in the inability of humans to speak with each other without roles, and to love and to hate without anxiety and without fear of happiness. This inability must appear as the general in the particular, the destiny of reality - not as personal bad luck, misfortune, incapacity or psychological deficit.
Desublimated literature remains literature, i.e., it elicits the enjoyment which is inherent in aesthetic form. The classical (organic) form (the “work”) demands the transformation of the object, the content. In desublimated literature, the content is no longer transformed by form, nor internalized by form. Form becomes independent and reduced tostyle. Style can be extremely accomplished and mastered in all tiers of language, from everyday jargon, dialect, and administrative German all the way to the highest high language. Style “beautifies” the description of a sex act as well as a murder, the appearance of Hitler as well as Lenin . . .
The power of style indicates the poverty, indeed the irrelevance of the content. It is not formed by style: it remains rather in its immediacy: episodes from a whole, that is imperceptible. Or that is only a personal context for a hero, without transcendence and without the real sublimation that constitutes the general. Where reality beyond the private context constitutes the work (for example, the early Soviet state in the “Stories from Production”), reality renounces the beauty of style. People speak in perfect verses, but they versify a doctrine that has already congealed into ideology as well as a horrible reality, that robs the verse of any seriousness. For example: the piece becomes a hymn to the machine that requires human sacrifice. Reification of communism.
Just as literature has its internal truth, so too does it have an internal morality. That critical transcendence which is essential to literature ties literature both to the harm that oppression does to humans and to the memory of that past and to what can return. But the reality of Auschwitz cannot be transcended, it is a point of no return. Literature can remind us of it only through breaks and evasions: in the representation of people and conditions that led to Auschwitz and the desperate struggle against them. Representation remains obligated to the transformational mimesis: the brutal facts are subjugated to form-giving; reportage and documentary become raw material for formation through creative love (the principle of hope) and creative hate (the principle of resistance). The two principles of formation constitute an (antagonistic) unity, which is the political potential of art.
But art abdicates not only before the extreme horror but also before the extreme situation as such. A telling example is the incompatibility between art and the depiction of the extreme manifestations of the body (such as fucking, masturbating, vomiting, defecating, etc.). This taboo is not asserted in terms of a more or less puritanical and petty bourgeois morality, but in terms of the very quality of the aesthetic form, its essential beauty. The avant-garde rejection in its liberty to violate and shock petty bourgeois prejudice and repression - it achieves only the attraction of pornography. Not that these extreme situations are disgusting or perversions or ugly (the opposite may be the case), but they are turned into what they are not: “literature,” and the author plays the role of the voyeur.
According to Lessing, the extreme horror lies outside of the domain of the visual arts because its representation violates the law of Beauty to which art is subject. This law is also binding for literature, but there the extreme horror is within the power of production in a mediated form, that is, if it appears only as transitory in the context of the work, as a moment “in the story” - aufgehoben in the whole. Only by virtue of its transitoriness does the representation of the extreme horror allow the enjoyment of the work, the feeling of pleasure in its reception.
In the case of Auschwitz, no such aesthetic sublimation seems imaginable. The whole in the context of which Auschwitz could appear as transitory is itself one of horror, and the availability of ever more efficient scientific- technological killing suggests the possibility of repetition rather than passing.
[Editor’s Note: The manuscript breaks off at this point.]
* Editor’s note: An untitled text we are titling “Lyric Poetry after Auschwitz” was found in the Marcuse archive. It consists of four pages in English, followed by eleven pages in German, some fragmentary, and two rather fragmentary pages in English. It is not clear what the origins of this article are, what Marcuse intended it for, and why he wrote first in English, then in German, reverting in the final pages to English. It is found in the Herbert Marcuse archive under the number 560.00 with the description “Entwurf La Jolla, 1978.” A German version of the text with the title “Lyrik nach Auschwitz” was published in Peter-Erwin Jansen’s edited edition Kunst und Befreiung (Lüneburg: zu Klampen, 2000), pp. 157-66. We are following Jansen’s suggested title translated into English and Russell Berman has translated the German passages. (DK)
 Editor’s Note: Peter Weiss, Aesthetik des Widerstands, appeared in German in a three-volume edition in 1975, 1978, and 1981; an English translation by Joachim Neugroschel with an introduction by Fredric Jameson has appeared, The Aesthetic of Resistance, Volume 1 (Durham, N.C. and London: Duke University Press, 2005). (DK)
 Editor’s Note: Marcuse’s point seems to be here that the model of a solitary Ego makes it difficult to comprehend intersubjectivity, a defect of modern philosophy that Marcuse believes is overcome in Hegel. (DK)
 Editor’s Note: Marcuse is referring here to the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and perhaps the early work of Jean-Paul Sartre, The Transcendence of the Ego (New York: Hill and Wang, 1991), which lays out an interpretation and critique of Husserl. (DK)
 Editor’s Note: Marcuse inserts “ Vernunft?” (reason) in a handwritten note at the side of the margin at this point and the rest of the text is in English, is somewhat fragmentary, and breaks off before it is concluded. We do not know why Marcuse switched from English to German and then back to English in constructing this text.
Translated by Russell Berman
Paul Celan "Todesfuge - Death Fugue" Poem animation German
Fuge of Death
In: Herbert Marcuse: Art and Libertion. Collected Papers of Hebert Marcuse. Volume Four. Edited by Douglas Kellner. London, 2007, pp. 211-217.