© Michel Fingerhut 1995-8 ^  


George Steiner:
In Bluebeard's Castle. Some Notes Towards the Redefinition of Culture (2)
0-300-01710-3 Yale University Press © George Steiner 1971
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2. A Season in Hell


As we have seen, anticipations of war and fantasies of universal destruction were rife. But with very few exceptions -- such as Soloviev's vision of a new outpouring of Asiatic hordes over Europe, or Péguy's solemn, uncannily clairvoyant invocation of Armageddon in Ève -- no one foresaw the scale of slaughter. It is that numerical scale, the daily inventory of death, which makes of 1915 the end of the European order. Diplomatic and military historians debate to this day whether there was not some appalling miscalculation. What had turned professional, essentially limited warfare into massacre? Different factors intervened: the murderous solidification of the trenches, firepower, the sheer area covered by the eastern and western fronts. But there was also, one suspects, a matter of automatism: once the elaborate machinery of conscription, transport, and manufacture had slipped into gear, it became exceedingly difficult to stop. The enterprise had its own logic outside reason and human needs. In attacking the brute fact of causality, of irreversible time and utilitarian process, the Dada movement, as it sprang up in Zurich during the war years, was in fact attacking the fabric of impotent rationality which, every day, planned, authorized, justified the death of tens of thousands.

And here, at once, a theory of culture faces a major difficulty. We are beginning to realize the extent and intricacy of the genetic element in social history. But we have, even now, only rudimentary means of gauging it. We know something of the critical mass of genetic material and diversity needed to keep a civilization energized. We are beginning to understand a little more than we used to about the nature of biological damage caused by such events as the bubonic plagues of the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries, or by the depopulation of certain provinces of Germany and central Europe during the religious wars. But our insights remain conjectural. What we can say, I think, is this: the casualties of the first World War were not only enormous, they were cruelly selective. It can, I believe, be argued, with a good deal of supporting sociological and demographic evidence, that the butcheries of Paschendael. and the Somme gutted a generation of English moral and intellectual talent, that they eliminated many of the best from the European future. The effects of the long massacre on France were obviously profound, but more difficult to assess. With the ravage of entire cadres and communities, the close fabric of French life was thrown out of line. Much of it has never recovered its equilibrium or elasticity.

We cannot think clearly about the crises of Western culture, about the origins and forms of totalitarian movements in the European heartland and the recurrence of world war, without bearing sharply in mind that Europe, after 1918, was damaged in its centers of life. Decisive reserves of intelligence, of nervous resilience, of political talent, had been annihilated. The satiric conceit, in Brecht and Georges Grosz, of children murdered because never to be born has its specific genetic meaning. An aggregate of mental and physical potentiality, of new hybrids and variants, too manifold for us to measure, was lost to the preservation and further evolution of Western man and of his institutions. Already in a biological sense we are looking now at a diminished or "post-culture."


What had been miscalculation and uncontrollable mishap during the first World War became method during the second. In turning to the question of genocide, I must try and be as scrupulous, as skeptical as I am able to be, regarding my own motives. Much of my work has concerned itself, directly or indirectly, with trying to understand, to articulate, causal and teleological aspects of the holocaust. My own feelings are patently implicated. But so is the conviction that an analysis of the idea and ideal of culture demands the fullest possible understanding of the phenomenology of mass murder as it took place in Europe, from the Spanish south to the frontiers of Russian Asia between 1936 and 1945

The failure of Eliot's Notes towards a Definition of Culture to face the issue, indeed to allude to it in anything but an oddly condescending footnote, is acutely disturbing. How, only three years after the event, after the publication to the world of facts and pictures that have, surely, altered our sense of the limits of human behavior, was it possible to write a book on culture and say nothing? How was it possible to detail and plead for a Christian order when the holocaust had put in question the very nature of Christianity and of its role in European history? Longstanding ambiguities on the theme of the Jew in Eliot's poetry and thought provide an explanation. But one is not left the less uncomfortable.

Yet in approaching the theme I find Eliot's insistence on the religious character of genuine civilization, and his "conception of culture and religion as being, when each term is taken in the right context, different aspects of the same thing," largely persuasive. It seems to me incontrovertible that the holocaust must be set in the framework of the psychology of religion, and that an understanding of this framework is vital to an argument on culture.

This is a minority view. Understandably, in an effort to make this insane material susceptible and bearable to reason, sociologists, economists, political scientists have striven to locate the topic in a rational, secular grid. They have Investigated the opportunistic sources of Nazi racial theories; the long tradition of petit-bourgeois resentment against a seemingly aloof, prospering minority. They have pointed, rightly, to the psychological, symbolic links between inflationary collapse and the historical associations of Jewry and the money market.. There have been penetrating studies of the imperfect, perhaps overhasty assimilation of secularized Jews into the gentile community, an assimilation which produced much of the intellectual genius of modern Europe but also, particularly in Germany, took on the guise of a complex love-hate. Social historians have shown how numerous were the signs of developing hysteria between the Dreyfus affair and the "final solution." Deliberate poisons had been let loose. It has been argued, cogently, that there is an ultimately rational, albeit murderous, motive behind Nazi and Stalinist anti-Semitism: an attempt to get rid of a minority whose inheritance and whose style of feeling make of it a natural milieu for opposition, for potential subversion.

Each of these lines of inquiry is important. Together they make for an indispensable dossier of historical and sociological insight. But the phenomenon, so far as one is able to take any coherent view of it at all, lies far deeper. No historical or social-psychological model put forward until now, no psychopathology of crowd behavior, of the psychic infirmities of individual leaders and killers, no diagnosis of planned hysteria accounts for certain salient features of the problem. These include the active indifference -- "active" because "collaboratively unknowing" -- of the vast majority of the European population. They include the deliberate decision of the National Socialist régime, even in the final stages of economic warfare, to liquidate the Jews rather than exploit them towards obvious productive and financial ends. Most enigmatic of all, perhaps, is the persistence of virulent anti-Semitism where no Jews or only a handful survive (for example, in eastern Europe today). The mystery, in the proper theological sense, is one of hatred without present object.

We are not, I believe, dealing with some monstrous accident in modern social history. The holocaust was not the result of merely individual pathology or of the neuroses of one nation-state. Indeed, competent observers expected the cancer to spread first, and most virulently, in France. We are not-and this is often misunderstood-considering something truly analogous to other cases of massacre, to the murder of the Gypsies or, earlier, of the Armenians. There are parallels in technique and in the idiom of hatred. But not ontologically, not at the level of philosophic intent. That intent takes us to the heart of certain instabilities in the fabric of Western culture, in the relations between instinctual and religious life. Hitler's jibe that "conscience is a Jewish invention" provides a clue.


To speak of the "invention" of monotheism is to use words in the most provisional way. The cast of intellect, the social forms, the linguistic conventions which accompanied the change, it may be in the oasis at Kadesh, from polytheism to the Mosaic concept of one God, are beyond recall. We cannot feel our way into the minds and skins of the men and women who, evidently under constraint and amid frequent rebellion, passed into a new mapping of the world. The immensity of the event, its occurrence in real time, are certain, and reverberate still. But how the ancient concretions of worship, the ancient, natural reflexes of multitudinous animism were replaced, we have no way of knowing. The light curves towards us from across the remotest horizon. What we must recapture to mind, as nakedly as we can, is the singularity, the brain-hammering strangeness, of the monotheistic idea. Historians of religion tell us that the emergence of the concept of the Mosaic God is a unique fact in human experience, that a genuinely comparable notion sprang up at no other place or time. The abruptness of the Mosaic revelation, the finality of the creed at Sinai, tore up the human psyche by its most ancient roots. The break has never really knit.

The demands made of the mind are, like God's name, unspeakable. Brain and conscience are commanded to vest belief, obedience, love in an abstraction purer, more inaccessible to ordinary sense than is the highest of mathematics. The God of the Torah not only prohibits the making of images to represent Him. He does not allow imagining. His attributes are, as Schoenberg concisely expressed them in Moses und Aron,

Unvorstellbar, weil unsichtbar;
weil unüberblickbar;
weil unendlich;
weil ewig;
weil allgegenwärtig;
weil allmächtig.

No fiercer exigence has ever pressed on the human spirit, with its compulsive, organically determined bias towards image, towards figured presence. How many human beings have ever been capable, could be capable of, housing in themselves an inconceivable omnipresence? To all but a very few the Mosiac God has been from the outset, even when passionately invoked, an immeasurable Absence, or a metaphor modulating downward to the natural sphere of poetic, imagistic approximation. But the exaction stays in force-immense, relentless. It hammers at human consciousness, demanding that it transcend itself, that it reach out into a light of understanding so pure that it is itself blinding. We turn back into grossness and, what is more important, into self-reproach. Because the ideal is still there, because, in Blake's shorthand for the tyranny of the revealed, light presses on the brain. In polytheism, says Nietzsche, lay the freedom of the human spirit, its creative multiplicity. The doctrine of a single Deity, whom men cannot play off against other gods and thus win open spaces for their own aims, is "the most monstrous of all human errors" ("die ungeheuerlichste aller menschlichen Verirrungen").

In his late work Moses and Monotheism Freud ascribed the commission of this "error" to an Egyptian prince and seer of the scattered house of Ikhnaton. Many have wondered why he should have sought to shift from his own people that supreme weight of glory. Freud himself seems to have been unaware of the motive. It will, I hope, emerge from my argument.

Historically, the requirements of absolute monotheism proved all but intolerable. The Old Testament is a record of mutiny, of spasmodic but repeated reversions to the old gods, whom the hand can touch and the imagination house. Pauline Christianity found a useful solution. While retaining something of the idiom and centralized symbolic lineaments of monotheism, it allowed scope for the pluralistic, pictorial needs of the psyche. Be it in their Trinitarian aspects, in their proliferation of saintly and angelic persons, or in their vividly material realization of God the Father, of Christ, of Mary, the Christian churches have, with very rare exceptions, been a hybrid of monotheistic ideals and polytheistic practices. That has been their suppleness and syncretic strength. The single, unimaginable -- rigorously speaking, "unthinkable" -- God of the Decalogue has nothing to do with the threefold, thoroughly visualized pantheon of the churches.

But that God, blank as the desert air, would not rest. The memory of His ultimatum, the presence of His Absence, have goaded Western man. The nineteenth century thought it had laid the great specter to rest. The canonic text is Nietzsche's monologue of the madman in La Gaia Scienza. The words are so overwhelming, they are so near the heart of the being of man today, that I want to quote in full, and in the original language:

Wohin ist Gott? rief er, ich will es euch sagen! Wir haben ihn getötet-ihr und ich! Wir alle sind seine Mörder! Aber wie haben wir dies gemacht? Wie vermochten wir das Meer auszutrinken? Wer gab uns den Schwamm, urn den ganzen Horizont wegzuwischen? Was taten wir, als wir these Erde von ihrer Sonne losketteten? Wohin bewegt sie sich nun? Wohin bewegen wir uns? Fort von allen Sonnen? Stilrzen wir nicht fortwahrend? Und rilckwirts, seitwirts, vorwdrts nach allen Seiten? Gibt es noch ein Oben und ein Unten? Irren wir nicht wie durch ein unendliches Nichts? Haucht uns nicht der leere Raum an? Ist es nicht kilter geworden? Kommt nicht immerfort die Nacht und mehr Nacht? Müssen nicht Laternen am Vormittage angeziIndet werden? Hören wir noch nichts von dem Urm der Totengriber, welche Gott begraben? Riechen wir noch nichts von der göttlichen Verwesung?-auch Götter verwesen! Gott ist tot! Gott bleibt tot! Und wir haben ihn getötet! Wie trösten wir uns, die Mbrder aller Mbrder? Das Heiligste und Michtigste, was die Welt bisher besass, es ist unter unseren Mesern verblutet-wer wischt dies Blut von uns ab?4

But that deed was not enough. Only a psychologist of Nietzsche's genius and vulnerability could experience the -murder of God" directly, could feel at his own nerve-ends its liberating doom. There was an easier vengeance to hand, a simpler way of making good the centuries of mauvaise foi, of subconscious but aching resentment against the unattainable ideal of the one God. By killing the Jews, Western culture would eradicate those who had "invented" God, who had, however imperfectly, however restively, been the declarers of His unbearable Absence. The holocaust is a reflex, the more complete for being long-inhibited, of natural sensory consciousness, of instinctual polytheistic and animist needs. It speaks for a world both older than Sinai and newer than Nietzsche. When, during the first years of Nazi rule, Freud sought to shift to an Egyptian responsibility for the "invention" of God, he was, though perhaps without fully knowing it, making a desperate propitiatory, sacrificial move. He was trying to wrench the lightning rod out of the hands of the Jewish people. It was too late. The leprosy of God's choice -- but who chose whom? -- was too visible on them.

But the provocation was more than metaphysical. More than "a supreme fiction" of reason was being thrust on mulish humanity. The Books of the Prophets and the Sermon on the Mount and parables of Jesus which are so closely related to the prophetic idiom, constitute an unequaled act of moral demand. Because the words are so familiar, yet too great for ready use, we tend to forget or merely conventionalize the extremity of their call. Only he who loses his life, in the fullest sense of sacrificial self-denial, shall find life. The kingdom is for the naked, for those who have willingly stripped themselves of every belonging, of every sheltering egoism. There is no salvation in the middle places. For the true disciple of the prophets and of Jesus, the utmost ethical commitment is like common breath. To become man, man must make himself new, and in so doing stifle the elemental desires, weaknesses, and claims of the ego. Only he who can say with Pascal, "le moi est haissable," has even begun to obey the Gospels' altruistic imperative.

That imperative was stated and restated innumerable times in the course of Western history. It is the staple of Christian ethics, of the Christian doctrine of right living. How many could hope to respond adequately? In how many human careers were these prescripts of ascetic love, of compassion, of self-suppression, more than a Sunday tag? Apologetics of practical life, the prodigal economics of repentance, and "a fresh start," papered over the deep cracks between secular existence and the eschatological demand.

But the cracks would not mend. They opened explosively in the individual conscience (of Pascal, of Kierkegaard, of Dostoevski). By their simple presence, at every occasion of Christian worship, these fantastic moral requirements mock and undermine mundane values. They set anarchic love against reason, an end of time against history.

The result of this incessant dialectic was a profound unbalance at the pivot of Western culture, a corrosive pressure on the subconscious. Once again, as with abstract monotheism, men had enforced upon them ideals, norms of conduct, out of all natural grasp. And again, these challenges to perfection continued to weigh on individual lives, on social systems, in which they could not be honestly met.

The third confrontation between exigent utopia and the common pulse of Western life occurs with the rise of messianic socialism. Even where it proclaims itself to be atheist, the socialism of Marx, of Trotsky, of Ernst Bloch, is directly rooted in messianic eschatology. Nothing is more religious, nothing is closer to the ecstatic rage for justice in the prophets, than the socialist vision of the destruction of the bourgeois Gomorrah and the creation of a new, clean city for man. In their very language Marx's 1844 manuscripts are steeped in the tradition of messianic promise. In an astounding passage Marx seems to paraphrase the vision of Isaiah and of primitive Christianity: "Assume man to be man and his relationship to the world to be a human one: then you can exchange love only for love, trust for trust." When human exploitation is eradicated, the grime shall be scoured from the tired earth, and the world made a garden once more. This is the socialist dream and millenary bargain. For it generations have died. In its name falsehood and oppression have spread over a good deal of the earth. But the dream remains magnetic. It cries out to man to renounce profit and selfishness, to melt his personal being into that of the community. It demands that he break down the blackened walls of history, that he leap out of the shadow of his petty needs. Those who resist the dream are not only madmen and enemies of society; they betray the part of light in their own humanity. The god of utopia is a jealous god.

Monotheism at Sinai, primitive Christianity, messianic socialism: these are the three supreme moments in which Western culture is presented with what Ibsen termed "the claims of the ideal." These are the three stages, profoundly interrelated, through which Western consciousness is forced to experience the blackmail of transcendence. "Surmount yourself. Surpass the opaque barriers of the mind to attain pure abstraction. Lose your life in order to gain it. Give up property, rank, wordly comfort. Love your neighbor as you do yourself -- no, much more, for self-love is sin. Make any sacrifice, endure any insult, even self-denunciation, so that justice may prevail." Unceasingly, the blackmail of perfection has hammered at the confused, mundane, egotistical fabric of common, instinctual behavior. Like a shrilling note in the inner ear. Men are neither saints nor ascetics; their imaginings are gross; ordinarily, their sense of the future is the next milestone. But the insistence of the ideal continued, with a terrible, tactless force.

Three times it sounded from the same historical center. (Some political scientists put at roughly 8o percent the proportion of Jews in the ideological development of messianic socialism and communism.) Three times, Judaism produced a summons to perfection and sought to impose it on the current and currency of Western life. Deep loathing built up in the social subconscious, murderous resentments. The mechanism is simple but primordial. We hate most those who hold out to us a goal, an ideal, a visionary promise which, even though we have stretched our muscles to the utmost, we cannot reach, which slips, again and again, just out of range of our racked fingers -- yet, and this is crucial, which remains profoundly desirable, which we cannot reject because we fully acknowledge its supreme value. In his exasperating "strangeness," in his acceptance of suffering as part of a covenant with the absolute, the Jew became, as it were, the "bad conscience" of Western history. In him the abandonments of spiritual and moral perfection, the hypocrisies of an established, mundane religiosity, the Absences of a disappointed, potentially vengeful God, were kept alive and visible.

When it turned on the Jew, Christianity and European civilization turned on the incarnation-albeit an incarnation often wayward and unaware-of its own best hopes. It is something like this that Kafka meant in his arrogant humble assertion that "he who strikes a Jew strikes down man/mankind" (den Menschen). In the holocaust there was both a lunatic retribution, a lashing out against intolerable pressures of vision, and a large measure of self-mutilation. The secular, materialist, warlike community of modern Europe sought to extirpate from itself, from its own inheritance, archaic, now ridiculously obsolete, but somehow inextinguishable carriers of the ideal. In the Nazi idiom of "vermin" and "sanitation" there is a brusque insight into the infectious nature of morality. Kill the remembrancer, the claim agent, and you will have canceled the long debt.

The genocide that took place in Europe and the Soviet Union during the period 1936-45 (Soviet anti-Semitism being perhaps the most paradoxical expression of the hatred which reality feels towards failed utopia) was far more than a political tactic, an eruption of lower-middle-class malaise, or a product of declining capitalism. It was no mere secular, socioeconomic phenomenon. It enacted a suicidal impulse in Western civilization. It was an attempt to level the future -- or, more precisely, to make history commensurate with the natural savageries, intellectual torpor, and material instincts of unextended man. Using theological metaphors, and there is no need to apologize for them in an essay on culture, the holocaust may be said to mark a second Fall. We can interpret it as a voluntary exit from the Garden and a programmatic attempt to burn the Garden behind us. Lest its remembrance continue to infect the health of barbarism with debilitating dreams or with remorse.

With the botched attempt to kill God and the very nearly successful attempt to kill those who had "invented" Him, civilization entered, precisely as Nietzsche had foretold, "on night and more night."

By the mid-1760s, after the affaire Calas, Voltaire and his informed contemporaries expressed the confident belief that torture and other bestialities practiced on subjects or enemies were passing forever from civilized society. Like the Black Death and the burning of witches, these somber atavisms from primitive and prerational ages would not survive the new temper of European enlightenment. Secularization was the key. Torture and the annihilation of human communities, argued the philosophes, sprang directly from religious dogmatism. By proclaiming individuals or entire societies to be damned, by treating their convictions as pestilential heresies, church and state had deliberately loosed fanaticism and savagery on often helpless men. With the decline in the strength of religious creeds, there would follow, said Voltaire, a concomittant decline in human hatreds, in the urge to destroy another man because he is the embodiment of evil or falsehood. Indifference would breed tolerance.

Today, exactly two hundred years later, we find ourselves in a culture in which the methodical use of torture towards political ends is widely established. We come immediately after a stage of history in which millions of men, women, and children were made to ash. Currently, in different parts of the earth, communities are again being incinerated, tortured, deported. There is hardly a methodology of abjection and of pain which is not being applied somewhere, at this moment, to individuals and groups of human beings. Asked why he was seeking to arouse the whole of Europe over the judicial torture of one man, Voltaire answered, in March 1762, "c'est que je suis homme. " By that token, he would, today, be in constant and vain cry.

That this should be the case is catastrophic. The wide-scale reversion to torture and mass murder, the ubiquitous use of hunger and imprisonment as political means -mark not only a crisis of culture but, quite conceivably, an abandonment of the rational order of man. It may well be that it is a mere fatuity, an indecency to debate of the definition of culture in the age of the gas oven, of the arctic camps, of napalm. The topic may belong solely to the past history of hope. But we should not take this contingency to be a natural fact of life, a platitude. We must keep in sharp focus its hideous novelty or renovation. We must keep vital in ourselves a sense of scandal so overwhelming that it affects every significant aspect of our position in history and society. We have, as Emily Dickinson would have said, to keep the soul terribly surprised. I cannot stress this enough. To Voltaire and Diderot the bestial climate of our national and social conflicts would have seemed a lunatic return to barbarism. To most intelligent men and women of the nineteenth century a prediction that torture and massacre were soon to be endemic again in "civilized" Europe would have seemed a nightmarish joke. There is nothing natural about our present condition. There is no self-evident logic or dignity in our current knowledge that "anything is possible." In fact, such knowledge corrupts and lowers the threshold of outrage (only Kierkegaard foresaw both the inchoate possibility and the corruption). The numb prodigality of our acquaintance with horror is a radical human defeat.

How did this defeat come about? The subject is not only an ugly one; it bristles with philosophic traps.

Precisely at the time when Voltaire was voicing his trust in the progress of justice and of humane power relations, a uniquely consequent program of terror was also being devised. So much pretentious nonsense has been written about Sade in the past twenty years by philosophers, psychologists, and critics -- such writing being itself symptomatic -- that one hesitates to revert to the theme. Anyone who has tried to read Sade will know that the material is of maniacal monotony; one gags on it. But that automatism, that crazed repetitiveness, has its importance. It directs us to a novel and particular image, or rather silhouette, of the human person. It is in Sade, as in certain details of Hogarth, that we find the first methodical industrialization of the human body. The tortures, the unnatural shapes, enforced on the victims of Justine and the Cent-vingt jours, represent, with consummate logic, an assembly-line and piecework model of human relations. Each limb, each nerve, is torn or twisted in turn, with the impartial, cold frenzy of the piston, the steam hammer, and the pneumatic drill. Each part of the body is seen only as a part and replaceable by "spares." In the pluralistic simultaneities of Sadian sexual assaults, we have a brilliantly exact figura of the division of labor on the factory floor. Sade's own suggestions that his palaces of pleasure are really laboratories, that every torment and humiliation will follow axiomatically from the perception of flesh as raw material, are cogent.

Thus there are links -- both Engels and Ruskin were in no doubt on the issue -- between mass manufacture, as it evolves in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and a movement towards dehun-fanization. Watching exhatisted, brutalized factory workers pour into the street, Engels saw that a reservoir of subhuman impulses was filling. There is, doubtless, a sense in which the concentration camp reproduces the life-forms of the factory, in which the "final solution" is the application to human beings of warehouse and assembly-line techniques. Blake's vision of the "dark mills," which is contemporary with Sade, carried a precise charge of prophecy.

Yet the analogy is too simple. Apart from sporadic episodes of rational maltreatment, the death camps, like the Gothic keeps of Justine, are rigorously inefficient and counterproductive. Their deliberate product is waste. No industrial process could operate in that way. The new barbarism has adopted the instrumentalities of the industrial revolution. It has translated into human terms key aspects of the technology of materials. But its sources must be looked for at a deeper level.

It may be that the dramatic increase in the density of population in the new industrial-urban milieu is relevant. We conduct a good part of our lives amid the menacing jostle of the crowd. Enormous pressures of competing numbers build up against our needs of space, of privacy. The result is a contradictory impulse towards "clearance." On the one hand, the palpable mass of uniform life, the insect immensity of the city or beach crowd, devalues any sense of individual worth. It wholly deflates the mystery of the irreplaceable presence. On the other hand, and because our own identity is threatened by the smothering mass of the anonymous, we suffer destructive spasms, a blind need to lunge out and make room. Elias Canetti has made the intriguing suggestion that the ease of the holocaust relates to the collapse of currency in the 192os. Large numbers lost all but a vaguely sinister, unreal meaning. Having seen a hundred thousand, then a million, then a billion Mark needed to buy bread or pay for bus tickets, ordinary men lost all perception of concrete enormity. The same large numbers tainted with unreality the disappearance and liquidation of peoples. There is evidence that men and women are only imperfectly adapted to coexist in the stifling proximity of the industrial-urban hive. Accumulating over a century, the increase in noise levels, in the pace of work and motion, in the intensity of artificial lighting, may have reached a pathological limit and triggered instincts of devastation.

It is, surely, notable that the theory of personality, as it develops from Hegel to Nietzsche and Freud (in many regards, Nietzsche's truest disciple), is essentially a theory of aggression. Hegel defines identity against the identity of others. Where it is ontologically realized, consciousness of the full self will implicate the subjection, perhaps the destruction, of another. All recognition is agonistic. We name our own being, as the Angel did Jacob, after the dialectic of mutual aggression. Nor is there anything in the analysis of human relations starker than the account of libido as narcissistic excess which Freud put forward in the pivotal year 1914. Love is fundamentally self-love, and the libido does not wish to go beyond the bounds of the inner self. It "detaches itself from the self, it aims itself on things outside," only when it is too full -- again a phenomenology of crowding -- when the richness of internalized consciousness threatens to break down the structure of the ego. The key sentence is, as often in Freud, of implacable grimness: "endlich muss man beginnen zu lieben, um nicht krank zu. werden." But just because love is a forced remedy, because the primary thrust of the libido is towards ingestion of all realities into the self, there runs through human relations a drive towards the pulverization of the rival persona.

Thus there may be in the genocidal reflexes of the twentieth century, in the compulsive scale of massacre, a lashing out of the choked psyche, an attempt to "get air," to break the live prison-walls of an intolerably thronged condition. Even at the price of ruin. The void quiet of the city after the fire storm, the emptiness of the field after the mass murder, may speak to some obscure but primal need for free space, for the silence in which the ego can cry out its mastery.

But valuable as they may be, these lines of conjecture do not, I think, lead to the center. It is to the ambiguous afterlife of religious feeling in Western culture that we must look, to the malignant energies released by the decay of natural religious forms.

We know from the plans of those who built them and from the testimony of inmates, that the death camps constituted a complete, coherent world. They had their own measure of time, which is pain. The unbearable was parceled out with pedantic nicety. The obscenities and abjections practiced in them were accompanied by prescribed rituals of derision and false promise. There were regulated gradations of horror within the total, concentric sphere. L'univers concentrationnaire has no true counterpart in the secular mode. Its analogue is Hell. The camp embodies, often down to minutiae, the images and chronicles of Hell in European art and thought from the twelfth to the eighteenth centuries. It is these representations which gave to the deranged horrors of Belsen a kind of "expected logic." The material realities of the inhuman are detailed, endlessly, in Western iconography, from the mosaics at Torcello to the panels of Bosch; they are prepared for from the fourteenth-century Harrowings of Hell to Faust. It is in the fantasies of the infernal, as they literally haunt Western sensibility, that we find the technology of pain without meaning, of bestiality without end, of gratuitous terror. For six hundred years the imagination dwelt on the flaying, the racking, the mockery of the damned, in a place of whips and hellhounds, of ovens and stinking air.

The literature of the camps is extensive. But nothing in it equals the fullness of Dante's observations. Having no personal experience of the Arschloch der Welt-that hideously exact and allegoric German term for Auschwitz and Treblinka-I can make only approximate sense of many of Dante's notations. But whoever can grasp, in canto 33 of the Inferno, the full meaning of "The very weeping there forbids to weep,"

Lo pianto stesso li pianger non lascia,
  e'l duol che truova in sugli occhi rintoppo,
  si volge in entro a far crescer l'ambascia5

will, I believe, have grasped the ontological form of the camp world. The concentration and death camps of the twentieth century, wherever they exist, under whatever r6gime, are Hell made immanent. They are the transference of Hell from below the earth to its surface. They are the deliberate enactment of a long, precise imagining. Because it imagined more fully than any other text, because it argued the centrality of Hell in the Western order, the Commedia remains our literal guidebook-to the flames, to the ice fields, to the meat hooks. In the camps the millenary pornography of fear and vengeance cultivated in the Western mind by Christian doctrines of damnation was realized.

Two centuries after Voltaire, and at a time when these doctrines had all but vanished into picturesque formality? This is the point. Much has been said of man's bewilderment and solitude after the disappearance of Heaven from active belief. We know of the neutral emptiness of the skies and of the terrors it has brought. But it may be that the loss of Hell is the more severe dislocation. It may be that the mutation of Hell into metaphor left a formidable gap in the coordinates of location, of psychological recognition in the Western mind. The absence of the familiar damned opened a vortex which the modern totalitarian state filled. To have neither Heaven nor Hell is to be intolerably deprived and alone in a world gone flat. Of the two, Hell proved the easier to re-create. (The pictures had always been more detailed.)

In our current barbarism an extinct theology is at work, a body of transcendent reference whose slow, incomplete death has produced surrogate, parodistic forms. The epilogue to belief, the passage of religious belief into hollow convention, seems to be a more dangerous process than the philosophes anticipated. The structures of decay are toxic. Needing Hell, we have learned how to build and run it on earth. A few miles from Goethe's Weimar or on the isles of Greece. No skill holds greater menace. Because we have it and are using it on ourselves, we are now in a postculture. In locating Hell above ground, we have passed out of the major order and symmetries of Western civilization.

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