Jacobson's List: Howard Jacobson on Spielberg: Of course the film isn't a masterpiece. It wouldn't be reasonable to expect a man who is so fond of childish things to be able to put them away overnight
Celebrated novelist Howard Jacobson's most recent novel is 'The Finkler Question', published to great acclaim in 2010. An acerbic critic and broadcaster with a passion for literature and art, he is known for his ebullient wit. Recent television programmes such as Jesus the Jew and Creation have also been widely admired.
Wednesday 02 February 1994
Of course, the film isn't a masterpiece. I say of course not just because if American audiences say it is then it can't be, but because it wouldn't be reasonable to expect a man who is so fond of childish things to be able to put them away overnight. To do him justice, Spielberg cleans up more conscientiously than you'd think he'd know how. And maybe cleans up too well. The film could do with more mess. A little less of the loving authenticity which blights popular film-makers when they get serious-minded. I wish the Jews weren't all so comely of countenance, so uniformly dove-eyed. I wish Schindler were more fleshly and more fly, and that Spielberg understood better the central paradox of the story - that opportunism can teach a man morality. I wish, since we are in black and white, that more of the subtleties we associate with black and white were evident: shadow, intimation, particularity.
The truth is, Schindler's List is a colour-spectacular in mourning, wearing black and white as a mark of respect. Black and white is how we remember the Holocaust; more, it is how we feel we should go on remembering the Holocaust. There were a lot of people out there expecting Spielberg to turn up at the graveside wearing purple; dressing like the undertaker was the smart way to beat the vulgarity rap. So although this is still unmistakably a Spielberg movie, filling the screen with numbers, busying every frame, drawing our attention to its miracles of management, it can't fairly be accused of irreverence. It is sombre, heartfelt, touching. Expect to cry. But don't expect to be bouleversed. You'll go out knowing which way up you are. You'll be breathing fine. Which isn't how it should be with the Holocaust. Which isn't how it is when you see with your own eyes your first concentration camp.
It turns out that the trap isn't too little reverence after all. The philosopher Adorno led us down the garden path with his notoriously seductive admonition against aesthetic exploitation of the Holocaust: 'To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.' The problem isn't poetry, it's quiet poetry. The trap isn't too little reverence but too much.
I understand the desecration argument. There shouldn't be a Carmelite convent at Auschwitz. A mendicant Christian order should know to stay away from a place for whose existence Christianity must accept some blame. And there is a hush, an aura of solemn significance, which one wishes authors - all right, I admit it, especially non-Jewish authors - did not feel they could borrow when all other inspiration fails them. It's not Holocaust kitsch one minds so much, it's Holocaust kudos.
But safeguarding holy things and holy places is a job for priests. We blunder into foolishness when we applaud the decision - as some do - to keep Spielberg and his cameras out of Auschwitz proper, and then complain - as some do - that his sets are not accurate. We serve no good purpose, either, by clearing the terrain of gentiles, by insisting - as some did when Martin Amis's novel Time's Arrow was published a couple of years ago - that it wasn't for someone who wasn't Jewish to go where so many Jews had perished. The burs on Martin Sherman's joke in his play Bent, about the yellow-starred Jews in Dachau not wanting to acknowledge the pink-triangled homosexuals, all stick. 'We're not good enough,' says the pink triangle, 'to suffer with them.' Of all exclusivities, exclusivity in suffering is the most unwise.
As it happened, Amis's novel took no improper liberties with other men's grief. Its backward journey into monstrousness, culminating (if a backward journey can ever be said to culminate) in the grotesque conceit of reverse destruction, making a people from the weather, from thunder and lightning, with gas and shit and fire, stirred the pot of horrors more purposefully than most Holocaust novels have the stomach or the intelligence for. If it stops more abruptly in this task than one would wish it to, reverence is again the culprit. Too much, not too little.
Funny and bold as Bent is, it is at the last a martyrdom play. It wrestles a corner of suffering away from the yellow stars only in order to re-politicise it. Fine by me. Spread that pain.
It is important that we know who did exactly what to exactly whom. Communist concealment of the Jewish specifics of the Holocaust was an unforgivable sin and an error whose consequences we have yet to see. But once we've sorted out the details I'm all for roping everyone into this. Because one way or another everyone's involved.
Which is why I prefer a play such as Bent to a play such as Ghetto. It lets in more air. And why I could have taken even more of Amis's famed 'nastiness'. It challenges our refinement.
Holocaust studies are now part of the national curriculum. That may be a good thing or a bad thing, depending how they're taught. What's beyond question, though, is that the Holocaust has become a soft subject. We may not finally have made our minds up as to the criminality of unmarried mothers from the underclass, but we know what we think about those Nazi bastards in their creaking leather boots. To the degree that it facilitates scape-goating - another time, another place, another people - Holocaust consciousness is its own worst enemy. It closes the subject it means to open. It keeps the genie safely in the bottle. Whoever addresses the Holocaust professionally knows that there is an invisible line it isn't wise to cross: stick to suffering and there won't be a dry eye in the house; go on to whys and wherefores, the role of Christian culture in the shaping of the catastrophe, the hunger you may feel for justice, your unforgivingness, and you will see every eye withdraw its moisture.
So what good Spielberg's foray into conscience is going to do is hard to say. It depicts a righteous gentile. That's something. Good for Jews to know there was one. And it shows how his goodness evolved gradually, not from some saintly core in his nature, but as a consequence, apart from anything else, of his simply getting to know a few of the Jews he employed. Demythologising goodness is a worthy ambition. It helps in the job of demythologising its opposite. And we'll get nowhere if we think the Holocaust can be understood as the letting loose of an abstract, or even an exceptional, evil. I like Amis's phrase - 'the same old stuff, only worse, more, again, further'.
That's the point of poets - that's where Adorno got it so badly wrong - they rub your noses in it if they're any good. The other point of poets, if they're barbaric enough, is that they offer you in the end the right kind of release.
The historian Saul Friedlander has written recently that no redemptive myth seems to have taken hold of the Jewish imagination after the Holocaust, 'nor does the best of literature and art dealing with the Shoah offer any redemptive stance. In fact, the opposite appears to be true.' I can tell him why. It's because the language is wrong. His, ours, theirs it doesn't matter, whoever's. Post-Holocaust language is wrong. Redemption is not what we need. It's release. The release that comes from the very thing Adorno most feared - blasphemy.
Nobody needs to apologise for hoarding his memories of the Holocaust or, let him be a Jew or a gentile, for holding the very word itself close to his heart. But the heart cannot be expected to withstand such proximity. The medieval church knew it could not continue to practise its rigours unless it allowed periodic outbreaks of blasphemy. Ritual clowns parade the perimeters of ceremonies that seem much less rational than our own, mocking the service, aping the priests. Nothing is spared. Nothing dare be spared. Our instinct to mock, precisely where we are most protective of what is sacred, is one of the oldest and soundest instincts we possess. Nothing is exempt. Nothing dare be exempt. If Holocaust literature and art offer us no release and no promise of release, that is because we have scared literature and art out of their proper functions.
It's precisely because the Holocaust is, perversely, sacred, that we must now let writers and artists do, perversely, what they choose with it.
A well behaved Spielberg film gives us absolutely nothing to cheer about.
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