At the core of every Künstlerroman is the recognition and consequent obsession about a very simple fact of life—death. Not always in its macabre, morbid manifestations,not always as a sordid reminder of the fate of the flesh, or that of the soul in its afterlife, but perhaps as a simple and yet mordant reminder of transience. Every artist or author is threatened by the notion of inexistence and subsequent oblivion that reduces to dust and ashes their fruits of labour. But it is not always the apprehension about the ceasing to be, about not being recognized or revered by posterity (conversely, for many authors born ahead of their times, posthumous recognition is the only hope), about the complete erasure of every sign of existence from the world of men and women, after one’s death—not only a personal kind of loss, not a lament on mortality—there is also a sense of a greater loss, for human civilization or human history itself. An author or any individual with an awareness of being situated in history and about his/her responsibility in shaping or preserving this history is plagued by the thought of what the world could lose with each death. For each one of us is a repository of images and impressions, unique because coloured by individual subjectivity. This repository could be constituted by the most mundane of things or the most sensational—either way, both could serve as markers of the spatiotemporal frames we inhabit. Jorge Luis Borges writes in one of his parables, ‘The Witness’, [translatedby James E. Irby in Labyrinths, (James E. Irby and David A. Yates eds) (New York: New Directions, 2007)]
In time there was a day that extinguished the last eyes to see Christ; the battle of Junín and the love of Helen died with the death of a man. What will die with me when I die, what pathetic or fragile form will the world lose? The voice of Macedonio Fernández, the image of a red horse in the vacant lot at Serrano and Charcas, a bar of sulphur in the drawer of a mahogany desk?
The onus on the responsible individual is to find ways of making his/her visions available to posterity, to keep the world from being poorer by even one image, one instance, and the way they find is to build history by way of literature and art. The burden sits heavier on the shoulders of those who are aware of being situated in a particular juncture of space and time that could have undeniable, irrevocable impact on the history of human civilization. Their conscious attempts to record and preserve assume the import of witness literature.
Imre Kertész, Hungarian author of Jewish faith and Holocaust survivor (who received the Nobel in literature in 2002 for ‘writing that upholds the fragile experience of the individual against the barbaric arbitrariness of history’), writes in Holocaust as Culture about Holocaust victims such as the poets Jean Améry and Tadeusz Borowski who were besieged by a constant sense of anxiety about the holocaust being forgotten, because they would not survive to recount its horrors to the world, ‘from the first moment the Holocaust brought with it a horrible dread—the dread that it might be forgotten. This dread was greater than the horrors, the individual lives and deaths, the avid demand for justice, it was “beyond guilt and atonement”, to quote the title of Améry’s book’.
Améry also dreaded the impending day when every witness of this monumental episode of carnage will die and there will be no more first-person accounts of the atrocities, nor of resilience and redemption. His fear could seem exaggerated to some, for it might seem that an event of such proportion, both in terms of its physical and ethical consequences, would be impossible to forget. Yet, memory is as transient as life itself. And the problem of history is that it can be considered dead, dry, distant and a thing of past, a myth almost that could have no bearing on present life. That is where literature becomes important and the literateur-historian’s role becomes akin to that of a prophet’s. Kertész writes, ‘The Holocaust has its saints, like any subculture, and if the living memory of the events survives, it will survive not because of the official orations, but rather through the lives of those who bore evidence.’ He also writes, ‘if the memory of the Holocaust is to remain, it will remain through culture, which is really the vessel of memory.’
History becomes a living being when it is made a way of life, when the past is woven harmoniously with the present, and intuitively with the future, when instead of being treated as a milestone on the path of civilization that has been crossed, it is integrated into the ethos of a culture. In Holocaust as Culture, Kertész quotes George Santayana ‘one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again.’ It is not sufficient to know that we have evolved, it is imperative to know what we have evolved from, to consciously avoid retrogression.
Sohini Dey, Assistant Editor, Seagull Books.