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A Season in Hell by Taylor Carey 



‘I am not sure’, writes George Steiner of the most haunting tragedy of the twentieth century, ‘whether anyone, however scrupulous, who spends time and imaginative resources on these dark places, can, or indeed, ought to leave them personally intact. Yet the dark places are at the centre. Pass them by and there can be no serious discussion of the human potential’.[1] His remarks are directed in part against the poet Sylvia Plath, whose ‘holocaust poems’ – Lady Lazarus, Daddy, and Mary’s Song – employ the systematic annihilation of European Jewry in the service of vivid metaphor. Such usage reveals a ‘subtle, corrupting fascination’ which remains at the heart of our culture; yet, argues Steiner, poetic appropriation of Auschwitz usually fails to do justice to the singular horror, the staggering barbarism, and the ineluctable tragedy of that mid-century Arschloch der Welt. The failure remains with us, as does the haunting memory of that time when centuries of civilisation, and generations of cultural and artistic achievement, gave way almost without protest to the insanity of mechanised slaughter. Those who sent 1.5 million Jewish children to the gas chambers had, in the evenings before the days of carnage, read Schiller’s Letters Upon the Aesthetic Education of Man, and, weeping, turned to the consolations of Schubert’s String Quintets or the triumphal humanism of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Condorcet had assured them that ‘all people whose history is recorded fall somewhere between our present degree of civilisation and that which we still see among savage tribes’, yet that very ‘civilisation’ incubated a neurotic impulse which hungered for bloodthirsty destruction. [2] Such a culture is our inheritance; its history and memory have become our responsibility. Seventy-one years after the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, how are we to relate to Europe’s season in hell?

Conceptual difficulties abound. The Shoah is usually defined as the slaughter of six million Jews from 1939 to 1945, and the systematic murder of various other ‘undesirable’ groups.[3] A fuller account would surely encompass its antecedents: Kristallnacht, that terrible catharsis of 1938; the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, which denied citizenship to European Jews; and the Enabling Act of 1933, the legal foundation upon which the terroristic policies of Nazi government were built. The backwards march could go on, chronicling innumerable manifestations of a brooding, frustrated continental ennui which regarded flourishing European Jewry with shame, disgust, jealousy, and loathing. Perhaps the genealogy of anti-Semitism can be traced back to St Paul; the ‘rift’ with the Synagogue among early Christian communities, and the origins of the worship of Jesus as divine remain among the most controversial topics in contemporary historical scholarship.[4] We may never possess a complete account, though widespread historical episodes, from the Crusades to the Dreyfus Affair, provide narrative anchors. Jew-hatred, for practical historical purposes, may not possess an exact beginning or end, yet its ugly, bloated midriff disfigures nearly every period of Western history on record.

At least two dangers attend any ‘explanation’ of the Shoah. The first is a form of reification, whereby Auschwitz is taken as the indictment of a generation, and raised to a singular, meaningless fame. This might be called the danger of contingency. The second is its opposite: the Holocaust somehow acts as a cipher for the entire history of human evil, despite being – in practical terms – just one more episode of familiar, barbarous violence. This might be termed the danger of universalisation.[5] The problem with the former is that all evil becomes relativised, and the concrete connections between human action and its consequences are sundered; we may yet have another Auschwitz, a terrifying possibility that we can scarcely comprehend, so long as we meet any modern manifestation of evil with the comforting quip that ‘at least it’s not the Holocaust’. The problem with the latter is its absorption of various and diverse manifestations of persecution into one, ahistorical category; if any instance of injustice constitutes a first step on a road to Birkenau, why should the Shoah have occurred, quite specifically, between 1939 and 1945?

It is to this twin-headed conundrum that George Steiner has dedicated much of his illustrious, polyglot scholarship. It is perhaps worth mentioning in this regard that his own perspective on the Holocaust (denied a capital letter for much of his early career, and generally not referred to directly by most writers until the 1960s) has shifted across and between the two positions as his thought has developed.[6] In an early, prize-winning essay entitled Malice (1952), Steiner subsumes the Holocaust within a broader discussion of human evil. The juxtaposition of high culture and barbarism displayed by Beethoven-loving camp commandants is contextualized in broader patterns of human wickedness. The old adage that ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ is offered by Steiner as an explanation for Europe’s ingrained anti-Semitism, particularly at a period in history when economic frustration and hardship ran high, and neighbouring Jews seemed to prosper.[7] In later years, however, his position changes: the Holocaust becomes not simply another manifestation of human evil, but rather a singular phenomenon which lies buried in the nexus of civility and barbarism deep in the heart of European culture.  An empirical claim to uniqueness may of course be tenuous; Steiner recognises that ‘quantitatively there have been worse killings’, and that systematised, mechanical mass murder did not in fact originate with the Nazis.[8] Thus an adequate account of the Shoah, if possible at all, must be found elsewhere: ‘if there are qualitative differences between the Shoah and the innumerable examples of mass-murder which punctuate history both before and since, they must lie very deep: in that symbolic and metaphysical-theological realm which I want to point towards’.[9]

Which realm is this? In part, it is the domain of institutionalised Christianity, which Steiner holds responsible for some of the gravest acts of evil that humanity has witnessed. For Steiner, Christianity has established the grounds upon which humans can be rendered ‘subhuman’. Furthermore, it has applied this cruel and demonic label to the very womb in which it was created – Judaism. Golgotha and Auschwitz exist in a tragic, tangled nexus of neurosis, since ‘in the fascinations of Nazism, those starved, beaten, gassed to extinction were not men and women and children but vermin, members of a species other than that of man’. This was only possible because of the ‘symbolic symmetry’ with the Jewish denial of Jesus’ messiahship:

In the eye of the believer, God had, through the incarnation of Christ, through the descent of the divine into human form, affirmed, attested to the literal godliness of man. Man had, in Christ, been of the nature of God. This modulation had been scorned by the Jew. Was it not inevitable that the Jew, who had refused transcendence for man, should bear the final, logical consequence, which is to be made less than human?[10]

Very little could be said in defence of institutional Christianity during the Holocaust; as usual, its only redeeming features may be found among the individual lives of selfless human beings – the Edith Steins, Etty Hillesums, and Dietrich Bonhoeffers of the world – whose generosity and self-sacrifice belied the stasis of their churches’ grandees.[11] Alone among many of his contemporaries, the Anglican theologian and philosopher Donald MacKinnon, whose friendship with Steiner lasted until MacKinnon’s death in 1994, diagnosed the extent to which Christianity was implicated in the phenomenon of barbarism at the heart of European civility. ‘If for the Christian’, argued MacKinnon,

‘it is in the events of the first Good Friday that the sense of the final judgement of the world is to be glimpsed, as well as the foundations of its hope, he must also remember that part of the price paid for the accomplishment of these things in human history was the unmentionable horror of anti-semitism whose beginning can be traced in the New Testament itself and whose last manifestation in our own time was Christian acquiescence in the ‘final solution’’.[12]

To a very great extent, argues Steiner, such a gulf of antagonism between Judaism and Christianity cannot be bridged.[13] At the same time, however, it is precisely the Arnoldian retreat of the Sea of Faith – in Europe, specifically the Christian faith – which Steiner places at the heart of his understanding of the Shoah. It is in his working through of these seemingly contradictory premises that we may glimpse the enduring spectral presence with which the Holocaust haunts European civilisation today.

Steiner’s 1970 T.S. Eliot Memorial Lectures, published during the following year as In Bluebeard’s Castle, equip him with a distinctive and much-quoted phrase, ‘the blackmail of transcendence’.[14] It is this which he believes has contributed most to the persecution of Jews throughout history, a narrative of resentment which drew together its various sub-plots most completely in the Holocaust of the twentieth century. For Steiner, Judaism has blackmailed Western civilisation through the creation of three ultra-demanding systems of morality: the Law of Moses, the commands of Christ, and, finally, the secular messianic philosophy of Marx and utopian socialism. Each of these has burdened European society with an ethical load too heavy to bear, and has thus created a source of shame, and a lingering flicker of resentment which directs its heat again and again to its covenantal source in the religious identity of Israel. ‘Three times’, argues Steiner, ‘Judaism produced a summons to perfection and sought to impose it on the current and currency of Western life’:

Deep loathings 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.[15]

Viewed in this way, the Holocaust constituted the supreme rejection of theology, the ultimate statement of contempt for a system of obligations of which the Jewish people were a constant, damning reminder. Yet – and this is crucial – such a rejection could only have become a possibility as the Christian fabric of European civilisation was discarded. It was displaced by an Enlightened vision of progress which, following the revolutionary fireworks of 1789 and 1815, floundered in the long, hot, summer of boredom. This lasted until the advent of the First World War, and was marked by stasis, deceleration, and conservatism, and by peace broken only in 1830, 1848, and 1871, and during short, limited conflicts between hegemonic powers. The frustration was thus twofold: Enlightened modernity launched itself in protest at the clerical demands of Christendom, which beat a hasty retreat on Dover Beach. Yet secular progressivism, exemplified all too quickly by the dark satanic mills of an industrialised, alienated society, failed to meet the human spirit’s demand for transcendental consolation, and instead stared in envy at its revolutionary past, miserably contenting itself with its distinctly anti-revolutionary heroes – Stendhal, Musset, Byron, and Pushkin.[16] Concomitantly, the exponential growth of finance and industry produced ever more frequently the phenomenon of the ‘urban inferno, with its hordes of faceless inhabitants’.[17] This combination of ‘extreme economic-technical dynamism with a large measure of enforced social immobility, a conjunction on which a century of liberal, bourgeois civilization was built, made for an explosive mixture’.[18] It created a neurotic itch that was only worsened by the horrors of the First World War, which itself proved more than ever that humanity’s secular utopian dreams all too often ended in disaster. Europe yearned for another revolution, even as its faith in the human revolutionary project dwindled; with stasis and disappointment came the impulse for chaotic violence described by Freud as a ‘perverse longing’ for destruction.

Of all of this, argues Steiner, the Jews stood as a terrible, infuriating reminder. For him, it comes as no surprise that it was a culturally Christian, yet increasingly agnostic or atheistic, society which turned all of its monstrous technical capability to the end of the destruction of European Jewry:

It is when they are exhausted or degenerating that organs and muscle tissue secrete contagious and maleficent substances into the human body. So it was that the original Pauline and Patristic theology of Jew-hatred, together with the more general and even deeper-lying resentment of monotheism and sacrificial morality, took on their terrible, festering virulence precisely as Christianity and a belief in God as such began receding from spiritual habits and intellectual-political adherence of Western civilisation. There is a perfect logic in the anti-Semitism of a Voltaire. There is a clear pattern in the fact that the Auschwitz-world erupts out of the subconscious, collective obsessions of an increasingly agnostic, even anti- or post-Christian society. Long-buried, and freed of doctrinal inhibitions and abstractions, the symbols and metaphors which cluster around the Judaic invention and “killing” of God…turned murderous’.[19]

Steiner’s is an astonishingly confident vision, which for all its mellifluous eloquence, may ultimately be found wanting in its detail. Steiner himself has frequently stressed that, despite all his years of scholarship, no answer to the question of ‘why the music didn’t say “No!”’ is forthcoming. Yet perhaps this is the wrong, but telling, question to ask. Music, for Steiner, has become the ‘prayer of the unbeliever’, the avenue of human existence which most supremely allows for God’s presence – whether or not in terms of conventional religious belief – to be acknowledged as utterly fundamental to human existence. Music and art defy the secular, since they cannot admit of closure among any number of negotiations of human perspective. They belong to the realm of human subjectivity, which itself eludes exhaustive definition as an object of human awareness – for the simple reason that human minds are not objects at all. As such, all music and art raises the question of the transcendent, the very question which religious traditions never answer, frequently muddle, but always hold open. To take music, art, and literature seriously is to allow for the possibility of taking time, of investing one’s object of awareness with potentially infinite attention, to covenant always to hold open human practices against what cannot be realised within human history: a total, final perspective, the last word about human existence and meaning.[20] The Jews could be slaughtered. But their presence was a stark reminder of what couldn’t be banished from the universe by any empire.

Could it be that, as those who oversaw the systematic liquidation of children read that exquisite comment of Immanuel Kant about ‘starry heavens above me’ and ‘the moral law within me’, and ingested the romance of Rilke; as they felt the utter transcendence of Beethoven’s late quartets, or allowed themselves to be drawn into the sublime dance of Bach’s cello suites; as they reached the summit of the Missa Solemnis, or lost themselves in the epic landscapes of Wagner’s Parsifal; could it be that they realised this terrible truth, this earth-shattering epiphany? And did that realisation so damn them, so completely mock their infatuation with ultimate and final power, and humiliate them to such an extent, that they were driven in an ever more nihilistic, rabid, and crazed fashion to destroy that small and defenceless population who so embodied, at the heart of European civilisation, the hope and transcendence woven into the very fabric of the human spirit?


* * *

Or perhaps that is all too simple.

I have stared down at those three cracked and lop-sided steps which lead to the gas chambers in Auschwitz-Birkenau. I have leant against the wall of the sanitation block as a Rabbi mumbled the Kaddish, and blew the Shofar. It was a damp, bleak, freezing day. And it was appropriate, tempting, and seductive. This was the Auschwitz everyone wanted to know. This was the contingent Holocaust (“How could they have done this?”), soon to become the universalised Holocaust, in the hands of well-meaning school education officers (“So what do you think about human rights now?”). Tempting, very tempting. But not uncomfortable enough.

The late Gillian Rose, has, as ever, provided a piercing and insightful diagnosis:

To Plato, doing wrong could only occur if one lacked knowledge of what was right – one could not wittingly intend wrong; to Aristotle, it was possible to intend and act rightly but unwittingly to incur wrong…To modernity, this dilemma of contingency acquires a systematic twist: for, it is possible to mean well, to be caring and kind, loving one’s neighbour as oneself, yet to be complicit in the corruption and violence of social institutions. Furthermore, this predicament may not correspond to, and may not be represented by, any available politics or knowledge.[21]

Perhaps this is where Steiner’s thoughts edge us. There is a danger that we might read him as suggesting that each and every perpetrator of the Holocaust sought only the tragic reconciliation of their atheism and love of Schubert. This would be absurd; at the individual level, many Nazis were mundane, petty, uneducated, and cruel – and indeed extremely kind. The point, perceptively made by Rose, is that individual morality relates dialectically to its institutional framework. We may struggle to see the injustices upon which our kindnesses are premised:

[I]t is the very opposition between morality and legality – between inner, autonomous ‘conscience’, and outer, heteronomous institutions – that depraves us. Simultaneous possession of inner freedom and outer unfreedom means that the border where cognitive activity and normative passivity become cognitive passivity and normative activity is changeable and obscure. There is a diremption in our agency and in our institutions…[22]

Perhaps even those who visit Auschwitz without a gross caricature of Nazism often fail to grasp the full implications of this point. It is not enough to ask ‘could I have done this?’ (the answer, ‘yes’, is immediately obvious). The point about Auschwitz, about the Shoah, is the radical questioning of that ‘I’, and the terrible, horrific realisation that it rested then, and may rest now, on unimaginable violence.  To so question ourselves might, as Rose puts it ‘contribute to a change of awareness and a questioning of our sentimentality as modern citizens, protected in all ‘innocence’ by the military might of the modern state. For, in modern dirempted polities, it is the relation between the…inner and outer boundaries of our self-identity and lack of self-identity that turns us into strangers to ourselves as moral agents and social actors’.[23]

I can recall those three steps to the gas chamber vividly. They were steps to hell. And it may be that we all need to go there. At least for a season.


* I owe the title to the second of George Steiner’s T.S. Eliot Memorial Lectures, delivered in 1970.

[1] George Steiner, In Bluebeard’s Castle: Some Notes Towards the Re-definition of Culture (London: Faber & Faber, 1971), 32.
[2] Marquis de Condorcet, Political Writings, ed. Steven Lukes and Nadia Urbinati (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 5.
[3] To adapt a working definition offered by David Cesarani in The Holocaust: A Guide for Students and Teachers (London: Holocaust Educational Trust, 2010).
[4] The literature is vast and overwhelming. See Daniel Boyarin, Border Lines: The Partition of Judeo-Christianity (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), and Jacob Neusner, Jews and Christians: The Myth of a Common Tradition (London: SCM Press, 1990). These and other perspectives are brilliantly incorporated into Simon Schama’s The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words, 1000BCE-1492CE (London: The Bodley Head, 2013), chapters 5-9.
[5] These competing ‘pillars’ of interpretation correlate to the respective positions of Emil Fackenheim, To Mend the World: Foundations of Future Jewish Thought (New York: Shocken, 1982), and Zygmunt Bauman, Modernity and the Holocaust (Oxford: Polity Press, 1989).
[6] For an excellent survey, see Catherine D. Chatterley, Disenchantment: George Steiner and the Meaning of Western Civilization after Auschwitz (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2011).
[7] George Steiner, Malice (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1952), 13, 16-17.
[8] George Steiner, ‘The Long Life of a Metaphor: An Approach to “the Shoah”’, Encounter (February 1987), 57.
[9] Ibid., 57
[10] George Steiner, ‘Through That Glass Darkly’, No Passion Spent (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), 342-343.
[11] For an unflinching look at Christianity’s many painful silences, including the Holocaust, see Diarmaid MaCulloch, Silence: A Christian History (London: Allen Lane, 2013).
[12] Donald MacKinnon, The Borderlands of Theology (London: Lutterworth Press, 1968), 103. For a survey of the fascinating dialogue between MacKinnon and Stein on the subject of tragedy (with particular reference to the Shoah), see Graham Ward, ‘Tragedy as Subclause: George Steiner’s Dialogue with Donald MacKinnon’, The Heythrop Journal, 34 (1993), 274-287.
[13] Steiner, ‘Through That Glass Darkly’, 345. I would not put as much emphasis theologically on this point as Steiner (I do not dispute his cultural-historical argument). For a more nuanced view, see Rowan Williams, ‘The Finality of Christ’, On Christian Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), 93-106.
[14] Steiner, In Bluebeard’s Castle, 41.
[15] Ibid, 41.
[16] Ibid., 21-22.
[17] Ibid., 23.
[18] Ibid., 24.
[19] Steiner, ‘The Long Life of a Metaphor’, 59.
[20] For a discussion of secularism, see Rowan Williams, ‘Has Secularism Failed?’, Faith in the Public Square (London: Bloomsbury, 2015). For an overview of its effects on the humanities and human imagination, see Roger Scruton, The Face of God (London: Bloomsbury, 2013).
[21] Gillian Rose, ‘The Future of Auschwitz’, Judaism and Modernity: Philosophical Essays (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993), 34.
[22] Ibid., 34.
[23] Ibid, 35.

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