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Transcript by Heimrad Bäcker
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Hmmm. This book by German Neue Texte poet Heimrad Bäcker is no simple thing. An experiment in quotation, it culls excerpts from documents of the Holocaust to represent history from contemporary sources. Yet these chosen archival sources are not without historical bias – necessarily, of course. They include police directives, Gestapo reports, Reich correspondence, newspaper reports, Transportation Ministry documents, court records, death camp statistics, tribunal transcripts of the testimony of war criminals, arrest reports, records of ghetto property seizures, Nazi notes on medical experimentation, excerpts from Mein Kampf, passages from field sermons by the Reich Pastor, and requisitions for more gassing vans.

Is this catalogue of perpetrator-authored documentation truly evidence – as the back jacket blurb would have readers believe – that the Holocaust was not unspeakable? Voices from the amply expressed archive of Reich bureaucracy may not be tongue-tied, but since they were not the traumatized victims of the events they engineered, why would we expect them to be? If anything, the state-authorized apparatus within which these administrators worked created a cocoon of artificially permissive genocide-talk. The voices Bäcker quotes from war crimes tribunals are likewise those of perpetrators: camp commandant Franz Stangl reports on the earth at Babi Yar as a smouldering lava of burning corpses that amuses his companion.

Yet the poet also downplays resistance, quoting from only a few final letters written by resistance fighters. Victims’ voices occasionally erupt. An unearthed scrap of paper announces the impending extermination of its Jewish authors. Deported children cry out that they don’t want to die. Yet more typically, victims are portrayed through the lens of Nazi officialdom; one document absurdly insists that people attempting suicide at Theresienstadt file a report. This too reflects the reality of authorized wartime narratives. Dying Jews and deported children did not have ready access to media or lasting documentation.

Bäcker necessarily writes history as the narrative of the powerful, reproducing the particularities of Nazi atrocities without protest, in part because so many protestors were silenced or deported. In this sense, he exposes an appalling truth, and this I suspect is his intention: to serve as an anthropologist of national socialism, highlighting “a methodical gibberish that replicates a deadly gibberish.” transcript inflicts a double-wound, invoking genocide as it occurred, largely without objection, and therefore both remembering it and playing it again as inexorable historical record. Shorn of narrative and therefore of the censured literary dimension of Holocaust representation, these quotations strive to comply with misreadings of Adorno’s statement that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.”

Perhaps this would be fine if the editorial paratexts (jacket blurbs and afterwords) that frame the book were not a travesty of one-sided omission, claiming for this single historical representation the status of sufficiency. Bäcker himself writes, “It is enough just to stick to the language preserved in the documents.” Is it really “enough” to suggest that the bureaucratic and statistical record of the Nazi apparatus should stand in for history, shorn of any record of the survivor’s struggle to assimilate the lived experience of genocide? This book may adequately characterize the bureaucratic machinery of this particular genocide, but to suggest that such a representation might be “enough” as Holocaust history is truly harrowing. Furthermore, Patrick Greaney claims that transcript “emphasizes the fact that the destruction of European Jewry was not unspeakable but a program that was spoken about, extensively, by thousands of people,” countering “the notion of ineffability” so pervasive in the reception of Holocaust literature. It is an astonishing misapplication of this idea, which properly belongs to traumatic literature – that is, the post-traumatic writings of survivors – and would never pertain to the articulate architects of this “program” or their extensive archive of letters, memos and reports. It amazes me that the wonderful Dalkey Archive Press could be so unconscious or uncritical as to frame this book so shoddily.

These over-zealous paratexts ¬– pushily directing me on how to understand Bäcker’s work – frame the poetry in such a way that I risk overlooking the book’s genuine insights. transcript is an uneasily eloquent précis of Nazi language, method and rationale that can not fail to horrify: a “concurrence of document and horror, statistics and dread” that succeeds not by showing how eminently describable the Holocaust was, but rather by demonstrating the devastating fluency of its engineers and the extent to which their narrative still dominates today as unadorned (and therefore supposedly unaestheticized) “reality.” As if Reich documents could ever hope to escape the fetish of ‘what really happened’ – or indeed the fetish of data as somehow neutral... (Backer, no doubt, understands this). As a melancholy tribe endlessly grieving our own lost cultural authority, it is hardly surprising that we relentlessly succumb to the allure of literature ‘free’ of the quagmire of figuration and subjectivity. This strikes me as baldly symptomatic. If we seek to enshrine only this kind of (conceptual) Holocaust literature, we strive to once again do away with the troubling subjectivities produced by atrocity: the millions who died or who watched loved ones die under the most appalling circumstances. No proliferation of train schedules will adequately represent their absence. And no amount of literary politicking will disguise our deeply embedded urge to replace their aporetic testimony with the documentary archive of their killers - even when we consciously undermine their narrative.

To some extent, transcript succeeds by summoning our symptomatic desire for the tidy historical narrative that only Reich documentation can supply. The poems invite readers to reinvigorate a barbaric history by savoring it again as data. This is the kind of embattled “writing against” that Adorno sees as the potential of art – one that implicates us and therefore disturbingly resonates. This may be a useful way to read transcript: as a book that places us in theatrical relation to it, so that it produces us as reading subjects gratifying our melancholic wish for documentation in the face of barbaric unreason. ( )
2 vote cocoafiend | Apr 29, 2012 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Heimrad Bäckerprimary authorall editionscalculated
Achleitner, Friedrichmain authorall editionsconfirmed
Greaney, Patrickmain authorall editionsconfirmed
Kling, Vincentmain authorall editionsconfirmed
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