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The Beauty of a Social ProblemPhotography, Autonomy, Economy$

Walter Benn Michaels

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9780226210261

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: January 2018

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226210438.001.0001

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Never Again, or Nevermore

Never Again, or Nevermore

(p.153) 5 Never Again, or Nevermore
The Beauty of a Social Problem

Walter Benn Michaels

University of Chicago Press

Abstract and Keywords

Just as Maggie Nelson’s Jane has a picture of the real (non-fictional) Jane at its center, so does Jonathan Littell’s novel, The Kindly Ones, originate with the photo of a Russian partisan, killed by the Nazis. This chapter is about Littell’s ambition to use her death and the Holocaust more generally to make what he calls “Literature,” an act that involves repudiating the ethical demands of “witness” and replacing them with the idea of a “perfect” work of art. And it’s this commitment to the “perfect” that provides a final emblem of the class aesthetic that this book seeks to describe.

Keywords:   Jonathan Littell, Maggie Nelson, The Kindly Ones, aesthetic, Holocaust, witness

In 2006, while Laurent Binet was writing HHhH (short for Himmlers Him heist Heydrich [Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich]; the subject is the assassination of Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich by the Czech resistance), Jonathan Littell’s book Les Bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones) appeared. Heydrich plays only a minor role in Littell’s book, but the general subject matter of the two books—Binet describes Les Bienveillantes as “the (false) memoirs of an old SS veteran”]1—is, as Binet noted unhappily at the time, “fairly similar.”2 Why unhappily? Because Les Bienveillantes immediately became a publishing sensation in France, selling over seven hundred thousand copies, winning the Prix Goncourt and even the reluctant respect of Claude Lanzmann for its “formidable documentation”—he and Raoul Hilberg, Lanzmann said, were the only two people in the world who could sufficiently appreciate its accuracy.3 If you were yourself in the middle of a book about the Nazis, and you too were committed to historical accuracy, to knowing and saying “how things really happened,” you might understandably be nervous about how much attention would be left for you.

Binet need not have worried. HHhH was also a big success, winning its own Prix Goncourt and, more interestingly, while acknowledging both Les Bienveillantes and Lanzmann’s praise for it, producing its own critique of that novel’s claim to truth. In fact, Binet takes on Littell directly, objecting especially to an early scene in which the brutal and drunken Kommandant of Einsatzgruppe C, Paul Blobel, gets driven off (p.154) for psychiatric attention in his Opel. As with most of the characters in Les Bienveillantes, there was a real Paul Blobel, who did command Einsatzgruppe C, who was both a brute (he was hanged for war crimes in 1951) and an alcoholic, and who (like Littell’s Blobel) temporarily lost his command because of his drinking. So what’s the problem? How, Binet wonders, does Littell know that Blobel drove an Opel? And did Lanzmann, “before deciding that The Kindly Ones did not contain ‘a single error, a single flaw,’ check this detail?” “If Blobel really drove an Opel, then I bow before Littell’s superior research,” Binet writes. “But if it’s a bluff, it weakens the whole book” (HHhH, 226).

Why would it weaken the whole book? The way in which Binet puts the point suggests that what is at stake is the writer’s commitment to truth: you should only say things about the past if you have good reason to believe that what you’re saying is true. Directed at historians, this injunction would seem reasonable but superfluous—trying to tell the truth about the past is for them not so much a virtue as a job description. But Littell, of course, for all his command of the relevant history, is a novelist. And it’s this to which, in the end, Binet really objects. Suppose, he says, it were discovered that Blobel really had been driven off in an Opel: “fundamentally, it wouldn’t change a thing.” Why not? Because, narrated as it is by a “fictional protagonist,” the SS officer Dr. Max Aue, the novel cannot tell us what we really want to know—“how things really happened.” What it tells us instead, Binet writes in “Missing Pages,” is how the “writer imagines Nazism.”

Understood as an epistemological objection, this might sound naïve, at least to those historians and philosophers of history who would argue that there is no such thing as knowing “how things really happened” and that all history is in some epistemically significant sense imagined by the historian. But, challenged in this manner, Binet would probably have the better of the argument, since it’s hard to come up with a single sentence in any historical writing that doesn’t present itself as an effort to say what really happened, and since the possibility of historians disagreeing with each other (or, for that matter, agreeing) depends on their commitment to the idea that they are describing what (p.155) really happened. If I imagine Blobel in an Opel and you imagine him in a Volkswagen, we have no quarrel with each other, and we can’t work one up unless we both believe that we are describing the world not only as we imagine it but also as it was. (Of course, at least one of us must be wrong, but that’s a different story.)

In the event, however, Binet’s objection to Littell’s invented narrator—the Nazi Max Aue—turns out to have less to do with a commitment to truth than with a hostility to fiction, which he articulates on the very first page of HHhH by citing the novelist Milan Kundera’s sense of shame at “having to name his characters” (3). Nothing could be more “vulgar,” Binet agrees, than (out of some misplaced commitment to the “effet de réel”) giving “an invented person” an “invented name.” Thus, in HHhH, there are three unrelated people named Moravec, a confusing repetition that no “ordinary novel” (204) would ever allow. This is possible—or rather necessary—because not only are there no invented names, there are also, of course, no “invented persons,” no characters who need to be made realistic: the reason (unrealistically) there are three Moravecs is because (really) there were three Moravecs. In this respect, HHhH is like Sheil Heti’s much noticed How Should a Person Be? “It seems so tiresome to make up a fake person and put them through the paces of a fake story,” Heti said in 2007. “I just—I can’t do it.”4 So instead she wrote a book featuring herself and her real friends in what she calls “a novel from life.” Binet’s word for making people up is “vulgar,” not “tiresome,” but he too wrote a novel from life, or at least from history. Not, however, a historical novel—he calls it an “infranovel” (206), by which he means he uses “all the resources” of the novel “except one: fiction.”5 Thus, if HHhH is in one sense not so unlike The Kindly Ones (where almost every realistic character is, like Blobel, a real one), the one difference is crucial; unlike Littell’s Aue (but just like Heti’s Sheila), Binet’s narrator is also not an invented person: “je ne suis pas un personnage” (214),6 he says, “not a character” (156), and the “he” who says it, the “je,” is Laurent Binet.

Binet and Heti are by no means alone in their distaste for characters. In fact, one could argue that, without either a personality or a personal (p.156) past, McCarthy’s reenactor has none of the psychological trappings of character that contemporary critics like James Wood continue to insist are crucial to the novel. And some of the hostile critical responses to The Kindly Ones, especially in the United States, were grounded precisely in the fact that Aue seemed to reviewers not really a character at all but rather, in Michiko Kakutani’s words, a “monster.”7 Binet’s and Heti’s hostility, however, is not to what Wood calls the novel’s commitment to interesting “the reader in the fate of the individual,” but to the fictional status of that individual.8 As the American writer David Shields puts it (describing his failed effort to write a novel modeled after Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being), “I couldn’t bring myself to give the two ‘characters’ jobs” or to “work up” any interest in their relations to the questions about “mass culture” his book was supposed to be concerned with. Why? Because “I wasn’t interested in imaginary beings’ friction vis-à-vis mass culture; I was interested in my own.”9

Setting aside the role played by Kundera in this ontological impatience, the relevant point here is not hostility to individuality but to fictionality, accompanied by—even as an occasion for—an interest in the writer himself or herself. And even though the subject of HHhH is historical, following Shields’s logic, it’s as much about Binet as The Kindly Ones is about Aue and as How Literature Saved My Life (2013) is about Shields. That is, it’s about what really happened—about Heydrich and the plot to assassinate him and the eventual capture and death of the heroic assassins—but, following the protocols defined by his search for the truth, it’s also about what Binet knows and how he came to know it and why he wanted to know it and how he feels about what he doesn’t know. Thus, for example, right after criticizing Littell for writing a novel that reflects the twenty-first century (Aue “is the mirror of our age: a postmodern nihilist,” 240), Binet begins what will be his lead-in to Heydrich’s actual assassination with “The moment is getting closer, I can feel it … something floating in the Prague air pierces me to my bones … I see the pigeons” and the Tyn cathedral, “so majestic that it makes me want to fall to my knees every time I see it …” (241). If Littell’s Max Aue is the mirror of our ethical epoch, Binet’s Binet mirrors (p.157) himself, and thus, generically at least, provides a much sharper image of our literary epoch. For, concerned at least as much with Binet as it is with Heydrich and other characters, HHhH knits together simultaneously and without contradiction two genres, history and the memoir—relocating history (with its absence of invented characters) under the sign of the memoir (with its interest above all in the real narrator’s relation to the real people who replace the characters).

In texts like these, what often has seemed like a tension between objectivity and subjectivity (between a commitment to the truth of what happened and a commitment to the writer’s perspective on what happened) begins to look more like a kind of collaboration, a demand for the truth as we know it. That’s why, when Binet criticizes The Kindly Ones as the “(false) memoirs of an old SS veteran,” he means not that they’re false in the way that, say, the memoirs championed by Oprah have more than once turned out to be false, but in the way that every novel is—they’re fictional. By contrast, it’s the refusal to be, like HHhH, creative nonfiction—the insistence simultaneously on historical accuracy and fictionality—that emerges as distinctive about The Kindly Ones. What this requires is that the book present itself in two ways. One is as what Peter Kuon calls “a one-to-one recounting of extracts from historical sources and compendia,”10 remarkably and even ostentatiously accurate: Littell knows what make of car his Nazis drove. The other, inseparable from but not identical to the first, is the rendering of its history in the fictional first person: the narrator’s responses are just as central as they are in HHhH, but they are entirely made up. Thus, for example, Littell produces an extremely accurate account of what happened at Babi Yar that is also and just as ostentatiously an account of how his narrator felt about what happened—from his response to the cold wind (“I regretted not having brought my sweater” [124]) to his desire to comfort a dying (and “beautiful” [129]) young woman with a bullet that “had come out beneath her breast,” to tell her that “everything would be fine,” when what he ends up doing instead is firing “a bullet into her head” (130). What makes this novel of the Holocaust different from a history of the Holocaust (p.158) is not, in other words, that it’s unconcerned with the truth of what happened, but rather that it routes that truth through the subjectivity of its narrator. What makes it different from the memoir is that that subjectivity is false, fictitious. The memoir may or may not tell you the “objective” truth of what happened, but even when it fails to be objective, it gives you the truth of how the narrator feels; The Kindly Ones, at least equally committed to giving you the truth of what happened, cannot give you the truth about how its narrator felt. There is no such truth.

It’s for that reason that its thousand pages of what Binet (in “Missing Pages”) dismisses as “interior monologue” can count not just (in the way they do for many readers) as the forced and unwelcome imposition of a morally obnoxious (i.e., Nazi) subjectivity, but also as the unwelcome and unnecessary imposition of subjectivity itself in relation to a topic that demands instead, W. G. Sebald wrote, a prose of “unpretentious objectivity.” Only such objectivity, Sebald argued, could embody allegiance to “the ideal of truth,” which was “the only legitimate reason for continuing to produce literature in the face of total destruction.”11 Thus, writing about representations of the Allied destruction of cities like Dresden and Hamburg, and particularly about Peter de Mendelssohn’s novel Die Kathedrale, Sebald complains about the “effect of kitsch” (56) produced by the nonobjective, “egomaniacal viewpoint” required by the novelist’s decision to center his narrative on a single figure, Torstenson. Everything, he says, is Torstenson: “Torstenson fears, Torstenson sees, Torstenson thought, had the impression that, was in some doubt as to whether, judged that, was at odds with himself, was disinclined …” (54). The problem seems clear: in the face of total destruction, why is the question of how Torstenson felt about it the one we should be concerned with? What’s objectionable, in other words, is the emergence of the narrator’s or central character’s relation to these events as the primary object of interest, and the justification of literature in the face of total destruction will require its ability to overcome this relation.

Whether Sebald himself meets this standard is a question for a different (p.159) occasion, but Littell’s fictional memoir doesn’t even try.12 If Sebald was appalled by Mendelssohn’s Torstenson worrying that “in the dark his nailed boots” might “slip on the ebbing warmth of a woman’s crushed breast,” what would he have thought of Littell’s Nazi, carrying on about how “fabulously beautiful” this executed Russian partisan seemed to him, with the “Medusa crest” (179–80) of her hair making him feel as if turned to stone? Indeed, the fact that we know a great deal about this particular woman and about her death (she is the Russian partisan Zoya Kosmodemyanska, pronounced a people’s hero by Stalin and widely memorialized), accompanied by the fact that this is one of the few places in the novel where Littell replaces what we know did happen with something that didn’t—he has the Germans (entirely fictitiously) line up and pass before her, each one forcing her to kiss him, some “tenderly, almost chastely” (179), some taking her head in their hands and forcing their tongues into her mouth—function here to make the characteristic extravagance of Aue’s response even more egregiously the center of the novel. And of course, this relentless insistence on the egomaniacal viewpoint—when Aue’s turn comes, the experience he and the doomed girl are imagined to share is so intense that she has to turn her head away—is made even more repulsive by the fact that the viewpoint is that of a perpetrator, not a victim.

But, I want to argue, it’s precisely this effort to insist on and even—by making him a perpetrator—to radicalize the egomania of the narrator that makes Les Bienveillantes a crucial intervention in the recent history of the novel, which is to say, in literature’s relation both to history and to the memoir (to what I will describe as its refusal of both history and memoir). And it is this effort also—in part because of its hyperbolic relentlessness—that actually makes possible in Littell the refusal of the subject and the access instead to the structures of indifference that I’ve been describing.

Of course, the idea that Les Bienveillantes produces a certain indifference to the question of the subject may seem a little implausible, given not only the absolute centrality of Max Aue but also Littell’s interest in accounts of the Nazis that emphasize precisely what the German (p.160) historian Klaus Theweleit described as their affective rather than their ideological or economic lives. Theweleit is the author of what Littell has described as the “brilliant” Male Fantasies (1987, 1989), and in the postface Littell asked him to write for his little 2008 study of the Rexist Leon Degrelle (Le sec et l’humide), Theweleit characterizes his own work as an account of Nazism that, instead of understanding it as “the monstrous fruit of an ‘ideology’” (translation mine, scarequotes around ideology his), understands it as a manifestation of the distinctive subjectivity of what Theweleit calls the “soldier males.”13 In other words, Nazism was an episode in the “relations between men and women” (117–18), not an expression of some set of “convictions” or “ideas.” Noting that Male Fantasies was “more warmly” received by American than by German academics, Theweleit speculates that it was perhaps through his connection to American “campus communities” (Littell graduated from Yale in 1989) that Littell came to know, appreciate, and eventually build on Male Fantasies.

But he wouldn’t have had to read Theweleit to learn a history that “privileged the affects of history’s protagonists” rather than their “convictions.” Nothing has been more characteristic of postmodern American academic culture than our suspicion of “convictions” and “ideology.” Indeed, insofar as American writers have been announcing the end of ideology ever since Daniel Bell, and insofar as the redescription of disagreement as difference has been at the core of contemporary pluralism, Theweleit and many others might themselves be described (in reverse homage to François Cusset) as proponents of American Theory. And insofar as French Theory (at least if you accept my characterization of it in The Shape of the Signifier) found itself committed to a model of the performative that also turned differing ideas into differing subject positions, we might forget nationality altogether and replace French and American with Neoliberal Theory. More generally, and maybe at the same time more precisely, one could say that texts like The Kindly Ones and HHhH and How Should a Person Be?—with their simultaneous interest in the object and the subject, in truth and subjectivity—belong to a literature that is better understood as defined by its relation to a (p.161) political economy (currently existing capitalism) than by its relation to any nation.

But if (like Theweleit, like Die Kathedrale, and, more relevantly, like HHhH and How Should a Person Be?) The Kindly Ones insists on telling us how its narrator felt and feels, at the same time (and unlike those texts), it is even more insistent on asserting that it actually doesn’t matter how the narrator felt or feels; indeed, this might be said to be its central theme. On the one hand, the novel pays a great deal of attention to how people respond to and carry out orders, and (inasmuch as Littell follows Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men rather than Daniel Goldhagen’s Willing Executioners) those responses are varied. When it comes to killing Jews, Aue is a reluctant participant; others, like Blobel and especially Aue’s enemy the bloodthirsty Turek, are vicious and eager anti-Semites. And still others, like his Eichmann, are just ambitious bureaucrats. On the other hand, everyone does it: “whether you killed Jews because you hated them or because you wanted to advance your career or even, in some cases, because you took pleasure in it” (131), Aue says, was irrelevant; the state “se moquait profondement,” couldn’t care less, about your “pensées.” And even if, like Einsatz Kommandant Schultz, who both in the novel and in reality (as he later testified) “did not favor this kind of warfare,”14 you managed to get yourself transferred to other duties, you still played your part. Bureaucrats also were necessary for the war effort.

Furthermore, it’s not just the state that doesn’t care what anyone thinks. Aue himself says that killing the girl instead of comforting her “came down to the same thing” (130) and announces his allegiance to what he describes as a “Greek” theory of responsibility, in which it’s the act “not the will” (592) that matters. Hence Oedipus, meaning to kill “a stranger” who had “insulted “ him but unwittingly killing his father, correctly holds himself responsible for parricide. Or, as Albert Speer, making the same point about his own participation in the genocide, put it, “In Sophocles’ Oedipus, he is horribly punished by Providence for having murdered his mother and father, although it was not his fault and any court today would have acquitted him. But, according to the (p.162) moral precepts of ancient Greece, he is nonetheless called to account for it.”15 Speer, like Aue, endorses this view. “I cannot explain even to myself why I think that is right,” he says in a letter quoted in Gitta Sereny’s extraordinary book Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth, “but I do.”

Speer is also a central character in The Kindly Ones, and it’s very likely that Littell is relying here on Sereny for Aue’s formulation of the thesis. Sophocles is relevant for Speer as a way of denying that he knew what was going on in the camps while at the same time, like Oedipus, accepting responsibility for it. From Sereny’s standpoint (the standpoint of the battle with truth), this acceptance of responsibility is something less than satisfactory. She doubts that he didn’t know and, more to the point, doesn’t feel that her doubts are made irrelevant by the fact that Speer has accepted responsibility and was in fact imprisoned for twenty years for what he did. For Sereny, Speer’s mode of taking responsibility—his allegiance to the “Greek” interest in what he was doing rather than what he was thinking—functions as a way of avoiding rather than confronting the real issue. What matters to Sereny, in other words, is not whether Speer should or shouldn’t be held accountable—he should, on both theories—and we might reasonably wonder (since he was) why she or we should care whether or not he actually knew. To which the answer is presumably that we’re interested not only, or even primarily, in his actions and their consequences but also in what neither the Greeks nor Littell’s version of the Nazi state cared about: his “pensées.”

Which The Kindly Ones is (this is what it means to run the history through the subject) but also isn’t, since it produces people’s feelings about what they did (their eagerness to kill Jews or their reluctance) only so that its narrator can insist that those feelings (including and especially his own) didn’t much matter. For some readers, of course, this is a problem. The most frequent moral criticism of the novel is not exactly that Aue is insufficiently repentant but that Littell is insufficiently critical of Aue, that (in the words of the French historian Édouard Husson and his collaborator, the philosopher Michel Terestchenko) the author doesn’t sufficiently “indicate … to the reader” how (p.163) the most “scandalous” of Aue’s observations are to be taken.16 What they want from the book is not so much the truth of what happened as the right attitude toward that truth. And it’s this insistence on the right attitude that produces the dominant form of kitsch today—ethical kitsch. That is, the valorization of subjectivity to which Sebald objected appears most powerfully as the expression of our desire to bask in our own disapproval—of the Holocaust, of slavery, of all the genocides. Binet’s hatred of Heydrich—since every imaginable reader of his text will also hate Heydrich—functions in this register. By contrast, The Kindly Ones can be found wanting not because it doesn’t disapprove of the Holocaust (no one really thinks that Littell is an apologist for the Nazis) but because it isn’t sufficiently interested in its disapproval. The book’s instantly famous opening lines promise a “real morality play,” yet it isn’t interested in condemning the morality of its narrator and thus flattering the morality of its readers. This is what Husson and Terestchenko are complaining about. Littell fails to indicate his distance from the narrator and thus to instruct the reader as to the distance he is expected to take. He doesn’t tell the reader what the reader already knows, and he doesn’t seek to make him feel what he already feels.17

This is especially striking because the first famous thing about those famous lines is their address to the reader: “Frères humains, laissez-moi vous raconter comment ça s’est passé.”18 And the second famous thing is how the reader’s response—“On n’est pas votre frère, rétorquerezvous, et on ne veut pas le savoir”—turns out to be a marker of the very thing that will keep us reading. For if the reader’s aversion is to hearing the executioner’s side of the story, the great effect (as Littell has himself remarked) of making the narrator and virtually every other character—with their personal, political, and professional fears and hopes—an executioner is to give the reader what Littell calls a “prise” (“Conversation,” 44), a way into the situation and into the book itself. You don’t have to feel you’re being taken yet again through some Holocaust museum and asked to muster the appropriate levels of sympathy and outrage. All you have to do is ask yourself, if I were in Aue’s position, “Moi, finalement, j’aurais fait quoi?”—what would I have done? This is what Aue means (p.164) when he says, “ça vous concerne: vous verrez bien que ça vous concerne.” Browning’s ordinary men thesis—the killers in the main were people who, in more normal circumstances, would never have killed anybody—functions here not primarily as a historical description but as a literary device. It doesn’t really matter whether you’re convinced of its truth—as Aue says, “Don’t think I am trying to convince you of anything; after all, your opinions are your own business” (1). What matters is that the executioner’s narrative turns the question of whether the thesis is true into a question about you—what you would have done. And it doesn’t really matter how you answer. Just as the novel focuses on—but doesn’t care about—its narrator’s sense of what he’s doing, it solicits—but also doesn’t care about—its reader’s sense of how he or she would have behaved.19 The point of the question is that it gets its grip on you, gives you the “prise.” What The Kindly Ones wants, in other words, is not to convince you of Aue’s humanity or to congratulate you on your own; what it wants from you is your interest. It wants to be what Littell calls “littérature.”20

This ambition is given a certain point (at least retroactively) by Binet’s ambition for HHhH—that it not be “littérature.” HHhH begins with the declaration that Joseph Gabcik (one of the men who killed Heydrich) was a real person and that what Binet wants most is not to “reduce” him to a “character” and his acts to “literature,” and it ends with the reminder that “the people who took part in this story are not characters” (251) and that Binet’s original goal (even if he believes he hasn’t quite achieved it) was to write about them “sans faire de littérature” (433). This is the goal that I have identified generically with the subsumption of history by the memoir and with the interest in the subjectivity of both the writer and the reader. Littell by contrast describes Les Bienveillantes as his effort to “écrire un livre qui viendrait s’inscrire dans ce qu’on appelle la littérature.”21 And his identification of the moment of its origin—he began to think about the book, he says, when he saw for the first time a photograph of the dead partisan Zoya (figure 27)—aligns itself not with a refusal of the literary but with the very idea of it. (p.165)

Never Again, or Nevermore

Figure 27. Sergej Strunnikow, Soja (1941). Gelatin silver photograph. 9.6 × 13.8 cm.

Photograph: Courtesy of the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

What is extraordinary about this “image,” he says is “qu’on perçoit à quel point cette femme a pu être belle.”22 In other words, it’s not just the death of a Russian partisan out of which Les Bienveillantes is made but the death of a beautiful woman, the subject that Poe (in “The Philosophy of Composition”) called “unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world” (1379). Littell’s word is “literature,” not poetry, but when he describes himself as an “writer,” not a “witness,” and says that his ambition is to produce “art,” not testimony (“Conversation,” 5), we see what it means for him both to have added the absolutely fictional kisses to this scene and to have made it all about Aue—for whom, he says, the dead woman’s body was a kind of “mirror.” The point here is not remembrance of the dead, much less identification with the murderer. It is instead their transformation into a work of art that—precisely in its claims to be a work of art—makes the subjectivity of both murderer and victim irrelevant. The novel tells us nothing about Zoya, except in (p.166) terms of what she means to one of her killers, and it tells us about that killer only to insist that what she means to him doesn’t matter.

So, although a critic like Kuon criticizes Littell here for “aestheticizing his documents” (he means both the fictional kisses and the elaborate account of Aue’s own response) and thus becoming “an accomplice of the perpetrator,”23 what the aestheticization in fact does is to make both the author’s ethical relation to the event (his possible complicity) and the reader’s ethical relation (our disapproval or approval) irrelevant. It is a refusal not exactly of history but of historicism—of both elements of Holocaust kitsch: the idea that everybody’s deaths should be remembered and the idea that remembering them is valuable to those who do the remembering, that, as Binet puts it, it’s “for us, the living,” that remembrance of the dead “means something” (179). More generally, it’s a refusal of the idea that we have any ethical obligation to history, that there’s any meaning either to the idea of respecting or disrespecting it. Aestheticizing history is here a way of consigning it to the past, a way, precisely, of not historicizing it.

I’ve written elsewhere about why that seems to me a good idea, focusing in particular on texts like Toni Morrison’s Beloved, where history is called upon to provide identities that biology cannot, and criticizing more generally the prominence of redressing historical grievances in supposedly progressive social movements. Why should accounts of how we came to be where we are function instead as accounts of who we are (which is to say, why should we turn history into identity)? And why should justice consist in restoring to people the wealth that ought to have been (reparations for slavery) or was (reparations for lost property) accumulated by their ancestors? Why, for example, isn’t the world better off with stolen art displayed in museums to be seen by everyone, rather than returned to the descendants of the people from whom it was stolen?

But in The Kindly Ones, the Holocaust represents less an opportunity to repudiate the identitarian appeals of historicism than—remembering Adorno’s notorious remark that “to write poetry” after Auschwitz would be “barbaric”24—a challenge to art itself. Or, since (p.167) that challenge has turned out to function more as an invitation, perhaps we should say The Kindly Ones represents an effort to take it more seriously. And to take seriously, too—remembering, perhaps, that the oft-quoted sentence is only a kind of throwaway line near the end of an essay in which Adorno also says, “The illusory importance and autonomy of private life conceals the fact that private life drags on only as an appendage of the social process” (158)—his argument that cultural criticism (the actual subject of the essay) must become what he calls “social.” So, one way to describe Les Bienveillantes would be as an effort to make poetry (“littérature”) not only after but also out of Auschwitz, and to show that such a project is barbaric—in its refusal to respect the dead and especially in its indifference to the moral self-respect of its readers. And another way would be to say that it’s also a critique of “the illusory importance” of private life, an illusion that became its own kind of anti-sociology in the years after Adorno wrote. Think Margaret Thatcher: “There’s no such thing as society, only individuals and their families.” No literary theorist could better describe the fundamental commitment of the memoir, although a generationally updated version would probably add friends to family. And no literary critic could better explain Max Aue’s obsession with his family—from the sister he sleeps with to the mother he murders. But Les Bienveillantes is not a memoir; it’s the false—which is to say, fictional—memoir of a fictional Nazi, the point of the fiction being not that it isn’t true (just the opposite, an astonishing amount of it is) but that it has what Littell calls “form” and that both the victims of the Nazis and the private life of the executioner/narrator are deployed in an effort to make that form “parfaite,” perfect.

“Perfection,” of course, is what Poe says the artist is seeking when he selects as his topic the death of a beautiful woman, but Littell invokes his own commitment to the perfect in the context of a question from an interviewer about whether he thinks the “holocausts” of the twentieth century have been the “ruin” of form. His answer is, in effect, maybe. That is, he says, the idea of the work of art that is “bien faite, qui tienne dans toutes ses dimensions, qui est parfaite” is “effectivement ruinée.”25 And we haven’t even needed holocausts to ruin it. When Shields says (p.168) he can still see why certain works are “‘great’ or good or at least well made” but that he has “zero interest in doing something similar”(125), it’s the fact not even of murder but just of death that has made him prefer an art (on the model of Daniel Johnston’s music) that finds “a way to hot-wire his feelings directly into his tape recorder” and thus into his reader (38).

But Littell’s sense that the parfaite has been ruined is, of course, compromised (not to say contradicted) by his own efforts in The Kindly Ones, and in particular by his characterization of those efforts: “je voulais faire quelque chose de bien construit” (12). Of course, we’ve already seen (in Jane) how murder, at least at the subgenocidal level, can plausibly be understood as an opportunity for rather than an obstacle to form. In fact, in the first of two poems called “Figment” in Jane, Maggie Nelson recounts her grandfather’s response to being told that she’s writing about her aunt—“What will it be, a figment/ of your imagination”—and wishes she could show him the etymology of the word: “figment, from fingere, meaning/ to form” (23). If that meaning, as she acknowledges, is “obsolete” (24), Nelson’s version of the documentary imperative—real names for real people—nevertheless understands the “perfect” as its goal. And even the idea of making the murder not just of one but of millions into the occasion for a distinctively aesthetic pleasure has its place in Jane. The poem right before “A Philosophy of Composition (Reprise)” works from a diary entry about Jane’s participation (as a member of “the costume committee”) in her high school’s production of the play Diary of Anne Frank. “The spirit of this play,” she writes, “has touched deep into my heart and I know/ I shall never forget it” (213). By which she means, she “was thrilled to be a part of it all and thrilled/ to just be there, amid the activity and fun. You can’t really enjoy/ or understand this until you’ve been there.”

This is, in a certain sense, the language of testimony, complete with the trauma-theory critique of representation and the idea that language cannot adequately transmit the experience. But of course, the experience here is not of the Holocaust; it’s of putting on a play about the Holocaust, and it’s “fun,” a fun produced by making the impending (p.169) death of Anne Frank into art. No doubt Jane’s emotions—the last line of the poem is “I’m so happy” (214)—are less complicated than either Nelson’s (about Jane) or Littell’s (about, for starters, Zoya), but in both texts the ethical and emotional complexities of the writer’s (and reader’s) relation to the death are subsumed by the distinctive pleasure of the aesthetic (figure 28).

But Nelson’s juxtaposition of Jane and Anne Frank is striking not just because of the personal analogy it suggests (Jane is to Anne as Maggie is to Jane) but because it moves the analogy beyond the personal. The significance of Holocaust remembrance today is not, for most of us, personal—it does not depend on our having known and loved someone who was murdered—but we are expected to treat it as if it were, as if we owed something to the victims and, hence, as if a book like The Kindly Ones needed to be judged on the degree to which it fulfilled that obligation. Thus, if it has been criticized for trivializing the Holocaust by making it “too literary,” it has also been defended on the grounds that its use of literary devices (like the “unreliable” Nazi narrator) is in fact a way of condemning the perpetrators. Either it fulfills its ethical obligation or it fails; either way, that obligation sets the bar.

But the point I’ve been making is that the very idea of having a personal ethical relation to the Holocaust (good or bad) is what Littell’s ambition to enter into “literature” refuses. Rather, the ambition to form is deployed against the personal, against the reduction of the political to the ethical. Here the holocausts of the twentieth century figure less as causes and more as justifications for the “ruin” of form. That is, the double demand to be faithful to the object (what really happened) and thus to the subject (our ethical and affective relation to what happened) is not so much produced by those holocausts as it is emblematized in our relation to them. They function as one of the exemplary sites on which we play out the ambition to make everything part of our “private” lives, an ambition Shields brilliantly fulfills when he remarks, “No one from my immediate or extended family died in the Holocaust, and yet in a way that’s difficult to explain, it was the defining event of my childhood” (94). By contrast, Littell’s effort to make something perfect (p.170)

Never Again, or Nevermore

Figure 28. James Welling, Poe (2007). C-print. 31-1/2 × 25 in.

Photograph: Courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner, New York/London.

(p.171) out of the Holocaust—to turn the “never again” of Holocaust remembrance into the “nevermore” of “The Raven”—embodies a refusal of the personal that refuses also not just a certain relation to the past but a certain relation to the present.

Thatcher and the memoir can function as a kind of shorthand for the political and literary versions of that present, but not because of the supposed selfishness of the one and self-centeredness of the other. The problem, for example, with putting the question of grievability at the center of our politics is not that it’s self-centered; it’s not that it’s about how we feel. It’s that it’s about how everyone feels, about an antidiscrimination—antiracism, antisexism, antihomophobia—that seeks to eliminate all of capitalism’s inequalities except the one that actually constitutes capitalism. In an economy where the jobs being created include very few good ones (paying over twenty dollars an hour) and very many bad ones (paying around ten dollars an hour),26 the demand for a social structure in which the people who get those jobs can be understood as getting what they deserve (as rewards for making the right choices or punishments for making the wrong) grows more intense and more absurd. It’s intense because we want to be sure that no one is unjustly impoverished, that everybody’s individual merit is being registered. It’s absurd because, as more and more people become impoverished, the assurance that each of them individually deserves his fate becomes more and more beside the point. Why should we prefer justifying inequality to eliminating it?

My point here is not, of course, that The Kindly Ones somehow articulates a class politics. If a class politics ever comes up in its nearly a thousand pages, it does so only in the chapter that pays homage to the famous “gazing into a mirror” (395) conversation between Liss and Mostovskoy in Grossman’s Life and Fate, in which (in Littell, as in Grossman) the difference between Nazism and Communism (between the centrality of race and that of class) is challenged rather than affirmed.27 My point is rather that The Kindly Ones has something more like a class aesthetic, that its commitment to the idea of form (up to and including the idea of “unité” embodied in Littell’s effort to present (p.172) the book—organized into Allemandes, Courante, Gigues, etc.—as the world’s longest Bach suite) is a version of the various commitments to the separateness of the work that we have seen displayed in the preceding four chapters. In every case, we can understand these commitments only if we understand them as artistic ones, as efforts to produce better art, not a better society.

But in every case also, we can only understand what it means to see the desire for a better art as a desire for the “perfect” if we understand the society in which and against which perfection has begun to look good. Sebald, again in his essay on Peter Weiss, says that Weiss was only able to compensate for his own feelings about the Holocaust—his “subjective sense of personal involvement”—by placing the “objective social conditions and preconditions of the tragedy at the center of his discourse” (187). My argument about the works described in this book has not been that they place today’s objective social conditions at their center, but that, in imagining a form that refuses the politics of personal involvement, they make those objective conditions visible. It’s in this context that the ambition to produce a perfect work of art has taken on the political meaning it now has. For the perfect work is the one that, asserting the difference between itself and the world, asserts both its own autonomy and the relative autonomy of that world—the irreducibility of social structure to our affective relation to that structure. That’s why it’s the production of art’s difference from the world that counts as the work it does in the world.


(1.) Laurent Binet, “The Missing Pages of Laurent Binet’s HHhH,” Millions (April 2012). http://www.themillions.com/2012/04/exclusive-the-missing-pages-of-laurent-binets-hhhh.html (accessed August 28, 2012).

(2.) Laurent Binet, HHhH, trans. Sam Taylor (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012), 227. Subsequent references appear parenthetically in the text.

(3.) Marie-France Etchegoin,”Claude Lanzmann juge Les Bienveillantes,” Le Nouvel Observateur (September 21, 2006).

(4.) Heti first produced this remark in a 2007 interview in The Believer with the art critic Dave Hickey (http://www.believermag.com/issues/200711/?read=interview_hickey; accessed January 2013), but it has subsequently been reproduced in many discussions of the book—How Should a Person Be? A Novel from Life—in which she acts on her frustration and gives everybody their real names.

(5.) Chloé Saffy, “Laurent Binet entre dans l’H(h)istoire,” Discordance, http://www.discordance.fr/laurent-binet-entre-dans-lhhistoire-10767 (accessed January 2013).

(6.) Laurent Binet, HHhH (Paris: Éditions Grasset, 2009), 214.

(7.) Michiko Kakutani, “Unrepentant and Telling of Horrors Untellable,” New York Times (February 23, 2009).

(p.211) (8.) James Wood, How Fiction Works (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2008), 148–49.

(9.) David Shields, How Literature Saved My Life (New York: Knopf, 2013), 123.

(10.) Peter Kuon, “From ‘Kitsch’ to ‘Splatter’: The Aesthetics of Violence,” in Writing the Holocaust Today, ed. Aurélie Barjonet and Liran Razinsky (Amsterdam: Editions Rodopi, 2012), 36.

(11.) W. G. Sebald, On the Natural History of Destruction, trans. Anthea Bell (New York: Modern Library, 2003), 53.

(12.) In the same essay in which Sebald articulates it, for example, he finds himself, some fifteen pages later, trying to describe his sense since childhood that “something” about the world he had been born into “was being kept from” him (70), and he produces this sentence: “I know now that at the time when I was lying in my bassinet on the balcony of the Seefeld house and looking up at the pale blue sky, there was a pall of smoke in the air all over Europe, over the rearguard action in the east and west, over the ruins of the German cities, over the camps where untold numbers of people were burnt, people from Berlin and Frankfurt, from Wuppertal and Vienna, from Wurzburg and Kissingen, from Hilversum and The Hague, Naumur and Thionville … there was scarcely a place in Europe from which no one had been deported in those years” (71–72). Written in a version of the “documentary style” that Sebald approves as a technique for overcoming Holocaust kitsch and obviously without any recourse to the infant in the bassinet’s viewpoint, this passage nevertheless reproduces the structure of the egomania that its self-effacing style seeks to deny: the destruction of the war enters the text as an explanation of the feelings (“something was being kept from me”) of its author. And of course, Sebald’s great novel Austerlitz performs a version of this plot. Here the effort to avoid the reduction of total destruction to one’s own experience of it involves an elaborate structure in which the story is narrated by a first person who mainly repeats to us the narration of another first person (Austerlitz himself), who in turn is often passing on to us what was said to him by someone else (for example, his childhood nurse, Vera). Thus a sentence beginning “Maximilian had told her, said Vera,” carries with it the implicature “said Austerlitz to me and say I to you,” and the feeling the sentence describes—“that in the middle of this crowd, which had merged into a single living organism racked by strange, convulsive contractions,” Maximilian “had felt like a foreign body about to be crushed and then excreted” (168)—comes to us as if preserved in amber. That is, (p.212) how somebody (Austerlitz’s father) felt at a Nazi rally can be recounted only if it’s embedded in somebody else’s narration, which is itself embedded in somebody else’s narration, which is embedded in that of the actual narrator: he said, she said, he said, I say, writes the author. Nevertheless, it’s not at all clear that rendering the murder of the Jews only at second or third hand and by the effects it has on those who were not themselves involved (since after all, the true point of that sentence is not Maximilian’s response to the Nazis but Austerlitz’s response to that response) doesn’t relocate rather than escape the effect of kitsch.

(13.) Jonathan Littell, Le sec et l’humide (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 2008), 25, 117.

(14.) Affidavit of Erwin Schultz, May 26, 1947, “The Einsatzgruppen Case,” http://www.phdn.org/archives/einsatzgruppenarchives.com/mt/exhibit26.html (accessed February 2013).

(15.) Quoted in Gitta Sereny, Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth (New York: Random House, 1996), 635.

(16.) Édouard Husson and Michel Terestchenko, Les Complaisantes: Jonathan Littell et l’écriture du mal (Paris: François-Xavier de Guibert, 2007), 44. Dominick LaCapra gestures in the same direction when he worries that the “textual markers or procedures that provide the reader” with the “critical distance” needed to signal “the way complicity with the first-person narrator may be resisted, disrupted, or overcome” “may not be sufficient” (History, Literature, Critical Theory [Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013], 99).

(17.) Of course, as many critics defend Littell as critique him on this point. Thus, for example, Luc Rasson rightly insists that any “moral stand on the novel” requires us to see the ways in which Littell’s deployment of the literary (for Rasson, his creation in particular of Aue as an unreliable narrator) works in exactly the opposite direction, producing a “condemnation” rather than a “trivialization” of, much less an identification with, the Nazis (“How Nazis Undermine Their Own Point of View: Irony and Unreliability in The Kindly Ones,” in Writing the Holocaust Today, ed. Aurélie Barjonet and Liran Razinsky (Amsterdam: Editions Rodopi, 2012), 99, 103). My point, however, is that what makes the novel important has less (i.e., nothing) to do with its moral stance on the Nazis than with its lack of interest in taking such a stance. And in this, it’s not unprecedented. In Sebald’s extraordinary tribute to Peter Weiss, he describes Weiss, both a German and a Jew, as seeking “to identify with both the murder victims and the murderers,” an effort that has the effect of making “any kind of (p.213) moralizing simplification out of the question” (187). And if we think of the pieces in Sebald’s own On the History of Natural Destruction (1999) and his novel Austerlitz (2001) as parts of a single project, we can see the degree to which Sebald himself was committed to a version of Weiss’s project. Austerlitz’s family is murdered by the Germans, but it’s the “devastation” of Germany by the English that’s the subject of the History, so the effect of the texts taken together is to make the Germans both perpetrators and victims. From this standpoint, the often-remarked resemblance between Sebald and Austerlitz’s narrator and between Austerlitz’s narrator and Austerlitz himself produces a kind of composite Jew/German—seeking, on the one hand, to know what was done to his family, and, on the other, to know what his family did.

(18.) In Charlotte Mandell’s translation: “Oh my human brothers. Let me tell you how it happened. I am not your brother, you’ll retort, and I don’t want to know.” Mandell did a wonderful job translating Les Bienveillantes, but these sentences, unfortunately the first two in the book, are really hard. “Frères humains,” especially to someone who knows François Villon’s “Ballade des pendus,” produces an effect very different from “human brothers,” and “Let me tell you how it happened” more or less necessarily loses the force of “ça” in “ça s’est passé,” a force that Pierre Nora accurately characterizes when he says “the ça is marvelous because everything is in it” (“Jonathan Littell, Pierre Nora, Conversation sur l’histoire et le roman,” Le Débat 144 [2007]: 41).

(19.) Littell has said (in the interview in Le Figaro) that he imagines he might have behaved much as Aue does (presumably minus the incest and matricide), but of course, the interest of the book in no way depends upon the accuracy of this assertion. In fact, part of the power of the question is that it’s more interesting than the truth of any answer—especially to anyone else. The French literary critic Pierre Bayard (best known in the United States as the author of How to Talk about Books You Haven’t Read, trans. Jeffrey Mehlman [New York: Bloomsbury, 2007]) has recently published a book called Aurais-je été résistant ou bourreau? (Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 2013), in which he tries to figure out (that is, treats as a question you could answer by doing some research) what he would have done if he’d been a young man during the Nazi occupation of France (a kind of how to talk about things you didn’t do). His eventual and endearingly plausible answer (plausible not because it’s well researched but because it’s so banal as to make the very idea of research irrelevant) is that he (p.214) would have joined the Resistance but only relatively late in the war and especially if he had thought it would impress some attractive young woman. Foreclosing both the plausibility and the banality of an answer like that, Littell exploits instead the power of the question.

(20.) “Jonathan Littell, Richard Millet, Conversation à Beyrouth,” Le Débat 144 (2007): 18, 24.

(21.) “I wanted to write a book that would take its place in what is called literature …” “Conversation à Beyrouth,” 18. In this particular passage, Littell is interested also in disclaiming any particular interest in French or any national literature, distancing himself from the national but without moving to the celebration—definitively criticized by Winfried Fluck in “Theories of American Culture (and the Transnational Turn in American Studies)” (in Romance with America? Essays on Culture, Literature, and American Studies, ed. Laura Bieger and Johannes Voelz [Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag, 2009], 69–85)—of its supposed alternative, the transnational. Stalin famously made the mistake of committing to socialism in one country; no one could possibly (the contradiction would be a logical one) make the mistake of committing to neoliberalism in just one country. From this standpoint, the idea of a literature independent of any nation has the merit of at least recognizing the universality of the problem (rather than thinking that universality is the problem) and thus suggesting the universality of any possible solution.

(22.) Quoted in StellaMaris, “Les Bienveillantes” http://stellamaris.blog.lemonde.fr/2006/10/25/ (accessed February 2012). The interest in her beauty is reiterated in an interview in Le Figaro in terms of the contrast between “the beauty of the girl” and “the horror of the scene” (Florent Georgesco and Jonathan Littell, “Jonathan Littell, homme de l’année,” Le Figaro (2006), http://www.lefigaro.fr/magazine/20061229.MAG00000304_maximilien_aue_je_pourrais-dire-qu-c_est-moi.html (accessed May 6, 2009).

(23.) Kuon, “From Kitsch to Splatter,” 37. In less interesting literary critical terms, this is also the major complaint of Husson and Terestchenko.

(24.) Theodor Adorno, Can One Live after Auschwitz? A Philosophical Reader, trans. Rodney Livingstone, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press: 2003), 162.

(25.) “Conversation,” 14, 15. What Littell is saying is that the ambition to make a perfect (“parfaite”) work of art (“bien faite,” “well made … in every dimension”) seems to have been destroyed by what he calls “an ideological will to make form implode” (14), but that, in his view, it hasn’t worked (p.215) out so well. And all this comes after his description of his own effort to make sure that Les Bienveillantes was “bien construit” (12) and of his use of the elements of Bach suites (allemande, courante, etc.) to construct it. His implication is apparently that the critique of form is ideological in a way that his own commitment to form is not. From the standpoint of the argument of this book, however, this would be a mistake. The conflict between a certain critique of form and a certain commitment to it should today be understood as a conflict between ideologies rather than between ideology and something else. And in fact, as has already been suggested, it is the renewed insistence on form that actually makes it possible to bring to light political commitments that both the critique of form and the critique of ideology characteristic of the postmodern and the neoliberal had obscured.

(26.) “The Low-Wage Recovery and Growing Inequality,” http://www.nelp.org/page/-/Job_Creation/LowWageRecovery2012.pdf?n (accessed May 12, 2014).

(27.) In this conversation, in other words, we see an updating of the classic thesis of the equivalence of Nazism and Communism as twin forms of totalitarianism—an equivalence that goes back both to Hannah Arendt and to F. A. Hayek, extends through Foucault, and has been reinvented in the twenty-first century to include both the Republican Party and Islam. Increasingly, the point of producing totalitarianism as the problem is to produce liberalism as the solution. (p.216)