5 - Jewish Memories
Published online by Cambridge University Press: 19 March 2020
‘I CANNOT remember everything.’ The first words of Arnold Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw make for perplexing listening, prefacing, as they do, the narrator's attempt precisely to remember. On some level, paradoxes such as this one are characteristic of Survivor. For example, the brevity of the work contrasts with its density and expressiveness, while the crudeness of diction of the perpetrator's language as remembered by the imagined survivor contrasts with the sophisticated dodecaphonic idiom. The narrative itself, too, seems paradoxical. The last sung words of the victims, uvkumecho (rise up), as they intone the Sh’ma Yisrael, ‘collide directly with a forbidding signal from the trumpets’, as Steven J. Cahn has put it, rendering the victims morally superior to their murderers while simultaneously signalling their deaths. Of greatest interest, perhaps, is the extent to which Survivor explores the dialectic of history and memory. While Schoenberg claimed to have partly based the libretto on witness accounts of survivors and set it during the dissolution of the Warsaw ghetto in April and May 1943, thus suggesting a sense of historical accuracy, the fictitious narrator conjures up an imaginary scene from memory. As Amy Wlodarski has put it, the work witnesses Schoenberg's response ‘to the fact of the Holocaust through a personalized theory of musical memory’. Wlodarski’s emphasis on memory is crucial. Indeed, it has been the complex processes in which collective, cultural memory arguably supersedes the historical event that have provided the main point of discussion in the literature on Survivor. When Richard Taruskin, in his well-known critique, praised Steve Reich's Different Trains but dismissed Survivor as ‘kitsch-triumphalism’, he effectively pointed towards Schoenberg's strategy to de-prioritise the banal cruelty of historical facts. But such facts are not the prime concern. Instead, Survivor ‘probes the workings of memory’, as James Schmidt has argued.
The dangers of aesthetic approaches that prioritise historical accuracy and documentation have been debated almost continuously since Adorno famously called on art's necessity to act as the world's ‘unconscious historiography’. Rather than attempt to represent history objectively, artists must navigate the aporia posed by the Holocaust in works in which ‘the utter horror still trembles’. James Young has similarly cautioned against art that conjures up a pretence ‘rhetoric of fact’ and reminded us that any narrative inevitably fictionalises ‘real’ past events.
- Publisher: Boydell & BrewerPrint publication year: 2019