Jewishness, the Holocaust, and History: Irving Howe on the Holocaust and Jean-Paul Sartre’s Reflections sur la question juive

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At the beginning of a chapter to his “intellectual autobiography” entitled “Jewish Quandaries,” Irving Howe begins with questions “from young friends” about the Holocaust: “When did you first become aware of the gas chambers? How did you respond to the reports from Europe that the Nazis were systematically exterminating Jews?”   Howe points out that “for some years now” these questions are also his questions (247). And when he thinks of them now, reflecting on how he first responded to them, he has a “recurrent clamor of confused memories.”   He says he cannot answer them with “clear thoughts and eloquent emotions.” Howe counts himself as one of the people who, when faced with “great cataclysms…blink and stumble…retreat into old opinions….turn away in fear”(247). Howe isn’t happy with this situation and describes his moral quandary and his failure.

Howe points out that facts and information were “pouring out after the war” but he didn’t grasp the meaning of the event until the early fifties. He personifies his awakening to this as something belated and shameful. In this trial by memory, he is guilty. And according to his conscience, he is accused of not being moral enough.

Memory points a figure: “You were slow, you were dull in responding to the Holocaust.” I plead guilty, but would add mildly that now, when incessant talk about the Holocaust risks becoming a media vulgarity, we may value silence a bit more than anyone could have supposed in the earlier years. Conscience scoffs: “Come, you’re not really trying to say you were silent because your feelings overwhelmed you? Wasn’t it more likely that your feelings were rather skimpy?” (248)

In not being able to “grapple with the Holocaust,” Howe believes he had lost his humanity. To not have thought or language to address crisis is, for Howe, tantamount to losing one’s humanity. And this failure hurts him.

Howe admits that he was not alone in this failure: “No one knew what to say, no one could decide whether to cry out to the heavens or mourn in silence. We had no language.”

Howe notes how when he first heard of this, when he was in Alaska, he “felt an uncanny sort of fear.” This feeling came when he saw pictures he saw of the “GIs, ordinary American boys” looking at the “death camps piled high with corpses.” In these pictures, he noticed that they “registered a stunned horror.” In Alaska, he had no one to talk to.

When he came back to New York from Alaska, Howe slowly realized that his Marxist framework would be inadequate to address the Holocaust:

Some of us continued to think more or less in Marxist categories – loosened and liberalized, but Marxist still. I would not go so far as to say that a Marxist framework foreclosed the possibility of grasping the Holocaust in its moral terribleness and historical novelty. The more terribleness we recognized as well as anyone else; the historical novelty we did not. Writing about Nazism in the thirties, when its full criminality was visible, Trotsky had foreseen it would end as “barbarism.” But that was only a word, though an accurate one, which neither we nor anyone else could yet have filled out with a sufficiently ghastly content. (249)

This thought prompts Howe to reflect on the creation of new categories for confronting a “new historical phenomenon.” And this is where he comes to terms with the limits of Marxism for understanding everything:

Marxism could tell us a good deal about reactionary societies, but what could it say about the roots of evil, the gratuitous et systematic sadism of the SS? I don’t know that any other structure of thought told us much about that sadism either, but at least it would not try to reduce everything to a “social base” or the “death agony of capitalism.” (250)

In many ways, this failure prompted Howe to rethink his Jewishness:

In the years before the war people like me tended to subordinate our sense of Jewishness to cosmopolitan culture and socialist politics. We did not think well or deeply on the matter of Jewishness – you might say we avoided thinking about it. Jewishness was inherited, a given to be acknowledged, like being born white or poor. (251)

Following the war and the Holocaust, the thought of the uniqueness of the Holocaust and Jewishness starts become a concern for Howe. He points out how, in 1945, he came across a few lines in an article by Dwight Macdonald (in his essay “The Responsibility of Peoples”) that sparked thought about the meaning of such uniqueness. The article wasn’t the best but it didn’t create a quandary for Howe:

Unsystematic as these remarks were, they had the virtue of insisting upon the uniqueness of the Holocaust – an event without precedent yet prepared for by the anti-Semitism of the West. (253)

Howe muses that Macdonald was “probably influenced by Hannah Arendt, who a few months earlier had published a brilliant essay, “Organized Guilt and Universal Responsibility,” in the Jewish Frontier”(253). How saw this essay as a “step forward in the effort to “understand,” precisely because it called into question the very relevance or possibility of understanding.”

But these essays didn’t reach Howe when he was in Alaska. He read them after they were published.   The only essays he came across, which appeared serially in Partisan Review and Commentary in 1946 and 1947 were essays that belonged to Jean-Paul Sartre’s Reflexiouns sur la question juive (translated as Anti-Semite and Jew).

Howe points out, immediately before he even starts commenting on Sartre’s book, that even flawed books can prompt insight. And this foreshadows his commentary on Sartre which, if anything, prompted him to think on a much deeper level not just about the meaning of the Holocaust but about the meaning of Jewishness:

There are times when a flawed piece of writing is more valuable than a “correct” one – honest confusions, incomplete strivings can stimulate others to think better. So it was with Sartre’s little book. Decades later it is easy enough to spot its errors, but at the tie time the book came out, it was tremendously stimulating. (254)

Howe begins his commentary by going straight to Sartre’s definition of a Jew, a definition that Howe will take as the main point of his criticism:

“The Jew” – an abstraction he could not avoid – is defined by Sartre by his “situation.” This “situation” is an ensemble of conditions and environments signifying both the relentless pressures of the anti-Semite and the tepid defenses of the democrat who is prepared to defend the Jew but not as a Jew, only as abstract “man.” A Jew, writes Sartre, “is anyone who for any reason calls himself such or is called such in any community whose practices take note of the distinction.” Yet, despite the persistence of this “distinction” Sartre comes to the odd conclusion that the Jews “have no history. What creates the Jew so to speak, and enables his twisted precarious survival, is the all-but-universal enmity he incurs. (254)

What bother’s Howe most in Sartre’s claim that Jews don’t have a history. By saying that a Jew is a Jew by virtue of this or that “situation” is, for Howe, a bad reading that must be exposed.   Sartre’s book suffers from “an extreme ahistoricity. It reduced both the Jew and the anti-Semite to bloodless, timeless essences, and failed to ask what might be the origin of anti-Semitism or, still more important, the reasons for its persistence”(255).

And this failure to grasp the Jew and to reduce the Jew to something ahistorical is something that Howe associates with a Marxist framework: “Sartre’s conclusion, so lame after his analytic fireworks, came to little more than a version of the Marxist notion that anti-Semtisim is the consequence, or index, of the social wrongs of capitalist society, and that with socialism this blight would wither away”(255).

Howe takes Sartre’s logic to its Marxist conclusion by suggesting that, in Sartre’s view, since Jews had no “history” or “community of interest,” and once they were “n longer plagued by pathological enemies,” they would then “freely dissolve themselves into the encasing classless society”(255). Howe sarcastically notes that Sartre can’t imagine the possibility of “Frenchmen becoming Jews”(255). This would turn Sartre’s scenario “upside down.”

What Sartre failed to see, according to Howe, is the fact that one “could locate” the “situation” of the Jews in a “traditional essence.” Sartre saw the Jews as merely an effect of a situation and a people without history or freedom: “He did not see it sufficiently as a persistent choosing of identity, a heroic self-assertion”(255).

This failure is what prompts Howe to undertake his query into the relationship of Jewish identity to history, tradition, and agency.

 

…to be continued….

 

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