There was a time in graduate school when I did a lot of research into Postmodern Holocaust Literature. One of the authors I came across was Walter Abish. How German Is It was my first introduction to his body of literary work. What impressed me most was his cool and intelligent use of language to approach things that are terrifying and tragic. In How German is It and in many of his short stories, Abish uses narrators and a language that continuously allude to something horrible that is either not being talked about or not being reacted to in a manner befitting of real horror. The narrator’s approach to terrorism and the Holocaust – in How German is It – are designed to prompt the reader to feel anxious and troubled. (We see a similar approach in the works of Aharon Appelfeld which use a retrospective view on the Holocaust. And this prompts the reader to experience radical disbelief and intense historicity.) What makes How German is It so interesting is that, throughout the book, language and the photograph are figures of humankind’s distance from atrocity. Language and the image, in other words, make us numb. Drawing on this understanding, Abish’s project is to expose this in cold prose that is either cruel or comic. While a book like How German is It takes the cold approach his book Alphabetical Africa and his story “Ardor/Awe/Atrocity” (which uses the TV show, Mannix, as a central motif) both take a more comical approach to this linguistic and aesthetic numbness.
Susan Sontag, in her book On Photography, addresses the numbness to violence incurred by the photo when she argues that the excess of media representations of horror (and she wrote this in the 1970s, imagine what she would say today) has made us all numb. Sontag argued that artists like Dianne Arbus looked to wake us up from this stupor. However, although she wanted to make us feel pain and wake up, Sontag finds these efforts as displaying the numbness of an American lifestyle that is nearly impossible to break out of. Since violence is always kept far away from the secure life, how can one become – as Giorgio Agamben might say – or return to “naked existence”? And what happens when we, playing on Philip Roth’s reflections in his novel, American Pastoral, naively take to violence as if it were absolutely necessary to use violence to destroy the system that hides it?
How does one address this? Should one, rather, write novels and short stories that are filled with horror and violence? Or should one, as Abish does, use the device of tragic irony to show how numb we are? And, if we know, what difference does it make and what will it accomplish? Will we as a matter of course just become more bitter about everything we see or hear about atrocity? Does it suggest a life of cynicism? And what is the difference if that cynicism is comical or tragic?
In Alphabetical Africa, Abish takes every letter of the alphabet to address the topic of colonialism, war, conflict, and death in Africa in the 1970s. Each chapter is based on a letter but the logic is to build on previous letters. In the first chapter, for instance, every word in the chapter begins with the letter “a,” the second chapter adds the letter “b,” and only words starting with “a” or “b” are used. As one can imagine, this exercise is fun and comical. But at the novel goes on, the violent and disturbing subject of the book comes more and more into focus. However, there is a very interesting challenge that is posed to the reader in this process: when it becomes clearer to the reader that subject of the book must be taken in with a more sober sensibility, the reader needs to check in and ask herself if a) she is willing to forgo the comic aspects or b) that is even possible at this point (after all, most of the novel has been a language game that has created a series of comical and surreal images). This ingenious literary approach should prompt the reader to ask about whether empathy is possible, today. Is it “fake” for us to say that we care when we are more interested, as he suggests, in being entertained? The mind is more interested, it seems, in play and diversion. And even though there is a glut of images and words about atrocity, Abish seems to be suggesting that it all just appears to us in a comical manner. Do we just, at a certain point, shrug our shoulders and accept that we prefer to be sheltered and remain numb? What can we really expose ourselves to? When we get upset at this or that trauma in the public realm, is this outrage really just an act – since, as Abish suggests, we are really to (as Heidegger might say) “tranquilized” by the world we live in? If this is the case, then Abish is suggesting that the most intelligent outlook on what is going on today is actually the coldest and the most bitter of all. Perhaps the most intelligent amongst us are – despite their protestations – cruel and indifferent because the glut of language, imagery, and information make that inevitable? This pessimism lingers for the reader of Abish’s work.
His short story “Awe/Ardor/Atrocity” brings this closer home to Americans (since How German is It speaks more to a German audience or an American audience which is fascinated with the German intellectual or activist’s response to atrocity). Throughout the story, there are numbers on words that suggest endnotes or footnotes; however, there aren’t any. Its left up to the reader to figure out why certain words rather than others have these notations (as they may relate to the central theme) – to aid the reader, I will put these notations in brackets next to the words when they come up in this essay.
(Let me preface by saying that one of the main reasons I want to discuss this story – in the context of Abish’s work – is because the main character of Mannix (a TV show on CBS that spanned from 1968-1975), Mike Connors, died today.)
In the first section of the story, Abish situates the main character of the story and suggests – in tension with the words (and footnote numbers appended to them) “Awe1/Ardor2/Atrocity3” – an erotic and sadistic plot that draws on the Film Noir but one can already hear the “knocking,” so to speak, of violence on the door of the narrative:
Her car, an old Dodge station wagon, developed engine trouble as she was driving along Route 15, traversing the bleakest and most desolate part of the Mojave Desert. She slowed down to twenty miles an hour and listened to the knocking, the persistent knocking sound that came from the engine. A sign she had passed a few miles back indicated that it was forty miles to the next gasoline station. Rather than stop and wait for someone to assist her, she decided to continue at a reduced speed. (In the Future Perfect, 42)
She, who we learn has a name, Jane, drives past a male hitchhiker who has a “sign” (a word which has an appended footnote number – 57 – to it) that says “GOING MY WAY? EL LAY.” The sign is odd and suggests an aggressive sexual encounter. When she passes him and he yells at her “silly cunt.” These words “kept reverberating in her ears long after she had lost sight of him in the rearview(64) mirror. There was no sign(57) of life in the rugged terrain to her left or right. Lost in thought, she did not see immense billboard looming ahead until she was almost on top of it. A freshly cut(9) half of an orange, displayed in the center of the billboard, floated against a bright dayglow yellow background. Beneath the orange the word PLEASURE(46) stood out in large red letters”(42).
As one can already sense, the allusion to violence and sex is throughout this text. Its subtext is violence and sadism. In the next section, ‘BUOYANT(4)/BOB(5)/BODY(6),” we bear witness to another moment of violence: “The large buoyant-looking(4) man in the red checkered shirt who had approached her in the motel dining room was taken away by the police, and so was the young man who received a deep(11) cut(9) in his arm as a result of the altercation that had taken place between the two of them. He’ll be all right, the motel owner assured her, after the young man, blood dripping(10) from his left arm, was driven to the nearby hospital”(43).
In the D section “DRIP(10)/DEEP(11)/DELIGHT(12),” the reader is shown a sexual scene in her bedroom. “She is lying naked on her bed. Her heart is beating wildly. This is absolutely ridiculous, she thinks. There is no reason to feel nervous, uncertain, or afraid”(44). But then we learn that her head is “thrust into a the pillow” and that a man is “holding her by the waist as he thrusts(58) himself into her again and again. Both she and the man are committed to complete silence”(44). The fact that the number thrusts is 58 and the number appended to the sexually aggressive hitchhiker is 57 suggests that there is a continuity. Even so, the silence and that she thinks there is no reason to be “nervous, uncertain, and afraid,” should trouble the reader.
Once again, Abish uses irony to make the reader uncomfortable.
And this is when Abish’s narrator slips the TV show, Mannix in. In the next section, entitled “ERECTION(13)/EXOTIC(14)/EARTHQUAKE(15),” Abish introduces the show which Jane, who is now alone, is watching:
Jane(28)is watching a rerun of “Mannix” on the color(8) TV in her room…Intently she watches a pink-faced Mannix, gun(27) drawn, racing along the length of a red-tiled rooftop on a stylish hacienda. Now(40) and then the camera settles briefly on the familiar Southern California(7) background of palm trees, swimming pools, exotic(14) plants, an interior filled with massive pieces of modern furniture, etc”(44). The description of the scene depicted on TV displaces some of her worry – its architecture is meant, as it is in How German is It, to hide the violence. But then it resurfaces while she watches and it comes out through a reflection on her car which has an “oily substance dripping(10) from the left front axle”(44). The only “dripping(10)” mentioned so far in the book was the dripping of blood from the man who got in a fight in the hotel. She worries now, in relation to the car, “Each time she pulls out, she leaves a shiny black stain on the ground. What possibly can she be afraid of?”(44).
The TV show and Jane’s life bleed, so to speak, into each other. She thinks of the life and the world that Mannix lives in and compares her own to it. These thoughts make her life seem more meaningful and mitigate the hidden violence. Mannix, for Jane, manages the violence. He doesn’t let it pain him. But the reader can see the horror. She lives in language and image. Her life passes from “awe” to “atrocity” by way of “ardor.” The word in the middle, so to speak, neutralizes the awe and atrocity. Beauty – even if it is violent – displaces the awe and atrocity. And, even more interesting, is the fact that we, as readers (even today), are complicit in this Southern Californian fantasy. And we, like Jane, know it.
In one section, entitled “RECOGNITION(52)/REAL(53)/REMEMBER(54), Abish doesn’t mention or relay any of these words. There is no memory, only a world of Southern California – of “buildings, cars, and people” who “age comfortably in the sun”(52). The final figure in this section is of smiles in a bank. They displace any memory, recognition, or reality of horror. In the last section of the story, the narrator tells the reader than she’s never been to Southern California. She made it up – as one can imagine – from the TV show, Mannix. It’s comical since this final quip suggests that the whole story was just a joke. And even our sense of a violent subtext – even in a literary sense, and not a televisual one – is a joke. In our age, irony isn’t what it used to be. History and memory are even more distant.
Perhaps this is the tragic-comedy.
Our lives and even our experiences of horror are buried under language and images that stream to us on TV, film, and the internet. We have no – punning on the filmmaker David Cronenberg’s (2005) film – awareness of the “history of violence.” Violence has little to no historicity in our lives; unless, that is, we have experienced it ourselves, personally. Other than that, it is a story. And Abish believes that the only way to crack it and lift the reader out of numbness is to suggest that something sinister lies beneath the surface. The comedy hides the tragedy. Even so, as Alphabetical Africa suggests, we may be to attached to the comedy of language and image (in the security they offer) to care when we get through the “whole” alphabet (or horror). The message is bleak: We are more accustomed to comedy and fantasy to care about what lurks beneath. And even if we do go beneath that surface, we can’t take it.
As Freud well knew, the psyche is a protective shield (despite the fact that there might be a death drive, Thanatos, in it). Trauma eats away at it. But no one wants trauma. To want that, to want horror, would be suicidal. Perhaps it is better to be, as Abish suggests through the TV show, in manic pursuit of the meaning of a text or film? Deconstruction certainly enjoyed that (semiotic and syntactical) adventure. The pleasure of the text (as Roland Barthes might say), a comic pleasure, may expose us to darkness by way of allusion; but, as Abish suggests, we can’t look into that darkness directly. We can be bitter, true. But that bitterness is couched in comedy and, for him, it seems inevitable that we will – in this age of endless carnage and violent displacement – prefer to be tranquilized or manic than to be inundated with horror and death. Perhaps we are caught up in a comical alphabet of postmodern horror?