• Crimson Pico

    This is really outstanding, and I’m bookmarking to read along while I listen to the piece. Will be back with some comments later. Thank you!

    • You’re welcome! Not actually fun fact: I don’t enjoy writing (I do enjoy reading what I’ve written, though) but this was the absolute worst writing experience I’ve ever had. I’ve been not-all-that-subconsciously putting it off for months, and if BurgundySuit hadn’t made 1993 the Year of the Month, I might not have done it at all. The last four days, I’ve been avoiding people because I’ve been in a near-continual state of anger and tension, just needing to punch some fucker (let’s say Richard Spencer) in the throat. (Also I’ve been having nightmares of a kind that are new to me.) Part of this, I’m sure, is a physiological reaction to the frequencies of לא עוך but more of it is the way that great art changes your life, whether you like it or not. Kristallnacht is about the possibly irreducible violence in our world, and my reaction to it sure as fuck isn’t a matter of choice.

      • Crimson Pico

        Yeah, this is obviously going to take many listens and plenty of time, so I don’t have anything sophisticated to offer. First impressions: I didn’t find the 2nd movement as off-putting as I think I was supposed to (I liked it, though, and will probably revisit it); I liked the third movement best; but I did find the electric guitar midway through movement 5 verging a little too close to hair band kitsch – which is both the strength and weakness of collage, in that you can always argue the validity of each part intellectually, but it mostly removed me from the experience. Like I said, none of these reactions are particularly sophisticated, and I obviously need to spend more time with it. Overall, though: really humbling stuff, in the sense that it makes you feel the enormity of something outside yourself, if that makes sense.

        Your writing got me thinking about the whole issue of “art after the Holocaust” and whatnot. It seems there are different directions you can go. For the effective, immersive experience, I think Son of Saul is very good in terms of replicating the fear and anxiety of life in the camps – but like a lot of attempts to transmute life into art, it makes narrative decisions that expose the film as false, which damages it beyond repair, I think. And there’s the usual problem with mimetic presentations of something so horrifying, which is why Zorn’s music succeeds where so many others fail.

        For a more didactic response that’s less concerned with mimesis, I’m really fond of a movie that addresses the Holocaust-adjacent massacre of Jews and Serbs in Novi Sad, Hungary: András Kovács’ Cold Days, based on a novel by Tibor Cseres. It barely even tries to show the massacre as it happened (there are a few fleeting glimpses in the background). Kovács instead follows four Hungarians in prison for war crimes as they explain to one another why they aren’t guilty of the crimes – but the Rashomon-like structure leads to the opposite result: the viewer can see that all of them do indeed share in the guilt even as they don’t see it. Kovács shows that ordinary people can delude themselves out of responsibility even as they’re pulling the trigger. It’s a sober indictment of mundane, everyday complicity – the kind of thought-lessness that Arendt describes in Eichmann – the kind of thing that’s so uncimematic that we have almost no other movies that really deal with it, preferring our Nazis to embody capital-E Evil in a way that’s somehow, paradoxically, more comforting. We understand a Hans Landa because he fits within a comfortable and familiar narrative (and moral) grammar. But a local laborer who’s kind and helps people and also thoughtlessly participates in the murder of thousands of people without applying any critical reflection to the event? What do we do with that? And so the Kovács film is, I think, necessary.

        The flipside of that, of course, is that Kovács is focusing on the perpetrators and not the victims, obvs. And there’s a good argument that we spend way too much time on them as it is.

        • One of the instructions in Cobra is “starts as solo in recognizable style, next player joins in contrasting genre”; as you did, I hear a lot that kind of cliche playing in the fifth movement, which is what makes me think it’s a Cobra improv.

          One of the most effective Holocaust works I’ve seen is Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy, a based-on-fact, one-act, one-set “and then there were none” play, about a line of men waiting to be called for interrogation in (obvs) Vichy France. It’s Miller, so of course it’s didactic and powerful as all hell, as we watch one by one people disappear and the reality of Nazism sink in. It’s a dramatic riff on Hannah Arendt (“that is their power, to do the unthinkable”) that conveys the sense of a world trying to understand something it had never dealt with before, and of people trying to save their lives.

        • Cennywise The Ploughn

          What did you find false in Son of Saul? Not challenging the notion, just curious what took you out of it.

          • Crimson Pico

            In order to illustrate the different facets of life in the camps, they had to come up with ways to get Saul to visit various areas throughout the day, but I found that process so inorganic to what was happening around him that it read as false to me. The best scenes are incredibly intense, and the camera focus unbearably claustrophobic: it definitely worked on a visceral level, but then we’d be finished with one set and its “purpose” and have to move on to the next, which meant contriving some motivation for Saul to go to a new area in the camp so we can then see what circumstances are like there, etc., like taking the world’s worst historical tour. That aspect of the film just didn’t work for me at all.

        • Son of Griff

          “It’s a sober indictment of mundane, everyday complicity – the kind of thought-lessness that Arendt describes in Eichmann – the kind of thing that’s so uncimematic that we have almost no other movies that really deal with it, preferring our Nazis to embody capital-E Evil in a way that’s somehow, paradoxically, more comforting.”

          This hits upon an idea that has been haunting me for about a year or so, how society, for the longest period of time,but particularly during the Cold War, applied the Holocaust to exemplify universal principles of modern social and political life, largely erasing the specificity of the event in the process. Where I’d differ is that notions pertaining to the casual brutality of bureaucracy (as in BRAZIL) are prevalent in the culture, and given weight because writers like Arendt have connected the mass extermination of the Jews to more contemporary forms of social anxiety. The Holocaust has been used to explain the presumed passivity of African American slaves (Elkins), analogize the condition of housewives (Friedan), and rationalize psychological role playing games like the Milgram and Stanford Prison Experiments. We tend to use history to teach lessons of a broader concern, but in doing so we loose site of the causes and immediate traumas related to the events itself.

          In a fundamental way, Hollywood predates this practice, as its history involves the concealment of Jewish identity in the universal tastes of American consumer culture. Often this identity returns in codes pertaining to the predilections of post war liberalism. I vaguely recall our departed commenter Washington once commenting that EYES WIDE SHUT was Kubrick’s most Jewish film by the extent by which it
          tried to hide its own Jewishness. Yet, Kubrick, I think, analogized the lessons of the Holocaust in his thematic focus on the impersonality and moral perfidy of bureaucratic systems, the violence inherent in the Romantic tradition, and allusions to mass murder getting pushed into the background of narrative events. His failure to bring WARTIME LIES to fruition is widely believed to have stemmed from stresses related to literally representing the persecution of Jews.

          This tendency has changed, largely, in the last thirty years or so, as historians, and various foundations, have tried to recover Jewish stories and to restore a specific context lost when discussing the Holocaust in universal terms. Art and popular culture has followed suit to a large degree. I second your concern about the limits of mimesis in representing mass genocide, and I Zorn’s suite is a valuable part of that recovery, emphasizing thought and emotion over the literalness of the image.

          • Crimson Pico

            This is a great comment. I wonder if some of this process of desemitizing (to coin a word?) the Holocaust in popular consciousness is particular to Hollywood due to a tradition of Jewish assimilation into mainstream American WASPishness? Like, so many European films of the era seem to position Jewishness much closer to the fore – I’m thinking of things like Transport from Paradise, Samson (tho there’s also Preminger’s Exodus, which is very specific to the Jewish experience). Or maybe it’s a function of time, as distance has made it easier to treat as an historical abstraction that’s only recently being rebuffed by artists who want to restore its specificity?

            On further reflection, this seems like a common enough discussion in treatment of minority-focused literature: is it better to have generalizable experiences that non-minority readers/audiences can relate to, or specific experiences that show why the minority experience is irreducible to generalities? No easy answers here, just different approaches yielding different results. But with something as world-rending as the Holocaust (and the danger of repeating that experience in the future), these discussions can’t be just abstract.

          • Son of Griff

            Hollywood certainly began coding Semitism decades before WWII, but the war, I think, put added pressure for assimilation, which only increased the presence of the Holocaust as a phantom limb in the liberal discourse pursued in cold war politics and culture. I’m not sure as to why, but I suspect that there was a reluctance to specifically address the pain and loss of the experience to an outside, and perhaps reactionary, defensive gentile audience.

            I have no solution to the second paragraph, but it strikes me that Holocaust centers and museums are trying to integrate the two approaches. In Germany, for exaple, public art works speak to the notion of erasure, which not only specifically addresses genocide, but also this reluctance to address historical specificity. As for American movies, I think the Coen Brothers return to the subject of Jewish identity and assimilation quite often, as do the screeplays of Henry Bean (most notably in Deep Cover and the Believer).

          • Following @pico79:disqus’s question as to why the Holocaust gets presented as universal in American life, there are two more aspects of that worth mentioning. The first is the way that Jews are presented almost exclusively as victims. Refusing to talk about people in terms of their actions and only discussing how they’re acted upon is a good way to not think about them at all, and it allows for all their particularity, in strength, ritual, even in voice to be lost.

            The second, related to this, is that presenting this as universal allows society (if you want to get more specific, America) to think of itself as the after-the-fact savior. In other words, “society” will now take a vow that we will be better than this, we will uphold the liberal principles so we will say this will never happen again.

            Both principles get us to tricky places, bad and good. As I said, I really like the way Maus and Schindler’s List (the first explicitly, the second implicitly) question the virtue of agency. What could anyone do in that kind of nightmare? And the second principle has a lot of power: “when there are Nazis, you wanna be on the other side” is a good first principle for right now.

            Zorn, to his great credit, doesn’t care about either of these. In Kristallnacht, the Holocaust happened to the Jews, and the Jews will say “never again,” and they’re not gonna do that by honoring liberal principles, they’re gonna do that by owning motherfuckers. That makes a lot of people uncomfortable, not just because the violence and the injustice but because it implies something foundationally disturbing: a good liberal society might not be enough to stop a genocide.

            Oh, and to your other comment, thanks. About one day in I was muttering to myself “really shoulda seen this coming.”

          • Son of Griff

            What was so depressing about Gainesville is how liberal institutions, under their premises and suppositions, won’t provide equal protection to the most vulnerable populations from the propagation of an ideology that fundamentally rejects the universal application of those premises.

          • By definition, someone who has declared as a Nazi has declared him- or herself to reject any kind of argument against their position, and they have declared that they will destroy anyone who is Other to them. That is what defines the position of Nazism. We can and should discuss the effectiveness of strategies against them, but they are not people who need to be convinced. They need to be defeated.

            Put another way: you want to ally yourself with Nazis and Confederates? Be prepared to meet the same fate as them: you will be the enemy of everyone, and we will wipe you out.

          • Son of Griff

            Private Institutions that propagate an ideology that deliberatelly and systematically expels and shuts down peoples or beliefs that challenge their own beliefs have the right to do so on their own property. I find it frustrating that liberal institutions feel compelled to not exercise the same privilege, particularly since by allowing white supremecist speech, they implicitly violate their own codes in insuring the civil protections and rights of all its students. It always bugged me that, as a lecturer, I could be questioned by administration for a slip of the tongue or a misconstrued statement, while overtly racist and homophobic evangelical groups, not associated with the campus, could spew their bile in the quad with no repercussions as to violating campus speech codes. I support the codes in theory, but they need to be equally enforced so as to avoid cynical provocations by Spencer and his ilk.

          • John Bruni

            Yeah the university where I teach has the same problem. What’s worse, perhaps, is the Midwestern code of politeness, which prevents people both from acting against these evangelical groups, and makes them suspicious of those who do. I stunned a student with whom I was walking across campus by telling one of the members of these groups to his face that what he was doing had no educational value.

          • Son of Griff

            I once tried to convince a campus security guard to evict one of these speakers on the grounds that what they were saying violated campus speech codes, and the legal obligation to create a campus environment guaranteeing an equal, and harassment free environment. Didn’t get to far. I’d love to see some students take up the mantel and compel administrators to act on this.

          • Son of Griff

            An interesting side note to this, of course, is that virtually all of the examples I cited were propagated by Jews. I think that, prior to WWII, American Jews, while facing incidents of Anti-Semitism, and being aware of nascent Fascist movement in the U.S., were aware of civil protections afforded to their faiths and believed that America would provide exceptional toleration, though perhaps not universal acceptance, of their families and community compared to Europe. The erosion of social democratic institutions in Germany in the thirties challenged this assumption, and consequently Jews began to focus on the weaknesses of liberalism, believing that institutions needed to be protected so as to allow them the opportunity to partake in the benefits of a democratic society without state sponsored political oppression. Using the origins of the Holocaust to ruminate on the weaknesses of liberal democracy seemed like a legitimate exercise; to challenge the ideological majority to support and reform its institutions so as to insure civil liberties.

            Another factor was a certain uncertainty as to the political form that Zionism would take after the recognition of Israel. Once democratic institutions survived after the viability of the State was secured after the ’48 and ’56 wars, Jews were emboldened to re-write their recent history in more specific terms. Leon Uris’ EXODUS was a pop culture milestone for this, and a touchstone in re-thinking modern Jewish history in a popular sense among both Jews and the general public. It really set the pattern that SCHINDLER’S LIST would follow in the 90s.

            Wish I had the Zorn suite. I’d love to comment on this more directly.

          • American Pastoral and The Human Stain get all the attention, but it’s the middle book in that Roth trilogy, I Married a Communist, that’s the great one, on essentially this topic: how far can a Jewish man go into promoting a universal kind of Americanism and still remain Jewish? Unlike the outer books, it really works because Roth lets his characters be as angry as he is–Nathan Zuckerman’s old English teacher tells him “Angry Jews I Have Known–that should be your next book.”

            I first heard of this music in 1993 and it took be at least a year to run the copy to ground, in Amoeba Records in Berkeley, methinks. (Kids These Days are not gonna get the challenge and fun of browsing through the stacks, having a big ol’ stack of catalogs to order from, or the joy of finding something that’s been on your list forever suddenly showing up.)

          • Dead Jerk Jerk Dead

            Late to the game and not much to add except for how much I enjoyed all of this, article and discussion, but I would add that I don’t think it’s possible to overstate the importance the America-as-savior narrative on this process. So, so many of these points are simply beyond my ken (such as the implications to American Jews feeding the Americans-as-saviors myth), but that basic point seems pretty crucial to me in all of this. It’s not even cultural appropriation, it’s like appropriation of an event’s outcomes: the Germans did that to them, and we were totally awesome and thumped them for it. It’s not really about the Holocaust at all.

      • Son of Griff

        That pain comes through, making this a very powerful piece. I almost cried reading this. All I can say is great job.

  • Your excellent piece deserves a much more sophisticated comment than I’m about to offer, but… is this a good entry point into Zorn’s work? I’ve been wanting to get into him, and I just don’t know where to start.

    • Probably the most accessible Zorn would be the Naked City recordings, which has a lot of quick tracks of noise jazz (Haneke used one of them for Funny Games) but also some strange and indelible covers of classical works, jazz standards, and movie themes. If I die violently, I want the last thing I hear to be the Naked City version of Camille’s theme in Contempt.

      The best Gateway to Zorn, though, would be Cobra, particularly the 2-disc recording from (it looks like) 1987. It gives you a sense of the energy, aggression, diversity, and fun of his music. After that, there’s just so many directions to go. Two that are really idiosyncratic and therefore good intermediate listens are Masada Guitars, which has different guitarists interpret the material from Zorn’s Masada Songbooks, and Aporias, which is formally a piano concerto but Zorn calls it “a requiem for all artists.” Again, it’s fun and zingy but also somehow deeply brave and inspiring. Happy trails! (And thank you.)

      • Excellent. This is a lot to work with. Thank you!

        • Actually fun fact: I have the 2002 remaster of that Cobra recording, which has the distinction of having quite possibly the worst liner notes I’ve ever read–and as a classical/jazz fan, I assure you that competition is fierce. Art Lange writes about fifteen paragraphs without ever giving any evidence he’s seen the Cobra score or heard a performance, just drones on and on about notation and improvisation. He all but finishes with “in conclusion, Cobra is a CD of contrasts.”

          • Hahahaha, oh man. That is rich. Sounds like something one of my students would have written.

          • Here’s a pretty nifty recent Cobra improvisation, and one that makes my point that it makes any ensemble sound like one of Zorn’s. (Dig the Guerrilla System breakout just before the seven-minute mark.) My only complaint is that Cobra performances should be filmed like poker games with an insert of the card in a corner.