The Conflagration of Community: Fiction Before and After Auschwitz

Robert Eaglestone is gripped by an exploration of the nexus between literature, society and the Holocaust

September 15, 2011

One of our greatest living literary critics and the former president of the Modern Language Association, J. Hillis Miller is rightly feted. Although he is closely associated with the Yale School of deconstructive critics, his intellectual range and interests outstrip any one school or fashion. This book, published 53 years after his first, is extremely powerful, and perhaps his most powerful. It is powerful in its subject matter, in the acuteness of its analysis and in the anguish that burns on every page. In this astonishing work, Miller turns his attention to the relationship between fiction, community and the Holocaust, and to the present-day US.

The book is in four sections, although its themes and ideas occur, fugue-like, throughout. The first chapter contrasts two ways of thinking about the nature of community. Whereas most models of community suggest we are agents with real or imagined things held in common - and Miller illustrates this view beautifully with a discussion of Wallace Stevens - Jean-Luc Nancy's idea of "the inoperable community" (which Miller, sensibly, renames the "deconstructive community") offers a different model.

Nancy's idea is that community does not, in fact, fuse an "I" into a "we", but rather exists precisely because of the separation between us, because each of us dies our own death, alone. We are, in Nancy's complicated phrase, "singular plural": the only thing we really have in common is that, in our mortality, in our time of dying, we have nothing in common and are utterly alone. While even Jacques Derrida is a little suspicious of this - "Why call it a community?" he asks in an interview - there is something in the idea that in the most awful moments, in which people are most stripped of their humanity, they are most nakedly human. (Here, Miller highlights the disgusting Abu Ghraib pictures.) It is this idea of utter vulnerability that allows Miller to talk about the relationship between community and the most traumatic events.

Miller next considers Franz Kafka in great detail. He argues that Kafka's work is a "premonition" of Auschwitz and its legacy, not only because of Kafka's almost prophetic obsession with the interweaving of pain, incomprehension and bureaucracy, but also, he suggests, because Kafka's work - in its thematic and narrative strategies - provides a literary model for writers after the Holocaust to engage with the Holocaust. Here, as throughout this extraordinarily tormented work of criticism, Miller's own life bursts into the text. "I first published an essay on Kafka almost 50 years ago," he writes, which displayed a "cool and amused insouciance". But now, Miller says, "I find reading Kafka...deeply disturbing" because not only is there "something uncanny that I can by no means control" that prevents a simple grasping of the message, as it were, but also because "I have the uneasy feeling that the world I live in now is more like the world of Kafka's The Castle than like the world of almost any other fictive writer I know".

Here, and elsewhere, US foreign, economic and domestic policies, and especially those of George W. Bush's presidency, are attacked again and again, each time with an agonised despair that threatens to wrench the text apart. This explicit politics is significant. In the 1980s, when deconstructive criticism was in its heyday, academics on the US Left criticised Miller and the Yale School for a seeming lack of political engagement, or for a political conservatism or nihilism. To summarise a complex debate briefly, these accusations were inaccurate because, while Miller and others (Derrida, centrally) did not embrace a system of politics (effectively, they were not Marxists), they were still very involved in political issues.

Indeed, Miller points out elsewhere that Derrida wrote so much on politics in the final 30 years of his life that he could arguably be categorised as a political philosopher. Miller's engagement was motivated by a view of justice and an awareness of how systems of thought became, in themselves, ways of evading engagement with particular, singular events or texts. Thus the "second generation" deconstructive buzzword - singularity. Thinking about singularity leads us to admit that each novel (say) is, of course, part of a genre and a historical context, but also to insist that it is also a unique aesthetic event in its own right; each political moment, while predetermined to some degree, is a new event; each of us is a person (an example of the species, of the category) and is also a unique singularity. Here, Miller's politics represent a singular engagement with the past 10 years of American life.

The book then turns to writing specifically about the Holocaust, and centrally to Imre Kertesz, the Hungarian Nobel laureate and Auschwitz survivor. (Kertesz is becoming much better known in the anglophone world, thanks in no small part to superb translations by Tim Wilkinson.) Miller analyses several novels and, at length - he spends four brilliant pages on one word, "naturally" - Kertész's Fatelessness. He concludes by suggesting that the further away from the actual events the author is, the more straightforward the narrative and the more affirmative the books are. Schindler's List, by the Australian Thomas Keneally, who has no "connection" to the Holocaust, has "a happy ending in the collective celebration" of the survival of "Schindler's Jews"; in contrast, Kertész's bleak, complex narrative ends with isolation and alienation. There are other examples that support this argument (Jorge Semprún's postmodern survivor testimony would be a case in point).

However, this hypothesis, which Miller duly qualifies, illustrates both a strength and a weakness of the book: his acute critical intelligence allows him to make forcefully insightful comments but, of course, there is more to say (is Kertész's work bleak also because of his post-war experiences in Hungary, 1956 and communism?) and many counter-examples. Elie Wiesel, another Auschwitz survivor originally from Hungary, may not offer as affirmative an ending as Keneally, but his work does affirm the communal much more than that of Kertész.

The book's final section turns to Toni Morrison's great novel Beloved. Miller is not making an easy equivalence between slavery and the Holocaust, but rather illustrating what Michael Rothberg calls "multidirectional" memory - the ways in which memories shape and reinforce each other. Here, the analysis of community that has already been explored in relation to Holocaust fiction is turned to US history. Beloved reveals, as Miller says, "fractally", that society - from the level of the nation down through the community to the individual, and even within the individual - is divided. More than this, it has turned against itself, displaying - in another "second generation" deconstructive buzzword - "autoimmunity". The attempt to win the War on Terror, Miller says, has turned the US against its own self, the way that the body turns against itself, the way that the protagonists of Beloved turn against each other.

What has emerged in this book? Miller displays his usual astonishing attention to detail and ability to read closely, even managing to say something new about the endlessly trotted-out Theodor Adorno maxim, "After Auschwitz to write even a single poem is barbaric". He still shows us the ways in which literary texts don't do what they seem to at first, the "uncanniness" of great literature.

But there's something else: in its anger, its passion, it is almost wild. There is no "cool and amused insouciance" here, but an angry and tenacious demand to pay the closest attention to literature, and to the reading of literature, because of its importance in showing us, in detail, the political storms in which we are living.

The Author

Distinguished research professor of English and comparative literature at the University of California, Irvine, Joseph Hillis Miller gained his bachelor's degree at Oberlin College in 1948, moving to Harvard University for his master's (in 1949) and doctorate (1952).

He is not only a renowned literary critic but also ("still") a small-boat sailor, and he has been a hiker and camper all his life. His earliest camping memory is of being carried by his father in the Adirondacks in a traditional pack basket, and then sleeping on balsam boughs. He recently assisted his daughter, son-in-law and grandson in their climb of Maine's Mount Katahdin, which Miller has climbed twice before.

He and his wife live year-round on the coast of Maine. From April to November, they live in a house on the shore of Deer Isle; in the winter they travel 13 miles north to their 1840s farmhouse in Sedgwick. Miller enjoys his frequent trips abroad to give lectures, especially his sojourns in Norway and China, where he is an honorary professor at Peking University.

Miller is also a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a member of the American Philosophical Society, and the proud owner of a Cape Dory Typhoon named Frippery.

Chloe Darracott-Cankovic

The Conflagration of Community: Fiction Before and After Auschwitz

By J. Hillis Miller

University of Chicago Press

336pp, £58.00 and £18.50

ISBN 97802265215, 222 and 239 (e-book)

Published 23 August 2011

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