Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Tragedy and the Failure of Words

After such terrible tragedies as the recent tsunamis, I find myself turning to literature by Holocaust survivors. The work by these writers, like few other bodies of work, explores the nature of the human spirit in the darkest of times. From those writers, I have learned that humanity can somehow survive almost anything. As a grad student at American University, I was always impressed that Czech writer, filmmaker and Holocaust survivor Arnost Lustig (click here for an interview) was often the most cheerful person in the literature department. Not all Holocaust victims maintained such an optimistic outlook, but in their writings I find a framework for dealing with and understanding the horrors that people suffer. Though my ability to make sense of the recent catastrophe is of little consequence, what people really need now is our help not words. But maybe this poem by Paul Celan will help someone:

THERE WAS EARTH INSIDE THEM, and they dug.

They dug and they dug, so their day
went by for them, their night. And they did not praise God,
who, so they heard, wanted all this,
who, so they heard, knew all this.

They dug and heard nothing more;
they did not grow wise, invented no song,
thought up for themselves no language.
They dug.

There came a stillness, and there came a storm,
and all the oceans came.
I dig, you dig, and the worms dig too,
and that singing out there says: They dig.

O one, o none, o no one, o you:
Where did the way lead when it lead nowhere?
O you did and I did, and I dig towards you,
and on our finger the ring awakes.

--Paul Celan, tr. Michael Hamburger (Against Forgetting, ed. by Carolyn Forche, p. 382)

However, I doubt this will provide much solace for so many like this man:

"My son is crying for his mother," said Bejkhajorn Saithong, 39, searching for his wife at a wrecked hotel on the beach. Body parts jutted from the wreckage.

"I think this is her," he said. "I recognize her hand, but I'm not sure."

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