In Primo Levi's The Drowned and the Saved, Levi writes that "we, the survivors, are not the true witnesses"; the true witnesses would be the sommersie: the drowned, the submerged, the annihilated. This, of course, comes from a Jewish Italian who survived the Holocaust, but what about Tadeusz Borowski, a Polish Aryan survivor who muses in one of the stories collected in This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen over what would have happened had he arrived only weeks before? In 'Auschwitz, Our Home (A Letter)', the narrator says, "Do you know when was the last time that the 'Aryans' were selected for the gas chamber? April 4th. And do you remember when we arrived at the camp? April 29th." If there is a sense in Levi's factual account of Auschwitz that the saved Jew cannot readily comment on the events; then what chance does an Aryan possess? In the introduction to Borowski's collection, Jan Kott quotes Borowski saying, "It is impossible to write about Auschwitz impersonally. The first duty of Auschwitzers is to make clear just what a camp is...But let them not forget that the reader will unfailingly ask: But how did it happen that you survived?" Borowski adds, "a portion of the sad fame belongs to you [the reader] as well."
What we want to address here is the problem of witnessing in both the moral and the linguistic sense, taking into account the ethical dimension Borowski and Levi allude to, but also the expressive language required to describe the camps. "notwithstanding the horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the shame of the Gulags, the useless and bloody Vietnam war, the Cambodian self-genocide, the desparecidos of Argentina, and the many and atrocious and stupid wars we have seen since," Levi says, "the Nazi concentration camp system still remains a unicum, both in its extent and quality." This could lead to a twofold impasse of impossible implication on the one hand, and inexpressibility on the other. To comment on the Holocaust is to be implicated in it; to try to speak of it is to push beyond the limits of the language readily available to us. However in very different ways the philosopher Jacques Ranciere and Levi counter the latter claim, and Borowski's very writing seems to find a way out of the impasse by creating what could be called an implicative prose, a prose style that seeks neither the sentimental nor the pitying, but the robust and pragmatic, a language, perhaps that reflects not the drowned but the saved, a language that takes into account the sort of arguments made by Ranciere and Levi.
In The Future of the Image, Ranciere interestingly contrasts Aristotle's "kath'alon - the organic totality - of poetic plot to the kath'ekaston of the historian, who follows the empirical succession of events." He adds, "In the 'realist' use of resemblance, this hierarchy is overturned. The kath'olon is absorbed into the kath'ekaston, absorbed into little perceptions, each of which is affected by the power of the whole, in as much as in each the power of inventive, signifying thought is equal to the passivity of sensation." He believes that the latter can offer a 'paratactic syntax', a prose style that doesn't build through plot conjunctions, but details events as flatly and matter of factly as possible. He believes this approach can be found in a Holocaust book like Robert Antelme's The Human Race, or Camus' The Outsider or Flaubert's Madame Bovary. It is a literary style where minor perceptions are added to one another, and "thus Robert Antelme's experience is not 'unrepresentable' in the sense that the language for conveying it does not exist. The language exists and the syntax exists."
Yet this would be still be different from the language Levi talks about, and different again from the prose style Borowski adopts. When Levi says "I never like the term incommunicability", he adds "we are biologically and sociologically predisposed to communication, and in particular to its highly evolved and noble form, which is language." The problems for Levi in relation to language are chiefly twofold: one is the problem of expressing yourself at all in a situation where one doesn't speak the language; which often happened in the camps; the other is what happened to the German language under the Nazis. Many perished because of this linguistic failing in the former instance, while lovers of the German language wondered what had happen to words like volk (folk) and fanatisch (fanatic), both utilised by the Nazis for propagandistic purposes. On top of this there was the 'Lager jargon' - the sub-language of the death camps, including musselman for someone wasted away and close to dying, fressen for eating and schmutzstuck and schmuckstuck meaning garbage and jewel respectively. These problems - of speaking a language or not, of twisting a language into a discourse of Nazism, and the neologisms that come out of atrocity - all make the notion of a priori incommunicability facile.
Borwowski concentrates on a certain robust pragmatism we mentioned earlier: he was interested not in soul words reflecting the good observer witnessing terrible events, but survival words, and it is this language of survival that Borowski offers, as if in agreement with Ranciere's idea of the paratactic prose. However what he wanted to do was make his language pragmatically survivalist and also, more strangely, horribly poetic, as if determined to produce metaphors and similes out of the camps that were new, capable of reflecting the casual terror of the experience, and one's sense of implication in relation to the events. This combination of paratactic simplicity, linguistic neologisms and distinctive metaphors and similes, makes Borowski's work not 'merely' testament but literature. In the introduction to This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, Borowski is quoted as saying "literature is not as hard as you think" and that he didn't care if people "lament my wasting myself on journalism. I don't consider myself a vestal virgin consecrated to prose." It was life that was hard, not literature, as Borowski became one of the 'drowned' himself: opening a gas valve in his flat and taking his own life, echoing the title of this collection.
In the book's titular story there are numerous passages of descriptive terror, of details that are paratactic on the one hand, but emotionally penetrating on the other. It is as though however the detailing constantly threatens the human: its values, its beliefs, its faith, evident in a passage where the first person narrator clears out the train compartments arriving from all over Europe to Auschwitz. "I go back inside the train; I carry out dead infants; I unload luggage. I touch corpses, but I cannot overcome the mounting, uncontrollable terror. I try to escape from the corpses, but they are everywhere: lined up on the gravel, on the cement edge of the ramp, inside the cattle cars. Babies, hideous naked women, men twisted by convulsions." The narrator cannot go on: "I run off as far as I can go, but immediately a whip slashes across my back." The choice is between losing one's humanity, it appears, or losing one's life. Many just lose their life, without even the choice, as they are removed from the trains and led straight into the gas chamber: "communal death, disgusting and ugly", but an oblivious one. "It is the camp law: people going to their death must be deceived to the very end. This is the only permissible form of charity." Throughout the story Borowski offers us horrors. "Below us, naked, sweat-drenched men crowd the narrow barracks aisles or lie packed in eights and tens in the lower bunks. Their nude, withered bodies stink of sweat and excrement." "Experienced professionals will probe into every recess of their flesh, will pull the gold from under the tongue and the diamonds from the uterus and the colon. They will rip out old teeth."
Borowski finds a style that is both implicative and descriptive, that both acknowledges how a survivor survives and also finds the language to explain the nature of that survival. The tone absorbs the paratactic but isn't quite confined by it, with Borowski aware that if, as Levi claims, the Holocaust is a unique event, then what sort of language is required to describe its singularity? Where Levi talks about language in terms of the language of the camps and the desecration of German as he examines what the camps can do to language; Borowski seems to be asking what can language do to the camps; what sort of language does one need to explore the experience. The paratactic, yes, but also the metaphorical, taking into account T. E. Hulme's comments in an essay 'Bergson's Theory of Art" in Essays on Humanism and the Philosophy of Art: "Metaphors soon run their course and die. But it is necessary to remember that when they were first used by the poets who created them they were used for the purposes of conveying over a vividly held actual sensation." To write about the Holocaust one mustn't inherit tired language, but invigorate language so as to bring out the specifics of the experience, and to do so while at the same time respecting the fact one is a survivor and that the language needs to reflect this.
What we may notice in the collection is Borowski's use of what we might call hard metaphors and similes alongside the blank description; figurative language that captures what another person might feel is indescribable. In 'This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen', the narrator describes people coming out of the formerly bolted train carriages: "Monstrously squeezed together, they have fainted from heat, suffocated, crushed one another. Now they push towards the opened doors, breathing like fish cast out on the sand." In the same story, the narrator says, "We climb inside. In the corners amid human excrement and abandoned wrist-watches lie squashed, trampled infants, naked little monsters with enormous heads and bloated bellies. We carry them out like chickens, holding several in each hand." In 'Auschwitz, Our Home (A Letter)', "the girls at the window are tender and desirable, but, like goldfish in an aquarium, unattainable." In the same story Borowski notes, "if the barrack walls were suddenly to fall away, many thousands of people, packed together, squeezed tightly in their bunks, would remain suspended in mid-air." In 'The World of Stone', "Sometimes it seems to me that even my physical sensibilities have coagulated and stiffened within me like resin." In 'A Day at Harmenz', someone "stretched out his bony arms. Under the skin covered with scabs and sores, the muscles played with a strangely distinct movement, as though they were quite separate from the rest of him." In each instance, metaphor and simile aren't offered as an art for art's sake flourish, but for the purposes of saying that while language is difficult it isn't impossible, and needs to be made possible: it needs to find expression through the real. In 'Auschwitz...' Borowski says "You know how much I used to like Plato. Today I realized he lied. For the things of this world are not a reflection of the ideal, but a product of human sweat, blood and hard work." Later in the same story commenting on the Nazis he says, "You probably remember how strongly I always opposed them - their imperialistic conception of an omniverous state, their dishonest approach to society, their theories on state art, their muddled poetry...And even today I shall challenge their unrealistic poetry, void of all human problems."
The hard metaphors Borowski searches out come from a hard reality, and he would no doubt more than concur with Somerset Maugham when the latter talks of figurative language in On Literature: "A simile has use. By reminding you of a familiar thing it enables you to see the subject of the comparison more clearly by mentioning an unfamiliar one it focuses your attention on it. It is dangerous to use it merely as an ornament; it is detestable to use it to display cleverness." Would this be all the more detestable when talking about a subject that demands a language many believe is on the verge of the inexpressible? Would figurative language be in danger not of excavating the subject, but burying it: finding a palatable means with which we can accept the unacceptable; readily express the inexpressible? If we were to say the Jews were killed like lambs to the slaughter, or that the middle-class Jew in the concentration camp was like a fish out of water, one would sense a double detestability. There would be the laziness of language, but also a certain ethical laziness within the ease with which someone uses such deadmetaphors. It is as if the language did not go through the stage of the inexpressible towards the expressed, but was immediately located by the sort of dead metaphors Hulme talks about and that we have offered as examples. Equally, if the writer simply played with these metaphors and similes to escape the clich and to use language well, but not for the purposes of trying to comprehend a horrible reality, again one may question what the writer is doing. Borowski, of course, insists on turning dead metaphors into hard metaphors, so that the notion of the fish out of water becomes fish cast out on the sand; lambs to the slaughter becomes the idea of carrying babies like chickens. This is figurative language as reconfigurative, with the writer finding ways in which to make us understand not so much of course the enormity of the Holocaust, but at least something of its singularity as the dead metaphors become not merely utterly inadequate, but insultingly so.
Thus Borowski's importance in this collection resides vitally in these reconfigurations of dead metaphors into hard ones. But we should not at all ignore the equal significance of the paratactic harshness; the implicative significance underlying the laying out of factual information. In the 'People Walked On' the narrator says: "between two throw-ins in a soccer game, right behind my back, three thousand people had been put to death." In 'Auschwitz...', "We work beneath the earth and above it, under a roof and in the rain, with the spade, the pickaxe and the crowbar. We carry huge sacks of cement, lay bricks, put down nails, spread gravel, trample the earth...We are laying the foundation for a new monstrous civilization." In 'A Day at Harmenz': "The Kapo, having eaten two bowls of soup, went to the incubator to doze off. Then the boy drew a slice of boiled meat out of his pocket, cut it up on bread, and proceeded to eat solemnly before the eyes of the hungry crowd, taking an occasional bite at an onion, crunching it like an apple." Here the language lists information but at the same time contains within the informative the problem of implication.
He who can detail the terrors has also survived them, living to tell the tale while others die as someone whose tale is told. This becomes the very focus of 'A True Story'. Here the narrator is lying ill in a hospital bed when in the bed next to him lies a Kapo who insists that the narrator tell him stories to keep him from feeling bored. However, the stories had to be true. "He showed little enthusiasm for the stories of vulgar novels, adventure films, or any kind of play. He hated all extravagant fables on the themes of romantic literature." So the narrator offers up all the stories from his own life, including those of his love affairs even though he admits there are only two to tell. At one moment he seems to have run out of stories, but then tells one about a boy with a bible. He talks about when he was once in jail a young Jewish boy was taken in for interrogation and shared the same cell as the narrator. The boy was taken out and shot in the backyard, and the narrator says the boy's name was Zbigniew Namokel, and had told them himself that he was a bank president's son." The Kapo takes out a tomato after the narrator finishes the story, and playing with it in his hand, says that the story just told did not come from the narrator's own life. "I've been here a little longer than you - and do you want to know something? He was here in this hospital, that Namokel of yours. Had typhoid fever, like you. He died in the very same bed you're lying in." He then allows the narrator to drink the coffee that the narrator had eyed sitting beside him, before tossing him one of the tomatoes his wife had sent.
Is the narrator here a little like Scheherazade, someone who tells stories to stay alive not unlike the famous narrator of Arabian Nights, hoping in this instance for a little food and drink? However here we may also note that the narrator does so, it seems, quite literally over someone's dead body. Someone else's misfortune allows for the possibility of a hint of good fortune on the narrator's part, as his cracked lips tell a tale that appears to be untrue for the purposes of receiving a hint of nourishment. As Jan Kott says in the introduction to the collection, "when life is cheap, food and clothing are worth their weight in gold." What writers from Levi to Borowski insisted upon was not the sanctimonious dimension of the survivor, but the problematic relationship the writer inevitably has with language, culpability and the ethics of communication. These are not however remotely a prioriproblems, but endlessly negotiable ones; problems from which the writer can neither readily escape nor ones which he can readily accept. Borowski took his own life in 1951. As Kott insists, "the reasons for suicide are always complex, and Borowski took the mystery of his death with him to the grave", but it cannot have been easy to master prose without feeling perhaps one does not have mastery over one's own existence in relation to the subject that allowed the prose such eloquence. It was as though Borowski was implicated on more levels than any writer could readily contain. If a person often writes to make sense of the world, what does a writer do when he tries to make sense of the apparent senselessness of that world and has felt on numerous levels at the mercy of that senselessness?
© Tony McKibbin