In summer 2013, I took a trip with Tony Craze, my father and a fellow writer, to Gurs, the site of a former internment camp near Pau, France.
We are now writing a book about the trip, On Passage, which is composed of a series of meditations on passage: for each stage of the trip, we both write about a moment of our journey, and then reply to the other’s text. It is a conversation in fragments. Slowly, we are building up a patchwork of intersecting meditations on the theme of passage. Below the fold is a series of excerpts from my side of the exchange, meditating on Gurs. You can read earlier excerpts here and here.
I am worried that we will miss Gurs.
There is no missing Auschwitz, or Birkenau. The roads that lead to the camps are extensively sign-posted, of course, but they are also sanctified sites: hard edges of truth and right angles of history—there is no mistaking these places for the fields that lie at their edges.
What makes their determination so resolute, I think, is that there is such definitiveness about their place in history. There are still arguments—endless arguments—about what the Holocaust means, or represents, with the sad figures of the deniers at the perimeter of the debate, but the historical landscape is largely contoured, and its equation clear: Nazism equals Holocaust equals concentration camps.
Gurs is more uncertain. Its passage, so to speak, cuts across WWII. The camp was constructed during the Spanish Civil War, when the Blum’s administration interned anarchists and members of the International Brigade, in an effort to mollify Franco’s fascist government. Just before the outbreak of WWII, the French administration then corralled the Germans living in Paris—including Hannah Arendt—and dispatched them to camps for undesirables such as Gurs. When the Germans occupied France, it was the turn of the Communists, Gypsies, and Jews. At the end of the war, the camp was not destroyed, but used again, this time for the hapless Spanish and other communists, as the French government, like so many others, announced that the era of the camp was not a momentary blip in the history of the world, but a logical way of dealing with those who find no place on the checkerboard of national identity.
There are too many reasons for the French to forget Gurs: for its place in the Nazi logic of Jewish extermination, with which so many French collaborated; for France’s continuing use of the camp after the war; and for its resonances with the camps used to detain asylum seekers today.
Gurs is a monument to a longer history of national isolation of undesirable elements: a place where dreams of ethnic purity and the realities of state power collide. No wonder the French want to forget, when what they are trying to forget is so much of their present.
After some uneasy minutes driving down the autoroute, my vision navigating industrial fields and placid cows, there is a small sign for Gurs, and we turn in. There are only two cars in the parking lot, which stands in front of a wrought-iron metal enclosure.
As we get out of the car, I can see ‘Gurs’ etched into a concrete wall, with fake barbed wire curling around the word. This sort of disaster-kitsch serves to distance us from the camp, and consign it to some impossibly remote time that can only be conjured up by the sort of heavy reconstruction normally reserved for our most frivolous fantasies (Disney, medieval re-enactments).
The enclosure was constructed in the 1980s, by the friends of Gurs; a private group of people whose relatives had been interned here. It is hard to recognize now how little the presence of such places was at issue immediately after the war. Of course, photographs of the concentration camps made the papers, but the Nuremberg trials were largely silent about the camps, and the patina of horror that settled on WWII is a product of the 60s and 70s, not the post-war period. So it is with a place like Gurs. Later, we will come to a cemetery for the Jews killed at the camp: repaired in 1962, it sat solitary and quiet, behind a covering of trees: a private memorial, far from the state’s memory.
Immediately after the last Spaniard was sent free, the camp fell into a very particular form of neglect. Over the main part of the camp, a forest grew. Standing in the drizzle of the main enclosure, I look out at the trees on my left. The trunks are regimented: the long clear lines of the forester, or the arrangement of the New York grid system. It is telling, I think, that it is a forest. Gurs is surrounded by agricultural land, and presumably the camp could have again been made into fertile fields (there is a tractor parked disconsolately at the edge of the forest). But Gurs seems tarnished: something happened here, and it cannot be put to use again. At the same time, the people want to forget, and do not erect a memorial: Gurs becomes a forest, and it is hoped that with the growth of the trees, the memories the soil contains will return to nature. Woodlands; an expansive and active forgetting.
I wonder about the lives of those who live next to Gurs. Opposite the forest there are some quiet detached houses. In the gardens at the front, some of the families have barbecue grills, and one struggles to imagine Monsieur de la Porte, on a Saturday, putting some sausages onto the charcoal’s flames, hearing the sizzle, and looking out onto the reconstructed huts of a concentration camp.
“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon.” Isn’t that what underlies your request, made with a hammering head, to the memorial in front of you? It tells me several things. It tells me you do not want to hear about the changing historical circumstances of European traditions of memorialization (as least, not for their own sake), nor do you want to receive a burst of information, to be dutifully digested and regurgitated at a dinner party, coming soon to a town near you. What you ask, instead, is that the entirety of this place’s history is placed into a single experience: a single moment of passion that touches you, and grounds you in the work of time.
I am with you, father, in your demand. At the moment I am teaching a course on the history of the essay form. All my favourite authors: Montaigne, Emerson, Nietzsche, Benjamin, and one can pick up, in these writers, the same demand: for knowledge to be placed at the service of life, for the dead weight of an overly-sanctified past to be thrown off; for thought and experience to be in perpetual movement.
But how to get there? It seems to me that leaving it as a demand for experience is a way to get to what you suggest: a theme park. The search for vicarious experience in and of itself ends in boredom: limit-experiences, one after another, with nothing to ground them: for these experiences (what Badiou, in La Siècle, will call the passion of the real) go only half-way.
It is right to demand from something only what is alive, only what is vital, but to get there requires going into the thing. There is a lot of wood chopping to be done. Platitudes, metaphors, received wisdom: all of this needs to be cut away: somewhere in that forest, there is something alive, hidden in a faux-log cabin. But we have to connect to it! That is the other half of the sermon.
We work, we walk: we scan history for those moments of connection, in which we, as subjects, and history, as our object, can be transfigured.
To get out of history, and into experience, we need history. A lot of it.
Perhaps all that talk of history is a distraction. Perhaps. Amid all the questions of time and place, of historical becoming, lost inheritances, and forgotten debts, I think what I still look for—and what makes me a writer before a philosopher—are characters: condensations of the complexities of a time, who do not so much have to be analysed, let alone judged, but described, and allowed to speak, in such a way that life and experience expand before us.
If I were younger, I would have held the image of Arendt in front of me as I walked towards the cemetery: the picture of a writer who thought with the greatest urgency about the dark times in which she lived. It is a curse, she noted, to living in interesting times. She thought it took her away from the proper contemplative work of the philosopher, this constant running into the edge of history. Some part of me, I suspect, is still young, and still believes in thinking in the world. Now though, history is gone, and I am left stalking around the edges of a refugee camp on the Sudanese border, not quite knowing how to notate the temporality of what I am experiencing. My voyages run the risk of being vicarious: a particularly painful theme park of suffering, but a theme park nonetheless.
My attention is directed away from Arendt, towards Monsieur de la Porte. In him I find a figure for our time: neither the fascists (banal or horrific) nor the crusading philosopher, but a short, pudgy man, who recently took retirement from the post office. On a Sunday, after church—a century-old habit—he sits out in his garden overlooking the woods of Gurs, sitting placidly before the ruins of Europe: empty fields and over-active woodlands.
Isn’t this Sebald’s position? His writing has the deep-seated distance of someone who has separated from life: a calm and placidity etched out of the Anglia coastland. He used to walk Shingle Street, just as we did, perched between the British naval port where radar was invented and an American airforce base (talk about being written between empires!) But for Sebald it was different: East Anglia was afterward. Nachträglichkeit. The space of quiet after the catastrophe passed.
Isn’t this also Adorno’s position? He of the grand proclamation: poetry is no longer possible after the Holocaust. If nothing else is possible, what else to do, but stop, and gaze out at our ruins?
This doesn’t satisfy me, as far as the Holocaust goes: poetry was and is possible: the question that was (and is) posed is one of form. What new forms are required post-war?
Things die long before we realize they are dead. Relationships. Works. Even Gods. We keep pumping out the same old Shakespeare productions and psychologically realist novels long after the worlds they purport to refer to have vanished. We keep clapping along, too.
Monsieur de la Porte serves as a warning figure, then, against the self-satisfaction of nostalgia and ruin.
I suppose the question that orientates me is still the modernist one: How to make it new? How to destroy history productively, in a way that takes it up and expands the present?
There is something about Monsieur de la Porte that reminds me of our relationship to history, or, to speak more correctly, of our relationship to passage.
I recall the story of X, who, upon the death of Y, held relentlessly onto her letters. The past was an object and a box: she put the letters in it, and she put her self too, trapped in its confines and its visions.
I much prefer your vision: destroy the past by accepting the work it does on the present. I wonder, though, about the finality of your memories. Isn’t that insistence on accuracy—your accuracy—a way of closing down the present, too. Of insisting on the one story, and holding onto it for dear life?
I wonder if, in the end, the final historical horizon is not when one has let go of everything, but when one lets go of letting go—of the impulse to destruction that has a history, and has its causes, in both of us.
Perhaps, you say, but constant movement is one thing, and sitting in front of a model concentration camp is another.
The problem for you is the reality effect. How to ground our movements around this baroque memorial so that we are not tourists, reading just-so stories and eating up our made-for-measure emotions, but people connecting to a concrete reality?
Thus, also, your emphasis on the physical: their pain, your headache. Just as if reading a novel, you find reality in the residues—not in the enormity of the numbers (this many killed, this many forgotten), but in the summer trails and the stubborn persistence of signs that indicate another historical era.
What worries you is the pornographer. It’s a common worry. That is not to denigrate it, but to say: it’s a symptom, a felt inadequacy. Today we have food porn, phone porn, ruin porn. Porn invades all things. Here, we run the risk of Holocaust porn, a vapid commemoration that occurs because that we seek, in the thing, the viewing of the thing. Today, this fear, which is Guy Debord’s, runs both ways. The contemporary dilemma, so well described by Don DeLillo in Mao II, is to seek the viewing of the thing in the thing itself, and leave the thing in a hallway of mirrors in which the audience, slobbering at their keyboards, is presumed.
So much of ‘trauma studies’ (a traumatic addition to the canon of parvenu disciplines) is pervaded by this sort of sentiment: that the present—us, in a field, surrounded by fake barbed wire and calm French houses—is sutured by a lack vis-à-vis a real past event.
I am not so sure. If the internees who have written about Gurs are to be believed, what is noticeable about these camps is not that they were the highest ideal of the real, but that life felt so unreal, so lacking in any ground that would allow the internees to make sense of their experiences.
In We Refugees, a text Hannah Arendt wrote for The Menorah Journal in 1943, she ironically sketches a portrait of Mr Cohn. In Germany, before the Nazis take power, Mr Cohn is 150% German—he speaks better than the natives, knows Mahler better, and can quote Goethe freely. Soon enough, Mr Cohn is forced away from Germany, to France, where he becomes 150% French: Rimbaud rolls from his lips. Here, he thinks, I have finally attained a nationality. My experience of Germany simply allows me to see, in the present, what I lacked in the past: a genuine sense of home. Soon, Mr Cohn is fleeing again, this time to America, where he becomes—you guessed it—150% American, and amid his over-size refrigerators, in a place whose gustatory register runs from peppermint to bubble gum, he declares, I am finally at home. Poor Mr Cohn is neither German, nor French, nor American.
“A man who wants to lose his self discovers, indeed, the possibilities of human existence, which are infinite, as infinite as is creation. But the recovering of a new personality is as difficult—and as hopeless—as a new creation of the world. Whatever we do, whatever we pretend to be, we reveal nothing but our insane desire not to be changed, not to be Jews.”
In her essay, Arendt charts the desperate optimism of a population that has lost the co-ordinates that allow the world to appear as a real entity. Later, in The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt will write about the novelty of these circumstances: a population that cannot flee, but is instead trapped within the nation-state system, but without a place: an excluded included, with nowhere that will accept it. The impasse that she traces in her work is that of a population that is not not Jewish: a double negative that allows for no sublation.
In 1938, Hans Mayer fled Austria to France, and thence to Belgium. The Belgians deported him as a German, back to France, where the government consigned him to Gurs, as a German alien. After escaping Gurs, he joined the resistance in Belgium, before being captured and tortured. During his torture, his classification was downgraded, from political prisoner, to Jew, and he was moved, first to Buchenwald, and then to Bergen-Belsen, where he remained until the end of the war.
You have never heard of Hans Mayer. He writes that he could no longer use his name, for, as he fled Austria, he realized that the home—the heimat—that had previously provided the most profound textures of his life, was a lie. It was not simply that his home was unavailable. He was not Heinrich Mann, who fled Germany after the Nazi’s took power, but who could console himself with the sense that he and his writing were the real Germany, and the Third Reich, a momentary blip. Home is a delicate fabric, weaved of relations and dreams. Meyer’s friends were informers and Nazis. The dialect of his home became hateful to him. The fabric was ripped to pieces. Mayer writes beautifully of the fate of his German, reduced to minimal conversations among fellow exiles in Brussels, mute words about passports. His German was not free from horror. He could not imagine other worlds, like Mann in California. Instead, Gehölz und Tal would carry the smell of death, and of the rejection of home.
You have never heard of Hans Mayer. You have, perhaps, heard of Jean Améry, his anagrammatic reconceptualization of his self, created after his release from Bergen-Belsen. In one of the essays that makes up At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and Its Realities, entitled ‘How Much Home Does a Person Need’, Améry sketches out how profoundly his generation of German Jews experienced a loss of ground, and just how difficult it was for experience—even vivid, powerful experience, like one might have at Gurs—to count as real.
Towards the end of the essay, Améry turns to one of the themes that will constitute a later book, On Aging. He writes:
“But the credit of the person who is aging depletes. His horizon presses in on him, his tomorrow and day-after-tomorrow has no vigour and no certainty. He is only who he is. The future is no longer around him and therefore also not within him. He cannot plead change. He shows the world a naked present. But he can exist nonetheless, if in this present there harmoniously rests a ‘once was.’”
The credit of the future is transformed into the possibilities of the past. But not for Améry. There are no possibilities that remain from his youth: for they all end in the black spider, which reversed the expectations and dreams of home so completely. Thus Améry is denied not just a past, but also an old age. It is in such a world that self-sacrifice becomes impossible to imagine, for the world and self that one might sacrifice are already gone. Arendt, in ‘We Refugees’, is struck by the fact that most of the suicides of her generation are silent. There is relentless optimism, and then the novel use of a skyscraper. “Brought up in the conviction,” Arendt writes, “that life is the highest food and death the greatest dismay, we became witnesses and victims of worse terrors than death—without having been able to discover a higher ideal than life.”
Arendt and Améry converge at the end, in the hope that the one way to live—if not to flourish—in these conditions, is to realize where one is. For both, the situation of German Jews is unprecedented, but also a harbinger of a future world to come, in which homelessness, without blood or soil, is a condition of us all. This is the reality of unreality, of a world torn from its familiar signposts.
The challenge for us, walking amongst the graves, and writing this walking, is to make of the experience something other than tourism: the vicarious thrill that Améry will describe as a piquant form of alienation. One can go on holiday in history, as much as one can now flee easily to Bali, all the better to celebrate the home to which one returns.
One response to the tourists-dilemma is simply to make a home in these new surroundings: this it the historian’s calling in time, just as it is the anthropologists, in space. For Améry, however, this is simply creating ersatz homes—rebuilding intellectually the conditions denied to one emotionally, and in so doing, turning away from the dilemma posed by a place like Gurs. Historians and anthropologists alike run the risk of being Mr Cohn.
But if we neither want to celebrate En Pujos, our home, through this vacation in history, nor make a new ersatz home, here among the skeletons, what is left to us?
To listen, I think, and realize what in my own passage led me here. This passage, and my encounter with Gurs, lets me know where I am: not as a confirmation, but as a disfiguring, just as, when I return to my home after many months of traveling, I see it in new light, and realize, as the sun shines on a table that I haven’t looked at properly for years, that I never knew this place at all.
Home persists, but in fractions. Amid an active forgetting.