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. This is part of the series of our exchanges, meditating on the experience of walking around Gurs. You can read earlier excerpts here and here.
A LETTER TO TONY
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 a 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 French government interned Spanish 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 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 shameful continuing use of the camp after the war; and for its continuing 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 small 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 reserves 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.
A LETTER TO JOSHUA
Is the history of suffering a school-outing?
Before putting knowledge of Gurs learned a little later — telling it as it was first experienced in the moment: there’s this sort of sale de fete, a single storey building set down in the middle of nowhere; it might be an information centre, or a small library of some forgotten village. But no, it says it’s a Memorial to Gurs: see there’s phoney barbed wire (and it’s rusting!) all stuck here and there all over the exterior walls. Inside it’s a small museum, not that I recall seeing many artefacts — old photographs, yes, a power point display, texts — but I don’t recall the journey I was led through.
Is that it? An information gathering exercise?
No surprise with a hammering head (sans paracetamol) and the tensions of the day still holding the body I’m not sympathetic to this school outing stream of swirling facts and figures. I want — what do I want?
I want to be touched, be moved — the passage of history cannot rely on information alone to be meaningful. I want to stand there, be there as they were. I want to connect with the people, with their experience. (But am I asking for a theme park? An artistic installation?)
I can see this Memorial as the product of countless meetings in dingy rooms, endless envelope stuffing and stamp licking.
But so it did finally happen: a small civic hall dedicated to the memory. Better than nothing: the passage of history doesn’t stop short, it’s continuous, is continuing — even if via a supercilious lout like me.
The names change, the figures change — but only this is particular for me. The extremes of history capsulate into a single received experience –if experience it is. Could it be otherwise? The real sense stirred is that I only know from face to face contact with Survivors — and my sentiment; but I don’t dismiss sentiment here.
The pictures from Belsen emerged late after the war: did I really see them on the front page of the Daily Herald? Did I so identify then that all reaction today is rooted in that time/experience?
Notwithstanding the headache, perhaps I want the pain, the hunger, the yearning. What I get is this neat well-cared for room that itself seems forgotten. This is a pity: is it on anyone else’s itinerary?
But there’s more: t/c.
A LETTER TO TONY
“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 memorialisation (as least, not for their own sake), nor do you want to receive a burst of information, to be dutifully digested and regurgitated as 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 the 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) only go 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.
A LETTER TO JOSHUA
I suppose in the West — being a bit cleverer — I don’t say more civilised — it’s not too difficult to imagine camps where undesirables are still concentrated as a thing of the past. We don’t see the black and white photographs of the degradation and misery: the cheapness of building materials borne from the sweat of another allows for pastel coloured cubicles and chipboard veneer furniture. Not that we see much of these. But if you look you can find many first hand stories which principally feature tales of psychological abuse — is this soon to be made a crime such as physical domestic abuse is: how will you measure it?
We know then the concentrations haven’t ended — the word seeps out even if the barbed wire has been pushed back. Not that this didn’t stop 200 undesirables recently vaulting over the fences around Ceuta and Melilla.
The detention centres are closer. But out of sight out of mind (as an uncle of mine used to say — a freelance electrician who at weekends would throw a blanket over the tools of his trade in the back of his Estate: then jollying along to the coast with wife and two kids on a Sunday, all was forgotten). And you would not want to cross those desolate outer urban landscapes that surround the fences (topped with razor wire) surrounding the exercise yards and characterless buildings within which the misery is harboured.
The French rugby team — distinct from the Irish (Paddies everyone) — might secretly be called by those of this secular society a mixed grill. But that’s not really Catholic fare. Oh no. The larger cities of the UK are far more inter racial. It is a fait accompli: ‘. . . little Englanders inevitably becoming a darker shade of white . . .’ (apologies to Stuart Hall — deceased 14th February 2014). And you might say the same across the whole world — we are all of a mixed grill.
The phenomena of migration gives to the phenomena of camps — spawned by the human capacity for fear of the other.
But we hide this too; as Gurs would be hidden, indeed pretty much is (distinct from say Oradour — but then it was the others who did this . . .) — as we in the West would hide the camps we have today: hiding our fears — denying our bigotry and so commendable Nationalism. And while we do nothing changes. The camps are not a blip.
‘I am a racist!’
This is the only starting point possible from which to advance through fear, to confront the other. For there is not a member of any race, colour or creed who is not racist. Let’s talk about my fears and your fears, my colour and your colour, the smell of my sweat and the smell of your sweat . . .
A LETTER TO TONY
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 analyzed, 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. This 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-action. Now though, history is gone, and I am left stalking around the edges of a refugee camp in north-east Kenya, not quite knowing how to notate the temporality of what I am experiencing. It runs 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.
A LETTER TO JOSHUA
You see without context you could have been vitiating a beauty spot on a summer’s evening. Initially I’d thought the sort of civic hall we’d ‘just done’ was it — Gurs. Wrapped up. All that way for this?
You suggested a walk down this path (to a man all in with a headache and no water . . .). Okay. At least it looked flat. And pretty.
We turn right I recall, cross a stile or a gate. Another long track ahead, gates at the end. The distance between any notion of passage, any root to this, and this pleasant ramble could not be greater.
What root am I looking for — the ghosts of the one thousand and more who died somewhere around here? You see there’s nothing — nature, the trees, grasses, the sun starting its arc down. And is not this life as real? Seventy years ago it was mud, no (drinking) water, no toilets as such, barbed wire, animal pens (for the inmates) — not least that called los represaliados — for the recidivists) — was not this life as real?
Except for the aspirations those enduring the misery could not let go of — the dreams in the mind. And was this not as real as life in the atrocious real?
The moment (here) is the stillness of nature (save it’s never quite still: it moves insidiously through its seasons. But that’s it.
You see I worry that like pornographers who seek pornography in their sex lives (and can never be content with plain old ordinary sex) we want to live (want life real) with all the structured narratives and drama we have imbued from history and hindsight storytelling through so many different mediums.
Walking along this summer evening track, where are the plot points, what’s the inciting incident, where’s the development of different continuities?
Do these passages exist only in my head? Here there’s only the walk. Me and you. And yet. I know somewhere the sons and daughters of those who were here and are now dead will be likewise walking somewhere (and many returning here for commemoration services). There is this thread even if now approaching what I suddenly see is a cemetery it is so difficult to grasp.
A LETTER TO TONY
The problem for you is the reality effect. How to ground our movements around this baroque memorial to the internment camp of Gurs so that we are not tourists, reading just-so stories and eating up our made-for-measure emotions. Thus, also, your emphasis on the physical: their pain, your headache. Just like when reading, 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, that seems to underlie what you write: that we seek, in the thing, the viewing of the thing. Today, this fear, which is 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-a-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. Arendt writes:
“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 to make the world real. Later, inThe Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt will write about the novelty of this circumstance: 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 monetary 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, 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 experiences a loss of the 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, that 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 of what 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.
A LETTER TO JOSHUA
After the catastrophe, after the holocaust (I won’t ask as did Marc Von H, ‘Which holocaust?’) But in speaking I must separate my catastrophe/my holocaust, and the catastrophes that call upon me from history.
Is my catastrophe (it was a holocaust) more or less to me than that surrounding six million?
But to the point: is what I do, how I react, after my catastrophe that which I do after knowledge comes to me of historical catastrophes?
How do you — absorb, confront, think about, even feel catastrophe?
Times come and you can still feel remnants of your own catastrophe, that abyss; and so to some extent you feel the historical holocausts you learn about: well, you see it in the eyes of those you speak to for whom it was/is still their catastrophe; it never quite leaves.
But you do absorb — process . . . After the war there is quiet numbness, a kind of peace; perhaps in time the body restitutes itself like an old painting; eventually you hang yourself up again. A new world. A new present — perhaps.
The pain (and the anger) become difficult to remember sometimes.
Then comes the goddamn thinking about it all . . . . take a position on it — take up your crusade — shout that you know and understand — get a degree in it!
And so it will never happen again.
But the thinking about it . . . if you’ve gazed into the abyss (your very own personal abyss) you know nothing in the future can actually threaten you; strength found is that of God.
Thinking about all the other catastrophes . . . framing the socio-political context, the historical lineage, tracking the then of the catastrophe to the now of the present and thereby somehow stitching closure on the ragbag of facts and figures and reasons and causes . . . This is position, settlement — as if ever another could know your catastrophe!
(I am suspicious of the apparent ease with which the French accommodated the invader. Had I been French . . . who knows . . . ((Apropos of nothing didn’t I have a dream last night I was trying to finish a paper titles ‘Franco was my Father!’ What was that about?)) ).
Yet I know it’s coming up now — ahead — there’s the cemetery. You see it is true, after 30 years (when I was aged 34) I set out to visit my father’s grave for the first time. There was a lot of neat grass, I said, ‘Where’s the graves?’ I was told, ‘They’re only given the plots for 30 years — then they’re moved on. All gone now.’
No stones. Nothing.
A LETTER TO TONY
I don’t think we talked much in the graveyard. As last summer stretches away from us, I struggle to place where we said what. The boundaries between the spoken and the written word have started to blur: conversations began on trains in France continue by email and letter, from across the Atlantic.
What I don’t forget is what we did, even if, as you have noticed, precisely what we did, and why we did what we did, has, with the unwinding of time, taken on something of a mysterious quality: our actions feel to me like moments from a medieval chronicle, rather than a 19th century novel: one can simply recount, “and then…”: motives and reasons have faded with time, and I look in vain to the Jewish cemetery to resurrect some sense of our journey as a bildungsroman.
The gravestones—white, gaunt, speckled with shadow—are solemn sentinels, crowned with rows of white pebbles. There are a variety of explanations in Judaism for these stones.
Some say that the stones hold down the soul (ground it, I think, as I walked around), during the brief period in which the soul continues to dwell in the grave after death. This strikes me as over-kill, if you pardon the phrase; all graves are way to ground the soul, and to keep the dead perched precariously at the border between life and death. The dead’s work, the grave announces, is not yet done: through its remnants, marked here by a grave, but existing in memories of touches and house built by the dead, the life of the deceased continues. The grave is already a stone built to ground the work of the soul.
Others claim these small pebbles, forming child’s-beach-lines atop the graves, are markers of our visits to the graves (they ground us, I continue). We announce, and continue to announce, that we have not forgotten the dead, that they continue to live: a duty to the dead we announced with the gravestone, and reiterate with the pebble. In this regard, the pebbles are not so different to the wild displays of flowers I used to see at Catholic cemeteries in Warsaw. Flowers and spices are banned for the Jews.
Ground it, ground us: stones allows us to determine our proper relationship to the dead. In the 1970s in Madagascar, among the Merina people, after a death, a massive megalithic tomb would be built, and the deceased would go to the real homeland: those of the dead ancestors. Slowly, one can image, the dead crowding out the living, if it were not for the fact that one only cared for so many ancestors, and the others, six generations back, gradually retreated back into the undergrowth: large stones once more.
One could say: all altars are piles of stone. But perhaps more accurate would be: piles of stone are altars just for a moment of their lives.
In a cemetery, we think we are remembering our ancestors, but it is also society remembering through us: remembering how our lives should live in the shadows of our forefathers.
What seems so chillingly powerful about this cemetery, I think as I wander past the altar, is that it resurrects the personal, for an era in which larger historical and political forces almost eradicated the sense of the individual.
This is a strictly nominalist graveyard. The names on the tombstones do not indicate corpses that lie beneath them, or have ever lied beneath them, save in some horrific moment of contingency, in which the choice of the Nazi killer of 1939 (throw the corpse here), cohered with the Jewish architect who places an indicative grave over fallow land, in 1962, when the cemetery was constructed.
The cemetery marks the omission of a proper end: so many people whose lives were not marked, or otherwise forgotten. It is a particular, indicative cemetery: the names of the Germans killed at Gurs are omitted. They are primarily Jewish names, and name a crime against the Jewish people. It was 1957 when the Mayor of Karlsruhe started to plan to assume responsibility for the cemetery: today, a confederation of German cities takes responsibility—they have a 100 year lease. The Spanish part of the cemetery is a later addition, from 1985, and its narrative (that of the broader history of the camp of which I have been writing to you) is still not internalized into our story of the second world war.
I say this in a detached way, but these graves, with their proper names and dates, are not like the abstract memorials of Berlin: they index real people, who really died. This nominalist, after the fact cemetery, actually seems to return, from the morass of a collective destiny in which individualist was important, the possibility of personal grief, and personal courage.
I am looking at a photograph of you as I write, striding away from the monument, in the heat, towards the pebbles.
A LETTER TO JOSHUA
The cemetery (3rd moment): what place might be more suitable for a (rambling) reflection on passage? Something, some people were here and now they’re not — or are they?
I don’t hold that the pebbles (small stones) are placed atop the standing gravestones to hold the soul down in the place they ought to be; rather that the memory of the deceased will sustain as long as rock holds.
And it is here in the cemetery that it hits home most. There is even the relief of a water tap — the only water to be found across the complex. Odd. Surely not for flowers, etc.? No matter, perhaps for tourists with thumping headaches . . .
What hits home — that they are dead — both the Jewish souls and the Spanish in the other part of the cemetery? I imagine if you have a relative here you are rooted back to their particular soul.
I don’t know, didn’t know those lying about me.
(Nor I imagine do those of the German cities — which packed their Jewish folk off to Gurs — and now pay for the upkeep of the cemetery. Nor do I understand that. Repentance? A bid for redemption? But what might hit home to them were they here cannot be my concern.
How am I hit. So it ends (ended) here like this and doesn’t it always. People come and people go. You think of the countless families you knew, the years of hope, growing, the aspirations, the happiness (even) and in the flash of a second — the lot gone.
The quick passage of our lives.
As a mark of respect I always read the obituaries of deceased writers — even if I never heard of them. I owe them this at least.
There’s a character in the book I’m on who keeps seeing things flash by — dragon-flies, cats, lizards, salamanders! Seeing nothing in fact — he comes to believe they must be angels: the vanguard of the angel of death come to prepare him, tap him on the shoulder — life does have its ending.
I didn’t sense angels above the cemetery but I thought of the belief — the guardian angels Kiramar & Katibeen — who write down everything you do and say in your life. Boy, those who put them here had better be ready to answer when they get there.
For in the end what is really de-fucking-pressing is that these lives were shortened — conditions saw to that — xx, xx — not to speak of weariness and loss of hope.
I can take death (of course mine won’t involve my grief) — so it’s easy; the death of others are harder. We can’t amend a gravestone or plaque with one best thing that person lying there did in their lives — but I’d like to: instead of a pebble, something that lives and is influential forever.
Or do we just live our lives (if they’re not cut short) and pass on leaving the memory within others. And even were there to be no memory (the last person you want to remember!) are we not all chips off old blocks: like it or not something of the deceased lives in the living.
The number of the dead overwhelms me. I am speechless.
A LETTER TO TONY
I remember a birthday. You were still living in north-east London. I was still with S; we had just finished an epistolatory exchange about the idea of ‘wonder.’ I still remember her writing today; I wonder—in the other sense—whether I really communicated to her just how great I thought her ideas were. It was towards the end of the relationship; perhaps I was about to go to live in Kenya. You gave me a book about the theological conception of wonder. That was for my birthday.
I thought the book was called ‘Signs taken for Wonders’, but, on searching for this title on the internet, I realize that I am in error: Signs Taken for Wonders is by the literary critic Franco Moretti, whose little book on the bourgeois (a book that could only have been written at the end of a long career, after the fireworks and the anxieties have passed) I enjoyed so recently. In Signs Taken for Wonders, Moretti writes, unfortunately, about how these little things—letters, forming words, creating linguistic signs—could have been mistaken for wonders (that Shakespeare’s works are a wonder of his age), and, like a good literary critic, promptly dismantles these romantic notions, and makes the signs into signs again, but signs of sociological and historical significance.
I think my own tendency is to reverse this inclination, and find, in amid all the dry historical signs and networks of signification, the little moment of the personal that makes for wonder. I was thinking about your character, who keeps seeing things flash by: the dragon flies and the cats! He has to do something with them. It is no good saying they are simply physiological or psychic manifestations of some synapses firing erroneously deep in the mind. Indeed, even if one did tell oneself that, then the synapses still have the same level of reality as the bloody dragon flies. It’s no good taking wonders for signs if, at the level of lived-experience, wonders are wonders indeed.
All this talk of passage ends up here, in this cemetery, amid the dragon flies. What sense do we make of the signs that flit past, too quick for us to grasp them (that is the critic’s job). What sense do we make of the world’s wonder?
Here is, for me, is the basis of narrative. Around us are thousands of fragments of stories. The small pebble perched precariously atop a gravestone that reads: Albert Schweizer, 1902-1941. A good, rich, short story is just the opening of a narrative onto the wonder of the world. One thinks of Hemmingway, of course (For sale: baby shoes, never worn), but also Mr Schweizer and the pebble—one thinks of the care that a relative took, to place that stone, as precarious and uncertain as a life, atop a grave that is only a sign of Mr Schweizer (he does not lay underneath, and even then…): signs opening up to wonder.
A LETTER TO JOSHUA
Our passage and the remains . . .
Yesterday, Harry asked me something like where would I like to be laid to rest . . . or rather what epithet would I like on my gravestone? I said I’d like some kind of idea inscribed, from which passers-by might take off from . . .
Notwithstanding our face book pages and blogs (for those who have them) gives us all — rather gives that much of our lives lived — an immortality — what I’d prefer is a series of say seven of those wooden park benches you see (we saw them Harry and I in Brockwell Park). ‘In memory of Enid Perkins who so loved this spot — 1929-1992)’ You know the sort of thing.
Anyway seven of these — with the kernel of an idea inscribed — names would not really be necessary: who knows who Enid Perkins was and what she thought sitting here?
Likewise the names on the gravestones in Gurs beneath which another’s body probably lies.
One to be places atop Barbadoes Hill, looking down over the monastery and Wye.
One in Crete miles from anywhere across those dusty dry hills.
One in Agistri — probably overlooking the far end of the island
One in Brockwell Park
One in Le Castera.
God I ‘ve almost used up my quota.
So the final one (you see I can’t count) — I guess it would have to be Hyde Park,
Oddly I don’t know Cornwall well enough but if permission was not granted on any of the above, it would be around Daphne du Maurier’s beach upon which we once all sat.
So what ideas — what do I mean? I don’t mean Patience Strong . . . Something around the following:
(And each should give a clue as to the location of the next . . . a disciple (groupie?) might conduct a round the world trip . . .)
What has this got to do with your 3rd moment from Gurs? Is it for me about the impermanence of personality — finally — the greater importance of idea/stimulus that is passed on. Yet if I’d known any of those beneath the ground in Gurs would I not mourn their personality? Would I want a park bench in compensation? Unlikely.
Still more people would sit on the bench(s) than ever knew me — as more pass through the Gurs cemetery where the idea(s) hover intangibly above the stones. No need for inscriptions — they are given life by such as us — entering you there’s a greater immorality than a blog is there not (whatever was written on the blog)? And given that the earth might tip off its axis and delete the electronic/quantum age in one fell swoop, only the park bench might remain . . .
Take not your lap top to the park — take a penknife.
A LETTER TO TONY
I know that you want to go back, or, at least, that there is a sense I get from you: what else shall we do. Isn’t this enough? I want to press on: see the rest of the camp. I am already writing the camp. Perhaps I do this too much. I write my experiences as they occur. There is no tree that is not already a tree, written down and brushed past by a character. Those that accuse me of instrumentality, however, misunderstand the situation. If I live to write, then I also write to live. Without the spectral page of my mind, I would not be forced into things.
We are walking past a hut. A recreated guardsman’s position, replete with worn seat for weary legs. If it wasn’t for the page, would I wonder about this, would I try to enter it? Impossible question. I did not make myself as a photographer or an artist, but, I do note, that it is such practices that force attention, and break us from the everyday acceptance of what we are seeing.
To the west of the Jewish cemetery, there lie the woods. The Friends of Gurs have seen fit to recreate some of the wooden structures that made up the camp: not all of them you understand: but one guard hut, and one long barrack-like building, which is hidden in the trees. If they had created all of them, the theme-park feel of the camp would be complete: it would be an effort at recreating or evoking a total reality. One other possibility (of commemorating what remains) is not possible at Gurs, for the French active forgetting of the site has cast to decay and ruin all the original buildings. Instead, I think, as I walk along a sunny forest trail that recalls the landscape of my mouth, the Friends of Gurs have made of the camp something of a space of prayer: the singular guard-hut, the singular barracks. They are objet d’art, removed from the world in which they made sense, and set, alone and isolated in the forest, for our contemplation. Our mind must fill in the rest of the scene.
There is a sort of boardwalk linking the sites. On another day, it could have been along the beach in Brighton. I curiously read a sign containing the testimony of Arkadius Hercfelds, who was interned at the camp from 20 February to 17 March, 1943. At 7am, he says, we received a cup of black coffee. At 11.30am, a soup, of vegetables, sometimes with a trace of meat. At 5.30pm, they would then receive a plate of jerusalem artichokes. One a week, this diet was supplemented with a half-litre of wine. Enough, Arkadius says, to keep a man alive, but not much more than that. That was, of course, the intention: to weak to revolt and plot, and with minimal expenditure by the Reich. We are in the territory of the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s bare life: the after-life of those deprived of social and political status. Not killed, but reduced to minimal biological expenditure.
Such ideas have been current in social thought for a decade now. I have to say their appeal has worn off, no matter how poignant their insights. I am more interested in the pencil sketches of another slide.
A man is putting a spoon (of soup?) in his mouth. His eyes are closed. His face looks concentrated on the event of that soup. It could almost be a face of prayer. Do you remember, Tony, when we watched Die Große Stille, that film devoted to the lives of the monks of Chartreuse. What reassured us, I think, is that they were not simply living in absorption with God. They were late. They read while they ate—they were as out of time as us all. These are the fragments that interest me: the soup in the camp, the monk late to evening service. That time is out of joint is our curse, but it is also our hope.
A LETTER TO TONY
I am writing this reply early. You have not even written yet, and yet I am replying, as part of an attempt to clear away the next month, so that I can devote it to finishing the dissertation. I am replying to your text, on our passage and its remains, where you write of those ideas that you would inscribe, in Crete, in Agistri, and in Le Castera.
I don’t want to deny you your wish, but I wonder if the phrase you quote (In memory of Enid Perkins…) is not as rich as any idea. Who was Enid Perkins, and when did she on the bench? She was just twenty in 1949, when Gurs was finally closed. Her hand is trembling. The sun coming down over the ruins of London, still only slowly being reconstructed after the ravages of the war. She is sitting just a little too close to the young man, the sort of proximity that is not yet an action, but neither is it the distance that would indicate friendship; it is that type of closeness that hangs between a possibility and an action. Her hand is trembling, and his arm wraps her in an embrace.
Images always seem more powerful than ideas, but then perhaps I have been less imaginative than I might. We always find images, and there are no ideas. To be walking in the hills above Tintern, and to find, let us say, one of Rene Char’s aphorisms (Notre héritage n’est précédé d’aucun testament), is already to be presented with an image, and within that image, an idea. Char’s words, written at the end of World War II, as France stumbles into the second half of the twentieth century, with only the myth of the resistance to orientate it, take on a different meaning, here, gazing down on Tintern Abbey, recalling Wordsworth poem, and its mournful evocation of childhood memories of beauty. Our heritage is not preceded by testament, and our memory finds no place amid the ferns.
Invitations to think, that is what I take your memorial epithets to be. Those thoughts could just be of the ideas—the jottings on the stone—but they could also be of the scene around the jotting, and than again, the mark of the maker, placed against the jotting, against a vision of the Abbey, decayed and distant.
Denkbilder. Thought images. It was a tradition of writing (Walter Benjamin, Ernst Bloch, Hans Blumenberg) that flourished during the inter-war years. Flashes that emerge between thought and the world, like your dragon flies: too quick to be held and systematized, but powerful enough to wake a walker in the fields, and ensure that some part of you will pass on.
Immortality, in the last analysis, seems like an invitation to others.