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The Auschwitz Experience: Trauma As Creative Catharsis In Man’s Search For Meaning And Death Fugue

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Holocaust literature is primarily the literature of trauma. Witness accounts have brought to light the brutal torture the Jews were subjected to in Nazi Germany. In his work Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud argues that “it is not only the memory of trauma but also the trauma of memory that is important in releasing the psychical trauma”. What happens in Holocaust literature is the release of the psychical trauma. By writing on what they had to undergo, the victims and witnesses of the Holocaust undergo a catharsis- a purgation of the negative emotions which make them ‘fixated’ to the past. This catharsis can be seen in Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning as well as in Paul Celan’s poem ‘Death Fugue’. Though viewing the Auschwitz experience from entirely different points of view, both the authors converge in their search for psychological purgation, an escape from their traumatic experience. While Man’s Search for Meaning talks about survival in the camp by finding a meaning to life and emphasizing the Christian notion that ‘suffering ennobles’, Celan’s ‘Death Fugue’ is a poem about the essentially degrading and torturous life in a concentration camp. Yet, both the writers seem to view their writing as purgation. Through their works, they attempt to find a safety valve for the suicidal, negative emotions triggered off in them by the experiences in the concentration camps.

“Those who have not lived through the experience will never know; those who have will never tell; not really, not completely…The past belongs to the dead…” Elie Wiesel

Holocaust writing, which has gained prominence over the years, is dominated by themes of trauma and creative struggle. Witness accounts of experiences in concentration camps abound with tales of the struggle for food, shelter, basic human needs, and most importantly, the struggle to remain human- to preserve one’s dignity, one’s humanity. The testimonies and accounts by holocaust survivors brought to light, the humiliation and suffering the Jews were subjected to in Nazi Germany. Deprived of hope, the Jews in concentration camps were murdered in the literal sense of the word, in gas chambers, or mutilated and turned into “walking corpses” without any recognition of their emotions or their humanity.

The trauma that the holocaust survivor went through is beyond imagination. Forced to watch his or her fellow beings being led to gas chambers and massacred, being subjected to abject humiliation and ill treatment by the Nazis, unable to reach out to his beloved or child or parents, who were just a few feet away, yet so distant, fighting for survival, and most of all, having to live with uncertainty, ignorant of whether there is hope of escape from the camps…this was the life of the prisoners. But more than all this, it was the inability to live with dignity as a human being, that traumatized the victims of the holocaust and sent them into conditions of apathy and self-contempt. Bruno Bettelheim, in The Informed Heart remarks: “While his physical death came later, he became a living corpse… But he had to divest himself so entirely of self respect and self love, of feeling and personality, that for all practical purposes, he was little more than a machine…” (238)

Trauma defined the life of the person in the concentration camp. Cary Caruth, one of the proponents of the trauma theory remarks in Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative and History: “Trauma is deeply tied to our own historical realities” (12). Hence, more than the specific time period in which the traumatic event took place, “the posterior resubjectifications and the restructuring of the subject, that is the consequence (Caruth 13) is significant. The “restructuring of the subject” is what could broadly be observed in holocaust writing. In, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud argues that “it is not only the memory of trauma but also the trauma of memory that is important in releasing the psychical trauma”. What happens in Holocaust writing by and large is the release of the psychical trauma. As, Freud mentions, people who have undergone a traumatic experience in the past remain ‘fixated’ to that particular point in life and hence, are detached from the present and future, in an attempt to come to terms with the trauma. By writing on what they had to undergo, the victims and witnesses of the Holocaust undergo a creative catharsis- a purgation of negative emotions which ‘fixate’ them to the past- thus enabling them to speak about what happened without experiencing a psychical breakdown. This catharsis could be seen in Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning as well as in Paul Celan’s poem “Death Fugue”.

Though viewing the Auschwitz experience from entirely different points of view, both the authors converge in their search for psychological purgation, a conscious and willful coming to the terms with their traumatic experience. While Man’s Search for Meaning the second-most widely read Holocaust book in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum talks about survival in the camp by finding a meaning ( which is omnipresent, according to the author) to life and emphasizing the Christian notion that ‘suffering ennobles’, Celan’s “Death Fugue” is a poem about the essentially degrading and torturous life in a concentration camp and the complete denigration of the man who is forced to sing and play music while his fellow prisoners dig mass graves for burying those who were killed in gas chambers. Yet, both the writers seem to view their writing as purgation emerging from unbearable pain turned to creative purposes. The catharsis here is different from what Aristotle talks about, in his Poetics. Unlike the audience who undergo catharsis watching a tragedy, the writer here is not a detached observer. He is the participant, the sufferer. He undergoes catharsis, not by watching from a detached perspective, but by creating art out of something in which he was a participant. Again, the purgation is not only of fear and pity, but also, terror and trauma. The writer writes of his own experience, his own psychological condition and tries to come to terms with the terror of the Holocaust. The ‘coming to terms with traumatic experience’ is the ultimate catharsis for these artists. Through their works they attempt to find a safety valve for the suicidal, negative emotions triggered by experiences in concentration camps.

In Man’s Search For Meaning, Frankl directs his trauma to a creative end- that of the betterment of humankind by coming up with a therapy for reorienting people suffering from trauma to find meaning to their existence. The book under consideration is in fact, the concrete proof of the creativity which came out of his traumatic experience. It is thus that he undergoes catharsis- a creative one- which purges him of the trauma of camp life. He describes his experiences in the concentration camp, with the ultimate aim of delivering the message that even in such dire straits it is possible for a human being to survive with dignity provided he finds meaning to his or her life. It is the first part of the book- ‘Experiences in a Concentration Camp’ that provides us with proof of the cathartic nature of writing to holocaust survivors. The bitterness he had to experience when his work of a lifetime, the manuscript of a scientific book he was writing, was destroyed by the guards the trauma of having to see his fellow men dying pathetic deaths, the humiliation he had to suffer, and more than all this, the survivor’s guilt- all these aspects find mention here. The remarkable thing is that he used all this suffering as a means to ennobling himself instead of allowing himself to be inwardly devastated. Frankl writes:

Dostoevsky said once: “There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings”. …It is this spiritual freedom – which cannot be taken away- that makes life meaningful and purposeful. … If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete. The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity – even under the most difficult circumstances – to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not.

The author, by taking suffering as a test of inner strength, was able to live in the present, instead of regressing to the past and wallowing in self-pity. At the same time, he says that suffering becomes meaningful only when the person responds to it the right way. Choices are still available to the prisoner. To preserve himself from an animal existence, he has to respond with dignity to suffering, thereby endowing it with meaning.

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In the preface to the 2008 edition of Man’s Search for Meaning, Harold Kushner remarks: “His (Frankl’s) experience in Auschwitz, terrible as it was, reinforced what was already one of his key ideas. Life is not primarily a quest for pleasure, as Freud believed, or a quest for power, as Alfred Alder taught, but a quest for meaning. The great task for any person is to find meaning in his or her life. Frankl saw three possible sources for meaning: in work (doing something significant), in love (caring for another person, as Frankl held on to the image of his wife through the darkest days in Auschwitz), and in courage in difficult times)” (Frankl 8) He also encouraged other prisoners to do the same, thereby making his positive thoughts provide some solace his co-sufferers.

Frankl, by finding a meaning or aim to his life, succeeds in transcending suffering, or rather, bearing it with patience. It was to avoid the delirium (owing to typhus), that the author first attempted to reconstruct the manuscript he had lost. The completion of this manuscript provided a new direction and hope to his life. He aimed at the constructive use of his experiences in the camp. When the circumstances seemed such that he could not bear life anymore, Frankl thought of how he could turn his suffering into something creative. “I forced my thoughts to turn to another subject. Suddenly I saw myself standing on the platform of a well-lit, warm and pleasant lecture room. In Front of me sat an attentive audience …I was giving a lecture on the psychology of the concentration camp! All that oppressed me at that moment became objective, seen and described from the remote viewpoint of science. By this method, I succeeded somehow in rising above the situation, above the sufferings of the moment, and I observed them as if they were already of the past.”(82).

The author made a close observation of the prisoners’ mental status in the camps and used it to augment his knowledge of his profession. He says that if people have a well developed sense of self-esteem, they will not feel degraded by the humiliation inflicted upon him by external forces. The inferiority complex of the prisoners who once occupied high positions in society and were now reduced to complete non entities in the camp was another reason for their gradual decay. He notes the three phases of an inmate’s reaction to camp life (the period immediately after his admission, the period when he has become well acquainted with camp life, and the period following his liberation) and the characteristic behavior at different stages. His insights into the mental status of the prisoner helped him infuse some spirit into those on the verge of complete disintegration. He was able to convey the message that each person and his experiences are unique and that nothing can take away from him what he has experienced, nothing can destroy his memories. “Not only our experiences, but all we have done, whatever great thoughts we may have had, and All we have suffered , all this is not lost, though it is past; we have brought it into being. Having been is also a kind of being and perhaps the surest kind” (90). He believed that their sacrifices were not meaningless and that each of them had the ability to survive the entire trauma and live a happy life.

It was Frankl’s experience in the concentration camp that helped him bring about an innovative therapy in the field of psychology. The writing of Man’s Search For Meaning, which he started during his life in the camp, was the creative catharsis through which his trauma was released. In his case, “Through creativity, the survivor may attempt not merely to comprehend what he has gone through, but also to invest his life with meaning. For the act of creation, which is also an act of testimony, may be perceived as the purpose for which he has been granted life”(Aberbach 21).Frankl’s belief that what mattered was not what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us can be seen in many works by holocaust survivors. As Aberbach says, “In the act of creation, of testimony, survivor-artists may show how strongly they feel that life is awaiting something from them: it may be that, in general, creativity deriving from loss…has for its underlying purpose the investment of life with meaning through the salvaging of truth and beauty from the pain and the waste time”(21-22).

Paul Celan is one of the prominent poets of the Holocaust. He was deeply affected by the death of his mother, in an internment camp in Transnistria. She was shot in the neck by a Nazi guard and died a miserable death. Celan was constantly haunted by the guilt of not being able to be with his parents in the camp where they were murdered, the guilt of being the ‘survivor’. This, along with his own traumatic experiences in a labor camp in the old kingdom made him seek catharsis through language, about which he said: ‘Only one thing remained reachable, close and secure amid all losses: language. Yes, language. In spite of everything, it remained secure against loss. But it had to go through its own lack of answers, through terrifying silence, through the thousand darknesses of murderous speech. It went through. It gave me no words for what was happening, but went through it. Went through and could resurface, ‘enriched’ by it all.’ He used language in the form of poetry, for the purgation of his trauma.

“Death Fugue”, his most anthologized poem, is a description of the pathetic plight of the Jews imprisoned in a concentration camp. As mentioned earlier, it talks about the mental state of a group of Jews, who were commanded to sing and dance, while their fellow-prisoners were digging graves for mass burial of Jews. “A man lives in the house he plays with the serpents he writes / he writes when dusk falls to Germany your golden hair /Margerete/ he writes it and steps out of doors…he whistles his pack out/ he whistles his Jews out in earth has them dig for a grave/ he commands us strike up for the dance”(lines 5-11). This is a reference to the Nazi guard, who is highly sophisticated in that he writes poetry and reads classical literature( symbolized by Margerete, the heroine of Goethe’s Faust), and at the same time inhuman and brutal(symbolized by his playing with the serpents), torturing the Jews under his command. The poem clearly shows the brutality of the SS men who talked as casually as this guard does, about the gassing of the prisoners: “he calls out more darkly now stroke your strings then as smoke/ you will rise into air/ then a grave you will have in the clouds there one lies unconfined”(lines 32-34). Perhaps the most striking line in the poem is the one saying that “death is a master from Germany”, which explicitly points to the desperation of the Jews in being tortured by the prospect of death, by the ‘master race’. The drinking of “black milk” all through the day describes the dark, deprived conditions of their existence. The poem ends striking a contrast between the German ideal of femininity, Margerete (with golden hair) and the Jewish ideal, Shulamith with her ashen hair.

The poem is in the form of a fugue, a composition wherein the theme with which it begins is repeated frequently. The repetition of several morbid themes( like the drinking of black milk, the man who plays with serpents and writes during the day and tortures the Jews when dusk falls, and the contrast between Margarete and ashen-haired Shulamith) several times gives the poem an aura of severe pessimism. The speaker(s) of the poem, who is obviously a Jew (or group of Jews), is strangely detached from the scene. He is reporting the occurrences rather than imbibing the words with explicit feeling. The feeling of apathy of the prisoners that Frankl talks about can be seen here. The prisoners have reached a stage of de-humanization, where they do not care anymore about what happens to them or their fellow sufferers. They simply obey the guards, as their capacity to feel is lost because of the inhuman atrocities committed on them over the years. In the poem, Celan portrays the cruelty of the guard in a subtle, yet powerful way. The brutal torture which the Nazis perpetrated on the Jews is depicted clearly. So is the plight of the victims, who have been reduced to “walking corpses”.

In ‘Death Fugue’ we see Celan trying to come to terms with his traumatic experiences through creativity. By projecting on to the speakers of the poem the trauma he himself had to suffer in the concentration camp, he tries to purge himself of the negativity triggered off by the brutal incidents in the camp. The poet, “through creativity, confronts and attempts to master the trauma on his own terms and, in doing so, complete the work of mourning” (Aberbach 3). The grief and terror which were suppressed earlier because of the apathetic state of the poet when he was in the camp finds expression here. He relives the experience and goes through a catharsis through his poem. In Surviving Trauma, Aberbach says:

To the survivor-artist…the trauma more often than not continues as the dominant force in his art; and, in general, the creative expression of grief appears to take on particular importance as a means of confronting and attempting to master delayed grief. Art may enable the artist not just to depict the grief process, or parts of it, but also, up to a point, to fill in the lacunae of his mourning, and in doing so creatively, to find meaning in the midst of grief. Specific functions might thus be ascribed to the creative expression of grief: for example, by portraying depression , the survivor might attempt to overcome or mitigate despair; by depicting the identification with the dead, he might give them a form of posthumous life; through the expression of idealization, guilt and anger, he may struggle to achieve restitution with the dead; and through denial, to accept; through the creative depiction of yearning, he may attempt to ‘find’ and recover the dead; and through numbness, to feel”(20).

This can be seen in Celan’s poetry in general and “Death Fugue” in particular. In both the works under consideration, what we see is the purgation of negative emotions through creativity, though in different forms. By writing about what they had to undergo, the writers relive the experience and thus attain purgation.The catharsis that goes beyond the Aristotelian definition of the term, is reached: the writer, as sufferer ( and not as a detached observer) comes to terms with his traumatic experiences. This case is the same as that of the shell-shocked soldier in Freud’s experiment having repeated nightmares of traumatic events, which is an attempt on his part to “master occurrences for which he was not prepared when they first befell him”( Stewart 8). In Stranded Objects: Mourning, Memory and Film in Postwar Germany, Santner says: “It was Freud’s thought that the absence of appropriate affect- anxiety- is what leads to traumatization rather than loss per se. This affect can, however, be recuperated only in the presence of an empathic witness” (25). And the creative work itself or the audience can serve as this ‘empathic witness’. And thus is derived, the cathartic value of literature or art for victims of trauma. Also, creative work gives an opportunity to the victim of trauma to realize the full implication of his experience, which he couldn’t completely understand at the time at which it took place. Hence he is purged of pity, fear and also terror. Summing up, “Creativity may help to express, to master and work through the grief process; it might give the bereaved greater control over his life by enabling him to test and even form the new reality after the loss; …Creativity may also serve to confront and attempt to resolve emotional conflicts and heal wounds caused by the loss…The satisfaction of creating a thing of beauty may palliate the artist’s grief, and the distancing if the self from grief through art may be similarly therapeutic” (Aberbach 23).This then, is what happens in Man’s Search for Meaning and “Death Fugue”- catharsis through literary creativity.

Works Cited

  1. Aberbach, David. Surviving Trauma: Loss, Literature and Psychoanalysis. London:Yale University Press, 1989. Print.
  2. Agamben, Giorgio. Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive. New York: The MIT Press, 1999.Print.
  3. Berenbaum,Michael, Raul Hilbergl and Yisrael Gutman,eds. Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp.Washington:Indiana University Press, 1994.Print.
  4. Ezrahi, Sidra. By Words Alone. London:University of Chicago Press, 1980.Print.
  5. Frankl, Viktor. Man’s Search For Meaning.3rd ed. London: Rider,2008.Print.
  6. Freud,Sigmund.The Complete Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. London:George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1971.Print.
  7. Beyond The Pleasure Principle. London:Penguin, 2003. Print.
  8. Hamburger, Michael. Paul Celan: Selected Poems. London: Penguin, 1996. Print.
  9. Santner, Eric. Stranded Objects:Mourning,Memory and Film in Postwar Germany, New York:Cornell University Press, 1993.Print.
  10. Stewart, Victoria.Women’s Autobiography: War And Trauma. London:Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Print.

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