by Jeet Heer
Friday, April 16, 2010
Since Art Spiegelman’s name has come up lately in Comics Comics, I wanted to point readers to my recent Walrus piece on “the Holocaust novel.” The essay covers a lot of ground — T.W. Adorno, Natalie Portman, Yan Martel, Anne Frank, Samuel Beckett, Irving Howe, Hugh Kenner — and also touches on the comics of Spiegelman and George Herriman. You can read the essay here.
And here is a taste of the opening:
Few hypothetical scenarios are harder to imagine than a conversation between Theodor Adorno and Natalie Portman. Adorno was the highbrow’s highbrow, the sage Thomas Mann turned to for advice while writing Doctor Faustus, the friend and long-time correspondent of Walter Benjamin, the champion of astringent creators like Arnold Schoenberg, the relentless foe of jazz and Hollywood, the mercilessly pessimistic Marxist critic of modernity whose “negative dialectic” has enriched thousands of scholarly studies. Portman is perhaps best known for her turn as Queen Padmé Amidala in the more mediocre of the two Star Wars trilogies.
Yet on the subject of the Holocaust, Adorno and Portman, both of Jewish heritage, might have found some common ground. In a typically dense 1949 essay titled “Cultural Criticism and Society,” Adorno — a refugee from Nazi Germany who had lost the world of his youth to the Nazi genocide — bluntly declared that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Arguably, Portman is not as deep a thinker as Adorno (who died in 1969, twelve years before the actress was born), but the starlet has been impressively educated at Harvard and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Interviewed by the Daily Mail earlier this year, she complained, “I get like twenty Holocaust scripts a month, but I hate the genre.”
Despite their shared discomfort with Holocaust art, an enormous historical and cultural gulf separates Adorno’s statement from Portman’s…