The Sugar Book: On Nazism, Kitsch, Saul Friedlander and Lars Norén

by on Sep.20, 2013

So I’m in Sweden reworking The Sugar Book, my next book of poetry (to be published next year). I’ve come to Malmö in fact to work on the book, to complete it by working through my fascination with certain aspects of aspects of art: its violence, its pointlessness, its manipulativeness, its necroglamour, the way it blurs the boundaries between life and death, art and life, private and public. It’s an unwieldy book: several hundred pages and growing. I can’t contain it. It’s also about being homeless, so that’s why I’ve returned to my home, to Sweden: if I can’t contain it here, I can’t contain it anywhere.

Johannesphoto

While writing this new draft, a few things have influenced me: Sweden’s obsession with Lars Norén’s diaries, Saul Friedlander’s book on Nazism and kitsch (“Reflection on Nazism”), a book of Francesca Woodman’s photograph (I found in Martin Glaz Serup’s apartment in Copenhagen), Raul Zurita’s poems and performances (cutting himself, writing in the sky, being rewritten as a fascist pilot by Bolano etc), and the use of the word “pornography” as applied to art that may or may not contain naked bodies (for example “ruin porn”) but which almost always betrays an iconophobic attitude about the intensive visuality of some art. This hot-spot of ideas is really fueling my re-drafting of The Sugar Book because that’s what it’s about. But I thought I would also do a little Malmö-blogging for the folks back home…

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For those of you not from Sweden: Lars Norén is a writer who first started publishing incredibly visceral, baroque poetry in the 1960s (he began publishing as a mere 19-year old), poetry that has been very influential for me, as well as many contemporary Swedish poets (I wrote this post about him a while back.). But in 1980s he transformed himself into a playwright, penning two already-classic plays, “Night is the Mother of Day” and “Chaos is the Neighbor of God.” I mention these two titles in part because they come from a poem by Stagnelius, the greatest, most flamoyantly kitschy, hallucinatory of the Swedish Romantics (the poem contains such lines as “Friends! In annihilation, when your inner is covered in darkness… When from your night-dizzy soul fire-wings fall..”) and Romanticism will prove a key touchstone in this discussion.

Right now Sweden is obsessed with Norén’s diaries, and I’m becoming obsessed with the obsession…. Even old ladies are talking about it in the check-out line of the grocery store. You can see people flipping through it all over town, looking to see if they have been insulted in it (Apparently he insults a lot of people in it). The whole idea of the diary seems to have been prompted by the controversy surrounding his play 7:3, which he staged with prisoners. This caused a lot of controversy because he allowed the prisoners to speak from the stage and they talked about their Neo-Nazi beliefs, and then it became even more controversial when some of the used their work on the play as a way to escape and kill a police officer. A lot of people criticized him for this project, accusing him of megalomania and irresponsibility. Now those same people are flipping to their pages where he accuses them of being assholes and then they are writing reviews of the diary again accusing Norén of megalomania and irresponsibility. Of not knowing where to draw the line. Of blurring the line between art and life. Of writing too much. Of kitsch.

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Saul Friedlander’s book Reflections on Nazism, which deals with that enduring fascination, the relationship between “kitsch” and Nazism, is relevant to the discussions of Norén. He does a great job describing a strain of art – baroque, maximalist, spectacular, poetic, Romantic, violent – that plays a key role in a strain of Nazi aesthetics but also in the art Nazism rejected as degenerate (German Expressionism), as well as the art that reflect back and tries to process Nazism (The Tin Drum etc).

According to Friedlander, this sensibility survives Nazism and precedes it: Kitsch is a “return to a debased inspiration,” to an undead Romanticism that anachronistically survives through and against modernism, a decadence that endures with its poisonous flowers inside a modern world, to a “pre- and antimodern ambience.” It is an aesthetic that characterizes not just the Nazi sensibility but which survives in novelists and film-makers since:

“Here is the essence of the frisson: an overload of symbols; a baroque setting; an evocation of a mysterious atmosphere, of the myth and of religiosity enveloping a vision of death announced as a revelation opening out into nothing – nothing but frightfulness and the night. Unless… Unless the revelation is that of a mysterious force leading man toward irresistible destruction.”

There is an excess of the art-ness of the art in other words: words repeat over and over (snow, blood, flowers, poison, corpses, soil etc). Or in Swedish, there is too much “konst-igheter” (strangenesses) in the “konst” (art). The art is thickly atmospheric, thickly artish; there is not the proper “religiosity” (or “critique” if you’re a leftist) to redeem the artfulness of this dense baroque atmosphere.

I return to Daniel Tiffany’s recent work on kitsch, and his argument that kitsch is always about “excessive beauty.” Beauty that does not show the proper restraint, beauty that intoxicates. Kitsch is more than anything about a kind of “poeticism,” a kind of Romanticism.

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Incidentally Friedlander’s description reminds me of Lars Norén’s early work, his poetry from the 1960s. I wrote this post a while back about it and made this brief translation of a section from Revolver (1969), incidentally a diary of sorts that wades through a dense atmosphere of post-war Europe:

Final Song on the Morning of Eva Braun’s Death

The wooden boxes, the sand, the summer,
The obscurity. From there
Smeared in oil and winter,
Girl and car garage
Dress of scrapes, film, rain, hardness
Have a dress. Memories
From Eva Brauns’ body snows in and
Finally cover over the portals. There is nobody
From the soil. It is still
The thirties. Grass on the floor, it is
Different, the apartment with
The white friends in underwear in
The burning grass. It is
Still the same. The house is
Empty. In the morning when
They went in to her in the
Brown leather sofa, wintry,
Cut off, stood and looked out
On the morning. Nicotine which has to do with
The dead, long ago, like drought.
The naked body itself in the pit. The noise
From your mother, not yet among
The farmers, a 78-rpm record
Inside death. The girl from the
Brown farm, car garage
From the winter and oil. The greenery
Comes, the hands lay closed and
Hard, the leather belt and
Eva Braun in a puritan grave. They
Were both pulled out. With him
I could disappear. Afterward I was
As empty inside, in the underwear,
And heard the summer get going. The
Privates all stepped down in a pit which was
Strewn with air, burnt paper,
The brown carpet. Tortured
Tonight again by dentists and
Corpses that sat in an hole in the ground
Close together, sat in the grass and
Were tortured by money.

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In case someone out there is starting to make an easy distinction between Nordic nazis and non-kitschy Jews, lets remember this very kitschy poem by Holocaust survivor Paul Celan:

Memory of France

You, remember with me: the skies of Paris, the large autumn crocus…
We bought hearts from the flower girls:
they were blue and blossomed out in water.
it started to rain in our room
and our neighbor came, Monseiur Le Songe, a ragged little man.
We played cards, I lost the irises of my eyes;
you lent me your hair, I lost it, he struck us down.
He left through the door, the rain followed him.
We were dead and could breathe.

(Or for that matter “Death Fugue.” Norén it should be said is deeply influenced by Celan. Both of them have influenced me a great deal.)

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You may note that Norén’s poem is about Art in many ways, the connection between Art and media, Art and politics, money, Nazism, nostalgia, Romanticism etc. In fact I would say Norén is more insightful on the subject matter than Friedlander, who could have learned a lot by reading Norén. Norén is more daring: He does not turn away from this atmospheric space of undead Romanticism, he explores it, writes out of this space of sugary violence.

In difference to Norén, Friedlander sets aside his own fascination with the baroque aesthetics of “debased” Romanticism and “kitsch” and denounces it as “evasion.” The best choice for dealing with the horrors of the holocaust is “Realism,” by which he naively means something that lacks style, that is not even Art, but just testimony. He feels a testimony would somehow deal with the Holocaust straight on (and he probably didn’t think of Celan’s surrealist poetry of “testimony”).

In this regard, Friedlander falls back on a kind of iconophobic, iconoclastic moralism: the art of image proliferation leads us astray. Instead of art, we need rigorous following of fact, of witness testimony. By the end of the book, I have the impression that this is not actually a book dealing with Nazism, but a book that uses Nazism to denounce a certain maximalist attitude toward art, using Nazism to justify his own discomfort with the proliferative, affecting qualities of art and its imagery. It is a strange move since he has done such a fantastic job of showing that Nazism and the Holocaust was already saturated with an aesthetic sensibility; art was not something that is added to “reality”, it was an important part of the reality.

When Friedlander advocates a move away from kitsch (the baroque, metaphors, mythical narratives, maximalism) to personal eye witness testimonies, when he argues that that the only people who are allowed to write about the Holocaust are those who were in it, he is arguing against Art. It is interesting to compare Friedlander’s claim against Jaqueline Rose’s claim that the frequent denunciations of Sylvia Plath’s use of holocaust imagery is really “arguments against metaphor.” There is a profoundly iconoclaustic strain of thinking at work here. Of course Plath would have been a really interesting topic for Friedlander to take on: I mean few have written a more kitschy ouevre of poetry than Plath and her nazi lampshades.

In many ways the intersection of Friedlander and Norén is irresistable to me because they both do such fine jobs describing and working through similar issues as I am working through in The Sugar Book: violence and art, the excess of the image. And in the censorious rules they encounter (whether in Friedlander’s own writing or in the reviewers in Norén’s case) are censorious rules I see frequently at play in contemporary American poetry and cultural discussions. So I think this is not just the case of a weird Swedish conversation, but a much wider conversation. I’ll explain in more detail next week.

TBC

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