I’m posting this on kind of a whim, but I just finished writing the preface to my doctoral dissertation, and I think it’s a decent piece of writing about the challenges of working on an unimaginably horrible part of history, so I wanted to slap it up here. Especially since I’m not 100% sure I’ll finish this thing (I think I probably will) so what the hell.
My dissertation in question deals with three Nazi death camps – Bełźec, Sobibór, and Treblinka – and how they can be used to explain the relationship between Foucault’s concept of heterotopia and the dangerous idea of utopia. Basically, I’m looking at the camps as separate spaces in which one reality is destroyed so another one can be created.
It’s not the easiest thing to write about. So my advisor said “okay, write about that.” I did and here it is.
This all began, believe it or not, with mice.
I was in junior high school. I don’t recall now what year it was; what I do recall is that I was a strange and inward-looking kid, ill-suited to an social life for which I had been ill-prepared. Many if not most people recall feelings of awkward isolation as children, but some of us experience it in greater degrees of intensity than others, and my experience was intense. This wasn’t the fault of any person in particular; it’s what you should probably expect when you cross the emotional upheaval of adolescence with burgeoning mental illness. Not long before, I had been diagnosed with both Attention Deficit Disorder and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (a delightful symptom of which was compulsively gouging wounds in my skin) What happened on this day—which I swear I’m going to return to, the day with the mice—wasn’t a direct result of those things, but to the extent that mental illness shapes the disposition of children as a whole, I have to think it played a part.
Okay. Let’s get back to the mice.
A lot of my classmates spent free time outside. I tended to spend mine in the computer lab—or, even better, in the library. I was attending a private Quaker school by then, and I guess the collection must not have been as closely curated as a public school’s might have been (I found some fairly scandalous stuff now and then in terms of sexual content) because frequently I stumbled on things that a lot of people would likely deem too adult for a kid at the tender age of ten or eleven, not in terms of sexual content so much as in terms of violence. In terms of depictions of just how cruel human beings can be to one another.
So that afternoon, I found Art Spiegelman’s masterwork Maus.
You see it, right? Kid finds comic book (I had no idea what a graphic novel was and if I had known I would have had no idea why the distinction matters), kid has this kid-idea of what comic books are, kid sees anthropomorphic mice on the cover (kid has always loved anthropomorphic animals), kid picks up the book and cracks it open.
Kid’s life is never the same.
* * *
I knew what the Holocaust was. We do teach it in schools. But my memory of that teaching is that it was somewhat abstract, distant, and vague. Lots of people died, yes, and they died because of who they were and nothing more, and they were killed by monstrous human beings as part of an insane project that those monsters believed would make the world a better place. I don’t recall much about that last part; the emphasis was on the evil, not on what motivated the evil or what served as its relatively mundane seeds. I don’t blame elementary school teachers for not taking a deep dive into the political, cultural, and economic forces that propelled Nazi Germany and its people past the lethal point of no return. Children can understand a lot—they can often understand a great deal more than we give them credit for—but there are still places one should probably be reluctant to go.
Millions of people died. Right, got it. Except what kind of number is “a million”, let alone multiple millions? There’s a point beyond which numbers lose their meaning and we cease being able to conceive of relative size. It’s all simply huge. “Million” is a stand in for “we cannot express or understand how many”.
When examining mass atrocity, you can go top-down through the lens of those unfathomable numbers, or you can approach bottom-up from the perspective of individual people and what they experienced. People usually adopt both, though both present their own unique difficulties. My teachers must surely have done so. But what I recall, prior to that day with the mice, was the top-down. It was the numbers, which were essentially meaningless to me.
Everyone reads The Diary of Anne Frank, but what I remember are the mice.
I suppose we all have to find our own routes to the truth. Some of those routes will necessarily be strange ones.
* * *
What I found in the library that day was actually the second volume in Spiegelman’s two volume work, And Here My Troubles Began. The book details the day to day existence of Spiegelman’s father after he arrives at the gates of Auschwitz, from those gates themselves to liberation and the war’s end. The story basically concludes there; counter-intuitively, it’s the first volume—My Father Bleeds History—that covers more of the war’s aftermath, and delves into Spiegelman’s strained relationship with his father and the past suicide of his mother. While Spiegelman’s father concludes his tale with a kind of happily-ever-after, it’s clear from both volumes that no end to this kind of trauma is happy, and in fact such trauma doesn’t even end. It carries across generations. It’s knitted into the DNA of those who inherit their parents’ and grandparents’ memories.
I think it was some time before I read the first volume, which also describes the German invasion of Poland and the run-up to the Final Solution’s implementation. So it was that I came to the foundations of the Final Solution after the fact. That first day, I was plunged into the individual level details of life and death in the camps—the horror of the trains, the beatings, the abuse, the terror, the rampant sickness, the shootings and the gas chambers. It wasn’t about numbers anymore; instead, it was about the story of one man and his desperate struggle for survival in the face of overwhelming odds. Which, although accurate, sounds too much like a movie poster; it was about suffering, presented in the most immediate and explicit possible way.
I remember being both entranced and shaken to the core. I was stunned by the gut-punch of the story, not least because of how it made sense of itself, or rather how it didn’t. There was no point to this suffering, no redemption for the people involved. Again, survival was not a happy ending. What happened was fundamentally absurd and yet on a deep level I was haunted by the idea that it was indeed explicable. That it was comprehensible. It was a puzzle to which there was an answer.
(I should note that this was the same year and the same library in which I first encountered Keiji Nakazawa’s Barefoot Gen, his semi-autobiographical manga that tells the story of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and the immediate aftermath. Extreme suffering became something of an obsession of mine.)
From that point on, atrocity and mass death also haunted me. In another year in junior high school, I read and wrote about ethnic cleansing in Bosnia-Herzegovina. In high school I wrote a lengthy and impassioned term paper about the American press’s failure in adequately covering the genocide in Rwanda, and the associated failure of the American government in responding to it, and I discovered the torture and murder committed by the Khmer Rouge in their concentration camps. In college I researched the Japanese atrocities in Nanjing and the horrific crimes of Unit 731. Always, these materials approached mass killing from the level of the individual. Greater social forces were present but were basically backdrops.
I couldn’t handle the numbers. It was always about the small, the personal, the vulnerable and the intimate. It was about the mice.
It was terrible, but I couldn’t look away. There was an answer, an explanation for why people did these things to each other. I needed to find it.
And in fact, I suspect that it wasn’t even so much about an answer as it was simply a need to see it. A storyteller myself, I felt compelled to bear witness to stories that many other people would likely avoid.
On into grad school, I found myself falling into the sociology of warfare. While the literature I was reading naturally dealt heavily with state-level institutions and large, slow-moving forces, I continued to return to the individual. I read Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men, his account of the transformation of gentle, intellectual German policemen into cold-blooded killers as they carried out mass executions of Jews in the forests of Poland.
Yet something I learned from Maus that’s held true across all these years is that approaching these events via the micro instead of the macro doesn’t make any of it more comprehensible, only more visceral. If anything, it makes the entire business even more difficult to understand. The suffering of one person against the backdrop of the deaths of millions is a knot that can’t be loosened, let alone untied. Every attempt only pulls it tighter.
Spiegelman himself wrestles with precisely this. In his own comic, he depicts himself as unable to find a middle ground between journalistic distance and personal proximity. He doesn’t know how to write about what his father is relating to him; the subject matter is too enormous to grapple with, and the prospect of doing any of it justice seems hopeless. The result is a feeling of isolation, of loneliness in a world haunted by ghosts. In panel after panel, Spiegelman literally walks past piles of naked corpses. He is surrounded by suffering and death on a massive scale, by a story he cannot escape and yet has no idea how to tell.
It should have served as a warning to me, though I don’t think it would have made much difference if I had taken it that way.
* * *
This is not the dissertation I expected to write.
It’s certainly not the dissertation proposal I defended. Initially I was going to write a qualitative study of the uses of social media technology in the Occupy movement, something that interested me from the moment I observed the movement’s beginnings. I had written about it before, and I liked the idea of producing a long work that would both contribute to the existing scholarship and be somewhat timely, given that social movements and social media were a mix that seemed unlikely to decline in importance.
But not long after that, I found myself completely stuck. I couldn’t even get started. A year passed, two, and I hadn’t done one interview. After losing my departmental funding, I finally arrived at a crossroads: Write the damn thing and graduate, or leave the program. When it became piercingly clear to me that it was going to be impossible to write the dissertation in the form I defended, a radical and yet radically simple idea occurred to me.
Write something else.
I had done work on the Foucauldian concept of heterotopia before, specifically in a lengthy and somewhat rambling two-part essay for the blog Cyborgology. In that essay, I in fact barely touched on heterotopia—it was mainly about atemporality, memory, and the photography of abandoned places—but as a notion it stuck with me, probably because it described an individual experience of physical space with macro-level implications. It was visceral, fluid, widely applicable and difficult to pin down. It was a theoretical toy that invited play.
I knew it interested me. What else did? What else did I already know a lot about, care a lot about, feel like I could contribute to?
I looked at the books on my shelf and I remembered the mice.
The idea of combining heterotopia and death camps was very weird. But it didn’t seem impossible, so I picked it up and ran with it.
* * *
In that sense, you could say that I arrived at this work because it struck me as both doable, and something I wouldn’t hate to the point of paralysis. But while that may have been a significant part of the root, the experience of reading and thinking and writing in this body of history has been one of tumbling back into that incomprehensibility. More than once, I’ve had something of the feeling Spiegelman depicted in his art: I am haunted by a story to tell and am unsure how to tell it. The story is not mine; I’m not Jewish and there are no Jews in my family (somewhat ironically, my family is mostly German on both sides—and no, I don’t believe this is a guilt thing). In some ways I think that’s made it harder, and in some ways it’s probably helped. Regardless, I’m writing about inexpressible horror through the lens of a theoretical notion that doesn’t invite intimacy, and that’s not a comfortable place to be.
Not that there was any way this was ever going to be comfortable.
Returning to academic writing has been especially difficult; I’m a writer of both fiction and essays, but it’s been a long time since I wrote in this vein, and I’ve never been at ease with the more formal language of academic research. The distance that it encourages in and of itself is frustrating. Am I doing these stories a disservice by writing about them in any way that could be described as dry? How am I supposed to write about piles of dead children’s shoes in order to explore the meaning of physical space? How am I supposed to write about piles of dead childrens’ shoes at all?
I don’t know. I’m writing this as the draft of the thing itself is still extremely rough, but I’m fairly certain that by the time it’s finalized, I still won’t know.
* * *
What you need to understand going into this is that I’m not grappling with the question of why. I’m not trying to explain the camps, or what transpired there. In terms of our understanding of how the Final Solution happened, I’m not trying to make a contribution. Someday that might be a task I tackle, but if so, I don’t think I’m ready for it yet. I don’t think heterotopia can make sense of mass killing in these specific cases, if at all, and I’m not inclined to push that point. Someone else might have more luck there. Rather, I do think the camps can tell us something about heterotopia and its underexplored relationship with the far more dangerous concept of utopia, about how spaces where the rules break down can work to shape a space where the rules are lethally hardened and history itself comes to a standstill. I’m telling a story about destruction, about what happens when important aspects of reality itself fall apart.
Perhaps in that sense I might be adding to our understanding of the camps after all. The closest I’ve ever come to a gut-level comprehension of mass killing is a vision of things falling apart, of the center no longer holding. Of course, that’s not actually what happened in the Final Solution; as designed, it was as far from chaos as possible. Indeed, that was the point. As with the worst excesses of utopia, it was order to a lethal degree, though those orderings were, to use a phrase that’ll become important in the chapters ahead, “alternate”. These were other spaces.
They were ordered, but I look at them and I struggle to understand. Heterotopia describes a space in which rules are suspended. Even if that translates to order, it may be order beyond my own ken.
I don’t know that an abyss looks back. I do know that looking into an abyss changes you. I learned it a long time ago, that day with the mice. When you analyze a system that annihilates humanity, does it damage your own? When you face, as George Ritzer expressed it, the irrationality of a rational process, is there a point at which you leave reason behind?
There’s no way to understand six million. It’s too big. But even the suffering of one person might be larger than any one writer can manage.
All I can say is that I hope I will—I hope I have—done the best I can. Whether or not it’s worth anything is something someone else will have to decide. In the meantime, this is a story about a moment in history in which one world ends so a horrible new one can be born, and it doesn’t end happily. It doesn’t even end.
But it did begin, with the mice.