Theodor Adorno once argued that ‘writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’ and this line of thought has profoundly marked many — how can we sing, how can we compose, how can we engage in art, or the performance of beauty, after something so terrible, so dark, so full of death? This type of thought has not only challenged the humanities and the more ‘artistic’ expressions of human creativity, it has also challenged our core beliefs: belief in God after Auschwitz is barbaric. Or so the saying goes.
Now, personally, I have always found it a little odd that Auschwitz should challenge us to this degree. After all, death-dealing tragedies, even massive genocides that claim millions of lives, are nothing new. Therefore, to assert that Auschwitz overthrows all of our faith in beauty or goodness or a god who is both beautiful and God, suggests to me that we never truly confronted the issue of suffering and death. This is further verified by the observation that those who have encountered terrible sufferings are often some of the most artistic and faith-filled people in the world.
Be that as it may, I want to go somewhere else with this post. Keeping in mind the words from Adorno, read the following quotation from Vinoth Ramachandra’s book, Subverting Global Myths. While discussing the flight to science — chemistry and physics — practiced by Primo Levi and others who were seeking an escape from the ideology of fascism (circa WWII), Ramachandra writes the following:
what Levi and his friends underestimated was the power of fascism and other political ideologies to co-opt the “clear, distinct and verifiable” methods of chemistry and physics. Scientists played a leading part in the initiation, administration and execution of Nazi racial policy. The Wannsee Conference, which decided the final solution of the Jewish problem, was attended by many scientists, and the extermination of Jews in the death camps was largely carried out by medically trained personnel.
Consequently, perceptive writers such as George Orwell sharply criticized the fashionable postwar denigration of the arts and humanities in favor of a “scientific education”.
Therefore, it seems to me that, after Auschwitz, WWII, and the rest of the 20th-century, the question we must ask ourselves is strictly related to the value of science. On the German side, WWII gave us the scientific and medical technology necessary to wipe out an entire category of people. On the American side, WWII gave us the scientific and military technology necessary to wipe out life as we know it.
If anything, Auschwitz teaches us the importance of faith, poetry, and art, because it reveals to us the result of an unchecked scientific mentality. Odd, then, that references to Auschwitz should be used to challenge our faith in God, when Auschwitz itself was the result of a techno-scientific paradigm.
Consequently, we should be a little more than cautious around those who wish to argue that scientific advance holds the way out of our current sufferings. We have seen the end result of this struggle (Kampf), and should have no desire to replicate it.