Where do we turn knowing that the world we have inherited may not support our continued existence? It is much too late to go back and take a different path, one that might have seemed unbearably difficult to navigate at the time. The path we did take, however, led right into what we thought was a walled garden. Vines covered the bars on the windows, masking the garden’s real function. We’ve been locked in for so long, we now mistake the vines for the bars.
Having time to reflect on our situation, however, we can begin to understand our imprisonment. We are imprisoned not only by our choices but by the existing systems that we are brought up with. We can change personally but still can’t shake the feeling of being imprisoned, knowing that our own refusal to accept the system that runs the prison does not affect its continued operation. That often leaves us only one place to turn.
“…links between mythology and vision make for mechanisms of remembrance and prediction, fiction and representation, repression and categorization, which are at the core of humanity’s self-perception and sense of identity. Materially nowhere, utopia fills the mind; a site of infinite fantasy, it can also trigger limitless destruction.” (Bartov, p. 148)
As an example, consider the story of a man who survived all odds of being in a hideous war, captured by the enemy, packed into a freight car, and forced to do hard labor, only to have the city where he was held captive be bombed to complete destruction by those on his side. To be able to emerge from such a catastrophe with a sense of humor about the human race, even after digging out dead bodies from the air raid and piling them up to be burned, is a response that seems incredibly difficult to understand for someone removed from such experiences. To read about events none of us ever want to experience ourselves and to watch them portrayed on the screen without feeling their weight tends to become part of the fantasy of those who are imprisoned and need an identity.
Kurt Vonnegut experienced the devastation of Dresden, Germany, in real life, which influenced his novel Slaughterhouse-Five. A film version of the book was released in 1972 and was directed by George Roy Hill. It was the only film based on one of his books that Vonnegut thought captured the essence of the text. Slaughterhouse-Five (I’ll be specifically referring to the film) brings a different perspective to the destruction of Germany during World War II and the sense of being imprisoned.
The protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, begins the film revealing his powerlessness. In a letter to a newspaper editor, he writes that he has become unstuck in time, which is something he has no control over. He then travels through time to when he was at the German front in World War II, where, without a gun (as a chaplain) and trudging through snow to avoid German soldiers, he is eventually “captured” by two American soldiers who doubt he is one of their own. They are all eventually captured by the Germans, but the rift between Billy and one of the other two soldiers, named Paul Lazzaro, does not end with their shared confinement.
The scenes of Billy and the other soldiers being transported to the prison camps in train cars creates an instant visual recognition of the Holocaust, even though it is not part of the story. As the soldiers file into camp, they are given coats from those who have already been executed. The film makes clear that being imprisoned (whether because of ideology, economic systems, ethnicity, etc.), necessitates the need to define an other who will suffer a worse fate than your own. As the American soldiers receive a warm welcome from their British counterparts, they file past Russian soldiers whose prison conditions are obviously much worse than the British soldiers conditions, which have been enhanced by a clerical error.
In Slaughterhouse-Five, the soldier Paul Lazzaro, who constantly threatens Billy, engages in fantasies about revenge on all those who cause him trouble, real or imagined. He personally embodies a microcosm of the forces that are not only attempting to eradicate an entire ethnic group, but also the forces that deem it necessary to bomb a civilian population as a normal part of war. The need to destroy becomes an overriding urge to set things right again, but in reality only reinforces and perpetuates the ongoing destruction of life.
In the book Mirrors of Destruction, Omer Bartov explores the importance of the apocalyptic vision (chapter 4) in both the perpetrators of violence in Germany and among the victims of that violence. After suffering defeat in World War I, the Germans wanted to find the source of their weakness, rather than accept the consequences, and root it out completely. The Nazi party held a utopian vision, complete with apocalyptic cleansing, to restore order within their view of the world. While the Nazi’s complete dedication to this apocalyptic vision was supported by most Germans, even for those who were not Nazi supporters but who did not resist their policies, the outcome was the same. Their world was eventually destroyed, as they destroyed the world of others.
Whatever the specific path they have chosen, various religious and secular, ancient and modern, European and extra-European utopian notions have constructed a notion of inevitability. It is this idea that is the basis of both apocalyptic theology and planned society, geared as they are either to keep the anticipated catastrophe at bay or to exploit it for political purposes. It is thus also at the center of any discourse on the relationship between creativity and destruction, hope and despair, and is crucial to understanding how societies have come to terms with uncertainty and fear. At the same time, apocalypse is often seen as bearing utopian consequences; it is thus both an end and a beginning, feared and anticipated, accompanied by social violence and creative change. Precisely when secularized and incorporated into modern ideologies, apocalyptic reasoning and fantasies have fueled a paroxysm of unprecedented destruction.
(Bartov, p. 152)
Being in the condition of imprisonment, whether enemy soldier or ethnic minority, the apocalyptic vision filters down to those who play their part in the fantasy. In Night and Fog (1955) by Alain Resnais, he makes special mention of the filtering down of the individual roles people took within the the concentration camps. The Kapo, perhaps at one time the worst element of the imprisoned culture, is elevated to the highest level within the camp’s prisoners. Even in the face of absolute despair and hatred, they deny the humanity of their fellow prisoners. When the camps are liberated, however, they feel no responsibility for their role in the atrocities because there was always a higher authority that they answered to. They are able to eventually deny their own earlier denial. Their fantasy remains intact.
While Night and Fog provided a critical and harrowing look at one of humanity’s worst moments, Bartov rightfully questions the method of using the horrors of the Holocaust to teach people, especially the young, moral lessons about history. Many films have been made about different aspects of the Holocaust, but most of them, unlike Night and Fog, are meant primarily as entertainment, regardless of how much they attempt at historical authenticity.
More recent films such as Life is Beautiful, Schindler’s List, and The Boy with Striped Pajamas allow us to enjoy a few hours of portrayals of untold suffering, even while similar suffering continues to unfold in the present day. After the movie is over, we can comfortably fantasize about what we would have done had we been in such a situation. It allows us to minimize the reality of our own complicit involvement in ongoing destruction and inhumanity. It allows us to deny our own denial, to live in a site of infinite fantasy.
Indeed, one of the most frightening consequences of the Holocaust may well be that rather than serving as a warning to preserve humanity at all cost, it has provided a license to privilege physical survival over moral existence.
(Bartov, p. 176)
Like Billy Pilgrim, we have all become unstuck in time, which we have no control over. We are able to support war when it seems politically expedient, only to renounce it a few years later as it falls apart, taking time to duck into the cineplex to watch a film that supports our view and washes away any troubles of conscience. It is simple to forget what the point of a conflict was, but there is always a group who will create a mythology about it so you can feel confident your views are presently the correct ones.
There is a moment toward the end of Slaughterhouse-Five, when Billy, alone with a movie actress in his “zoo cage” on the planet Tralfamadore, asks the disembodied voices who keep him there why they don’t stop the end of the world since it is in their power to do so. Their reply is simple: “A Tralfamadorian test pilot panics, presses the wrong button and the whole universe disappears. He has always pressed it and he always will. We always let him, and we will always let him. The moment is structured that way.” This notion of eternal recurrence seems appropriate for our own recent history. At this point, the sense of inevitability is difficult to shake when looking at climate change and the nature of discourse about it in the U.S.
As with the millions of people who were displaced during World War II, climate change will be increasing the number of people who must flee natural disaster and drought-stricken areas. A similar solution will emerge from those who, for the most part, have been climate change deniers. An increase in attacks on immigrants as the problem will undoubtedly be part of our future. The state of Arizona already provides a perfect example in their attempts to remove ethnic studies and allow racial profiling.
This is all to say that the Holocaust is at the center of a crisis of identity, whose ramifications range far beyond its chronological boundaries and the life span of its survivors. This crisis has in many ways become the characteristic feature of the twentieth century, originating in World War I and felt with even greater urgency today. It is the crisis of encountering—-by way of perpetrating, observing, and being a target of-—the annihilatory force of modern violence: massive, all-encompassing, unrelenting, and faceless. It is a crisis that casts doubt on the very definition of identity, on what it means to know who you are, where you come from, what you are capable or incapable of doing, experiencing, imagining. It is a very personal crisis for those of us who would reflect on the implications of the century’s events for our own lives, and it is a collective crisis for those of us aware of our responsibility for humanity.
(Bartov p. 229)
As we’ve witnessed throughout most of the past century, answers to complex problems usually come packaged with war, or, at the very least, a war metaphor. We have already engaged in a war on the climate and have become imprisoned by the very conditions that caused the crisis. In Billy Pilgrim’s fantasy of living on the planet Tralfamadore, he is told, “On Tralfamadore you learn that the world is just a collection of moments all strung together in beautiful, random order. And if we’re going to survive, it’s up to us to concentrate on the good moments and ignore the bad.”
This rings similar to the supposed message from an Austrian military leader during World War I that the “situation was catastrophic but not serious.” Unlike the advice from the Tralfamadorians, we are going to have to concentrate on the bad if we expect to have a chance to salvage any good moments from a growing catastrophic situation. We know what led us to this imprisonment in a fantasy land. All we have to do is look at ourselves to discover both the problem and the solution. But we must first break out of the fantasy.
- Mirrors of Destruction: War, Genocide, and Modern Identity, Omer Bartov, Oxford University Press, 2002