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Category Archives: Poetry

HolocaustImpiety

In his book Mourning Becomes the Law, the philosopher Gillian Rose used the term ‘Holocaust piety’ to describe the quasi-religious rhetorics of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) as well as the sentimental and sanctimonious tones of its reception. Matthew Boswell, researcher in Memory Studies at the University of Salford (UK), addresses in his study the less explored field of ‘Holocaust impiety’, term by which he characterises the “works that reject redemptory interpretations of genocide and the claims of historical ineffability”:

These representations are often irreverent and profane, characterised by the use of the swastika, Nazi kitsch and elements that Sue Vice links to Holocaust fiction: ‘crude narration, irony, black humor, appropriation, sensationalism, even characters who mouth anti-semitic slogans’.

The book is divided into three sections. The first one, ‘Poetry’, is dedicated to the Holocaust theme in the work of Sylvia Plath and W.D. Snodgrass. The second part, ‘Popular Music’, is by far the most stimulating and original, provided that the topic has been seldom addressed in Holocaust Studies (see, for example, Jon Stratton’s article on The Velvet Underground and the Ramones). Boswell explores the Holocaust theme and symbolism through the songs of bands such as Ramones, Sex Pistols, Joy Division and Manic Street Preachers. As the author observes,

Punk was an historical phenomenon, and the impact of the Holocaust on punk was total: it influenced punk clothes, punk lyrics and punk band names. It was central to the formation of the abrasive, disenchanted punk world-view (…).

The third and final section is dedicated to film. Four Holocaust films are here addressed: two of them are classics (Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog and Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah) and have generated, during the decades, a huge amount of critical literature; the same cannot be said of the other two, Tim Blake Nelson’s The Gray Zone and Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, which fit more properly in the category of ‘impiety’.

I suggest that the piety/impiety divide would benefit from a comparison with the distinction introduced by Roger Caillois between a ‘sacred of respect’ and a ‘sacred of transgression’ (see Man and the Sacred). Sometimes the impiety is not mere desecration, but rather an acknowledgement ex negativo of sacredness.

Overall, Matthew Boswell’s Holocaust Impiety is a great contribution to Holocaust Studies and especially to the neglected field of pop culture and the Holocaust. (G.V.)

The book is published by Palgrave Macmillan and can be purchased here.