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The Magdeburg Sphere.

Remarks given at the Medem Library of the Maison de la Culture Yiddish in Paris on 16 June 2011 as part of a series of talks on “Writing the Catastrophe: Witnessing and Fiction.”

Translated by Steven Jaron.

M CohenTHE QUESTION RAISED by Cécile Wajsbrot1 is fundamental for writers of my generation for whom bearing witness is generally perceived as a moral injunction. It is this imperative, as well as its impossibilities and inevitable rabbit trails, which I would like to try and describe.

I was born at the end of 1937, four years after Hitler came to power, six months after the bombing of Guernica by the Condor Legion, and one year before the Night of Broken Glass. For the men and women of my generation, then, things got off to a very bad start. In fact, on the same day in 1943, I lost my father, my mother, my younger sister, my paternal grandparents, an uncle and a great aunt — all deported to Auschwitz. The following year, another uncle and an aunt disappeared in turn. I was five and a half years old. I only slipped through the net by a miracle and became what is called a “hidden child.”

I mentioned a “fundamental” question. In reality, I wonder if this epithet is suitable. Perhaps there exists nothing more appropriate, but the word sounds like a mistranslation if we think of it as “basis,” “base,” or “foundation”; something in any case that writing might build itself up on or motivate it in a clear way. The term appears all the more paradoxical if we consider its figurative meaning, that is, as something “essential.” Can a bomb’s point of impact be thought of as the basis of anything? And, likewise, should the vacuum, lack, or absence which emerges from it be thought of as “essential” when it is a matter of writing?

I’M NOT ABLE to give an answer to the question. It might be that literature is a way of “saving one’s skin,” to use Jean-Paul Sartre’s expression in The Words.   However, books, whose innermost aim consists in finding a form for the formless and words for muddled experience, always reflect the trace of the crushing. Perhaps literature is a palliative. Perhaps it makes it possible to ward off the emptiness. But it doesn’t make up for it and what’s fundamental remains in essence what cannot be said.


‘The impossibility of saying and the wish to say are thus bound together like two opposing forces.’

The impossibility of saying and the wish to say are thus bound together like two opposing forces. I’m thinking of the well-known Magdeburg sphere whose reproduction one could see, in the form of an old print, in physics books when I was in high school. Two horses pull on two hollow hemispheres adjoined to each other. A vacuum is created between the hemispheres. The horses pull in opposite directions but cannot separate them. And yet, what makes the horses’ task impossible is but a vacuum.

I think I encountered this vacuum in a very concrete way when I first started to write. I had published a short text in a literary review when I was twenty years old. After which, for ten years, I could not write a line. I was completely unable to, and for different reasons. What was most important was that I had nothing to say.

What could I write about? My first loves? I fell in love just like everyone else, and I suffered just like everyone else. But I vaguely understood that writing a love story, for example (to mention but a textbook example that never occurred to me), came down to thinking of the Catastrophe as a simple parenthesis. The subjects that crossed my mind all collided with the same observation: they fell under, if not a layer of secondary experiences, then at least strata that did not entirely marshal me. Whatever the subject, I felt condemned to a sort of half-lie, or half-truth. And I never imagined for an instant that you could possibly write in order to express that you had nothing to say.

But why not at least speak about my childhood? Because my childhood annoyed me deeply. And how do you speak about a lack, about what did not take place? The former hidden children, moreover, always had the same story, give or take a few petty details. I read a few of these narratives. I had nothing to add, nor take away. In sum, my childhood did not belong to me in any particular way. This is the conviction that I came to concerning my entire biography: after the Catastrophe, whether I became a writer, plumber, or delinquent had literally no importance with regard to the deep reality of my life.

There were other reasons for my powerlessness faced with writing. As a Jew, but as a man just as well, I did not in the least want anything to arouse even the least pity, the least compassion, concerning me. I had learned to be wary of the hypocrisy often hiding behind such feelings and I wanted to remain free from accusing and judging.

AS TO WRITING itself, no matter what one does, it always requires a bit of seduction if it is to be convincing. But I did not wish to seduce anyone, neither by speaking about myself nor by speaking about my family nor indirectly by evoking the Catastrophe, neither by my style nor my choice of subject. It seemed to me that I was condemned to silence.

Moreover, what could I possibly say about the Catastrophe itself? All that I knew, I had learned in books. Yet the more former hidden children read, in search of their past and an identity, the better they understand that there are no limits to what they might discover. What they learn is equivalent to casting suspicion on everyone and everything, literature included. Certain books, which I had admired as an adolescent and in which I thought I’d found stability or discovered an echo to my revolt, had the makings of gangrene. Like that author who titillated me while still in high school but who, in reality, constantly sent me to the gas chamber. I was not yet completely conscious of it, but I sensed that style, in literature, was but an illusion. That it could, as with music, be at once seductive and deleterious. It would thus be but a refined form of perversity, lying, and evil.



‘She left Drancy in one of the last wagons.’

ONE OF MY aunts was deported to Auschwitz. She left Drancy in one of the last wagons, in May 1944, and owed her survival to this delayed deportation. When I would ask her a question, I understood that her knowledge was limited to what she was a direct witness to in Birkenau. She had no desire to know anything more about it.

What I am going to say might seem monstrous but, between the ages of twenty and thirty, I had the impression that I knew far more about the Catastrophe than my aunt. Whereas she sought to exorcise her nightmare, I spent a great deal of time reading not only about the camps, but also about the Catastrophe’s methods, its phases, the Occupation and the Collaboration, the anti-Jewish legislation, the attitude of the Church, life in the ghettos of Eastern Europe, German culture, and not only German, which made the Catastrophe possible, the passivity of the whole of Europe, and the position of the Allies who did not bomb the train tracks. All the subjects that my aunt had no will to delve into at greater depth. Perhaps she did not have the strength. In any case, despite all the affection that we felt for each other, I did not learn anything directly from her. Here we encounter another paradox: she who could bear witness did not wish to, whereas he whose knowledge grew continuously could not, for lack of legitimacy.

‘The more I learned, the more the small circle of those with whom I could speak about the Catastrophe shrunk.’

There is one point which tied my aunt and me together: what we knew without a doubt cut us off from others. My aunt explained to me that in Béziers, where she lived, she only felt fully comfortable with a small group of former deportees like her. “We do not need to speak to understand each other,” she told me. Concerning myself, the more I learned, the more the small circle of those with whom I could speak about the Catastrophe shrunk. Those I spoke to seemed so ignorant, they were so little concerned with learning more that either I got upset and cut the conversation short or despaired at the idea that there wasn’t any possibility of shaking their convictions.

It is in this impasse that the term “fiction” mentioned by Cécile Wajsbrot takes on the entirety of its importance. Why would a writer not use what he has learned? The function of the nineteenth century novel, whether it belongs to the naturalist or romantic current, was to unveil realities. The nineteenth century novelist uses everything within his reach: his personal experience, convictions, and subjectivity, but also small news items and any documentation that he might get hold of. Flaubert spent a great deal of time gathering material on clubfoot in order to write Madame Bovary. And when he wrote Salammbô, he obtained material from mineralogists in order to learn about the nature of rocks, and thus the ambient color in the neighborhoods of Carthage at dusk. Why, when it is a question of the Catastrophe, does the recourse to fiction immediately seem so suspicious?

mblanchotTwo judgments come to mind which I would like to emphasize. The first is by Maurice Blanchot. Concerning the Catastrophe, he writes, “There is a degree of human pain beyond which the exercise of an art becomes an insult to this pain.”2

The second is by Susan Sontag. In her final book, she mentions the photos of the “facially disfigured veterans” of the First World War regularly exhibited in museums today, and that you go to see as if it were a question of artwork. Susan Sontag’s analysis extends Blanchot’s judgment. For Sontag, only a single category of viewers, and one alone, is morally justified to scrutinize without falling into the most questionable voyeurism: specialists of reconstructive surgery who can learn something so as to operate road accident victims of today.3

I WAS OBVIOUSLY unaware of these judgments at the time I was trying to write, but it seemed to me that I had surmised them. In any case, it clearly appeared to me that no one had the right to take the place of the witnesses. Nor of the historians who try to shed light on what is situated beyond testimony, irrespective of its simplicity. As much as this elementary decency went without saying, it was not what was essential.

‘The Catastrophe reduced all the values of which our culture was so proud, often going back as far as two thousand years…to nothing.’

What my readings had convinced me of, though this wasn’t difficult to do, was that the Catastrophe had nothing in common with the horrors that History is accustomed to. What was incommensurable was not only the scope of the crime (the Gulag proved itself infinitely more murderous); it was its nature at the very heart of old Europe. For the first time and without exception, the Catastrophe reduced all the values of which our culture was so proud, often going back as far as two thousand years, and in any case since the Enlightenment, to nothing. And that’s not all. For the first time, the order to massacre was issued from the highest State authority and mobilized the entire bureaucratic machinery without exception, throughout the whole of Europe.

topfHave we never seen police officers hand innocent people over to murderers, magistrates close their eyes to crimes, medical doctors torture instead of treat, clergymen who did not want to listen to the torture victims, civil servants who plundered and pillaged with complete impunity, legal experts who wrote unjust and often retroactive laws, thousands of individuals who informed on innocent people, common law criminals who, in the camps, had authority over innocent people, or manufacturers who constructed factories whose end was to put people to death? The Topf and Sons firm in Wiesbaden, which constructed and set up the crematoria ovens, continued to operate until 1975 without even altering their corporate name.4 The idea of ordinary responsibility would have not even occurred to the directors. “The Jews thought they were dying at the same time as justice,” Emmanuel Levinas summarized. To which he added: “friendship itself was no longer a certainty.’5

Forewarned by two thousand years of ghettos, discriminations, and pogroms, the Jews themselves saw nothing coming. As Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi remarked, the tsars, kings, princes, and popes closed their eyes to the pogroms. They might have been at the origin of the discriminations, including confining the Jews to the ghettos, yet never, in two thousand years, did they themselves order the massacres. On the contrary, it was always their supreme authority which ultimately put an end to them. When the orders came from above, the worst the Jews had learned to deal with in two thousand years was forced conversion and expulsion.6

THIS IS WHY each former deportee, as modest as his testimony might seem, represents an important opportunity to draw nearer to the immense black hole in which an entire civilization had collapsed. No detail is irrelevant and each voice represents a unique opportunity to look a little closer, just as you explore ruins with a flashlight. The special correspondent of the newspaper, Le Monde, in Jerusalem in 1961 during the Eichmann trial put it this way: “Each testimony stretches the limits of what is imaginable.”7

I knew this journalist well. A Catholic member of the resistance and former deportee in a work camp, he was more familiar than anyone with the unfathomed difference between his experience and those of the Jews in the extermination camps. His remarks must therefore be taken literally.

When it is a matter of “writing the Catastrophe,” to use Cécile Wajbrot’s expression, we must thus wonder what fiction can contribute which is found neither in testimony nor in the work of historians, nor in the reflections of philosophers. When Flaubert was taken to court, it was because he depicted what bourgeois morality disapproved of. Only literature could uncover these realities because it alone had the will, the courage, and the means in an era in which the human sciences did not yet exist.

The situation is entirely opposite concerning the Catastrophe. Today we are familiar with all the methods. We know the departure dates and arrival times of each wagon, the name and number of the deportees in each train. About the facts strictly speaking, we have nothing more to learn. All fiction is thus at a remove in relation to reality. Far from revealing anything at all, it can thus only restore the unknown to the known. This comes down to denying the very specificity of the Catastrophe.

Leonardo de Vinci had already explained that the imagination is incapable of conceiving whatever might be without first going back to known elements.8 In order to create the Gorgons, whom no man could fix his gaze on without turning to stone on the spot, a woman’s face was needed. She had to have a wild boar’s tusks, bird wings, and hair made up of snakes. We must thus wonder if, unlike the nineteenth century novel, a consequence today, and an unconscious function, of fiction concerning the Catastrophe is to mask the realities instead of unveiling them. Or, at least, of making them more bearable.

‘For countless former deportees, Auschwitz is the ultimate proof of the non-existence of God.’

Bruno Bettelheim made the point that the word “Holocaust,” already in use at the end of the war, was an unconscious way of turning one’s gaze away.9 Apart from the fact that the Biblical holocaust was a voluntary act, that it is was matter of an animal, and that it hadn’t been practiced for two thousand years, there was no question of God in the camps. On the contrary. For Hans Jonas the very idea that Man could be created in the image of God was no longer acceptable.10 For countless former deportees, Auschwitz is the ultimate proof of the non-existence of God. As Shalom Aleichem wrote, “If God lived on earth, they would throw rocks at his windows.”11 Reference to the Bible thus gives credence to an idea, specifically, if the Catastrophe has something to do with God and the Bible, then our Christian civilization could neither stop nor, even less so, understand its core motivations. Each individual’s responsibility finds itself diminished.

IT IS BY no means my intention to take up armchair psychoanalysis. I am merely recalling what André Glucksman has said of History in general: it is but a way of organizing the past so that it doesn’t weigh too heavily on one’s shoulders.12 In any case, it is the facts that are unbearable when one goes into the Catastrophe, not at all the fictions that can be derived from it.

But one example. In movie theaters in which, after the war, the Germans, if they wanted to obtain their rations cards, had to view images filmed at Dachau and Buchenwald by American filmmakers, a witness noted that most of the spectators blatantly turned their heads away at the beginning of the film and stayed so until the end.13 But there can be no doubt that the German public would have watched with interest a fiction showing the Nazis as mentally ill or the dilemma of a Wehrmacht officer torn between his disapproval and carrying out the orders he’d received. In the theater, everyone would feel relieved.

In reality, it’s been a long time since it’s been acceptable to turn one’s eyes away from such a reality, as Germany did in 1945. We should remind ourselves of the dreadful remark by the Nobel Prize winner in literature, Imre Kertész, about “those who steal the Holocaust from its trustees in order to manufacture junk out of it.’14

Dozens of articles and many books have been written condemning the increasingly commonplace temptation of replacing the speech of the deportees themselves with fiction. There even exists an expression for condemning this spiral and the sick curiosity condemned by Susan Sontag: the “pornography of the Shoah.” And, in effect, it is rare that these fictions do not misinform. Already in 1990, the historian Raul Hilberg had condemned “the manipulation of History producing a kind of sabotage and the arrogant style amounting to debasement.”15

ohlendorfHere’s but a single example. Were the executioners actually the indifferent brutes and mentally ill that fiction portrays with indulgence?

Otto Olhendorf, who, with the Einsatzgruppen that he commanded, personally participated in the execution of ninety-nine thousand individuals in the Ukraine in 1941, held a doctorate in law and was a specialist in jurisprudence. He studied at the universities of Leipzig, Göttingen, and Padua. In 1938, he was considered to be one of the most promising legal experts of his generation and he held top positions in the organization overseeing the whole of German trade.16

‘There were more higher education graduates in the SS than among the German national average.’

Moreover, a study recently carried out by a young historian proves that there were more higher education graduates in the SS than among the German national average. In reality, we know too well that these men had no scruples in committing the crimes. For Günther Anders, murder had become “straightforward work.”17

THIS IS WHAT is most hurtful: a graduate of higher education performs a crime better than a simple-minded butcher boy. Here’s another unbearable reality: nothing happened at all to the rare Wehrmacht officers who refused to execute certain vile orders and requested their transfer. At worst, they were transferred automatically.

Concerning aesthetics, what predominates most often in cinema and literature when it is a matter of the Catastrophe belongs more to moral depravation than to thinking about the artist’s work or a vital ethics of representation. For, if there were ever a subject in which ethics and aesthetics were inseparable, truly it is this one.

No one has more forcefully condemned this spiral than the director, Jacques Rivette. In a famous article in the Cahiers du cinéma, he lashed out at a director who depicted the suicide of a deportee throwing himself against an electric fence. Jacques Rivette wrote: “Someone who decides to film a forward traveling shot for this scene in order to frame the cadaver from below while taking care to precisely include the raised hand for an angle of his final framing — such a person can only deserve one’s greatest contempt.”18

Is what is unbearable in the movies more acceptable in a text? In reality, a text draws us farther away than an image. In movies, as precise as the reconstruction might be, we do not lose sight of the fact that the dead are not dead, the SS are extras, and the deportees return home at the end of the day.

The traditional novel, on the contrary, in no way purports to be a straight-forward representation, in the same way as a film or a painting. Marthe Robert pointed out that the novelist has but a single choice between two strategies: either he writes a fable or tries, using any means available, to pretend that his text lends reality a complete and veridical account.19

‘Words read are more difficult to wipe away from one’s mind …’

There’s something more. Words read are more difficult to wipe away from one’s mind since it’s we readers who form the images based on the small abstract signs of the alphabet. And so, how can one wipe away a mental image that we alone produce?

Similarly, like the filmmaker, the novelist only retains what seems most important to him. How can you describe men and women living a series of absolutely indistinguishable grey days, compelled to back-braking, monotonous work, and who have lost all hope while still not falling into the deepest depths of despair? They are too broken to still cherish the slightest nostalgia for the past, the slightest idea of revolt. Worse still, they understood that what was most dangerous was precisely having the weakness of evoking the past. If there remained even the slimmest future, it implied amnesia. Evoking the past would be the equivalent to consuming one’s last strength in vain. The depths of calamity thus meant reaching a stage in which the word “calamity” itself had lost its meaning.

A HUGE BOOK would be necessary to appreciate such a state. In reality, for a simple reason such a book would be unreadable. Each scene would reproduce identically the preceding scene, and so on. This is why there is no fiction without the howls of kapos, the blows, the screams, and jostling. Of course, all of that occurred but, and most probably, if the screams and violence are so often present in fiction, it’s because they alone can be the object of representation.

We are approaching the point where the impossibility of showing overlaps with the will not to look. This is why the important witnesses, those whose names are known to all, are also important writers. They alone could let the miniscule details do the talking and find the words for those who, without them, would have continued to be either of the order of the cliché or that of the inexpressible.

In this connection, an historian, Michel Borwicz,20 mentions the case of a professional journalist, a reporter for an important Warsaw daily newspaper. When he was deported to Treblinka, no one was more qualified than him to bear witness to what he saw. He even succeeded in getting his text out of the camp. And yet the text has fallen into oblivion. Why did this happen? The journalist, convinced that he was witnessing scenes no one had ever described and which far exceeded the imagination, offered countless adjectives, superlatives, and rhetorical figures, to say nothing of his references to Dante’s Inferno. What he forgot was that in Dante, it is the guilty who are being tortured, not the innocent. But what other reference could he have had in mind?

Though the journalist’s intentions were doubtless the best, he was a victim of the sensationalism without which the events would have little chance of garnering attention. It is not a matter of insulting his suffering or courage but of recognizing that the journalist was not cut from the same cloth as a writer. For Borwicz, by reading his testimony we even wind up losing sight of what was singular about Treblinka, namely, that it was a high-yield factory. And what is essential for a factory is that it operates without friction, without a scream, without jostling, without losing time, and by eliminating, specifically, any feeling either among the executioners or the victims. Even violence had to be banished because it would have contributed to jamming up the machine. In a factory, moreover, nothing can be sensational. What best conjures Auschwitz or Treblinka is thus the flat, almost invisible detail. For example, the seven tons of women’s hair, carefully weighed and bundled before being transformed into felt.

This is not the place to go into the subject. I would however like to mention a detail that runs precisely against the usual sensationalism. It shows the very limit of humanity that human beings remain capable of in extreme situations. It is as much to this humble humanity as to the hazards of the circumstances that certain deportees selected for work owed their survival.

In a recent show on the Arte television channel, a survivor explained that during winter, the morning roll call might mean an hour or even two hours or more of standing still in the cold. The women in the back row thus slid their hands into the armpits of the prisoners of the row just in front in order to warm them ever so slightly. The prisoners of the row in front did the same. As soon as the kapo started walking in order to warm himself, the prisoners relieved each other in the rows most exposed to the wind so that each one had more or less an equal possibility of warming herself a little. However, this capital detail never received the attention of the program’s interviewer or producer. They quickly turned to another subject.

I WAS SAYING that between the ages of twenty and thirty, I desperately wanted to write without being able to. However, I still believed deeply in the power of writing. It seemed to me that nothing could exist so long as we were incapable, in one way or another, of giving a form to our experience. In other words, I saw in literature the only starting point possible since, it seemed to me, we are only completely true in books. Did not Leonardo Sciascia believe that “most men would know nothing about themselves and the world unless literature taught it to them”?21

There was a final reason for my impossibility to write: the traditional fictional form, what Cécile Wajsbrot has called the “novel-novel,” did not suit me. I didn’t think it useful to invent characters, describe them, inventory their tastes and character traits, and so on. Faced with the human sciences and, in particular, psychoanalysis, it seemed to me that the essential part of the living matter of the novel had vanished.

Thomas Mann…considered that the only novels that deserved to be called a “novel” were those, precisely, that did not present themselves as such.

Of course, the novel is a genre that must be constantly reinvented, and by all writers. Many experiments have been carried out in this direction (we are all familiar with them), but the shock of the Second World War has made them imperative to the extent that Thomas Mann, in exile in the United States during the Second World War, had already considered that the only novels that deserved to be called a “novel” were those, precisely, that did not present themselves as such.

The right question thus consists in asking why we are still so desperately fond of this literature in its most classic form, incapable as it is of encapsulating contemporary reality. Is it so that we can reassure ourselves by clinging to the idea that the world has remained the same, that it can still be understood and that we are still, as in the past, masters of our individual destinies?

The novel is, in fact, a sophisticated and intelligent mechanism. It presupposes logic, whereas all logic has broken down. The characters of a novel act in function of their psychology, past, passions, and character. But for the Jews during the war, these inner motives lost their sway over their fate. Young and old, rich and poor, intellectuals and workers, lay people and the religious — all saw their fates so entwined that they themselves did not understand how such a reduction had become possible.

This is not unique to Jewish experience. The fact that inner motives had dwindling weight on our individual fate was already glaring during the First World War. This was the first time that it was possible to go so far as to send regiments for attack without munitions in the face of heavy artillery. The chief of staff knew that only droves would make it possible to overcome the enemy. What was important was thus no longer doing battle; it was a matter of accepting to get oneself killed obediently.

Today, the economic crisis reminds us that those who do not find work, or who lose it, are neither less competent nor less courageous than anyone else: simply, no one needs them anymore. Emmanuel Levinas: “Everything occurs as if the Self, identity par excellence, to which all identifiable identity goes back, could not count on itself, as if it were no longer capable of coinciding with itself.”22

This is why the very architecture of the traditional novel, with its beginning, climax, and ending, and the logical and subtle sequence of the chapters, is likewise a way of straying from reality. How is it possible to let the experience of a man increasingly “stripped of himself,” he who has no direct control over his fate, come into play in a literary form that gives the illusion of the contrary?

IN THE EARLY 1960s Gaëton Picon summarized the utter destitution of the contemporary writer. They “start out from an initial emptiness from the moment that all speech fails. Throughout their work, one may even say that they do nothing other than learn to speak. Is expression possible? Is language possible? Such is the preliminary question each of us asks with obsessive force and unparalleled rigor.”23

There are many reasons why we should want “to learn to speak again” and believe that the classic literature that we have learned to enjoy, and still enjoy, is but a token of the past. The more we read the great novels of the nineteenth century and enjoy them, the more we become aware of our solitude and difference. Of course, we see ourselves in what we read, but in the way we see ourselves in a childhood photo, that is, without any possibility of going back and with a longing for memory.

‘The time has passed when one can take comfort in literary theories or in belonging to a particular school of thought.’

We recall that Adorno concluded from this that poetry was no longer possible after Auschwitz. It is true that he reconsidered his judgment apropos Paul Celan’s poetry. This is what one often forgets to add. Writing, if it is still possible, thus means writing after the Catastrophe and each of us does the best he can. The time has passed when one can take comfort in literary theories or in belonging to a particular school of thought.

As such, never before has the writer been so on his own, so helpless. I personally have not yet solved the problem of knowing what I can say in my books. It seems to me that anything could be said, if I were able. In any case, and this is perhaps a weakness, I can’t get so far as to decide if one subject is more important than another. It seems that as soon as I find myself somewhere, nothing, logically, is more important than what I see before my eyes. In this context the saying attributed to Hillel the Elder in the Talmud comes to mind: “If I am here, then all is here; and if I am not here, then who is here?”

There are no other grounds for the desultory quality of my books. If the reader passes without transition from one subject to another, from the most serious to the most futile, I tell myself (though this is but a retrospective explanation) that this is how life is and this is also the way it is in museums. One may see in the same display, and without attributing any hierarchy of value, a tiny Greek statuette of Tanagra and an iron fibula whose role was purely utilitarian, a valuable gold jewel and a horse jaw, a sandal and a pottery fragment. What ties these objects together, what might have made this neighborhood coherent, has vanished.

‘One does not write from theory; one but illustrates it.’

ALL OF THIS, once again, is nothing but theory. One does not write from theory; one but illustrates it. And, likewise, the writer chooses neither style nor mode. He obtains one or the other only through successive refusals. What the writer exposes is thus not what he would like to write: it’s only what seems the least erroneous, the least dishonest.

Robert Bresson once pointed out that even the most remote images, those which are the most disparate, necessarily have a link, namely, the eye of the person gazing at them.24 John Berger has said the same thing: when an artist or a photographer endeavors to represent a tree, it is not simply a tree that we see; it’s a tree seen by an artist or a photographer.25

Can the way we see the world after the Catastrophe serve as testimony for a man of my generation? Can a form of absence of the author, an author cut-off from himself, serve as presence for the reader? These are further questions to which I have no answer. But I remember that when I was a special correspondent for a Parisian daily in Israel during the Six Day War, I was struck by this obvious fact: contrary to a church or a mosque, the Wailing Wall is not a place where you can take refuge and feel sheltered. You gaze upon it and then you must necessarily resolve to turn your back to it in order to look out at the world.

Yet again I’ve come to the conclusion in an absolutely empirical way that the work of the writer may further consist in writing the least possible, in fact, in writing nothing at all. In other words, I’ve come to the conclusion that I could be content to simply point my finger and shape the “facts” observed around me into some kind of form, or which have caught my attention in my reading, in newspapers or on television.

In short, the kinds of quotations, or instant photographs, which would in no way purport to recreate a coherent whole. These texts would be accompanied by notes, like a scientific publication, to indicate my sources and prove that it was in no way a matter of fiction. For books of this type, which have my likeness, whereas I am giving the impression of hardly being present, one need not travel far and wide to find the title. They would all naturally be called, Facts.

Anything could find a place, in any order, in these books and it would be up to the reader, and the reader alone, to find a meaning. And, further, the reader may likewise judge the enterprise perfectly absurd.

This, then, for all intents and purposes, is my position today.

Marcel Cohen is a writer and journalist, the author of an extensive list of titles published by Gallimard. He was awarded the Prix Jean Arp de la Littérature francophone in 2013 by Eurobabel in Strasbourg. For Sur la scène intérieure: faits (Paris: Gallimard, 2013), he received the Prix Wepler-Fondation la Poste and the Prix Ève Delacroix of the Académie française.

Translator’s note: “The Magdeburg Sphere” was first published in Fario (number 12, Winter 2012-Spring 2013, p. 47-69). Marcel Cohen’s books include the three volumes of Faits (“Facts”, UK, US): Faits: lecture courante à l’usage des grands débutants (Paris: Gallimard, 2002; Faits, II (Paris: Gallimard, 2007), and Faits, III: suite et fin (Paris: Gallimard, 2010).

Steven Jaron is a psychoanalyst living in Paris.  He is the author of Edmond Jabès: The Hazard of Exile (Oxford: Legenda, 2003; US, UK) and Zoran Music: voir jusqu’au coeur des choses (Paris: L’Echoppe, 2008; US, UK), the French version of the ADAM lecture given at Kings College London in 2006.  His translation of Marcel Cohen’s “Notes” was published in World Literature Today in 2001 and his essay on Cohen, “Un signe de vie”, appeared in the Libres Cahiers pour la psychanalyse in 2014.


  1. Marcel Cohen’s speech at the Medem Library was given at the invitation of Cécile Wajsbrot, the French novelist and essayist living in both Paris and Berlin.  Among her French translations is Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, which appeared in 1993.
  2. Maurice Blanchot, L’écriture du désastre (Paris: Gallimard, 1980). Translation of this quotation and subsequent ones in the French original are my own. (Translator’s note.)
  3. Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (London: Picador, 2003).
  4. Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, translated from the Italian by Raymond Rosenthal (New York: Vintage, 1988).
  5. Emmanuel Levinas, Noms propres (Montpellier: Fata Morgana, 1976).
  6. Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, Servants of Kings and Not Servants of Servants: Some Aspects of the Political History of the Jews (Atlanta: Tarn Institute for Jewish Studies/Emory University, 2005).
  7. Jean-Marc Théolleye quoted by Samuel Blumenfeld in his article, “Badinter, témoin”, Le Monde Magazine, 9 April 2011.
  8. Leonardo de Vinci, Notebooks (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).
  9. Bruno Bettelheim, Surviving and Other Essays (New York: Knopf, 1979).
  10. Hans Jonas, “The Concept of God after Auschwitz,” The Journal of Religion, volume 67, number 1, January 1987, p. 1-13.
  11. Shalom Aleichem quoted by Alain Salles, Le Monde, 19 December 1999.
  12. André Glucksman quoted by André Leysen, Le Monde, 2 July 1995.
  13. Tony Judt quoted by Pierre-Emmanuel Dauzat, Holocauste ordinaire (Paris: Bayard, 2007).
  14. Imre Kertész quoted by Pierre-Emmanuel Dauzat, ibid.
  15. Raul Hilberg quoted by Pierre-Emmanuel Dauzet, ibid.
  16. Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1961). See also the documentary by Christian Delage, Le Procès de Nuremberg, France, 2006, broadcast by Arte, 5 August 2009.
  17. Günther Anders, Nous, fils d’Eichmann, translated from the German into French by Sabine Cornille and Philippe Ivernel (Paris: Rivages, 2003).
  18. Jacques Rivette, Les Cahiers du cinéma, number 120, June 1961.
  19. Marthe Robert, Roman des origines et origines du roman  (Paris: Gallimard, 1972).
  20. Michel Borwicz, Écrits des condamnés à mort sous l’occupation nazi (Paris: Gallimard, 1973).
  21. Leonardo Sciascia quoted by Claudio Magris in Utopie et désenchantement (Paris: Gallimard, 2008).
  22. Emmanuel Levinas, “Sans identité”, L’Éphémère (number 13, Spring 1970).
  23. Gaëton Picon, “Situation de la jeune poésie” in L’usage de la lecture (Paris: Mercure de France, 1960).
  24. Robert Bresson, Notes sur le cinématographe (Paris: Gallimard, 1995).
  25. John Berger, The Look of Things (New York: Viking, 1975).

One Comment

  1. wrote:

    I was born in 1948 and lived in Kansas — very removed from the war in Europe. But I learned about the war during my life, and about the Holocaust. I met and knew some Holocaust survivors. I felt horror and outrage about the Holocaust.
    But nothing I read really struck me. Words alone did not produce enough effect.
    Then in 2015 I saw the opera “The Passenger”, based on the written work by Zofia Posmysz, performed in Detroit. That struck me. The combination of music and acting did affect me.

    Sunday, 17 January 2016 at 21:26 | Permalink

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