Seeing into the Life of Things
By STEVEN JARON.
Though absent long,
These forms of beauty have not been to me,
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart,
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration [. . .]
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.
THE CHOICE OF such an epigraph may seem disconcerting, even obscene. Wordsworth’s “tranquil restoration”1 of pleasurable memories of a walk in the company of his sister along the banks of the Wye river to the abbey at Tintern hardly seem to accord with those troubling memories borne by Zoran Music2 of his imprisonment in Dachau between late 1944 and the spring of 1945. What could be more opposed to Wordsworth’s pastoral, Romantic vision? The comparison seems horrifyingly grotesque.3 And yet the poet’s “forms of beauty,” “though absent long,” do resemble, as aesthetic objects, the painter’s recollection of the agonizing prisoners—the Kretiner of Dachau, the Muselmanner of Auschwitz, the Figuren (“dolls” or “models”) in the jargon of the SS—and the heaping mounds of starved cadavers. Music himself resorted to oxymoron in his description: they were “little mountains of corpses.”4 What he admitted to seeing and experiencing might very well seem alarming: “What I found particularly moving when I remembered the corpses was the terrible beauty of all those bodies stacked like a great pile of logs, with their hands and feet jutting out. I was fascinated by their tragic elegance—the near-transparency of their skin, and their toes, which looked so delicate and fragile.”5 For all the differences in how their respective experiences were lived, one cannot help be struck by the reference both Wordsworth and Zoran Music make to the relationship between the sublime—Music’s “terrible beauty”—and the felt emotion: what each found moving and ultimately fascinating, and what moved each to create: the poet to record the emotion and his debt to it, and the painter to counter death as a means of restoring the humanity to the anonymity of the massed dead.
Zoran Music, we know, born in Slovenia, began his career in the 1930s as a painter; his imprisonment, which followed his arrest in Venice in 1944 by the Gestapo on suspicion of collaborating with the British, deprived him of painting. As chance and the necessity of understanding his experience would have it, he was nevertheless able to draw, on stolen paper in pencil or in ink, in the weeks preceding the liberation of the camp and during those while he remained there before returning to Venice, the famished and diseased prisoners, some in their death throes, some executed. He would later say that he had not risked his life in order to give testimony to the crimes he had witnessed, should anything remain afterwards of what he had consigned to paper; documenting the crimes was not his intention. Rather, he had drawn merely because that is what he had to do—it was his vocation—and because he had been attracted to something beautiful, the “tragic elegance” of the corpses. Something inside had urged him to take up an iconography of cadavers.6
Most of the drawings were destroyed when the camp was cleared. Some, however, were kept by the artist while a few others were given away. Among those given away were a handful that came into the possession of Marcus J. Smith, an American medical officer in the Displaced Persons Team 115 of the 42nd Infantry Division of the Seventh Army which arrived at Dachau the day after it had been liberated. Dr. Smith was the only physician present. His responsibility was for the main camp’s sanitation and the some 32,000 freed inmates’ hygiene—there were some 1,600 inmates living in each of the twenty barracks, designed for only 250 prisoners—in the midst of a raging typhus epidemic, severe food and clothing shortages, and of course the many dead lying scattered or amassed throughout the camp. Zoran Music said that he had met Marcus Smith and struck up a friendship with him when Smith saw him sketching.7 It was natural for Music to give the soldier some of his work.
APRIL 30, 1945. Marcus Smith, in his memoir8 of the weeks following the liberation, describes his impressions of the day he arrived at the devastated camp in the company of his comrades. Although he was observing with the eye of a medical doctor, his perceptions do not differ very much from Music’s. Like Music, for whom the light snow covering the corpses had effected a kind of transfiguration, the soldier was struck by the spectacle of the diaphanous veil blanketing the dead piled like heaps of logs in the chill of early spring: “[. . .] the bodies and [train] cars are now lightly coated with white frost, Nature’s shroud.”9 But the frost could not efface what the intellect failed to comprehend and the sensibility to absorb when faced with the scene of the thirty-nine train cars filled with cadavers (some one hundred in each by a later counting) abandoned by the camp guards. Smith utters: “We brake to a stop at a railroad unloading point. An unbelievable sight. Flat cars and open boxcars contain hundreds of emaciated bodies piled on top of each other, bodies of men, women, and children, lying in grotesque positions. Their cadaverous arms and legs seem disproportionately long compared to their sunken abdomens, narrowed bony chests, visible ribs, protruding shoulder blades, and withered necks—all signs of starvation….An incredible sight, a stench that is beyond experience. Horror-stricken, outraged, we react with disbelief. ‘Oh God,’ says Rosenbloom. Ferris is silent, and so is Howcroft, his vocabulary inadequate to describe this circle of hell. I hear Hollis … say that even primitive, savage people give a decent burial to their own dead and the dead of their enemies. I shut my eyes. This cannot be the twentieth century, I think. I try to remember the redeeming attributes of man. None comes to mind.”10 And also like Music, who spoke of his disorientation upon arriving and the subsequent imperious necessity of finding some point of reference,11 Smith and his comrades were overcome by the same need of orienting themselves upon first penetrating the camp’s gates12. An interior organizational compass had to guide, to lead them on; they had to construct some sort of mental representation13 of the place in order to try to fathom the deadly absurdity of the prevailing system that still seemed to operate, despite the departure, arrest, or deaths of the camp’s keepers, in its twilight hours.
Marcus Smith’s book reproduces six of Zoran Music’s sketches. They occupy a very specific, deliberate position in its printing as they follow immediately on the chapter entitled “Liberation,” from which the above quotation is taken. The quotation ends, “Rosenbloom and Howcroft, accompanied by Ferris and Eastman, begin their inspections. Mace and Hollis have been assigned to me. My job is to survey the medical condition of the inmates, the medical facilities (and manpower), environmental conditions, such as waste disposal, water supply, living conditions, insect control, food handling, and anything else pertaining to health and sanitation.”14 At which point the drawings are reproduced, providing thus a crude depiction of what Smith was unable to communicate through verbal language.
And yet, for all the importance the author accords Zoran Music’s drawings in the unfolding of his narrative—Smith does not rely on contemporary photographs of Dachau, readily available to him—it is only in the acknowledgements and at the end of the book that he mentions the artist; when he does, it is, curiously, only indirectly. Among the acknowledgements, he says, “Drawings in this book are the work of a prisoner of the concentration camp, presumed dead. I have been unable to trace him. They were given to me by other former prisoners upon my departure.”15 By mid-June 1945, Dr. Smith’s immediate tasks had been completed (remarkably, this took but six weeks) and he was assigned elsewhere. Preparing to leave the camp, he was given several gifts. Among them were “Drawings—I am never able to trace the artist—of the emotionally drained, half-dead prisoners of Dachau on the back of cheap, lined white paper with the imprint, ‘Paragon.’”16 In other words, Dr. Smith does not recall ever knowing Zoran Music.
What are we to make, then, of Music’s statement that the two had become friends? Whose account is correct? The artist was elderly when he first spoke of Marcus Smith, and his memory, that of a ninety year old, might have faltered.17 On the other hand, it seems very strange that Smith was unable to trace the existence of the artist, especially as the drawings are signed. Music’s reputation, though limited at the time to only a few dedicated gallery owners and collectors, was not entirely unknown. It was only in 1972, the year the memoirs appeared, that wider interest in Zoran Music’s work was generated when he was given an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, a show undoubtedly propelled by the unexpected appearance—nothing in Music’s production until then would have prepared visitors for such work—, in the fall of 1970 of the first paintings and prints of “We Are Not the Last” at the Galerie de France. Their appearance was certainly “unexpected,” though I must qualify this characterization by noting that, in the very same gallery, between the months of November 1967 and January 1968, Music had exhibited “Twenty Years of Painting, 1947-1967” with, perhaps as an afterthought, a few of the Dachau drawings juxtaposed with the paintings—paintings that included the hilly landscapes he would compare to the piles of cadavers. We do not know if Music understood at that very moment the underlying logic of displacement symbolized by these landscapes. I shall return to this point below.
Zoran Music and Marcus Smith did eventually correspond with each other. Their introduction was arranged by Mary Costanza, an American painter who, in the 1970s, was giving a lecture course on Holocaust art at Gratz College in Philadelphia where she was a professor of art. Mary Costanza knew of Smith’s memoir and was naturally taken by Music’s Dachau drawings, and she hoped to learn more about the artist, “presumed dead.” Letters were exchanged with Marcus Smith, who explained, “a prisoner had given him the drawings in gratitude.”18 Costanza’s diligence and curiosity led her write to different art museums asking as to their holdings pertaining to the Holocaust. The director of the Danish National Museum (where Music’s works were exhibited in 1978) sent her a list of items that might be of interest to her. Zoran Music’s name appeared there; he was in fact alive and dividing his time between Venice and Paris. Further enquiry, including at the Vatican Museum, revealed his address. Subsequently, Music wrote to Marcus Smith, doubtless to correct him. We do not know the exact content of their letters, but Costanza notes that “Zoran Music had no idea that some of his work had reached the United States.”19 Reference in this statement is to the Dachau drawings, not to the work produced later in Venice and Paris, some of which, Music knew, was bought over the years by the American art dealer Patty Cadby Birch. If he had no idea that some of the drawings had reached the United States, it would seem that he himself did not give them to Dr. Smith and that, further, he was unaware that any such gift had been made.
MARY COSTANZA PUBLISHED her research in the early 1980s. The Living Witness reproduces two drawings dating from Dachau, those lent to her by Marcus Smith. The first shows a dead prisoner whose torso is covered by a covering of some kind, a blanket, perhaps. Half of his head is also hidden, the right eye open and seemingly staring out. His unlaced shoes lay beside his exposed genitals and legs. A caption—startling, to be sure—has been written on the upper portion of the sheet of paper: “Starved (How long did he suffer, until death redeemed him?).”20 The second drawing shows four dead prisoners, each naked, lined up frontally on the ground. The two central figures’ heads are bent towards each other as if they were exchanging a few words. On this sketch is written, “The dumb conversation of corpses. (Have they not yet agreed?)”21
These captions read like those accompanying The Disasters of War, to which Music’s drawings and works have been compared, such as “Muertos recogidos” (“Heaped corpses”) or “No hay quien los socorra” (“There is no one to help them”): they are ironic while seeking to draw the viewer’s attention to the suffering of the subjects depicted. It is notable, however, that the captions on the sketches do not appear in the reproductions in Marcus Smith’s book. Further, they have been erased from all other reproductions of them in the various museum exhibition catalogues in which the drawings appear, although faint traces of them are still visible. Costanza’s book contains the only known reproductions of the captions. And so we must ask ourselves, Who was the author of these strange legends? Goya wrote at least some of those appearing on his engravings; they may or may not have been revised by his friend, Céan Bermúdez.
It does not appear that Zoran Music is responsible for those captions appearing on his drawings. The script is not his own, and the English text would point to a foreign hand, Marcus Smith’s, surely; but then why would a man possessed of such indisputable humanity add such cynical commentary? Was he overcome, in an unguarded moment, by the incomprehensibility of the scene thus represented? Was irony the only means available to him of making sense of the overwhelming senselessness, a defense mechanism set into place in order to protect himself from the enormity of the pain suffered by the prisoners and to disguise his feelings of helplessness? Indeed, a kind of humor—if humor it is—was not unknown to Music himself22 when he described how, for instance, “when we shaved, we used to hang a little mirror from the finger or the toe of the nearest corpse without thinking it at all strange.”23 This is the kind of humor of the inmate who knows his fate is dangling, of he who is, as Zoran Music said, “waiting for my turn to come.”24
Lager humor can also go by the name of Galgenhumor, gallows humor, or what Freud spoke of in 1905 when describing the utmost manner “of a release of affect that does not occur.”25 What he meant was that we use gallows humor when faced directly with the unbearable reality of death. The condemned individual’s anxiety and despair are not expressed as such, but in the form of a remark that is at once apt and nonsensical.
LITTLE DID FREUD know that only a decade later, he would be faced with his own death-reality. The First World War compelled him to question the assumption that civilization was driven overwhelmingly by the motions of life. Notions of cultural or scientific achievement had to be viewed in relation to how so-called progress was used. The mass violence men had wrought upon each other, made possible by those very advancements, required Freud to account for what was most destructive within the human psyche and for how that quantity could manifest itself. Freud wrote that when we read in a work of literature about loss of life or the death of a character, we are able “to reconcile ourselves with death”:
In the realm of fiction we find the plurality of lives which we need. We die with the hero with whom we have identified ourselves; yet we survive him, and are ready to die again just as safely with another hero.”26
But war is not fiction, the stakes are changed entirely. In war, death can no longer be denied: “People really die; and no longer one by one, but many, often tens of thousands, in a single day.”27 The consciousness of the possibility, and even the inevitability, of our own death is heightened: “death is no longer a chance event. To be sure, it still seems a matter of chance whether a bullet hits this man or that; but a second bullet may well hit the survivor; and the accumulation of deaths puts an end to the impression of chance. Life has, indeed, become interesting again; it has recovered its full content.” 28
But there are other ways of experiencing life to its fullest without going to the heroic extreme, like an Ernst Jünger, for instance, of living through a war. In fact, the therapeutic action of psychoanalysis lies in how it seeks to enable the patient to experience life as fully as possible. We might understand it as an attempt, to use Wordsworth’s phrase, at seeing into the life of things. Mental illness, whether moral suffering or a great self-destructiveness, has the deleterious effect of removing us from the ability to live well. As psychotherapy, psychoanalysis takes as its goal bringing the individual as close to the meaningful experience of living as possible while overcoming the death motions (they can neither be banished nor vanquished altogether) operating within the mind. Contemporary psychoanalysis has attempted to clarify Freud’s insights by distinguishing between the psyche’s objectalizing function and its deobjectalizing function, terms suggested by André Green to account for the problem of the death drive and its relation to the life drive, or Freud’s second drive theory set out in Beyond the Pleasure Principle of 1920 and other works that followed the First World War when civilization, in which such great hope was invested, naively as it turned out, revealed so shockingly its mortifying component. For Green, the “fundamental aim of the life drives is to assure an objectalizing function.”29 The objectalizing function is a “significant investment” or “cathexis” in an internal or external object; it is even capable of transforming “structures” into objects. The primary activity of Eros is binding. It thus not only maintains an object relation but can even create one. Opposed to the objectalizing function is the deobjectalizing function, which is the aim of the death drives and which it affects through unbinding. Object relations are attacked, but also the ego itself and all investments or cathexes in it that had made it an object. In the deobjectalizing function, we observe the “destructiveness of the death drive” through its decathexis.30
André Green extended these observations to include a reflection on the nature, its psychic origins and outcomes, of evil. Reference was made there to the deobjectalizing function to explain, or at least to deepen, our understanding of “the most complete and accomplished form of evil.”31 The Shoah is its perfect illustration, just as the First World War made possible Freud’s reflections on what lies beyond the pleasure principle. For Green, what is more striking than what is commonly understood as the sadism of the Nazis is the “care for order” and the “cleanliness” of the extermination process. An image from a war-era film lodges itself in the psychoanalyst’s mind: the “sovereign indifference” of two Nazi officers in the Warsaw ghetto “crossing a street strewn with cadavers which they seem not to see.”32 It is not a matter of sadism for, as we are reminded, the sadist but identifies himself with the masochism of his partner, as the inverse is true. “Here, the evil reposes on the indifference of the torturer, of the executioner, to the face of his likeness considered as an absolute stranger, and even alien to humanity.”33 What stands out is the murderer’s indifference to the murdered. Such is the deobjectalizing function. “In order to push destructiveness sufficiently far in relation to the other, the indispensable condition to realizing this project is to deobjectalize him, that is, to take away his characteristic of human likeness.” 34
Zoran Music’s Dachau sketches are, like the unimaginable work of soldiers such as Marcus Smith, an attempt, to use the psychoanalytic expression, at objectalizing what had been so brutally deobjectalized by the Nazis. At bottom, the drawings attest to how he had tried to “see into the life of things.” So, too, for Marcus Smith. During his first inspections of the freed inmates, he felt utterly confused and unable to perform his duties as a medical doctor: “What are we going to do about these starving patients? How will we care for them without sterile bandages, gloves, bedpans, urinals, thermometers, and all the other basic material? How do we manage without an organization? No interns, no nursing staff, no ambulances, no bathtubs, no laboratories, no charts, no orderlies, no administrator, and no doctors—the ones I see here are too weak to handle patients.”35 It occurs to him that it is likely that camps like Dachau exist throughout Germany and the occupied countries and so the evil pervading there is surely to be found elsewhere. He tells himself that “desecrations of this nature” have taken place before, during the Black Plague, for instance, or the savagery of Genghis Khan or Attila the Hun. Dachau is no aberration in history, and there is nothing absolute about it. What is original about the atrocities committed there?, asks Marcus Smith. Does the barbarity of the twentieth century not have other precedents in history, perhaps more ghastly still? The starvation and enslavement, hangings and shootings, the gas chambers themselves—what is hell? He cannot say. And then he recalls a few lines from Paradise Lost:
With shuddering horror pale, and eyes aghast
View’d first their lamentable lot, and found
No rest . . . shades of death . . .
Where all life dies, death lives . . .
Abominable, inutterable, and worse . . .36
Despite his doubts, Smith did manage to carry out his skills as a medical doctor, just as Zoran Music was able to apply his training as an artist, in their respective confrontations with the human body. It was of course impossible to reverse the barbaric acts committed by the Nazis, the work of deobjectalizing, of rendering the human inhuman. But within the psyches of Zoran Music and Marcus Smith, the life drive had predominated definitively.
One might rephrase Marcus Smith’s question to himself about the specificity of Dachau—how did it differ from other atrocities in history?—by asking, In what sense were they the first? Were the camp prisoners among those to have experienced, as no one else in history had till then, the “abominable, inutterable, and worse”? No, they were not. In order to survive mentally the enormous task of applying his skills to try to save the dying and return the sick back to health, he had to relativize the appalling singularity of the historical moment—another form of psychical orientation in the face of overpowering disorder.
WE DO NOT know if Zoran Music asked himself the same question. We cannot say if he believed himself and his fellow inmates to be the victims of a new atrocity, a horror unknown to history. Public executions in the camps were widespread. Afterwards, he may have read, for instance, in Primo Levi’s first book, of how a prisoner in Auschwitz, on the verge of being hung, cried out to his fellows, in a final act of defiance of his executioners, “Kamaraden, ich bin der Letzte!: Comrades, I am the last!”37 Zoran Music described, with a touch of Lager humor, how he did not believe himself and the other prisoners as among the last. In the 1950s, as war was being fought in Korea and Algeria and elsewhere, he was reminded of a remark made by a fellow prisoner: “There were horrible, absurd things that you came to accept, just as you came to accept your own death. I often passed in front of the ovens, where the corpses were piled four meters high. A Czech friend of mine used to say to me: ‘You know, tomorrow or the day after, it’ll be our turn to burn. A thing like this will never happen again. We are the last to see a thing like this.’ Later, when I could no longer hold things in, when the memories of the camp surged up inside me, I began to paint them, many years after. Then I realized that it was not true. We are not the last.”38
What prompted Zoran Music to return to the dying and the dead of Dachau in his painting and graphic art? What made these memories so insistent? They could not be set on a par with the others, the happy childhood memories of Slovenia before the First World War, those of his voyage in Spain as a young man, of the peasant women he saw working the horses on the Dalmatian coast, of the Byzantine mosaics of the churches of middle Europe he had visited, of the light that greeted him upon coming back to Venice, in 1945, that represented his return to freedom. What made the camp impressions ultimately unavoidable? What made them impose themselves? Or rather, it would be more accurate to ask, What made them superimpose themselves? There was naturally at the time the diffuse and acute fear of death, and the recollection in later years that death seemed all too probable in the camp. Though costly, this fear had the protective function of keeping Zoran Music alive psychically. Freud, in the First World War, said, trafficking in his own blend of Galgenhumor, “We recall the old saying: Si vis pacem, para bellum. If you want to preserve peace, arm for war. It would be in keeping with the times to alter it to: Si vis vitam, para mortem. If you want to endure life, prepare yourself for death.”39
FURTHERMORE, ONE MUST account for the problem of latency in recalling the traumatic experience, of the duration of time many survivors, including Music, must let pass by before actually revisiting consciously the painful memory. This is what would explain, for instance, the some thirty years that had to go by before Marcus J. Smith (and he was not a survivor per se) could assemble his memoirs into a publishable form. The way a memory could retain its hold upon Zoran Music’s mind might appear closer to Wordsworth’s “tranquil restoration,” our starting point, when we consider a statement such as, “I don’t consciously choose the subject I want to paint. Usually what happens is that I see something that moves me—a landscape or a building, for instance—and forget about it. Then, much later, it might come back to me, transfigured, with its superfluidities rubbed away.”40 The transfiguration of the memory of a lived experience, of a deep perception which engenders affect and thought, leaves but what is essential to the experience as the subject-matter to be portrayed. Music felt that some of his work dating from the 1950s and 1960s was of little interest to his creative evolution. Under the impulsion of the dominant art of the time, he experimented with abstract landscapes—but unsuccessfully so. “I tried to do my kind of abstract painting. And as I did I totally lost my sense of being true to myself.”41
After several years of painting scenes of Venice and the Dalmatian and Umbrian landscapes, the memory of the corpses he had seen and sketched in Dachau returned: “I was on the train one day and I was extraordinarily moved when I looked at the hills around Sienna. It was as if I had rediscovered something very important. There is no vegetation on these hills. They’re covered by a soil that is almost white, like a skin, with runnel marks on it, that make them look like the ribcages of human bodies. They form a landscape that does not change, that stays the same through all seasons. And later, when I came to paint the hills, I realized that these whitish mounds reminded me of the piles of corpses that had been part of everyday life at the camp.”42 The latent constancy of the landscape was associated with the cadavers occupying a permanent position in his unconscious. With the efficiency of a visual metaphor, the hilly landscape had manifestly substituted itself for the corpses, its earthy color and texture for the pale aspect of the death anatomy. The process of recollection was, to use a Proustian adjective, involuntary.
True enough, but Zoran Music, for all his solitariness, was very much a part of his time and place, or places—a period of aesthetic renewal imbued, for artists like Music, by the frightening consciousness of the unlikelihood of survival during the war. Friendships influenced him no less than his readings. Like many artists, he worked in isolation—in the quiet of his Venetian and Parisian studios—but he was by no means isolated from other artists. Among them: he became an acquaintance of Kokoschka, who would visit him in his Venice studio; he knew Giacometti, whose studio was nearby Music’s first in Paris, near the rue Alésia; and the printmaker Johnny Friedlaender, with whom he would sometimes work in the Leblanc or Desjobert print studios (respectively, for dry points and lithographs). The writer Jean Grenier, in addition to helping introduce him to a French public, was a friend. Music’s wife, Ida Barbarigo, often his model, and undoubtedly fundamental in his capacity to bind psychically the camp experience, was a painter. It was inevitable that he would know others.
On March 8, 1966, the graphic artist Gisèle Celan-Lestrange wrote to her husband Paul Celan, then hospitalized at Saint-Anne’s, with her latest news: “Yesterday, I was working in the studio, today, I’ll be going back. Tomorrow I’ll do a few proofs to see what they’re worth and Thursday I’ll come to see you.”43 She does not end there, but tells her husband more, perhaps in an attempt at lifting his morale: “I met Music, he spoke to me about your poems….” The poet’s wife had run into Zoran Music at the Lacourière and Frélaut printing workshop in Montmartre where Celan-Lestrange had her larger compositions printed (smaller ones were carried out on her own hand press) and where Music had most of his engravings printed.
“Music”—she does not say, “Zoran Music,” but simply “Music,” as if the poet was already familiar with him—was curious about Paul Celan’s poems and told her that he possessed three volumes of them, but he does not indicate which ones. Would Paul Celan be publishing another one soon? he asked.
IN FACT, CELAN was preparing another at the time: Atemwende44—a word invention sometimes rendered into English as “breathturn”—would be published the following year. Zoran Music had not yet begun the series of paintings, engravings, and drawings of “We Are Not the Last.” The first drawings he had completed and saved—whatever their individual fates in the after-war years—were undoubtedly stored away in the back of his mind, but he was not, in 1966, treating the death camps directly in his art. Perhaps, among the three books by Celan in his library, he had read Shibboleth from 1955: for Music, it would have been a “sign of recognition,” a shibboleth exchangeable between the two, as it evokes, along with the struggle for socialism beginning in February 1934 in Vienna, the memory of the February 1939 insurrection of Madrid during the revolution: “Call out the shibboleth, call it out / into your alien homeland: / February. No pasarán.”45 Music had spent the pre-war years in that city (Celan himself did not witness these events) and left the city just as civil war was breaking out to settle in Dalmatia. He also knew pre-war Vienna from his travels. The slogan of the Spanish Republicans, No pasarán (“They shall not pass”), would have been familiar to him, and encountering it again in Celan’s poem would have recalled him to that time and place. In “Shibboleth,” Music would have seen a reflection of himself:
Together with my stones
grown big with weeping
behind the bars,
they dragged me out into
the middle of the market,
where the flag unfurls to which
I swore no kind of allegiance.46
Or perhaps he read other poems in which he would have recognized his experience, such as “Assisi” (also 1955), in which Umbria is evoked, or “There Was Earth inside Them” (from 1963), with its image of the slave workers in a labor camp:
There came a stillness, and there came a storm,
and all the oceans came.
I dig, you dig, and the worm digs too,
and that singing out there says: They dig.47
Or perhaps—perhaps, because we cannot know with any certainty—Zoran Music read in Atemwende, the volume he was so eagerly awaiting when he met Gisèle Celan-Lestrange, “The Clinker Game”:
Landscape with urn creatures.
from smoke mouth to smoke mouth.
those madhouse truffles, a chunk
of unburied poetry,
found a tongue and a tooth.
A tear rolls back into its eye.
The left-hand, orphaned
half of the pilgrim’s
shell—they gave it to you,
then they fettered you—
listening, floodlights the scene:
The clinker game against death
ZORAN MUSIC HAD BEEN considering, during this period of artistic doubt, the implicit meaning of the landscapes he himself had been painting: “There is no vegetation on these hills. They’re covered by a soil that is almost white, like a skin….” It would have occurred to him, while reading Paul Celan, that the landscapes he was painting in fact concealed the wasted landscape of the death camps, its prominent features being the cadavers holding “Conversations / from smoke mouth to smoke mouth.” The “chunks of poetry” had indeed remained “unburied.” Or perhaps his attention was taken up by yet another poem, “In Praise of Remoteness,” from Poppy and Memory, an earlier collection, as it became clearer to him that the subject he had to treat, by force of the compulsion driving him back to the death source, was himself viewing the spectacle of men hanging, just as he had drawn it at the time:
In the wellspring of your eyes
live the fish-nets of the labyrinth-sea.
In the wellspring of your eyes
the ocean keeps its promise.
Here I, a
heart that lingered among men,
cast off my clothes and the luster of a vow:
Blacker in black, I am nuder.
Only when faithless am I true.
I am you when I am I.
In the wellspring of your eyes
I drift and dream about prey.
A net snared a net:
we separate entwined.
In the wellspring of your eyes
a hanged man strangles the rope.49
IT IS NOT only the image of the hanged man that would have struck Music; the fish nets (“die Garne der Fischer”50) Celan speaks of in the poem were also depicted similarly by Music in the middle 1950s—Music entitled these compositions, “Fischkörbe in Chioggia” (“Fish Baskets in Chioggia”) and “Filets à Chioggia” (“Nets in Chioggia”)—a disquieting irruption of the uncanny into his mental apparatus. Did Zoran Music understand the underlying symbolic significance of the fish baskets and nets at the time of their execution, or was it only upon reading Celan, after the fact, that the potential meaning of entrapping fish was realized? In doing so, was he forced to reconsider the meaning of his boatmen transporting cattle along a waterway, the Dalmatian hills forming the background? Or that of the many cavallini he had depicted, some even before the war, grouped together in spontaneous play or through the efforts of a herdswoman, but also against the backdrop of the same hilly landscape?
Or finally, in the collection that followed Atemwende, Fadensonnen (Threadsuns) of 1968, did Music read “Of Both”?
Of both: the de-scarred bodies,
of both: the deathleaf over their nakedness,
of both: the de-realized faces.
Pulled onto land by
the whitest root
of the whitest
Did Music see in this poem a respectful manner of treating the exposed dead and their “de-realized faces” (“entwirklichtes Antlitz”52) by covering the sexual organ with a burial shroud, “deathleaves” (“Todesblatt”), a necessary condition for carrying out his own depictions with decency?
“We Are Not the Last,” then, seems to respond to Paul Celan’s poems. In reading them, Zoran Music would have found a means of releasing himself from the debilitating effects of the non-figurative tendency he had explored prior to beginning the series; and of laying the foundations for the aesthetical-ethical frame required for executing it. Again, we must not lose sight of the fact that we do not know—we cannot know with any certainty—exactly which poems Music was reading. And even if we did, could we ever know just how the poems were read? What thoughts ran through his mind, how they made him feel, upon reading them? Was he comforted or disturbed, confirmed or put into question, by the verses? Can we know what relationship he was imagining between them and the project forming in his mind? What manner of fraternity joining him to Celan was he projecting? As to Celan, the possibility of reacting to “We Are Not the Last” never occurred. We will never know just how he took the paintings’ and engravings’ sudden appearance, whether he in turn would have recognized in them a shibboleth or, on the contrary, disapproved of the graphic visual portrayal of the death scenes. By the time of the Galerie de France exhibition in the autumn of 1970, Paul Celan was dead, a suicide by self-drowning earlier in the previous spring.
THE ULTIMATE SOURCE of the series—the first matter kneaded into the final form—was Zoran Music’s own experience and his memory of it. In the later compositions, the salient features of the naked, emaciated inert bodies’—the blackened head, often rolled back showing only an open, silent mouth, two sunken orbits, and two nostrils; an elongated neck; a chest with skin stretched tightly over the protruding ribcage, itself only connected to the concave hips by a nearly exposed spinal column; bent elbows and knees; the lithe wrists, twisted fingers and protruding toes; the penis (only males are depicted), a useless symbol of life—were drawn in fine lines that clearly echoed those of the Dachau drawings. But there is little or no background to situate them, no depth, relief, or perspective; they exist outside time, and their timelessness accords them a certain a-historicity. In death, their subjects are granted immortality. In life, the real of the historical trauma is integrated into the unconscious, which is not answerable to the physical laws of time and space, save upon the individual’s death. This is in contrast to the drawings, which are time bound. Some of the bodies show identifying marks such as matriculation numbers—tattooed, in the case of the corpses of prisoners coming from camps outside Dachau, or scribbled in ink by the camp authorities, or hanging from an etiquette tied to a toe—or head portraits on the chest and arm, certainly incised for private reasons before the bearer’s imprisonment. Other drawings show specific parts of the camp, such as the crematoria or barracks, or a train car with cadavers piled inside or spilling out of it. Music did not return to these sites in the later work.
Nevertheless, a discernable relationship exists between the first works and “We Are Not the Last”: Music was working-through the trauma by obeying an inner necessity, and from the 1970s until his last years he would periodically add to the series. In the Dachau drawings, and in the later compositions as well, he surely saw himself as among those he had portrayed; in fact, at least two self-portraits from 1975 are, for all the anonymity of the other individuals portrayed, included among “We Are Not the Last.”53 In the first, the painter gazes out slightly to the right; in the second, his gaze is directed towards a fictional viewer. Or is he truly looking outwards? Is he rather looking inwards, backwards in time, to the landscapes that had become inscapes? In both paintings, the fingers of his hands are crossed; a familiar motif, common to some of the positions of the hands of the dead and a possible echo of Grünewald’s depiction of Saint Madeleine’s hands as she kneels at the foot of the Crucifixion, in the Issenheim altarpiece.
The first person plural of the series title is evidence enough of Zoran Music’s universal, inclusive principle. A further self-portrait, dating from 1985, shows the artist wearing the stripped jacket of the camp prisoner, his gaze again fixed on the outer, his inner gaze turned towards something we will never identify. I know of no other such self-portrait, which stands out not only because it is the only composition dating from after 1970 whose setting—by virtue of the subject’s clothing—can be specifically placed back into the Dachau period, but also because it does not bear the title “We Are Not the Last.” It thus reflects the possibility of a permeability between the paintings belonging to the series and those not specifically designated as such, which thus lends Music’s entire œuvre both continuity and cohesion.
WE MUST STILL ask ourselves to what extent the compositions from the series are based on the drawings of 1945. We must ask ourselves this question because at least one, which shows four men hanging from the gallows in a row, their chests’ naked and their pants undone and loosely hanging from their hips or knees, is clearly based on an earlier drawing, it being its mirror image (as expected in the engraving process). The drawing itself is today in Basel; it was sold to the city’s art museum by the artist himself with several others in 1963-‘64.54 One might surmise that when Music sold the drawings to the Basel Museum, that is, when they had left his possession, that in their absence they would have taken on a greater meaning for him.
A dream supports this hypothesis. “A while ago I dreamt I was in a huge sports stadium and I was fascinated to see the cadavers propped on the tiers, one above the other. I was very moved and excited, the forms had a tragic elegance that made me want to paint them right away. They were like a marvelous landscape. Then, to my horror, they began to slide, they slipped all the way down until they disappeared from sight. And I felt as if I had lost some precious possession!”55 Moreover, the sale of the drawings took place just when he was suffering from a lack of authenticity in his creative work. Manifestly, the later engraving is a replica—for all intents and purposes, exact—of the original drawing, an attempt at reproducing as faithfully as possible the original perception. Did Zoran Music keep a copy of it, which later served as the basis for the engraving? If not, perhaps he returned to the museum when he needed to study it again. Or did he compose entirely from memory, working, as he said, with his eyes closed? We do not know.
On the other hand, another drawing, that of a single hanged man, his head upturned on his snapped neck,56 did probably serve as the basis for an engraving, the hanged man engraving from the original 1970 series.57 (Like the engraving of the four hanging men, it too is the mirror image of the drawing.) Further, the composition and details of a painting from 1970, that depicting four men laying on the ground with the two central figures’ heads leaning towards each other,58 seem in all probability to be based on another Dachau drawing, one that was also reproduced in Marcus J. Smith’s memoirs.59 But in this case, a problem arises as to the relationship between the hypothetical graphic source and the later object: Zoran Music could not have had the drawing available to him when executing the painting and he would not have had a copy: recall that it was given to Smith in June 1945, just as he was leaving the camp, and Smith and Music remained unknown to each other until after the painting was executed. Note however that all of its features are present in the painting, from the exact positions of the heads, inclined or locked upright, down to the configuration of the third figure’s right hand and fingers.
In this astonishing case, then, the memory-trace of the subject seems to have remained fixed steadily in Music’s mind, through the work of long-term visual memory, for decades, every horrifying detail in place, until the moment of its “tranquil restoration” or its transposition to canvas in what the neurobiologist Gerald M. Edelman would call a remembered present,60 an incessant process of reconstruction.
Zoran Music’s very last works form an afterward to “We Are Not the Last.” In them we find the same solitude, stillness, and silence of their withdrawn subjects. But here, the life struggle of the dying for a last breath in the earlier works yields itself to a kind of resignation which makes possible a calm and quiet encounter between the human being and the numinous, a union of the living body—living, though ever infirm and aged—and the divine. They recall the qualities of uncertainty or the ephemeral and the theologically ambiguous evoked by Jean Grenier, who wrote one of his final essays on Music:61
I do not believe in Him but I imagine Him
I cannot find Him but I meet Him
I do not love Him but I am unable to love any other
In the impermanence where shall I dwell?62
ALL OF THE SUBJECTS of the last years—the cathedral interiors, the self-portraits and double portraits in the artist’s studio, Saint Mark’s and the waterways of Venice—had been depicted in the years following Music’s liberation. As has been remarked, Music evolved according to the principle of the eternal return, although, as might be expected, when he went back to the subjects he had worked on earlier in his career — the landscapes, for instance — he did so with a heightened consciousness, and thus mastery. The lack of authenticity he had deplored is no longer pertinent. He had espoused his inner, private truth. But, with the painter’s sight increasingly failing, as he was “waiting for my turn to come,” the treatment he gave them—their transfiguration, to use his expression one last time—became more austere and the brush strokes lighter, making thus each necessarily more meaningful. I cannot say if Zoran Music identified spiritually with the Christian doctrine of transfiguration—when the metamorphosis of Christ’s body on Mount Tabor revealed a divine, white light emanating from within him—but I do believe that he was able to make use of it in the paintings in which a white light—or its absence—seems to radiate outwards from the subjects.
Among the last paintings is a group called “The Anchorites” (those who have withdrawn themselves for religious reasons; generally, recluses) and it seems likely that Music himself was his own model in completing them. As in many of the last works, the chiaroscuro technique is present—the accent being laid on the balance between, on the one hand, obscurity and the unknown and, on the other, clarity; or between death and life. They were all carried out with the same meditative grace as that of the cathedral interiors in which the Venetian light is delivered silently into a bath of darkness.
The poet Ted Hughes once wrote of Leonard Baskin’s depiction of a hanged man, “he is liberating a body from the death that encloses it.”63 We may apply the same observation to Zoran Music. Great art does in fact have the mysterious capacity, as Wordsworth said, to see into the life of things; it frees us, however provisionally, however momentarily, from what is otherwise unfathomable about death’s confines. What more could one ask of it?
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. His translation of a lecture by Marcel Cohen appears in The Fortnightly here.
Author’s note: The author wishes to thank Anthony Rudolf for introducing him to Miron Grindea whose memory is honored by the ADAM lecture and Professor Patrick ffrench for his invitation to give the 2006 lecture at Kings College London.
More: An audio download of a “Great Lives” (BBC Radio Four) episode devoted to Zoran Music is here.
- William Wordsworth, “Lines,” in William Wordsworth and S.T. Coleridge, Lyrical Ballads, 1798, edited with an introduction by Thomas Hutchinson, 2nd ed. (London: Duckworth, 1907), p. 126-127 (ll. 24-49). ↩
- After the war, Slovenian painter Zoran Music (originally Mušič) no longer signed his works using the diacritical marks, nor did critics close to him, such as Jean Clair or Michael Peppiatt. We follow his practice. — Ed. ↩
- The juxtaposition of English Romanticism and a reflection on the place of the death camps in contemporary culture was first suggested to me by Geoffrey H. Hartman in The Fateful Question of Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997). See my remarks on this book in the Journal of Jewish Studies (vol. 49, number 2, Autumn 1998, p. 403-404). ↩
- Michael Peppiatt, “Interview 1,” in Zoran Music (Norwich: Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, 2000), p. 21. ↩
- Michael Peppiatt, “Interview 2,” in Zoran Music, ibid., p. 34. ↩
- Amorosart’s website provides a fairly comprehensive collection of Music’s prints, lithographs, and etchings from various private galleries. The link is here. The BBC hosts a brief slideshow of Music’s paintings, here. ↩
- Jean Clair, La barbarie ordinaire: Music à Dachau (Ordinary Barbarity: Music in Dachau) (Paris: Gallimard, 2001), p. 137. ↩
- Dachau: Harrowing of Hell, State University of New York Press. 1995. ↩
- Marcus J. Smith, Dachau: The Harrowing of Hell (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1972), p. 80. See also “Interview 1,” op. cit., p. 22. ↩
- Dachau: The Harrowing of Hell, op. cit., p. 79-80. ↩
- La barbarie ordinaire, op. cit., p. 51. ↩
- Dachau: The Harrowing of Hell, op. cit., p. 81. ↩
- The construction of a mental representation of space is the subject of research by neurobiologists and neuropsychologists working on vision and perception. See, among others, Eric R. Kandel, In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind (New York and London: W.W. Norton, 2006). ↩
- Dachau: The Harrowing of Hell, op. cit., p. 80. ↩
- Ibid., p. xi. ↩
- Ibid., p. 245. ↩
- See La barbarie ordinaire, op. cit., p. 119. ↩
- Mary S. Costanza, The Living Witness: Art in the Concentration Camps and Ghettos (New York: The Free Press, 1982), p. xx. I am grateful to Gérard Régnier for bringing this book to my attention. ↩
- Ibid., p. xx. ↩
- Ibid., p. 3. ↩
- Ibid., p. 57. ↩
- Cf. La barbarie ordinaire, op. cit., p. 45f. ↩
- Michael Peppiatt, “Interview 3,” in Zoran Music, op. cit., p. 49. ↩
- “Interview 1,” op. cit., p. 22. ↩
- Sigmund Freud, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, translated by James Strachey, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 8 (London: Hogarth Press, 1957), p. 229. ↩
- Sigmund Freud, “Thoughts on War and Death: (II) Our Attitude towards Death,” translated by James Strachey, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 14 (London: Hogarth Press, 1957), p. 291. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- André Green, “Pulsion de mort, narcissisme négatif, fonction désobjectalisante” (Death Drive, Negative Narcissism, and the Deobjectalizing Function), in Le travail du négatif (The Work of the Negative) (Paris: Gallimard, 1993), p. 118. My translation. ↩
- Ibid., p. 119. ↩
- André Green, “Pourquoi le mal?” (Why Evil?) in La folie privée: psychanalyse des cas-limites (On Private Madness: the Psychoanalysis of Borderline Conditions) (Paris: Gallimard, 1990), p. 398. My translation. Dominique Cupa has recently worked along similar lines as myself. See “Cruauté de mort et survivance” (The Cruelty of Death and Survival) in Psychanalyse de la destructivité (The Psychoanalysis of Destructiveness), Dominique Cupa (dir.) (Paris: EDK, 2006), p. 51-89. ↩
- “Pourquoi le mal?,” op. cit., p. 398. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid., p. 391. ↩
- Dachau: The Harrowing of Hell, op. cit., p. 93. ↩
- Quoted in ibid. For the complete quotation, see John Milton, Paradise Lost, edited with introduction by Christopher Ricks (London: Penguin Books, 1989), p. 44-45 (Book 2, ll. 616-626). ↩
- Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz, translated from the Italian by Stuart Woolf and with a preface by the author (New York: Collier, 1961), p. 135. ↩
- “Interview 3,” op. cit., p. 50. See also La barbarie ordinaire, op. cit., p. 150 and the footnote to that page. ↩
- “Thoughts on War and Death,” op. cit., p. 300. ↩
- “Interview 1,” op. cit., p. 22. ↩
- “Interview 2,” op. cit., p. 34. ↩
- Ibid., p. 33. ↩
- Paul Celan and Gisèle Celan-Lestrange, Correspondance (Correspondence), vol. 1, edited with a commentary by Bertrand Badiou (Paris: Le Seuil, 2001), p. 380. My translation. ↩
- Paul Celan, Atemwende, Berlin: Suhrkamp, 1967). ↩
- Paul Celan, Poems of Paul Celan, translated with an introduction by Michael Hamburger (New York: Persea, 1988), p. 97. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid., p. 153. ↩
- Ibid., p. 243. ↩
- Translated by Joachim Neugroschel in Paul Celan: Selections, edited with an introduction by Pierre Joris (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), p. 43. ↩
- Paul Celan, Gesammelte Werke in sieben Bänden, edited by Beda Allemann and Stefan Reichert, vol. 1 (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2000), p. 33. ↩
- Paul Celan, Threadsuns, translated from the German with introduction by Pierre Joris (Copenhagen and Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2005), p. 235. ↩
- Gesammelte Werke in sieben Bänden, vol. 2, op. cit., p. 213. ↩
- The first two paintings are reproduced in Peppiatt, Zoran Music, op. cit., p. 47 and 48. The third is reproduced in Jean Clair (dir.), Zoran Music (Piran: Coastal Galleries, 2006), p. 42. ↩
- Music: l’oeuvre graphique, Gérard Régnier assisted by Marie-Odile Peynet (dir.), (Paris: ADAGP, 1988), p. 100. ↩
- “Interview I,” op. cit., p. 23. ↩
- Music: l’oeuvre graphique, op. cit., p. 14 (catalogue number 10); and Jean Clair (dir.), Zoran Music: Rétrospective (Paris: Galeries nationals du Grand Palais and Réunion des musées nationaux, 1995), p. 24. ↩
- Music: l’oeuvre imprimé, Denise Frélaut (dir.), (Venice: Archives Music and Terra Ferma, 2010), p. 76 (catalogue number 177). ↩
- Zoran Music: Rétrospective, op. cit., p. 146 (catalogue number 93). ↩
- The drawing is reproduced in Dachau: The Harrowing of Hell, op. cit., p. 83. The painting is reproduced in Zoran Music: Rétrospective, op. cit., p. 145 (catalogue number 88). Further similar compositions follow this one. ↩
- Gerald M. Edelman and Giulio Tononi, A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination (New York: Basic Books, 2000), p. 107f. For a succinct and accessible overview of memory systems, see Larry R. Squire, “Memory and Brain Systems,” in From Brains to Consciousness? Essays on the New Sciences of the Mind, Steven Rose (ed.) (London: Penguin, 1998), p. 53-72. Long-term potentiation, the neurochemical basis of long-term memory, is discussed by Tim Bliss in “The Physiological Basis of Memory” in ibid., p. 76-82. ↩
- Jean Grenier, Music with a foreword by W. Sandburg and an afterward by Zoran Krzisnik (Paris: Jean-Jacques Goldschmidt, 1970). ↩
- Jean Grenier, Prières (Prayers) (Montpellier: Fata Morgana, 1983), p. 47. My translation. Music himself contributed a series of engravings depicting plant and tree motifs to Grenier’s posthumous volume. ↩
- Ted Hughes, “The Hanged Man and the Dragonfly,” introduction to The Complete Prints of Leonard Baskin: a Catalogue Raisonné, 1948-1983, Alan Fern and Judith O’Sullivan (dirs.) (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1984), p. 19. ↩