In his novel Vanishing Point (1962), the German-Jewish author Peter Weiss describes the newsreels of concentration camps that he saw as an exile at the end of World War II as “ultimate pictures.” These “ultimate pictures,” he tells us, have nothing to do with “the great visions of art, the paintings, the sculptures, the temples, the hymns, and epics.” We cannot, in other words, make sense of them by turning them into the stuff of art or literature. They resist the sort of transcendent meaning that we usually ascribe to works of art.
What then, one might ask, is the point of Weiss’ vivid and lyrical description of these images in what is essentially a literary work? Weiss began his career as a painter and only later turned to writing as his primary means of artistic expression, a transition he has dramatized in several of his literary and critical writings. In his discussion of this transition, however, Weiss describes it not so much as a turn away from pictures towards words, as an attempt to turn the kind of “ultimate pictures” that resist meaning into language. As I will show, Weiss’ discussion of the difference between visual art and literature and his own personal relationship to both media is best seen as a poetics of description that emphasizes literary language’s ability to represent the traumatic events of the past while at the same time probing the limits of artistic and literary representation. Representing the past in this way is, for Weiss, one of the imperatives of artistic expression “after Auschwitz.”
Alan Itkin completed his PhD in comparative literature last year with the support of the Mary Fair Croushore Graduate Student Fellowship at the Institute for the Humanities. He also holds an MA in humanities and social thought from NYU and a BA from the University of California Berkeley. He has published an essay on journeys to the underworld in W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, in The Undiscover’d Country: W. G. Sebald and the Poetics of Travel. He also has two articles currently under review, one on the historical philosophy of the German Jewish film theorist Siegfried Kracauer and another on the role of “degenerate art” in debates about public memory in contemporary Germany. Currently he is working on turning his dissertation into a book manuscript, tentatively titled Underworlds of History: Classical Motifs and the Representation of History in Post-Holocaust Literature.