In Joshua Cohen’s “Untitled: A Review,” the opening story of his brilliant but unheralded debut collection, The Quorum, a critic from “one of our more respected publications” is stunned into submission by a mammoth box appearing on his doorstep. Inside the package our hero discovers a book of more than 6 million blank pages–“pure, virgin white, like the snow around Auschwitz”–lacking pagination, footnotes, author credit, introduction, copyright, dedication, colophon or any other identifying marks. The necessity (and impossibility) of a response to this monumental blank–a nothing that is not and a nothing that is–drives the critic into a paranoid raving fit, but in his review of the untitled tome he steers himself toward a confident conclusion:
In intent and execution this history without a title, this Untitled by Anonymous, is the best record of, and commentary on, the Holocaust this reviewer has yet encountered, the best in or out of print produced by, and in, the last half-century. Just as that noble laureate Elie Wiesel filled the need for a new word (holocaust: complete consumption by fire) for a new horror (the Holocaust), this anonymous author–if this massive thing even has an author–has found the only way to write about the event, the idea. Or not.
There’s no only way to write about the Shoah–but there are many ways one shouldn’t write about it. Cohen’s imagined nonfiction chronicle is the perfect antithesis of the now-traditional Holocaust narrative, the kind that focuses on great escapes, improbable heroes, loathsome villains and superhuman acts of kindness. “It is not mawkish. It is not patronizing. It’s not insulting.” This masterpiece by Anonymous provides a textbook definition of negative capability, as direct as a math equation: n6,000,000 = x. “The word is sacred,” writes the critic in his review. “Words strung together are not.”
The attempt to find new words for a new horror aptly summarizes the past sixty years of Jewish fiction, and is the obverse of the stark, unapproachable purity of Untitled by Anonymous, or of T.W. Adorno, who declared in 1949 that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Nearly every modern Jewish writer of merit has contested Adorno’s judgment. And once poetry is fair game, is commerce ever far behind? On a recent visit to the local multiplex–to see a popular mainstream entertainment about the death of God, no less–I counted four movie trailers about the Nazis. One was a vigilante movie, another a spy thriller, the next a May-December romance, the last a sentimental product for children.
Creating a book of 6 million blank pages, or a movie of 6 million frames of unexposed film, seems untenable, and not every Jewish author (or director) has the imagination or inclination to mint forms unique to this Subject of Subjects. World War II and its aftermath is the Jewish historical narrative of the past century–in a sense the only story worth telling–and its myriad channels of significance have proven to fit any plot, any genre, mostly without causing awkward ethical misgivings. As New York Times film critic A.O. Scott grimly noted, in a cautionary essay about this winter’s slate of Holocaust movies, the Oscar sweep of Spielberg’s Schindler’s List helped to “domesticate” the Shoah for middlebrow audiences, making “the Holocaust…more accessible than ever, and more entertaining.” We are now bearing the low-hanging fruits of this entertainment–such as Angel at the Fence, the sickly sweet, Oprah-approved Holocaust romance memoir recently exposed by The New Republic as a fabrication, the logical endgame of this cultural development.