Web Letters | The Nation

A Vast Choir of Voices: On Claude Lanzmann

Sharp critique

David Rieff’s review reads like the recipe for preparing venison: first you have to eviscerate it, then you can enjoy the steak. He begins by gutting Lanzmann: “Even the most passionate of lifelong romances tend to cool with time. But…Lanzmann’s…self-involvement seems only to have risen with the passing decades.” Rieff identifies a style of French writing (not found among French scientists, moreso amongst essayists and such) as a “confederacy of braggarts.” Not to be found in the gaggle of penman traits such as irony, self-effacement or stoicism. Witness Sartre. Or Beauvoir, his (Sartre’s and Lanzmann’s) lover.

Then, we hear “[This book] is not just the sum of all its irritations…. [It] is an important book …that …recounts both the making of Shoah… and his thinking behind the choices he made in the film…” Rieff argues persuasively that the “private moral character of an artist… [not] undermine the worth of the art…” He cites artists such as T. S. Eliot (an articulate anti-Semite) or Wagner (“where to begin,” he says) or Bach (an abuser of choirboys) as amongst those whose work we would need to proscribe if we judged them by their lives, not their aesthetics.

As a side-note, Rieff mentions that the London Review of Books excoriated Lanzmann’s memoir because the reviewer didn’t like Lanzmann’s politics vis-à-vis the Palestinians: but this seems to be an old British ailment: to see everything Israeli via the fish-eye lens of Palestinians (not the original Palestinian Jews; the post-1948 renaming of the Arabs in the area.)

Rieff is a sharp thinker. His review is scholarly, thoughtful, well-written.

Nathan Szajnberg

New York, NY

Jun 29 2012 - 2:39pm

A Vast Choir of Voices: On Claude Lanzmann

Zionist dispossession

In his brilliant review of Claude Lanzmann’s memoir, David Rieff writes,

Lanzmann is not interested in “understanding,” in the journalist’s or the professional historian’s sense of the word. To the contrary, his premise is that such methodologies, when applied to the Holocaust, border on madness. Instead, the film’s genius resides in insisting on the primacy of experience. This would have been impossible had not Lanzmann hewed unswervingly to a narrow, single-minded focus, tendentious as that focus is at times, and remained faithful to his premise, which is that truly accurate description is in and of itself a moral act. To borrow the expression coined by the American anthropologist Clifford Geertz, the “thick description” at the heart of Shoah is incompatible with the broad historical contextualizing that Lanzmann’s critics so often reproach him for not having incorporated into his film. Ironically, the one boast that Lanzmann does not make for himself in The Patagonian Hare is the one he would have been most entitled to—that Shoah is the one great film imbued with the spirit of Sartrean existentialism, an epic confrontation with nothingness in which Lanzmann improbably succeeds in expressing the inexpressible. Compared with this, Lanzmann’s questionable politics and his childish egotism are, as the late Joseph Brodsky liked to say, as irrelevant as a comma in Tolstoy.

It seems obvious that this particular way of looking at the tragedy of the Holocaust has unfortunately become entangled with the Zionist movement’s dispossession of the Palestinians. Lanzmann’s uncritical approach to the Zionist movement flows from his documentary approach. We should remember that the Zionist movement had by 1936 succeeded in using the British Mandate to establish the infrastructure of the Zionist state. And that was achieved before the Holocaust.

Reza Afshari

New York, NY

Jun 24 2012 - 1:26pm

A Vast Choir of Voices: On Claude Lanzmann


Excellent and knowledgeable review. Highly recommended for an brilliant vision of French intellectual live in postwar France, where and when people who were not actively communists were considered to be reactionaries, and intellectually suspect.

Suzanne Nash

Uppsala, SWEDEN

Jun 19 2012 - 3:51am

A Vast Choir of Voices: On Claude Lanzmann

In a word…

Brilliant review.

Jack Bronston

New York, NY

Jun 18 2012 - 12:09pm