Updated: Dec 18, 2020
I sit on the train, trundling towards England’s old workshop city, opposite me two girls sit talking to each other. They discuss a school trip to Auschwitz. The one with dirty blonde hair looks at the other and says: “Yeah, wouldn’t want to damage the sacred site.” She says the words sacred site with a slight sarcastic sneer. I am surprised. What caused this? Teenage cynicism…teenage frustration at being ordered to go and look at something unpleasant. Yes, people resent that. We resent being made to feel, even supposedly pleasant emotions. “Go and give grandma a kiss!” We squirm and hide and refuse. It is the same thing with a funeral or the site of a massacre. Go there and feel…pain, sadness, guilt (why guilt, what have we done?). I think that is all there in the girl. She is bored, she resents her teachers, she resents being made to feel harrowed.
She resents the political manipulation behind the act: what Germany did is now what all Europeans did. The books slide off the presses: Late Victorian Holocausts, The Irish Holocaust, Holocaust in Kenya. Oh you, descendants of the those who torched Dresden…do you not feel guilt for your holocausts? Do you not see why we are showing you this: do you not feel guilty and ashamed, so that we may better control you?
“And just who is this ‘we’ you are writing about, we would like to know?” I will never tell you. The ambiguity of that we—along with the they that rule—will be a torture for you. “We have him! We all know what he means by ‘we’; don’t we, children?” Well, in truth, some of us live with levels of ambiguity that you would find unbearable. I only take my orders from a woman, a Jew, a political theorist, who fucked a Nazi philosopher. She said that thought constitutes the ability to hold two contradictory ideas in your head at the same time. Then again, she was a woman; and all women are like that. We men see things more clearly.
I feel the hot breath of my Catholic teacher over my shoulder. She is the mother of my friend, my fellow pupil, and I especially want to fuck her. I have committed a petty rebellion—the rebellion I learned from the television—and written “Her/Him” for God. “God is always ‘He’,” she tells me. That’s sexual tension for you. There is another crime you can commit today, just write holocaust without a capital “H”; just like they did before 1964 or so. Do that and you might as well buy a gold party badge. It is the same thing: removing the capital, removing the sacred. A barbed wire camp—a designated sacred zone—and, an old word, a hecatomb. A wise old soldier in Paris observed that it was a great ceremony and that like all magic it would have the reverse effect: burn the lame and the weak and more lameness and weakness will be born. Ideologists do not accept that things work by opposites. So, yes, Auschwitz is a sacred site. Sorry, girl—teenage cynicism doesn’t cut it here.
Imagine taking a stone from the perimeter fence at some death camp. Just for a lark. For a souvenir. It sits in a bedside table back home in Adelaide and it all seems fine until, a month or so later, your dog is ill. She vomits black liquid. The plants in your garden die and you have a migraine all the time, just a low-level buzz. It works the same at sacred Indian sites turned into national parks in sweet America. “Every year,” says the ranger, “we get rocks sent back in the post, always saying the same thing: ‘I took this for a joke and now my life’s ruined, please put it back, please.’” This is the thing about man, we are always working magic even when we say we are not, level upon level—it sinks down.