In his 1977 review of Andre Glucksmann’s Les Maîtres penseurs in Le Nouvel Observateur, Michel Foucault succinctly sums up the shifting aims of philosophy from the ancient to the modern periods by stating:
“The first helped Man endure his own death, the last to accept the death of others.”
“Les premières aidaient l’homme à supporter sa propre mort, les dernières à accepter celle des autres.”Foucault, “La grande colère des faits“, #204 in Dits et Écrits II: 1976-1988 (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 2001), p. 278
I happened on this sentence on the same day I read the concluding pages of Françoise Meltzer’s excellent text, Dark Lens: Imaging Germany 1945 (Chicago UP, 2019) and I found Foucault’s hasty summation a rather perfect frame for the sets of questions Meltzer poses about war, suffering, victimization, and the questionable power of images to help us navigate the ethics of naming and responding to the pain of others.
Spurred initially by a box of photographs her (French) mother took of war-ruined Berlin in 1945, Meltzer asks what of ruin and ruination are viewers able actually to see and know. How does medium of representation, or proximity or distance to the events of suffering change what and how viewers see the direct and indirect evidence of that suffering?
Meltzer underscores her mother’s amateur and by-the-by photos of bombed-out Berlin. Her mother was in Berlin as a wife, married to Meltzer’s American father, who worked for the U.S. government. Because her mother was unable to work in Berlin, she took up photography as a way to busy herself, perhaps amuse herself. These happenstance photos form a peculiar portal to what she calls, after Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok, a “transgenerational haunting,” an oblique and fuzzy explication for why ruins and ruination are persistently fascinating to her (p. 5). The photos also operate as a kind of experimental control for Meltzer, next to which she examines professional literature and paintings that treat the horrors of World War II. In other words, in light of elite and educated responses to war trauma and ruination by professional writers and artists, how do her mother’s photographs register–what do they register? As such, the book takes shape as an affect-saturated reflection (necessarily partial and impressionistic) on what different representational media contain and enable, and what they omit and constrain.
I am struck that Meltzer begins with what might be called memoir or autoethnography, seven pages in italic font that present the memoryscape of her childhood but also (and also) angle her memories toward the reasons why ruins and ruination haunt her. From this brief but poignant introduction, followed by a more formal introduction to the questions and scholarship of her project, Meltzer takes us through three chapters, the first on literary texts from first-hand witnesses of the war (“When Words Fail: Writing Disaster”), the second on paintings by Karl Hofer and Anselm Kiefer (“Ruination in Painting: Making the Unspeakable Visible”), and the third on her mother’s photographs (“Through a Lens, Darkly: Texts and Images”). These chapters are followed by a chapter that a reflects on the ethical and political judgments that arise in the wake of these media analyses and that asks the unanswerable question of the possibility of forgiveness (“Suffering and Victimization”).
We cannot resist the seductions of the romanticization of ruins, Meltzer suggests (p. 17), and this conclusion only intensifies the inconclusive engagements with the questions she brings to literature, painting, and photography. Below I share Meltzer’s own summary of the questions that “traverse” her book, because she engages them well but of course cannot attain closure on any of them.
Do photographs represent differently, or better, or at all? Is it in fact possible to represent mass civilian death from a distance–any distance–that the photograph provides, and thus manage to see the horror and its ethical implications (i.e., war crimes)? Is the sublime, in Burke’s sense and in Kant’s, such that viewing at a distance, or from a safe place, in fact the only way to gaze on representations of such disasters?
…Can we bear witness to the suffering of others? Can suffering be represented in such a way that the viewer recognizes the targeting of civilians as a war crime, and can respond, not only with a rejection of such tactics, on moral grounds, but also with the will to engage in resistance or activism, to reduce human suffering?p. 182
I was profoundly moved by this book, affected in a manner that galvinizes me to be impatient with sentimentality, to redirect emotion back to the suffering of the world, far and near.