Ravensbrück

After returning from a daylong trip to a concentration camp is perhaps the only time I can allow myself to say with all the critical gusto I can muster, and to every one of my friends: there is nothing to celebrate in today’s crisis regime. Let me confess my disappointment, my frustration, that I feel almost constantly and that I have never known how to clearly express, that I come across again and again in habits of disrespect and laughter, my disgust with the “celebration-culture” that we live in. It stretches much further than celebrations properly defined, and goes deep into the daily relaxation techniques and modes of small-talking, all the magazine ads and cheap games of backslapping and opinion sharing, the art of congratulating-ourselves-for-nothing that reigns as the norm, the lowering of standards for the sake of not upsetting people, our fear to say the truth as if that had anything to do with love…

Because do we not feel the dead under our feet? Have we forgotten what has happened, are we blind to what is still happening? Are we so content to live with pizzas and video games and bad language and laziness? What are we thinking about, really, when we are celebrating how happy we are, how friendly we are, how good things taste? And who doesn’t feel the anxiety in all these boozed-up rooms, all these dumb-houses of fandom and small-talk, all the worry and strife and anxiety? You see what I’m driving at: who doesn’t know that we are living in a crisis regime, in a kind of concentration camp of fake happiness?

I used to think it was my anxiety, but the anxiety one feels in oneself is something one can work with, something that, if responded to, pushes us through into what we thought was impossible. Whereas the anxiety in celebration culture is often just the unspoken opinion that no one really knows why we are celebrating, why we are gathered this way, why our eyes are glued to the sports match, why we are satisfied with such tiny ways of living. That is surely also our anxiety, a social anxiety that we feel as our own, but we pretend as if it isn’t ours, we pretend as if it isn’t there, as if we didn’t know that its program keeps running even when the most triumphant moments of group-joy seem to break through. What is this if not a will to group-blindness?

I have fought tooth and nail against these anxieties, trying to figure out what is going on ‘underneath the scene’ for so long, and today’s visit solidified my horror. I try not to speak this way, because it is seems so irrational and exaggerated to compare our current time, despite how evil it is, to this radically evil time. But I know, I can’t help but saying it, I feel I know: today it is just the same. “Strange times, that weep with laughter, not with weeping,” wrote Shakespeare. Strange times, when people sit glued to the programming, laughing, when there is nothing there to be laughed at, and the only proper response is to weep.

In Ravensbrück, the SS-Commander’s house sat on top of a hill, such that if he only walked out onto his front porch, he could overlook the massive expanse of the camp, where hundreds of thousands of prisoners toiled away, performed ridiculous, dehumanizing rituals, were ordered around in languages they didn’t understand, starved and died. I always imagine the children of these men riding their first toy bicycle on that porch and down the front walk way. What does the father say when the son first wonders what all those people down there are doing, why they’re all wearing the same stripped clothes and have no hair and look so thin and dirty? And I am horrified by the evasions, the jokes, the non-answers that the father might say to him. And I am even more horrified by the glee he has, how he celebrates, when he thinks about how he works, what he is accomplishing, the society he is running, the community he is “building.” Why did the Germans go along with such a murderous plan? How could they live under this crisis regime? How did they still smile? What did they say when they saw trains full of Jews or Foreigners being shipped to these obscure barracks, out of which the smoke of burning corpses was fuming?

There is nothing to celebrate in a crisis society. I believe today that time is waiting for us to figure this out, to put down the distractions, to give up the cheap smiles, and to think, to weep, to feel the dead underneath our feet, the oppressed dead who are united with the living oppressed, those who are being trampled underneath and are thus already dead. More and more, that is us, that is everyone: trampling each other over with celebrations, wasting time in happiness, failing to acknowledge our anxieties out of fear, and using the excuse of friendship and love to cover over the worst lapses in attention and failures to imagine the world in a different way and thus to act in the world in a different way.

That different way, in response to our dissatisfaction with the accepted way, does not have a mold or a pattern. There is no role and there is no knowledge possible beforehand about what it will be. Furthermore, it can never stay the same way; anxiety always reaches another impossibility, another wall, another petty game to deactivate. It goes as deep as the very last thought of one’s life. It is a constant self-disagreement and a constant skepticism with regard to the happiness of the collective or the soundness of the “whole” or “pair” we supposedly make. It is honest speech–and first of all honest speech with oneself, about what one would really like to be doing, where one would really like to be and with whom. It is an awareness that our answers to these questions are always deceptive and that, for the most part and usually despite all our attention, “inner deception” reigns, inside and out. “Strange times, that weep with laughter, not with weeping.”

Because if we go on just laughing, nothing really gets easier. What seems to lighten the mood kills the true one. Better to do the difficult thing first: to disappoint everyone, slowly to shock, by refusing to go along with the game as usual. I’m begging you, with all the tears shed in Ravensbrück, yesterday and today, refuse, refuse to play the game as usual, disappoint people, don’t say what you should say, don’t try to make people comfortable, don’t prioritize happiness, don’t be chummy, don’t be afraid of dark walls–because behind them lies something impossible, when we have the courage to go there: an ever different way of being that can never once repeat itself, that will never see anyone in the mirror again, but only the angst associated with breaking through it–only a name to cross out, a trajectory to halt, an easiness, a happiness, a going-along-with it to refuse–that is for nothing, prepares us for nothing, comes to nothing, and therefore, perhaps, is actually something other: the desperate self-explosion of hopeless poetry.

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