Unreal Nature

October 29, 2011

What May Yet Be Salvaged

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:50 am

… no one can penetrate the darkness in which organized murder takes place on all sides. At best, we see just a shadow of the worst.

Continuing to the end of September: A History Painting by Gerhard Richter by Robert Storr (2010):

… In Richter’s own life, the horrors [of war] came closest during the Allied bombing of Germany in which the virtual obliteration of Dresden stands out as one of the most horrifying examples prior to America’s “conventional” bombing of Tokyo in 1945 and its use of atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Dresden was the city where his mother and father met and where he had been born, and it was the ruin to which he returned after the fighting stopped and he was ready to start his independent life.

… At the time of Dresden’s near obliteration, Kurt Vonnegut, who is of German extraction, was a twenty-three-year-old American prisoner of war under guard in “slaughterhouse-five,” near the heart of the city.

… As viewed through the eyes of his fictional alter ego, Billy Pilgrim, “the fire-bombing of Dresden” was, Vonnegut bluntly declared, “the greatest massacre of European history.”

[ … ]

Richter is vague or evasive when asked point-blank about the significance of [some] specific and presumably meaningful details in his [paintings to do with the war]. As essayist W.G. Sebald has noted in his reflections of post-war reticence about Allied bombing, On the Natural History of Destruction, such reactions are characteristic of a more general inhibition regarding the experience that originates in German society’s overall inability to come to terms with its war-time past. Virtually alone among artists of his generation Richter effectively broke that taboo in pictures, but he has nevertheless hesitated to do so in words.

… when asked why, during the 1960s, he painted American warplanes flying over Germany, Richter replied “But this painting — the American bomb[er] — was forbidden. You were not allowed to take it seriously. You could only take it as a joke.” When I replied, “You didn’t paint it as a joke,” Richter’s rejoinder was cagey but revealing

No, but I was satisfied that it was taken as such. I would have been embarrassed if it were too serious. It was not an accusation; I was never accusing the American. I never wanted to accuse anything, except maybe life and how shitty it is. But never . . . after all, they were right. Everything was fine (laughter).

For Richter, the dilemma of painting the war would seem to have hinged on wanting to register the enormity of the trauma he and his generation experienced without “taking sides” in a situation where he could not in good conscience do so. As a nation, Hitler’s Germany had brought about its own destruction, but as someone who at a distance felt the impact of the overwhelming counterforce unleashed upon his country, Richter could not stand apart from its fate, either. To make “Pop” pictures of B-29s unloading their deadly cargo was thus to “make a joke” of something that was tragic because the context of the period made it impossible to see tragedy in what seemed like just punishment in the eyes of those who had suffered the Nazi onslaught, even as it seemed like arbitrary retribution to the civilians on whom the bombs rained down. Richter was a less-than-innocent, less-than-guilty target among many other targets in a war quite literally carried on over their heads. In a contest between armies who routinely sacrifice noncombatants, the only honest option for someone less than innocent of, but less than guilty for the excesses of his or her homeland is to be a candid witness of what happens when, as Richter avers, life is “shitty” and violent death becomes the ineluctable centerpiece and mystery of existence.

However, for reasons that should by now be self-evident, bearing witness does not imply special access to the essential meaning of critical events. Nor does being in a position to see those events with one’s own eyes privilege the testimony of any individual, no matter where they stand in relation to the presumed center of the drama, since so many other eyes are trained on it from so many other uniquely revelatory positions. Logically, this observation is elementary, but as soon as discussion moves from the abstract to the concrete, agreement vanishes in the so-called “fog of war,” that atmosphere of crisis and ambiguity in which opposites confront each other only to lose their bearings, that moment of truth in which sharply defined antagonists begin to resemble each other in their confusion and desperation and truth vaporizes and indiscriminate death has the final word.

To say this is not to descend into moral relativism, despite what those who never doubt their own righteousness may claim. Richter’s unwillingness to accuse or excuse, his strict abstinence from special pleading, and his refusal to create false equivalences between what Germans did to others and what Allied bombers did to Germans is in fact a staunch moral position, one equivalent to Goya’s harrowingly impartial declaration in the Disasters of War, “I saw this.” But as Goya’s great indictment of the systematic terror perpetrated on the “benighted” Spaniards by the “enlightened” troops of Napoleon’s revolutionary army makes manifest, no one can penetrate the darkness in which organized murder takes place on all sides. At best, we see just a shadow of the worst.

Goya, Plate 41: They escape among the flames

Such ideological aberrations and the unforgivable cruelties they engender are a constant — arguably, the constant — of modernity, with bombing being zealotry’s most advanced and reliable technology (in the language of traditional anarchism, its “infernal engine” or, in that of the nuclear era, its “ultimate weapon”). Accordingly, Terror is the name of every excess committed for the sake of an abstraction as well as that of the barbarism prompted by intimate hatreds and allegiances, whether those acts are perpetrated by a State or by insurgents, by imperial armies or suicidal individuals, by bureaucrats or truck drivers, by the haves or the have-nots.

Returning to, and ending with, the painting that is the subject of this book:

… A focal point of thought that troubles the eye because of its small-scale, indeterminate depth of field, and lack of vanishing point, while troubling the mind by condensing every uncertainty, contradiction, and ambivalence the viewer brings to it, September commemorates the events of 9/11/01 as well as everything that led up to them and everything that has ensued since and might be called a consequence, by holding all in perpetual suspension and irresolvable tension.

To think about that day you have only to look and by looking immerse yourself in and become a part of that mantle of anxious ambiguity. By doing this, you will share it with those who still wonder what happened and why, those who cannot stop asking themselves what has been irrevocably changed or lost and what may yet be salvaged from the carnage and the confusion.

My most recent previous post from Storr’s book is here.





  1. “At best, we see just a shadow of the worst”

    How very true…

    “…what Germans did to others and what Allied bombers did to Germans…”

    One might add: what Germans did to Germans, and many, many other pairings (what Britons did to Canadians, to refugees, to Britons of Italian extraction; what the US similarly did you citizens of Japanese extraction … what the world and its live iin friendperson did to Jews and Arabs … and on and on…)

    I’ve found your extracts very thought provoking … another book you’ve forced me to buy! :-)

    Comment by Felix — October 29, 2011 @ 11:10 am

  2. It’s a good book on many levels and in many directions — and it’s not very expensive (it’s short and smallish for an art book). I think I will enjoy rereading it and thinking about it from ever greater “distances.”

    Comment by unrealnature — October 30, 2011 @ 8:39 am

  3. I’m looking forward to it – Amazon estimate between 12th and 17th Nov delivery, so I can look forward to it for two or three weeks! :-)

    On another subject entirely … I somehow missed seeing propositions 3 & 4 in your new series, until now … since I missed the comment guillotine period, I’ll have to use this opportunity to say: stunning, as always.

    Comment by Felix — October 30, 2011 @ 1:40 pm

  4. Thank you!

    Comment by unrealnature — October 30, 2011 @ 7:48 pm

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