Friday, May 14, 2010

"Impossible to know"

The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million by Daniel Mendelsohn paradoxically demonstrates the profound possibility of what might be called the impossibility of epistemological certainty explored by postmodern thought. In brief, one tenet of postmodern philosophy calls into question the stability of any knowledge that is communicated through language (an arbitrary and fluid meaning system): that is, any knowledge, period. If you want to get intense about it, that means that things like history, identity, and religion are if not abandoned, then submitted to the kind of examination that frogs receive in high school biology, usually with the same effect experienced by the frog. However, there are artists and writers and thinkers who take this basic premise--there are things we cannot know--and use it to deepen, not eviscerate, the human experience. I'm going to write about some of the other places I see this happening in later posts (Spoiler alert: Tarantino), but it's a particularly interesting lens through which to look at a memoir. In the light of some recent revelations, memoir as a genre has become a fraught and contentious field to examine what counts as "true" about the past.

The title of this post is a sort of refrain throughout Mendelsohn's book, a memoir of his attempt to uncover a sense of the lived experience of six of his family members, whose fate was communicated to him as a child by another refrain: "they were killed by the Nazis." Mendelsohn insists on the inaccessibility of some aspects of his lost relatives' lives and deaths. We cannot know what it was like to undergo such suffering: words, in fact, fail. But not quite in the way that makes such an undertaking pointless or fraudulent. It might be impossible to know, but it is not impossible, in fact, it's imperative, to pay attention. To try if not to know, then to commemorate and recognize and recover the past and the people who lived there.

When I recommended this book to my cousin, he resisted because he doesn't like reading about the Holocaust. Though this book is very much about the Holocaust, wouldn't exist without it, it is about so much more than that. It's about interpretation and storytelling and family and the way history is always already Right Now. The Holocaust is the "situation" in Beauvoir's sense of the word. The set of desperately important circumstances that shape the book, but don't utterly comprise it. The Lost expands and deepens what memoir as a genre can do. Plus, Mendelsohn is a writer so gifted it simultaneously makes me want to throw the book across the room and absorb it into my body as part of my DNA. And incidentally, I saw him speak at my college, and he is funny and simpatico and devastatingly handsome in person.

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