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« A joke »

I was telling someone about Primo Levi’s Holocaust memoir If This Is A Man, at some length, and then I noted that it has a sequel. The sequel is not about the Holocaust, but about the immediate aftermath of the war, and about Levi’s protracted journey home. I was monologuing. The guy I was talking to was kind of a doughy dullard,1 and I had largely had to entertain myself that day. He was not a very interesting person; certainly not as interesting as I had hoped. To be fair, part of the reason he’d had so little to say over the course of the afternoon was that he had taken LSD for the first time in many, many years, and was probably pretty high. I had also taken acid. I had taken four times as much as he had, but I had not told him this, not wanting him to think about it. And then I had had to keep coming up with things to do, to keep from getting bored. I was talking to myself, which is a sort of default activity of mine, and talking incidentally to him, and I looked up and saw him staring at me and I thought how funny that was, after all my blather about Auschwitz and starvation and the erosion of personhood, to use the word “sequel”, and it made me laugh to think how it must sound, and then I said, “It’s called Holocaust 2,” which I thought was very funny. And then I said, “This time it’s personal.” I thought that was pretty funny, too.

Of course, it isn’t funny at all. There’s nothing funny about the Holocaust.2 It is possible to forgive Roberto Benigni or Steven Spielberg’s sentimentality only because it is all but impossible to look directly at the Holocaust. One looks instead off to one side, at some more or less conventional narrative, to be comforted and reassured by the essential orderliness of stories. Or, like a schoolchild looking at an eclipse through a pinhole, one interposes a few facts and figures (by now worn smooth), which stand in for the thing itself and give one the impression of not needing to know any more. More instructive is the experience of watching Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, a ten-hour documentary offering very few laughs, and containing probably the most intimate and upsetting encounter with an unreconstructed SS officer it is still possible to have.

1 Never fear. If you are reading this, it isn’t you.

2 They should put that on one of those inspirational posters. “There’s nothing funny about the Holocaust.” Under a picture of Jerry Lewis.