“What Must Be Said” Is Nothing


I have heard it said – better, I have read it in a tweet – that Gunther Grass could hardly have been expected, at 17, to resist recruitment into the Waffen SS. That odd, indirect defense of the sham poetry Grass did not write but typed up to attack Israel delivers an unexpected enlightenment: how a defense of the now usual calumny against Israel draws in, by slinking, slithering nexus, the casual rationalization of Nazism and its monstrous Holocaust. Thus the world falls, dizzyingly, back into the chasm of its amoral purgatory, fingers forever slipping from the precipice of its imagined ascent. The motive is to affirm what Grass says of Israel. It is played out in two movements. The first ratifies Grass’s judgment. The Second, accordingly, seeks to restore his moral authority, by excusing the sin of his Nazism and his sixty-year silent deception in hiding it.

The anti-Israelism is the quackery of the age, the traveling medicine show of far left politics peddling post-colonial miracle elixirs and the good doctor’s tonic of the internalized other. Out in the audience, standing wide-eyed or glancing one to the other with wondrous grins at the staged revelations, are the political rubes getting suckered one more time by the missionary charlatans who sold them before, at every frontier stop along the way, the same snake oil under different doctor’s names: Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Mao, Fidel and Ho Chi Minh. Stand once more with authoritarians, autocrats, misogynists and homophobes, even religious absolutists; bring down the blade one more time on the liberal, the democrat, the politically and fashionably incorrect, the Jew.

Then there is the human life, lives, which pile up like accumulated history, like mounds of the dead, lost in the thousand-fold layers, from which surviving voices crawl out like wounded children; there are those voices, other voices, speech acts, political acts, poems. Why a poem? Martin Earl, at Harriet, the blog of the Poetry Foundation, considers the poem less as political act than as a poem, as poetry.

It’s no wonder no one at Harriet has broached the subject. It’s embarrassing, not only the poem itself but what it’s doing in a leading European newspaper, the Süddeutschen Zeitung. After all, a poem—of whatever quality—usually doesn’t ask us to agree or disagree.

This is to state first the obvious, which is not the less important for it, so that it may lead us deeper. Earl cites Heather Horn’s translation from the German, at the Atlantic, better, he thinks, than other early attempts, and how it renders a key word in the first line.

Why do I stay silent, conceal for too long
What clearly is and has been


Only if we consider revelations in the author’s personal history do we begin to understand the gradations of concealment revealed.

By describing one layer of silence Grass provides a running commentary on another one, namely the fact that he neglected to tell the world that, as a young man, he volunteered for and served in the Waffen SS, the combat unit of Hitler’s special paramilitary force charged with (and indoctrinated in) the annihilation of European and Russian Jewry.

This is to draw from the text what the author may not have intended but what it offers nonetheless. Earl goes further still, to challenge not only Grass, but in an opposing gesture, poetry.

Literary critics across the board are refusing to learn from the poem itself as a published artifact grounded in currently unpopular notions of poetic instrumentality. That a poem could be written for its social usefulness, its ability to leverage a message, is simply beyond the pale.

My “A Günter Grass Manifesto” opposes instrumentality. I am, then, a populist. But when we consider the question that Earl tells us has already been raised – why a poem, this poem, so clumsy and drearily discursive, why not, more obviously, an essay – we question not just the usefulness of the form, but Grass’s use of the form. Why did he, against all reasonable expectation of how his message might be received in that form, choose that form? Because he has concealed himself again, or sought to. He has draped himself and his disgrace, his shamelessness in refusing to bear his disgrace, in the sober finery, the ethical armature of art. Were it one more essay by one more Left European falling through the vortex of the New Anti-Semitism, the sheer polemic, the rancidness of its source, would have been so apparent and more easily dismissed. But in the sententious poem of “What Must Be Said,” the artist, the great artist, the Nobel Laureate brings another offering from the Mounts Olympus and Zion both: it is not dismissible as mere polemic because it draws with it along its train, announces itself with heralds, the high seriousness, the Value Added, of Art. This is no mere writer. This is the poet. He speaks, like the blind singer of songs around campfires, the tragic tales of nations and men. Listen.

Except in Grass’s unmemorable lines, there is only one man, him, and the vainglory of breaking a burden of silence. If Grass were to be excused by age or the threat of death for serving in the SS, then the Holocaust and all mass murder, and all wrong would be excused. Are the awful, fateful confrontations with human responsibility and our inevitable ends meant to be easily faced, lightly borne? They would be neither awful nor fateful. There would be no responsibility. Ends would exist for others, but not for us. Let many millions die, Jew, Gypsy, homosexual, infirm, but not me. My life is of a higher value. Let a Holocaust occur, but let me not die, or my neighbor, who will feel rightfully the same, and his neighbor. So Holocausts do happen,

Let us not forget, we forget every day, that our world is full of people of courage, people who meet wide-eyed their fateful moments. Think what you will of the Iraq War in itself: men and women served in it who were willing to subordinate their survival to ideas they held dear of something greater. Thousands of them sacrificed sixty years of literature.

But, yes, we are not all physically courageous. We are, many of us cowards. We will save ourselves, and in saving ourselves must meet the face of consequence, the consequentiality of our acts in the world. Will we bear any burden of responsibility for who we are and what we do, accept the consequences of our acts, or will we live in bad faith all our lives. Millions died, and for his own participation in the apparatus of death, his life continued, Grass could not offer up the price of confession, admission at least of what he had done, and live in the light of that act.  He could not, conversely, accept the burden of silence. How many Jewish lives would need to be extinguished, and generations unborn, for Günter Grass to accept with contrition and humility the weight of the smallest possible burden, and live out his life without ever passing judgment on a Jew.

The dead are dead forever, but six years only since he acknowledged who he was and is were too much for Günter Grass merely to be silent. The writer lives in the rush of his words, the burbling upstream of these fishes of words, the rivers flowing through him of fishes, like poems and plays and novels. How should he be silent, this force of nature? The others are dead so long ago. They are not real, they are shadows. But my words, the writer’s, are real. The dead are become, worse, a discourse of guilt, a tired refrain. How long must we be burdened with the Jews and their Holocaust. Goddamn Israel!

For nearly seventy years survivors and thinkers have pondered how to speak about the Holocaust, how to write about it. Did not any rendering diminish it, the scope, the monumentality, the horror of it? Yet now we politicize it, deny it, diminish it in tweets. Heather Horn, prefacing her Atlantic translation of “What Must Be Said” described Grass, the ex Waffen SS, as having a “complicated” relationship with Israel. She writes of Grass’s “denouncing Israel’s nuclear program and aggression toward Iran.” No mention of his writing falsely of Israel’s “alleged right to first strike/ That could annihilate the Iranian people.” Annihilate – a holocaust. How to speak of the Holocaust? Appropriate it, turn it back on its victims, obscure it in journalism. And all this talk because Grass is a literary man, who took permission, issued on papers by the ministry of Literature, to strike, near the end of his life, as he did near its beginning, at Jews.

Famously, in The Third Man, Orson Welles’s Harry Lime standing in the shadows of post-War Vienna says,

“You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

We know, too, that the Nazis even amid the carnage, still loved their Mozart, their Beethoven, their Shubert. To which a film professor of mine long ago offered in reply, to Harry Lime and to the Germans,

Well, then, take back the Fifth.


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6 thoughts on ““What Must Be Said” Is Nothing

  1. I know this is an old entry, but I feel that I have to lavish with praise this blistering and much deserved critique of Grass. Although given that he is essentially a war criminal, I’d argue he deserves much, much worse.

    Keep up the great work.

  2. The same snake oil as sold by Lenin, Trotsky, Fidel!….no more oily than the elixirs sold by charlatans like Locke, TJ, Smith, Hofstadter, Friedman, et al…

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