The Jewish as Ruin

To the question, “How to read a ruin?”––a cribbed utterance lacking tense, time, mood, agency––I ask a question in return:  “Is a ruin to be read at all?”  The first question is a thorn sticking in my restless feet.  I cannot say whether it is a single thorn or many thorns––as many as ruins I’ve sought out.

And what I told Michael Rubenfeld on the phone some months ago:  for some photographers the task is to create an inventory, a collection of things, of somethings that they conceive of in advance of any looking and finding… For me, this is somewhat the case but not quite.  More to the point, I am looking for the Jewish nothing, which is more like chasing wind than collecting specimens.  The point of making photographs, I told him, is not to capture something as much as to receive its touch as it passes across the visible surfaces of things, before it moves on…

I detect in my cribbed, first question a certain wariness about particulars, or maybe a certain laziness.  If I shift its impersonal voice into the first person and add the missing auxiliary verbs, it becomes, variously… “How can I read a ruin?”––a question of technique––“How might I read a ruin?”––a question of tactics––“How will I read a ruin?”––a question of determination––“How do I read a ruin?”––a question of self-reporting––“How should I read a ruin?”––a question of ethics…if I go on this way, I feel I change nothing with regard to my second question.

In response to this concatenation I have the urge simply to rearrange the words of this first question, to see what poetics might be lurking in their grammatical misalignment: “To a ruin how read?” “A ruin how read to?” “A read ruin to how?” “How ruin to read a?”  And I ask:  why should I think that breaking syntactical rules––ruining grammar––will afford any insight into ruins?

Actually, I am not at all certain a ruin is to be read in the first place, which is to say decoded and rehabilitated narratively into an account of what was.  The English classicist Mary Beard, writing on Roman ruins in The New York Review of Books in July 2017, succinctly states what is obvious to her as an expert:  “The ground surface [of the Roman Forum] is largely a confusing mass of rubble and masonry, interspersed with equally confusing holes left by archaeologists in search of the structures, shrines, and burials that formed the first layers of human occupation in the city of Rome…  Even the trained eye finds it hard to work out how any of this fits together, or what the place looked like at any particular period of antiquity.  Most visitors walk through the Forum baffled.  Cicero would not have recognized it.”  A sense of confusion laced with wonder was certainly my own response when I saw the Roman Forum for the first time earlier this year.

Rome, 2017

But unlike Beard, whose preoccupation is the accuracy, lucidity and accessibility of historical reconstruction aimed to impose order on the confusion of remnants, I am not certain that a ruin should be considered a fragment of something else in the first place.  I am not convinced I should see it as a piece of an invisible or lost whole we take to have existed at some earlier moment in time.  Why not approach a ruin as a whole unto itself, albeit of a beguiling and frustrating and confusing kind?

In my notebook I find a quotation from Adam Michnik, which I copied from a book whose title I neglected to note.  “The world is full of inquisitors and heretics,” he writes, “liars and those lied to, terrorists and the terrorized.  There is still someone dying at Thermopylae, someone drinking a glass of hemlock, someone crossing the Rubicon, someone drawing up a proscription list.”

Perhaps part of the difficulty of ruins is that the word conjures a variety of objects whose shaping or causal forces are in fact quite distinct.  For convenience, I might make two large groupings:  objects or structures in a steady state of ruination, and objects or structures that are in a process of still-becoming-ruined.  In the former, decay and devastation and collapse are so slow as to appear to be stopped, and the ruin appears under the sign of enduringness, even survival.  In the latter, the activity of ruination is happening, and the ruin appears under the sign of vulnerability and loss.  In both cases, however, the ruinedness of the ruin seems to be a mixture––of impenetrable proportions––of the natural and the cultural.  It is, after all, almost a truism of Romanticism that nature will claim what culture has forsaken––I would call it a reclamation, except that there is no promise of redemption––and that culture will produce, in acts of self-abnegation and self-abjectification, what nature cannot resist.

Dora Apel, writing on ruination imagery of contemporary Detroit, speaks of ruins as instrumental to cultural self-deception, tools of a certain aesthetic remove by which we gain a sense of mastering fear.  That sense of mastery is functional, but ultimately false.  In Apel’s reading of Detroit, the city’s decline is the best example and the leading symbol of the core viciousness of the American political-economy, which is suppressed and mostly normalized in American political discourse.  Detroit’s physical ruins token the ruinousness of capitalist ideology writ large, and indeed of the apocalypses (environmental, nuclear) it is poised to unleash.

Apel’s analysis of the causes of Detroit’s situation is compelling enough.  In order of importance, she blames the neoliberal agenda of corporate America; state and federal policy of conservatives and liberals alike, which girded the evisceration of American manufacturing, underwrote redlining in postwar housing development, and forced austerity measures on the city in a saga of bungled punishment; the de-unionization of America, coupled with the the narrowness and corruption of the unions; white racism implicit and explicit and the demographic shifts it created; and the corruption of the city’s mostly black political class.  But I can’t help but wonder how Apel would account for the situation of ruination I have seen over and over again in post-Soviet Ukraine, which cannot be explained away as the result only of rapacious post-Soviet capitalism.

A joke I’ve heard in Ukraine:  “What’s the difference between capitalism and socialism?  Capitalism is a system of universal exploitation.  It’s the exploitation of man by man.  In socialism, it’s just the reverse.”

Joy Road, Detroit, 2016

In Apel’s presentation, the political-economic catastrophe we behold in Detroit’s ruins is closely aligned with general theories of the sublime.  For her, following Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant, images of Detroit’s ruins are sublime in their capacity to seduce us with the very thing that threatens us.  They excite us––paradoxically––with our own sense of loss and vulnerability, a feeling of meaningful powerlessness before forces larger than ourselves that have real power to hurt or to destroy us.  Sometimes the recognition is more subtle than spectacular––a doubt we cannot pass about the efficacy of human reason itself, or a disjunction between our ability to sense some truth and our incapacity adequately to represent it.  But whether the experience of the sublime is dramatic or delicate, our enjoyment of what otherwise threatens us depends on a feeling of safety, a protective remove we can trust.  Photographs of ruins, in this reading, enact this remove through pictorial illusion.  Such photographs do not merely describe ruination, but psychically conquer it for us, transforming violence and calamity and desolation into something miniaturized and ordered and disciplined, a picture.

My problem, though, is neither the diagnostic nor the prognostic power of ruins vis à vis political-economy (though I suspect that the proliferation of ruin imagery of, say, hurricane damage in the Caribbean makes global warming seem more real than imagery of glacial melting).  My problem is also not the sublime, for a simple reason.  The sublime is what I would call the experience of human vanity cracking––the recognition that whatever we call normality is encased within protective vanities from the collective to the egoistic, and these vanities can be broken, and broken-through.  The enormity of human vanity is not news to me, nor the conundrum of its brittleness and resilience.  If, in other words, the sublime is sufficient to expose us to our frailty (and our stupidity and our recklessness) as against the normal regime of denial, it was never necessary.  For me, it is not the sublime that shocks me into an awareness of my own and our collective unprotectedness, and the nearness of an obliterative nothingness for which I have no adequate description.  Somehow that awareness is written into my psychology as from the beginning.

Mishnah Chagigah 2:1 states:  “Whoever gives his mind to four things, it were better for him had he not come into this world:  what is above, what is beneath, what was beforetime, and what will be in the hereafter.”  

And Louise Glück writes:  “What is being in the world like?  For American poets in the mid-to-late twentieth century, this has meant, in the main, being in a single world patrolled by a single intelligence bent on finding meaning.  The poems made by these compulsions have been essentially dramatic, artificially weighted at the end with insight.  Impatience with these premises, with pat, histrionic endings, has fueled a poetry more interested in impressions and possibility than in symbols and conclusions.  This poetry wants to explore experience before it becomes coherent, therefore too rigorously channeled.”

What draws me in is ruins’ philosophic and affective volatility, of which the sublime’s nexus of fear and pleasure is perhaps one expression.  I find no way to speak of ruins without resorting to contradiction.  In words, ruins demand awkward phrasings––such as compounded adjectival nouns like “the forlorn majestic” or “the majestic forlorn,” or oxymorons like “heavy loftiness,” “spent spectacle,” or “imposing unimpressiveness.”  None of these formulations satisfy me.  The former are too mannered and the latter are just facile.  Whole sentences also go wrong, such as the following, which took me almost an hour to write:  “Ruins force on us the dynamics of the fragment and the whole on several levels simultaneously, which is to say the mystical potencies of the unfinished, the nearness of the severed to the healed, the abandoned to the redeemed, the infitesimal to the infinite, as if the part were uniquely poised to harness the energy of the whole, to which it paradoxically forfeits any claim once we begin to treat it like a name.”  

S.Y. Agnon writes:  “A verse in the Torah occurred to me:  The sword shall not cross through your land.  I interpreted the sword to refer to metaphysical speculation, and the verse to be saying that as it passes through your mind it will not only undermine your faith, it could even strengthen it.  In my heart I recited the verse I am racked with grief, sustain me in accordance with Your word.  Our Master looked at me and whispered, ‘It is time to go back.  My heart broke within me and I followed him.’”

The ruins that move me to write are neither those of ancient Rome nor today’s Detroit, but those of prewar Jewish civilization, scattered across the geography of the Holocaust in cities, towns and villages from Riga to Odessa.  In recent years, I have photographed dozens of them.

And if I cannot find the words with which to confront ruins, how to explain through pictures that I, a searcher and a finder, have nothing to show and nothing to tell about the Holocaust?  


Ruined synagogue, Bibrka, Ukraine, 2014

Ruined synagogue, Shargorod, Ukraine, 2017

Ruined synagogue, Kaunas, Lithuania, 2016

Ruined synagogue, Dubno, Ukraine, 2017

Ruined synagogue and beis medrash, Uhniv, Ukraine, 2014

Ruined synagogue, Zhovkva, Ukraine, 2014

These structures, all of them, make multiple testimonies, indeed press them together into a single phenomenon.  These testimonies can be teased apart narratively, but not in an actual experience of the ruin itself, in which we are confronted simultaneously with evidence of the world that was, evidence of the genocide that wrecked it, evidence of the post-facto pillaging of the destruction for opportunistic gain, evidence of indifference to and neglect of the ruin, and sometimes (increasingly in certain cases) evidence of renewed care and attention.  

I say I have nothing to show and nothing to tell, but the truth is that in making pictures, I act as if I do have some contribution to make to the world’s image of anti-humanity, and further I act as if the work of the historians and memoirists and novelists were not quite enough, as if a special task falls to photographers to link contemporary Jewish ruins with some statement about the fragility of the collective memory of Jews in eastern European societies.  In fact I can argue both for and against this linkage.  I am not convinced either of its validity, or of the ability of photographs to communicate a connection between Jewish remnants and collective memory or collective forgetting.  Like many photographers, I make the pictures even when I lack reasons and justifications.  I make the photographs because I don’t believe I need to conduct my thinking apart from making pictures, in silent rumination or writing.  The act of making pictures is itself the central act of thinking-it-through.

Ruined synagogue, Łaszczów, Poland, 2014

The poet and critic Allen Grossman speaks of two types of poems:  those that are translations or mediations of some other “poem,” and those that are direct transmissions of poetic intensity.  In the first type, the poet acts as organizer and orderer and indeed, primary thinker, and the reader is given the second-order task of interpreting the poet’s handling of the source of inspiration.  In the second type, the poet acts not as a mediator but a medium, with the poem itself being a form of direct contact with the source of inspiration.  The reader, in this case, is treated as an “exegetical participant” no less than the poet, equally charged with the task of discerning the meaning from the inside.  And following Grossman, a proposition:  photographs, too, operate in both of these modalities, but not exclusively in one or the other, rather in both simultaneously.  When we look into photographs, we generally tell two stories:  one about the photographer as mediator, and one about the medium of photography, which seems to convey experience as directly and immediately to us as to the photographer, and indeed, as if apart from the photographer’s mediating role.

And Allen Grossman writes:  “Poetry is a principle of power invoked by all of us against our vanishing.  The making of poems is a practice – a work human beings can do – in which civilization has invested some part of its love of itself and the world.  The poem is a trace of the will of all persons to be known and to make known and, therefore, to be at all.  Insofar as love wills the existence of what it loves, the principle of poetry is a collective and perpetually renewed act of love that brings the world to mind, and mind to mind, as the speech of a person – at the moment of the vanishing of world and persons, which is every moment of conscious life.  Poetry is one means by which human beings engage, as they can, in the maintenance of a human world in which they can meet one another, affirm one another, remember, see, and foresee one another.”

Ruined Jewish cemetery, Dubno, Ukraine, 2017

Ruined Jewish cemetery, Zhovkva, Ukraine, 2014

Ruined Jewish cemetery, Chortkiv, Ukraine, 2014

Ruined Jewish cemetery, Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine, 2014

Inevitably, the power of the Holocaust's ruins gives way to the question of the Holocaust's own uniqueness as an event, a phenomenon, a force of meaning and anti-meaning.  A common critique of the Holocaust’s vaunted uniqueness is the risk of dehistoricization, of hypostasizing the genocide of the European Jews, with the effect of moving it into the realm of the (cataclysmic) sacred while downplaying, even discounting its connections to other examples of mass murder, as well as to the still-propellant forces of racism, violent nationalism, murderous xenophobia, and the like.  I would argue, however, for the uniqueness of the Holocaust and of each historical event that may resemble it.  The claim of the Holocaust’s uniqueness is precisely a historical claim, but one that treats the historical as itself a pervious thing, as linked to philosophical query and to poetry as it is to chronology and factology. 

From the diary of Janusz Korczak, dated August 4, 1942:

A cloudy morning.  Five thirty.
Seemingly an ordinary beginning of a day.  I say to Hanna:
“Good morning!”
In response, a look of surprise.
I plead:
They are ill, pale, lung-sick smiles.

I read Korczak’s lines as a poem, and I link them to a new poem by Susan Howe:

In the old days I used to sit
up late till an owl appeared
Negative infinity melodrama

I shall never forget you half-
way owl shadow marauder
How you flew over and over

Ruined Jewish cemetery, Przeworsk, Poland, 2015

Ruined Jewish cemetery, Borislav, Ukraine, 2014

Ruined Jewish cemetery, Berezhany, Ukraine, 2014

Timothy Snyder writes:  “Every unity is beautiful as image but circular as logic and tyrannical as politics.  The answer to those who seek totality is not anarchy, which is not totality’s enemy, but its handmaiden.  The answer is thoughtful, plural institutions:  an unending labor of differentiated creation.  This is a matter of imagination, maturity, and survival.”

Shoshana Felman writes that the Holocaust was  “…an event without a witness, an event which historically consists in the scheme of the literal erasure of its witnesses but which, moreover, philosophically  consists in an accidenting of perception, in a splitting of eyewitnessing as such; an event, thus, not empirically, but cognitively and perceptually without a witness both because it precludes seeing and because it precludes a community of seeing.”

Ruined Jewish cemetery, Lesko, Poland, 2015

Ruined Jewish cemetery, Burshtyn, Ukraine, 2014

Tombstones from the ruined Jewish cemetery dumped in the partly ruined Polish cemetery, Sokal, Ukraine, 2014

A proposition:  Holocaust ruins are physical manifestations of an existential crisis that is distinct from––if predicated on––eternal questions about how mortality and impermanence riddle the human condition, and distinct also from questions about modernity’s self-destructiveness, and the struggle for just and sustainable political-economies.  Holocaust ruins are physical forms of ultimate questions:   Is memory a match for history?  Can we even begin to comprehend the enormity of the misery with which the Holocaust confronts us?  And if not:  are we at liberty to question our obligation to try?  And if so:  is this the point from which indifferent earth indeed begins to cover the blood of the victims?  And if so:  where to find protection for ourselves against the force and aftereffects of injustice in all its forms––protection we need urgently, and now?  And I could go on.

To look into a Holocaust ruin, I venture––not just to look at it, but into it––is to remember the ancient words of the Torah commanding us to choose life, and at the same time to recognize that given the world we have made, we no longer know how.  

And Berel Lang observes, on the problem of theodicy, i.e. the shape of this crisis in religious terms:  “…far from resolving or being resolved by any traditional answers to the “problem of evil,” the Holocaust changes nothing in the force (or weakness) of the issues that underlie this problem.  For it is the possibility of evil in its merest form that first raises the problem for theological or metaphysical conceptions of a benevolent God.  Large-scale evil such as the Holocaust…is no more problematic in theological or metaphysical terms than its slightest instance; genocide, no more an issue––in Dostoyevsky’s example––than the single tear of an innocent child.”

Two phrases echo through these pictures of mine, images from the visually non-experimental side of my archive:  “the ruin as Jewish” and “the Jewish as ruin.”  The distinctions between them are hard to tease out.  At issue, on the one hand, is a historical question, how a culture or civilization with a distinctive character comes to include ruination as an aspect of its cultural specificity, as in those ruins are what remains of ancient Rome (about which we can say XYZ), and those are what remains of twentieth-century Detroit, and these are what remain of prewar Jewish civilization in Europe.  On the other hand, there is the question of ruination as an internal aspect of these civilizations, as if to suggest that ruination were somehow a consequence of these civilizations’ own dynamics.  The latter is highly unsettling inasmuch as it suggests that European Jews somehow brought genocide on themselves.

Aporia, impassable path, I revolt.

Ruined synagogue, Dukla, Poland, 2015

Ruined synagogue, Olesko, Ukraine, 2014

Ruined synagogue, Pidhaitsi, Ukraine, 2014

Ruined synagogue, Bratslav, Ukraine, 2017

Ruined synagogue, Dębica, Poland, 2015

Ruined synagogue, Wiśniowa, Poland, 2015

Ruined synagogue, Stary Dzików, Poland, 2015

But perhaps “the Jewish as ruin” can be differently figured, such that the ruin extends and completes what we affirm in and as the Jewish.  The Jewish:  a name for the struggle towards unity, a unity vigorous and gentle enough to include incomprehensible loss, ruination, abjection, hopelessness, the full weight and scope of the nothingness, the voidedness, the senselessness, the collapse that the Holocaust was and stood for.  The Jewish:  a name for a non-dual conceptual space that does not vaporize confusion or euphemize pain, but that allows for reconciliation to emerge through a process of skilled, compassion-driven discernment.  The Jewish:  a name in which the doubt, rebellion, fragmentation, refusal, resistance that the genocide occasions also has a place.

Ruined synagogue, Sokal, Ukraine, 2014

Ruined Jewish prayer room, Lviv, Ukraine, 2014

If I could speak my prayeers into a great, tumbling heap––wouldn’t I?  And if I could write my sentences one atop the other, rather than arranging them side by side, linked into a chain and staged in time––wouldn’t I?   And if I could write my poems in invisible letters, wouldn’t I?

Sitting in a synagogue on Rosh Hashonah, I realize:  the best response to the ruins, maybe the only way to resist them, is joy, joy which is the unity of the something and the nothing, and joy which is also, strangely, the name of one of Detroit’s most notoriously ruined streets.

Ann Arbor and Atlanta, September 2017