Theodor Adorno famously said that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Later, in an essay titled “Commitment,” he responds to critics:

I have no wish to soften the saying that to write lyric poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric; it expresses in negative form the impulse which inspires committed literature. The question asked by a character in Sartre’s play Morts Sans Supulture, ‘Is there any meaning in life when men exist who beat people until the bones break in their bodies?’, is also the question whether any art now has a right to exist; whether intellectual regression is not inherant in the concept of committed literature because of the regression of society. But Enzensberger’s retort also remains true, that literature must resist this verdict, in other words, be such that its mere existence after Auschwitz is not a surrender to cynicism. Its own situation is one of paradox, not merely the one of how to react to it…

…by turning suffering into images, harsh and uncompromising though they are, it wounds the shame we feel in the presence of the victims. For these victims are used to create something, works of art, that are thrown to the consumption of a world which destroyed them. The so-called artistic representation of the sheer physical pain of people beaten to the ground by rifle-butts contains, however remotely, the power to elicit enjoyment out of it. The moral of this art, not to forget for a single instant, slithers into the abyss of its opposite. The aesthetic principle of stylization, and even the solemn prayer of the chorus, make an unthinkable fate appear to have had some meaning; it is transfigured, something of its horror removed. This alone does an injustice to the victims; yet no art which tried to evade them could confront the claims of justice.

So, to make a simple comparison, I would say that to believe in God after Auschwitz is barbaric.

God has often been understood as a supernatural force that orchestrates all events unfolding in the universe. It is by his hand that things follow an understandable, if unpredictable, pattern. Thus, things have meaning. This was the same conception introduced by the first religious peoples, those for whom every major environmental feature presented itself as a deity, each one part of a pantheon of gods. But many contemporary popularizations of this old way of existing in a world of gods are surely mistaken. People did not literally “see” gods all around them. The gods were metaphors used to weave a coherent narrative of the world. Each god was the archetype of a certain set of attitudes or behaviors. Each had its own peculiar agency. One could describe an event to others by telling a story involving gods. But there weren’t gods everywhere. There was “sense” everywhere.

These narratives short-circuited a possible encounter with the senselessness of the Real, with a world of indeterminable scope. By delimiting the possible scope of the world, narratives made the world manageable; since so much of it could thereafter be taken for granted, weaved into a coherent whole, a solid deep structure, one could all the more easily react to day-to-day surface-level changes in the world. Otherwise one would be left without anything to focus on, no focal point around which to structure a general motivation for, or mode of, survival.

Narratives set in place a closed loop of causal explanations, a reservoir, an easy shortcut for explaining all manner of phenomena. But after Auschwitz, such narrativized understandings of the world are barbaric, and stupid. They do an injustice to the power of nature, its inexplicable, terrifying aspects, into which science can only begin to probe. The notions of God in circulation today unfortunately often follow the scheme laid out above. God has a “plan” (for me, my family, my nation, our planet, etc.). Nothing has changed, except that the multiple centers of agency in the polytheistic worldview are now condensed into a singular point containing every possible causal explanation; the monotheistic notion of God condenses into one agency the omniscience and omnipotence at work in any polytheistic scheme before or since.

Gods delimit the space of narrativized reality; they still decide not only what happens within that space (what action or happening is possible or actual), but also what is necessarily outside it (what is impossible or unreal — Lacan’s ‘Real’). Even when gods had foibles, as in Ancient Greece, they played a crucial role in a totalizing narrative, a source of absolute knowledge and power. In fact these foibles make things easier to understand, since they help us relate to the masters of the universe. And that way they’re more likable authority-figures. It’s hard to avoid making the comparison to politics today, in which figures like Berlusconi achieve electoral victories by entertaining the people; information, however powerful, is plain when compared to the drama of hapless and corrupt leaders. In the same way, it took a long time for the stern, sober Christian god to catch on in an ancient Roman world in which the people could worship all manner of interesting characters.

So the question is, what kind of God can there be after Auschwitz? What is a committed notion of God, a committed religion? Maybe we can look to Zizek for guidance here. Is God the divine grace of the Event, the violence of Terror and Love? The force beyond the confines of the vicious cycle of the law and its transgression? If any conception of God can respect the horror of life, then surely it is this one.

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