'All we know is that it is a game. In that sense, Smith’s chillingly light-hearted tone is not ambiguous at all.'twitter/@SReadBooks

Content note: this article contains detailed discussion of antisemitism and the Holocaust

At the heart of the early twentieth century modernist literature movement was a deeply troubling attitude to antisemitism. From Djuna Barnes’ Jewish stereotypes in Nightwood, to T.S. Eliot’s open contempt for Jews in his early poetry, to – more extremely – Ezra Pound’s antisemitic broadcasts from Italy during the second world war, the evidence is alarming. 

Stevie Smith was not of the Paris group. She was not even a published poet when she released her debut novel in 1936, Novel on Yellow Paper, or, Work it out for yourself. The novel is a secretary’s Tristram Shandy-esque descant, almost Joycean stream of consciousness, about everything and nothing, and it clearly bears the hallmarks of modernist prose: its linguistic subversiveness, its playful non-linear plot, and seemingly its uncomfortable collusion with antisemitic prejudice.

"No amount of hermeneutical gymnastics can escape Pompey’s brazen off-handedness"

Early in the novel, Pompey, Smith’s narrator, abruptly breaks off to recall a party hosted by a Jewish friend where she triumphantly realised she was the only “goy” in the room. Amidst indistinct Jewishness (she notes “some plain business men”) Pompey describes herself as “the only living person” and only her staccato cry rings out: “Hurrah to be a goy! A clever goy is cleverer than a clever Jew. And I am a clever goy that knows everything on earth and in heaven”.

It is hard to tell what Smith’s game is here. Perhaps she is satirising antisemitic bigotry. Olivia Bennett points out a possible riff on H.G. Wells’ Tono-Bungay (“they are very clever people, the Jews, but not clever enough to suppress their cleverness”). Then again, no amount of hermeneutical gymnastics can escape Pompey’s brazen off-handedness: “all to say about the Jews has been said,” she puts it, “so I’ll leave it”.

All we know is that it is a game. In that sense, Smith’s chillingly light-hearted tone is not ambiguous at all. Knowing what we do now, the novel’s flippant complacencies are a sinister foretaste if not of the Holocaust itself, then the unchecked ignorance that enabled Germany’s state-driven persecution of the Jewish people, which had already claimed many victims, if not so many lives, by 1936.

I can only imagine what feelings Smith’s words might inspire in a Jewish reader: unease, outrage, revulsion. But I also believe that her novel, for Jewish and non-Jewish readers alike, instructs us to rethink empathy for those victims of the Nazi regime in ways that are extremely valuable in 2020.

"Rose argued that the Holocaust was being narrated in a way that protected the present generation from the thought of any similarity with the genocide’s perpetrators"

In 1993, Gillian Rose published a controversial essay called “The Future of Auschwitz”. Rose, born into a non-practicing Jewish family, was a prominent British philosopher and sociologist appointed to the Polish Commission for the Future of Auschwitz in 1990. Until her death in 1995, she argued that the Holocaust was being narrated in a way that protected the present generation from the thought of any similarity with the genocide’s perpetrators. In popular tellings of the Holocaust like the film Schindler’s List, she saw a pious effort to place the audience alongside the victim which left a fundamental complacency untouched.

Gillian RoseTwitter/@TheHudsonReview

As she put the case in 1993, morality itself is corrupted. For Rose, the Holocaust showed that Plato’s dilemma of contingent morality had taken on a systemic twist in modern society: “it is possible to mean well, to be caring and kind, loving one’s neighbour as oneself, yet to be complicit in the corruption and violence of social institutions”. One can mean well, yet be the willing citizen of a country that commits mass murder. Such is the military might of the modern state, Rose explains, every day we stake our innocence on a delusional opposition between morality and legality, between what we think we believe in our autonomous conscience and what we think belongs to the actions of “outer, heteronomous institutions”, all the time slowly losing our sense of ourselves as moral agents and social actors. It is then all too easy for “cognitive activity and normative activity” to slide into “cognitive passivity and normative activity”, the unthinking consent and participation which sustains authoritarianism.

On the eve of the Holocaust, Stevie Smith recognised the same fatal dichotomy. When Pompey visits Berlin, she is terrified and disoriented by a world where Jews are not shot in the streets but done to death in lavatories, a world so dangerous because her ex German lover Karl can breezily say that his country could not possibly be so cruel, a world of uncontrollable brutality because it is everywhere present and yet nowhere represented or thought truthfully.

"Instead of proactive empathy, pity begets fear and fear begets violence"

Smith saw that art can reinforce this diremption. At one point in her ramblings, Pompey scathingly rebukes the “sociological ladies and gentlemen” who go to the theatre to watch naturalistic plays about “unpleasant themes”, which are full of trivial gimmicks (one play alerts its audience that it is set in a brothel with a single red lamp in the corner of the stage) or simplistic morals. The audience always returns home “feeling real good, as if they had been to church”. Smith, though, imagines a reversal of Aristotle’s purgative catharsis. Instead of proactive empathy, pity begets fear and fear begets violence. “You imagine yourself in the sufferer’s place. Already this begins to be dangerous. The livelier your imagination the greater your pity. And the greater your fear. This is already dangerous.”

Smith does not mean to “leave” antisemitism at all. Quite the opposite: in 1936, Smith challenged passive morality with a novel that was cynical, infuriatingly digressive and unnervingly frivolous. In our post-Holocaust world, the text’s offences should not be submitted to. But neither should it be censured, because it asks us to critically examine our empathy and our possible complicities.


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Will it be a novel on yellow paper? Or shall we work it out “for ourselves” – for our own comfort and benefit? Instead of the “sentimental tears” that, in Rose’s critique of Schindler’s List, leave us “emotionally and politically intact”, the novel ends with “pity and incongruity” as Pompey tells us in strangely impassioned tones about the death of a captive tigress. Forcibly resurrected on “uncertain pads”, she suddenly collapses without a word and drowns in a pool of water – or of our tears, perhaps. It is as if the moral of the story, the object of our empathy, slips away from our sense-making grasp, struck down by some “last, unnameable, not wholly apprehended, final outrage”.

Since 2016, I have been a Regional Ambassador for the Holocaust Educational Trust. 75 years on from the liberation of Auschwitz and Belsen, 2020 has been a particularly significant year for Holocaust remembrance, and I have been thinking a lot about what are the right questions to ask, the proper lessons to draw.

I guess there can never be one simple answer. But Gillian Rose’s essay has provided me with perhaps the most valuable advice yet. She wanted the defining question of Holocaust remembrance to change from “could I have done this?”, the answer to which would always be no, to “how easily could we have allowed this to be carried out?” The answer to that question is far more uncomfortable.