In preparing last week’s Chronicle on Steven Spielberg‘s Saving Private Ryan, I had occasion to review Spielberg’s preceding World War II film, Schindler’s List, as well as his more recent Amistad, which attempts to do for slavery what Schindler had done for the Holocaust. These films provide material for reflection on our popular culture and on Spielberg’s privileged role within it.

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The most successful definition of the postmodern, no doubt because it expresses in decorous fashion the resentments of our era, is that of Jean-François Lyotard, for whom postmodernity is the era that no longer accepts the “master narratives” of our culture. (As a perspicacious colleague once remarked to me, the story of the end of the master narratives is the one master narrative that seems to have escaped the fate it describes.) My own inclination is to situate postmodernity more concretely in history in relation both to an event (World War II, Hiroshima, Auschwitz) and to its consequence for socio-political organization: the end of a century (1848-1945) of attempts to institute the utopian transcendence of the market system through some kind of “socialism.” The eternization of market society means the end of “master narratives” that express a closed, apocalyptic vision of history, as epitomized in the Internationale (“‘Tis the final conflict; let each stand in his place. / The International Soviet shall be the human race!”), including the Hegelian “master narrative” of history, as revised and corrected by Francis Fukuyama.

Yet the most crucial event of WW II is the Holocaust, an event that, precisely, is not directly convertible into a narrative. Those who have proclaimed that after this event culture is no longer possible (Adorno: “All post-Auschwitz culture … is garbage”) are making a profound anthropological point that must, like all expressions of Jewish exemplarity, be separated out from its ethnic particularity. (To the extent that “Generative Anthropology” has a specific historical mission, it may perhaps best be stated in these terms.) As I tried to show in Signs of Paradox, the Holocaust as the “final solution” to the “Jewish question” targets the exemplary refusers of esthetic centrality whose vision of history is likewise the ironic awaiting of an unfigurable messianic dénouement.

The “story of the Holocaust” is not tellable within the parameters of historical fiction because it cannot be assumed by any of its victims. To read about particular reactions of courage or resignation on the part of one or more of the “six million” is not really to exemplify the annihilation of the Jewish universe of which they were a part. The scandal of the Holocaust is that it can be totalized only from the standpoint of the persecutors; that is what genocide is all about. A “final solution” certainly provides a good ending for a narrative, but only if one accepts its intentions. (A well-crafted example is The Turner Diaries, the neo-Nazi novel discussed in Chronicle 90, which describes the final triumph of the “Aryan” race; only in the context of such a “master narrative” could Hitler’s successful elimination of the Jews from most of Europe be presented as a part of a historical process.) This has not prevented the emergence of a “Holocaust industry” devoted to telling the impossible story. There is no cultural paradox that cannot be made the theme of cultural discourse. But when we try to read the whole story from the standpoint of the victims, say in Martin Gilbert‘s The Holocaust, the result is less a series of events than a list of liquidations.

To this conundrum, Schindler’s List provides a radical solution. Instead of trying to convey the horror of the Holocaust through synecdoche, it recasts it as a tale of survival. In the true spirit of popular culture, the Holocaust becomes a story with a “happy ending,” guaranteed by the moving presence in the epilogue of the real survivors who, accompanied by their (so much taller!) actor counterparts, conclude the film by placing commemorative stones on Oskar Schindler’s grave in Jerusalem. Some have reacted negatively to Spielberg’s film as a feel-good gimmick. The Holocaust is not about survival, they say, but about destruction; the survival of a thousand Jews cannot stand in for the death of six million. But in this victimary interpretation, the impossibility of telling the “story of the Holocaust” becomes in effect a critique of survival itself. Had Hitler’s view of the world been fully implemented, there would be no problem in telling the story of the Holocaust. Only Jewish survival makes it untellable.

The Holocaust is indeed about survival, and Spielberg shows us that the story of survival is the only one that popular culture, which is to say, ourselves, can tell about it. Rather than a gimmick, Schindler’s List should be seen as exemplary of other survival stories–those involved, for example, in the foundation of Israel. It is indispensable that, as pointed out to me by Doug Collins, Schindler’s action, although it ends up as an act of charity, is at the outset and in principle a rational economic one. The Jews’ survival depends on their ability to function within market society, not as sinister conspirators a la Protocols of the Elders of Zion, but as effective economic agents.

The unsatisfactory fit of the film as a model of the Holocaust reveals, without the need for the subtlety of textual deconstruction, the discordance between map and territory that makes culture always a part of history in the present rather than a reliving of the past. Of course the Schindlerjuden are a drop in the bucket of blood shed in the Holocaust; of course their story is not that of the six million. I will go further. Even the images of apocalyptic violence we see in the film are rendered less serious by their association with what is ultimately a positive tale with a “happy ending.” In particular, Ralph Fiennes’ portrayal of the camp director Amon Goeth, however horrible the deeds we see him carry out–using prisoners for target practice, arbitrarily shooting a dozen or so after one member of their detachment escaped–is just slightly ironic. Instead of provoking in us justified resentment of an evildoer, he is very nearly a figure of fun. This is perhaps the film’s greatest triumph: to make a Nazi “sympathetic”; it is also the reason that some Holocaust specialists intensely dislike the film. For, manipulated by Schindler, he cannot prevent the latter’s triumph.

This is true even in the film’s most sinister depictions. When a train of prisoners to be deported to Auschwitz (and presumably to annihilation) awaits at the station, Schindler gets Goeth to have the cars sprayed with water, even to attach an extension hose for the cars at the end of the train. We are shown repeated images of prisoners gratefully drinking the water at the openings in the cars. Goeth, knowing that these prisoners will in a few days have been reduced to ash, jocularly accuses Schindler of cruelty in giving them hope. The critics of Schindler’s List agree with Goeth; I find myself in agreement with Schindler. If this humane gesture indeed took place, it would have had only the briefest effect on the lives of the Jews in the cars; hardly enough, one might even say, to justify Schindler’s diminishing his stock of influence to make the effort. But it is in this way that popular culture teaches us the virtues of esthetic “symbolism.” Schindler’s humane gesture, however futile in “reality,” is not futile in the economy of the narrative. The positive imagery of thirst-quenching it provides, even in cattle-cars headed for Auschwitz, is a model of the film as a whole, telling the only story that we can tell, the figure of survival amid disaster.

High culture does not deal with symbolism in this way. The high-cultural model of survival is cultural, not physical, as its highest expression in tragedy reveals. The scene of culture is sacrificial, but we permit the sacrifice and find it justified because it generates a shared meaning that defers further conflict. Our selves are constituted by the mimetic desire for centrality that the tragic hero realizes; dying, he lives on in cultural memory. The victims of sacrifice once had heroic stories to tell, but the ultimate future of sacrifice is the Holocaust, where the victims are anonymous and uncountable. Afterward, there is only the impossibility of story, or the ultimately tiresome metastory of the story’s untellability. In the face of this high-cultural inadequacy, the lesson of Schindler’s List is that it is better to tell the story as comedy than not to tell it at all. It is legitimate and authentic to focus on the survivors because we too are survivors who have no right to expect tragic victims for our cultural consumption. In tragedy, survival is a problem only to the extent that we must, like Horatio, absent ourselves from felicity awhile; “felicity” is not a category we associate with gas chambers.

Holocaust, Auschwitz–to write these words is indecent because the reader’s pain is inflicted not by the Nazis but by the author. To talk about the Holocaust, however necessarily, is to arouse resentment in those we submit to its potency. But there is a rarely appreciated advantage in this situation: evocation of the Holocaust is never PC. It is by understanding and appreciating this advantage that Schindler’s List tells its story of Holocaust survival, tells the Holocaust as a story of survival. Although, or rather because the Holocaust was the historical origin of postmodern victimary thinking, antisemitism alone of discriminatory modes is not condemned by PC–indeed, PC in its extreme forms becomes antisemitism. This, perhaps the most ironic sign of Jewish “election,” helps to explain why Schindler’s List so much better a film than Amistad, Spielberg’s flawed attempt to find a tale of survival in the Holocaust’s twin horror story, that of African-American slavery.

If Jews are, for better or worse, immune to the poisoned gifts of PC, the case of American Blacks is just the reverse. This explains why, if “we” all become Holocaust survivors in the context of Schindler’s rescued 1100, there is no universal American “we” who can experience a similar survival story in slavery. Spielberg’s noble error was, following too closely the model of Schindler, to treat slavery as an event and present as its “survivors” a shipload of African captives who freed themselves from their chains. As the last line of the film tells us, the freed Amistad captives returned to a land in the throes of civil war. Cinque and his followers have no Israel to build; horribile dictu, they would probably have been better off as slaves in the United States than as “free” people in Sierra Leone. Their survival (for how long?) is an abstraction; it is “our” soul rather than their lives that is at stake. Hence our obligation to sit dutifully through the sanctimonious speechifying about the evils of slavery (Anthony Hopkins / Quincy Adams’ final speech takes a full quarter hour, enlivened only by low-angle shots into the sunlight and Aaron Copland-like “public-service” music), or to “participate” in the destruction of the African slave fortress (“Tell Mr Holabird that he is correct; the fortress does not exist”). The most powerful imagery in the film is that of the brutalities on the slave ship (casting dozens of chained captives overboard to ease a food shortage–yet the Africans’ revolt is portrayed before this justifying imagery, since we are presumed already to know the evils of slavery). But these are, precisely, not images of survival but the opposite.

Amistad fails because one cannot transcend PC by substituting “real” Africans for African-Americans; the victimary resentment and rage must be worked through. Slavery, unlike the Holocaust, was not an event; surviving it was not a matter of being spared. American popular culture is rich in figures of the survival of slavery; indeed, it is dominated by them. But this figural vocabulary belongs to the culture created by slavery’s real survivors. Even Spielberg’s sentimental The Color Purple (1985, after Alice Walker) expresses this form of survival more appropriately than Amistad.

Saving Private Ryan conveys its message far more cleanly than Schindler’s List, but only because Schindler had already taught Spielberg and his public that survival is not a morally complex operation. The skills required seem, at first glance, to be reduced to technical knowledge: for example, how to attach a mirror to a stick with chewing gum (the film’s only lesson for the young, according to the New Yorker’s reviewer). Hence the reproach of superficiality and even “immaturity” (leveled by the impeccably mature John Podhoretz of the Weekly Standard). But the technical tricks lead to victory only because they are employed by an effective human organization, one we take for granted for most of the film, but whose “deep structure” is revealed to us in a single moment of crisis.

When Captain Miller’s squad captures a machine-gun nest after losing one of its men in a skirmish, they kill one surviving enemy soldier in a rage; a second remains, whom the interpreter befriends. Since he has no way to take prisoners, the Captain blindfolds the soldier and lets him go free. This enrages the private from Brooklyn, who threatens to desert the mission. The sergeant threatens him with his pistol, but the soldier refuses to obey. It is up to the Captain to restore order.

We already know that the men have set up a pool to bet on the Captain’s peacetime identity; at one point, the latter had made a jocular deal with the interpreter to split the winnings when the amount reached $500. Now the Captain reveals to the men that his is the least heroic of occupations, that of a small town high-school English teacher. He then leaves the rebellious soldier free to desert, even promising to do the paper work. This anti-charismatic gesture, which defuses the scene’s tensions, illustrates the difference between a maximal social order focused on a central leader and a minimal system where leadership exists only to get the job done. Whereas the enemy soldier, in fear of being shot, had felt it necessary to shout “Fuck Hitler,” the American system as portrayed here is defined by neither adulation nor resentment of the center. The mystery that composes the Captain’s minimal charisma can be sacrificed at any time for the sake of group cohesion.

If we see ourselves today as liberated from the tyranny of “master narratives,” it is because they were pursued in WW II to the point at which they revealed their bankruptcy. Today’s culture is “popular” in consequence, not because it cannot rise above the vulgar display of resentment, but, on the contrary, because the sufferings of the esthetic center can no longer justify identification with its violence. Steven Spielberg’s films have been a major factor in this development. Where Schindler’s List, by teaching us to understand the Holocaust as survival rather than victimage, helped preserve the cultural force of World War II from the paralysis of victimary repetition, Saving Private Ryan demonstrates the purposefulness that accompanies this new understanding.

Resentment will always present problems, and those it will pose to the next generation are likely to make our own seem benign. History waits for no one; what makes it possible to evacuate the cultural paradoxes of one era is the burgeoning urgency of those of the next. The decline of victimary thinking in the world’s dominant culture is driven by necessity, not by some gratuitous improvement of the human soul. We should therefore celebrate all the more those forces that hasten it. The affirmative minimalism illustrated by Spielberg’s films of World War II offers our own best chance of survival in the emerging era of global interaction and nuclear-armed resentment.