Thursday, November 25, 2010

Why We Laugh At Mass Murder

The lecturer is smiling as she recounts the murderous 1944 forced marches of Hungarian Jews from the Austrian border to Vienna where the mayor of the city has agreed to “rent” the Jews from the Nazis, who though they knew the war was lost still were determined to kill every Jew, and also wanted at the same time to raise money both from renting their slave labor and from selling them outright to Jewish Aid organizations at 1000 dollars each for transport to neutral countries. It was madness. I too find myself smiling when I retell the story.

Not everyone in the audience was smiling. The academic looking man sitting next to me is asleep and snoring. Others are checking their watches. It has been a gray tense day of winter weather in Budapest, the kind that is very hard to endure. People want to get a glass of wine from the reception buffet and go home.

Here in the lecture room, unobtrusively, the human being's claim for self respect is being proven false. This is what people do. The truth is they use a pretense of being human to cover their inhumanity. They murder for no real reason, other than everything else they are working on has failed. At the end of the war the Nazi's only success was mass murder so they went on with it.

The significance of the mass murder of the Jews, its distinct characteristic, is perhaps shown more clearly in this episode than any other: the choice of a kind of life that goes by the name now as terrorism. Its definition is permanent war, is the voluntarily giving up of return to peace time life as justification and goal of violence. The Nazis, the mayor of Vienna, the Austrians who employed deported Budapest Jews as slaves all were with open eyes voluntarily making this transition from human life as we are accustomed to look at it and live it, to lives of terror.

We are amazed at this. We laugh at it. Our education has not prepared us for this. How could we be educated, how could we have any respect for our teachers and parents if they showed us this side of adult behavior? Adult behavior: the Nazis in the last months of the war deciding to go on killing because it is the best thing they felt they could do under the circumstances, when they were not privately robbing and extorting money.

It is a satire on the idea of human society, on working together, community, on work too, because it is above everything the usefulness to society of the "work" of mass murder that is behind this all. Terror has become a profession, a life style choice in our times. The holocaust initiated us. And now we are living in the time of the flourishing practice of the new art.

As my readers know, two years ago I found on the streets of Budapest, thrown out on one of the city's "attic clearing days", the memory book of a young Hungarian Jewish girl. From an entrance document dated the end of 1944 to the Dachau concentration camp sent to me by an archive in Jerusalem it seems almost certain this girl was among those deported by train to the border, perhaps working on anti tank fortifications there and perhaps was among those sent on to work as slaves as arranged by the Mayer of Vienna. I am at this lecture because I found this book. Three quarters of the slave laborers survived, most to be deported then to concentrations camps where there were different likelihoods of death.

Someone once asked Gandhi what he thought of Western civilization. And he’s supposed to have said, “I think it would be a very good idea.”

We laugh to create detachment from ugliness, from repetitive error. Laughter is a kind of teaching attention to ugliness, that let's us go on looking at something that might otherwise harm us by tempting us to imitate it.

We smile because we can hardly believe the human species has exposed the truth about itself so completely, clearly, fundamentally. We want the truth to come out because we believe that once released from the successful hypocrisy of those in power we ourselves will be freer in our private lives. At least it seems so. We are not laughing at the killed but at the killers. We are putting them in their place, as outside the life of human beings, as role players on stage in a comedy we laugh at. We remove their humanity in this way. We protect our own humanity in this way.