The Temptation of St. Anthony, Max Ernst, 1945
Early in the twentieth century, there is evidence of faith and prayer in poetry, and of belief in the sacred. Toward the middle of the century, there is a discernible shift toward alienation from the deity. Celan:
They dug and they dug, so their day
went by for them, their night. And they did not praise God,
who, so they heard, wanted all this,
who, so they heard, knew all this.
—From There Was Earth Inside Them
The temporal sense seems changed. In Velimir Khlebnikov’s “Suppose I make a timepiece of humanity,” we read this:
I tell you, the universe is the scratch
of a match on the face of the calculus.
And my thoughts are a picklock at work
on a door, and behind it someone is dying.
There are many other shared qualities, such as the experience of consciousness itself as fragmented and altered, and for the first time, soldier poets write of the extremity of the battlefield explicitly in terms of its horrors. Poetic language attempts a coming to terms with evil and its embodiments, and there are appeals for a shared sense of humanity and collective resistance. There are many poems of address: to war as figural, to death and evil, memory and hunger as figural, and of course to the world to come:
We speak loudly but no one understands us.
But we are not surprised
For we are speaking the language
That will be spoken tomorrow.
—Horst Bienek, from “Resistance”
In conditions of extremity (war, suffering, struggle), the witness is in relation, and cannot remove him or herself. Relation is proximity, and this closeness subjects the witness to the possibility of being wounded. No special protection can be sought and no outcome intended. The witness who writes out of extremity writes his or her wound, as if such writing were making an incision. Consciousness itself is cut open. At the site of the wound, language breaks, becomes tentative, interrogational, kaleidoscopic. The form of this language bears the trace of extremity, and may be comprised of fragments: questions, aphorisms, broken passages of lyric prose or poetry, quotations, dialogue, brief and lucid passages that may or may not resemble what previously had been written.
The word “extremity” (extremus) is the superlative correlative of the word “exterior” (exterus). Extremity suggests “utmost,” “exceedingly great,” and also “outermost,” “farthest,” implying intense suffering and even world-death; a suffering without knowledge of its own end. Ethical reading of such works does not inhere in assessing their truth value or efficacy as “representation,” but rather in recognizing their evidentiary nature: here language is a life-form, marked by human experience, and is also itself material evidence of that-which-occurred. This evidence continues to mark human consciousness. The aftermath is a region of devastated consciousness of barbarism and the human capacity for cruelty and complicity with evil. In this aftermath, we are able to read—in the scarred landscape of battlefields, in bomb craters and unreconstructed ruins, in oral and written testimony and its extension in literary art—the mark or trace of extremity.