The Heart of Darkness. Dark Heritage and the Holocaust Sublime

Activity: Lecture / PresentationAcademic


The Heart of Darkness. Dark heritage and the Holocaust Sublime

Rob van der Laarse

If Europe in the first half of the 20th century was the world’s ‘dark continent’, than Auschwitz was the heart of darkness. Joseph Conrad’s famous metaphor not only draws attention to the historical connection between the colonial and the Nazi’s ‘white man’s burden’, but also to the fatal, emotional attraction of darkness and the sublime in past and present. Because of this implicit association I am not convinced that dark heritage would be the best covering concept for painful and traumatic heritage, but it is certainly the best metaphor for Europe’s Holocaust heritage. Aesthetic notions like the pastoral and the sublime appear not only in Nazi imagination but also in Holocaust fiction, memorial architecture, and tourism. In particular Auschwitz has acquired an iconic status in Holocaust discourse as the universal symbol of Evil, experienced by 1.5 million yearly tourists on pilgrimage to the sacred shrine of the Catastrophe.
As sublimity has much in common with Freud’s notion of sublimation, and darkness with wildness, we may not be surprised to find a hidden subtext of instinctive violence, trauma and victimhood in Holocaust narrative. In my contribution I will try to relate this post-1989 trauma paradigm to the staging of holocaust sites, the popularity of Holocaust novels and movies, and the practice of virtual Jewishness. Yet, recognized by the United Nations and the European Union as the negative founding myth of postmodern civilization, the Holocaust paradigm has recently become competed by an Eastern European occupation paradigm. Demanding for a recognition of ‘their’ suburban experiences as traumatised victims of postwar Soviet occupation, new anti-communist memorial museums are hailed by the EU because of their use of trauma politics, without noticing the silencing of the Eastern Jews massacred with the help of Eastern European nationalists. Might it be possible that Auschwitz would become Oswiecim again, and the Holocaust a second Holodomor? Or will the hell of these forgotten bloodlands never be able to compete with the ‘scientific’ sublimity of the Final Solution; if not for numbers than simply because of the lack of an odyssean epic of civilized people, such as Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel, getting lost in the heart of darkness?

University of Amsterdam / VU University Amsterdam
Period5 Jun 2012
Event titleACHS Inaugural Conference Re/theorizing Heritage
Event typeConference