Heimrad Bäcker

Ugly Duckling Presse


Friday, January 3rd, 2014

Translation by Patrick Greaney
Afterword by Charles Bernstein

Have you ever killed anyone?

This was the question a journalist recently reported asking a convicted serial killer. Not to drag biography into it, but criminal lawyers know better than to ask such stupid questions. For, not to drag cogitography into it, but who amongst us has not killed someone, or, better still, anyone. Assuming, as we must assume, the proper collective historical perspective.

But first, to drag biography into it: Heimrad Bäcker was an Austrian artist, poet, and editor. Born in 1925, Bäcker was a propaganda officer in the Hitler Youth; at 18, he joined the Nazi Party. In 1968, Bäcker began collecting quotations and documentary materials about the Shoah, presenting these materials as concrete and visual poetry. Seascape, a brief documentary account of a U-boat’s failure to rescue three Norwegian sailors, was originally published as a single-themed edition of Bäcker’s journal neue texte, then included in a self-selected book of collected works, published in limited edition. For his part, he deemed the work a piece of concrete poetry. Ugly Duckling Presse has published it in another two limited editions, 500 bound by the Presse ($25), 26 bound in boards by Paper Dragon Books ($125).

We can start then with the proposition that Ugly Duckling Presse has presented this lovely book object as a thoughtfully concretized material object, for one thing the National Socialists well understood was that materiality is inseparable from animus. As a contemplative aside, this, in the person of Leni Riefenstahl, was the great art lesson of the time: that aesthetics could not be segregate from ethics as a formed and formal proposition. Along with Duchamp, Riefenstahl altered the landscape of all art après. Bäcker, then, may be also understood as one who understood both their art lessons. The thing, and not for nothing can we use das Ding here, is art because it works as art within the context of art, and the thing as art always speaks as a thing about its event-culture. Fountain works perfectly as a pissoir, which of course renders a public service. While all art is inherently excremental, the readymade captures the aura of excrescence that mass-produces art for appreciation by the cognoscenti and pissing-on by the masses. Fountain in particular thus bears eloquent witness to Hegel’s observation that the penis is Nature’s naïve conjunction of “the organ of its highest fulfillment, the organ of generation, with the organ of urination.” Switch out art for poetry and we can stop nattering on about what is or isn’t poetry and return to our retinal proclivities and attendant camps.

The double vaulted pages of Seascape, coupled with its creamy thick paper and letterpress gray typeface, Century font, ReichTM paper throughout, could be no other way. All text is as text: the formal citation that appeared in the original exhibit document is transcribed along with the more informational portion. Charles Bernstein’s afterword sits as a single folded broadsheet of gray-backed cardstock, tucked in an envelope slitted (or tipped, as you wish) in a back flap. The book’s pages are (hand) bound by a single gray cord that runs between two holes punched on the left hand side. The cover includes the work as part of UDP’s Lost Literature series (#11). The poems themselves are largely data, beginning with the subtitle:

B. 36. War log, size: DIN A3

to poems reiterating the ongoing theme of ongoing weather, such as:

0800Quad AL 0175, SW 4/5,
heavy rain, moderate
seas, poor

And the turn, the narrative bit that is to give allegorical heft to the rest, the reported sighting of a Norwegian motor tanker, the John P. Pedersen, “drifting under sail,” three survivors lying within, who stated that:

their ship had been torpedoed 28 days before. I turned
down their request to be taken aboard, provisioned the
boat with food and water and gave them the course and
distance to the Icelandic coast. Boat and crew were in
a state that, in view of the prevailing weather, offered
hardly any prospect of rescue.

And the denouement, a simple citation (“Reference: IMT (International Military Tribunal: Nuremberg, 1949), Vol. XIV, 340-41; Vol. XXV, 623-25.”) in which it is revealed that these clips are taken (were taken?) from documentary evidence introduced in the trials.

Thus we have the creamy fetish of the wide open seas, a Weltgeschichte of negative space, and the empty vaginal folds of the uncut pages, implying that something more generative could have come from the excremental narrative at hand. All in all, a lovely and useless object.i So far, so good.

As a historical aside, the text in Seascape was taken more specifically from documentary evidence introduced against Erich Raeder, Admiral of the Third Reich, charged with waging a war of aggression and violating international law in conducting his U-boat war. Raeder’s defense was that the navy was a military operation, and that any reduction in restrictions on naval warfare was justified as a response to enemy actions. Third Reich Vice Admiral Schulte-Mönting, commander of the Norwegian North Coast, testified in Raeder’s defense. The Seascape incident was used to impeach Schulte-Mönting’s claim that the navy fought a “clean war.”

Or, as I found in the Nuremberg trial transcripts themselves (not included in Seascape itself):

SCHULTE-MONTING: I observe that the commanding officer did what he could, in view of the weather which he described when he said that in view of the bad weather he could not rescue them. He threw provisions to them in a sack and gave them the course to the coast. I do not know what there is about that that is inhumane. If he had left without giving them food and the course, then you might make that accusation.
MAJOR JONES: But he could have taken them aboard, you know. These were three men who did…
SCHULTE-MONTING: No, I believe you cannot judge that. Only the commanding officer himself can judge that, the man in charge of the U-boat. I would have to look at the weather, because it says here “Medium swell.” That could also..
MAJOR JONES: But you see here the U-boat commander must have spoken to these people and physically it must have been possible to take them aboard, but he left them to their fate, you know, knowing quite well he was leaving them to die.
SCHULTE-MONTING: No, not at all. Then he would not have needed to give them any food and to give them the course to the coast. What makes you think that they had to die? By the way…
MAJOR JONES: The last sentence is a clear indication that the U-boat captain knew he was leaving them to die. I am suggesting to you that he could have taken them aboard and should have done so if he had the elements of humanity in him.
SCHULTE-MONTING: No; I do not know the condition of the U-boat, whether the boat was in a position to take prisoners on board. I believe that you have never seen conditions on a U-boat; otherwise you would not judge it like that. Considering that the crew of a U-boat is under water for weeks and uses every last bit of space and is exposed to the greatest dangers day and night, one cannot simply say that it would have been a humane act to take these additional men aboard. Besides, the commander himself says there was hardly a chance of rescue in view of the prevailing weatherii

There is no indication in Bäcker’s work as to when the incident occurred, though a quick search shows that the Pedersen was sunk on May 20, 1941, about 160 miles south of the tip of Greenland. There were two lifeboats launched, 16 survivors in one and 21 in the other. The boat with 16 survivors was found three days later by a Danish rescue ship and taken to Reykjavik; the other lifeboat, according to British Navel records, was never found.iii The Norwegian tanker was auxiliary to the British Royal Fleet, and was carrying 9100 tons of Admiralty fuel oil at the time of its sinking.

It is unclear whether the ships’ sailors (regardless of nationality) would have been considered non-civilians, even if they were non-combatants, under the 1929 Geneva and 1899/1907 Hague Conventions. In any case, the 1929 version of the Geneva Conventions mandated that wounded or sick enemy combatants who fall in the hands of the enemy should be treated as prisoners of war (chp. 1, art. 2), and non-combatants were to be treated humanely in all circumstances (art. 3). The 1910 Brussels Conventions more broadly required the captain of any vessel to “assist” any shipwrecked person. According to the 1929 Geneva provisions, there is an affirmative duty to “lend help and support” the shipwrecked, which, as noted in a 1960 Commentary to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, contains “an implicit obligation to collect them.” This obligation was made explicit in 1949, though submarines and “fast torpedo-boats” were given special dispensation relative to rescue duties because of the limited nature of their equipment and accommodations. “Generally speaking, if a warship is forced to leave shipwrecked persons to their fate, it will endeavor to provide them with the means to enable them to await rescue or reach the coast: life-boats, food, water, a compass, charts, etc.”iv

As a further aside, there was the Laconia incident in September 1942 in which a U-boat torpedoed the civilian vessel; when area U-boats began to provide rescue operations, they were attacked by a US bomber. The U-boats were then ordered to stop rescuing civilians, thus initiating officially unrestricted submarine warfare for Germany—although the Germans argued that the Americans had been engaging in unrestricted warfare since the beginning of the war. To cut a bit to the case’s chase, Admiral Raeder was acquitted of the specific charge of unrestricted submarine warfare based on affidavit evidence by the then-commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, acknowledging that the United States had engaged in unrestricted submarine warfare from the beginning. Convicted of the charges of war crimes and of waging a war of aggression, Raeder was sentenced to life, his subsequent request to be executed denied.

Note that this has not been so much a poetry review as such to date, but a rather linear historical exegesis, and a complication of guilt. To digress for a moment, let us consider in this context the relatively recent publication of Joseph Kaplan’s Kill List, in which a number of contemporary poets were described as either “rich” or “comfortable,” the titular implication being that come the rebellion, these individuals would be targeted for assassination by, presumably, the proletariat. Leaving aside the Bolshevik-belt gag of the work, and its function as a piece of primary institutional critique, what was interesting was how quickly ideology engulfed the imaginary in its reception. There was a dutiful outcry on social media about the poem and its particulars, including some pained individual protests against being labeled as rich/comfortable. But as Brecht knew, the ones who protest their innocence are the guiltiest of all, and as Obama knows, kill lists are by rights idiosyncratic, and as history proves, death is inevitable in service of revolution. So what is objected to in the objection is precisely animated by a bourgeois sense of individual entitlement, that is to say, that death ought be deserved, or at least comprehensible. This was the error that Simone Weil fell into in 1940 when she protested the Nazi prohibition against Jews teaching with her three-part objection: 1) such a ban was idiotic; 2) she was not Jewish; and 3) she didn’t want to teach anyway.

Back to poetics. As noted, Bernstein’s afterword is slotted in a slit, raising the question of whether pocket change changes the pants. Throughout his deft disquisition of Seascape as a piece of “after writing,” i.e., prose that cannot place itself “before,” i.e., “the writing of witness, that which places itself before, in front of, the event,” Bernstein repeats his resistance to characterizing the piece as poetry. It is an Adorno-born resistance: to characterize the work as poetry would be, in Bernstein’s words, “to accept that barbarism is before us, staring us in the face.” Bernstein thus preserves a special place for poetry as potential redeemer; despite its smutted face, the angelus novus, as Benjamin opined, “must look just so.” Aber warum?

In this, my argument is not with Bernstein’s reading—in this, all allegorical readings are as all allegorical readings—but rather with its conservatism. To slightly rephrase the lesson harrowed on our Western backs by Wittgenstein, there is not aesthetics without ethics, there is not ethics without aesthetics. There’s no preservation of poetry in any case, especially not this one: poetry is not reserved for morality or ethics, if there is a difference, and what would that difference be? The aesthetic point of Un coup des dès, the most obvious Continental precursor to Seascape, was whether the captain will cast his dice into the abyss, knowing that such a toss is meaningless, a tribute to pure chance. In Mallarmé’s preface to Un coup de des, he said that his verses demanded their surrounding silences to void narrative and suspend time. And this is precisely what the abyssal and creamy Seascape does: showing the moment when the die is cast without hope. Not out of a desire for this or that histoire (written, as always, in retrospect) but because one must, in the end, always cast the die. It could be asided here that coup also is a blow, as you know, as in de grâce, which may be also a mercy killing. In other words, what do we make of fate where there is no futurity?

At the end of his afterword, Bernstein writes, “Ich bin ein Norwegian.” What Kennedy more fully said was: “All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words, ‘Ich bin ein Berliner.’” So we have the problem of the citizen, as noted by Arendt and dilated upon by Agamben. If I am a Norwegian, I am yet a citizen, yet an ally. I deserve a certain form of treatment because of my citizenship. For that is the boat that cannot, must not, be sunk, according to this formulation. But we know how torpedoes go, and how Das Boot is in a storm. The allegory provoked by Seascape is thus perhaps less the humanity or inhumanity of Captain Flacksenberg’s actions, but Bäcker’s poetry therein. Bernstein’s afterword begins. “to write prose after Auschwitz is barbaric.” But surely the question of poetry after Auschwitz over-composes the point: the point of Seascape is that it is absolutely poetic.v

And absolutely fetishistic: there is a poetic sort of comfort in the press of the letterpress in this book-object, in the creamy heft of the pages, in the way the work flirts with a kind of Nazi-porn that makes the work that much more problematic. The rough definition of the pervert is that he knows what le grand Autre wants—how to reach the big O of the big other, as it were. There is something of that erectile quality here: we are to trill at the sign of the swastika, as if that sign is not a sign of civilization but a sign of barbarism. And by this same token, the prettiness of this particular poésie is its pockmarked preservation. A preservation sealed not just by the lushness of the book-object, but also by the imprimatur of ideological (aesthetic + ethic) purity provided by the construct of the Afterword as last word: the absolution that can only be provided for the Western audience by having a famous American Jewish poet judge the text a judgment. Of guilt, natürlich.

In this sense, Seascape works as a demonstration of the dispositif in the expanded Foucault con Agamben sense, where disquisitions of juridical and philosophical propositions have seamlessly confounded with the apparatuses of literature and Producing here, a poetry that cannot be even recognized as poetry, just as the art of Riefenstahl cannot be recognized as art. In other words, the sign of the Nazi renders all that occurs under the sign of the Nazi an atrocity. But in this Arendt was right, the sign of the Nazi is (and this is its truly pedestrian horror) the sign of a government. And the sign of wartime.vii As well, as here, the sign of the individual signature, which is also the sign of the poem. We put our hand to all of it, and why not? After all, as Foucault noted (and he was not wrong about this), you are either a symptom or are available as a symptom. Given the ambiguities properly left open by Seascape, a poem of particularly post-war indeterminacy.viii

In other words, clearly Adorno was wrong, there was most certainly poetry after Auschwitz, a veritable North Sea’s worth.ix We’re drowning in the stuff. Thus, the next question becomes what is the poetry of Auschwitz.x The poetry of Bäcker and beyond, the dispositif of all manner of adrift—or, put another way, especially today, perhaps the ideal is to say: Ich bin ein Musselman. But, if one is very brave indeed, to simply and stupidly repeat: Ich bin ein Berliner.

i A fetishization duly embraced by The Poetry Foundation’s Harriet: “Oh how we are fawning over Seascape by Heimrad Bäcker… More on the fawn later on.

ii, at p. 341. As another aside, I am not sure what Bernstein means in his afterward when he describes the “original of which SEASCAPE is an echo” as being neither the transcript nor the captain’s diary as these are “themselves commentaries.” It seems Bernstein is considering the event as such to be the only original, but there is no event sans document—which is one of the lessons in M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong. It’s not a nice lesson.

iii The missing lifeboat had contained 13 Norwegians, 2 Dutch, 2 Swedish, and 4 British crew, including the master.

iv, pp. 89-90, 130-131.

v Shifting the focus from barbarism (a discussion of incivility) to aestheticism (a discussion of the civilized), perhaps dodges the bullet-laden question of formalism in de jure citizenship. The aesthetic citizen is not necessarily a Volk, yet not quite an outsider, bearing something more akin to a cosmopolitanism that, duly effete, rests on exposure and appreciation rather than authenticity and its dopey twin, fidelity.

vi The French writer Franck Liebovici has developed a poetics of the dispositif as part of his “poetics of documents,” detailed in his book, Des documents poetiques. (Al Dante/Questions Théoriques Collection: Paris, 2007). As described by Christophe Hanne, Liebovici’s document poem is a document that is intentionally created “to respond to a new need for information of another kind,” i.e., a document that functions poetically insofar as poetry is language that functions in and as an aura of something more than the spare utility or communicability of its language. Christophe Hanne. Nos dispositifs poetiques. (Questions théoriques Collection: Paris, 2010), pp. 177-178. Stupidly demonstrated here when setting Seascape into its Anglicized (i.e., un-compounded) initials, SS.

vii It is perhaps a comfort to consider this particular wartime so very different from another wartime. Or, alternatively, that there could be acts of warfare that are innocent under the rules of warfare. Or, alternatively, that guilt cannot be painted with so broad a brush, even if the brush belongs to the victors. The refusal to entertain these other propositions is perhaps part of the dispositif of war itself. A bit of which is that war is presented as a by-product of other dispositifs, rather than one in itself.

viii I’m not sure if the argument about prose versus poetry is inherently interesting, although it may be of interest insofar as poetry had maintained (and here is where Bernstein comes in), a kind of moral preserve as part of its historical mandate. A preserve yet clung to by a passel of present-day poets, including those who would reserve avant garde poetics for the proper sort of politics, which they are happy to identify for you and explain to you, and those who oxymoronically damn the workings of capital viz poetry within the confines of Facebook or any other capitalized platform without personally blinking, or those who take the spread-footed stance, commonly seen at less aestheticized urinals, as they explicate what is and what is not poetry as they see it. Of course, we could just call the whole thing conceptual, and call it over. For the only real problem or puzzle in Kaplan’s list is that it is so very exclusive. All or none, as they say.

ix Part of Adorno’s error might lie in what he considered poetry; given his own aesthetic preferences for a high modernist Wahrheitsgehalt, where the object itself contains the conditions of its dialectical truth-telling. When Adorno wrote in Minima Moralia (1945), “The increasing impossibility of the representation of what is historical speaks to the extinction of art,” he was right enough, but then again wrong. Just as we have now our zombie poetries.

x How might poetry of Auschwitz differ from the poetry of the Shoah, for example, or the Holocaust, which may be two different things?

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