Hell Reconsidered

Few books possess the power to leave the reader with that feeling of awareness which we call a sense of revelation. Richard L. Rubenstein’s The Cunning of History seems to me to be one of these. It is a very brief work—a long essay—but it is so rich in perception and it contains so many startling—indeed, prophetic—insights that one can only remain baffled at the almost complete absence of attention it suffered when it was first published in 1975.* When I first read Rubenstein’s book about Auschwitz I felt very much the same effect of keen illumination that I did when, in the early stages of writing The Confessions of Nat Turner, I happened to read Stanley Elkins’s Slavery—a work which shed fresh light on American Negro slavery in such a bold and arresting way that, despite the controversy it provoked and the reassessments it produced, it has become a classic study. It is perhaps a fitting coincidence that Rubenstein discusses Elkins at some length in this book; certainly both writers share a preoccupation with what to my mind is perhaps the most compelling theme in history, including the history of our own time—that of the catastrophic propensity on the part of human beings to attempt to dominate one another.

If slavery was the great historical nightmare of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the Western world, slavery’s continuation in the horror we have come to call Auschwitz is the nightmare of our own century. Auschwitz, like the core of hell, is the symbolic center of The Cunning of History, and while the theological and political ramifications radiating from this center provide many of the book’s most illuminating insights, it is Auschwitz—simply Auschwitz—which remains Rubenstein’s primary concern. We are still very close to Auschwitz in time; its unspeakable monstrousness—one is tempted to say its unbelievability—continues to leave us weak with trauma, haunting us as with the knowledge of some lacerating bereavement. Even as it recedes slowly into the past it taxes our belief, making us wonder if it really happened. As a concept, as an image, we shrink from it as from damnation itself. “Christmas and Easter can be subjects for poetry,” wrote W.H. Auden, “but Good Friday, like Auschwitz, cannot. The reality is so horrible….”

To this he might have added the near-impossibility not just of poetry but of prose, even of an expository sort. That the subject is almost totally beyond the capacities of the mass media may be seen in the failure of the recent television series “Holocaust” to convey any sense of the complex nature of Auschwitz—a matter which I shall revert to later. The critic George Steiner has suggested the ultimate response: silence. But of course writers cannot be silent, least of all a searching writer like Rubenstein, who has set himself the admirable but painful task of anatomizing the reality within the nightmare while the dream is still fresh.

As near in time as Auschwitz is to us, it is nonetheless a…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.