In his recent book, The Conflagration of Community: Fiction Before and After Auschwitz (University of Chicago Press, 2011) , J. Hillis Miller sets outs to address Theodor Adorno’s famous proclamation that to write poetry after Auschwitz is impossible and barbaric. One should make clear from the outset that Miller’s central project in this regard is not to make some grand claim about the value or worth of literature in the face of dehumanization and atrocity. The value of literature for him and for us is a given. There is nothing to argue. Rather, Miller is most concerned with addressing the question of whether or not literature can truly bear witness to the Shoah. While this question has indeed been a central concern of literary scholars, philosophers, and artists since Celan and Adorno, Miller’s method of approaching this topic by way of the theoretical concept of “community,” and more specifically, “literary communities,” is rather intriguing. Here, Miller invokes the work of Derrida and Jean-Luc Nancy in particular.
As a way of illustrating his theoretical claims, Miller looks extensively at Kafka’s The Castle (Das Schloß), The Man Who Disappeared (Der Verschollene), and The Trial (Der Proceß). In fact, Miller spends almost two-thirds of The Conflagration of Community examining these and several other Kafka works in order to reveal the extent to which literature can “imagine” the bureaucracies and social infrastructures of the Shoah. Miller’s love and deep admiration for Kafka shines through here and he does an amazing job of penetrating Kafka’s writing and making sense of it in light of his theoretical perspective.
Beside the work of Kafka, Miller also looks extensively at novels that explicitly invoke the Shoah. Keneally’s Schindler’s List, McEwan’s Black Dogs, Spiegelman’s Maus, and Kertész’s Fatlessness make this list and Miller does each justice, though he ultimately concludes that Kertész’s Fatlessness is uniquely written and structured to best bear witness.
In addition to the central issue of literature and the Shoah, there also exist several parallel concerns throughout The Conflagration of Community. Among these are American slavery and the serious injustices and human rights violations committed during the Bush administration.
In a refreshing way, Miller’s work in The Conflagration of Community ends up being about much more than the Shoah and in successfully completing the Benjaminian constellation he tells us is his intention to construct in the preface, Miller creates something that is both profound and that persists beyond the page.