Monday, June 14, 2010

This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, by Tadeusz Borowski

I could not read this book.

For a while I tried, with a highlighting pen. But I was using the pen to defend myself. By marking it I hoped to turn it into an object of contemplation; I was keeping it at a distance. Eventually highlighting became intolerable—obscene.

So I tried to simply read it. The stories were slow going. I would read a few lines and put the book down and stare at the ceiling. I'd think about my breathing. I became convinced that the book wanted to destroy me.

In the end, in a technical sense, I read the book; but I don't call what I did reading. It felt—feels still—more like surviving. I finished the book and thought: I survived.

Or perhaps I didn't—shouldn't. I don't know if it's possible to make your way though this book without some part of you—perhaps your hope or innocence (which might be nice words for your delusions)—dying.

In The Captive Mind, Czeslaw Milosz calls Borowski "the disappointed lover." He says: "[Borowski's] nihilism results from an ethical passion, from disappointed love of the world and of humanity."

But I don't think Borowski is disappointed by the world. Near the end of the book Borowski writes:
I sit in someone else's room, among books that are not mine, and, as I write about the sky, and the men and women I have seen, I am troubled by one persistent thought—that I have never been able to look also at myself.
That's Borowski's disappointment: He survived the camps. Unable to accept that he'd survived, unable to look at himself because he survived, he put himself into an oven and did not survive.

But first he wrote this book. He used his writing to tell us why he had to die. So we shouldn't be surprised that This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen is unbearable, unreadable. The fact that it's unbearable makes clear that his suicide was justified, necessary.

Most of us are killed by the lies we tell ourselves. He, at least, was killed by the truth—a truth that he resolved to see, before it finally killed him.

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