Is the Unspeakable Singable? The Ethics of Holocaust Representation and the Reception of Górecki's Symphony no.3

Alison Moore


Debates about Holocaust representation have long been haunted by the idea that the enormity and intensity of human suffering in the events of World War Two are ‘unspeakable’. In many such statements the capacity for cognition and the ethical dimension of aestheticisation are blurred – the Holocaust is ‘unspeakable’ both in the sense of being impossible to imagine in its full horror, but also morally inappropriate as the subject of artistic production. But do all forms of cultural representation of the Holocaust fail in the same way as words or to the same degree, in the eyes of those who would judge their merits according the tenet of unspeakability? This paper considers one particularly renowned work Henryk Górecki’s symphony no. 3 (Symfonia pieśni żałosnych) of 1976, discussing how it mediated both the global politics of Holocaust representation and the recuperation of victimhood in postcommunist Poland. Górecki claimed a subjectivity of failure in response to the challenge of representing the events of World War Two and has insisted that the symphony is not about war but about sorrow. The vocal lyrics are nonetheless profoundly thematised around war suffering, and the Second World War in particular - events he approached with a musical language of epic, pathos and redemption. In framing the subject of his work, he emphasised a Polish national suffering that both eschewed mention of specifically targeted groups of victims, and beckoned to Polish folk and catholic traditions. This article presents a new hypothesis about the success of Górecki’s work by considering it in relation to the ethical debates about Holocaust empathic response that have occurred in relation to historiographic, literary and filmic representation.

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