In reading Austerlitz last night, I stumbled on the passage in which the relayed memories of Austerlitz tell of his ambling into the strangely desolate town in which lie the ruins from which he has averted his attention for four decades. Here he finds the reason for his long avoidance of his personal and national history. Here he recovers the fate from which he fled as a Jewish child on a train. Here he knows again the loss, the unbearable trauma, that none of his family survived.
There he sees the gate of Theresienstadt, with its slogan in wrought iron decorating its upper border.
Arbeit Mach Frei.
None who entered believed this slogan of the powerful, this siren song of productivity.
Only the eerie freedom of death, if it can be known, was delivered here.
But we have forgotten. Again, we are led to believe that work will set us free.
We need to remember, like Austerlitz, and to turn and face the great destructiveness at the heart of our modern society – this turning of the necessity of work first into a compulsion, and then into a vocation.
Creative destruction? Innovative disruption? None truly believe that surely?
It is not work, but simpler perceptions that can give us all hope, that may set us free.
So says Zbigniew Herbert in “The Envoy of Mr Cogito”:
Beware of dryness of heart love the morning spring the bird with an unknown name the winter oak
light on a wall the splendour of the sky
they don’t need your warm breath
they are there to say: none will console you
Image: The gate of Theresienstadt in the Czech Republic, former German concentration camp