A documentary about Auschwitz plays from the living room as my cousin proceeds to strip my nails of their old polish and apply a different color at the kitchen table and I think, This has to be wrong. This has to be the height of an elucidation of how our understanding of and empathy for other people’s pain is, in many ways, no worse than Hitler’s blithe ability to order the execution of six million Jews. For how is it that we are all so able to file away the blatant horrors of the world as: Oh, well that’s not happening to me. Or, it doesn’t directly affect anyone I know. Worse yet, attempting to make the situation better by making it worse in that interference sort of way that white ladies are most especially famous for when it comes to involving themselves in “African getaways” (i.e. Melania).
Elena, who has decided that conventional education is not for and will therefore pursue the economy-proof profession of the cosmetic arts, is meticulous in how she paints each nail, drowning out the sounds of such “fun facts” as, “The Nazis developed their own lexicon for many things. Instead of murder, it was ‘special treatment’ or ‘special handling.’ I think of ‘special treatment,’ ‘special handling,’ I think of a postal package, and they’re thinking of taking a thousand Jews and taking them out and shooting them.” The way in which the interviewee is describing the callous human capability of denial of reality through compartmentalization forces me to reflect on my own behavior in chatting, texting and listening to ambient trash Italiano music throughout the duration of this at-home manicure as though the calculated decimation of an entire race never happened. It all goes back to what Woody Allen (a person himself notorious for compartmentalizing) as Alvy Singer said, “I feel that life is divided into the horrible and the miserable. That’s the two categories. The horrible are like, I don’t know, terminal cases, you know, and blind people, crippled. I don’t know how they get through life. It’s amazing to me. And the miserable is everyone else. So you should be thankful that you’re miserable, because that’s very lucky, to be miserable.”
Obviously, he failed to leave out the Holocaust victims in his breakdown because, really, it would be inconceivable to use any word to even try to attempt to describe what they went through. Yes, something caused by man was, once again, so heinous that even our own language fails to grasp at a word or phrase that can accurately conjure or evoke a feeling even remotely as compassionate as we should. Therefore, we tend to go the opposite direction: a total tune out–an utter incapacity to really feel in our false stab at “processing.” But as it was said, again by Allen, “You look at the newspaper, think, ‘How horrible,’ and then turn the page.” It’s all so easy to compartmentalize. And so long as we have this near sociopathic tendency to do so, we will perpetually engage in the very detached and lackadaisical behavior that permitted so many to stand by and let the genocide go on without interruption. It was not in front of their faces–and even if it was, they were, like Amon Göth (one of the influential SS officers in Płaszów, the documentary booms), able to sit on their poolside perch while the atrocities they helped set in motion down below were committed.
That is, in essence, what all of us do in not melting into a puddle on the floor from the explosion of our synapses as a result of feeling too much from these images we are constantly bombarded with, this ironclad evidence that we are not living the theme inherent in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird–the message of which assures humankind is innately good. From the living room, I hear my aunt, who I’m not related to by blood, which is why she’s from the South, call out, “But why the Jews?” (again, she’s from the South).
I suppose she wants me to tell her because I’ve just come out of some “fancy” college education at Occidental, and I’m supposed to concisely explain it to her better than my cousin, or my uncle sitting next to her on the couch who has fallen asleep (bored by tragedy, it would seem). So I do. But when I hear the rote, clinical explanation that comes out of my mouth, I want to slit my own throat for sounding so detached. As detached from what I’m trying to elucidate as the SS officers were when they gave concentration camp laborers “special treatment.” A special treatment very different from the one I was getting in the moment as Elena lotioned and massaged my hands (she really did want to get in the most optimal practice so that she could get her nail tech license). So it was that I felt the extreme guilt–the sheer disparity–of human existence, and all purely as a result of happenstance, a random and uncontrollable circumstance of birth into a certain time, place and class. The injustice in this life was that. It wasn’t any one politician, any one ideology that made existence so absurd. It was that, as long as none of us could achieve total egalitarianism in a non-unpleasant communistic way, the sight of suffering and our knee-jerk reaction to go into self-preservation mode to ignore it for the most part in between emitting such emotionless stock phrases as, “How terrible” or “Can you believe that?” will always make the incongruous divergence in the human experience feel like some sort of cruel joke played by the type of girls that would throw a Nairtini into your hair as you walked past them.
I guess my question is: how can anyone laugh, feel joy, pretend nothing is wrong–that the world isn’t filled with the type of sinister evil that only David Lynch has tapped the surface of–when they know this has happened? When they know that such things as this continue to happen every day? When I say it out loud to my cousin, she stares at me blankly and asks: what color do you want?