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  • Writer's pictureThe Blue and White Magazine

Bruce Robbins

Atrocity is not such a self-evident thing.

By Sagar Castleman

Bruce Robbins isn’t your ordinary English professor. Although his dissertation was on Victorian novels, what he writes, teaches, and talks about is very concerned with the contemporary political world; his literature classes are usually either contemporary (“World Literature Since 1965”) or political (“The Political Novel,” taught with Nobel Prize in Literature winner Orhan Pamuk). In large part, this is because of his longtime interest in atrocity, both in literature and the world. His most well-known class is “The Literary History of Atrocity” and his book Atrocity: A Literary History comes out next year.

I sat down with Professor Robbins to talk to him about this interest. We discussed how decades of thinking about atrocity have shaped how he sees the Israel-Palestine conflict, why he thinks art has an obligation to engage with atrocity, what he thinks is responsible for the decline of the humanities, and the problem with Peter Singer.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Illustration by Ellie Hodges

The Blue and White: What drew you to teach “The Literary History of Atrocity”?

Bruce Robbins: What drew me to teach it is something more personal than intellectual. My father was a bomber pilot during World War II and I grew up thinking of him as a war hero. He had gone off to fight fascism and the Nazis, and that seemed pretty cool to me. It was only very slowly that I thought that there were between 500,000 and 600,000 civilians killed by Allied bombers in German cities, and that didn’t seem to be thought of as an atrocity by Americans, even though, come on, killing civilians. We really frown upon that. So I thought atrocity is not such a self-evident thing.

The formative moment for me politically was the American war in Vietnam. There was an awful lot of bombing and killing of civilians by the United States in that period. I think for a lot of people, Vietnam made it possible to look back at World War II with slightly different eyes. We had thought of it as the Good War, but it wasn’t the Good War from every point of view. One of the really popular novels of that period—it came out during the Vietnam War—was Slaughterhouse-Five, which is one of the books on the syllabus. It’s the book that called bullshit on the Allied bombing of German cities, because Vonnegut was a prisoner of war in Dresden when Dresden got bombed. So a lot of things came together for me. There was a literary side of it and there was a personal side of it. There were things that I was trying to figure out about me and my family. At the same time I realized that there was an interesting set of literary questions, or literary-historical impulses, that I was intrigued by and was trying to make sense of. 

B&W: I’m curious about the personal example of your father. I feel like that’s a case where the mainstream American response would be something like, “That was very tragic and maybe could have been limited in certain ways, but it was also necessary for the greater good.” Do you buy the idea that atrocities can be justified in certain cases?

BR: Because Oppenheimer was such a big cultural phenomenon recently, everybody’s gone back to thinking about Hiroshima. You can make the same kinds of arguments about Hiroshima: “How many American soldiers had their lives spared because there was no invasion of Japan, blah, blah, blah.” There’s been lots of conversation. But you know, the war was gonna end anyway, they just wanted to make a display of force to the Russians who were coming from the other side. Anyway, it seems to me that the case has become clearer because of the use of the atomic bomb. That really is an atrocity. Not everybody would accept it, but I think it’s easier to get people to say, “Not only did they drop it, but they dropped it twice, and hundreds of thousands of people were dead, pretty much all civilians.” 

And this may not interest you, but most of the people who have studied the Allied bombing of Germany have come to the conclusion that it didn’t hasten the end of the war, that it didn’t impede German production of war materials, that it didn’t have an effect on German morale. So the necessity argument doesn’t really pan out. I’m talking about historians now, not me. I read them for what they have to tell me. 

B&W: In general, do you think that something being an atrocity means that it should have been avoided?

BR: I use the term as something that has to be avoided. For example, I think that what Hamas did on Oct. 7, 2023 counts as an atrocity. But the point that I want to make is that I can say it was an atrocity and that the Palestinian cause is just. I think I can say both those things. I don’t support what happened on Oct. 7. I do support the Palestinian cause. So the fact that atrocities were committed does not mean that the cause for which they were committed was not just.

B&W: I read the remarks that you gave at the New School in October about this. You talked about how both Native Americans and colonizers committed atrocities, and the question of the justice of each cause in that case shouldn’t be determined by who committed atrocities. I want to avoid getting too theoretical, but I’m curious what you think the relationship is between committing atrocities and justice. 

BR: The scale is important. To take the Gaza example, you had the terrible things that were done on Oct. 7, and then you’ve had terrible things that have been done every day since then. So the proportion there is very different. And those have been atrocities too. And of course they’ll say they’re all in response to Oct. 7. That doesn’t seem like a plausible argument to me. One of the words used is “disproportionate.” That some kind of response was going to be made, maybe even was justified. I’m not sure I would go that far. But this is a disproportionate response. There are a lot of factors that have to be taken into account if you want to talk about the justice of a cause. As far as Israel and Palestine are concerned, you can’t start on Oct 7. 

B&W: Since you’ve spent so much time thinking about and studying atrocity, it must be interesting to watch that come into the mainstream discourse. I feel like people are talking about things like civilian casualties and bombings now in a way that they weren’t before. 

BR: I hadn’t noticed a difference, to be honest. It seems to me that there’s been a lot of atrocity talk for some time now. One of the things that I discovered is that the word atrocity was used more in the 19th century than it has ever been used since. It was used a lot about executions by the guillotine in the French Revolution. It tended to be used in England about things that the so-called barbarians would do to colonizers. So a lot of it was very, very self-righteous. And one argument that I would make is that people were not very inhibited in using the word atrocity in the 19th century because they couldn’t imagine that anyone would ever accuse them of committing atrocities. It was all the bad guys who were doing it.

B&W: It seems like it’s the opposite now, where everyone accuses each other of committing atrocities.

BR: Yeah. Which is frankly better than it was in the 19th century.

B&W: How do you engage with literature through this lens of atrocity?

BR: One of the major questions that I asked myself—and this clearly comes out of Vietnam, and it comes out of my Jewish identity also—is when and how and why did it become possible for people of Country X to accuse their own country of committing atrocities against someone else. I looked into the literary record to see when that started, why it started, and who did it. That was just a new question for me. It’s the self-accusation part [that interests me]. 

One hypothesis was that you really couldn’t do it until after 1945. In the 1970s, the Marxist critic Raymond Williams was interviewed by editors of the journal New Left Review. And they said, “Raymond, you love the great social realist novels of the 1840s. And they’re great, but there was a world-historical atrocity that was committed during the 1840s a very, very short distance away, and they just didn’t notice. That is the Irish famine, which happened on Britain’s colonial watch. A million and a half people dead. There were evangelical Christians who said, ‘This is the hand of providence.’ They were free-market evangelical Christians who said, ‘You don’t want to mess with the market by handing food out.’ And they just let them starve. And if the great literature of the middle of the 19th century couldn’t even notice Britain’s responsibility for a million and a half Irish dead during the famine, why do you like it so much?” This was really hard for me because I was trained as a Victorian, and I love those novels. It was a very painful thought.

So I asked myself, if it wasn’t happening in the 1840s in the great social realist novels, when the hell did it start happening? And I thought, maybe it can only happen after 1945—knowledge of the Holocaust, the anticolonial movements bringing to people’s attention the terrible things Europe had done in its colonies. Is it possible that the whole literary record is just empty of any kind of scruples about murder? So I wanted to look, and I’ve looked and I have a mixed result. There are some incredibly wonderful moments, and there’s an awful lot of stuff that is not so wonderful to remember. I’ve been making a scrapbook of sorts of interesting literary snippets in which atrocity gets recorded, registered, and described.

B&W: It seems like there’s a literary history question of when this engagement happened. But I feel like there’s also a question that the interview brought up, which is whether literature has any obligation to engage with atrocity. It seemed like the interviewers were saying that it does. Do you buy that?

BR: Wow. I suppose it would only make sense to say that there’s an obligation to people who are artists now. I can’t tell people in the past, “You had an obligation, you blew it.” You don’t accomplish very much by saying that kind of thing. If I were a creative artist now, I would say straight, “There’s an obligation.” I mean, you want to belong to your time in a strong way. You have the same kind of moral obligation to register what’s going on in your time, and atrocity is part of that. Do I judge the literature of the past for how well it did that? I mean, I try not to throw it out. 

B&W: The idea that contemporary artists should be thinking about the current world and maybe the worst parts of the current world is really interesting. Have you read Sally Rooney’s book Beautiful World, Where Are You?

BR: I haven’t. I read the other two.

B&W: There’s a scene where one of the characters is in a grocery store and she suddenly starts to feel dizzy from thinking about the degree of exploitation that went into getting these things right here.  

BR: Oh, I gotta read that. 

B&W: And the character is herself a novelist, but she writes romance novels, and she says something like, “If I tried to write about this, I wouldn’t be able to write about romance because it would overshadow everything else I wrote about.” And I think to some degree that applies to the social realist novels of the 19th century. I’m in a class right now on Jane Austen, and I feel like keeping the reader engaged in these intricate social situations relies on not bringing in anything darker. Even just a murder plot can overshadow and take our attention away from the social relationships. I don’t know what you think of this, but it feels like in order to keep an audience interested in something that’s objectively trivial but is the novelist’s interest, it relies on excluding atrocity.

BR: That’s so interesting. I don’t think that it’s impossible to write novels that will integrate the kind of thing that Sally Rooney was saying, “I can’t write about and still have an audience.” Sally Rooney hasn’t done it much, which is interesting given the kind of political statements that she’s made. But I think other people have done it better. She’s talking—and I’m really interested in this—about the global capitalist order, and how that is behind the fact that I have a pen in my hand or a sandwich. Can you become conscious of that? I think someone like Jamaica Kincaid is really good at that. Just looking at an object in front of her and seeing through it. It’s what Marx would call the defetishizing of the commodity, seeing the social relations that brought it into being. George Orwell does it also. It’s not atrocity, it’s more like a coming to consciousness of the economic system on which we depend.

B&W: Do you think that literature that depicts atrocity needs to be written some time after the atrocity? 

BR: Empirically there’s a lot of delay behind the production of some of the great works. One of the books I’ve just been talking about in that course is Charlotte Delbo’s trilogy called Auschwitz and After. She was a member of the French Resistance along with her husband. They were both caught by the Nazis. Her husband was shot, and she was sent on a train full of women of the French resistance to Auschwitz and not gassed right away, but used for their labor. She survived, obviously, and it took her 20 years to write it all out. It may have also taken 20 years before people were willing to publish it, because they didn’t know what to do with that initially.

What’s especially interesting to me and complicates the book and enriches it as literature—and it’s very poetic literature—is that during those 20 years, let’s say between 1945 and 1965, there was the whole liberation struggle in Algeria in which the French were committing atrocities against the Algerians. I don’t think that Charlotte Delbo as a French woman could say some of the most uncomplicated things about the Germans that she might have wanted to say in full knowledge of what her people were doing in Algeria, if you see what I mean. Her first book was about Algeria and not about her own experience, which is kind of crazy when you have an experience like that. It’s cultural capital; you can sell it. But what she really wanted to write about first was what France was doing in Algeria.

B&W: Why do you think that was?

BR: I can’t get inside her mind, but to judge from myself, the worst stuff is the stuff your own people are doing.

B&W: One of the names on your syllabus that intrigued me most was Peter Singer. It feels like a lot of the effective altruism movement is about quantifying suffering as a prerequisite to alleviating it. What do you think of this idea, especially in the context of atrocity?

BR: The Peter Singer that I put on the syllabus is the famine essay which got a lot of things started for him. You know, you see a child drowning in a shallow pool, and you can save the kid at very little inconvenience to yourself, maybe getting your suit dry cleaned. And this is analogous to being more philanthropic, giving a percentage of your disposable income to save people from hunger. He wrote that essay in response to famine in Bangladesh in 1970. And the point for me is that he is decontextualizing the famine in Bangladesh in 1970 in a scary and undesirable way, because the United States had indirect but strong responsibility for that famine. They were supporting Bangladesh against Pakistan. And I want Henry Kissinger to fry in hell for the famine. Maybe I put that a little more strongly than I should have, but you get the general idea. I want philosophers like Peter Singer to say there’s a historical situation here, and this is not a philanthropic situation, it’s a situation for political intervention. You have voted for a government that is creating the famine, it’s a humanly created famine. So I put this together with a Jhumpa Lahiri story [“When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine”], which is about a kid of South Asian parents getting the news of what’s going on in what’s going to become Bangladesh and not knowing what to do with it. Now the act of contextualization in the case of effective altruism would have to include, and I’m not the first person to say this, “What do you have to do to the world to make the money that you will then give away?” Let’s not keep our morality in a little box and forget about the context around [it].

B&W: There’s been a lot of talk about the death of the humanities and shrinking English departments and fewer English majors. I was wondering what you think the role of a professor of literature is today and whether you think that it’s changed.

BR: Well, there’s a political context for the so-called decline of the humanities. There were what we called the culture wars in the 1990s, which have flared up again recently. And a lot of people would say that there’s a responsibility of these culture wars for defunding higher education. There were taxpayer revolts against subsidizing higher education. If state universities, for example, are being defunded, then there are not going to be jobs for graduate students, and the whole thing starts to fall apart. Ideological people start to represent higher education as an investment in the upward mobility of the family; they think of it entrepreneurially rather than as a public good. I’m on the side of it’s a public good. So, I can’t keep the public or political context out of my thoughts about the situation of the humanities, and I’m not trying to. 

For better or for worse, I think I’m entirely representative of my colleagues and my discipline in the sense that everybody, partly because of the market crisis, is interested in public-facing work. That is to say, instead of teaching people to just do stuff that is interesting inside the discipline,  write stuff that is interesting outside the discipline. So there’s a lot of that; I don’t think that’s a bad idea. It would be bad if people were no longer teaching the social realist novels of the 1840s because it’s not public facing enough.

I am very old fashioned in the sense that I think there’s a heritage that needs to be protected and transmitted. Because if you don’t keep transmitting it, people won’t remember on their own. You said you’re taking a course on Jane Austen. Jane Austen may actually be the cutoff. People read Jane Austen because they really like Jane Austen, whether they go to college or not. You go a little further back from Jane Austen and things sort of drop away. There’s not a lot that gets really read the way Jane Austen gets read before Jane Austen. If we don’t teach it, if we don’t create scholars who are going to want to teach it and write about it, it’s going to just drop out, and that’s not good. 

B&W: Can I ask what your desert island books are?

BR: Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, over and over again. I was a James Joyce fanatic early in life, and I’ve been wanting to reread Ulysses. I haven’t done it in a really long time. That desert island would not feel like exile if I had Ulysses with me.


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