4/9/99

Unit 7: Questions (Kim)

  • Must not something or someone die if we are to have a memory of it or him or her? Is not the otherness of the past fundamentally to be seen in death? And is not repetition itself a kind of resurrection of the dead, as any reader of Michelet will recognize? (Ricoeur)
  • Each soul, among vulgar things, possesses certain special individual aspects which do not come down to the same thing, and which must be noted when this soul passes and proceeds into the unknown world.
    Suppose we were to constitute a guardian of graves, a kind of tutor and protector of the dead?
    I have spoken elsewhere of the duty which concerned Camoens on the deadly shores of India: administrator of the property of the deceased.
    Yes, each dead man leaves a small property, his memory, and asks that it be cared for. For the one who has no friends, the magistrate must supply one. For the law, for justice is more reliable than all our forgetful affections, our tears so quickly dried.
    This magistracy is History. And the dead are, to speak in the fashion of Roman Law, those miserabiles personae with whom the magistrate must be concerned.
    Never in my career have I lost sight of that duty of the Historian. I have given many of the too-forgotten dead the assistance which I myself shall require.
    I have exhumed them for a second life. .... Now they live with us and we feel we are their relatives, their friends. Thus is constituted a family, a city shared by the living and the dead. (Michelet)
  • Madeleine: I'm walking down a long corridor that once was mirrored and fragments of the mirror still hang there. And when I come to the end there is nothing but darkness, and I know when I come to the end I'll die .... I never come to the end. I always come back.
    Scottie: But the small scenes, fragments of the mirror--do you remember those?
  • A welter of tensions, irresolutions, contradictions, conflicts, and lacunae attend commemoration, representation, and explication of the Holocaust--or Shoah, or 'les génocide des Juifs,' or The Final Solution, or the Hurbn (Yiddish) ... the multiplicity of possible designations for the event of Jewish (and Romany, homosexual, Catholic, et al.) destruction at mid-century is itself emblematic of the performative and interpretive labyrinth into which one descends when confronting this moment of appalling ruin. While the reading and viewing for this session has provoked in me--as doubtless it did in you--a swarm of questions, the subject and its many treatments imposes an excruciating self-consciousness in the face of expression itself, opening a precarious space between the mirrored 'obscenities' of silence and inevitable distortion.

    Therefore, my questions will turn upon the relations among event, memory/survival, and language--each of which takes residence in varied forms at the site of testimony. But as one is reminded--yet again--by current events in Kosovo, the problem of catastrophe's temporality--its intractable, untranslatable rootedness in a past tense; its implied foreclosure of futurity; and yet also its endlessly disturbing reiteration in, its intrusion upon, the present--this uncertain (dis)continuity intrinsic to massive destruction haunts the conjuncture of experience and recollection to which our 'texts' bear witness. Language and time--these, then, form the nexus of my initial concern about the trauma of Shoah.

    1. Trauma and Translation. From Delbo's ambivalent lament for the word's 'splitting' alongside the carceral body, to Levi seeking to remember, render, and transmit Dante at Auschwitz, to the hybrid tongues coursing through Thomas's Lisa Erdman, to the Babelesque layering of languages, images, and media in Lanzmann's "Shoah," we see how translation can work both to close and widen the traumatic experience of the camps and of witnessed annihilation. What do the vicissitudes of translation teach us about the conditions of trauma? Do any of these works effect or gesture toward a non-translational mode of remembering and/or healing? How do various subjects recorded in these works--survivors, bystanders, perpetrators (to borrow from Lanzmann's lexicon)--position themselves (or how are they positioned) vis. the media in which they are 'made present'? If, as Caruth (via Freud) suggests, trauma is not only the repetition of suffering but a "departure" from its "site," can translation in turn be see as both repetition (return) and cure (departure) from trauma? And of what is "translation" itself a translation?

    2. Mourning and Muteness. If language attendant to disaster is disturbed by the distance or delay suffered between experience and articulation, silence is likewise a troubling mode of response. Can one remember 'silently,' and if so, what ethical and epistemological value might we assign to an insistence on 'bearing witness' (Laub; and, I think, Lanzmann--and cf. Exodus, which possibly impels and authorizes Jewish holocaust remembrance)? Does testimony fill the gaps of trauma (the wounds of complicity, of the medusa-gaze of terror, of the barbar-ism of abjection: cf. Adorno)? Must testimony itself be hollowed by silence (one thinks of omissions, inconsistencies, and interruptions in many of the narratives we witness here)--and what of the silence testimony requires of its audience, the silence of listening?

    3. Expressing the 'Truth.' Of the many anxieties suffusing holocaust testimony, none are perhaps more stark and deceptive than the demand for the 'authenticity' of fact against the 'deceit' of imagination (cf. Langer, e.g.). On the surface, this conflict might seem to be a reworking of the division between Halbwachsian materialism and Freudian hermeneutics--between an emphasis on memory as arising from within collective, embodied contexts and memory as an elusive network of traces requiring an ever-provisional (re)construction--but the privileging of 'documentary' as opposed to 'fictional' representation as hallmark of 'the real' puts extraordinary pressures on the simplest act of narration or remembrance in these texts. How does this prioritization of memory-as-mimesis affect testimony and recollection? Does The White Hotel's mixture of genres (including that of an interpolated--some would say, less politely, plagiarized--"documentary novel") produce as 'adequate' a vision of history and memory as that offered by Kuznetsov's Babi Yar, or any number of Lanzmann's witnesses--or, for that matter, by SS photography? Is Langer's distinction between oral and written testimonies helpful as a tool for reading, say, Lanzmann's film against Thomas's novel (or Delbo's memoir, as well)? How does style affect the act, construction, and/or transmission of memory?

    4. The Body (of) Memory. For Delbo, Auschwitz imposes a "skin of memory"; Thomas's Lisa suffers the 'hysterical' pain of what Kierkegaard called "remembering forward"; Lanzmann insists on placing witnesses in the concrete spaces of their suffering in order not merely to recall but to repeat the trauma: what of the soma, not merely the sema, of testimonial memory? Does massive pain point us to the body as the place where memory inheres beyond the necessities of translation?

    5. Engendering Testimony. Delbo's testimony turns restlessly among genres and styles, seeking the "improbable" voice that will make "you understand"; Thomas suggests that Freud's confrontation with hysteria remains a secret clue to European catastrophe; and nearly all of Lanzmann's survivor-witnesses are men, though its final witness ends his narration speaking of "trying to find the woman whose voice guided me [but which] unfortunately I didn't find"

    (cf. Monferré's comment in Lanzmann, 98): is the ever-fracturing discourse of holocaust remembrance itself divided by gender difference? Does 'woman,' even in the moment that seemingly eradicates all categories and boundaries by which "metaphysics" has operated (cf. Adorno), nevertheless find herself cast in the role determined from the sirens and Plato through Proust's grandmother as she who, remaining somehow outside of language, authorizes 'our' quest within it for an "impossible" absolution and transcendence?