Trauma, the Morality of Representation, Death, and Community


Coincidentally, in the same January 9, 2009, Sunday New York Times that contained Jacob Heilbrunn’s criticism of recent films depicting the Holocaust, which I discussed briefly in my last post, there also appeared a book review, by Richard Lourie, of H. G. Adler’s novel The Journey, the English translation of which, by Peter Filkins, appeared only last year from Random House.  As one learns from Lourie’s review, as well as from Filkins’s introduction to his translation of the book itself, Adler was born in Prague in 1910 into a secularized Jewish family, and was himself a survivor of both Theresienstadt and Auschwitz, surviving 18 members of his family, including his wife, her mother, and his own parents, all of whom died in the Nazi camps.  After liberation, Adler eventually settled in London, where he wrote, among other things, The Journey, detailing in fictionalized form his own journey during the Nazi era.

Both Lourie’s review and Filkins’s introduction–as well as Adler’s son Jeremy Adler’s afterword to The Journey–also acquaint the reader with the journey Adler’s book, written in German, we are told in the son’s afterword, during 1950-1951, itself had to take before it was finally published in Germany in 1962.  Even after publication, the book languished little-known and little-read until only recently, as indicated by an English translation only now becoming available for the first time.

In all three places, Richard Lourie’s review, Peter Filkins’s introduction, and  Jeremy Adler’s afterword, we are also told that the influential German publisher Peter Suhrkamp vowed that the book would never be published in Germany so long as he lived.  And it wasn’t.  Lourie and Filkins also connect Suhrkamp’s reaction with the dominance at the time of the aesthetics of Theodor Adorno, who famously declared that literature was no longer possible after Auschwitz, that the very idea of transforming such horror into fiction was blasphemous and obscene, to use the same terms I already used myself in my last post to characterize any “exploitation,” as Heilbrunn appropriately names it, of “Auschwitz”–of all that name has come to  stand for–for the sake of telling some tale of redemption.

Interestingly, H. G. Adler himself refuses to tell any such tale in The Journey.  At least that is how I read what he says in the opening pages of his book, which are all that I have so far managed to read of it myself, having purchased Filkins’s translation just a few days ago.  At any rate, to help contextualize the series of postings I have been making recently on this site–the series of entries made in my philosophical journal months ago, concerning the works of contemporary American historian Dominick LaCapra, who is himself very much concerned with such matters as concerned both Adorno and Adler–it will, I hope, be helpful  to the reader to know a little about how I stand in relation to what, for short, I will call the morality of fictionalized representations of the Holocaust/”Auschwitz.”

To put it as clearly and bluntly as I can, my own strong sense of the matter is that the risks of falling into blasphemy and obscenity grow greater, the less “fictional” and more “realistic” the representation–in a certain sense of “representation,” to which I will return in a moment–becomes.   Thus, as I see it, we are much nearer to the swamp of blasphemy and obscenity, if not already neck deep in it, in, say, Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List, which presents itself as basically a “true story,” than we are in, say, the “imaginative,” “fictionalizing” reworkings of the material in a work such as I (so far, at least) take The Journey to be.

The sense of “representation” I have in mind in making such remarks is one in which “representing” means something such as “presenting in an image,” or “picturing.”  It is representation in a sense that ties the notion very directly and closely to that of an image, itself taken as essentially, or at least paradigmatically, visual.

For me, there is an important sense in which, to put the point hyperbolically, with regard to such things as Auschwitz the photo-graphic is the porno-graphic.  That is, the more closely the representing comes to what Walter Benjamin called “mechanical reproduction” (in his often-cited article “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction), as in the photographic image, the more morally questionable it becomes.  The  closer representation comes to reproduction in and as such an image, the greater the risk of blasphemy and obscenity becomes.

Fully to articulate what I am struggling to  articulate with such formulations will require further efforts in future posts.  It will also require the context provided by my confrontations, in the philosophical journal entries I have been posting and will continue to post, with a variety of the issues involved.  That most surely includes the entries in my journal that address the works of LaCapra, which entries I have been posting here for the last few weeks. 

The post before this one, to which I gave the title “The Truth of Auschwitz,” contains the final entry from my philosophical journal occasioned directly by my reading of LaCapra’s works.  In the next entry from my journal, posted below, my focus shifts away from LaCapra and, for the time being at least, away from direct concern with the issue of representing trauma, especially the Holocaust.  Nevertheless, the matters that concern me in the entry below and that will  concern me in the coming posts continue to provide a context for further direct discussion of the issue of the representation of trauma, when it does resurface, as it will eventually for me in this blog.

Below is the next entry in my philosophical journal.


Monday, April 4, 2008

Various things:

1.  [Alain] Badiou, Logiques des Mondes (Paris:  Éditions du Seuil, 2006), p. 571, in note on IV.3.4, just after Derrida died [my translation]:  “Death, decidedly, always comes too soon.”

Comments:  Death is not only a trauma, even the one trauma we must all come to “sooner or later.”  Rather, it is the trauma.  It is what is traumatic in every trauma:  the revelation without mask of the face of death, as in Poe’s “Dance of the Red Death.”  And insofar as to become a human subject–if that expression is not pleonastic–is, as Heidegger has it, to be cast into being-toward-death, then death (as being-toward-death itself, as Heidegger insists) is the founding trauma of  the human subject as such.

The trauma of time:  the trauma which is time.


2.  In an excellent essay [“Notes on Trauma and  Community”] in  Cathy Caruth, ed., Trauma:  Explorations in Memory (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), sociologist Kai Erikson distinguishes between what he [following two other researchers he cites] calls [p. 189] “corrosive communities” and “the ‘therapeutic communities’ so often noted in an earlier literature” about the way, after “natural disasters” like an earthquake, there comes a period of community drawing together in mutual support and aid.  In his “corrosive communities,” however, what happens is the opposite, and they emerge from “technological” rather than “natural” disasters–the key distinction.  Here, the disaster reveals and deepens the divisions within the community, as between the corporations responsible for the disaster but who deny all such responsibility finally, and the victims of it–in effect,though Erikson doesn’t say this himself, the trauma that gives rise to such a corrosive community is one in which the line between perpetrators and victims becomes crystal clear.  Yet the trauma–this is the point Erikson is making here–is still a founding one (not his term) for the community at issue.  Only now it is a riven, split, divided community.

Comment:  The truth that comes to  pass in a “technological” disaster that founds a “corrosive” community (where both or all sides of the divided parts of the community define themselves in terms of the traumatic event, from the date of that event on) is precisely the splitting of the given community into perpetrators (oppressor, dominant class) and victims–a splitting which has always already been there but did not yet, until the traumatic event, come to show its own face.

Accordingly, if that truth coming to pass in/as the traumatic “technological” disaster is  to be allowed to come to pass,the only way that can occur is by the restoration of justice, the healing of the rift between perpetrator and victim–better:  the redemption (in, e.g., Benjamin’s sense) of the victims.  And it is precisely the reaction of the  perpetrators not to let that happen–i.e., not to allow  comes to pass (that is here to say, what has come/comes/is coming now, here, on/as this date-event, as to pass, as demanding the emergence of its truth, the truth it is/reveals:  It has come/comes/is to come as to be allowed to pass).  The primary form of that reaction is to engender the false sense of community–to lay claim to the event as a trauma that “struck us all alike”–and in that process to reinforce the violence/oppression/perpetration and even to compound it, by denying the victims even the possibility of complaint, in effect, relegating them to a silence that, unlike the silence of Abraham in Kierkegaard’s reading of the sacrifice of Isaac, cannot even itself be voiced or heard.

So:  What, if any, truth comes to pass on 9/11?  What, if not precisely the truth the refusal of which the Bush reaction institutionalizes?  The refusal of the truth that America is not the victim here, but is, rather, the perpetrator?

A couple of pages later (pp. 193-196), Erikson notes how the victims (not his word) of such “technological” disasters often come together (in effect in their mutual  estrangement from the larger community wherein, know it or not, they are victims) for mutual support.  P. 194:  “They are not drawn together by feelings of affection . . . but by a shared set of perspectives and rhythms and words that derive from the sense of being apart.” As he goes on to note at the end of the next paragraph:  “. . . they can be said to have experienced not only a changed sense of self and a changed way of relating to others but a changed worldview.” 

So far, everything he says fits AA like a glove, though he says no such thing himself. However, he then goes on to characterize this new “worldview” that arises in the traumatized victims of refused (at the level  of the community as a whole and as run to satisfy the powers that be) trauma, as being characterized by a hyper-sensitivity and hyper-alertness to risk, etc.. 

Well, there the AA example presents a different possibility:  that of the creation of a new community “alongside” the corrosive one that just keeps on keeping on–a community in which all such hyper-vigilance can be and is let go, so that the community and its members can go on/go into, again or for the first time, their own lives, to live them, free of all such anxiety and constant, nagging insecurity, as the Big Book’s [that is, the book Alcoholics Anonymous’s] talk of how “we” [i.e., such alcoholics in recovery] “overcome our sense of economic insecurity,” which has nothing to do with “becoming financially secure.” 

AA, like Benedictine monasticism, is life itself lived in and as a community of equals. It is justice reigning.  Not, however, as even disruptive of the unjust pseudo-community alongside which life in AA/the monastery is lived, but, rather, as the reality to and for which the pseudo-community is dismissed as a phantom, as God dismisses such phantoms [when he wakes], in one of the stanzas of one of the repentance psalms.

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