Witnessing Trauma: Reflections on the Work of Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub, #4 of 5


The entry posted below from my philosophical journal last summer is the fourth in a series of five sets of such entries dealing with Shosahan Felman’s and Dori Laub’s Testimony:  Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History.


Sunday, August 17, 2008

Felman, 6th chapter, “The Betrayal of the Wintess:  Camus’ The Fall,” pp. 177-178, suggests it is Sartre, not Camus, who has “failed to change,” as Sartre charged of Camus in the break [with him] after [the publication of Camus’] The Rebel.  It is Sartre, she suggests, who stays “caught precisely in the movement of the jubilance which marks the ending of [Camus’ earlier work] The Plague, still celebrating the historical advent of cure, salvation and redemption, still looking for a new beginning that will altogether do away with the contamination of disease, a new beginning that, indeed, would totally erase, forget, deny the Plague”.

After a quote from The Fall, she resumes:  “While Sartre thinks Camus has failed as witness since he has ceased to be the witness of a cure, Camus thinks it is  Sartre who is failing as a witness, since he neglects to witness and to take into account the labor camps in Soviet Russia, and fails to recognize through them the non-cessation of the Plague. . . . fails to recognize the present and thus denies, specifically, the implications of the past and the ineradicability of these implications from any possible future construction.”

She quotes Sartre that Camus is one of those who “look at history from Hell,” rather than “making it.”  Then she goes on to discuss that difference.

I’ll have to keep reading to see if she draws the conclusion I would:  If history is trauma/event, then those who “make” it, rather than let themselves undergo it, are constructing Hell.  So did the Nazis do–and so does Camus accuse the Stalinists of doing.  [My subsequent remarks below indicate that Felman does indeed go in that same general direction in her own thought.]


P. 180 she speaks of the “blind spot–and the unacknowledged meeting ground–of all twentieth-century apocalyptic and redemptive ideologies, in their common confusion of salvation and ‘definitive’ (final) ‘solutions.'”

Indeed:  the attempt to deny the trauma that is history is what engenders all “final solutions.”

Felman says as much on page 182, writing that in The Fall Camus has come to realize that “the flight against the Plague was itself already a distraction from what history as Plague was really like.”  She also draws a corollary concerning any collective attempt to witness or address the plague:  “The Plague is such that, by its very nature, it cannot be testified to by any alliance.  Camus also undersands that, in the face of history as Plague [!], the witness, like the  victim, has no ally.  ‘No one bears witness for the witness,’ Celan’s verse knows.”

But does that mean we should not “fight” the Plague at all?  How to think such a thought [that is, the thought of not “fighting” it], that now becomes the question.  How, in effect, can one “resist not evil”? 


In The Fall, she says (p. 194), the question [the text forces upon the attentive reader] is:  “What?  What happened?  The event is not a given.  In the same way, to come to grips with the historical experience of the Holocaust is to realize our inability to siply say:  ‘This is what happened.'”  As she says in the next and final (7th) chapter, on [Claude] Lanzman’s [film] Shoah, no one knew “what was happening,” not even the perpetrators.  It exceeded all possible “knowledge.”


P. 196:  “On the site of [in Camus’ phrase in The Fall] ‘one of the greatest crimes in history,’ innocence can only mean lack of awareness of one’s participation in the crime.  From the perspective of The Fall, one can only be, thus, paradoxically enough, guilty of one’s very innocence.”

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