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

4/15/09

Below is the final set of remarks, first written on the date indicated, from my philosophical journal addressing the work of literary theorist Shoshana Felman and psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Dori Laub in their joint work Testimony:  Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History.

 

Monday, August 18, 2008

Felman(pp. 241-242) quotes [Claude] Lanzman in a panel at Yale on May 5, 1986, on [his film] Shoah [note how that term now comes to be troublingly ambiguous, in that it can name either the event “itself” or the film which, in whatever fashion, represents it in images–even if images of “the present,” when the film was shot]:

It is . . . the question of the end [of the film/event-itself].  I did not have the moral right to give a happy ending to this story.  When does the Holocaust really end?  Did it end the last day of the war?  Did it end with the creation of the State of Israel?  No.  It still goes on.  These events are of such magnitude, of such scope that they have never stopped developing their consequences [he makes a misstep there, I think, in reducing”the events” to occurrences/causes and their effects]. . . When I really had to conclude I decided that I didn’t have the right to do it. . . And I decided that the last image of the film would be a rolling train, an endlessly rolling . . . train.

Powerful and valuable.  Yet:  contrast the end of D. M. Thomas’s [novel of the Holocaust] The White Hotel [in which the protagonist of the novel dies at Babi Yar, but then in an afterword is seen resuming her life in Israel after the war–which many critics took to be just the sort of “happy ending,” albeit in a sort of dream or mythical time, that Lanzman refuses].

Is one of the two [Lanzman or Thomas] right, the other wrong?  Or do both strike something essential and not to be lost?

Lanzman strikes the essential when he says the Holocaust is not yet over.  It is the same thing Camus, by Felman’s account [earlier in the book], strikes, when he denies that the Plague is ever over, or can ever be given a definitive, final end.  But Thomas also strikes the essential, the same thing struck by Laub’s survivor [also earlier in the book] remembering the uprising at Auschwitz, the same struck by the Psalmist who, on passing by again, sees that the  powerful and rich and oppressive “are not there” (see my entry above for August 15 [posted earlier]).

 

P. 257, on Lanzman’slong “journey” in making Shoah

Lanzman discovers, thus, the way in which Jews themselves are also mere outsiders to their own history–to their own Holocaust.  The ignorance unwittingly discovered does not proceed,  in fact, from a deficiency in erudition–from not yet having read the best books on the subject–but from the way in which the Holocaust reveals itself, as incommensurable with knowledge, the way in which the Holocaust unconsciously and actively conjures up its own forgetting and resists–above all–its own knowing from inside.

If, as Jean-Louis Chrétien suggests, the unforgettable is precisely what can never be remembered, then the Holocaust/trauma is the unforgettable:  What can never be remembered or represented, because it was never perceived or presented–never able to be perceived or presented–in the first place, but nevertheless and as such structuring/enframing whatever, and all that, can be perceived or presented and, therefore, remembered or represented.

Perhaps, then, recovery is a mater of learning just how appropriately and appropriatingly (ereignishaft) to let goof all memory and forgetting, perceiving and remembering, presenting and representing:  Just how to “pass by again” with the Psalmist.

(Felman, p. 253:  “To understand Shoah [film? Holocaust? both?] is not to know the Holocaust [or the film?], but to gain new insights into what not knowing means, to grasp the way in which erasure is itself part of the [all of the?] functioning of our history [or to grasp how darkness and blindness belong to the light-play which is the film/cinema and the seeing/viewing of it?].”

(Earlier–p. 224–Felman has quoted–and re-quoted, p. 258, and yet again, p. 267  –words that struck me, too, when I finally first saw the film this last winter/spring.  At Chelmno,the survivor says:  “No one can describe it.  No  one can recreate what happened here.   [What?  What happened?] And no one can understand it.  Even I, here, now . . . I can’t believe I’m here.  No, I just can’t believe it.  It was always this peaceful here [my emphasis].  Always.  When they burned two thousand people–Jews–every day, it was just as peaceful  No one shouted.  Everyone went about his work.  it was silent.  Peaceful.  Just as it is now.”)

 

P. 264, n. 41, she quotes Peter Canning, “Jesus Christ, Holocaust:  Fabulation of the Jews in Christian and Nazi History” (Copyright 1, Fin de siecle 2000, Fall 1987, pp. 171-172).  He uses the notion of an “attractor”–a notion I think useful, too.  Part of what she  quotes is  this:  “What I must risk calling the Holo-myth of Christianity–divine incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection–is not the one source or cause of the Holocaust, it ‘attracted’ other causal factors to it (the war, inflation, political-ideological crisis, socio-economic conditions), absorbed them and overdetermined their resolution.”  Only all  together (the accident of their conjunction), did they precipitate the Holocaust.

 

On p. 268 Felman writes:  “Shoah addresses the spectator with a challenge,” which would seem to be a remark about Lanzman’s film, rather than about the Holocaust.  If so, then the last line of the same paragraph is actually an offense, I would say, and a silencing (which is what she has been taking about, in the last few preceding pages, herself), in the form of her last (in the paragraph) attempt to formulate that “challenge”:  “Can we . . . assume in earnest, not the finite task of making sense out of the Holocaust, but the infinite task of encounteringShoah?”  If read to mean the film, then this elevates the “task” of viewing the film above that of understandingthe Holocaust, so far as I can see! (The danger of lionizing Lanzman and idealizing his film:  the sovereignty, still, of the image!)

P. 278 she quotes another survivor from Shoah in another passage that also struck me when I first saw, recently, the film.  It is from Philip Müller, a survivor of a Sonderkommando, upon the gassing of some fellow Czechs:  

The violence climaxed when they tried to force the people to undress.  A few obeyed, only a handful.  Most of them refused to follow the order.  Suddenly, like a chorus, they all began to sing.  The whole “undressing room” rang with the Czech national anthem, and the Hatikvah.  That moved me terribly. . .

That was happening to my countrymen, and I realized that my life had become meaningless.  Why go on living?  For what?  So I went into the gas chamber with them, resolved to die.  With them.  Suddenly, some who recognized me came up to  me . . . A small group of women approached.  They looked at me and said, right there in the gas chamber . . . :  “So you want to die.  But that’s senseless. Your death won’t give us back our lives.  That’s no way.  You must get out of here alive, you must bear witness to . . . the injustice done to us.”

The debt to the dying and the dead, is to live.

(On a secondary point, Felman makes the good observation: 

The singing . . . signifies a common recognition, by the singers, of the perversity of the deception to which they had been all along exposed, a recognition, therefore, and a facing, of the truth of their imminent death . . . a repossession of their lost truth by the dying singers, an ultimate rejection of the  Nazi-instigated self-deception and a deliberately chosen, conscious witnessing of their own death.

(Another escape from Auschwitz!  As she herself goes on to note on the very next page, 279:  “The singing challenges and dares the Nazis.  [Or does it just escape them, and show their nullity, their no longer “being there”?]  The act of singing and of bearing witness embodies resistance.  But for Müller, the resistance cannot mean giving up life; it has to mean giving up death.  [Only so does he escape them!].”  Later on the same page, in n. 52, she also quotes [Auschwitz survivor] Rudolph Vrba, on his “decision to escape, after the suicide of Freddy Hirsch that aborts the Resistance plan for the uprising of the Czech family camp:  ‘It was quite clear to me then that the Resistance in the camp is not generally for an uprising but for survival of the members of the Resistance.”)

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