To What Are We Called to Bear Witness? Truth in Trauma, History, and Delusion


Assuming that truth is the general name of that to which we are all called to bear witness, we cannot avoid seeking for our own answer to the question Pontius Pilate hurls contemptuously at Jesus in the Gospel of John:  What is truth?

In a number of earlier posts, I have shared some reflections on the question of truth in relation to trauma.  One important thread that connects many of my thoughts on that matter can be traced back to Dori Laub’s discussion of the woman he once interviewed, a survivor of the Nazi death camps who witnessed the rebellion of some of the inmates at Auschwitz near the end of World War II.  As this survivor remembers and recounts it, all four crematoria chimneys were blown up, when “in reality”–at least in what the historians to whom Laub later retells the woman’s tale take to be reality, in discounting the woman’s testimony because of its “historical inaccuracy”–only one was.  Against such discounting historians, Laub defends the testimony of the Auschwitz witness, arguing that it is her testimony that reveals the very historical truth of the rebellion, and therewith, I would argue (and I think Laub would probably agree), the truth of “Auschwitz” itself:  That any rebellion occurred at all at Auschwitz put to the lie the purported “reality” of the entire system of the Nazi’s “final solution to the Jewish question.”  

Worth repeating here is an important passage from Laub’s discussion, one I already cited in my earlier series of posts devoted to his and Shoshana Felman’s book Testimony:  Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History (New York:  Routledge, 1992).  On page 62 of that book Laub writes:

[I]t was through my listening to her that I in turn came to understand not merely her subjective truth, but the very historicity of the event, in an entirely new dimension.  She was testifying not simply to historical facts, but to the very secret of survival and of resistance to extermination. . . . She saw four chimneys blowing up in Auschwitz:  she saw, in other words, the unimaginable taking place right in front of her own eyes.  And she came to testify to the unbelievability, precisely, of what she had eye-witnessed–this bursting open of the very frame of Auschwitz.  The historians’ testifying to the fact that only one chimney was blown up in Auschwitz, as well as to the fact of the betrayal of the Polish underground, does not break the frame.  The woman’s testimony, on the other hand, is breaking the frame of the concentration camp by and through her very testimony:  she is breaking out of Auschwitz even by her very talking.

Because the testifier did not know the number of the chimneys that blew up; because she did not know of the betrayal of the Polish underground and of the violent and desperate defeat of the rebellion of the Auschwitz inmates, the historians said that she knew nothing.  I thought that she knew more [than they did], since she knew about the breakage of the frame, [the same breakage] that her very testimony was now reenacting.

On the very next page (p. 63), Laub goes on to connect his experience of the Auschwitz survivor’s testimony with his ongoing experience in his clinical therapeutic practice. 

It has happened to me many times that thinking back to a psychoanalytic session with a patient, I suddenly realize that I understand it.  Everything falls into place and comes together. . . . Such sudden illuminations are not rare.  They often do not last, however.  I do forget them before my next appointment, and my patient and I sink back into the routine of everyday quabble.  It is as though two simultaneous dialogues proceed and the ordinary one, the one that is commonplace, prevails. 

Thus, Laub connects the issue of  “the historical truth” of an event such as the rebellion at Auschwitz, on the one hand, with the issue of what might be called “the psychoanalytical truth” of neurosis.  In the entry from my philosophical  journal I am posting today, which I first wrote on the date given below, I explore what seems to me to be the same basic connection, only now cast in terms of the truth to which delusion itself bears witness, what might be called “delusional truth,” in a sense of that phrase which would mean the truth that remains–and calls out to be honored and preserved:  to be borne witness to–even after the delusion is over.

Before turning directly to that issue, however, the entry for the date below in my journal begins with a brief reflection on a book by French phenomenologist Michel Henry (1920-2002), to whose work I have devoted some earlier posts, and to whom I will be returning again in some future ones.

Once we have answered Pilate’s question to our own satisfaction, discovering thereby our own understanding of what it is to which we are called to bear witness, the question of just how we are to bear our witness still remains.  In today’s post I will venture no attempt at answering that remaining question directly.  


 Wednesday, October 4, 2008

Henry, Du Communism au Catastrophe:  Théorie d’une Catastrophe [From Communist to Catastrophe:  Theory of a Catastrophe] (Lausanne, Switz.:  L’Age d’Homme, 2008; orig. Odile Jacob, 1990), p. 70 [my trans.]: 

[R]egimes of the sort one calls “police-states” must be understood, not as composed of two sorts of individuals–the police for one, those who  have the charge of controlling and arresting the other sort–but as a homogeneous mass where each is alone with his fear, surveilling and surveilled, potential executioner and victim, experiencing the increase of shame for being inevitably the  one and the other–for being not a living being but a survivor at the price of that fear and shame.

Globalization is the globalization of precisely such a police-state.  That is the insight at work in Henry’s analysis, I’d say–one that unexpectedly links him and Foucault, who is in many ways his very opposite.

“After 9/11” America especially is once again at the cutting edge of things–“things” here being the unfolding of such police-statehood.


He goes on, however, to a less persuasive analysis of the role of ressentiment in giving rise to the  police-state.  The problem with his analysis, as with most analyses of ressentiment, is that he interprets it as belonging to, and rising in, the economically poor, those who suffer from “shortage” (pénurie) of goods or skills or talents.  What such analyses fail to note is that it is above all not among the poor (pace even Nietzsche!) that ressentiment erupts in its most disfiguring and destructive outbursts.  It is among the privileged!  Witness America!  Rush Limbaugh and his ilk.

As Levi knew–Auschwitz taught him!–privilege protects itself.  And out of that defensive self-protection arises ressentiment.  Ressentiment arises among the arrogant and the prideful, not among the humble. 


Michael Greenburg, Hurry Down Sunshine (New York:  Other Press, 2008).  On his 15-year old daughter’s breakdown in summer 1996, when she, the author (a native New Yorker), and his second wife, Pat, are living in New York City.  The daughter, Sally, has a psychotic episode and is hospitalized, where she is diagnosed with bipolar I.  His descriptions, early and late in the book, of her “vision” in that first manic psychosis troublingly yet confirmingly remind me of [a very brief delusional episode I  experienced myself, in 1987–a tale I may someday tell in these blog pages].  P. 18, her father having found her and brought her home, before the hospitalization, Sally responds to her stepmother Pat’s gentle questioning: 

She has had a vision.  It came to her a few days ago in the Bleeker Street playground, while she was watching two little girls play on the wooden footbridge near the slide.  In a surge of insight she saw their genius, their limitless native little-girl genius, and simultaneously realized that we all are geniuses, that the very idea the word stands for has been distorted.  Genius is not the fluke they want us to believe it is, no, it’s as basic to who we are as our sense of love, of God.  Genius is childhood.  The Creator gives it to us with life, and society drums it out of us before we have a chance to follow the impulses of  our naturally creative soul.  Einstein, Newton, Mozart, Shakespeare–not one of  them was abnormal.  They simply found a way to hold on to the gift every one of us is given, like a door prize, at birth.

Then later again, after she returns from the hospital and, eventually after that, to  her old self, the two, father and daughter, are sitting at the same playground where she had (p. 209) “her initial epiphany.”  She tries to tell  him (p. 210) how here the simple sight of

two four-year old girls playing on the wooden footbridge near the slide signaled to  her [again, just as someone’s offhand gesture had, in my own 1987 episode, signaled to me]–a wave, a stare or recognition, a solemn nod–igniting the vision that had been gathering force inside her:  that everyone is born a genius, but it is drummed out of us almost from the minute we open our eyes.  Everyone possesses this genius.  [Cf. Georgio Agamben on “genius.”]  It’s our unmentionable secret.  When childhood is over we are afraid to salvage it from within ourselves, because it would be too risky to do so, it would rupture our drones’ pact with society, it would threaten our ability to survive.

[Sally continues, talking to her father:]

“I thought that to protect yourself, you [that is, her father, Michael] had convinced everyone that I was insane.”

She takes my hand. . .

“Everything fell into place,” she says.  “I dont’ know how to describe it.  My mind was going incredibly fast.  But time slowed.  I could see underneath the surface of things.  I  could  see inside people.  It was like I had been sleepwalking until then, waiting for this to happen.”

The page before (209) Greenberg recounts her vision that way, he records that how “[t]he matter of who exactly she is now after her manic attack continues to haunt Sally.  At home she asks, ‘Does this mean that everything I believed while I  was crazy is bullshit?’  How much must she repudiate?  How does she sort out what she can safely keep from her mania, and what she has to discard?”

That is indeed the question!

He continues:

Later, she wonders how something so vivid and obvious could turn out to be false.  “If my insights weren’t true, then what is?  When you fell in love with Mom or with Pat, did you worry that it might be a delusion?”

“Only a little bit.”

“But it didn’t stop you.”

Cf. Kierkegaard on “the expectancy of victory” in “faith,” and Faulkner on “belief” in Requiem for a Nun.


At one point, he takes some of Sally’s medications, to be able more fully to identify with her.  P. 181: 

Later, when the meds have worn off and I have time to see Sally in the context of my few hours in that numbed world, I realize that the drugs release her not from her cares, but from caring itself.  For caring, exorbitant caring–about the meaning of a passing glance from a stranger, the look in a news broadcaster’s eye on television, the fixed fired thoughts in one’s head–is the psychotic’s curse (“skinless” is a therapist’s term for those who cannot tolerate stimulation.

Cf. acedia, the noonday devil.

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