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


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.”)

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.”

Witnessing Trauma: Reflections on the Work of Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub, #3 of 5


Below, with the date I originally wrote it in my philosophical journal, is the third in a series of five sets of entries dealing with Shosahan Felman’s and Dori Laub’s Testimony:  Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History.


Saturday, August 16, 2008

Felman, p. 93, quotes (for the second time, actually) Hegel’s Lectures on the Philosophy of History:  “The term history unites the objective and the subjective side, and denotes . . . not less what happened than the narration of what happened.  This union of the two meanings we must regard as of a higher order than mere outward accident; we must suppose historical narrations to have appeared contemporaneously with historical deeds and events.”

Insofar, however, as it is an historical event in the first place, “what happened” (as Laub’s pieces [discussed in the entry I posted two days ago, for April 8] can help us see) is never separable from the “narration.”


Felman asks (p. 95):  “Can contemporary narrative historically bear witness, not simply to the impact of the Holocaust but to the way in which the impact of history as holocaust has modified, affected, shifted the very mode of the relationship between narrative and history?”

Insofar as history is holocaust–or “just” event:  that is, insofar as history is history–then history is also testimony:  Testimony is not only itself effective historically, but, given the inseparability of “what happened” and the “narrative” thereof, there is history at all only when there is testimony.

The entries today are from ch. 4, by Felman:  “Camus’ The Plague, or a Monument to Witnessing.”  In section II, “A Missing Literality, or an Event Without a Referent” (pp. 101-104), she begins to explore why “allegorical” or “metaphorical” narration is required of testimony, as with Camus using the  plague as an allegory for WW II.  P. 103:  “There is thus a certain tension, a certain aporia that inheres between the allegorical and the historical  qualities of the event:  the allegory seems to name the vanishing of the event as part of its actual historical occurrence.”


P. 103: 

The plague (the Holocaust) is disbelieved because it does not enter, and cannot be framed by, any existing frame of reference (be it of knowledge or belief).  Because our perception of reality is molded by frames of reference, what is outside them, however imminent and otherwise conspicuous, remains historically invisible, unreal, and can only be encountered by a systematic disbelief.

P. 104: 

The unreality that strikes, thus, the event before and during its occurrence through the victims’ own refusal to believe in its historic referentiality, is matched and reenacted on another level by the way in which the relief at the war’s end is immediately accompanied by a denial and forgetfulness of the war’s horrors.

Witnessing Trauma: Reflections on the Work of Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub, #2 of 5


This is the second of five posts of entries from my philosophical journal dealing with Testimony, the important book by Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub.  The entry was originally written on the date given below.


Friday, August 15, 2008

Felman, “Education and Crisis,  Or the Vicissitudes of Teaching,” Ch. One of her and Laub’s book,  pp. 41-42: 

The Holocaust testimonies in themselves are definitely, at least on their manifest level, as foreign to “poetry” as anything can be, both in their substance and in their intent.  Yet many of them attain, surprisingly, in the very structure of their occurrence, the dimension of discovery and of advent and the power of significance and in part of a true event of language–an event which can unwittingly resemble a poetic, or a literary act.  The very real, overwhelming and as such traumatic aspect of these narratives engages, on the other hand, both the clinical and the historical dimensions of the testimony. . . [which are] implied as well by Celan’s poetry.  What makes Celan’s poetry crucially poetic (even in its post-aesthetic, antipoetic stage) is . . . its formal insistence on the unpredictability of its own rhythm.  In thus insisting on the unpredictability of its own music . . . Celan’s poetry insisted, in effect (as did Mallarmé’s), on the risky unpredictability of the endeavor of the  witness, who does not master–and does not possess–his testimony or his “message in the bottle” [Celan], which may or may not reach a “you” [addressee].  I would suggest, indeed, that both the mystery and the complexity of the endeavor of the testimony and of its compelling power derive, precisely, from this element of unpredictability, from what is unpredictable, specifically, in the effects of the exchange and the degree of interaction between the historical, the clinical and the poetical dimensions of the testimony.

Page 53:

I would venture to propose, today [after a crisis of witnessing that took place in her own class on trauma and testimony], that teaching in itself, teaching as such, takes place precisely only through a crisis:  if teaching does not hit upon some sort of crisis, if it does not encounter either the vulnerability or the explosiveness of a (explicit or implicit) critical and unpredictable dimension, it has perhaps not truly taught:  it has perhaps passed on some facts, passed on some information and some documents . . . but that no one could recognize,and that no could could therefore truly learn, read or put to use.

Looking back at the experience of that class, I therefore think that my job as a teacher, paradoxical as it may sound, was that of creating in the class the highest state of crisis that it could withstand, without “driving the students crazy”–without compromising the students’ bounds.

Later, same page:

Both this kind of teaching and psychoanalysis are interested not merely in new information, but, primarily, in the capacity of the recipients to transform themselves in function of the newness of that information. . . . Testimonial teaching fosters the capacity to witness something that may be surprising, cognitively dissonant.

Part of her own “testimony” in and to the class at issue was to mirror the class’s responses back to them, in a sort of reflective listening.  She says of that (p. 54):

My own testimony to the class, which echoed their reactions, returning to them the expressions of their shock, their trauma and their disarray, bore witness nonetheless to the important fact that their experience, incoherent though it seemed, made sense or that it mattered.  My testimony was both an echo and a return of significance, both a repetition and an affirmation of the double fact that their response was meaningful, and that it counted.

I think she blows it there:  If she is right, then neither she nor her class,  in their “testimony,” bore witness–testified–at all to the Holocaust, but merely used it–no less than the worst Hollywood usage for profit’s sake–for exterior purposes,  and thus repeated the silencing of the Holocaust testimony that they purported to honor.  After all, the experience of those in the Holocaust did not “make sense” and did not “matter,” was not “meaningful” and did not “count”!

A truly traumatic or event-ful teaching would shatter the students and leave them shattered.  In a colloquial sense it would indeed “teach them”–teach them to think their lives mattered or counted at all, any more than did the lives of the dead in the Holocaust.

There is no “redemption.”


Laub writes chapters two and three.  Two is “Bearing Witness, or the Vicissitudes of Listening.”  P. 57 (the first of the chapter): 

While historical evidence to the event which constitutes the trauma may be abundant and documents in vast supply, the trauma–as a known event and not simply as an overwhelming shock–has not been truly witnessed yet, not been taken cognizance of.  The emergence of the narrative which is being listened to–and heard–is, therefore, the process and the place wherein the cognizance,  the “knowing” of the event is given birth to.  The listener, therefore, is a party to the creation of knowledge de novo.  The testimony to the trauma thus includes its hearer, who is, so to speak, the blank screen on which the event comes to be inscribed for the first time.

I’d extend that, to cover what are called “screen memories” as such, which, as I suggested in my [Philosophy and] 9/11 class last fall, not only or primarily veil what is to be remembered, but also and above all provide the surface on which memory itself can be projected, and without which no memory can occur.

 Laub goes on (p. 60) to provide an excellent example of this sort of “screening,” which reveals in and as its very “concealing.”  It is the example of a woman recounting her experience of the rebellion at Auschwitz.  Laub, in a group  of historians who discount her testimony because it is clearly “historically inaccurate” (she remembers all four of the crematoria chimneys being blown up, when “really” only one was), replies as follows (he’s quoting himself [in the third person]): 

“The woman was testifying,” he insisted, “not to the number of the chimneys blown up, but to something else, more radical, more crucial:  the reality of an unimaginable occurrence.  One chimney blown up in Auschwitz was as incredible as four.  The number mattered less than the fact of the occurrence.  The event itself was almost inconceivable.  The woman testified to an event that broke the all compelling frame of Auschwitz, where Jewish armed revolts just did not happen, and had no place.  She testified to the breakage of a framework.  That was historical truth.”  (Cf. Nixon quitting in 1974!  [That was the “historical truth” of  Nixon’s Presidency.])

Nor does it say anything that (p. 61) one of the historians observes that the event “historically, made no difference,” because it was not only “put down” but also even “betrayed by the Polish resistance,” none of which makes it into the woman’s testimony.  Laub is wiser than that.

He goes on to  argue (p.. 61):  “Of course, it is by no means ignorance that I espouse.  The listener must be quite well informed if he  is to  be able to  hear–to be able to pick up the cues.”

Indeed, I’d add, as Freud and “Irma’s dream” also exemplify, if the listener does not know the presumed “facts,” then the symbolic clout of the testimony–its very being as testimony, then–can never be heard, and never spoken (insofar as, Laub being right on this, the hearing/listening is inseparable from the  event of the narrating/witnessing), since it is only in the gaps between the  “facts” and the “memory” that truth occurs–the sort of “historical truth” Laub is concerned with.

By telling him [of her remembered experience of the Auschwitz revolt], the woman for the first time comes to know of the event.  P. 62:  “And it 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.”  He learned the very historical truth of it, I’d say. 

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.

Indeed, in this crucially important–historically true–sense, every testimony to the Holocaust is itself the breaking out from Auschwitz–again and again, for the very first time.

P. 63: 

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, since she knew about the breakage of the frame, that her very testimony was now reenacting.

As the Psalmist sings of the vacuity of the rich and the powerful:  “I passed by again, they were not there.”

That’s the truth of Auschwitz, just as his resignation was the truth of Nixon.

Also p.63:

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. 

Cf. Heidegger on authenticity/inauthenticity.

The decay of truth.

P. 71:  “Survivors beginning to remember often desire to be alone, although very much in someone’s presence; the listener has to be exquisitely responsible to these cues.”


Laub, Ch. 3, “An Event Without a Witness:  Truth, Testimony, and Survival,” p. 91:

The testimony [namely, of Holocaust survivors] is inherently a process of facing loss. . . .

It is the realization that the lost one are not coming back; the realization that what life is all about is precisely living with an unfulfilled hope, someone saying:  “I’ll be with you in the very process of your losing me.  I am your witness.”


Witnessing Trauma: Reflections on the Work of Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub, #1 of 5


This is the first in a series of five consecutive posts containing entries from my philosophical journal addressing the important and influential work of Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub, specifically their often cited book Testimony:  Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History (New York:  Routledge, 1992).  Today, the entry I am posting below, with its date of original writing as usual, consists solely of some quotations from the introduction to that book concerning, especially, the trauma of the World War II and the Holocaust.  I will wait until the next four posts to share my own reflections on their work, as I move on past their introduction.  Here, I will let it suffice to say that the remarks cited below have my full endorsement, insofar as, in my judgment, they open upon crucially important directions for thinking through trauma.


Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Shoshana Felman and  Dori Laub, Testimony, p. xiv: 

. . . [One focus in their book is on] the historic trauma of the Second World War, a trauma . . . which the book will come to view not as an event encapsulated in the past, but as a history which is essentially not over, a history whose repercussions are not simply omnipresent (whether consciously or not) in all our cultural activities, but whose traumatic consequences are still actively evolving (Eastern Europe and the [first] Gulf War are two obvious examples) in today’s political,  historical , cultural, and artistic scene . . . .

P. xvi:  “. . . the encounter with the real leads to the experience of an existential  crisis in all those involved:  students as well  as teachers, narrators as well  as listeners, testifiers as well as interviewers.”

P. xvii:  [Concerning the Holocaust, they write that it was] “. . . the unprecedented, inconceivable, historical occurrence of ‘an event without a witness’–an event eliminating its own  witness.”

P. xviii:  [The crisis that is the Holocaust is] “. . . the crisis within history which precisely cannot be articulated, witnessed in the given categories of history itself.”  [Accordingly, history after the Holocaust is] “. . . a history that can [therefore] no longer be accounted for, and formulated, in its own terms.”

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