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Trauma, NarraTive, aNd Two Forms oF deaTh
Trauma, Narrative, and Two Forms of Death
Trauma and Narrative There are several very different ways in which the relationship between “trauma” and “narrative” (or “life narrative”) is articulated.1 some scholars think that these two concepts are opposites—stories are a mode of symbolic structure that constructs identity, while trauma is the effect of that which evades structure and shatters identity. many attribute such an understanding to Freud, such as Cathy Caruth’s approach to the relationship between trauma and the historical narrative.2 These approaches stress mostly the discrepancies between the repetitive and belated temporal structure of the trauma versus the linear temporal structure of the narrative. others claim that trauma and the stories that are told by the traumatized victim often bear consequential, or at times even therapeutic, relations: a traumatic experience produces an immediate need to tell a story and to reformulate one’s life story. some, such as the psychiatrist Judith herman or Primo Levi, would even say that a life story is the first essential step toward recovery, or at least toward working through the trauma.3 a third form of relation is enactment: the trauma narrative, in its form and mode of narration, reenacts the original traumatic event. shlomith rimmon-Kenan’s work on Günter Grass’s Cat and Mouse is a good example of such analysis.4 as a matter of fact, these three conceptual relationships between trauma and narrative do not necessarily exclude one another. in many instances, we can find them all, with changing emphases, in various writings on trauma. one example of this complex articulation is the
This paper was originally presented at a conference in honor of shlomith rimmonKenan and is dedicated to her with much love and gratitude. Literature and Medicine 25, no. 1 (spring 2006) 122–141 © 2006 by The Johns hopkins university Press
work of dominick LaCapra, who stresses the unavoidable oscillation between exclusion, working through, and acting out in representing trauma.5 in this paper, however, i would like to suggest yet another way to relate these two concepts to each other, recombining elements of the approaches mentioned above. i would like to suggest that in the case of a vast traumatic event, such as the holocaust (but certainly not only the holocaust), stories that are narrated by the victims are the place where trauma is “framed” so that it will not collapse into two very much more radical forms of death—the death of the victim subject by the annihilator’s signifier and the victim’s “symbolic death.”6 These two forms of death refer, as will be discussed later, to two Lacanian concepts and were imposed, according to my analysis, by the Nazis on their victims, with the aim to annihilate them even before actually killing them. The concepts set up a theoretical framework for reading and understanding the fundamental challenges undertaken in texts that arise out of trauma. in order to establish my point i will examine texts of various genres—theoretical as well as poetic and documentary. First i will establish an historical-theoretical claim and then i will return to my initial question about the relationship between trauma and narrative. i will then illustrate my claim by closely reading one entry from a diary written by a young woman in the Greenberg forced labor camp. i will begin with what i call “the annihilation of the self by the signifier.” The annihilation of the self This idea of the self and its annihilation during and after the holocaust has already been posited very forcefully by Theodor adorno. in a lecture titled “The Liquidation of the self,” delivered on July 15, 1965, Adorno refers to the difficulty of talking about metaphysics after the great horrors of the twentieth century: in the face of the experience we have had, not only through auschwitz but through the introduction of torture as a permanent institution and through the atomic bomb—all these things form a kind of coherence, a hellish unity—in the face of these experiences the assertion that what is has meaning, and the affirmative character that has been attributed to metaphysics almost without exception,
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becomes a mockery; and in the face of the victims it becomes downright immoral.7 Thereafter, adorno stresses that at the core of the crisis in metaphysical thought is the concept of the self: “[T]he change that we are experiencing in metaphysics is on the most fundamental level a change in the self and its so called substance.”8 he then explains “that the pure identity of all people with their concept is nothing other than their death.”9 according to adorno, the death of the self—or at least one of the forms it can take—is caused by a static identity in the relationship of the subject to his or her concept. when there is no gap between the abstract concept and the “real thing” (the flesh and blood person), the subject is confronted with a form of death.10 Proceeding in this theoretical avenue, though in a slightly different direction, i would like to suggest that a similar death, caused by imposing on real people total identification with symbols that represent them, was gradually forced upon the Jews by the Third reich. one can follow the twisted road to the so-called “final solution” through the signifying practices by which the Nazis endeavored to actually close the gap between the Jews and the symbols imposed upon them. in this way, the Nazis forced on them a kind of death that preceded their actual biological murder. Through this process, symbols to identify the Jew came closer and closer to the real body until one was finally tattooed onto it. Furthermore, this process more or less paralleled the process of radicalization in Nazi policy toward the Jews. marking the victim As is well-known, the Nazis were obsessed with symbols: flags, ribbons, signs, parades, rally uniforms, unit pins, and badges were strong components of the Nazi phenomenon. it seems though that this obsession with signs and symbols is most evident in the Nazis’ marking of their victims, especially the Jews. In this process of signification, I suggest five predominant phases. The first phase, which began long before the Nazis came to power, was the turning of the signifier Jew into a negative master signifier distinguished from its opposite positive master signifier—Aryan—in the racist Nazi worldview. This stark binary opposition was situated in the heart of Nazi language and constructed its conceptual spectrum.11 The second phase was the marking of Jewish businesses and Jewish property. This occurred very soon after the Nazis came to
power, not due to a formal or official decree but in a “spontaneous” way when, on april 1, 1933, a ban was declared on all Jewish businesses and Nazis officials prevented Germans from stepping into those shops. at this event, the word Jew was written on Jewish shops and businesses in Germany.12 It is worth mentioning that there were those who identified the April 1 ban as an event of signification. In the April 27, 1933 issue of Juedische Rundschau, the Zionist leader robert weltch wrote, “wear it with pride—the yellow badge.” while the actual marking of the Jews in Nazi Germany with a “badge” would not take place until more than eight years later (september 1941), weltch relates the april 1 ban as a return for the Jews to the pre-emancipation era, of which the “yellow badge” is a symbol. he therefore metaphorically calls the Jews to wear the badge with pride, in other words, to proudly accept this fate and acknowledge their own distinct national identity. what strikes me here is that he rhetorically expresses the essence of the events to be that it is as if the Jews had received a symbol for their Jewishness—a yellow badge.13 The third phase, during which a symbol came closer to the body, was the addition of a signifying element for the Jews in their official documents. Beginning in the summer of 1938, all Jews were forced to add a second, notably Jewish name in their official documents—Israel for men and Sarah for women. This policy intensified on October 5 of that year, when Jews’ passports were stamped, in accordance to an official Swiss demand, with the letter J in order to prevent Jews fleeing from Nazi Germany to enter switzerland.14 The next phase was a very crucial one—the marking of the Jews with an actual badge, which they were forced to wear on their clothes. Again, there was no one universal decree issued by a central office; it was a local initiative. But, eventually, and according to the same very strong Nazi logic, all Jews under Nazi occupation were marked. Two very dramatic things happen in the process of marking. First, the signifier is elevated to the status of a symbol but retains its linguistic qualities. in many cases, the word Jew (in various languages) or the letter J was written on the badge.15 But more important for my analysis, the symbol-signifier comes very close to the body—only the clothes separate the body from its signifier.16 as a matter of fact, in many places, like in Germany, the act of marking the Jews was the very first step toward annihilating them. In September 1941, just before being deported east, the remaining Jews in the German reich were forced to wear the Jewish star on their coats, vests, and shirts.17
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The fifth phase occurred from 1942 to the time, in 1944, when auschwitz—the paradigmatic locus of the Nazi death industry—ceased to operate. during this phase each prisoner had a number tattooed on his or her arm. here, the victim reached—literally—a corporeal identity with his or her truly arbitrary signifier. The victims’ response we can already sense from this brief survey a very clear, if unintended, progression in the Nazis’ signifying practices of the Jews: the transition from an arbitrary abstract phonetic or graphic signifier that signifies the concept of the Jew in language to a concrete signifying form that brings the signifier closer to the Jew’s very real body. In the beginning, the signifier still keeps a metonymic distance from the body—it is marked on the Jew’s property, and then closer, in the Jew’s official documents. But gradually the gap is closed and the person is marked—first on his or her clothes with a badge, and then on the skin with a number. This process of closing the gap between the signifier and the body is articulated in literary form by Yehiel dinur, whose pen name is “Ka-Tzetnik” (the word for a prisoner in a concentration camp) and who is one of the most controversial israeli holocaust writers. dinur was an auschwitz survivor and has been both praised and criticized for his direct, vulgar, detailed, and, at times, even pornographic writing style, which depicts the most sadistic aspects of the events he writes about. In his fictional book The House of Dolls, the narrator, once arriving in auschwitz, confronts an unknowable phenomenon to which he tries to find meaning and explanation. For example, he seeks an explanation for the inscription FELD-HURE (field whore), which is tattooed on female whore prisoners’ chests, by comparing it to the Jewish “badge of shame,” which he already knew from the ghetto: “what kind of a sign is this? . . . as a matter of fact all the women were already used to being marked in the ghetto. in the beginning, when the Germans issued the decree according to which all Jews must wear the badge of shame on their left arm, it was very hurting. shame burnt all faces. . . . and so everybody got used to being marked. and then came another decree: ‘The Jewish badge has to be sewn in the place of the heart.’”18 The process that dinur portrays here is very clear: the removable armband becomes a stitched mark on the heart. But then the narra-
tor goes one step further to depict another figure in the narrative to whose forehead the word Jude is bloodily tattooed. here already the badge is inscribed into the flesh, even before the prisoners’ numbers were tattooed onto their arms in auschwitz. The historical accuracy of this narrative is dubious; Jewish women were not prostitutes in Nazi camps because of the racial laws that forbade any sexual intercourse between Jews and aryans. it is also very doubtful whether the word Jude was ever tattooed onto anyone’s forehead. however, the perverted Nazi logic seems to me to be very accurate and the “badge of shame” already primes the next phase of signification—the tattooing of the signifier onto the flesh. One can sense how traumatic the issue of signification is by following the reactions of the victims, which far exceeded the concrete effect of the decree of the badge. Let us take, for example, victor Klemperer’s testimony as he wrote it in dresden immediately after the war (Klemperer survived the war in dresden and was not deported to the “east”): “i ask myself today what i had been asking myself and many different others already hundreds of times: what was the most difficult day for the Jews in the twelve years of hell. Never did i receive from myself or from others, any other answer but that: september the 19th 1941. The day when we were forced to wear the Jewish star.”19 Klemperer does not mention the day of the first deportation, nor does he mention the day when news came that all the deportees were killed in Riga. He does not allude to the day when he was fired from his job or the day he was expelled from his home or even the day when he was sentenced to imprisonment for eight days, during which he almost lost his mind.20 None of these dates stand out as the worst for him—only the day on which it was ordered that the Jews must wear the Jewish star. This extreme statement could partially be understood in the context of Klemperer’s radical assimilated identity: he converted to Protestantism when he was young and felt himself to be nothing other than a German. The Jewish star that he had to wear on his clothes put a very concrete and visible end to this self-perception; he became marked by the Germans as different—as a non-German. But this provides only a partial answer to his apparently excessive reaction. There are similar expressions, or even more extreme ones, in other texts, among them the writings of people with a very strong and affirmative Jewish or Zionist identity. eliyahu rozinski, for example, a member of the ha-shomer hatzair Zionist movement who died as a fighter in the Warsaw Ghetto
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uprising, writes in the February-march 1942 volume of the “against the stream” warsaw ghetto underground bulletin: “a badge! how can one wear the badge! The badge burned my arm. i felt as if i had a neck-chain tied around my neck. i panicked. i could not sleep at night. . . . I wanted so much to be able to stand firmly on the ground and feel this ground is mine.”21 Rozinski uses many rhetorical and figurative devices as he seeks to explain the radical shock and destabilization that the badge creates. it is quite clear that he experiences the fundamental effects of the badge on various levels of his mind and body, so much so that he feels as if the badge has burned his arm. The meaning is, in my opinion, that the badge takes aim on the body and that the subsequent phase of tattooing a number onto the prisoner’s arm is already latent in the badge—precisely as we have seen in Dinur’s fiction. The Death Caused by the Annihilator’s Signifier it is clear that, from the victims’ perspective, the badge was one of the most dreadful Nazi decrees. it is always referred to in the writings of the victims as one of the most radical assaults inflicted by the annihilator. But what made it so shocking and destabilizing? why did it draw such extreme responses in the victims’ writings of the time as well as in postwar writings? Paradoxically, one would expect the decree to be regarded as one of the lightest since it did not take anything from the Jews—not life, not property, not freedom. on the contrary, it gave the victims something very obvious—a symbol.22 Nevertheless, we find these extreme responses. The Nazis’ obsession with marking their victims, the gradual closing of the gap between the victim’s signifier and his or her body, and the victim’s response to it—all these cannot be denied. however, when we try to understand the greater implications of these events, we walk on more speculative ground. There are practical reasons for the trauma created by the badges: the marking isolated the Jews, and it made them much more identifiable and therefore much more vulnerable to brutal attacks and so forth.23 But i would like to argue that the victims’ extreme responses exceed any explanation that aims only on the concrete pragmatic level. It seems to me that there is more to it and that the Nazi signification processes struck a very fundamental level in the subject.
The novel Fateless by imre Kertész—the 2002 hungarian-Jewish Literature Nobel laureate—might serve as a good text with which to begin for, i propose, this novel deals precisely with this issue. Fateless is the story of an assimilated young hungarian Jew in his midteens who is shockingly torn out of his everyday life and sent to auschwitz and other camps. he becomes a musalmann—a prisoner who has lost his will to live, becomes a living corpse, and usually dies within a short time. But Kertész does survive, and the narrative ends with his return to Budapest. Loosely based on the author’s own life, Fateless is, to my opinion, one of the most brilliant books about the camp universe. The story is narrated in the first person from the youngster’s point of view and Kertész uses a childlike style, which depicts his astonishment and curiosity as he confronts time and again the great and horrible weird and fantastic events. it is written in a clear ironic mode that echoes the great Yiddish writer sholom aleichem’s famous work Adventures of Mottel, the Cantor’s Son.24 The narrative, which examines the issue of fate during the holocaust from an existential point of view, is framed by episodes that relate to the Nazi practice of marking victims. at the beginning of the story, still in Budapest, the narrator argues with a girl his age about the obligation of the Jews to mark themselves with the badge. The girl says that “she needed to discuss something that was weighing on her mind, a thing that had consumed her thoughts lately: her yellow star.”25 she feels that since she began wearing the badge, people stare at her and relate to her in a different way. The narrator tries to explain to her that “it was not she, that is, she personally, whom they hated—since after all they’d not even met her—but rather that they hated her (more broadly) as a ‘Jew’” (27). At first, the young girl is convinced by his argument, but then she asserts that she has discovered that “this and this thing alone was exactly what they hated in her. For she held the opinion that ‘we Jews are different from other people’ and this difference or otherness is the essence of and rationale about why people detest us” (27). she then goes on to say that she vacillates between pride and shame in regard to this. The young boy, in contrast, sees “little reason until now for such feelings. Besides, one can’t really determine such a particular otherness oneself; after all, i assumed, that was the function of the yellow star” (27). The girl insists, “‘we carry this otherness within ourselves,’ i, on the other hand, held that what we wore on the outside was more essential” (27–8).
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The narrator attempts to sustain his argument with the fable of “The Prince and the Pauper,” from which he concludes that anybody can change himself or herself to be anybody else, or at least change his or her identity. and if, for example, when she was born, she had been mistakenly exchanged in the hospital for some other girl, by some other family “whose papers with regard to racial matters were totally acceptable. well, in that case, it would be the other young woman who would become aware of her otherness and would likewise be wearing the yellow star, while she, because of her documents, would see herself as exactly like—and others would also view her as exactly like—other people” (28). Confronted by this argument, the girl bursts into tears because “if our distinctiveness was unimportant, then all this was mere chance, and that if there was the possibility of her being someone other then whom she was fated to be, then all this was utterly without reason, and to her that idea was totally ‘unbearable’” (29). The narrator feels very differently but he cannot find the words to convince and console the girl. he can only insist that he “genuinely felt like it . . . . This is the way i saw it” (29). The narrator understands that the Jewish badge is arbitrary and that there is no inherent connection between the body that bears the mark and the mark itself. he recognizes that a person can be someone other then who he or she seems fated to be. The significance of this understanding is revealed in the very last pages of the novel, which depict his return from the camps. This coming-back-home is very agitating to the narrator because those who were not deported cannot understand his experiences. This is not due to their incapacity to grasp the enormity of the horrors. in fact, it is the narrator who rejects the term “horrors” (180) as not fitting his experiences, and when a reporter who tries to interview him asks him about the “hell” (186) he has gone through, he angrily replies that he cannot describe hell since he was never there. he can only try to describe the concentration camp. what makes the narrator so angry is that his listeners think, echoing the girl’s thoughts, that what actually happened had to happen. he claims, however, that “[e]very single minute could have actually brought about a new state of affairs . . . something might have happened during one of them, something other than what was actually happening in auschwitz” (187–8). it is only in retrospect that the events seem to be sealed by fate. when his listeners become annoyed, he explains impatiently, “everyone stepped forward as long as he could: i, too, took my steps—not
only in the row in auschwitz but before at home. i stepped forward with my father, with my mother, with anne-marie and—maybe the most difficult step of all—with the older sister” (188). This sister is the girl with whom he argues at the beginning of the novel on the meaning, or to be more precise, the lack of meaning of the Jewish badge. Two pages before the end of the novel, after all he has gone through, he concludes: Now i could tell her what it means to be “a Jew”: it had meant nothing for me until the steps began. Now there is no other blood . . . . i, too, had lived out a given fate. it wasn’t my fate, but i am the one who lived it to the end. i simply couldn’t understand why i couldn’t get this through their heads that i now needed to start doing something with that fate, needed to connect it to somewhere or something; after all, I could not be satisfied with the notion that it had all been a mistake, blind fortune, some kind of blunder. (188)26 The marking of the Jews could therefore be perceived as the central theme of the novel and fundamental to the tension between the narrator’s fate and his freedom. The narrator gains some freedom from the grasp of fate once he is able to take what he defines as the “most difficult step,” which he took in that conversation with the girl in which he got to understand that the marking of the victim is totally arbitrary (188). This marking says nothing about the marked body or its persona; it is contingent. meaning always comes afterward, once things have already happened. only then does it become necessary to organize the events into some meaningful story or structure. But it seems to me that Kertész brings us closer to an answer about the significance of the marking. The subject’s basic freedom and relative autonomy (his being a “self,” to return to adorno’s term) depend on the ability to distinguish between the sign and the real body, between the concept of the Jew and the flesh-and-blood Jew, or, to use adorno’s words again, on the ability to disconnect “the pure identity of all people” from “their concept.”27 it is important to stress that this ability is related, according to Kertész, to the constant movement of the subject in time, which enables the subject to retain some sense of subjectivity, even in or after auschwitz, and to move beyond fate—into the condition of being “fateless.”
Trauma, NarraTive, aNd Two Forms oF deaTh
What I am proposing is that the Nazi practices of signification endeavored to literally close the gap between the signifier, the signified, and the real referent: a Jew as a signifier is a Jew as a concept is a Jew as a real material body. within the framework of such a practice, there are no gaps between the subject and the signifier and between one signifier and another since the Jew has only one signifier. Total identity is reached. in order to explain the severe effects of this total identity, i will use Jacques Lacan’s concept of metonymy. Lacan understands metonymy in the subject’s psychic life as the process by which the subject is constantly engaged in an impossible search for a signifier that will suit him or her. This search is endless because there is no one signifier or one object that can exhaust one’s identity or totally satisfy one’s desire. No matter how many words one uses to describe his or her identity or objects of desire, there will always be something left out. Full identity or full satisfaction is impossible—there is always some lack or void that still has to be filled. Therefore the subject continues to look for other signifiers and other objects that will satisfy or portray more accurately his or her identity. This constant movement and transformation is the course of desire and its structure, according to Lacan, is metonymic since, as dylan evans explains, “Metonymy [is] a diachronic movement from one signifier to another along the signifying chain, as one signifier constantly refers to another in a perpetual deferral of meaning. desire is also characterized by exactly the same never-ending process of continual deferral; since desire is always ‘desire for something else’ and as soon as the object of desire is attained it is no more desirable, and the subject’s desire fixes on another object.”28 it is therefore this movement from one signifier to another that is the cause and effect of desire, as Lacan concludes, “[d]esire is a metonymy however funny people may find the idea.”29 By assigning only one signifier to a person and forcing this signifier on the body, the gap between the subject and the signifier is literally closed. The subject has now only one signifier and the metonymic slippage from one signifier to another is prohibited. In other words, the subject’s constant and everlasting search for his or her signifier, or identity, is blocked. The subject receives the imposed signifier in a way that fills all voids and lacks in his or her being; the search for a transformative identity and for new objects of desire comes to a halt and the subject of desire is murdered.30 What is lacking, then, in the Nazi signification practices of the ˇ z Jews is lack itself, or as slavoj Ziˇ ek writes in a slightly different con-
text: “[T]he unbearable absolute lack emerges at the very point when the lack itself is lacking.”31 This is what I call the annihilation of the subject by the Nazi signifier and I believe that this annihilation, which preceded the physical annihilation, threatened the Jews constantly under the Nazi regime but even more as time passed and the gaps that I have been discussing diminished. At the point when such a death occurs, words and desire cease to exist. I will elaborate further on this issue, but first I want to briefly return to the other form of death mentioned at the beginning of this article, which I call, following Lacan, the “second death” or the “symbolic death.”32 The Symbolic Death According to Lacan, the first (not necessarily chronologically) death is natural death. It is a part of the life cycle—of life and death, of blooming and withering—that operates within nature. The second death is something very different and entirely terrifying: the death of nature itself, as if reality has released itself from its own rules. As ˇ z Ziˇ ek explains, “[The difference is between] natural death, which is a part of the natural cycle of generation and corruption, of nature’s continual transformation. And absolute death—the destruction, the eradication of the cycle itself.”33 The second death can occur not only when the symbolic order that constructs nature is eradicated but also when any symbolic system—such as the social one—is annihilated. The example Lacan gives is the Greek figure Antigone, who violated the city laws and therefore was caged in a tomb outside the symbolic universe of the city; there she exists between the natural death that awaits her and the symbolic death that has already reached her.34 In some sense, she resembles what Giorgio Agamben calls a “homo sacer”—a sacred subject devoid of all rights and laws.35 Trauma is caused by the subject’s close encounter with what Lacan calls the “Real”—a situation or an event that exceeds the symbolic order and therefore cannot gain any meaning in the subject’s symbolic framework. Something in this encounter bypasses the cognitive mental apparatus and is experienced by the subject as excess. This excess, which is created in trauma and which is not integrated into any meaningful structure, is doomed to return as a traumatic symptom and haunt the subject in a compulsory manner. But that is not the greatest threat of
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the traumatic encounter. The greatest catastrophe that is implicit in the traumatic encounter is the potential eradication of the entire grid of meaning, or, to put it differently, the point when the subject is left with no relevant cultural, historical, or personal context from which to work through the trauma. at such a point, the victim either cannot speak or his or her speech has absolutely no meaning; the victim has been silenced. This is the second death. at this point, i will return to my initial question: how is writing a (life) narrative related to trauma and—i will now add—to the two forms of death i have discussed? Between the Two deaths I will answer this question by reading Fela Szeps’s first entry in the diary that she wrote while in the Greenberg forced labor camp from 1942 to 1945. it seems to me that in the following passage, she illuminatingly confronts these two deaths and suggests a way by which writing a diary might help to avoid them: Passover monday april 5, 1942 many talk here about writing a diary. everybody thinks that there are so many things here that should be documented—things that do not happen in normal life. . . . such things existed only in the imagination of storytellers. i believe that any of us who ever read such stories thought that had she had to undergo what these miserable protagonists underwent, the world would go upside down, the sun and moon would stop to shine as usual and she herself would not survive. But here, everything goes on as usual . . . and these weird events are accepted peacefully as if they were normal phenomena . . . and there is nothing to write in the diary. everything seems so natural.36 This paragraph should be read very closely. First, the desire to document and to write a diary is aroused by the extraordinary nature of the reality in which the prisoners live: “many talk here about writing a diary. everybody thinks that there are so many things here that should be documented—things that do not happen in normal life.” The traumatic encounter with the extraordinary stimulates the writing impulse. however, there are two threats to this impulse. one is articulated from the perspective of normal life. From this perspective, the occurrences seem so extreme and transgressive that
“the world would go upside down”: “I believe that any of us who ever read such stories thought that had she had to undergo what these miserable protagonists underwent, the world would go upside down, the sun and moon would stop to shine as usual and she herself would not survive.” What seems to be happening here is that the world no longer obeys its own laws. It is the destruction of the universe and, as ˇ z Ziˇ ek explains in reference to the symbolic death, “Absolute death, the ‘destruction of the universe,’ is always the destruction of the symbolic universe.”37 So the first threat on Szeps’s diary writing, emerging from the perspective of normal life, is the second/symbolic death. Then Szeps reflects upon another obstacle to writing: “[T]hese weird events are accepted peacefully as if they were normal phenomena . . . and there is nothing to write in the diary. Everything seems so natural.” In other words, the prisoners accept the symbolic order of the annihilator, in which they have neither the right nor the possibility to desire any change—the camp is the natural state of things and they are doomed to operate as automatons within it.38 Here, the prisoner is a radical embodiment of what Lacan calls the subject who is petrified by the signifier, the one who cannot create any meaning or change identity through the metonymic slippage from one signifier to the other.39 For, as Colette Soler explains, “The only choice the subject has is either to become petrified in a signifier or to slide into meaning, because when you have a link between the signifiers [metonymy] you have meaning. . . . What Lacan calls a subject petrified by the signifier is a subject who doesn’t ask any questions.”40 And Eric Laurent states, “At the very moment at which the subject identifies with such a signifier, he is petrified. He is defined as if he is dead, or as if he were lacking the living part of his being that contains his jouissance.”41 This subject can no longer desire. The result is what I call “the death caused by the signifier,” which stops the process of metonymic slippage from one signifier to the other that produces meaning and desire. The difference between the prisoner in the concentration camp and the “subject petrified by the signifier” is that the latter confronts the signifying chain and refuses to react by slipping from one signifier to another whereas the prisoner has been reduced to one signifier that has been attached to his or her body and is therefore doomed to paralysis. So how does the writer solve this double bind between the symbolic death and the death caused by the signifier? Between being completely outside of language and being suffocated by the annihilators’ word? Between facing an endless terrifying void where the entire
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grid of meaning has collapsed and facing the lack of lack? how does she manage these two silencing deaths in a way that allows her to write her diary? “and nevertheless,” she continues, “one often desires to take a pencil and do something with it. To write what belies in the deepness of the heart, what flows and undermines restlessly in depth and under the subconscious. Because not once, often only the heart in its depth conceals some kind of a feeling of anger which seeks to get hold of something in order to express its indefinable pain. Perhaps the pencil will enable such a grasp.”42 as we have seen, simply representing reality, according to szeps, might result in one of the two lethal silences. however, in this opening entry of her diary, szeps suggests a different point of departure to writing that acknowledges trauma but tries to avoid these two deaths. Trauma, as we have seen, is the encounter with an excessive event that evades any meaningful structure and therefore is not accessible to the traumatized subject. szeps acknowledges this inaccessibility. The deep pain, as she describes it, is very forceful but nevertheless is concealed and flows in the “subconscious”; it can be neither approached nor represented in a direct way. But in spite of that lack of consciousness, or perhaps precisely because of it, the pain creates a desire to do something. Just as in the case of Freud’s grandson’s famous “fort da” game, which was based on a performative act with an object connected to signifiers (“o-o-o” and “da”), this “something” is first performed by an object (the pencil) that is connected to the signifiers of writing.43 The pencil is not just a means of writing but first and foremost an object that enables the inaccessible pain to somehow be grasped. The words follow. The pencil as an object could therefore be understood as opening again the essential gap between the writer and the world, allowing the chain of signifiers to emerge.44 in this writing, one is always acknowledging the inaccessibility of the traumatic experience and the misfit of the signifier to its role of representation and therefore continuing very painfully to ever search for new signifiers. The essential gap between the subject and the world as a symbolic universe is maintained. on the one hand, the world does not completely lose its meaning (it does not “go upside down”), and on the other hand, this universe that the writer has been thrown into is not taken for granted as the natural state of being, as if the word of the annihilator that positions the victim as an automaton awaiting death in the camp is the true and last word. This writing preserves the symbolic grid of meaning but also produces the essential gap
between the subject and the signifier. In this way, the writer stays within the realm of trauma but avoids succumbing to one of the two forms of death. Conclusion Trauma occurs within, not outside of, the symbolic universe. it is a radical and shocking interruption of the universe, but not its total destruction. one can even say that from a structural psychoanalytical point of view, trauma is the actual condition of the possibility of reality—as a symbolic universe—to exist.45 Trauma therefore remains situated within the framework of the complex dialectics of life and death. By writing, i suggest, the victim tries to “frame” himself or herself within trauma in order not to fall into one of the two much worse possibilities—where this dialectics between life and death is stopped by the “death by the signifier” and the “symbolic death”—both imposed by the murderer in order to annihilate the victim even before actually killing him or her. in this sense, writing a narrative (like szeps’s diary) during the holocaust was writing a life narrative—not only in the sense that the narrative depicts the writer’s life but also in the more literal sense that it actually enables life. however, even writing is not a total guarantee, and much more so during traumas as vast as the Holocaust. The annihilator’s signifier is still very powerful and it can penetrate the victim’s writing and even dominate it. or, alternately, the traumatic excess around which the pencil circulates can at once burst forth and destroy the entire writing. NoTes
1. For various ways these two concepts are related, see rogers et al., Trauma and Life Stories. 2. see Caruth, Unclaimed Experience. For a survey of similar approaches and a sharp critique of Caruth’s approach, see Leys, Trauma. 3. see herman, Trauma and Recovery; and Camon, Conversations with Primo Levi, 41–3. For a response to Levi’s stance, see semprun, Literature or Life, 247–51. 4. see rimmon-Kenan, “Narration as repetition.” 5. see, for example, LaCapra, Writing History, Writing Trauma and his other writings on trauma. 6. I include in this category autobiographical, documental, and fictional narratives that were told by the victims. This includes diaries, memoirs, autobiographies, autobiographical fiction, and other genres. 7. adorno, “The Liquidation of the self,” 428. The problem of “man” was confronted by many intellectuals after the war. see, for example, arendt, “The Concentration Camps”; and Levi, If This is a Man.
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8. ibid., 432. 9. ibid., 433. 10. see his general statement: “if thought is not measured by the extremity that eludes the concept, it is from the outset in the nature of the musical accompaniment with which the ss liked to drown out the screams of its victims” (adorno, Negative Dialectics, 365). 11. one can see this very clearly in hitler’s Mein Kampf. 12. Marking Jewish businesses and shops was perceived by many rank-and-file Nazi party members as an essential and natural step to be taken by the leadership already during the thirties. These low-rank party members put great pressure on the leadership, but hitler’s reaction was furious. he, who profoundly understood the significance of the act of marking, wanted to be the only one to decide on the right timing for such an action. he expressed his anger in a Gauleiters conference on april 29, 1937. it is interesting to note that precisely in this context hitler expressed himself in a very radical way, as saul Friedländer asserts, “[T]he tone, the words, the images contained a yet unheard ferocity, the intimation of a deadly threat” (Friedländer, Nazi Germany and the Jews, 188). 13. see arad et al., Documents on the Holocaust, 44–7. 14. it is worth mentioning that in her memoir, Yolande mukagasana, a Tutsi survivor from the rwandan genocide, quotes a dispute between two brothers about their “racial” origin. The first claims that they are actually Tutsi while the other, a radical hutu party member, claims that they are hutu. The former maintains that the difference between Tutsi and hutu is not racial but social and his brother replies that he should look at his id and see that he is a hutu. see mukagasana, La mort ne veut pas de moi. 15. Blurring the boundaries between linguistic signifiers and public symbols was, according to the philologist victor Klemperer, one of the characteristics of the Nazi language. The example he gives is the two-letter acronym ss, which originally stood as a linguistic signifier for Schutzstaffel (protection unit) but was written as two thunderlike Ss. see Klemperer, LTI, 89–95. 16. it is interesting that some small local Nazi authorities began marking the Jews spontaneously even before any central local Nazi authority had issued a decree or law in this regard (a comprehensive decree for all Jews in europe was never issued by any central office in Berlin). Such was the case in Lodz, Rzeszow, wloclawek, and also later in Kalisz. This might prove that marking the Jews was a fundamental, latent pattern in the Nazi way of thinking that was realized without any need to force or even order it by the highest ranks. however, it did not take long before a central decree ordering the marking of the Jews in all the Generalgouvernement was issued by hans Frank on November 23, 1939. The purpose of this decree was not mentioned, but as Yisrael Gutman asserts, this was the measure that succeeded more then any other in bringing about the isolation of the Jews. see Gutman, The Jews of Warsaw, 29. 17. see Browning, The Origins of the Final Solution, 318–20. The initiation was Joseph Goebbels’s and hitler approved it on august 19, 1941. see Browning, 371. 18. Ka-Tzetnik, House of Dolls, 131. dinur is well-known for his testimony in the eichmann trial, during which he collapsed. on that occasion he coined the term “a different planet” in regard to auschwitz. 19. Klemperer, LTI, 213. 20. see Klemperer, I Will Bear Witness, 391–416. 21. Quoted in Kermish, The Jewish Underground Press in Warsaw, 87. 22. some writers did try to refer to the “badge” in terms of Jewish pride, but eventually this attempt collapsed because, as i will explain, this was not what was really at stake. For such responses, see, for example, Kaplan, The Warsaw Diary of Chaim A. Kaplan, 78–80 (entry of November 30, 1939). see, also, the following entries: 27.11.40, 17.11.40, 14.4.40, 27.6.40, and 13.5.40. 23. see, for example, Gutman, The Jews of Warsaw.
24. Sholom Aleichem (Yakov Rabinowitz, 1859–1916) was a popular humorist Russian Jewish author of Yiddish literature, including novels, short stories, and plays. In the above novel the young hero goes through adventures on his journey from East Europe to London and then to America. Kertész’s work resembles this picaresque novel in its structure and ironic mode. This ironic mode changes dramatically in Kertész’s later writings. See, for example, Kertész, Kaddish for a Child not Born, which is dominated by a melancholic mode of writing full of pathos. 25. Kertész, Fateless, 26. Subsequent references to this translation are cited parenthetically in the text. 26. The later translation seems, in this case, to be more accurate. See Kertész, Fatelessness, 259. 27. Adorno, “The Liquidation of the Self,” 433. This is one of the issues Heinrich Himmler touches on in his famous Posen speech to Nazi officers, in which he insists that there are no exceptional Jews that could be dismissed on individual basis. See Arad et al., Documents on the Holocaust, Document no. 152. 28. Evans, An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis, 114. 29. Lacan, Ecrits, 175 (Lacan’s italics). In his lectures on the agency of the letter and the unconscious, Lacan asserts, “The metonymic structure, indicating that it is the connexion between signifier and signifier that permits the elision in which the signifier installs the lack-of-being in the object relation, using the value of ‘reference back’ possessed by signification in order to invest it with the desire aimed at the very lack it supports” (Lacan, Ecrits, 164). 30. See the very similar logic formulated by Julia Kristeva: “[A] language is not a system, it is a system of signs and this vertically opens up the famous gap between signifier and signified, thus allowing linguistics to claim a logical mathematical formalization on the one hand, but on the other, it definitely prevents reducing a language or a text to one law or one meaning . . . a subject of enunciation takes shape within the gap opened up between signifier and signified” (Kristeva, Desire in Language, 127). ˇ z 31. Ziˇ ek, “I Hear You with My Eyes,” 108. 32. See Lacan, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 270–83. ˇ z 33. Ziˇ ek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, 135. See, also, Adorno’s assertion that “[t]here is no chance any more for death to come into the individuals’ empirical life as somehow conformable with the course of that life” (Adorno, “Meditations on Metaphysics,” 43). 34. See Lacan, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 270–91. 35. See Agamben, Homo Sacer. 36. Szeps, Blaze from Within, 23. ˇ z 37. Ziˇ ek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, 135. 38. This mental situation of being totally numb and acting like an automaton is very common in Holocaust diaries and early memoirs written immediately after the war. See, for example, entries from the diaries of the Sonderkomando in Auschwitz in Mark, The Scrolls of Auschwitz. 39. See Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, 203–15. 40. Soler, “The Subject and the Other (II),” 48. 41. Laurent, “Alienation and Separation (I),” 25 (Laurent’s italics). 42. Szeps, 24. 43. See Freud, “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” especially 14–17. 44. When Victor Klemperer examines the meaning of the pencil that he received on the fourth day of his eight-day imprisonment, he also stresses the role of the pencil as an object: “I had certainly clambered up out of hell on my pencil—but not as far as earth itself, only as far as limbo” (Klemperer, I Will Bear Witness, 415). 45. Paul Eisenstein establishes an ethics of remembrance and representation on this notion. See Eisenstein, Traumatic Encounters.
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