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Representing the Holocaust: History, Theory, Trauma by Dominick LaCapra; Foregone

Conclusions: Against Apocalyptic History by Michael André Bernstein

Review by: Sander L. Gilman
Modern Philology, Vol. 94, No. 2 (Nov., 1996), pp. 276-279
Published by: The University of Chicago Press
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Representing the Holocaust: History, Theory, Trauma. Dominick

LaCapra. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press, 1994. Pp. xii+230.

Foregone Conclusions: Against Apocalyptic History. Michael Andre

Bernstein.Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. Pp. xiii+181.

Dominick LaCapra may be the most original intellectual historian

writing in America today. From his first book on Emile Durkheim to
the work under review here, LaCapra shows a range of interests and a
flexibility of approach that are truly staggering. This present book
"grew" out of an invitation by Saul Friedlander to attend a confer-
ence at the University of California, Los Angeles, on representing the
Shoah, the proceedings of which were published as ProbingtheLimits of
Representation:Nazism and the "FinalSolution"(Cambridge, Mass., 1992).
Yet it is clear that some of these essays (three of which were unpub-
lished in any form) antedate this invitation and illustrate how LaCapra
works as a historian. The essays deal with the penumbra of the Shoah,
with the academic periphery (a tautology), with professors writing
about professors (even when these are historians writing about Heid-
egger). As such the project should be of interest not only to professors,
but to many other sorts of readers as well.
LaCapra's theoretical approach in this volume is heavily indebted
to the work of Eric Santner in StrandedObjects:Mourning, Memory,and
Film in Postwar Germany(Ithaca, N.Y, 1990). Santner focuses on the
problems of trauma and mourning and their representation in cul-
tural objects. LaCapra's cultural objects are the works of academics
writing about other academics. Here he illustrates two principles: first,
that the study of what historians choose to write about is a fruitful
undertaking when one thinks about the relationship between the ob-
ject and the author within a model of transference; and second, that
such an act of writing can be either a "working through" or an "acting
out." This is no minor observation. It is clear that even academic his-
torians and critics are engaged in writing autobiography-whether
they repress the central questions of their lives and flee into a world
better or worse than their inner fantasies or reflect in their work on
their sense of themselves, they write their own life-stories. LaCapra
begins, in this book, to provide a means by which one can critically
examine the engagement of the historian/critic with his or her object
of study.
LaCapra's primary concern here is the Shoah, or at least those writ-
ers who write about the Shoah, both directly and indirectly. Thus one
major essay, titled "Reflections on the Historians' Debate," asks ques-
tions about the mode of analysis on all sides of that debate in light of

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Book Reviews 277

German cultural and emotional norms. The most telling chapter is

LaCapra's analysis of the Paul de Man "scandal"and his reading of the
defenses and explanations of de Man's fascist writing. In each chapter
LaCapra focuses on how historians and critics respond to the past, how
they invest in their objects, and how they form those objects to meet
their own needs. For LaCapra the trauma of "representing the Holo-
caust" is not only one of reenacting the past in the present; writers are
trapped in "acting out" the past with little hope of "workingit through."
Yet LaCapra also provides a space and a model for working through
the past, the ability to begin to examine one's own motivations so as to
make another writer's commitment to his or her own time accessible.
Thus this is not a book about the Shoah or even about the reception
and historiography of the Holocaust; it is a book about the act of
writing. LaCapra's own writing about writing is self-conscious enough
(in his introduction) to allow us to capture some sense of his own
working through of a pressing question: how, or if, we can write about
ourselves writing as we continue to write about the past. Such a self-
conscious position demands that we always place our own present at
the center of our attention-a narcissistic but necessary undertaking
for all writers.
Michael Andre Bernstein's central theme is the old problem of
"whiggish" history: a history, that is, that attempts to explain present
(or future) actions as predetermined by specific actions in the past.
Bernstein's critique is an attack on presentism, and specifically on
LaCapra's positing of a refuge for the working through of the histori-
cal past. Thus Bernstein struggles against finding the Shoah prefig-
ured in any specific action of the past. The texts he discusses are
bountiful, but, having at this writing just finished reading the proofs
of my book on Franz Kafka (Franz KaJka, the Jewish Patient [New York,
1995]), I would like to take up his use of Ernest Pawel's 1984 Kafka
biography (The Nightmare of Reason [1984; London, 1988]) and the
treatment of foreshadowing as a narrative device. Pawel sets the birth
of Kafka's sister Elli parallel to the birth of Adolf Hitler earlier in the
same year as if there is an inexorable linkage: "Mentioning the son
born to a Braunau customs inspector called Hitler can only elicit the
kind of tawdry frisson Pawel is trying to achieve if we let ourselves be
susceptible to an egregiously blatant act of backshadowing. In 1889
no connection existed yet between the Kafka and Hitler families, and
to gesture backward from the terrible years when such a connec-
tion, in the form of murderer and victim, did come to occur, is so
shamelessly manipulative that it would be easy to laugh away, ex-
cept that one finds it as a crucial topos in innumerable other texts"
(p. 17). Here Bernstein echoes the comments of John Updike in his

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New Yorkerreview of the biography (June 18, 1984). What Pawel actu-
ally (and brilliantly) does is to show how both Kafka and Hitler, the
Prague Jew and the Austrian Catholic, are raised in the same culture
of anti-Semitism. It is not that Hitler becomes the hero of Pawel's bi-
ography (as Updike states) but rather that Hitler and Kafka are part
of the same landscape. Thus when Bernstein quotes Frederick Karl's
Kafka biography (Franz Kafka, RepresentativeMan [New York, 1991]),
noting that the Nazis used the term "vermin" for the Jews and that
Kafka may have thought of the Samsas (in The Metamorphosis)in those
terms, he ignores the fact that this is a prefascist discourse that Kafka
could well have employed but in more complex and contradictory
ways than did his anti-Semitic contemporaries. That Kafka and Hitler
shared an anti-Semitic milieu and vocabulary is hardly news to anyone
who works on the fin de siecle.
A common culture of anti-Semitism does not lead inevitably to the
Shoah, but the culture that both nurtures and deforms Kafka and Hit-
ler provides the origins of the Shoah. Bernstein's discussions of the
Dreyfus case and the blood libel cases are typical. Certainly it is true
that most of the blood libel cases in Central Europe ended with the
freeing of the accused and that after a while (actually in 1906) even
Alfred Dreyfus was given a full pardon by the French president. But
the point of such a history of fin de siecle anti-Semitism is to show the
gradual erosion of the system of laws, a system which certainly contin-
ued to work but which permitted such excesses to become common-
places of Central European experience. There is a clear relationship
between this erosion of faith in the state (as Hannah Arendt suggested
in The Origins of Totalitarianism[New York, 1968]) and the ability of
anti-Semitic ideology to create the instruments of the Shoah with ac-
cepted state mechanisms. But it is also clear that the mindset that saw
the Jews more and more as a danger within society led to their dehu-
manization in many contexts prior to 1933.
Bernstein's analysis needs to be more carefully focused. He under-
stands the problem of a simple-minded equation of past and present,
cause and effect, but does not attribute sufficient power to the com-
plex interrelationships that he labels "side-shadowing."Thus he attacks
LaCapra's reading of Primo Levi, which tells the story of a colleague
attacked for having cited Levi's struggle to find sanity through lan-
guage and high culture. LaCapra's comment (repeated in his present
book but cited from Saul Friedlander's anthology) is that there is a
powerful high-cultural bias to Levi's early autobiographical text that is
itself suspect (p. 50). But, of course, that bias is also suspect to Levi
himself. It is Levi who tells of meeting decades later the young French
Jew whom he "saved" by teaching him Dante, and of learning that

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Book Reviews 279

"Jean" remembers none of this heroic use of language to rescue him.

It is Levi who first and most directly brings his early memoir into sharp
relief and points out to his readers how the very act of remembering
is shaped by need and desire. LaCapra and others simply point out
how this process works and why it is needed as part of Levi's working
through of his own trauma. My own work on Levi, for example, illus-
trates how he integrates his sense of an "authentic" Eastern Jewish ex-
perience with that of Westernized Italo-Jewry. Neither LaCapra nor I
condemn Levi; rather, we ask why someone with his level of insight
needs to create certain self-respresentations in his early work, and we
note how complicated his later relationships to this work are. Such a
critique is not lese-majeste, but a necessary part of our constant
refiguring of the past. It is our own working through of the impact of
powerful texts on our critical sensibilities.
It is refreshing to read LaCapra and Bernstein side by side, since the
"professional" historian and the "professional" critic address the same
problems and concerns. Does this make LaCapra a critic and Bern-
stein a historian? No-but it is clear that the line between these two
disciplines, at least at their boundaries, is blurred. And this is to the
advantage of both disciplines. It is when writers turn to the questions
that arise out of dealing with "important things" such as the Shoah
that the importance of dialogue about the way we think and write be-
comes alive and real. I would recommend that readers examine the is-
sues raised by both authors as a means of seeing how we (whatever our
professional self-definition) deal with the past.
Sander L. Gilman
University of Chicago

Maurice Blanchot and the Literature of Transgression. John Gregg.

Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994. Pp. 241.

Over the past twenty years or more, Maurice Blanchot has routinely
been hailed as a major critical voice as well as a significant influence
on large regions of what is loosely referred to as "theory,"so it is worth
remarking both that we have had to wait until 1994 for a full-length
exploration of his work and that the availability of that work in En-
glish has until recently been surprisingly limited. Thanks largely to
the efforts of Lydia Davis and Station Hill Press, this last is less true of
his fiction than of his critical writings, where for some years there was
little more available than two small collections selected out of various

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