Witnessing Witnessing: On the Reception of Holocaust Survivor Testimony

Witnessing Witnessing: On the Reception of Holocaust Survivor Testimony

Witnessing Witnessing: On the Reception of Holocaust Survivor Testimony

Witnessing Witnessing: On the Reception of Holocaust Survivor Testimony

Synopsis

Witnessing Witnessing focuses critical attention on those who receive the testimony of Holocaust survivors. Questioning the notion that traumatic experience is intrinsically unspeakable and that the Holocaust thus lies in a quasi-sacred realm beyond history, the book asks whether much current theory does not have the effect of silencing the voices of real historical victims. It thereby challenges widely accepted theoretical views about the representation of trauma in general and the Holocaust in particular as set forth by Giorgio Agamben, Cathy Caruth, Berel Lang, and Dori Laub. It also reconsiders, in the work of Theodor Adorno and Emmanuel Levinas, reflections on ethics and aesthetics after Auschwitz as these pertain to the reception of testimony. Referring at length to videotaped testimony and to texts by Charlotte Delbo, Primo Levi, and Jorge Semprun, the book aims to make these voices heard. In doing so, it clarifies the problems that anyone receiving testimony may encounter and emphasizes the degree to which listening to survivors depends on listening to ourselves and to one another. Witnessing Witnessing seeks to show how, in the situation of address in which Holocaust survivors call upon us, we discover our own tacit assumptions about the nature of community and the very manner in which we practice it.

Excerpt

I am inclined to think that no one undertakes the study of trauma unless compelled to do so for personal reasons. At least, I find this a much more plausible motive than mere career advancement, despite the memory of a well-meaning scholar who once remarked to me that I had selected “a good topic.” But really, why would you choose to spend years of your life listening and reading and thinking and talking and writing about something so emotionally and psychologically difficult, so fraught with social, political, and moral conflict, so draining and dispiriting to live with—unless you could not do otherwise?

My own apprenticeship in listening to survivors of trauma began more than twenty years ago, when I was suddenly summoned to an ambulance and found, so badly beaten she was unrecognizable, my wife, Susan Brison. Only later did I learn that she had been sexually assaulted and left for dead at the bottom of a ravine. In the ambulance, there was not much Susan could say, since her trachea had been fractured when the assailant had tried to strangle her and she was now breathing through an oxygen mask. Still, she managed to whisper “I’ll be okay,” offering a reprieve to my pounding heart and the glimmer of a hope that she might not die. Besides, you can also listen to a gaze or the squeeze of a hand.

During the many hours and days, the weeks and months and years that followed, my education inevitably expanded to include listening to Susan’s other listeners: medical personnel, police officers, lawyers, crisis counselors, couples therapists, family members, friends and acquaintances, colleagues, a judge and jury; people of different races and nationalities, of both sexes and all ages. At the same time, I learned that I could not study or write about . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.