Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Reconsidering Postmemory: Photography, the Archive, and Post-Holocaust Memory in W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Reconsidering Postmemory: Photography, the Archive, and Post-Holocaust Memory in W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz

Article excerpt

Theories of postmemory can lose sight of the specificity of acts of post-Holocaust remembrance and of the identities formed through these acts. By examining W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz and its use of photography, this essay scrutinizes the theory, practice, and ethics of postmemory.


Marianne Hirsch's concept of "postmemory" typically describes "the relationship of children of survivors of cultural or collective trauma to the experiences of their parents, experiences that they 'remember' only as the narratives and images with which they grew up, but that are so powerful, so monumental, as to constitute memories in their own right" (9). Having defined the concept of postmemory in terms of "familial inheritance," Hirsch broadens its application to a more general cultural inheritance that can transcend ethnic or national boundaries (9-10). Postmemory therefore is "defined through an identification with the victim or witness of trauma, modulated by an unbridgeable distance that separates the participant from the one born after. [...] Postmemory would thus be retrospective witnessing by adoption. It is a question of adopting the traumatic experiences--and thus also the memories--of others as experiences one might oneself have had, and of inscribing them into one's own life story" (10; emph. Hirsch's). It is the belated nature of traumatic memory that fuels its transmission and adoption. If the traumatic nature of the event defies its own witnessing, cognition, and remembrance, then, for Hirsch, it makes sense that the next generation is in a position to work through traumatic experience and its symptoms, narratives, and images bequeathed but not fully remembered or known by the previous one (12).

What concerns me here is the potential for adoption to turn into appropriation, for "seeing through another's eyes, of remembering through another's memories" (Hirsch 10) to collapse into seeing through one's own eyes and remembering one's own memories instead. In short, what is to stop the colonization of victims' memories and identities? This is also of concern to Hirsch: "These lines of relation and identification need to be theorized more closely" to see how "identification can resist appropriation and incorporation, resist annihilating the difference between self and other, the otherness of the other" (11). This essay will attempt to theorize this relation and identification more closely in relation to W.G. Sebald's 2001 novel Austerlitz.

Austerlitz is essentially the fictional biography of Jacques Austerlitz who arrived in England in 1939, aged four-and-a-half, as part of a kindertransport from Prague. He escaped the Holocaust that claimed his parents but forgot his origins and what he had lost. His subsequent life is, for the most part, haunted, ruined by a sense of exile and loss he did not understand. The narrative, drawn from a series of conversations between Austerlitz and his narrator, from their first meeting in 1967 to the late 1990s, is presented in indirect discourse. In making the boundaries between his words and those of Austerlitz indistinct, the narrator foregrounds the inevitability of the narrative reconstruction of someone else's life, just as Austerlitz's slow and painful recollection of his parents and his origins is inevitably a reconstruction of their lives. The vagaries of memory--the narrator's memories of Austerlitz as he narrates retrospectively and Austerlitz's highly convoluted memories of how he came to remember who he is--are thus preserved. In foregrounding the revisionary nature of memory, Sebald's text does not assume an ethics of postmemory as Hirsch does, seeing postmemory as "an ethical relation to the oppressed or persecuted: as I can 'remember' my parents' memories, I can also 'remember' the suffering of others" (10, emph. Hirsch's).

Hirsch privileges photographs (in private and public places) as the affective prop by which traumatic memory is transmitted across generations (within and outside of family boundaries) (5-37). …

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