Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

The Holocaust as Fiction: Derrida's Demeure and the Demjanjuk Trial in Philip Roth's Operation Shylock

Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

The Holocaust as Fiction: Derrida's Demeure and the Demjanjuk Trial in Philip Roth's Operation Shylock

Article excerpt

Witnessing for the Witnessing of the Witness

In Demeure: Fiction and Testimony, Paul Celan haunts Jacques Derrida's meditation on juridical testimony: "no one / bears witness for the / witness" (Celan 241). seeking to avoid the infinite recurrence suggested by Celan-that of one witness testifying to the legitimacy of another witness testifying to the legitimacy of another witness-juridical authority introduces a pragmatic interruption, authorized by an oath "to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth," that makes testimony possible. Derrida's reference to Celan suggests the equally troubling fact that language, as the mode of testimony, always attests to temporal discontinuity, to the loss of the instant testimony recalls (Demeure 31). In other words, legal truth is continually confronted with its inability to recapture the witnessed instant, except as a juridically guaranteed performance on the part of the witness, whose credibility rests on the fact that the witnessed instant is exclusively his or hers (43). The witness, in testifying, has juridical legitimacy insofar as he or she transmits an experience that remains irreducibly private. The act of witnessing makes witnessing impossible, since it permits the jury to act on behalf of a knowledge that-by the very juridical process that authorizes the witness-it cannot claim. The credibility of testimony is such that any admission of that testimony becomes in-credible.

To be a witness and to remain a witness is to be the keeper of what cannot be spoken: "What I testify to is, at that very instant, my secret; it remains reserved for me. I must be able to keep secret precisely what I testify to; it is the condition of the testimony in a strict sense, and this is why one will never be able to demonstrate [. . .] that a perjury or lie has in fact taken place" (Demeure 30). In the instant that the instance of experience becomes testimony, its transmission blasphemes precisely what grants it status: the experience of an event that cannot belong, except under the illusion of an oath, to any other. However, in becoming language, in permitting a belonging of the experience to the jury as language, testimony fuses its possibility with the possibility of fiction, with the "observations" of one who did not actually witness.

This deconstructive turn on witnessing provided by Derrida's Demeure: Fiction and Testimony illustrates the central aim of this essay: to bring together Derrida and the representation of the Demjanjuk trial in Philip Roth's Operation Shylock: A Confession. The focus on the Demjanjuk trial is not meant to detract from the remainder of the novel but to critique how Roths depiction of testimony-his deconstruction of the juridical legitimacy of the witness-offers possibilities for Holocaust writing beyond the polarized debate that it frequently inspires. Faithful to both the necessity of maintaining the unspeakability of the Holocaust and of not permitting the Holocaust to lapse into silence, Roth, in dramatizing the Demjanjuk trials, crafts a Holocaust testimonial that speaks of unspeakability, that maintains silence and history.

The Honest Nazi

Of course, Derrida's discussion of testimony seems, by now, yet another of deconstruction's tired stalemates. For Derrida's adherents, it is another instance of the inoperability of our epistemological procedures; for his detractors, it is a dismissible attempt to make us think that those procedures are inoperable. But when John Demjanjuk, the man reputed to be "Ivan the Terrible" of the Treblinka concentration camp, stands at his trial in Roth's Operation Shylock and accuses Eliahu Rosenberg, a former prisoner at the camp, of bearing false witness against him, the deconstructive "play" becomes grave. After Demjanjuk's lawyer dismandes Rosenberg's testimony, proving it nothing more than a "particular version" (300) of what happened at Treblinka, Demjanjuk stands and shouts, "Atah Shakran!" which Roth translates as "You are a liar" (301). …

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