Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Thoughts on Representation in Therapy of Holocaust Survivors1

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Thoughts on Representation in Therapy of Holocaust Survivors1

Article excerpt

This paper presents the problems of representation and lack of representation in treating Holocaust survivors, through clinical vignettes and various theoreticians. The years of Nazi persecution and murder brought about a destruction of symbolization and turning inner and external reality into the Thing itself, the concrete, or, in Lacan's words, 'The Thing'. The paper presents two ideas related to praxis as well as theory in treating Holocaust survivors: the first is related to the therapist's treatment of the Holocaust nightmare expressing the traumatic events just as they happened 63 years previously; the second deals with the attempt at subjectification, in contrast to the objectification forced by the Nazis on their victims.

Keywords: Das Ding, Holocaust, interpretation, metapsychology, negation, nightmares, representation, symbolization, therapy, trauma


This paper deals with 'the Thing', though not in its New Testament3 sense as a word or a saying but rather in its Freudian meaning as the Thing itself [das Ding], in the concrete rather than the symbolic or even imaginary. Jean Améry (2000, pp. 54-5) wrote of 'the Thing':

If I may quote again from another Austrian, Karl Kraus, who said these words during the Third Reich's first years: "When that world awoke, the Thing passed away'. And he said that, obviously, as the defence attorney of 'Thing' in its metaphysical sense. Whereas we, the former concentration camps prisoners, borrow this assertion from him and use it skeptically against that 'Thing'. The 'Thing', that is, the word, dies wherever any reality demands absolute control."

The paper attempts, through vignettes of treatment of Holocaust survivors, to examine the possibility of the representation (the word, the symbol) of the Holocaust, in a place where reality demanded total command. I attempt to deal with questions of the un-representable, the essence of representation of such traumatic occurrences in the therapeutic discourse and in the nightmares of concentration camp survivors, the therapist's place in view of the repetitiveness of the thing itself within the therapeutic talk and the specification of Holocaust trauma which demands - by the fact and the way it occurred - a concrete status, of a Thing. Mostly in dealing with Holocaust events the therapist is expropriated of tools such as sublimation or differentiation between the event itself and its telling or dreaming. The nightmares often appear as an accurate reconstruction of the traumatic event, without changes or symbols; the memory of the Holocaust trauma cleaves to the event itself, of 63 years previously. Thus survivors often live in a reality of cleaved times: present and past.

In addition to psychoanalytic literature on the importance of symbolization in dreams as well as in conscious events, I quote from philosophers of various disciplines who have directly dealt with representation under the destructiveness of traumatic Holocaust events. In treating Holocaust survivors, the therapist seems to be required to move internally between a variety of disciplines - psychoanalysis, sociology, history, literature, ethics, religion and philosophy - due to the unique, claustrophobic nature of Holocaust trauma, whose intensity might limit the therapist's thinking space.

Sixty-three years separate then and now. At times they separate, at times not at all: the memory remains the event and the event in itself is the memory. But there are places in words, gestures and dreams where the event is not gelled and steely as it was then, in the camp, and there are cracks between the event and the memory: these are more fluid forms of the memory: a thought suddenly appears in the dream and was not present at the event itself, time disruptions in the dream, as well as laughter which divides, separates between here and then. For, unlike other themes which also reside in past scenes, such as the Oedipus complex, whose cover is great, and they are hidden and hiding in the memory and its various forms- the event of the Holocaust is naked, exposed as the Thing itself. …

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