In Memoriam: Levinas, the Holocaust, and the Immemorial

By Bernard-Donals, Michael | Mosaic (Winnipeg), September 2007 | Go to article overview

In Memoriam: Levinas, the Holocaust, and the Immemorial


Bernard-Donals, Michael, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


This essay explores Levinas's understanding of memory as it is connected to the Holocaust in the dedications to Otherwise than Being. Post-Holocaust memory is dependent upon writing oriented toward a future, not an irrecuperable, immemorial event. It is from this theory of "forgetful memory" that there emerges a post-Holocaust ethics.

**********

Names [...] seem remainders, each one, of another language, both
disappeared and never yet pronounced, a language we cannot even attempt
to restore without reintroducing these names back into the world, or
exalting them to some higher world of which in their external,
clandestine solitude, they could only be the irregular interruption,
the invisible retreat.
--Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster

In the front matter of Emmanuel Levinas's most mature philosophical work, Otherwise than Being, the reader will find a dedication to the memory of the six million victims of the Holocaust, and to the six members of his family who remained in Lithuania during the war and were killed either by the Nazi Einsatzgruppen who followed the Wehrmacht during the invasion of the Soviet Union, or by pro-Nazi Lithuanian anti-Semites. This should not be surprising, since Levinas refers to the Holocaust in his writing fairly frequently, at times obliquely and at other times--particularly in his essays on Judaism and on history (the work collected in Difficult Freedom and the book In the Time of the Nations)--more explicitly. In all his work, the Holocaust seems to press on Levinas as a memory, as a trace of what has receded irrecuperably into the past. In "Signature," the essay that closes Difficult Freedom, he writes that his biography "is dominated by the presentiment and the memory of the Nazi horror" (291). To cite just two examples, the essay that concludes Proper Names functions as an extended metaphor of the conditions that led to the annihilation of European Jews in the name of Volksgemeinschaft; and "The Name of a Dog; or, Natural Rights" (in Difficult Freedom) is a recollection of Levinas's internment in camp 1492, in which his nameless condition--in which he was "stripped [...] of [his] human skin" (153)--was paradigmatic of the anonymity of the subject. The connection between the ethics established in Levinas's writing and the Holocaust has been well established by writers such as Colin Davis, Jacob Meskin, and Robert Eaglestone, among others.

My point in this essay, however, is not to join those who wish to connect Levinas's philosophy to the Holocaust. Instead, it is to make clear how Levinas's notion of ethics is inextricably linked to a notion of the memory--or perhaps more specifically, of the tension between memory and forgetting--tied to the disaster of the Holocaust. I will argue that Levinas establishes a theory of post-Holocaust memory, though it is a forgetful memory, that works through writing oriented toward a future, rather than toward the irrecuperable, immemorial event. Levinas juxtaposes memory as mneme and memory as anamnesis--memory as a fullness of time and memory as a rupture of time--and the result is that mneme and anamnesis fall "out of phase with one another," yielding a trace or an excess of memory. At the moment in which memory and the event are dissociated, the witness is forced into language, to speak a memory that is not a memory at all. The witness produces not so much an account of events (a testimony) as an account of the rupture of language and the void of memory.

Memory after Auschwitz weighs heavily on Levinas in the dedication page of Otherwise than Being (see, for three examples, Trezise 358; Eaglestone, Holocaust 254; Herzog 342-43). The two dedications that appear there, related in their scope but very different in their language and their willingness to name individuals, indicate two memories, two ways of remembering. Between these two dedications is a trace of memory, a notion that is integral to the task of living--and of bearing witness--after the Holocaust. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

In Memoriam: Levinas, the Holocaust, and the Immemorial
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    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.