"Chi Potrebbe Dire Che Cosa Sono?" Questioning Humanism in Concentration Camp Survivor Texts and the Category of the "Muselmann"

By Kuon, Peter | Annali d'Italianistica, Annual 2008 | Go to article overview

"Chi Potrebbe Dire Che Cosa Sono?" Questioning Humanism in Concentration Camp Survivor Texts and the Category of the "Muselmann"


Kuon, Peter, Annali d'Italianistica


In public and academic discourses on concentration and extermination camps, on the Shoah and Auschwitz, the "Muselmann" has become the emblematic figure of "unsayability." This sublimation is largely due to Giorgio Agamben's influential Quel che resta di Auschwitz. This essay starts off with a critique of the hidden Christological implications of Agamben's conceptualization of the "Muselmann," pointing out his misreading of Primo Levi's fundamental hypothesis of "complete witnessing." The fact that the "Muselmann," as I shall argue, operates both in Agamben's and in Levi's ecriture as a disturbing element that tends to subvert textual strategies leads to the question of whether this ominous term might refer less to a positive definable factuality than to a threatening subjective potentiality that must be exorcised, though in vain, by a striking image of "otherness." After proposing a new understanding of the very meaning of "Muselmann," I shall develop this conjecture by analyzing a large sample of concentration and extermination camp testimonies. Bringing back a philosophical and rather abstract discourse to the accounts of survivors who, like Primo Levi, suffered physical and psychological decline and, like him, wrote on the limits of humanity in the camps will help us conceive complete (non human) otherness--whether or not it is called "Muselmann"--as an integral part of the camp inmate experience of self-abandonment and self-assertion. By way of a conclusion, I will stress the importance of survivor texts in discussing the crisis of European humanism after "Auschwitz" in a more complex, experiencesaturated way.

1. The Camp's "Faceless Center": Agamben's "Muselmann"

Lo spazio del campo (almeno in quei Lager, come Auschwitz, in cui campo di concentramento e campo di sterminio coincidono) puo anzi essere efficacemente rappresentato come una serie di cerchi concentrici che, simili a onde, continuamente lambiscono un non-luogo centrale, dove abita il musulmano. Il limite estremo di questo non-luogo si chiama nel gergo del campo Selektion, l'operazione di cernita per la camera a gas. Per questo, la preoccupazione piu assidua del deportato era nascondere le sue malattie e le sue prostrazioni, incessantemente ricoprire il musulmano che sentiva affiorare in se stesso da ogni parte. Tutta la popolazione del campo non e, anzi, che un immenso gorgo che ossessivamente ruota intorno a un centro senza volto. Ma quel vortice anonimo, come la mistica rosa del paradiso dantesco, era "pinta della nostra effige", portava impressa la vera immagine dell'uomo.

(46-47)

This quote from Giorgio Agamben's Quel che resta di Auschwitz displays the weakness of a philosophy that fails to do justice to Auschwitz either as historical reality or as firsthand experience. It is generally known that those who underwent selection were primarily Jews who had arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau not as an anonymous mass, but as individuals who looked like anyone else, even though they bore the marks of their transport. All those who were sent directly from the ramp to their deaths were not worthy, as Mesnard and Kahane (57-58) and Eagleton (322) note, of Agamben's philosophical reflection, for he sees the central non-place of Auschwitz not in the gas chambers, but rather in the area of the camp populated by the "Muselmanner." This view shifts the focus from the locus of sudden extermination to the locus of gradual extermination. Agamben's attention is directed to the minority of those who survived the first selection and made it to the barracks of the Auschwitz complex. The image of concentric circles can serve to illustrate their gradual physical and psychological decline through forced labor, malnutrition, illness, and so on. What interests Agamben, however, is not the process of decline, but its result: the "Muselmann" as the "faceless center" of Auschwitz.

This logic, which declares a single category of victims as representative of all victims, is concealed in the folds of Dantesque intertextuality. …

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