When the Third Is Dead: Memory, Mourning, and Witnessing in the Aftermath of the Holocaust1

By Gerson, Samuel | International Journal of Psychoanalysis, December 2009 | Go to article overview

When the Third Is Dead: Memory, Mourning, and Witnessing in the Aftermath of the Holocaust1


Gerson, Samuel, International Journal of Psychoanalysis


The origins of psychoanalysis, as well as the concerns of our daily endeavors, center on engagement with the fate of the unbearable - be it wish, affect, or experience. In this paper, I explore psychological states and dynamics faced by survivors of genocide and their children in their struggle to sustain life in the midst of unremitting deadliness. Toward this continuous effort, I re-examine Freud's theoretical formulations concerning memory and mourning, elaborate André Green's concept of the 'Dead Mother', and introduce more recent work on the concepts of the 'third' and 'thirdness'. Throughout, my thoughts are informed by our clinical experience with the essential role of witnessing in sustaining life after massive trauma. I bring aspects of all these forms of knowing to reflections about a poem by Primo Levi entitled Unfinished business and to our own never finished business of avoiding denial while living in an age of genocide and under the aura of uncontained destructiveness.

Keywords: absence, dead mother, dead third, genocide, Holocaust, melancholia, memory, mourning, Primo Levi, third, trauma, witness

The imperatives to bear witness and the seductions of blind denial are competing and everlasting legacies of the Holocaust. Each challenges our frailties in the face of an indifferent world and marks the potential, as well as the limits, of being human. As we all know too well, the continuous presence of genocide and mass destruction, both as historical aftermath and as foreshadowed future, haunts our time and inexorably shapes our individual and collective destinies.

There is no end to our return to the atrocities of the past; we are visited in unbidden ways and in untold moments by the iconic images of mushroom clouds, emaciated figures staring blankly through barbed wire, stacks of skulls, and the dug-up dumping grounds for the human waste left by ethnic cleansing. Yet even the continuous repetition of genocide in new locales does not ensure that its meanings and impact can ever be fully acknowledged. Rather the re-emergence of traumatic memories may paradoxically widen the sense of absence and gaps in knowledge, and thereby leave us haunted by the traces of events that we can neither fully remember nor entirely forget. What inhabits us are the vivid, yet frozen, after-images of atrocity conveyed in the cool light of the media, and what more invidiously invades us is a persistent miasma that tends to obscure our vision and muffle our response. The threats of the future may then move beyond our imagination as our memories elude our knowledge.

What then can exist between the scream and the silence? We hope first that there is an engaged witness - an other that stands beside the event and the self and who cares to listen; an other who is able to contain that which is heard and is capable of imagining the unbearable; an other who is in a position to confirm both our external and our psychic realities and, thereby, to help us integrate and live within all realms of our experience. This is the presence that lives in the gap, absorbs absence, and transforms our relation to loss. It is the active and attuned affective responsiveness of the witnessing other that constitutes a 'live third' - the presence that exists between the experience and its meaning, between the real and the symbolic, and through whom life gestates and into whom futures are born.

The 'third', 'thirdness', and the 'dead third'

The theoretical concepts of the 'third' and 'thirdness' have, in recent years, been the subject of numerous formulations from a variety of theoretical perspectives, and have been applied to a host of clinical, developmental, pathological, and social realms of concern (Aron, 2006; Benjamin, 2004; Green, 2004; Ogden, 2004). In the process, we have gained a plethora of meanings that enrich the conceptual base of psychoanalysis even as they, at times, threaten to move us from clarity to confusion. …

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