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Traumatic Realism

Traumatic Realism: The Demands of Holocaust Representation

Michael Rothberg
Copyright Date: 2000
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 336
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5749/j.ctttv6p4
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  • Book Info
    Traumatic Realism
    Book Description:

    Drawing on a wide range of texts, Michael Rothberg puts forth an overarching framework for understanding representations of the Holocaust. Through close readings of such writers and thinkers as Theodor Adorno, Maurice Blanchot, Ruth Klüger, Charlotte Delbo, Art Spiegelman, and Philip Roth and an examination of films by Steven Spielberg and Claude Lanzmann, Rothberg demonstrates how the Holocaust as a traumatic event makes three fundamental demands on representation: a demand for documentation, a demand for reflection on the limits of representation, and a demand for engagement with the public sphere and commodity culture.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-9083-1
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xi)
  4. [Illustrations]
    (pp. xii-xii)
  5. Introduction: The Demands of Holocaust Representation
    (pp. 1-16)

    An illustration by Art Spiegelman poses the question at the heart of this book — how to comprehend the Holocaust and its relationship to contemporary culture. Spiegelman is the author of the best-selling comic-book memoirMaus. Using a provocative pictorial vocabulary in which Jews are represented as mice, Germans as cats, and so on,Maustells the story both of Spiegelman’s father, Vladek, a Holocaust survivor, and of the artist’s relationship to his father’s story. In a contribution to the magazineTikkuntitled “Saying Goodbye toMaus,” in which he comments on the success of his memoir, Spiegelman draws his characteristic...

  6. Part I MODERNISM “AFTER AUSCHWITZ”
    (pp. 17-24)

    Theodor Adorno inaugurated the modernist interrogation of genocide when he proposed in an essay composed in the late 1940s that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” During the course of the next twenty years, Adorno continued to repeat and revise that formulation, and it was soon picked up by scholars working across disciplines. The shifting meanings and various interpretations given to the concept of “poetry after Auschwitz” constitute the subject of chapters 1 and 2. Adorno immediately grasped that the problem of representations of the extreme would be in part a temporal one.¹ While it is inevitable that the...

  7. Chapter 1 After Adorno: Culture in the Wake of Catastrophe
    (pp. 25-58)

    In an essay written in 1949, the same year that he returned to Germany from exile in the United States, Theodor Adorno inaugurated the modernist reflection on representation in the wake of the Nazi genocide. While much was already known about the Holocaust through such sources as journalism, memoirs, and the Nuremberg trials, Adorno’s comments were the first to suggest the impact of the events on literature, philosophy, and art. Drawing on Walter Benjamin’s insight that “[t]here is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism” (Illuminations,256), Adorno provocatively proposed that “[t]o...

  8. Chapter 2 Before Auschwitz: Maurice Blanchot, From Now On
    (pp. 59-96)

    Adorno’s critical engagement with the possibilities of Enlightenment reason in the wake of the man-made modern catastrophe of the Nazi genocide transforms his philosophy of history from within. The recognition inNegative Dialecticsthat “[w]e cannot say anymore that the immutable is truth, and that the mobile, transitory is appearance” (361) shifts the philosophy of history from a discourseabouttime into one marked and marredbytemporality. Such a recognition helps Adorno to disentangle his thinking from the progressive legacy of modernity, which had previously lived on in his work in negative form. The more complicated — but no more...

  9. Part II REALISM IN “THE CONCENTRATIONARY UNIVERSE”
    (pp. 97-106)

    As anyone who has been occupied with the Nazi genocide can attest, the desire for realism and referentiality is one of the defining features of study of the Holocaust. Perhaps because it is so difficult to construct a recognizable narrative out of extremity or because so much of the narrative must turn on absence, a commitment to documentation and realistic discourse has come to hold an almost sacred position in confrontations with genocide. At the same time, realism’s “strange power of making absent objects not only present but credible” (Furst, viii) also raises suspicion in many who live in the...

  10. Chapter 3 “The Barbed Wire of the Postwar World”: Ruth Klüger’s Traumatic Realism
    (pp. 107-140)

    The program that followed from Himmler's dismissal of daily life rapidly left the realm of the everyday to become a defining moment in what Eric Hobsbawm has called the “age of extremes.”

    But the traffic between the everyday and the extreme is never simple. Hobsbawm's naming is meant to capture the coexistence of the wars, revolutions, mass killings, and ideological battles that haunt this century alongside unprecedented technological progress. Because his task is the monumental reconstruction and comprehension of what he terms “a coherent historical period” (5), Hobsbawm does not pose the question of the nature of extremity or of...

  11. Chapter 4 Unbearable Witness: Charlotte Delbo’s Traumatic Timescapes
    (pp. 141-178)

    Auschwitz and After, Charlotte Delbo’s ambitious and original trilogy, which attempts to create a literary representation of the concentrationary universe, opens by engaging with the problem of the conceptual dissonance of the ordinary and the extreme. Under the heading “Arrivals, Departures,” Delbo begins the first volume,None of Us Will Return,with the poetic prose that marks much of her trilogy:

    People arrive. They look through the crowd of those who are waiting, those who await them. They kiss them and say the trip exhausted them.

    People leave. They say good-bye to those who are not leaving and hug the...

  12. Part III POSTMODERNISM, OR “THE YEAR OF THE HOLOCAUST”
    (pp. 179-186)

    “Tonight, America remembers the Holocaust.” With those words, ABC’s late-night news show,Nightline, introduced a 28 December 1993 segment on the contemporary fascination with the events of the Nazi genocide. Drawing attention to “ethnic cleansing” in Bosnia, to the growth of the neo-Nazi movement in Germany, and to the crowds lining up for Steven Spielberg’s hit filmSchindler’s Listand the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum,Night linedeclared 1993 “The Year of the Holocaust.” Thinking about the logic of this odd declaration raises questions that help set the stage for a consideration of the Holocaust in the context of...

  13. Chapter 5 Reading Jewish: Philip Roth, Art Spiegelman, and Holocaust Postmemory
    (pp. 187-220)

    In the final comic set-piece of Philip Roth’s novelistic memoir about his father,Patrimony: A True Story, Herman Roth attempts to cajole his author-son into helping one of his card-playing buddies from the Y get his memoirs of World War II published. Philip is understandably resistant — especially as his father has regularly asked him over the years to aid other aspiring authors of books about home mortgages or annuity funds. Of course, a book about the Holocaust is different, and Philip even admits that he has taught Holocaust memoirs and briefly knew Primo Levi.

    The invocation of Levi and the...

  14. Chapter 6 “Touch an Event to Begin”: Americanizing the Holocaust
    (pp. 221-264)

    Despite the potential for trivialization, “The Year of the Holocaust” provides a suggestive frame for beginning to understand the contemporary meanings of the Nazi genocide. Yet as the serious ironies of Roth and Spiegelman demonstrate, the particular configuration offered byNightlinein no way determines or even indicates what all of those meanings will look like. My subsequent discussions ofSchindler’s Listand the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum will further elucidate the complexities and contradictions at the heart of current Holocaust discourses. The framework of “The Year of the Holocaust” suggests several parameters for the following discussion: the predominance...

  15. Conclusion: After the “Final Solution” From the “Jewish Question” to Jewish Questioning
    (pp. 265-274)

    One of the most powerful moments during a visit to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington came for me in a transitional section between exhibition floors. In this inbetween space are collected artifacts and images of artifacts that in their dumb materiality speak loudly about the human lives that they indicate only obliquely. Here is found the wall-length photograph of hair from Auschwitz, human remains that aroused one of the most bitter disputes of the museum’s planning. Also present is a poignant pile of shoes left by the Nazi’s victims; the shoes emit a sour smell of passed...

  16. Notes
    (pp. 275-298)
  17. Bibliography
    (pp. 299-314)
  18. Index
    (pp. 315-323)
  19. Back Matter
    (pp. 324-324)