- Sounds of Defiance: The Holocaust, Multilingualism and the Problem of English
Alan Rosen, who has read widely in recent scholarship on the Holocaust, engages the ideas of such thinkers as Dorothy Bilik, Shoshana Felman, Sander Gilman, Alan Mintz, and Hana Wirth-Nesher. Like many of these critics, he approaches the subject of Holocaust history, fiction, and film with an appreciation of spoken and written Polish, Yiddish, Hebrew, and German as well as English languages and traditions. Indeed, what he contributes to our understanding of North American literary history in the post-World War II period is a keen awareness of how English itself is challenged and changed, devalued and revalued, marginalized and then oddly centralized by the sounds and senses of idioms more deeply implicated in the everyday disasters that beleaguered European Jewry during the "final solution."
Because English was not spoken by most perpetrators and victims, North American creators of testimonials and novels, movies and historical investigations [End Page 182] often emphasized the problematical language in which they were composing. Foreign accents and words, narratives about lost and found, learned or regained mother and other tongues abound in Rosen's texts, whose authors for the most part recognized the marginality and neutrality of English in relation to the Holocaust experience. The chronological and generic range of Rosen's texts is broad: he includes the psychologist David Boder, whose transcribed interviews of displaced persons were printed in English right after the war, John Hersey's novel The Wall (1950), Ruth Chatterton's novel Homeward Borne (1950), Philip Roth's short story "Eli, The Fanatic" (1959), Edward Wallant's novel The Pawnbroker (1961), Hannah Arendt's articles on Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), Sidney Lumet's film adaptation of The Pawnbroker (1965), Cynthia Ozick's two-story collection The Shawl (1989), Yaffa Eliach's revision of survivors' stories Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust (1988), Art Spiegelman's Maus (1986–91), and Anne Michaels's lyrical novel Fugitive Pieces (1996).
Each close reading enables Rosen to elaborate upon the different meanings of the English language's marginality and neutrality in relation to the Shoah. Despite a miserably unreliable Index, teachers will find useful insights into works often assigned in Holocaust studies courses. Rosen's discussion of Cynthia Ozick's allusions to Celan and Shakespeare, for instance, enriches understanding of maternal loss in The Shawl. Similarly, Rosen explains how Art Spiegelman's survivor-father gains a measure of control and the means to endure persecution through his acquisition of English and yet how his fractured narrative voice manages "to torture English into being a foreign language" (p. 170). Particularly illuminating is Rosen's discussion of Hannah Arendt. Indeed, she is a pivotal figure here, one whose allegiance to her mother tongue of German alienated her from the accented English she spoke and then the scholarly English in which she decided to write. Exploring Arendt's analysis of Eichmann's bungling linguistic ineptitude in German officialese and also Arendt's misgivings about the official language of the trial (Hebrew), as well as the moral weight she imputed to the judges' knowledge of German, Rosen demonstrates that Arendt's alienation from English paradoxically turned English into "a universal language of the Holocaust" (p. 94), "the perfect vehicle by which to reinforce law's propensity to place distance between trauma and its aftermath" (p. 111).
The virtues of Sounds of Defiance match its limitations. For while Rosen exhibits clarity and tact as he negotiates subtle gradations of meaning within a particular text, he has not yet formulated the generalizations governing his close interpretive readings or their implications in terms of North American literary history from the nineteen fifties through the nineties. How does heteroglossia differ in North American Holocaust literature from the bi- or [End Page 183] multi-lingualisms generated under other diasporic conditions? Given what Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari have called "deterritorialized" languages, many immigrant or exiled groups have had to confront the puzzle of writing in a national tongue that has denied the...