MLN 116.2 (2001) 266-294
[Access article in PDF]
"Cuanto más escribo, más me queda por decir":
Memory, Trauma, and Writing in the Work of Jorge Semprún
Only one thing remained reachable, close and secure amid all losses: language. Yes, language. In spite of everything, it remained secure against loss. But it had to go through its own lack of answers, through terrifying silence, through the thousand darknesses of murderous speech. It went through. It gave me no words for what was happening, but went through it. Went through and could resurface, "enriched" by it all.
(Paul Celan, Collected Prose 34)
In On Oratory and Orators, Cicero explains the importance of good memory in rhetoric. To this purpose, he tells the story of the poet Simonides of Ceos, who first invented an art to perfect memory. Simonides, at a banquet in Thessaly given by the rich patron Scopas, recited a poem in praise of his host. Since the poem also included praise of the twin gods Castor and Pollux, Scopas told Simonides he would pay for only half the poem; the rest of his recompense should come from the twin gods. Shortly afterwards, a messenger arrived to tell the poet that two young men wanted to see him in the garden. Simonides stepped outside and found no one. While he was outside, the roof of the house fell in, killing everyone at the banquet except [End Page 266] him. The invisible callers had been Castor and Pollux, who thus p266aid for their share of the poem by saving the poet's life.
Upon his return to the debris, Simonides realized he was the lone individual who could identify the bodies, for he was the only one who remembered their exact positions around the banquet table. From there he developed an ars memorativa based on the importance of finding proper images for what is to be remembered and arraying them in a recognizable order. Cicero goes on to emphasize the importance of choosing well the places--the loci--for the images to be remembered. 1
What has never been adequately emphasized in this anecdote is the importance of the place of the poet himself, of the rememberer, the survivor of the terrible accident. It is precisely Simonides's strategic placement outside the house that permits him to be the single survivor of the banquet, the one who can then save the memory of those who died by exercising his prerogative, a tragic one to be sure, of remembering the others because he had been inside the house with them also. The shifting placement of the survivor is crucial in this story about the invention of a system to develop and strengthen memory. It is crucial, moreover, for the lesson this anecdote provides anyone seeking to understand the working of memory in the narrations of those modern-day survivors of one of contemporary history's most egregious atrocities, the Holocaust. Indeed, that the first treatise on memory should have emerged as an answer to an overwhelming experience of death is a significant, if underemphasized, aspect of Cicero's story that will be all too relevant in the present discussion. 2
Spanish author Jorge Semprún Maura, survivor of the concentration camp of Buchenwald, uses his art, narrative in this case, to evoke, like Simonides, the place in memory owed to many who, unlike himself, did not survive. Semprún's place in the world, even before the Holocaust, has always been a shifting, unstable one. Born in Madrid in 1923 to a well-to-do family (his grandfather was prime minister during the reign of Alfonso XIII, and his father was a civil governor during the Spanish Second Republic), he and his family were forced into exile in 1937. Growing up in France, Semprún [End Page 267] became part of the anti-German Resistance until he was caught in 1944 and sent to Buchenwald. His experiences there, or, more exactly, the memory of his experiences there, are the subject of...