restricted access Kertész and the Problem of Guilt in Unfinished Mourning
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110 Kertész and the Problem of Guilt in Unfinished Mourning Esther Faye Is it possible to mourn Auschwitz? "Kaddish" is the name for the traditional Jewish prayer of mourning uttered on behalf of the dead by those left living. The term forms part of the title of Imre Kertész's Kaddis a meg nem született gyermekért (Kaddish for an Unborn Child). It is the third book in a trilogy of fictional texts beginning with Sorstalanság (Fatelessness) and A kudarc (The Failure). Although disclaimed by Kertész as autobiographies in any strict sense, in my opinion the texts mimic the autobiographical form and are reflections on his own experiences of the nazi concentration camps—Auschwitz, Zeitz, and Buchenwald—and as such can be taken as testimonial. Talking about having been listed as one of the dead at Buchenwald, towards the end of his Nobel Prize lecture, Kertész stated: "I died once so I could live. Perhaps that is my real story. If it is, I dedicate this work, born of a child's death, to the millions who died and to those who still remember them" ("Eureka!" 4). In these works of the trilogy, "Auschwitz," I contend, functions as the proper name for a precious burden of memory that neither the author nor his narrator-protagonist Georg Köves, who for the purpose of this discussion stands in for him, can or will relinquish. He, in the guise of the narrator, finds it impossible, as we see him declare in the final pages of Fatelessness, to obey the command to "forget the terrors " so that he might "live freely" (186). What he cannot—more to the point, will not, do—as we see in Kaddish for an Unborn Child, is to relinquish the particular burden of guilt that is bound up with this memory in order to beget a child. Where Kertész/Köves experienced a symbolic death as a fourteen-year-old child in Fatelessness , in Kaddish he is the now middle-aged adult "survivor" of the Holocaust who would rather lose everything—his love, his marriage, his future—rather than allow a child to be born from him. Hence the problem posed in the title of my paper and in the title of his book: in the aftermath of the Holocaust, can a Kaddish be performed that would finally lay to rest the burden of guilt, which is one of its seem- Kertész and the Problem of Guilt in Unfinished Mourning 111 ingly necessary legacies? What act of mourning would finally dispose of (the dead of) Auschwitz that would allow the debt to be paid off sufficiently so that life could be lived freely? As mourning prayer, Kaddish erects a symbolic barrier between the living and the dead in order to detach the still living mourner from the dead person. The traditional Jewish prayer's function in essence enacts a prohibition: it forbids the mourner from offering his or her own life in order to patch over the hole that death has created in the real. Hence, no words in this traditional Jewish prayer refer directly to death or to the person who has died; rather, they invite the mourner to celebrate and bless the magnificence and sanctity of "His great Name" and the world "that He created." How, then, are we to think of the way Kaddish works in Kertész's testimony? A Kaddish addressed to a child whose nonbirth is mourned; a Kaddish that is more inspired by the spirit of Paul Celan's poem, "Death Fugue," than by the traditional Jewish Kaddish? What are we to make of this author's use of this prayer to mourn a child who remains "unborn" even as he has his narrator Georg Köves speak the child into symbolic existence as unborn through his very refusal? And what above all are we to make of the explanation for this refusal, beginning with the very first shouted word, "No," of his text? That his refusal to become its father and to allow this child to be born is because he as its nonfather had the impossible fortune to have experienced "Auschwitz"? Is the work of mourning possible after Auschwitz? Sigmund Freud's thesis on mourning is well known, as is his attempt to differentiate it from melancholia, of which mourning is considered by him to be its normal prototype ("Mourning and Melancholia" 239-58). Freud talks of the difficult process of...


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Subject Headings

  • Jews -- Persecutions -- Europe, Central -- History.
  • Holocaust, Jewish (1939-1945) -- Hungary -- History.
  • Kertész, Imre, 1929- -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • Holocaust, Jewish (1939-1945) -- Europe, Central -- History.
  • Hungary -- Ethnic relations.
  • Europe, Central -- Ethnic relations.
  • Jews -- Persecutions -- Hungary -- History.
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