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 The Holocaust, Jedwabne, and the Measure of Time geoffrey hartman An important attempt to understand the decisive impact of the Holocaust on both fiction and critical discourse is Maurice Blanchot’s The Writing of the Disaster (1980). Though Blanchot does not equate the disaster referred to in the title exclusively with the Holocaust, he indicates that what happened is epochal, both for human consciousness generally and for the art of writing in particular. He plays on the etymology of “disaster ” to suggest a radical disorientation linked to the fall or vanishing of a star. The impasse he faces is that after such disasters, writing (in whatever genre) must convey an altered state yet cannot change so radically that it would scuttle either its short-term communicative or long-term transmissive power. The disaster enters his text, therefore, as a prose that reflects “the shock of the unintelligible” (Adorno) yet maintains a normative decorum. Blanchot’s pensées are antisystematic fragments that lack the steadfast “star” of a clear time-line or a synthesis affirming unity of consciousness or offering the hope of a progressive merging of subjective desire and objective reality. Though they refer unmistakably to his own intellectual milieu, and are datable that way, they remain, most of them, “impersonified,” as Mallarmé would say. Sometimes this distinctly French mode of literary impersonality, this inertial, anticatastrophic formalism (more radical than T. S. Eliot’s famous impersonality theory), results in word or image bearing an unusual emphasis that can be overlooked— or overlooks itself, as it were. This happens when Blanchot defines the  I=: =DAD86JHI ?:9L67C: 6C9 I=: B:6HJG: D; I>B: Holocaust. It is described as “the absolute event of history—which is a date in history—that utter-burn where all history took fire, where the movement of meaning was swallowed up.”While the contagious metaphor going from “utter-burn” to “history took fire” is conventional enough, there is shock value if Blanchot is saying that history has come to a stop.1 But that is not what he is saying, unless we differentiate between history as a particular mode of understanding time and time itself. Time does not stop. What does it mean, then, to take the Shoah into consciousness? The temptation is to claim it periodizes the flow of time by marking off an exceptional phase, and so dividing before and after. Think of how many “posts” have recently sprung up: post-Holocaust, postwar, poststructuralism , postmodern, post-philosophy, post-traumatic stress syndrome. And now post-9/11. Blanchot does not doubt that such a trick of thought helps to focus the traumatic or unintelligible. But the next step, according to him, should be to guard (“veiller sur”) the space or absence created by that sudden incursion of the unintelligible. Guard it, that is, from explanations or consolations seeking to fill a void, from anything that pretends that the factors contributing to that moment are over, like a freak storm. His subtlest point, however, is that responding with a vehement temporal demarcation is part of the disaster.2 Instead of yielding to the “everything is different now,” to an epochal before/after distinction, this habit of the mind should be challenged. Blanchot’s own response is to turn from death as a final date toward dying: that is, to contemplate an intolerable un-power or passivity. This goes against our mental nerves, which are trained to be activist. They react to events by working them through or extracting a meaning. Though it may be that a saeculum or era is over, and that we now find ourselves in a different one, this era, like previous ones, was defined by the deceptive notion of an ending. What has come to an end is the notion itself of an end-time. Blanchot’s insight does not remain at the level of methodology or epistemology . The consequences he draws are, instead, insistently moral. For suffering, without an end-time, is cut loose from any value system that comforts itself with the thought of a sublime reversal. Catastrophe-cre- =6GIB6C  ation becomes an obsolete hope and suffering is no longer, as in the birth pangs of the Messianic era, a condition of redemption. It is the sufferance , perhaps for ever, of suffering, whether we experience that directly or cannot avoid watching the suffering of others. “It is the horror of a suffering without end, a suffering that time can no longer redeem, that has escaped time...


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