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Fiction, Death and Testimony: Toward a Politics of the Limits of Thought

From: Discourse
25.1&2, Winter & Spring 2003
pp. 211-230 | 10.1353/dis.2004.0015

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Discourse 25.1&2 (2003) 211-230

The classic example is the doorway that continued to exist so long as a certain beggar frequented it, but which was lost to sight when he died. Sometimes a few birds, a horse, have saved the ruins of an amphitheater.
—J. L. Borges, Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius

In 1915, shortly after the outbreak of World War I, Freud wrote a brief essay entitled, "Our Attitude Towards Death," in which he confronted something that was definitively imposing itself in Europe: death as a daily experience. His tone is conclusive and urgent: "Death is no longer to be denied; we are compelled to believe in it" (47). Prior to the war, Freud believes, fiction had constituted a different mode of relation to death, a place of compensation in which "the condition for reconciling ourselves to death is fulfilled, namely, if beneath all vicissitudes of life a permanent life still remains to us" (46). In fiction, "we find the many lives in one for which we crave. We die in identification with a certain hero and yet we outlive him and, quite unharmed, are prepared to die again with the next hero" (46-7). Since 1914, however, the war began to break down the profile of European culture, establishing a different relation to death:

People really die and no longer one by one, but in large numbers, often ten thousand in one day. It is no longer an accident. Of course, it still seems accidental whether a particular bullet strikes this man or that but the survivor may easily be struck down by a second bullet, and the accumulation of deaths ends the impression of accident. Life has indeed become interesting again; it has once more received its full significance. (47)

What is interesting about this brief essay is that, for Freud, the opposition between fiction and death finds its content in the experience of the war. The extreme experience of the time consists in realizing that "People really die." The factum of war put into question a certain relation between fiction and death sustained by an attitude which had not previously considered war—"the accumulation of deaths"—as a relevant psychic fact. Fiction therefore fails precisely when death is manifested as a brutal occurrence exceeding the limits of representation out of which the "I" had formerly related to the death of the other. In Freud's essay war thus inaugurates a field of reflection on death, but one which must exclude fiction in order to preserve the "truth" of that event. Death takes a step beyond fiction, thereby establishing the structure of representation through which a generation in war would contemplate itself.

For Freud, the event of the war had removed the structure of social representation from his generation: death had become a common, accumulative fact, but at the same time something whose unimaginable limit had never before been registered. Twenty-five years after "Our Attitude Towards Death" was published, the Second World War brought yet another horizon to death, introducing concentration camps, gas chambers and the atomic bomb as some of the new referents in which unimaginable death found a place in the world. This time, not only would "the accumulation of deaths" make visible the opposition between fiction and death—between representation and fact—but it would establish a limit to the modern comprehension of the world, since the very notion of "accumulation" had its foundation in the technical rationality by which knowledge itself operates. The criticism of the notion of progress developed by Walter Benjamin, for example—"this storm" which prevents the angel of history from "awakening the dead" (257)—configured a field of reflection on catastrophe as the real instance delimiting the conditions of possibility of thought itself. The generation which lived "in rooms that have never been touched by death" (94) quickly had to confront a world in which death occurred as something inapprehensible and yet incontestably real, both familiar and unfamiliar: death as the uncanny. That generation—Freud, Kafka, Heidegger, Blanchot, Levinas, Benjamin, Adorno and many others—saw perish the very intellectual field in which it had been formed. Its members were witnesses to an instant in which...



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