College Literature 33.2 (2006) 172-183
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Reading Traumatically and Representing the Real in Collective Suffering
One of the most strenuous undertakings in twentieth-century literature and criticism has been the attempt to engage ethically with collective trauma. The trouble with representing a collective trauma is that it simultaneously bombards the everyday with the grave magnitude of the extraordinary and, paradoxically, converts this extraordinary experience to a generalizable phenomenon across a collective. Collective traumas, then, change how we think about the 'real'—they show extreme, unbelievable, and unrealistic events emerging from the matrix of the everyday. In the discourse of collective trauma and witnessing, for which the Holocaust is paradigmatic in many ways, there is a noticeable trend to account for the real, realism, reality, and its other variants which persist in the growing genre of testimonial literature. Realism has often been written off as an untraumatic form with an impassive pretense of truth. It is surely the most immediate literary form to come to mind when writers and artists (frequently those we label modernist) note the limits of representational acts and the problems of linear, diachronic narratives. Theodor Adorno, for instance, describes "simple reality" as the absence of thoughtful reflection (1995, 144). Others worry that the term realism invokes an ordinariness that is subject to public circulation and discursivity in what Marianne Hirsch calls the 'postmemory' generations born after the Holocaust. Recently, however, writers and critics are returning to this persistent question of realism and the term 'real' in general. W.G. Sebald, who writes a mix of fiction and non-fiction about atrocity, suggests that "it is with this documentary approach . . . that German postwar literature really comes into its own and begins the serious study of material incommensurable with traditional aesthetics" (2003, 59). In their literary scholarship, Michael Rothberg, Paul Eisenstein, Laurie Vickroy and Mark McCulloh explore literary realism that involves a critical relation between trauma and traces of the real in the everyday. Their work foregrounds perceptions of everydayness and universality in literary encounters with extremity, helping us better understand how realism shapes trauma and witnessing discourses.
Rothberg's Traumatic Realism makes a crucial, albeit controversial, foray into the questions of representation that are central within Holocaust discourse. The author summarizes in his introduction three demands which generally weigh on writers' attempts to represent the Holocaust: the demand for accurate documentation, the pressure to reflect on the formal and ethical limits of representation, and the risk of publicly circulating discourse pertaining to the events of the Holocaust. Central to his discussion is the ongoing question of how best to represent this catastrophe in a way that does not, in its very ability to conceive of horror, fail to convey it as wrenchingly as other (often realist) works occasionally do. After dedicating his first two chapters to these complex ethical dimensions, Rothberg offers his perception [End Page 173] of a "traumatic realism" that exists in Holocaust literature. The post-Holocaust project Rothberg describes, therefore, is one that is centrally concerned with reformulating both modern history and the language of representation under the sign of trauma. Responsive to this conscientious demand that such extreme trauma be acknowledged, this author's concept of "traumatic realism" re-introduces a literary genre to Holocaust studies that had mostly been written off as an everyday, utopic or untraumatic form.
Traumatic Realism opens with a sustained focus on Adorno and Maurice Blanchot, two key figures who have helped shape an ethics of discourse on the Holocaust. Rothberg's first chapter is...