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The Limits of Representation and the Right to Fiction: Shame, Literature, and the Memory of the Shoah David Carroll Je n'ai jamais compris pourquoi il faudrait se sentir coupable d'avoir survécu. . .. Certes, il n'y avait pas de mérite à avoir survécu.... Aucun d'entre nous ne méritaient de vivre. De mourir non plus. Il n'y avait pas de mérite à être vivant. Il n'y en aurait pas eu non plus à être mort. ... Vivre dépendait de la manière dont tombait les dés, de rien d'autre. —Jorge Semprun, L'Ecriture ou la vie (1994) IN THE CHAPTER of The Drowned and the Saved entitled "Shame," Primo Levi describes the shame he felt after his liberation from Auschwitz, not for having done anything wrong or improper but simply for having survived. He could not help feeling, he admits, that he was "alive in the place of another,... in particular of a man more generous, more sensitive , more useful, wiser, worthier of living than [he]."1 Unable to understand why he survived when millions of others perished, the final injustice imposed on the surviving victim—and Levi is certainly not the only survivor to express such feelings—is that he feels his own continued existence is shameful. Acknowledging that it would be impossible to explain or justify his own survival or that of any other survivor, Levi categorically rejects the notion that he or anyone else was "saved" because of personal merit. His own feeling of unworthiness is also the sign for him that neither he nor any other survivor has a privileged access to the truth of the Shoah or could provide an adequate total account or representation of the horrible suffering of millions of other victims. As there is no merit to having survived, Levi also claims that there is also no merit in testifying to what was experienced in the camps. Levi even argues that he and other survivors, no matter how accurate and powerful their testimonies , are all unworthy witnesses: "The survivors are not the true witnesses, ... but an anomalous minority,... those who by their prevarications or abilities or good luck did not touch bottom" (Levi 83). The only "complete witnesses " are thus those who did touch bottom and who died, which means that survivors can bear witness only "in their stead, by proxy" (84). As there is shame in survival because survivors feel less worthy than others who died, there is also shame in testifying because all testimony is also unworthy. This does not make the obligation to testify less of a burden on survivors but rather 68 Winter 1999 Carroll intensifies it. For to feel shame in only being able to testify by proxy also indicates that the obligation to those who were the "complete witnesses" is infinite and can never be fulfilled. Shame, however, is not the only way such an obligation is signaled. As the epigraph to this essay indicates (and as we shall see in more detail in the second part of this essay), Jorge Semprun, a survivor of Buchenwald, asserts that he feels neither guilt nor pride for having survived.2 This does not mean, however, that he disagrees with Levi about the relativity of all testimony or that he himself feels no obligation to those who perished in the camps. On the contrary, like Levi, Semprun will insist on the problematic nature of memory and historical representation in general and the debt of survivors to those who disappeared in the camps. But given what is for him not so much the unworthiness of any particular witness as the limitations of memory and representation in general, Semprun vigorously defends the use of the imagination in general and the writing of fiction in particular as the means for overcoming the shortcomings of first-person testimony and the restrictions of conventional historical representation. The shame felt by Levi for not being able to do more than testify by proxy in the place of "the drowned" becomes in Semprun what some might consider a shameless reliance on fiction and what could be called proxy narratives. Fiction, however, is not just one question among others when...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1931-0234
Print ISSN
0014-0767
Pages
pp. 68-79
Launched on MUSE
2010-06-24
Open Access
No
Archive Status
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