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Rhetoric & Public Affairs 4.3 (2001) 543-558

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Review Essay

Recovering the Lost Canon:
Public Memory and the Holocaust

Roy Schwartzman

Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It? By Michael Shermer and Alex Grobman. With a foreword by Arthur Hertzberg. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000; pp. xviii + 312. $27.50.

The Future of the Holocaust: Between History and Memory. By Berel Lang. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1999; pp. xiv + 198. $45.00 cloth; $17.95 paper.

History and Memory After Auschwitz. By Dominick LaCapra. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1998; pp. ix + 214. $45.00 cloth; $15.95 paper.

The Holocaust: Origins, Implementation, Aftermath. Edited by Omer Bartov. London: Routledge, 2000; pp. x + 300. $85.00 cloth; $24.99 paper.

Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive. By Giorgio Agamben. Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. New York: Zone Books, 1999; pp. 175. $25.00.

Trauma and Life Stories: International Perspectives. Edited by Kim Lacy Rogers, Selma Leydesdorff, and Graham Dawson. London: Routledge, 1999; pp. x + 262. $90.00.

Women's Holocaust Writing: Memory and Imagination.By S. Lillian Kremer. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999; pp. xi + 278. $45.00 cloth; $24.95 paper.

T. S. Eliot begins The Waste Land by alluding to the ambivalence associated with Jesus's resurrection. He characterized the month of April, with its celebration of Easter, as "mixing/ Memory and desire, stirring/ Dull roots with spring rain." 1 The combination of regret over the crucifixion with the joyful anticipation of [End Page 543] rebirth provokes Eliot to use Easter as an occasion to plead for spiritual regeneration. His juxtaposition of memory and desire reveals an enigma at the core of human relationships with the past. Memory is often accompanied by pangs of regret, since lost time cannot be recovered.

The insertion of desire changes the complexion of memory. Rather than an attempt merely to duplicate what has already occurred, memory might be a way to ground hope for the future in historical precedent. When linked with desire, memory transforms from a sterile preservation of what was into a productive basis for shaping what could be. Some reconsideration of memoria as a rhetorical canon must occur to illuminate this transformation of memory from retrospect to prospect. As recently as 1995, scholarship on public memory was labeled "nascent," so a rehabilitation of memory seems long overdue. 2

The rhetorical treatment of memory has fallen far short of the redemptive vision adumbrated in The Waste Land. Indeed, the fate of memoria as a rhetorical canon could be described as a wasteland. Arguably, the study of memory never recovered from the blow dealt by the written word. Memory degenerated to memoria technica, tricks to recall long lists of information that could impress audiences, but hardly served any significant social function. Rhetorical theorists devoted far less attention to this canon than to any other, and they concurred that it involved only mnemonic techniques for reciting speeches. 3 The predominant classical understanding of memoria limited this canon to a capacity for reproducing facts, with no attention to how those facts might invite different interpretations. The typical testimony to the power of memory related feats of recall, the ability to reconstruct prior events. 4

The Holocaust offers an appropriate site to study the productive employment of memory. Arguably the most horrifying event in human history, the Holocaust presents an extreme challenge for turning remembrance into a productive activity to enrich human experience rather than solely to perpetuate regret or agony. Indeed, if memory can aid in culling the lessons from this tragedy, then the Holocaust could prove the decisive example for reconsidering the role of memory in fostering peaceful human interaction.

Several recent books about the Holocaust illustrate attempts to revive and enrich memory, thereby restoring memoria to its rightful place as one of the five canons necessary for effective discourse. Far from treating issues of the Third Reich as "a footnote for historians," the rehabilitation of memory should offer insight regarding how remembrance of the past can assist...