The Yale Journal of Criticism 14.1 (2001) 39-66
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What do we mean when we say that the Holocaust is "unspeakable"? Is "unspeakable" just a synonym of "inexpressible" or "indescribable"? How are these words related to such others, encountered with similar frequency in reference to the Holocaust, as "incomprehensible," "inconceivable," "unthinkable"? Or "unimaginable"?
Dictionaries tell us that "unspeakable" has three main senses. 1 First, it means "incapable of being expressed in words; inexpressible, indescribable, ineffable" (OED), or "not capable of being verbally expressed: unutterable, indescribable" (Webster's). In other words, "unspeakable" means "verbally unrepresentable." To say that the Holocaust is "unspeakable," in the sense of "inexpressible," "indescribable," "ineffable," or "unutterable," is therefore to state as a matter of fact that this traumatic historical event simply exceeds any and all means of verbal representation at our disposal.
In the second place, "unspeakable" means "indescribably or inexpressibly bad or objectionable" (OED), or "indescribably objectionable or hateful" (Webster's). Understood as (indescribably or inexpressibly) "bad," "objectionable," or "hateful," "unspeakable" can convey a judgment of taste, whether aesthetic or social (that is, having to do with what is socially inappropriate), or a moral judgment, as when, for example, Theodor Adorno refers to "the unspeakable acts of Hitler." 2 In this second sense, to say that the Holocaust is "unspeakable" is to make a normative claim, rather than, as with the first sense of the term, a claim that is factual. Yet what is "unspeakable" is not only "bad," "objectionable," or "hateful," it is "indescribably or inexpressibly" so. The adverbial correlative of the first sense ("indescribably or inexpressibly") locates the object of the second ("bad," "objectionable," "hateful") entirely outside of the normative framework in which the judgment itself is articulated.
The third sense of "unspeakable" is "incapable of being spoken or uttered; that may not be spoken" (OED), or "that may not or cannot be uttered or spoken" (Webster's). Here, "unspeakable" appears to qualify a "sacred" object, that is, an object that either cannot be spoken, because it lies outside the profane world and its language, or may not be spoken, because speaking it would be a profanation. One cannot help but wonder how this tension between "cannot be spoken" and "may [End Page 39] not be spoken," between a factual claim and what amounts to a moral prescription, might inflect the senses of "unspeakable" already discussed. To what extent might the moral prescription of this third sense determine the factual claim not only of the third but also of the first? To what extent might it determine, in the second sense, the relation between norms of taste and ethical norms? Or to what degree might the normative sense of the term depend on the authority of the "factual" adverb? Of course, not only the answers to these questions (if indeed there are answers), but even the formulation of the questions themselves, will vary according to the particular context in which they are raised. But it seems safe to say that, in reference to the Holocaust generally, no use of the term "unspeakable" is free of the tensions to which these questions allude.
Given such tensions as well as the diversity of contexts in which "unspeakable" may occur, I will use the framework provided by the three senses of the term just delineated primarily for its heuristic value. Simply put, this is an exploratory essay, designed to open and sustain the kind of discussion that the word "unspeakable" too often forecloses.
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It appears difficult if not impossible to support the purely factual claim conveyed by the first sense of the word "unspeakable," namely, that the Holocaust exceeds any and all means of verbal representation at our disposal. After all, is it not the verbal representation of facts themselves that most glaringly invalidates such a claim? For despite the massive and systematic efforts of the Nazis to obliterate all traces of the Final Solution, we know perfectly well, for example, that the Wannsee Conference took place on January 20, 1942, that Heinrich Himmler ordered the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto, and that there were four crematoria at...