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The Vicarious Witness Belated Memory and Authorial Presence in Recent Holocaust Literature* FROMA I. ZEITLIN 1. TWO MODELS Whatever form Holocaust testimonies may assume—diaries, memoirs, oral reports, photographs, chronicles or histories—all of them inhabit a haunted terrain of traumatized memory. (To these we may add fiction, poetry, art and film that have come into being after the Shoah). This terrain remains the one on which we ourselves continue to record, recall, re-vision and reenact a wide range ofresponses to that cataclysmic event which, half a century ago, transformed our mental landscape and, with it, challenged our established forms ofdiscourse and our certainties about the legitimacy of aesthetic claims to sufficiently representational and emotive powers.1 Many disparate strategies have evolved over the years to cope with this extreme case ofencompassing disaster, generating new conventions and techniques or reformulating and readapting old ones. But ifthey are to retain their power to cross the threshold into forbidden zones, such strategies must themselves evolve in turn, so as to disrupt the earlier and by now canonical paradigms, grown all too familiar; even more, to register the increasing distance of our age from what we still feel compelled to confront and remember. In the past decade and a half two quite different works ofimaginative daring and scope—Claude Lanzmann's film Shoah and Art Spiegel- Frotna I. Zeitlin man's Maus—have extended the boundaries of that terrain into zones where art and history disturbingly intersect, albeit each in its own way.2 By now both works have achieved landmark status in the history of Holocaust representation. Each was a first of its kind that provoked extensive debate on methods and means; each placed increased demands for participation upon the reader or viewer and, above all, each, by the use of a popular visual medium, succeeded in reaching an enormous audience worldwide.3 Finally, not the least of their effects is the conscious presentation of their work as acquired or vicarious testimony. This aspect will be the major focus of the present essay, with reference to two other works of Holocaust literature, which, although widely separated by language, culture and oudook (France, Poland), attest to further and even bolder developments of this genre. Both Shoah and Maus have become exemplary, each in its own way, of a newer set of trends in the efforts of those in a second (or third) generation, who were either born too late or, for other reasons, excluded as actual participants or witnesses to the events. Whether actual children ofsurvivors or their surrogates—whom Geoffrey Hartman calls "witnesses by adoption"—the engagement with the events that happened over there and long ago reflects an inevitable awareness of their own belatedness.4 Far from foreclosing any identification with these events, this very belatedness leads them urgently to seek ways of linking the present to the past. Even more, it seems to engender the desire of representing the past through modes ofreenactment—even reanimation— through which the self, the "ego" of "the one who was not there," now takes on a leading role as an active presence. Common to these efforts is an obsessive quest to assume the burden ofmemory, ofrememoration, by means ofwhich one might become a witness oneself. The link to the past, at this historical juncture, halfa century after the event, can still be firmly anchored to the presence (and authority) of first-hand witnesses, those diminishing few who still remain. But Lanzmann and Spiegelman have more in mind. Both aim to turn the act ofwitnessing into a species of lived performance for witness and listener alike. Spiegelman does so, ofcourse, in his staging oforal interviews with his father in the context of his own reframing of the story. But so does Lanzmann, who in order to make his film an "incarnation," a "resurrection ," as he himselfexplains, carefully chose his witnesses on the basis of The ^carious Witness their capacity not only to talk about the past but "to relive it in the present, to reenact it in front ofthe camera."5 In his desire "to abolish all distances between past and present," Lanzmann goes so far as to state, "I have relived the whole...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-1994
Print ISSN
0935-560X
Pages
pp. 5-42
Launched on MUSE
2011-03-30
Open Access
No
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