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KINERETH MEYER "A Jew Can Have a Jewish Face": Arthur Miller, Autobiography, and the Holocaust IN HIS 1987 AUTOBIOGRAPHY, Timebends, Arthur Miller tells of his visit to Bari, Italy, immediately after World War II. In a line of seafront palazzos formerly owned by prominent fascisti, he encountered hundreds of Jewish survivors of the Nazi death camps. His attempts at communication in pidgin Yiddish-German were met with total lack of interest, and the hostility that he felt as he walked among them was nearly palpable. In Miller's words, "they were not interested in my problem and could see no help in me for their own, which was simply to get aboard a ship for Palestine and leave the graveyard of Europe forever." In spite of his open identification of himself as a Jew, Miller notes that "their mistrust was like acid in my face; I was talking to burnt wood, charred iron, bone with eyes." Miller's interpretation of his experience in Bari is instructive in that it contains patterns of his own attempt at self-definition: In coming years, I would wonder why it never occurred to me to throw in my lot with them when they were the product of precisely the catastrophe I had in various ways given my writing life to try to prevent. To this day, ... I feel myself disembodied, detached, ashamed of my stupidity, my failure to recognize myself in them. To the question he asks himself: "Whence this detachment?" Miller provides an answer that may be seen as an artistic and personal, as well as a cultural and historical imperative: "One day it would seem the very soul of the matter: a failure to imagine will make us die."1 PROOFTEXTS 18 (1998): 239-258 C 1998 by The Jetos Hopkins University Press 240KINERETH MEYER "One day . . ." was written in 1987. At the time of his visit to Bari, however, the survivors he encountered were the Other, and Miller failed to position himself at their side, to sympathize fully with their suffering. Faced with what Lionel Trilling called "the incommunicability of man's suffering," he underwent a "failure of the imagination"—the inability of the imagination to grasp the horrors of the death camps. Moreover, Miller may have been silenced by the "moral implications of distance"2—the escape from identification by distancing the self, not only in terms of space-time, but in terms of cultural dissociation as well. Timebends is the record of Miller's attempt to overcome personal and cultural detachment. In its re-creation of a past, it is both narrative and history, a remodeling of personal experience in rhetorical form and, at the same time, an affirmation of events and places beyond the confines of the personal,3 in which the reader participates. As such, Timebends exhibits what Albert Stone has called autobiography's "permeable boundaries"; it is both an "individuating speech act and [a] shared cultural activity."4 In Timebends, and, as I shall argue in this essay, in many of Miller's plays, language act and cultural activity are not separate undertakings, occurring along two parallel lines. For Miller, these lines cross repeatedly, each entailing the other. Far from being a random title, Timebends reflects not only the non-linearity or simultaneity of structure evident in the book itself, but also a sense of time that zigzags continually in Miller's work between the narrating self and American/Jewish history. Reflecting upon the narrowness of his six-year-old world, Miller writes, "had I thought about it at all, I would have imagined that the whole world was Jewish except maybe for Lefty the cop and Mikush [the Polish janitor]." (T, 24) But he did not, or (as is more likely) could not "think about it." Thought would have to wait for the autobiographical act, what Georges Gusdorf called the "second reading of experience, . . . truer than the first because it adds to experience itself consciousness of it."5 As a child sitting on the floor watching and listening to his parents and to other adults, "studying peoples' shoes, the lint under the couch, the brass casters under the piano legs," he had been undergoing a...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3311
Print ISSN
0272-9601
Pages
pp. 239-258
Launched on MUSE
2011-01-26
Open Access
No
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