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  • Fantasy, Empathy, and Desire: Binjamin Wilkomirski’s Fragments and Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader
  • Sally Miller (bio)

Theorists in the field of trauma and memory studies have championed empathic identification with the victim as the preeminent means for subsequent generations to approach and understand the Holocaust. This article will consider two texts that have been criticized for mobilizing empathy in an “improper” way. To begin, I will address Binjamin Wilkomirski’s Fragments: Memories of a Childhood, 1939–1948. This discredited autobiography of a child’s experience of the Holocaust is perhaps the pre-eminent literary example of an “excessive” empathy with another’s traumatic past. Secondly, I will consider Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader, a novel that has been widely criticized for marshalling a “misplaced” or “incorrect” empathy for the perpetrator. A comparison of these two novels, through the Lacanian concepts of desire, fantasy, and shame, offers a new understanding of the nature of that identification championed by trauma studies under the rubric of empathy. While trauma studies has privileged empathy over fantasy, this article demonstrates that empathy relies on both fantasy and shame, both mobilized in the process of witnessing. This model of empathy and fantasy offers a more complex and ethical mode of empathetic engagement with the Holocaust, while also explaining the enduring appeal of texts like Fragments.

In interrogating well-known concepts (fantasy, empathy, and desire) I am not trying to proceed via definitional loopholes or to impose new definitions on accepted terms. Instead, this article employs Lacanian insights to unpick the functioning of these familiar mechanisms. A more nuanced understanding of the [End Page 45] processes of empathy and witnessing suggests that empathetic engagement with the Holocaust is more complex than trauma theory has so far acknowledged.

Central to the praxis of trauma theory is the role of the secondary witness—that is, the witness to testimony rather than the witness to the event. In the seminal writings of Shoshana Felman, Dori Laub, and Cathy Caruth, secondary witnessing is theorized as a performative encounter in which the truth of the traumatic event is transmitted rather than recounted or represented.1 In Felman’s words, “[t]o testify—to vow to tell, to promise and produce one’s own speech as material evidence for truth—is to accomplish a speech act, rather than to simply formulate a statement.”2 In short, trauma theory proposes that the witness to the testimonial account does not simply comprehend the horrors being recounted—he or she faces the horror of the event.

Empathy is the term most frequently used to describe the intersubjective relationship envisioned as taking place within the witnessing dyad.3 However, although most theorists advocate empathy as the proper means through which we should engage with testimonial accounts of trauma, they also insist that this empathy must be kept in check. For example, Dominick LaCapra uses the term “empathic unsettlement” to describe a relation of being emotionally responsive to the traumatic experience of another without colonizing the place or experiences of the witness.4 Indeed, although empathy plays a central role in academic writings on trauma and the majority of critics regard it as something that we should seek to cultivate both personally and collectively, their endorsement of empathy is tempered by a caution regarding its apparent inability to observe limits.5

In addition to the ambivalent status accorded to empathy within trauma theory, I wish to consider the unacknowledged role that pleasure plays in the academic account of testimonial witnessing. Despite the demand for the secondary witness to directly “experience” the traumatic event, it is notable that the testimonial encounter appears to offer a form of reward. This reward is articulated implicitly in a number of ways: in the cathartic prose characteristic of Felman, Laub, and Caruth, in the privileged form of knowledge that the testimonial encounter is seen to offer, and in the moral status accorded to the testimonial witness. In recognition of the ambiguous pleasures of bearing witness to traumatic testimony Karyn Ball has provocatively described the Holocaust as “an object of desire.”6 Susannah Radstone has more generally drawn attention to what she describes as the “oxymoronic ‘popularity’ of trauma,”7 while Jane Kilby...


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pp. 45-58
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