- After Testimony: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Holocaust Narrative for the Future ed. by Jakob Lothe, Susan Rubin Suleiman, and James Phelan
As the editors of After Testimony: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Holocaust Narrative for the Future point out in their introduction, the term "after" in their title [End Page 339] is meant in a double sense. It refers to the fact that the essays in this very fine volume, and the texts that they discuss, come chronologically "after" much testimony and other narrative and critical studies of the Holocaust have already been written. More importantly, however, "the word 'after'" also refers "to artistic creation." "After" in this sense implies a work of art or an essay "that situates itself self-consciously in a position of imitation or homage." And, as the editors round out their point, further explicating their title, "to come 'after' also implies an obligation to the future" (2). For the editors — Jakob Lothe, Susan Rubin Suleiman, and James Phelan, all of them important scholars in their own right and all of whom have fine essays in the collection — testimony is also a complex term. It need not refer to eye-witness or memoiristic accounts but, rather, also includes the attempts of both fiction writers and critics to testify to and produce in their readers a witnessing relationship to the experiences of the actual victims. This is an essay collection informed by high aspirations, and almost every essay in the volume makes good on those aspirations.
The volume opens with a superb essay by J. Hillis Miller, who demonstrates how reading Imre Kertész's Fatelessness through narratologically-informed literary theory not only does not incapacitate the text as testimony or even as documentary but, rather, actually enhances its capacity to convey the depths of Kertész's protagonist's experiences (and thereby, perhaps, of Kertész's own experiences, since the novel is highly autobiographical). At the same time, the theoretical approach enacts and prompts a vital, primary experience for the reader of the protagonist/writer's story. "The hero of Fatelessness," writes Hillis Miller, "suspends, or rather, expresses in a unique way [Primo] Levi's paradox [that only the Muselmann can be the 'complete witness'] by combining in one person both the narrator, the narrating-I, and the protagonist, the experiencing-I, both the 'complete witness,' the Muselmann, and the proxy who bears witness for what is impossible to bear witness to" (38). In reading the novel this way, Hillis Miller's "commentary," which illuminates many of the most perplexing elements of Kertész's text (especially in the very bizarre scenes toward the end of the novel after the account of the protagonist's liberation), is also, in Hillis Miller's own words, "not so much a bearing witness for the witness as it is a facilitating of reading by what might be named a 'calling attention' to the testimonial work the novel enacts." For this reason Hillis Miller's chapter "also has a dimension of performative testimony. It is a declaration of what has happened to me when reading and rereading the novel" (48). The significance of the reading subject is a theme that recurs in many of the essays in this volume.
Performance and enactment are similarly key concepts in several of the essays, notably in the chapters written by James Phelan and Susan Suleiman, both of which deal with the "difficult task of comprehending the psychology of the perpetrators," as Phelan puts it (120). To quote Suleiman in "Performing a Perpetrator as Witness: Jonathan Littell's Les Bienveillantes," the very fact that in Littell's novel we have a perpetrator in the position of witness is already discomforting [End Page 340] to the reader. This has produced highly diverse and antithetical readings of the book, which either strongly praise or hotly vilify the novel, thus raising issues for Suleiman of readerly responsibilities and ethics. In Suleiman's view Littell's book relies on "conflicting reliabilities" (112...