- From the Collapse of Signifiers to the Reconstruction of Language: A Psychoanalytic Reading of Robert Antelme’s The Human Race
Robert Antelme, a member of a French Resistance group headed by Francois Mitterrand, was arrested by the Gestapo in June 1944, sent to Buchenwald, then to a work camp in Germany where he almost died. His moving memoir The Human Race (1957), his only book, is dedicated to the task of tracing the outline of the “human” from the perspective of both victim and witness. Its close observation of language’s most subtle nuances, in an uncompromising effort to represent the event in terms of the experience of the event rather than in the terms of the retrospective observer, makes its reading uncommonly demanding. This demand constitutes itself the gravest and most exposed self-testimony, one in which Antelme constantly warns against slipping into “comfortable” categories and against a possible escape into the saturated state of the “gratified” consciousness and conscience. Whether they concern the executioners or their victims, his descriptions are marked by the same gentle restlessness which turns its penetrating gaze upon the observer no less than upon the object of observation.
Survivors’ experience can sometimes be condensed in a single word. Primo Levi (1979), describing a recurrent dream he has about Auschwitz, narrows it thus: “[A] single word, not imperious, but brief and subdued. It is the dawn command of Auschwitz, a foreign word, feared and expected: get up, ‘Wstawach’” (p. 380). Antelme’s nightmare also points at a word that became etched in his memory: “Fertig!”—”that’s it!” (Antelme, 1992/1957, p. 18) It is not just a word that holds the difference between the before and the after, the human and the inhuman, the pre-traumatic and the traumatic. Somehow this word is so powerful exactly because it is quoted (uttered as a direct speech) rather than told about: it is directed straight at the reader, a call one [End Page 685] cannot ignore, a rupture in the continuous language. Unlike the other words, it is uttered in its original language, with its original sound, thus becoming signifier and signified at one and the same time, something that by pointing at the rupture reconstitutes the very rupture itself.
Antelme notices that in the seemingly random exchanges between the prisoners while they do their forced labor, they often mention things they owned in the past, especially the food they so badly lack now:
Each of us will already be with somebody else in a little while. He’ll explain how his mother makes custard, because he needs to talk about custard and milk and bread [...] We’ll invite each other over to dinner, because by inviting each other we can picture still more meat, more bread. And then, if tonight there are seconds of soup, this guy who’s invited his buddy to come to dinner along with his wife may elbow him out of the way.(p. 44)
Not only does speech turn from a mode of communication into a mode of survival—placing the other, the random listener, as a means through which speech can go on rather than as the subject of this speech—but it also turns words that are signifiers into signifieds: talk about bread takes the place of the bread; the invitation to a meal stretches the limits of the concrete stomach by increasing the number of imaginary guests. In the traumatized domain of language, the symbolic gradually collapses into the excess of real suffering.
One of the major aspects of this suffering concerns the break in the continuity of identity:
That particular Sunday I looked at length at my face in the mirror. It was neither beautiful nor ugly; it was dazzling. It had accompanied me here, here it was on the loose. It was without employment now, but it was still itself, the machine for expression. Next to it an SS mug was nothing. And the face of the guy who when his turn came was going to look at himself in it remained reduced to the state determined by the SS. Only the one in the mirror was distinct. It alone signified something...