- Reparative Remembering
In the opening pages of "Family Pictures: Maus, Mourning, and Post-Memory," Marianne Hirsch (1992–93) describes a photograph of a woman who sits on a bench in front of a pretty house, surrounded by trees in bloom, a newspaper in hand. It is a photograph of her husband's aunt Frieda, dispatched to relatives in England and Bolivia in 1945 as an announcement that she, Frieda, had survived the Riga ghetto and concentration camp. I want to begin with a few observations about Hirsch's reading of this photograph, since it economically conveys the key elements of her approach. It also opens up what I will argue is the most generative aspect of her theorization of postmemory—namely, the identification and description of a practice of reparative remembering that speaks to ongoing debates in literary and cultural theory about the politics of futurity and negativity.
Nothing in Frieda's photograph refers directly to the Holocaust; it includes no sign of the camps, yet Hirsch argues that it is a Holocaust photograph. In turning our attention to such family photos, Hirsch asks how the history and memory of the Holocaust is transmitted and mediated by the familial and the intimate. Hirsch's formulation of this question initially seems to depend on a familiar and problematic contrast, even opposition, between history and memory: the newspaper in Frieda's hand, Hirsch observes, is a "curious prop—perhaps representing the public history which is the official alternative to the private memory she, as a witness, brings to her addressees" (1992–93, 5). But Hirsch's juxtaposition of history and memory is not organized around dichotomies of objectivity and authenticity, or archive and testimony.1 Rather, she maps history/memory onto the public/private distinction that, in the tradition of feminist scholarship, [End Page 137] she posits in order to undo. In a 2018 forum on "Holocaust and the History of Gender and Sexuality," the historian Atina Grossman observes that "it may well have been feminists' facility with teasing out and contextualizing the 'personal' in the 'political'—or historical—that generated the distinctive insights of our scholarship on the Holocaust" (Farges et al. 2018, 82). Hirsch's reflection on what it would have meant for Frieda's relatives, "sitting around their kitchen table in La Paz," to receive this picture is a meditation on history as it is lived in the relations between partners, between parents and children, and among extended family networks (1992–93, 4).
Hirsch's emphasis on how familial relations mediate memory offers a theory of traumatic transmission that is constitutively structured by a feminist perspective and that therefore differs substantially from other influential accounts of trauma and testimony from the same period. For example, Hirsch draws on Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub's nearly contemporaneous Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History. Unlike Felman and Laub, however, whose work focuses on the dyads of analyst and patient, and critic and text, Hirsch focuses on familial form and pays more attention to the intergenerational inheritance of trauma. She also attends to the way testimony might circulate in ordinary encounters, amid the banality of the everyday (I think here of Maus, and of Vladek narrating his story to Artie as he pedals furiously on his exercise bike). In Hirsch's account, the existence of the second generation complicates the meaning of the past, which does not lose its gravitational pull but is no "black hole" either—a term Laub borrows from Nadine Fresco's work on the children of survivors (Felman and Laub 1992, 64). Instead, the past is transformed by the present and future as they come into being. In my reading, the contribution of Hirsch's article is to show how the extension and reproduction of the familial redistributes trauma and its negativity without necessarily weakening or ameliorating them.
We see these dynamics at work in Hirsch's reading of Frieda's photograph: "Frieda's picture," Hirsch writes, "says only 'I am alive,' or perhaps, 'I have survived'" (1992–93, 5). There is an extraordinary drama to this missive, which announces a survival that defies all odds. But it is not just Frieda...