Once there was Elźunia : Approaching Affect in Holocaust Literature - PDF

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Once there was Elźunia 395 Once there was Elźunia : Approaching Affect in Holocaust Literature Gail Ivy Berlin There are two ways, one is to suffer; the other is to become a professor of the fact that

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Once there was Elźunia 395 Once there was Elźunia : Approaching Affect in Holocaust Literature Gail Ivy Berlin There are two ways, one is to suffer; the other is to become a professor of the fact that another suffers. Kierkegaard, qtd. in Steiner 67 he encounter with literature of the Holocaust, saturated as it is with unfathomable grief, loss, terror, and death, presents its readers with difficulties T rare in literatures not dealing with the extreme. Specifically, usual academic discourse lacks a register for addressing the intense emotions that Holocaust narratives or poetry may generate. Indeed, in scholarly writing, affect and analysis are regularly opposed. Historian Lucy Dawidowicz, writing in 1976, has observed that Jewish documents [...] have been received in an attitude of reverence for the dead and respect for the survivors with the result that critical judgment and analysis have been suspended lest they desecrate the memory of the Holocaust and its victims (10). More recently, Howard Tinberg reports on the persistent difficulty of moving students from shock and incomprehension to analysis in an undergraduate literature course (82). For his students, texts such as Maus (Spiegelman), Night (Wiesel), and the Diary of Anne Frank are sacred ground, objectified testimonies, not to be tampered with (87). A graduate student in my own class, The Holocaust in Literature, expressed her intense discomfort with even discussing Holocaust texts, perceiving the classroom as a sacred place of remembrance and reverence. In her class journal responding to Elie Wiesel s A Plea for the Dead, she wrote, I often feel I should only list quotations in these responses, to listen to the words of the victims and survivors without interrupting. How dare I respond? How dare I interpret? How could I have anything to add? Gail Ivy Berlin is professor of English at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where she also served for a decade as department chair. In addition to Holocaust literature, her research focuses on Old and Middle English literature and medieval women. College English, Volume 74, Number 5, May 2012 396 College English Mirianne Hirsch and Irene Kacandes, editors of the 2004 MLA publication Teaching the Representation of the Holocaust (referred to here as the MLA guide), likewise note that there is a disturbing tension between affect and analysis (19). If we are deeply shaken by a text, we cannot dissect it; if we are deeply engaged in textual analysis, we cannot respond with full compassion. Indeed, a study by psychologist C. Daniel Batson suggests that attention to textual detail may block empathy. In Batson s study, subjects were asked to listen to a broadcast account of a person in distress. The group of subjects asked to focus on technical features of the broadcast reported fewer feelings of compassion than did those subjects asked to imagine the situation and feelings of the distressed person as they listened (qtd. in Nussbaum ). This fact is problematic for those of us engaged in the study of Holocaust literature. We wish to be responsive, to the fullest extent possible, to the plight of the human beings whose words we read. But does compassion or the sense of standing on sacred ground necessarily eclipse or stand in opposition to analysis? (Clearly, analysis of the sacred is standard practice in fields such as art history, medieval studies, and religious studies.) Or, put in another way, is it necessary for sound analysis to exclude the emotional? As Rita Felski notes, literary theory evinces nervousness about literature s awkward proximity to imagination, emotion, and other soft, fuzzy, [sic] ideas (59). Academe avoids the emotional, deeming it unprofessional, unscientific, and naïve. If, in our effort to avoid emotion, to be professional and objective, we attend to historical processes, to studies of memory and its flaws, to theories of representation and theories of trauma, to language s inability to express, and to the lacuna at the heart of testimony that makes bearing witness impossible, are we still able to consider and respond to the people living amidst and consumed by the Holocaust? The problem is well summed for history by Simone Gigliotti, who notes that historians are able to rehearse the processes leading up to deportation in boxcars and can detail the processes of extermination when victims stepped down from the boxcars at the camps. But historians do not examine what happened in the boxcar itself, passing over in silence the trauma that took place there. Among the concerns, therefore, that she suggests instructors should consider is the role of emotion in narrative history (34). Is there a place for emotion in the study of Holocaust literature? How should we approach literature that generates great emotion, and conveys dreadful events in language that wounds as it is written, and wounds again as it is read? What knowledge, what mental and emotional preparation is necessary in order to manage the encounter with texts of the extreme? This article will be a preliminary gesture toward answering these questions. I will begin by confronting a brief but highly charged poem with various dispassionate literary techniques; move on to consider how scholars imagine empathy in relation to Holocaust literature; and conclude with a reading of the poem, using it as a space that may foster both compassion and Once there was Elźunia 397 analysis, without viewing these as polar opposites. I argue for a reconsideration of interpretive approaches to Holocaust literature and other literatures of trauma and a frank acknowledgement of the emotional complexity that these texts generate, in and of themselves and within the pedagogical situation. Aleksander Kulisiewicz, a survivor, composer, and collector of Polish camp songs, tells us of a song found toward the end of 1943 sewn into the pocket of a dead child s coat. 1 The poem s author was Elźunia, a little girl murdered in Majdanek (Maidanek), a death camp near Lublin. She wrote, Once there was Elźunia. She is dying all alone, Because her daddy is in Maidanek, And in Auschwitz her mommy... 2 (Była sobie raz Elźunia, umierała sama, Bo jej tatuś na Majdanku W Oświȩcimiu mama...) 3 The remaining song words, Kulisiewicz tells us, were covered in blood. At the bottom of the card, Elźunia had written, I sang with the melody of Na Woytusia z popielnika iskereczka mruga [A Little Spark Is Twinkling on the Ash Grate], a popular Polish children s song or lullaby, still sung today. Kulisiewicz provides no information about how the song itself survived. Child survivor and memoirist Eva Hoffman, who saw an exhibit at Majdanek that included a singing of Elźunia s song, notes that the child was nine years old. Hoffman records her reaction to this song: I believe this is the most piercing single verse I ve ever heard and after all I have read, learned, and absorbed about the Shoah, the fragment strikes me with a wholly penetrating, unprepared sense of pity and sorrow. She reports that others hearing the song and reading the words were similarly pierced (152). But what happens if we confront this song with some common literary techniques or theoretical suppositions? Consider, for example, this injunction to undergraduates in the humanities and social sciences from The Theory Toolbox, a popular introductory text: Theoretical point number 1, and the arrow that gives direction to the rest of this book: Nothing should be accepted at face value; everything is suspect (Nealon and Giroux 6). Does the hermeneutics of suspicion provide an appropriate first approach to Elźunia s poem? Or is it structured to deflect the possibility of emotional engagement? 4 Or consider Ranen Omer-Sherman s words written about another poetic fragment, survivor Daniel Pagis s Written in Pencil telling us that the trope of the child can too easily result in sentimental images of vulnerability, and praising Pagis s poem for conveying horror [...] without shrillness or hysteria (309). 5 What happens if such concerns are transferred to Elźunia s poem? Should 398 College English Elźunia be studied as a trope? Should we consider whether she, as an author, has appropriately conveyed the horror of her situation without hysteria? If she has, is control of tone the primary virtue of the poem? Or consider the structuralist notion of the humanist fallacy, which Terry Eagleton defines as the naïve notion that a literary text is just a kind of transcript of the living voice of a real man or woman addressing us (120). Certainly this applies to William Blake, as author of both The Tyger and The Lamb. But in what way can we argue that a poem sewn into a pocket as one would safeguard a treasure and covered in blood is not the sole trace of a once-living voice, a life? 6 In brief, usual scholarly approaches may often grate against texts emerging from the Holocaust. The tools we possess are not well calibrated for literature of the extreme. They block emotion. Beyond the fact that affect and analysis do not easily mix is another problem: affect itself makes us uncomfortable, is somehow suspect. Hoffman tells us about a woman overcome with emotion at the same exhibit where she first heard Elźunia s song. The woman sat down and wailed in the midst of the exhibition. Hoffman records for us her own thought process when encountering this display of emotion. After considering whether the woman needed help and deciding that she did not, Hoffman pondered why the woman might be wailing: It appears to me that she is bringing attention to her extraordinary, her altogether extravagant powers of empathy. It seems to me that she may be luxuriating in her extremely commendable emotion. Certainly, her presentation, or exhibition of it, is distracting, or distancing other visitors from the exhibit. It occurs to me that maybe something unpleasant has happened to her on her trip and she is taking this perfect occasion to express her unhappiness. Or that she is a dissatisfied young woman, and that this is a perfect place in which to endow her dissatisfaction with a tragic tinge and blend it with something indubitably significant. It also occurs to me that perhaps I am being very unjust to her. But I don t know. (153) This public display of emotion is viewed with suspicion. It may be self-serving. It may be a projection. It lacks proper proportion, and it merges personal sorrow inappropriately with the victim s tragedy. Hoffman s suspicion here may well be justified. But it also raises the question of what our attitude should be as we read and teach. What state of mental and emotional preparedness should we in fact bring to Elźunia s four-line poetic fragment? What forms of empathy should we, as teachers, support or curtail in our classrooms? I m a g i n i n g E m p a t h y Scholars within the field of literature fall into two groups concerning empathy: those who view it as potentially and dangerously overwhelming, and those who view it as insufficient or misdirected. In their MLA guide for teachers, Hirsch and Kacandes Once there was Elźunia 399 aim to protect students from overpowering emotion. They caution potential teachers about how students should relate to the literature of victims and survivors. Students are appropriately invited to become co-witnesses to the traumas they encounter through reading (18). Following psychoanalyst and survivor Dori Laub, they warn that listeners must not become the victim lest they risk their own traumatization (16). The MLA guide acknowledges that space must be built into the syllabus to accommodate powerful emotion, but builds this space primarily out of class, in journals. To further protect students, Hirsch and Kacandes recommend certain texts that have the advantage of distancing the reader from events through various literary techniques, as does Maus with its comic-book format. In addition to worrying that students may be overwhelmed with emotion, Hirsch and Kacandes worry that they may succumb to certain undesirable emotional reactions, particularly over-identifying with the victim (15). To guard against this, the editors ask teachers to consider such questions as, What will enable us to imagine the extent of the atrocity even as we acknowledge our own distance from the event, evading exploitation, appropriation, and trivialization? [...] What are acceptable forms of identification, empathy, active listening? (7). Although Hirsch and Kacandes consider student identification with the victims to be both powerful and dangerous, they caution that it risks being appropriative and projective (15). Their MLA guide leans on Dominick LaCapra s definitions and concerns to make this point: Empathy itself, as an imaginative component not only of the historian s craft but of any responsive approach to the past or the other, raises knotty perplexities, for it is difficult to see how one may be empathetic without intrusively arrogating to oneself the victim s experience or undergoing (whether consciously or unconsciously) surrogate victimage. (Hirsch and Kacandes 15) Students, LaCapra suggests, must be protected from wounding emotions and must be monitored to make sure their emotions do not transgress proper bounds. Empathy, viewed in this way, is a double-edged sword, something to be handled gingerly rather than a state to be actively cultivated. Other critics note that readers, rather than being overly sensitive to texts of the extreme, may be insensitive or numb. Historian Carolyn Dean, in her study The Fragility of Empathy after the Holocaust, examines various cultural narratives that indicate the recently perceived precariousness of empathy (15). Although these narratives may take a variety of forms, they argue most generally that representations of suffering produce numbness, now to be regarded as a new, highly self-conscious narrative about the collective constriction of moral availability, if not empathy (5). According to this view, empathy is not readily available, and sham empathy would be one mode of this restriction. As an example, Dean cites the concern of James E. Young and Andrea Liss, among other scholars, regarding the identification cards in 400 College English the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum used to encourage identification with Holocaust victims and survivors. However, these scholars fear that such cards encourage lazy and false empathy in which we simply take the other s place (9). 7 Dean also notes the work of Holocaust survivor Ruth Klüger, who is disturbed by what Dean terms pseudo-engagement, a state in which an expression of concern for the other is actually a mode of enjoying the self (9). Dean, elucidating Klüger s view, notes that this false form of empathy entails obliterating boundaries between self and other in order to take the victim s place (9). The notions of empathy that Dean studies indicate a discomfort with and a guarding against what may be inappropriate forms of emotion. The easiest way to solve the problem of false empathy is to adopt the terminology and practices of psychology, which regularly distinguish between identification, empathy, and compassion. According to psychologist Alfred Benjamin, author of The Helping Interview, empathy means feeling yourself into, or participating in, the inner world of another while remaining yourself (my emphasis). 8 The empathetic interviewer tries to think and act and feel as if the life space of the other were his very own, but and it is an important but empathy always involves two distinctly separate selves; identification results in one (49 51). To the extent that a clinical interviewer identifies with an interviewee, she will be less effective in her role. Martha C. Nussbaum, professor of law and ethics, likewise defines empathy carefully in her majestic study Upheavals of Thought. She writes, Empathy is often used [...] to designate an imaginative reconstruction of another person s experience, without any particular evaluation of that experience (301 2). In Nussbaum s usage, empathy is an act of imagination, neither good nor bad in and of itself. A torturer, to the extent that he imagines the pain of another, is being empathetic (329). Nor does empathy involve fusing with another. Nussbaum considers the process to be more like that of method acting: It involves a participatory enactment of the situation of the sufferer but is always combined with the awareness that one is not oneself the sufferer (327). We cannot, then, simply take another s place. Empathy is a skill of imagining that must be carefully learned and that is easily blocked by all kinds of social barriers of class, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation (317). Nor does empathy overwhelm the boundaries between self and other, for that would be identification, not empathy. But neither is empathy compassion. Nussbaum judges that empathy is different from and insufficient for compassion, an emotion that, like love and grief, expand[s] the boundaries of the self (300). Compassion, Nussbaum tells us, requires that three conditions be present: The first [...] is a belief or appraisal that the suffering [of another person] is serious rather than trivial. The second is the belief that the person does not deserve the suffering. The third is the belief that the possibilities of the person who experiences the emotion are similar to those of the sufferer (306). In Once there was Elźunia 401 approaching Elźunia s song, we can without difficulty agree that conditions one and two are met. Her suffering is serious and, as a child, she has certainly done nothing to merit death. Condition three, that our possibilities are similar to those of Elźunia, is more difficult, for here we must indeed overcome boundaries not only of religion, ethnicity, and perhaps gender at the least, but also of historical distance and, most important, of the enormous threat to self that results if our possibilities are similar to those of Elźunia, if we, like her, could possibly die a senseless, violent death. As Lawrence Langer notes, the American mind [...] nurtures a psychology of mental comfort that discourages encounters with tragedy (Preempting 63). Compassion, then, extends the boundaries of a self and seeks to comprehend the other, in both senses of the word: to understand and to include. It does not take over, obliterate, appropriate, or annihilate the other. Because the self and the other are clearly and consciously held to be separate, compassion is not a form of surrogate victimage of the sort that LaCapra seeks to avoid. Nor is it cheap or easy. Difficult to cultivate, compassion is a courageous act of imagination that unfolds slowly, requiring time and space for contemplation. And it is precisely the sensitive, imaginative act of compassion that we hope to inculcate in our students. French survivor Charlotte Delbo asks us to engage in this sort of imagining. In her memoir None of Us Will Return, she sets brutal images of events in Birkenau on half-empty pages and asks us to Try to look. Just try and see (84 86). Elie Wiesel, in attempting to explain language s limited ability to conjure the events of the Holocaust, likewise acknowledges the need to force man to look (Kingdom 15). Similarly, Gideon Hauser, chief organizer of the Adolf Eichman trial, chose to make events of the Holocaust concrete by having them narrated by a succession of witnesses. In this way, Hauser hoped that events would be tangible enough to be visualized (qtd. in Wieviorka 69). Scholars concerned with over-identification may find problematic these pleas to imagine scenes of violence. 9 Yet imagining the violence that befell the victims, in the service of compassion, is precisely what Delbo, Wiesel, and Hauser ask that we do: look and imagine, even if finally we do not succeed in this task. The blank space surrounding Delbo s words, just mentioned, becomes a kind of screen onto which we
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