BRYN MAWR REVIEW OF COMPARATIVE LITERATURE
Volume 1, Number 1 (Summer 1999)
Dominick LaCapra, History and Memory After Auschwitz.
Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1998.
214 pp. ISBN 0801484960.
What is the nature of history and memory following the Holocaust? This question, in countless forms, has occupied scholars and public intellectuals to no end over the past fifty years. From George Steiner's lament on the end of language after Auschwitz to Theodor Adorno's declaration that Auschwitz had eradicated poetry, contemporary recollection takes on a curious form once the horror of Nazi atrocity serves as its backdrop. A before-after demarcation has long settled in the public consciousness, with the post-traumatic impulse of "the after" forever changed by "the before."
It is on this point that Dominick LaCapra sets about examining history and memory in a post-Holocaust age. What does it mean to remember? What is remembered and to what purpose? What is the precise role of forgetting? Though the title betrays LaCapra's own bias - that there is indeed memory and history after Auschwitz - the book itself suggests a far less definitive stance. And it is through the tension surrounding this question - whether or not the memory work of a post-Holocaust age is recognizable as memory work - that the book strikes its most provocative chord.
LaCapra travels a compelling, though uneasy, path between the draws and limitations of Holocaust memory, leaving his readers uncertain about where and whether one should ultimately come to rest. On the one hand, he has crafted a sophisticated and penetrating treatise that skillfully weaves its way through other critics' work on the Holocaust at the same time as it creates its own declarative setting. The main premise of his ongoing conversation with these other voices seems to be one of skepticism, raising fundamental doubts about the ability to remember and the consequent inability to say something important about it. He targets numerous individuals, primary among them Shoshana Felman, Henri Rousso, Peter Novick, and Charles Maier. Each, in his view, has conceptualized Holocaust memory in ways that fail to simultaneously emphasize its boundaries and openings. LaCapra is particularly irked by Felman's defense of Paul de Man, whose evasiveness concerning his early Fascist writings he finds indefensible.
On the other side of the continuum is Claude Lanzmann, whose film Shoah Lacapra positions as a turning point in his own ruminations on the Holocaust. LaCapra delegates similar praise to Art Spiegelman's comic book Maus and Albert Camus' book The Fall. In erudite, though sometimes overly obfuscating prose, History and Memory After Auschwitz displays both LaCapra's versatility and depth as he traverses this wide range of documents connected to the Holocaust. Each constitutes yet another setting in which to consider memory work. Only the chapter on the Historikerstreit, the Historian's Debate in Germany of the 1980s, seems somewhat oddly out of place and dated for its insistence on selecting a prior conversation as if it had the same resonance today as it had when the debate was raging.
Similarly, there are curious omissions from a book attempting to provide a contemporary statement about Holocaust memory in 1998. Where are the somewhat volatile conversations that took place in the last few years over Daniel Goldhagen's book or the still-ongoing skepticism raised by Benjamin Wilkomirski's 1996 memoir Fragments? Where is the current debate on reparations and Swiss banks? Where is the most recent scholarship that provides less of a thematic perspective on the Holocaust and more of a grounded analysis of specific memory vehicles, such as art, photography, or literature?
The book offers no pat solution to the question of Holocaust memory as memory; neither does it prompt the reader to find one. Perhaps due to the psychoanalytical bent of many of LaCapra's observations, History and Memory After Auschwitz leaves the reader with a probing sense of the difficulties that surround the very act of remembering the Holocaust. Concerned primarily with the generations of individuals who did not experience Nazi horror directly yet who have lived with its memory all their lives, the book launches a thoughtful probe into some of the ensuing problematics. And in so doing, LaCapra suggests that memory work is at its core contradictory. It is with this less than satisfying, though correct, admission that we are left to consider the chronological template he sets up in the book's title.
For one of the most telling comments is contained in LaCapra's own introductory remarks. And I quote:
the word 'after' in the title to this book does not have a merely chronological meaning. Things changed because of the Shoah, and even events that occurred before it (including, say, texts of Heidegger or Nietzsche) could not be understood or "read" in the same way. Without becoming a telos of prior history, the Holocaust had retrospective effects and prompted belated recognitions that posed new aspects of history that earlier had a different face. (p. 6)
LaCapra's admission, that memory work even succeeds against the grain of temporal progression, is key to understanding the power with which memory and history proceed. And in History and Memory After Auschwitz, he displays that paradox in compelling detail.