All entries for Sunday 18 December 2005

December 18, 2005

Research: The Language of Silence: West German Literature and the Holocaust by Ernestine Schlant

Schlant’s Introduction and Discussion of Silence
(See pages 1-20 of the above book)

This book has some interesting ideas about silence which relate to my research. I am particularly interested in its ideas concerning the silences of trauma. This may relate to a chapter of my thesis that I am writing on the Welsh poet, Pascale Petit, and the silences in her poetry concerning family trauma.

Schlant opens by quoting Ise Aichinger and Jean –Francois Lyotard:

Perhaps I write because I see no better way to be silent. (1)

There are many kinds of silence and many ways to be silent … Silence … speaks and is as risky as speech. (1)

Both of these quotations appeal to me in my analysis of how Welsh women poets use ‘silence’. In both quotations, silence is treated as a paradoxical entity which implies both an absence and presence of speech.
Schlant’s actual analysis begins with a description of the Grunewald monument in Berlin to those deported from Grunewald station to die at Auschwitz. Schlant explains that the outline of human figures is cut into the walls and here she makes an important point: ‘The figures themselves are nonexistent; it is the surrounding cement that makes their absence visible’ (1). Schlant’s example links to the epigraphs for her essay in that an absence has become a presence. This is a very important concept in my research. I hope to prove that although Tillie Olsen et al have argued for the restrictive nature of silence for women writers, silence can become speech, absence can become a presence.
Schlant relates these ideas to West German literature and its approach to the trauma of the Holocaust and Schlant has some interesting points to make about the specific kind of silence utilised here:

Yet this silence is not a universal, monolithic emptiness. A great variety of narrative strategies have delineated and broken these contours, in a contradictory endeavor to keep silent about silence and simultaneously make it resonate. (1)

Schlant explains that her aim is to convince the reader of how silence can be multiple and so can the motives behind such a strategy.
At this point Schlant begins to talk specifically about the Holocaust and the denial of knowledge or silence that was needed in order for a nation to endure without destroying itself with grief and guilt. Schlant explains that her definition of the Holocaust includes not only the death and extermination of millions of people but also the mechanism put in place by the Nazis to exterminate and hunt down those considered to be sub-human. Schlant uses Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi’s term, univers concentrationnaire which refers not only to the confines of the death camps, but also to the psychological geography of a subject who is being systematically hunted down and condemned to death. Sclant’s objective is to discover the blind spots, the silences that hang over the past concentrationary universe.
Schlant defends her decision to concentrate on the silences in literature via these interesting comments on literature and silence:

Literature lays bare a people’s dreams and nightmares, its hopes and apprehensions, its moral positions and its failures. It reveals even where it is silent; its blind spots and its absences speak a language stripped of conscious agendas. (3)

Here Schlant simultaneously makes a claim for literature as a carrier of zeitgeist whilst wading into the territory of the unconscious in relation to the writer’s mind. This may seem a little muddy at first, yet we will begin to understand Schlant’s shift in perspective later when she talks of the nation and the individual. It is sufficient to say that Schlant is interested in the unspoken presence of complex visions, feelings and positions. Schlant uses Terry Eagleton’s discussion the ‘subtext’ and ‘blindness’ to explicate her thought about ‘unconsciously held assumptions’. (3)
After defining the specific type of novels to be analysed – prose fiction of West Germany written in the postwar period – Schlant begins a section entitled ‘The Different Kinds of Silence’. She writes:

Silence is not a semantic void; like any language, it is infused with narrative strategies that carry ideologies and reveal unstated assumptions. Silence is constituted by the absence of words but is therefore and simultaneously the presence of their absence. (7)

Again the paradoxical nature of silence is emphasised. (In a note, Schlant acknowledges that this point is developed from the work of Peter Haidu in ‘The Dialectic of Unspeakability’.)
Schlant notes that Hamida Bosmajian in Metaphors of Evil defines silence in two categories: one is created by ‘too much knowledge’ and the other comes from ‘a refusal to become aware’ – ‘the escape into which memory and guilt are repressed’ (7). Schlant shows that although one is ready to fit the perpetrators of the Holocaust into the first category and the victims into the second category, the relationship is actually much more complex: ‘the perpetrators kept silent because they had “too much knowledge” and [...] many victims, in an effort to survive after the Holocaust, took refuge in a “refusal to become aware to the atrocities’ (7). Schlant suggests that another comparison could be made between the ‘silence of the Holocaust and the silence about the Holocaust’ (7). The second category is the concern of Schlant’s book.
Schlant now talks of views on whether literature is an appropriate vehicle for expression and remembrance quoting Theodor Adorno who said that ‘to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’ (8). She interprets Adorno’s maxim in relation to other quotations from his work:

The question…’Does living have any meaning when men exist who beat you until your bones break?’ is also the question whether art as such should exist at all’. (8)

The so called artistic rendering of the naked physical pain of those who were beaten down with rifle butts contains however distantly, the possibility that pleasure can be squeezed from it. (8)

Schlant also quotes Michael Wyschogrod:

I firmly believe that art is not appropriate to the holocaust. Art takes the sting out of suffering…It is therefore forbidden to make fiction of the holocaust. Any attempt to transform the holocaust into art demeans the holocaust and must result in poor art. (8)

The point seems to be that there are some events that are unspeakable, over which silence must hang like a shroud or a veil. I wonder if this relates to feminist issues and to acts of transgression against women in art. Obviously, the Holocaust is a tragedy on an epic scale, yet in the same way, there is debate over whether ‘unspeakable’ acts should be expressed or veiled. I relate this to the unspeakable trauma of Pascale Petit’s poetry.
Schlant turns to Lawrence Langer who argues with the claims above. Langer asserts that literature has the potential to transport the reader into ‘the work of the grotesque, the senseless and the unimaginable, to such a degree that the possibility of aesthetic pleasure as Adorno conceives of it is intrinsically eliminated’ (8). Langer also deflects the claim that Holocaust literature would impose order on a chaos without meaning stating with implicit trust in the artist that it would depend on how the material was treated. Schlant recognises a tendency towards ‘transfiguration’ here – a desire to redefine art, humanity and the world. Schlant notes that later Adorno took back his earlier statement and wrote that ‘The enduring suffering has as much right to expression as does the tortured man to scream; therefore it may have been wrong that after Auchwitz poetry could no longer be written’ (9).
Next Schlant turns to problems of language: silence and specchlessness. She notes George Steiner’s point that the Holocaust is outside reason and speech: ‘To speak of the unspeakable is to risk the survival of language as creator and bearer of humane rational truth’ (9). Schlant is not convinced by Steiner’s desire not to contaminate language describing the resultant discourse as ‘a censored language [...] on the road to becoming as barbaric as any of the manipulated languages of totalitarian regimes’ (9).


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