Holocaust Memory in Contemporary Narratives: Towards a Theory of Transgenerational Empathy
Ward, Lewis Henry
Thesis or dissertation
University of Exeter
What is the relationship between writing in the present and the traumatic historical events that form the subject of that writing? What narrative strategies do authors employ in order to negotiate the ethical and epistemological problems raised by this gap in time and experience? “Trauma theory” is undermined by clinical controversies and contradictory claims for “literal truth” and “incomprehensibility”. Similarly, the Holocaust has been considered inherently unrepresentable unless by those who witnessed it, leading to a false opposition between genres of “testimony” and “fiction”. A way out of these dead ends is to consider the role of the first-person narrator in contemporary Holocaust narratives. While use of this device risks an inappropriate level of identification with those whose experience is both extreme and unknowable, I argue that this problem may be resolved to an extent through “transgenerational empathy”, an approach to the past that is self-reflexive, incorporates ideas of time, memory and generations, and moves both towards and away from the victims of the past in a simultaneous gesture of proximity and distance. For this theory I draw on Dominick LaCapra’s definitions of empathy and “empathic unsettlement”, and on Hans-Georg Gadamer’s concept of the “fusion of horizons” between past and present. Transgenerational empathy involves giving equal weight to “memory” and “history”. An over-emphasis on memory leads to narratives that are merely identificatory, such as Anne Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces and Binjamin Wilkomirski’s Fragments. In contrast, W. G. Sebald’s use of a narrative persona in The Emigrants and Austerlitz enables transgenerational empathy in narrative by simultaneously imposing layers of distance while establishing close personal connection. Similarly, Jonathan Safran Foer’s third-generation aesthetic of “post-postmemory” in Everything is Illuminated uses a “dual persona” device to foreground empathically the abyss at the heart of any attempt to recapture the past. My analysis of these authors draws on the writings of Gillian Rose, Paul Ricoeur, Marianne Hirsch and Jacques Derrida. However, the concept of “transgenerational empathy” would benefit from further research, both in terms of its “temporal dimension” and the use of narrative personae by other contemporary authors such as Philip Roth.
PhD in English