Friday, September 14, 2007


In honor of the last day of the Jewish new year (Sept 12-14),a review of The Angel of History (as well as Felman's text Testimony). ***You might want to scroll to the bottom and read the excerpt from the book first, which has the majority of one of the poems I talk about...

In Felman’s Testimony and Forche’s The Angel of History, both authors explore the power of testimony to reevaluate and reconstruct the relationship between the catastrophes of the last century and those who did not directly witness the traumas that constitute our history. Felman argues that testimony, as a literary practice, creates an address for the witness through which a historical experience can exist. She analyzes the poetry of Paul Celan and recordings from the Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies to herald performative testimony as both the annihilation and rehabilitation of language, a process that allows readers to “encounter” the trauma as opposed to reading it as a “statement of” a historical event. Testimonial teaching becomes a pedagogical technique that enables students to “access” the crisis of another’s testimony and through this interfacing, literary culture has the potential to successfully capture and expressive the atrocities of the twentieth century. In The Angel of History, however, Forche questions the capacity for language to act as a redemptive force in enacting historical trauma. Forche describes her poetry as “a gathering of utterances that have lifted away from the earth and wrapped it in the weather of risen words (81).” The poetic devices she utilizes in the poem “The Angel of History” to depict the people involved in traumatizing events, such as the Holocaust and the nuclear bomb, reveal the ambiguous power that language has to articulate the violence that is embedded in and forms our history.

In the first chapter, “Education and Crisis, or the Vicissitudes of Teaching,” Felman examines Celan’s poetry in order to identify how its compositional elements create a successful testimony. Celan bears witness to the trauma of the Holocaust because the breakdown of the language, in such poems as “Todesfuge,” parallels the historical breakdown. Felman asserts that language is incommensurate with trauma, and it is only through a witness’s testimony that loss is experienced while simultaneously gaining awareness that language is all that remains. Thus, to seek the reality of a trauma is to “seek in language what the language had precisely to pass through (29).” The experience is rendered vulnerable and available. In his later poems like “No More Sand Art,” Celan develops is poetic testimony to reinstate the “thou,” a “project of address.” This address reaches the reader over the “historical abyss (37)” caused by the initial fragmentation of language.

Any doubts regarding whether Celan successfully connects with an addressee in his testimony are marginalized by Felman’s enthusiasm for the “real” filmed testimonies of Holocaust survivors, which she perceives as texts, and thus discursive speech acts. Felman asserts that these testimonies allow survivors to “tell the story and be heard, to in fact address the significance of their biography- to address… the suffering, the truth (41).” One male Holocaust survivor her class listened to had never before spoken about his time spent living in a concentration camp. His testimony “bears witness to the fact that he experiences his own decision to speak up as profoundly freeing…an exhilarating, unexpected liberation from his nightmares (46).” As Felman understands it, performative testimony is rehabilitative for the witness while allowing her students to enact with another dimension of history, “bits and pieces of a memory that has been overwhelmed by occurrences that have not settled into understanding…(5).” For Felman, testimonial teachers enable students to access the different testimonies that speak to historical traumas and help them cope with the transformation that occurs when these crises pass through them.

Yet, even the testimony Feldman includes as her “life-testimony” to testimonial teaching does not eliminate the possibility of misinterpreting this performative process. One female holocaust survivor testifies to her incarceration:
…When my brother died in my arms, I said to myself, “I’m going to live.”
I made up my mind to defy Hitler…I really wanted to live, I said to myself,
“I want to live one day after Hitler, one day after the end of the war”…
And [my husband and I] are here to tell you the story (44).

This woman survived and is able to tell her story. Feldman, however, perceives the testimony to be that “she survived in order to give her testimony (44),” which skews the underlying drive this woman had to live for the sake of outliving the war and defying Hitler. By manipulating the witness’s testimony and rendering it historically inaccurate, Felman threatens the very access to testimony she intends to enact for her class.

Forche animates the angel of history that Benjamin describes in “Thesis of the Philosophy of History” to pull from the pile of “wreckage” select voices of witnesses whose testimonies were never recorded while acting as a witness to traumas that now have potential accessibility. Similar to how Felman positions the professor of testimonial teaching as giving students access to a crisis, Forche aligns the poet with the angel as a vehicle through which these lives, memories, and events can be accessed. Yet, the way in which Forche unveils the “single catastrophe” shows that the literary culture we rely on to give access to our past is implicated in the historical inaccuracies that distance us from the very same history. The four sections that compose The Angel of History force us to examine in what ways language can both illuminate and elude the crisis of truth without offering a recuperative solution. While Felman emphasizes how testimony enables witnesses to regain the language and knowledge lost through their trauma, Forche illuminates how language can mute those very testimonies and critiques the capacity for literary culture to convey historical accuracy.

“The Angel of History,” Part I, is a series of eighteen page length poems that predominantly focus on France during and after the Second World War. In the third poem, poetic devices such as word repetition, line breaks, and tense changes bring attention to how language can both convolute and clarify the historical reality of post-war France. The first stanza describes a town called Izieu by introducing pieces of information as though the poet/angel is a nursery school teacher, pointing at the different components of a picture in a book, “This is Izieu during the war, Izieu and the neighboring village of Bregnier-Cordon/ This is a farmhouse in Izieu.” The repetition of “This is” and “Izieu” locates the town during a time frame, locates it geographically near a neighboring village, and locates a specific house within the town to build an aesthetically pastoral, inviting image. The speaker uses the present tense of the verb “to be” in order to draw the reader into the situation so the poem initially seems like it encourages the reader to witness the events as they unfold.

Izieu is “itself a quiet town,” indicating a sense of peace and silence as a standard of normalcy there, like a hamlet removed from the cruelty and chaos of the outside world. The serenity and stillness in the first three lines, however, contrast with the rest of the poem, which unravels the story of how forty-four Jewish children were hidden and forcibly removed. The line break between the next lines, “children were/ hidden successfully for a year in view of the mountain,” shows how suddenly the children’s situation can transform. In line four, the children are nothing out of the ordinary; they simply “were” part of the “quiet” village, near the Rhone. By the fifth line, however, the reader learns that the children “were/ hidden successfully.” The quiet environment of Izieu becomes one of silent, stealthy, precautions and the hushed fear of impending violence the following April brings.

The use of the past tense “were” shows a distance from and end to the situation, that while Izieu “is” intact throughout the war, the children “were” hiding for only a brief period. The rapid change from present to past tense also cuts the reader out of the actual event as if the door to the farmhouse slams in our face. The children “are” not hidden, they “were” hidden and thus, the act of hiding has occurred without the reader. The poet/angel describes the startling lack of an accurate memorial for these children through the description of a plaque that “does not/ mention/ that they were Jewish children hidden April to April in Izieu near Bregnier-Cordon.” Again, the present tense of the plaque’s action (“does not/ menion”) and the past tense of the children’s lives (who “were Jewish”) draw attention to the current status of the plaque and the annihilation of the children. The plaque exemplifies how language, with selective phrasing, has the capacity to mute the witnesses even after death. The three lines relay what is “not” recorded and leave the reader to wonder what relevant information a plaque could hold that still accurately conveys the reason for the trauma these forty-four children endured.

In the last stanza, Forche explores how word choice and line breaks can change one’s understanding of and relationship to a historical event by layering the information line by line. At the end of April:
The children were taken to Poland.
The children were taken to Auschwitz in Poland
singing Vous n’aurez pas L’Alsace et la Lorraine
In a farmhouse still standing in Izieu, le silence de Dieu est Dieu.

Each line contributes to the clarity of a historical moment. The first line only indicates that the children were relocated to Poland. The second line, just by adding “to Auschwitz,” renders the children as victims of the Holocaust. It relates the fact that they “were Jewish” to why they were hidden and eventually taken away to a concentration camp. This approach also illuminates how easy it would be to erase a line and leave out a vital piece of information that affects our historical perspective.

As the children are lead away, they sing in their native language, “You will not have Alsace and Lorraine” (an area in France that is known for its particularly heavy German cultural influence). Their song and the address, “you,” in the song (presumably to the Nazis) is the only line that breaks the silence of the poem. While Felman argues that through poetry, out of the breakdown of language and the creation of a “you,” emerges a “project of address (38)” that is estranging but liberating, Forche implies that these children will lose their voices and liberty at Auschwitz. The final line, “In a farmhouse still standing in Izieu, le silence de Dieu est Dieu,” uses in French the phrase “the silence of God is God” that previously occurred in the poem three times in English. The remaining silence brings to the reader’s attention the absence of the children and the silence that they cannot fill with their native tongue. Thus, there is no addressor or addressee “in a farmhouse still standing.”

The way in which Felman and Forche implicate literary culture in the horror of history seems directly related to how they view the destruction of the last century. While Felman sees the past as being composed of a series of atrocities, Forche, like Benjamin’s angel, perceives continuous devastation. Thus, Felman emphasizes the rehabilitative potential in the literary practice of performative testimony. The witness has the possibility to recover language after it passes through the testimony’s crisis, but to pass through, implies an end to the traumatic event. Through testimonial teaching, she desired her class to witness “the liberating, vital function” of individual Holocaust testimonies and their capacity to “transform themselves in function of the newness of that information (53).” Forche, on the other hand, invites us to question the transitional stage to which Felman refers and asks us to reevaluate it as a continuum of unrecovered language, language caught in the guttural stage of a crisis, of the “risen words.”

For Forche, it seems, the pile of debris can be pillaged for knowledge and even if the weather that wraps the earth is a storm we mistakably call “progress,” words are rising above it. The child has taken the risen words and made “a language ending in the word night.” This line relates to the sentiment of an unnamed voice earlier in the collection who asserts, “It is never night when you die” (Forche, 16). There is a vital, potent quality to the relationship between the language that constitutes memory and the access we can allow children to embrace remembrance. Without giving specific instructions, Forche concludes, “We must try then to send a message ending with the word night” (Forche, 58). While Forche may question what we accept as progress, she successfully directs us to a redemptive force by asking us to retrieve a past that turns “risen words” into a language our children can speak.

Excerpt from The Angel of History:

There are times when the child seems delicate, as if he had not yet crossed into the world. When French was the secret music of the street, the cafe, the train, my own receded and became intimacy and sleep. In the world it was the language of propaganda, the agreed-upon lie, and it bound me to itself, demanding of my life an explanation. When my son was born I became mortal.

Our days at Cape Enrage, a bleached shack of rented rooms and white air. April. At the low tide acres of light, boats abandoned by water. While sleeping, the child vanishes from his life.

Years later, on the boat from Beirut, or before the boat, an hour before, helicopters lifting a white veil of sea. A woman broken into many women.

These boats, forgotten, have no keels. So it is safe for them, and the emptiness beneath them safe.April was here briefly. The breakwater visible, the lighthouse, but no horizon. The music resembled April, the gulls, April, but you weren't walking toward this house. If the child knew words, if it weren't necessary for him to question me with his hands--To have known returning would be like this, that the sea light of April had been your vigilance.

In the night-vaulted corridors of the Hotel-Dieu, a sleepless woman pushes her stretcher along the corridors of the past. Bonjour, madame. Je m'appelle Ellie.

There were trains, and beneath them, laddered fields.

Autumns the fields were deliberately burned by a fire so harmless children ran through it making up a sort of game. Women beat the flames with brooms and blankets, so the fires were said to be under control.

As for the children, they were forbidden to ask about the years before they were born. Yet they burned the fields, yet everything was said to be under control with the single phrase death traffic.

This is Izieu during the war, Izieu and the neighboring village of Bregnier-Cordon. This is a farmhouse in Izieu, Itself a quiet place of stone houses over the Rhone, where between Aprils, forty-four children were hidden successfully for a year in view of the mountains. Until the fields were black and snow fell all night over the little plaque which does not mention that they were Jewish children hidden April to April in Izieu near Bregnier-Cordon.

Comment me vint l'‚criture? Comme un duvet d'oiseau sur ma vitre, en hiver. In every window a blank photograph of their internment.

Within the house, the silence of God. Forty-four bedrolls, forty-four metal cups. And the silence of God is God.

In Pithiviers and Beaune-la-Rolande, in Les Milles, Les Tourelles, Moussac and Aubagne, the silence of God is God.

The children were taken to Poland.

The children were taken to Auschwitz in Poland singing Vous n'aurez pas L'Alsace et la Lorraine. In a farmhouse still standing in Izieu, le silence de Dieu est Dieu.

In the night-vaulted corridors of the Hotel-Dieu it is winter. If a city, ruin, if an animal, hunger. If a grave, anonymous. If a century, this.

Are the present hundred years a long time? But first see whether a hundred years can be present.

We lived in Ste. Monique ward over the main corridor, Ellie and myself, in the Hotel-Dieu on the Place du Parvis Notre Dame. Below us jonquils opened. Ellie was afflicted with scales again, tiny Ellie, at the edge of her bed, peeling her skin from her arm as if it were an opera glove, and weeping cachee, cachee, cachee all during the war.

Barn to barn in the haylight, field to cellar. Winter took one of her sons and her own attempt to silence him, the other.

Le Dieu? Le Dieu est un feu. A psychopath. Le Dieu est feu.

It isn't normal for a mother to outlive her children. It isn't normal that my sons should be dead.

Paris! Oh, how I loathe this city because of its past.

Then you wish to leave Paris?

Mais oui. I wish to leave life, my dear. My parents? Deported. My aunts and uncles? Deported. My friends? All of them deportees.I don't know what became of a single one. How they came to the end. My papers said I was Polish. When the money ran out, we ran. When the Nazis came, we ran. Cachee, cachee, cachee!

The tubercular man offers his cigarette and the snow falls, patiently, across the spring flowers.

My life, triste. Do you understand? This place. No good! France. No good! Germany. No good! Ni l'Union sovi‚tique. Fascists! It is no good.

Then why not leave Paris?

I am Jewish. Do you understand? Alone in a small room on the third floor, always alone . To remain sane, I sing librettos to myself, and German lullabies, can you imagine?

Mein Flugel ist zum Schwung bereit ich kehrte gern zuruck, denn bleib ich auch lebendige Zeit ich hatte wenig Gluck

My husband was a soldier against the Nazis. Resistance. Agir. He wasn't killed in the war. He even returned to me. It was after the war he died. He died of cholera. And the world is worse now than it was then.


Mais oui!

We must wear our slippers and not smoke. We must not go further than the sign NO ADMITTANCE.

No- a little residue of nothing. And admittance, what does it mean? That they are not going to blame themselves for anything. But the deportees, no, there is nothing between the word and those who are not, who do not reviennent . And if language is an arbitrary system, one must not go further than the sign No Admittance in the H“tel-Dieu on the Place du Parvis Notre Dame.

.....continued in book.


Maximum Etc said...

After reading your review, I think both books sound interesting though I'm not sure I'll be reading either one. I wonder if writing about the Holocaust will ever not feel totally overdetermined and/or redundant. The Feldman (sp?) book seemed perhaps the more engaging of the two, if only because it seems to be a work of criticism, rather than another attempt to mine the event for art's sake. When Adorno said that poetry after Auschwitz would be barbarism, he didn't mean that it couldn't or shouldn't be written, which is the most common way he is misunderstood. Rather, he meant that even though it would be barbaric it would still need to be done. On the other hand, he probably didn't count on the emergence of an entire field of literature devoted to nothing but writing not *after* Auschwitz, but *about* it. This opinion, long-held, got me kicked out of many a Hebrew school class in my day, but the next piece of Holocaust literature I read will be Tova Reich's novel.

Julia Cohen said...

Yes, my co-worker once said "The world needs another book about the Holocaust like the world needs another Holocaust." I know what you mean about flooding the market in the sense of paying so much attention to one historical event as opposed to many others that parallel it in its extreme lack of humanity. However, in terms of these two books, Forche spans a century of events and does so with stunning energy where as I feel that Felman, as interesting as her work is, is also self-centered and often misses the larger point about a human experience. I suggest both though, if you have the time.