Palimpsestic Memory
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Palimpsestic Memory

The Holocaust and Colonialism in French and Francophone Fiction and Film

Max Silverman

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eBook - ePub

Palimpsestic Memory

The Holocaust and Colonialism in French and Francophone Fiction and Film

Max Silverman

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About This Book

The interconnections between histories and memories of the Holocaust, colonialism and extreme violence in post-war French and Francophone fiction and film provide the central focus of this book. It proposes a new model of 'palimpsestic memory', which the author defines as the condensation of different spatio-temporal traces, to describe these interconnections and defines the poetics and the politics of this composite form. In doing so it is argued that a poetics dependent on tropes and techniques, such as metaphor, allegory and montage, establishes connections across space and time which oblige us to perceive cultural memory not in terms of its singular attachment to a particular event or bound to specific ethno-cultural or national communities but as a dynamic process of transfer between different moments of racialized violence and between different cultural communities. The structure of the book allows for both the theoretical elaboration of this paradigm for cultural memory and individual case-studies of novels and films.

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Information

Year
2013
ISBN
9780857458841
Edition
1

Chapter 1

THE POLITICS AND POETICS OF MEMORY


The Concentrationary Universe and Total Domination
In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, the study of the camps by the political deportee David Rousset entitled L’Univers concentrationnaire was, above all, a warning to ‘normal’ men and women that now ‘everything is possible’ (‘tout est possible’).1 The limits that had circumscribed the human had been destroyed by the Nazi experiment of total domination. Rousset exhorts us to integrate this knowledge into our understanding of the human, however unbelievable that knowledge might appear. For, once unleashed on the world, and despite the defeat of its Nazi incarnation, the concentrationary universe will reappear unless we are permanently vigilant. Rousset’s call for a new understanding of the relationship between the normal and the unimaginable is therefore premised on the belief that the concentrationary universe is profoundly connected to the world outside the camps rather than isolated from it. As he says at the end of his essay:
it would be easy to show that the most characteristic traits of both the SS mentality and the social conditions which gave rise to the Third Reich are to be found in many sectors of world society …. It would be blindness – and criminal blindness, at that – to believe that, by reason of any difference of national temperament, it would be impossible for any other country to try a similar experiment. Germany interpreted, with an originality in keeping with her history, the crisis that led her to the concentrationary universe. But the existence and the mechanism of that crisis were inherent in the economic and social foundations of capitalism and imperialism. Under a new guise, similar effects may reappear tomorrow. There remains therefore a very specific war to be waged. The lessons learned from the concentration camps provide a marvellous arsenal for that war.2
For Rousset, the analogical potential of the unimaginable experiment designed to eradicate whole peoples (the word ‘analogue’ appears twice in the above passage in the original French) stems from the fact that it has its roots in the familiar soil of capitalism and imperialism. Rousset’s contention that one must see, at one and the same time, the interconnections between the concentrationary universe and the outside world and understand the absolute novelty of an experiment which means that now (as never before) ‘everything is possible’ might seem paradoxical, even contradictory. One of the fascinating features of Rousset’s work is, precisely, the perception of a new monster produced from old ingredients, and the search for (pre-existing) words and images to define an unknown world. We know how this tension between the known and the unknown (which his fellow deportee Robert Antelme describes as ‘[t]his disproportion between the experience we had lived through and the account we were able to give of it’)3 will be at the heart of much survivor testimony and critical work on the representation of the Holocaust. Rousset’s own attempt in L’Univers concentrationnaire to find a language adequate to the task includes a mixture of Marxist analysis, biblical references and surrealist imagery. What this shows is that intertextual references and the location of the roots of the concentrationary universe in the soil of capitalism and imperialism are an inevitable part of the attempt to define the novelty of the experience. In the same chapter in which Rousset says ‘[i]t is a universe apart, totally cut off, the weird kingdom of an unlikely fatality’ he uses an imagery derived from the slave trade to try to conjure up the experience (‘the slave market’, ‘Kapos and Vorarbeiter, slave traders’).4 The resources for defining the indefinable have to be sought in the familiar but stretched so that they no longer resemble what we already know.
Rousset’s writings on the concentrationary universe (and those of other political deportees to the camps) were a major inspiration for Hannah Arendt’s understanding of totalitarian rule expressed in The Origins of Totalitarianism. Arendt takes from Rousset the lesson that ‘everything is possible’ and that this marks the absolute novelty of totalitarian rule, despite a pre-history of violence and massacre which comprises ‘the extermination of native peoples’, slavery and even the concentration camps in South Africa and India earlier in the twentieth century.5 However, like Rousset’s L’Univers concentrationnaire, Arendt’s text also demonstrates (if only implicitly) a profound tension between the novelty, unimaginable nature and unique quality of the Nazi camps and the more familiar political landscape from which they have sprung. For example, Arendt challenges the ‘isolation’ of the camps which creates the illusion that they are distinct from the surrounding context. Instead, she maintains, the camps are ‘the guiding social ideal of total domination in general’ and can only be understood as such if we see them in terms of their relations with the surrounding context:
the experiment of ‘total domination’ in the concentration camps depends on sealing off the latter against the world of all others, the world of the living in general, even against the outside world of a country under totalitarian rule. This isolation explains the peculiar unreality and lack of credibility that characterize all reports from the concentration camps and constitute one of the main difficulties for the true understanding of totalitarian domination, which stands or falls with the existence of these concentration and extermination camps; for unlikely as it may sound, these camps are the true central institution of totalitarian organizational power.6
Arendt’s whole argument in the book – which locates the origins of totalitarianism in capitalism, the rise of the modern nation-state (and, with it, ‘stateless’ people), imperialism and anti-semitism – could be said to be in tension with the idea of the absolute novelty of totalitarian rule. Yet, as with Rousset, rather than see this as a contradiction, we should note instead the anxious relationship at play in the text between the unique and the interconnected, similarity and difference, and repetition and singularity. A crucial aspect of the works of both Rousset and Arendt is their attempt to defamiliarize the banality of the everyday to show the persistence of unimaginable horror and a radical reshaping of the idea of the human in post-war life; hence, to appeal to our slumbering consciousness by exposing the ‘hidden potential of the so-called “normal” world’ (‘potentialité cachée du monde dit “normal”’),7 and the overlap between apparently ‘different’ worlds. Much of the discussion in this book will be situated in this disturbing ‘in-between’ zone between horror and the everyday, between camps and non-camps, and between apparently ‘different’ spatio-temporal sites. What, more recently, has been framed in terms of an opposition between the notion of the uniqueness of the Holocaust, on the one hand, and its emergence from rationalizing modernity, on the other, is presented by Rousset and Arendt in more ambivalent terms. As I shall later argue, the difference between the concentrationary universe (and system of total domination that it represents) and the more recent focus on the specificity of the Holocaust is that the former, by its very nature, requires an analysis based on connections across space and time to show the general nature of the transformation of the idea of the human, whereas the latter presents the extreme horror of the event as an isolated experiment related to specific racialized targets. The ‘analogical’ approach by Rousset and the intersections between the concentration camps, imperialism and modern racial science perceived by Arendt open out the space of ‘total domination’ onto the ‘normal’ world and provide us with a model for understanding memory and history across sites of violence.
The Politics of Memory: Between the Holocaust and Colonialism
The responses by Rousset and Arendt to the concentrationary universe and the experiment of ‘total domination’ are indicative of a more general attempt, in the immediate post-war period, to relate the camps to the broader history of human subjection in the modern world. Capitalism, imperialism, the rise of the modern nation-state and racial theory were interconnected processes responsible, according to Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, for the production of ‘interchangeable’ victims, ‘Frenchman, Negro, or Jew’.8 Anti-colonial theorists and activists of the time understood this only too well. In his Discours sur le colonialisme, Aimé Césaire states provocatively that Hitler’s real crime, in the eyes of the European humanist, ‘is not the crime in itself, the crime against man, it is not the humiliation of man as such, it is the crime against the white man, the humiliation of the white man, and the fact that he applied to Europe colonialist procedures which until then had been reserved exclusively for the Arabs of Algeria, the “coolies” of India and the “niggers” of Africa’.9 Césaire’s influence on Frantz Fanon is evident in Fanon’s understanding of Nazism as ‘the apparition of “European colonies”, in other words, the institution of a colonial system in the very heart of Europe’.10 Fanon’s theorization of anti-Black colonial racism in Peau noire, masques blancs is largely based on Sartre’s model of anti-semitism in Réflexions sur la question juive, while the Jewish Tunisian anti-colonial writer Albert Memmi (also profoundly influenced by Sartre) applied the same analytical model of domination to the situation of the colonized under colonialism and that of the Jew in non-Jewish society.11
These analogies and borrowings should not surprise us given the interconnectedness of those struggling to come to terms with the catastrophe of the Second World War, the barbarity of colonialism and news about the Soviet camps in the immediate post-war period. Although it does not treat colonial violence, Simone de Beauvoir’s Les Mandarins, published in 1954, deals with the passionate debates in France after the war about the connections between different camps, especially the Nazi concentration camps and the camps of the Soviet gulag. Rousset himself was bitterly denounced by communists for using his experience as a political deportee in Buchenwald as the reason for condemning the camps in the Soviet Union. As Tzvetan Todorov observes,
in making concern for the other the priority, [Rousset] chooses to transform past experience into a reason for acting in the present, in a new situation in which he is not the central character and can only understand through analogy or from the outside.12
Todorov draws attention to others who used one experience in exemplary fashion to denounce another, be it analogies between the Nazi and Soviet camps (Vassily Grossman), or between anti-semitism and slavery (André Schwarz-Bart).13 In a short article on the publication in 1950 of Jean Cayrol’s Lazare parmi nous (see chapter 2), Maurice Blanchot relates Cayrol’s experience of the Nazi concentration camps to that of victims of the Soviet gulag.14Le concentrationnat’ was a term used at the time to describe the camp system in general.
Analogies, transfers, interconnections and intertextual borrowings particularly abound during the Algerian War of Independence. The extraordinary career of Maurice Papon as collaborationist bureaucrat, colonial administrator and Paris police chief demonstrates the ways in which the same administrative practices of surveillance, classification, round-up, deportation and violence were developed and applied in different contexts, circulating freely between France and the colonies and between the Nazi and colonial eras.15 Studies of the Algerian War often note the frequent references to and analogies with the ‘dark years’ (années noires) by metropolitan politicians and intellectuals of all persuasions. For some, this is a classic case of what Freud defined as ‘screen memory’, whereby one memory is really a screen hiding another. In his celebrated book Le Syndrôme de Vichy on the belated reappearance of discussion of the Vichy era in France, Henry Rousso shows how the events in Algeria during the 1950s were frequently understood by French observers in terms of the occupation of France, resistance, and the struggle for national liberation during the war. He sees this as an anachronism whose effect is to ‘evacuate’ the true ‘memorial dimension’ of both events. He concludes that ‘the Algerian War, seen from the metropolis, is therefore really just a replay of the Franco-French War’.16 Philip Dine has developed this approach to argue that French fiction and film which deals with the Algerian War of Independence through the lens of the Liberation ‘must ultimately be reckoned a reduction, and thus part of a wider occultation of the radical ideological challenge of militant colonial nationalism’.17 Seen in this light, the constant association by Sartre and others on the Left between colonialism and fascism and between French army torture in Algeria and German torture during the war (‘[c]olonialism there, fascism here: one and the same thing’),18 and allegorical works like Sartre’s Les Séquestrés d’Altona would then appear to be well-intentioned indictments of racialized violence in the colonial situation but, ultimately, denials of the specificity of the Algerian War, in Dine’s words instances of ‘the limitations of the francocentric perspective, even in its most apparently sympathetic and committed forms’.19 Dominic LaCapra’s reading of Camus’s La Chute is also in terms of a screen memory that effaces the specificity of Algeria:
Camus’s turn to the Holocaust in The Fall … may function to obscure or displace interest in a more recent series of events: the Algerian war and its troubled aftermath in Franco-Algerian relations … . Indeed the attention paid to earlier events may even serve as a screen to conce...

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