Sunday, December 11, 2011
"Rupture & Continuity"
To give my friends and readers a sense of where my studies started, I will quote some entries from my research journal when I was taking the Harvard course in refugee trauma in 2008-2009. It was then that I formulated the first iteration of my research around the theme of “rupture and continuity.”
How does one measure an earthquake which has destroyed all instruments of measurement?
—Jean‑François Lyotard on Auschwitz
(Inspired by the memoir and the film of the same name, "Girl, Interrupted")
Freud referred to rupture as a “breach” (see historian Saul Friedlander’s citation from Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle)
Where is the continuity, despite the rupture?
“Only one thing remained reachable, close and secure amid all losses: language. Yes, language. In spite of everything, it remained secure against loss. But it had to go through its own lack of answers, through terrifying silence, through the thousand darknesses of murderous speech. It went through. It gave me no words for what was happening, but went through it. Went through and could resurface, ‘enriched’ by it all.”
(from “Speech on the Occasion of Receiving the Literature Prize of the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen,” p. 34, in Celan’s Collected Prose, translated by Rosmarie Waldrop, Riverdale-on-Hudson, New York, The Sheep Meadow Press, 1986)
“There is nothing on earth that can prevent a poet from writing, not even the fact that he’s Jewish and German is the language of his poems.”
(from John Felstiner, Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew, 1995, p. 56)
Following Primo Levi, the measured witness, Elsa Morante, the fictionalist, Paul Celan, the inevitable poet, Saul Friedlander, the archaeologist of history, Claude Lanzmann, the intrepid documentarian,
I locate it in language, in narrative, in story, in order (cf. seder in Hebrew)
(Cf. Mark Turner, The Literary Mind)
It is the “message in the bottle” (referencing both Walker Percy and Paul Celan) that locates our distress, finds an address for our plaints and a redress for our wounds.
(Referencing Rilke in “The Notebooks of Laurens Maltids Brigge”)
Is it possible, George Steiner asked, that a culture of learning, of moral discernment, of justice could give way to barbarity?
Yes, it is possible. And we will explore what made it possible.
Steiner’s arrogant claim to priority in posing this question is an empty gesture complicitly echoing exactly what subtends Nazi thought. It is a moral blindness. What he sees as an aporia, a lapse or an exception, is intricately dissected by Giorgio Agamben, as carefully as a pathologist who — as medical black humour goes — knows everything but, alas, too late. Agamben shows us, precisely so that it not be too late, how the state of exception that was Nazi-occupied Europe not become the norm of human life.
Must we reopen the wounds of past generations, pull off the scabs, examine the scars?
Must we have another investigation of the sins of our fathers?
For someone like me—an Italian and European by birth and a Jew by choice, a psychologist and a psychiatrist by training, specializing in trauma—who privileges language and poetry as means of survival, could there be another choice?
My engagement with the European Jewish history, my work as a psychiatrist, and the nourishment of poetry have not exhausted what I want to understand about trauma, so now I turn to the consolation of philosophy as a probe to make sense of the experience of trauma. And, as I hope to demonstrate, it is an affirmation, not a negation. Trauma may open the path to tragedy and loss, it may confront us with absurdity and negation, it may create a rupture in our very sense of history, of life itself, but we who live in the shadow of “that which happened” as Celan refers to the Shoah, have other choices open to us.
Must we, then, revisit this yet again? No, it is not a moral imperative. It is a choice.
It is a positive choice, an affirmation, even in the face of death and of suicide, to imbue life with meaning. Heidegger made his historical choice and Adorno made his pronouncement about poetry after Auschwitz. Celan gave his responses in his poetry and in taking his life. After years of phenomenological epoché, Primo Levi, the measured voice of the Holocaust world, too, came to an abrupt conclusion. This is mine.
(Reference: “Poetry as nourishment” - Osip Mandelstam said that the people need poetry like they need bread.)