Rachel Rosenblum


Distancing Emotion

Surviving the Account of Catastrophe




The Silence of Mrs. Grossbard

In Daniel Mendelsohn‘s book The Lost the author tries to convince Mrs. Grossbard, a survivor of massacres that took place sixty years earlier in the little Ukrainian town of Bolechow, to help him reconstitute what happened to six members of his own family who disappeared during the Shoah, and whose traces were lost. Mrs. Grossbard is reluctant to talk. "What's the use?" she says. "Nobody knows, nobody cares. It will all die with us anyway." Yet, because he is on the phone rather than facing Mrs. Grossbard, Mendelsohn summons the courage to be persistent. "It will only die if you don't talk to us," he pleads. Mrs Grossbard finally accepts an interview, but sets a number of conditions. "First, she wouldn't discuss anything about the war because it was too painful. You know, she said, I never discuss anything about the holocaust ... I can't bring myself to go through it." Then "she preferred not to talk about her own life at all, and would only entertain general questions about life in Bolechow during the prewar years, during her childhood and early adolescence." Third, "If she did, for whatever reason, mention anything about experiences she herself had undergone during the war, they were to be considered off the record."[1]

One is intrigued by the systematic reluctance of Mrs. Grossbard at the idea of telling what happened during the war, and more specifically, what happened to her. One wonders about her requirement that any personal element that she might inadvertently disclose be kept off record. Why is she afraid of bearing witness, and, even more so, of bearing public witness? Why is she so determined not to say anything that directly concerns her family or herself? What is really at stake in this apparently absurd mutism? Is Mrs. Grossbard merely eccentric when she chooses to withhold her narrative? Mrs. Grossbard‘s unbending resistance to bearing witness is shared by many survivors of the Shoah and of numberless other historical catastrophes. But it is also present in those who, unlike the old lady, have chosen to speak out, to bear witness. Such witnesses are often writers. They address large audiences.

This makes it even more paradoxical to find a desire not to tell nested at the very heart of their writing. This paper intends to show that even the most explicit, the most eloquent witnesses of the Shoah are caught up in a battle between speaking out and not speaking at all. When they speak, no matter how sincerely, they rely-more subtly, but no less stubbornly than Mrs. Grossbard-on various strategies of reticence, on various delaying tactics; on various modes of distancing. Unlike Mrs. Grossbard, they volunteer to tell their story. Yet, like Mrs. Grossbard, they do all they can to keep their emotions at bay.

Why? This article is about what those who bear witness share with those who keep silent. It is about the dangers that threaten both. Some confront such dangers out of a feeling of duty: those who survived feel required to testify. Others avoid them in the fear of psychic collapse. Is such a collapse the price to be paid when one chooses to confront the formidable danger of telling? But is there no price to pay when one chooses the grim alternative of silence? Of course, those who tell the "ghastly tale" often imagine they will succeed in doing so without paying the full price. Are they fooling themselves? Can one become a witness at a bargain?[2]

The Suffocating Air of Writing

The great catastrophes of history can be recognized through the paralyzed silence that they leave in their wake, a silence that frequently is broken only to make way for the falsifications of memory. Between silence and falsification, a third path may be opened. For those who are capable of it, this path involves saying what happened, writing in the first person. This third possibility is that of public testimony. It allows an unspeakable truth to erupt onto the social scene, hopefully with a cathartic function. The author of the testimony would in this way be unburdening himself or herself of a horror too heavy to bear. Once put into words, suffering would be shared. It is the virtue of such a sharing that is discussed here, its power to grant peace. One may doubt this power. Apart from the fact that it is accessible only to subjects capable of writing, the path of writing may prove to be a perilous one. One can choke from the fact that certain things have never been said. But one can also suffer from the fact that they have been "badly" said, "badly" heard, "badly" received. There would be good and bad ways of testifying, good and bad interlocutors, writings that save you and writings that prove risky. The latter are not only a matter of "bad" telling. Indeed, one may suffer from the mere fact that certain things were uttered at all. The very process of remembering them can in many instances be lethal. Instead of ridding their authors of the horror, some texts do nothing but hurl them headlong into it. Some texts, but not all. As long as the narratives remain distant from the trauma, they seem to fulfill a vital function. They allow their authors to "bear the unbearable," to "think so as not to die." They allow the writer to hold on. But the writing of oneself can also bring an individual closer to the scalding moments of childhood, can lead to a public display of the ambivalence felt for other victims, can rekindle shame and guilt. What happens then? Can one die from speaking about the catastrophe? Is the choice of disclosure, with all it brings in the way of return of affect, necessarily to be seen as a fatal turning point?[3] It is this relationship to death and writing that I wish to examine in regard to certain survivors who seem to have been carried off, swept away, destroyed by the violence of the narrative they bore within them. Sarah Kofman killed herself. Primo Levi jumped into the void. Of course, one might deny the existence of any direct relation between the process in the course of which a certain number of unbearable feelings came into the public domain and the death of those who felt and expressed those feelings. After all, Primo Levi was getting old, and Sarah Kofman was very ill. One could think of many other explanations for their respective deaths. The historical trauma they endured is perhaps a mask for other less grandiose pains. A doubt remains.

For example, one may wonder why the poet Paul Celan took his own life. When it was a question of speaking about Auschwitz, he was the only one, says George Steiner, who was not at a loss for words. Paul Celan found the right words and he found them in the language of the murderers. Yet despite having found these words, Paul Celan committed suicide in Paris in 1970, at the height of his powers, a victim of "overwhelming desolation." What did this overwhelming desolation consist of? Did it have any connection to the process of remembering?

Several writers who returned from deportation tried to answer this question. Jorge Semprun is quite explicit about the deadly power of writing. Certain themes, he warns, cannot be embarked upon with impunity. As he remarks in a book significantly entitled Literature or Life, there are times when a choice has to be made: to live or to write. "A choice has to be made between the murmuring silence of life and the ‘murderous' exercise of writing ... Writing plunged me back into death, submerged me in it. I was choking on the suffocating air of my drafts. I failed in my attempt to say death so as to reduce it to silence. If I had continued, it would probably have been death which would have silenced me."[4]

Semprun opted for a "voluntary amnesia," an amnesia consisting of "becoming an other in order to remain oneself," of changing his topic in order to remain alive. He could not recount the horror "except at excessive cost, at the cost of my own survival, in a manner of speaking, since writing ceaselessly leads me back into the aridity of a deathly experience."[5] Yet Semprun managed to write and also to survive. Does this mean that in some cases one can speak the catastrophe without being once again caught in it?[6] But how to speak it? And to whom? In other words, are there "good narratives," narratives that a person can tell and yet survive?

These questions are addressed to every one of us, but particularly to psychoanalysts. For it falls to psychoanalysts to modulate speech through listening, to preserve the possibility of an elaboration in the face of horror. In order to better understand the conditions in which such an elaboration is possible, or ceases being so, let us turn to two narratives that were both successful and unsuccessful. Let us turn to the witnessing done by Primo Levi and Sarah Kofman. Let us situate these two testimonies in the respective biographies of their authors.

Primo Levi

Surviving through Writing?

Primo Levi died by throwing himself into the stairwell of his apartment building in Turin on April 11, 1987, the anniversary of the liberation of Buchenwald. Paradoxically, this suicide came after a life that gave the appearance of a serene creativity. This creativity can seem miraculous when one knows that this Italian writer, born in 1919, lived his early adult years in Auschwitz where he was interned at the age of twenty-four, and that he only managed to escape extermination due to being employed as a chemist in the camp's IG Farben factory.

Often offered as an example, Primo Levi's career allows us to believe that testimony is a remedy against horror. Like St. George defeating the dragon, Levi would stand as proof to unbelievers that narrative can overcome trauma. He incarnates a utopia that we would like to be true: writing heals, allows one to survive. Primo Levi himself did not hesitate to discuss his writing as an attempt at being normal, as a means of escaping the status of "sacred," as a means of snatching himself away from a deathly fascination. "In writing," he said, "I found scraps of peace again, I became a man again: a man among others, neither martyr, nor monster, nor saint. One of those men who start a family and look towards the future as much as towards the past." Primo Levi lucidly underlines the therapeutic dimension of his writing. If he narrates, it is not always in the name of those who disappeared. It is, on the contrary, so that he may be at last delivered from them. "I would be unable to say if we do it (if we testify) through some sort of moral obligation towards those who have remained silent or, on the contrary, in order to free ourselves from their memory. What is certain is that we are obeying a powerful and lasting impulse."[7]

The impulse is powerful, but its protective power is less lasting than it may appear to be. This power seems to get worn away. In fact, a moment comes when Levi's writing stops being protective. But is it in fact the same writing? Does not this writer from Turin use different and even opposite styles? If Levi could survive thanks to his power to write, did he not jump into the void a victim of that same power? Perhaps one can read his works as an odyssey of sorts, a coming back to the experience of the camps after years of turning away and distancing himself from this frightening "Ithaca." This detour led Levi to transform himself temporarily into a science fiction writer with Storie naturale (published under a pseudonym in 1966) and Vizio di forma (1971). It is by means of his style that Primo Levi distanced himself. This is characteristic of his way of writing and he openly lays claim to it.

A Rationalist Aesthetic

Time and again, Primo Levi positions himself against writing styles that cultivate obscurity. He also rejects writings that are above all confessional or expressive in nature. Levi entertains pedagogical ambitions: writing is meant to get rid of ambiguity. The story he tells may well be of horror. He nevertheless wants to tell it clearly, analytically, in an almost clinical style. Hence, his portrayal of the experience of the camps is all the more powerful for having the pathos removed from it. But, without pathos, is it a true portrayal? Primo Levi seemed to think not, since at a certain point he felt the need to open himself up to writing that was much less controlled, to adopt a powerfully expressive style. But, while this shift (from essayist-chronicler to poet) was taking place, Levi's depression was getting worse. Eventually, the writer met an "accidental" death from falling down a stairwell. Whether the shift was a cause or a consequence of his depression is a matter for debate. But in either case, this tragedy calls for an examination of Levi's professed aesthetic. Was this aesthetic solely the result of an intellectual choice, a token of fidelity to an ideal embodied by the encyclopedists? Was it rather the outcome of a protective strategy? Was it the voluntary adoption of a mode of expression, or a form of censorship dictated by anguish, a means of distancing horror, a fear that his death proved to be justified? Let us just note the obsessive presence at the heart of Levi's writing, of certain texts by other writers. Illustrating everything he actively rejects, these texts punctuate his work, like so many monuments or beacons. Where do these beacons lead?

A Haunted Writing: The Ghost of the Ancient Mariner

"Since then, at an uncertain hour,
That agony returns;
And till my ghastly tale is told,
This heart within me burns."

This quotation is from Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It is in fact extracted from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, from a verse that is, precisely, devoted to an account of the experience of horror. "At an uncertain hour," "Ad ora incerta": these words are also the first words of Levi's poem "The Survivor" (February 4, 1984). Ad ora incerta was, additionally, the title that Primo Levi gave to a collection of poems published by Garzanti in 1984. These lines from Coleridge figure again as an epigraph to The Drowned and the Saved, published by Einaudi in 1986. They crop up once more in The periodic table and are additionally taken up in the interviews that Primo Levi gave to Nuova Italia (1981), La Stampa (1986), and Partisan Review (1987). These lines thus become a sort of emblem, a visiting card. As his life proceeds, Primo Levi becomes aware of just how much he has in common with Coleridge's ancient mariner. Does this deliberate self-presentation reflect a desire to confess? Or is it rather an identity-armour, a protective camouflage? In fact, it seems to be both. On the one hand, it allows an unbearable affect to be held at a distance. On the other hand, it heralds the reawakening or the return of the atrocious experience. Traversing the work of Primo Levi like its linking theme, it delays but also makes inevitable the explicit realization that dawns in his last writings.

Levi would like to be unaware of the way in which the suffering and death of his companions are inscribed within him. Yet his emblematic poem proclaims what he himself wishes to silence. The ancient mariner did indeed survive, but he is nothing but an echo of the suffering of his companions.

"Each turned his face with a ghastly pang,
And cursed me with his eye ...
I could not draw my eyes from theirs ...
The pang, the curse with which they died
Had never passed away."

Kafka: The Germs of Guilt

At the beginning of the 1980s, the Italian publisher Einaudi decided to publish new translations of many modern classics. Natalia Ginzburg translated Madame Bovary; Italo Calvino translated Lord Jim. Primo Levi was approached for the translation of Franz Kafka's The Trial. Levi accepted. This turned out to be a mistake. Not only was this translation[8] not very well received,[9] but Kafka was to be the second figure to reactivate Levi's guilt; to remind him of the curse in the eyes of the dying.

Levi had excellent reasons for accepting the translation. One can understand the attraction that the analytical, concise German of the Czech writer exerted on him. Yet Levi realized quite quickly that he should have refused. The rigor of Kafka's writing was at the service of an equivocal discourse, a universe filled with obscure appeals. In translating Kafka, Primo Levi put himself in danger. Here is what he said, in a long interview given to La Stampa on June 5th, 1983:

"Rightly or wrongly, consciously or not, I have always tried to move from obscurity to clarity in my writings. I see myself as a sort of filter, a suction pump. I take up dirty water. I throw it out purified, transparent, almost sterile. Kafka takes the opposite path. He disappears in the depths, slipping along endless hallucinations. He never filters what presents itself to him. The reader feels polluted. Kafka's writings are full of germs. ... The Trial is a sick book. Through reading Kafka, I discovered that I had unconscious defenses. These defenses collapsed when I began to translate. I found myself profoundly bound to the fate of Joseph K. Like Joseph K. I began to accuse myself."

Primo Levi is struggling here. One can see him abandoning the language of the chemist for a fantasmatic biology in which what is at stake is no longer simply a question of hygiene but one of purity, and beyond purity of innocence. If approached too closely, Kafka's writing no longer permits detachment. It has a power to contaminate. Levi feels himself to be desecrated, returned to the role from which he thought he had escaped, to the dreaded identity the Romans associated with the notion of sacer or the Hebrews with that of kaddosh. He has become monstrous again, unfit for the company of other men.

Kafka's precise writing was the vehicle for a pedagogy of guilt, a pedagogy all the more forceful for being addressed to the victim, as the vehement protests of the poem, which Levi entitles The Survivor (February 4, 1984), testify eloquently:

"Dopo di allora, ad ora incerta
Since then, at an uncertain hour
That agony returns:
Until my ghastly tale is told,
This heart within me burns.

Once more he sees his companions' faces
Livid in the first faint light ...
'Go away. I haven't dispossessed anyone,
Haven't usurped anyone's bread.
No one died in my place. No one.
Go back into your mist.
It's not my fault if I live and breathe,
Eat, drink, sleep and put on clothes.'"[10]

Let us remind ourselves of the steps that led from a quotation in English to its redeployment in Italian; from an evocation in the third person (Once more he sees) to a denegation in the first person (I haven't dispossessed anyone); from description (At an uncertain hour) to cry (No one! ... No one !).

One Trajectory and Two Ports of Call

Ad ora incerta concludes an itinerary of forty years, Primo Levi's itinerary from the analytical distance of an ethnographer of horror to the very heart of the experience of horror; from a distanced, emotionless writing to a writing that hides nothing, a writing that entails profound risks.

This trajectory is made possible by two mediations. The first of these mediations-of these sirens ready to entice Levi into the depths-is, as we have seen, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in which Coleridge presents the troubling interweaving of two themes. Firstly, there is the story of the passer-by who is hailed by the would-be narrator of the disaster, a situation which has by now acquired paradigmatic status as that of survivors who face an indifferent public and beg to be listened to. Secondly, the tale in which the narrator-survivor expresses guilt, not only with respect to the albatross he has killed but toward those who drowned, or perished of thirst, due to this murder. The role of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner here is to evoke a still distant experience of horror, an experience where horror is conveyed in the Romantic imagery of the nineteenth century, steeped in Flying Dutchmen and Rafts of the Medusa. But these picturesque aspects do not succeed in concealing one crucial element: the narrative is entirely based on the inexplicable extent of the guilt attached to the death of a bird. The second intermediary discussed here, Franz Kafka's The Trial, is entirely about this theme of a guilt without origin. Guilt is no longer linked, as it was with Coleridge, to a motif (no matter how difficult to explain, like the death of the albatross). The Joseph K. of the trial is guilty, but of what? We will never know. Kafka's writing takes to its conclusion what Coleridge merely suggested, in proving that guilt can be all the more powerful for being without logical reason, or that it defies reason by choosing to manifest itself in those who should have been spared it: the victims.

Sarah Kofman

Sarah Kofman had a father, Rabbi Berek Kofman. He was arrested on Thursday, July 16, 1942, in the course of the Vel' d'Hiv Roundup of Paris Jews. She had two mothers. In February 1943, a raid by the Gestapo dispersed what was left of the family. Saved by the woman who was to become her adopted mother-Mémé-Sarah disowned her birth mother. A father assassinated. A mother too many. Sarah Kofman took her own life half a century later, on Saturday, October 15, 1994. Here is how the news of her death was reported.

"Sarah Kofman, born in Paris in 1933, was Professor of Philosophy at the University of Paris I-Sorbonne. She published 27 works, mostly with the publisher Galilée, all of them in the domain of philosophy ... In 1970 ... her first work ... The Childhood of Art, presented a study of Freud's relation to art which earned her the recognition of Jacques Derrida ... In 1972, she ... published ... Nietzsche and Metaphor. Sarah Kofman pursued her philosophical career on these two fronts, Freudian and Nietzschean. But, since the publication of Rue Ordener, rue Labat (1994), Sarah Kofman had been going through a period of profound depression ... she had the feeling that she had put a full stop to her work by going back over her childhood."[11]

In its brevity, in its involuntary brutality, the journalist's account suggests a causal relationship between an act of self-expression and a death. It is suggested that, after years full of fruitful productivity, the creation of an autobiographical narrative caused a serious depression leading to suicide. Of course, the causal sequence could be inverted (depression triggering the autobiographical project) or even contested: throughout the thirty years or so during which Sarah Kofman never stopped writing, she had often spoken of her personal experiences and she had spoken of them in many different ways. We should nevertheless be aware that if she did indeed speak about these personal experiences, she also managed to avoid or exclude certain ways of doing so, accounts that were too direct. There are, however, styles of which she did readily avail herself. These styles are those which are, to use a vocabulary that she shares with Jacques Derrida, "pharmaceutic." They have the virtue of-this is a leitmotif of Kofman's-"rendering the unbearable bearable." Kofman's pharmaceutic styles are three in number. First and foremost, there are the works of exegesis, of philosophical reflection (Freud, Nietzsche, Plato, Derrida). Secondly, there are works in aesthetics: Sarah Kofman frequently analyzed figurative works in which anguish is expressed (Goya), overcome (Rembrandt), or in which it undergoes metamorphosis (Leonardo da Vinci). Today, such works on figuration could be revisited as confessions. In a third style, Sarah Kofman devoted herself to intellectual autobiographies (Hoffmann, Wilde, and again Nietzsche). A strategy of mise en abîme allowed her to express herself through "heterobiography." She wrote (as Françoise Collin would put it) "in the textual body of the other." She managed in this way to narrate herself in the third person, to describe herself indirectly, to designate a series of "ambassadors" of herself, to avoid the perils of "subjectivation." There remains a last style that has nothing pharmaceutic about it: a direct and brutal style, with no possibility of displacement. It is made up of autobiographical fragments, of isolated events, of accounts of dreams. For a long time this fourth style emerged only in the gaps between the other styles. Sarah Kofman's work ranged from one pharmaceutic style to another, in an attempt to avoid or delay the intrusion of this fourth type of writing. But finally these styles came together, tumbled into each other. At some point, Sarah Kofman assembled the autobiographical fragments that had here and there broken the surface of her writings, and made out of them an explicit and continuous narrative. Neither fragmentary nor dreamlike, it is a testimony controlled by an "I," a confession from which all inessential elements have been banished so as to leave nothing but the brutal unity of tragedy. Death of the father; conflict between the mothers; horror linked to the exhibition of hatred.

The process that led to this convergence of styles and to the decision to write autobiographically took around thirty years. It is possible to follow, from one style to the next, the narrative of the self that Sarah Kofman presents us with. Let us retrace an itinerary that veers between the "expressions" that kill and those that bring relief, between those that delay the conclusion and those that precipitate it, between those that prove irreversible and those that allow one to gain time. The itinerary has four steps.

1963-1976: The Childhood of Art and Its After-effects

The Childhood of Art is a reflection on Freud, on figuration and on the strategies (displacement, sublimation) that aim to "render bearable the unbearable." The cover of the book shows Leonardo da Vinci's famous "London cartoon." In it, Saint Mary and Saint Ann are holding two children who are playing (the baby Jesus, Saint John the Baptist). For Freud, whose analysis Sarah Kofman takes up here, the gentle smile that plays on the lips of Saint Ann is the sign of a lie without which the situation evoked would have been unbearable to the painter. "Leonardo's childhood"-writes Freud-"was remarkable in precisely the same way as this picture. He had had two mothers: first his true mother, Caterina, from whom he was torn away when he was between three and five, and then a young and tender step-mother, his father's wife."[12] According to Freud, as we know, the older woman in da Vinci's picture (Saint Ann) in fact corresponds to the mother whom Leonardo was taken from and, still according to Freud, "the artist seems to have used the blissful smile of Saint Ann to disavow and to cloak the envy which the unfortunate woman (Caterina) felt when she was forced to give up her son to her better-born rival, as she had once given up his father as well." "The mother's smile never existed," writes Sarah Kofman.

In other words, the "blissful smile of Saint Ann is the result of a lie: it is the artist's disavowal of the suffering of his mother, and it masks the jealousy which she felt when she was forced to hand over her son to her rival."[13] When reading this text, it is hard not to think of the way in which Kofman came to love her adopted mother and disown her biological mother; of how she let the "mother" of rue Labat supplant in her heart the (real) mother of rue Ordener. Sarah Kofman does not condemn Leonardo's lie: for her, the smile on the lips of Saint Ann is necessary, since it allows her to survive. Kofman sees this smile as the opposite of the violent feelings that take hold of her in the instant when she publicly accuses her mother; the anguish she experiences when she perceives the shifting images of Miss Froy in Hitchcock's film The Lady Vanishes:

"The nice little old lady, Miss Froy, seated in the train opposite the sleeping heroine, vanishes ... . She is replaced by another woman who passes herself off as the first .... The part that is always unbearable for me is to perceive, all of a sudden ...the face of her replacement (who is wearing the clothes of the good lady ...), a horribly hard, shifty face ...menacing and false."[14]

The shift from the true Miss Froy to her impersonator feels like a sarcastic remake of the da Vinci picture. No beatific smiles. The harshness of truth.

1976-1983: The Empty Narrative and the Full Narrative

During the period stretching from 1976 to 1983, Sarah Kofman looked for a form of expression that might convey truth without being deadly. From 1976 onwards, she raised most of the questions under discussion here. Can certain experiences actually be expressed? Can one express them without falsifying them? And, once uttered, can one find someone who wants to or knows how to listen to them? What forms of reception should be provided for such expressions?

At the same time, she was writing texts that were only indirectly perilous. Here is the text of a dream. A very short fragment, very enigmatic: "On a book cover, ‘I' read KAFKA ...translated by Sar ...Ko (a) f." Sarah Kofman's commentary resembles certain remarks by Primo Levi. "Why had ‘I' transformed myself into a translator of Kafka? Why had ‘I' changed my surname and forename in this way? What secret kinship could possibly link me to this person whose name I immediately associated with a trial, with guilt?" She sketches her own reply. The dream evokes "the punishment of the woman who aspired to deny her blood, efface her lowly origins, carry her head high."[15] Again, retrospectively, light can be thrown on Sarah Kofman's response: "denying one's blood" is rejecting one's mother.[16] As with Primo Levi, Kafka turns here into an ambassador of lost feelings, of silenced emotions. He re-opens the paths of guilt. For Sarah Kofman, such a return of guilt, the emergence of physical distress, become criteria for true expression. In a pivotal text she contrasts this full expression to formal testimonies that may well be factual but remain empty:

"I always wanted to recount my life ...The whole beginning of my analysis was a long narrative ... a continuous linear narrative. At no point did I lose the thread. I strung it together, knowing in advance what I was going to say. Not the slightest break, not the slightest hole, not the slightest fault-line where some symptom might at last slip in, where something might slip through. Consequently, nothing happened. On the other side of the couch: nothing. 'My life' was met with indifference. 'Everything started' when 'I' had nothing more to say, when 'I' no longer knew where to start or where to finish. What I had narrated previously came back again but quite differently, discontinuously ... or else never came back ... My mouth stopped being the place from which a reassuring discourse came forth-bocca della verita-and became a cavern spurting screams."[17]

The Apollonian "Bocca della verita" is unworthy of trust. One must open up the "cavern spurting screams." But under what conditions? Sarah Kofman suggests that it is on condition that these cries do not just ring out in the void. On condition that a certain type of listening can receive, indeed embrace, the words that are spoken:

"The analyst's silence is unbearable. It not only means indifference to the events of my life, but conveys a devaluation of what is most private for me. Refusal of my gifts, of what comes forth from my womb, of what I produce: so my goods are just shit? In which case, better not give anything, not say anything; at least silence is golden. But I also find my own silence unbearable. Whence the imperious necessity of hearing my words taken up again and again."[18]

As with Primo Levi, Kofman expresses her resentment for an unbearable silence, her need of a response, her feeling that such a response is lacking.[19]

1983: A Pivotal Book-The Fusion of Styles

Ten years before her death, Sarah Kofman published a highly significant text: Comment s'en sortir? (1983). The guarded optimism of the title [How to get out of it?] is belied by the very presentation of the work: a grey and black cover displaying a chained giant. This bleak prisoner comes from Goya's black period. The anguish it elicits recurs in the middle of the book through another illustration, equally taken from Goya's black period: a faceless warlock faces two petrified individuals. Starting with Goya's blind monsters, Kofman's reflections move across styles as she begins to work on autobiographical narrative and conceptual analysis at the same time. The autobiographical narrative follows a long reflection (stylistic and linguistic) on a medieval phrase expressing misfortune, "mala hora." (Cerquiglini). It discusses the syllable "Mar," a form that expresses at once hatred and anguish. For Sarah Kofman, it evokes at once the rue Mar-cadet and the following nightmare [cauche-mar]:

"I am in a bedroom I remember from my childhood with my mother, my brothers and my sisters, at night. A bird comes in, a sort of bat with a human head crying out: Woe [Malheur] to you. Woe to you! Terrorized, my mother and I flee. We are in tears in the rue Marcadet. We know we are in very great danger and fear for our lives."[20]

At this point the narrative ceases to be that of a nightmare and becomes that of a fearsome childhood event.

"In February, 1943, almost 40 years ago ... at 8 in the evening (the 'mala hora'), a man from the Kommandantur-the bird of ill omen-came to tell us, my mother and I (we were eating a vegetable soup in the kitchen) to hide away as quickly as possible, because we were on the list for that night ... my father having already been rounded up on July 16 1942. My mother and I fled as fast as we could ... We lived in rue Ordener so, in order to go to rue Labat where a woman generously sheltered us on the nights of raids, we took the endless rue Marcadet. On that forced nocturnal march, all the way along, I was petrified with anguish and vomited up my meal. The rest of the war we lived in hiding, rue Labat."[21]

Horror takes the form of a flight by night. It is equated with the street (Marcadet) where the frightened child keeps on vomiting. But the conceptual part of the book is also about horror and flight, particularly in the analysis devoted to the concept of aporia in Plato:

"Can one get out of what Plato calls an aporia? Can one get out of that impossible, nightmarish situation where one is suddenly disorientated, as though fallen into the depths of a well, helpless? ... Can one get out of an infernal situation? Can one find a poros, that is to say, invent a stratagem in order to put an end to distress, trace a path leading from darkness to light?"[22]

It is I who underline the word path. For Sarah Kofman, it is indeed a question of a path. To find the poros is to "trace a path," to "invent a stratagem to put an end to distress." Finding the poros means bringing about "the opening of a passage across a chaotic stretch which it (the poros) transforms into a qualified, ordered space."[23] Not finding the poros means remaining a prisoner of the chaos. The aporia thus merges with the "maritime abyss": it is the "sea widowed of routes" as Détienne and Vernant magnificently put it. At this point in Kofman's work, conceptual analysis and autobiographical narrative seem to blend indissociably. Escaping from the aporia means coming out of the nightmare. Finding the "path" means escaping from the "maritime abyss," the "sea widowed of routes." Perhaps it also means escaping guilt. It means finding a street that one can follow without vomiting, a street that is not rue Marcadet. This association between the poros and the street might seem arbitrary. But Comment s'en sortir? seems to be written with a view to producing such an association, constructed so as to enable the uncertain progression of autobiography toward the surface of the text. On the one hand, the chaos of the maritime abyss, the wordplay of the "sea widowed of routes." On the other hand, what remains of the order preceding the catastrophe: the father's pen, an incitement to find the path. "Of him all I have left is the fountain pen ... it is right in front of me on my desk and makes me write, write." Write? Why? "In order to solve precisely the question of the path, the poros, the way out. My numerous books were perhaps byways which I had to take in order to narrate ‘that,'"[24] Kofman concluded.

1984-1994: The Transition to the First Person

When, in 1994, Sarah Kofman decided to write her autobiography, she knew exactly what to expect. She had summarized the difficulties awaiting her in a work dating from 1987 (Paroles suffoquées [Stifled words]). She effectively found herself in the position of having to speak without being able to speak or be heard. She also knew that she would have to make sure that "language, too powerful, sovereign, did not come and take control of a completely aporetic situation, of total helplessness, of distress itself." She then wrote the unbearable text for which the rest of her works had been a continuous preparation. Rue Ordener, rue Labat was the raw exposure of the distress of a little girl torn between two mothers while her father was lost, rounded up, deported, and assassinated at Auschwitz:

"We find ourselves in the street, all six of us, pressed close together, sobbing very hard and wailing. When I first encountered in a Greek tragedy the well-known lament 'ô popoï, popoï, popoï', I couldn't keep myself from thinking of that scene from my childhood where six children, their father gone, could only sob breathlessly, knowing they would never see him again, 'oh papa, papa, papa.'"[25]

Sarah and her mother were saved by a woman from the neighborhood. "The lady from rue Labat was in full mourning. She was dressed in black, and I was struck by her blond hair and the soft melancholy in her blue eyes. ... The ‘lady' from rue Labat agreed to keep us ‘until we could find a solution' ... This lodging on rue Labat was to have been temporary. It lasted throughout the whole war."[26] Sarah began loving this adopted mother whom she called "Mémé." At the end of the war, she nevertheless had to return to her biological mother again. "Overnight I had to take leave of the woman I now loved more than my own mother. I had to share my mother's bed in a miserable hotel room on the Rue des Saules." Sarah disowned her mother so as not to have to leave Mémé. The rest of her life was spent transposing or transfiguring the narrative of this repudiation, confessing her own hateful behavior, so humiliating in its triviality: "I was outraged to hear ... my mother. ... falsely accuse the woman to whom we owed our lives and whom I loved so much. I in turn accused my mother, showing the court my thighs covered with bruises ... The Jewish friend who had taken us in ... confirmed that my mother beat me with a strap."[27] This was an episode for which Kofman would never forgive herself. The woman upon whom Sarah heaped reproaches was not only her mother but a victim. Having brought evidence against her mother, she would also testify against herself. In the last pages of the book she intimates that she also betrayed Mémé. "Mémé died recently, in a hospice ... Seriously disabled, half blind, she couldn't do anything anymore except listen to ‘great music' ... I was unable to attend her funeral. But I know that at her grave the priest recalled how she had saved a little Jewish girl during the war."[28]

Posthumous Texts: The Lesson of Sublimation

Written at the end of her life, published after her death, Sarah Kofman's last two works are equivocal testaments. Both address the question of the unseen or the unsaid. Her study of Oscar Wilde's Portrait of Dorian Gray (L'imposture de la beauté) could be applied to her own texts. "The portrait's first transformation is the one brought about by the writing which displays the painting only in words. While these words expose the painting they also conceal it from sight, thus rendering the unbearable and monstrous metamorphosis bearable."[29] One would have to change very little here to define a Kofmanian "poetics." Render the unbearable bearable. Speak out the "ghastly" tale, but as if it were someone else's tale, the motive of other people's images. Make sure that the very gesture that exposes conceals from sight. It is this same gesture (expose, conceal from sight) that Sarah Kofman points to at the heart of one of the most powerful of Rembrandt's canvases, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp (1632). At the center of the painting is a table and a bloodless corpse, partly dissected. Surrounding the table, there are doctors in dark clothes. Excepting one man, nobody pays attention to the body of the exhibited dead person. No horror. No compassion. Everyone is listening to the explanations of Doctor Tulp, who points to a vast open book at the foot of the corpse. "The lesson to be drawn from this anatomy lesson is not ... that of a memento mori," writes Sarah Kofman. "It is not a triumph of death, but a triumph over death; and this, not through the life of illusion, but through that of the speculative." In order to conceal horror, a new strategy is brought up here. "If the spectator of the anatomy lesson is not gripped by anguish at the sight of this painting, and can even gaze at it in complete serenity, it is because he is dealing with an image, a representation which has a pharmaceutic function." In fact, the aspiring doctors have in front of them

"not a subject but an object, a pure technical instrument which one of them manipulates so as to have a hold on the truth of life ... The dead man (and the opening up of his body) are seen solely as producing an opening onto life to which they appear to hold the key. Fascination is displaced, and with this displacement, anguish is repressed, the unbearable rendered bearable."[30]

The violence enacted on a corpse transformed into an instrument of knowledge and culture is thus referred back to the founding act of the corporate body of doctors. Death is "warded off." Like the stratagems employed by Oscar Wilde, Rembrandt's "demonstration" rejoins Kofman's procedures. It dissolves horror by attempting to think it; by moving from the wide-open corpse to the whiteness of the page; by seeing not chaos but the quest for a poros. As Derrida emphasizes, Sarah Kofman's commentary is far from being simply descriptive. It asserts the value of a certain form of repression.[31] Instead of rejecting it as mere negativity (negation, denegation, lie, concealment, dissimulation), Sarah Kofman senses in this repression "a cunning affirmation of life, the impossible need for survival." Ironically, Kofman's advocacy of survival reaches us in a posthumous text.[32]


At the close of this journey through the biographies of two writers, a certain number of common points can be drawn out from the very disparity of their trajectories. Two such points seem particularly important to me. The first concerns the double danger to which direct testimony seems to expose the speaker: the return of guilt, and the reactivation of a persistent, piercing, intractable shame. The second points to the distancing of emotions allowed by strategies of indirect expression based on commentary or citation. Is there a form of telling traumas that may allow these dangers to be avoided or at least attenuated? Are these dangers the same for every survivor?

Toward a Cartography of Writing

Like many of those who have been only mentioned, the two authors discussed here, Kofman and Levi, go through a whole range of writing styles, from extreme distance to absolute closeness in regard to their past experience. If one were to transpose their works into diagram form, one would find them constantly getting closer to or further away from this experience. Primo Levi drew closer to it through testimony, then moved further away from it through science fiction, and came back to it through translation and poetry. As for the philosophical works of Sarah Kofman, they never really took her very far from her own experience. In a procedure similar to that of Primo Levi as translator, Sarah Kofman while writing on Nietzsche, Freud, or da Vinci was throwing an oblique light on the childhood tragedies that she ended up recounting directly in Rue Ordener, rue Labat.

Moving Closer to the Experience: Screen Texts

The movement from distance to closeness, the path cleared toward true expression, often involved a close relationship (commentary, citation, translation) to certain "screen" texts. These texts were generally relevant because of their subject matter. But they were also ambiguous in the way they addressed horror or guilt. Coleridge's ancient mariner, or Kafka's Joseph K., became Primo Levi's guideposts toward his recognition of a guilt without origin. With Sarah Kofman, the figures that opened up the path toward expression were legion. Let us simply note the role that painting played in her work: the double portrait of The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne by Leonardo Da Vinci; the engravings from Goya's black period; the portrait of Dorian Gray, entirely made out of Oscar Wilde's words; Rembrandt's The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp, which is also a lesson of and on denial.

The use of a screen text is precious for any writer in the quest for a roundabout form of communication; of an indirect expression; of a protective alibi. Think of the famous story of defeated Pharaoh Psammenit who remains dry-eyed as his family is being taken away but whose eyes fill with tears as an unknown old slave is forced to leave the palace. Psammenit's story has often been commented on. Let me add one comment: Could the pharaoh acknowledge the extent of his personal disaster? At what cost? Was it not easier to cry about the fate of an almost unknown slave?[33]

Testifying in the First Person, the Return of Guilt

Testimony is not merely a question of sharing information or of reconstructing facts (as in history), but of making such facts public in the first person. Furthermore, the testimonies discussed here are not merely about bearing witness. ("I was present and this is what I saw.") They are about bearing witness about what one did. ("I was present and this is what I did.") Sarah Kofman chose her adopted mother, free and cheerful, and not her biological mother, demanding and hounded. Primo Levi cries out: "[I] Haven't usurped anyone's bread." He did not, indeed, eat anyone else's bread, but he did not always share the bread he had. Or he did share it with some but not with others.[34] He obviously could not share it with all of the thousands of beings who needed it. There remains the guilt linked to the fact that he sometimes refused to give it, or had "chosen" those he would give some to. Every survivor, at some time or another, has made one of those terrible choices, obeyed one of those prohibitions that constitute the tables of a dehumanizing law.

Can One Negotiate Shame?

Either one keeps the tragedy to oneself and, as Primo Levi says, one "is burnt" by it, unless one becomes, in its wake, as Sarah Kofman suggests, its "sarcophagus," or else one discloses it, but this disclosure does not efface it. It publicizes it, makes it official, removes it from other people's ignorance. The shameful knowledge is thus shared, but with a result that is not what one would wish for. It is perhaps Sarah Kofman who goes furthest in her reflection on the danger incurred, by stressing that the survivors' narrative exposes them twice. It reawakens their guilt with respect to the victims. It submits them to judgment by those who learn what they did. Even when sympathetic, these readers are always potential judges and sometimes turn into censors. Witnesses find themselves engulfed in the monstrosity of what they recount. They become "sacred." Could there be any other way?

Toward a Narrative that Does Not Kill

The discourse of guilt calls for an interlocutor who is capable of receiving the narrative in the name of those who are dead. The discourse of shame presupposes an interlocutor with whom the shameful situation can be replayed, an interlocutor who helps the survivor regain composure; someone in the face of whom one can re-establish dignity. But does such an interlocutor exist? Perhaps the figure of the good interlocutor has yet to be invented. Can one imagine psychoanalysts to be such interlocutors? According to Sarah Kofman, psychoanalysts ought to avoid any behavior that would even distantly resemble collective indifference. Their listening should literally "receive" the survivor's words, grant them hospitality, instead of letting them sink into silence. Sarah Kofman entrusts psychoanalysts with a task worthy of Orpheus. They must look for the poros, find the path that allows survivors to be led back among the living.[35]

Four Visitors

Let me conclude this article with a parable of epidemiological good sense. It is a parable about four sages, four friends and companions who managed one day to get inside the orchard of forbidden knowledge. The sage who entered first looked around and lost his sight. The second looked and lost his faith. The third went mad and started vomiting. As to the fourth, he came out in peace. This fable is a warning. It tells us that a certain type of knowledge is lethal, but not lethal for everyone. It suggests that some people can indeed tell the ghastly tale and survive unscathed. The same experience can elicit different reactions. It can kill or leave alive.


This article was written in response to the shock I felt when I read Sarah Kofman's Rue Ordener, rue Labat. I had a personal relation to the philosopher and when she took her life, I heard myself asking during a conference about the connection between her suicide and the memoir she had just published. I devoted many years to exploring this connection. My exploration did not happen in a void. While working on the subject, I realized that many other authors had been involved in the same type of questioning. There was indeed a "huge volume of literature on the testimonies of survivors," remarkably described by Anny Dayan-Rosenman[36] and Régine Waintrater,[37] among many others. In a recent discussion of the evolution of psychoanalytic thinking on the subject of trauma, I myself analyzed the range of theoretical options adopted, and sketched a chronology of contributions made over more than forty years.[38] My sketched map of the field eventually allowed me to situate my own positions. Unfortunately, this "cartographic" essay is much too long to be incorporated in the present article.[39]  


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Antelme, Robert: The Human Race [1957]. Translated by Jeffrey Haight and Annie Mahler (Marlboro: Marlboro Press, 1992)

Antelme, Robert: Textes inédits sur l'espèce humaine (Paris: Gallimard, 1996)

Cerquiglini, Bernard: La parole médiévale (Paris: Minuit, 1981)

Clemens, Eric: "De l'interdit à l'inconditionnel." In Actes du Colloque de Lima. Lima In El Umbra del Millenio 1998.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, bilingual edition (Paris: Aubier, 1975)

Collin, Françoise, and Françoise Proust, eds: Cahiers du Grif 3. Texts by Françoise Collin, Jacques Derrida, and Sarah Kofman, complete bibliography of Sarah Kofman's works (Paris: Descartes, 1997)

Cyrulnik, Boris: Je me souviens (Paris: L'esprit du temps, 2003)

Cyrulnik, Boris: Mourir de dire; la Honte (Paris: Odile Jacob, 2010)

Dayan-Rosenman, Anny: Les Alphabets de la Shoah (Paris: CNRS, 2007)

Jaron, Steven: "Distances traversées." In Actes du Colloque de Cerisy. Vivre et écrire la mémoire de la Shoah (Paris: Editions du Nadir, 2002)

Kofman, Sarah: The Childhood of Art: An Interpretation of Freud's Aesthetic [1970]. Translated by Winifred Woodhill (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988)

Kofman, Sarah: Comment s'en sortir? (Paris: Galilée, 1983); partial English translations, "Nightmare," in SubStance 49, 1986; "Beyond Aporia." Translated by David Macey. In Warwick Studies in Philosophy and Literature (London: Routledge, 1988), pp. 7-44

Kofman, Sarah: L'imposture de la beauté (Paris: Galilée, 1995)

Kofman, Sarah: "Ma vie et la psychanalyse" [1976]. In Première livraison 4, reprinted in Cahiers du GRIF (Paris: Descartes, 1997)

Kofman, Sarah: "La mort conjure. Remarques sur la leçon d'anatomie du docteur Nicolas Tulp, 1632, Mauritshuis, La Haye." In La part de l'œil, edited by Alexandre Kyritsos (Brusseles: Presses de la Académie royale des beaux arts Bruxelles, 1995) no. 11, pp. 41-45.

Kofman, Sarah: Paroles suffoquées (Paris: Galilée, 1987)

Kofman, Sarah: Rue Ordener, rue Labat (Paris: Galilée, 1994)

Kofman, Sarah: Rue Ordener, Rue Labat [1994]. Translated by Ann Smock (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996)

Kofman, Sarah: Tombeau pour un nom propre, Cahiers du GRIF (Paris: Descartes, 1987)

Kofman, Sarah: "Tomb for a proper name" [1976]. Translated by Frances Bartkowski. In SubStance 49, 1986, p. 9 f.

Laub, Dori / Felman, Shoshana, eds.: Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History (New York, London: Routledge, 1992)

Levi, Primo: "Un agressione di nome Franz Kafka." Interview with Frederico de Melis in Il Manifesto, 5.5.1983. Reprint in Conversazioni et interviste (Turin: Einaudi, 1997); French translation, "Une agression nommée Franz Kafka." In Conversations et entretiens (Paris: Robert Laffont, 1998)

Levi, Primo: Collected poems [Ad ora incerta] [1984]. Translated by Ruth Feldman and Brian Swann (London: Faber and Faber, 1988)

Levi, Primo: The Drowned and the Saved [1986]. Translated by Raymond Rosenthal. Introduction by Paul Bailey (New York: Summit Books, 1988)

Lifton, Robert Jay: Death in Life (New York: Random Press, 1967)

Mendelsohn, Daniel: The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million (New York: Harper Perennial, 2007)

Musée d'Orsay: Crime et châtiment. An exhibit curated by Jean Clair (Paris: Gallimard, 2010)

Perec, Georges: Je me souviens (Paris: Hachette, 1978)

Perec, Georges: Things: A Story of the Sixties. A Man Asleep [1968]. Translated by David Bellos and Andrew Leak (Boston: D. Godine, 1990)

Perec, Georges: Three by Perec. Translated by Ian Monk. Introduction by David Bellos (London: Harvill Press, 1996). Includes translation of Les revenentes, 1972.

Perec, Georges: A Void [1979]. Translated by Gilbert Adair (London: Harvill Press, 1995)

Perec, Georges: W, or, The Memory of Childhood [1975]. Translated by David Bellos (Boston: D. Godine, 1988)

Ragon, Marc: "Nécrologie de Sarah Kofman." Libération 18.10.1994, p. 38

Rosenblum, Rachel: "Am Sprechen sterben? Sarah Kofman. Primo Levi."  In Jahrbuch der Psychoanalyse 48 (2004), pp. 153-186

Rosenblum, Rachel: "And till the Ghastly Tale is Told: Primo Levi, Sarah Kofman." In European Judaism (London: Berghahn, 2002)

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Rosenblum, Rachel: "Childhood Lost and Found: Binjamin Wilkomirski, Living out and Screen Formations." In Lost Childhood and the Language of Exile, edited by Judit Szekacs-Weisz and Ivan Ward, pp. 193-206 (London: Imago East West, 2004)

Rosenblum, Rachel: "Cure ou Répétition du Trauma." Revue Française de Psycho-somatique 28 (2005), pp. 69-90

Rosenblum, Rachel: "Ein Deck-Schicksal oder Der Mann mit den zwei Schicksalen," Jahrbuch der Psychoanalyse 55 (2007), pp. 59-81

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Rosenblum, Rachel: "Un destin écran, ou l'homme qui avait deux destins.,"  in Revue Française de Psychanalyse 65 (2001), p. 845-860

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[1]    Daniel Mendelsohn, The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million (New York: Harper Perennial, 2007), p. 250 f.

[2]    What happened then to those who remained silent? What was the bargain? Was there a price they also had to pay? Of course, survivors who remained silent are the hardest to investigate except for those whose silence was so severe that it led to psychiatric treatment. In the latter case, literature points to a vast array of pathologies including depression and "acting out." In the absence of acute pathologies, we tend to know what happened to those who remained silent only when they decide not to be silent anymore. At that moment they often allude to a form of "death in life."

[3]    Are there strategies for telling the story in a nonthreatening way? Some individuals are more resilient than others depending on who they were before the trauma occurred. One must also account for the seriousness of the trauma, and how early in life it occurred. Boris Cyrulnik's notion of "resilience" may help to understand the differences between trauma victims. Yet in a recent book (partly devoted to exploring his own life), Cyrulnik describes resilience, not in terms of a personal quality but in terms of a work, labor, or strategy. He thus speaks of "travail de resilience" (Boris Cyrulnik, Mourir de dire; la Honte [Paris: Odile Jacob, 2010]). This "travail" means distancing one's traumatic experience; describing it from the outside as if it were that of a third party. "Vous devenez le tiers dont vous pouvez parler." Viewing resilience as a strategy amounts, of course, to what I have been proposing throughout, both in this article and in earlier essays (1998, 2000, 2005), which stressed the importance of "screen-texts" and heterobiographies; of speaking of others as an indirect way of speaking about oneself when it comes to "making the unbearable bearable." Interestingly, Cyrulnik's last two books rely on the words of others. Among such others are Georges Perec, whose title Je me souviens is picked up by Cyrulnik (Boris Cyrulnik, Je me souviens [Paris: L'esprit du temps, 2003]). Similarly, the title of my essay "Peut on Mourir de dire?" (Rachel Rosenblum, "Peut-on mourir de dire? Sarah Kofman, Primo Lévi," Revue Française Psychanalyse 64 [2000], pp. 113-137) becomes that of Cyrulnik‘s Mourir de dire (Paris: Odile Jacob, 2010). Appropriating phrases and sometimes concepts might help Cyrulnik address personal issues with the type of distance I have been advocating.

[4]    Jorge Semprun, Literature or Life (1994), trans. Linda Coverdale (New York, London: Viking, 1997), p. 235.

[5]    Ibid.

[6]    Is Jorge Semprun an example of resilience, of successful storytelling? The narrative of trauma always entails danger. Yet the danger incurred is not the same depending on whether or not the narrative induces guilt, or worse, shame. Not all traumas are associated with shame. Some are mitigated by the pride of those who have resisted, of those who have challenged an inflicted situation. Jorge Semprun was sent to a concentration camp, not to an extermination camp. He was deported as a resistant, and not as a Jew or Gypsy. His status was that of a political prisoner. All this makes a huge difference.

[7]    Primo Levi, Les Naufragés et les Rescapés (Paris: Gallimard Arcades, 1987), p. 82 f.; Primo Levi, Opere 2 (Milano : Einaudi 1997), p. 1054.

[8]    Franz Kafka, Il processo. Translated by Primo Levi (Turin: Einaudi, 1983).

[9]    Myriam Anissimov, Primo Levi or the Suicide of an Optimist [1996] (New York: Overlook Press, 1997).

[10]   Primo Levi, Collected poems [Ad ora incerta], trans. Ruth Feldman and Brian Swann (London: Faber and Faber, 1988).

[11]   Marc Ragon, "Nécrologie de Sarah Kofman," Libération 18.10.1994.

[12]   Sarah Kofman, The Childhood of Art (Columbia University Press, 1988); Sarah Kofman, Rue Ordener, rue Labat (Paris: Galilée, 1994), p. 73 (my translation).

[13]   Rue Ordener, Rue Labat (Paris: Galilée, 1994), p. 75 (my translation).

[14]   Ibid., p. 76 (my translation).

[15]   Sarah Kofman, "Tomb for a proper name" (1976), trans. Frances Bartkowski, SubStance 49, Autobiographical writing (1986). My translation from Tombeau pour un nom propre, Cahiers du Grif  1987, p. 169, 171, 172.

[16]   As put to me by an Israeli director, Sarah's denial of her identity concerns more than her mother. Not only does she reject her mother, but doing so for the love of a genteel woman amounts to betraying also the faith of her father, a rabbi. (Kostia Nir, personal communication, summer of 2005).

[17]   Sarah Kofman, "Ma vie et la psychanalyse" (1976), in Première livraison 4, reprinted in Cahiers du GRIF (Paris: Descartes, 1997).

[18]   Ibid.

[19]   What are the main requirements for a "good interlocutor"? Let me refer first to the work of a psychoanalyst who explicitly transgressed some established psychoanalytic protocols. Sidney Stewart's performance illustrates in a way what an "ideal" interlocutor should do. Stewart accompanied his patients; he shared with them his own traumatic experiences. To use Dori Laub's phrase, Stewart entered "the eye of the hurricane". Another requirement to be met by the ideal interlocutor consists in responding to the doubts entertained by trauma victims as to the reality of their experiences. These are experiences that they often do not believe in. Perhaps these traumatic events never really took place? Perhaps they merely occurred as psychic events? The ideal interlocutor, in this case, needs to be an authenticating witness. His task is one of validating the historical reality of the trauma. As Laub puts it, the "listener-witness" is responsible for establishing that "the victim is not the perpetrator" and that "the historical event, indeed, took place." He provides "the compass of history" (Laub, personal communication, 2006).

[20]   Sarah Kofman, Comment s'en sortir? (Paris: Galilée, 1983), p. 13.

[21]   Ibid., p. 18-20.

[22]   Ibid., p. 16 (my translation), partial English translations, "Nightmare," SubStance 49, Autobiographical writings (1986).

[23]   Ibid.

[24]   Sarah Kofman, Rue Ordener, Rue Labat (1994), trans. Ann Smock (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996), p. 3.

[25]   Ibid., p. 7.

[26]   Ibid., p. 35 f.

[27]   Ibid., p. 60.

[28]   Ibid., p. 84 f.

[29]   Sarah Kofman, L'imposture de la beauté (Paris : Galilée, 1995), my translation.

[30]   Sarah Kofman, La mort conjuguée [Dr. Tulp's Anatomy Lesson, 1632], La part de l'œil, 11 (Brusseles: 1995), 43.

[31]   Françoise Collin and Françoise Proust, eds., Cahiers du Grif 3. Texts by Françoise Collin, Jacques Derrida, and Sarah Kofman, complete bibliography of Sarah Kofman's works (Paris: Descartes, 1997).

[32]   The tension that Sarah Kofman reads into Rembrandt's painting was exemplified in a 2010 exhibit held at Paris's Musée d'Orsay (Jean Clair and Robert Badinter's Crime and Punishment). This largely historical exhibit was devoted to the practice of capital punishment. It displayed paintings by Velázquez, Goya, and Rouault. It also displayed gruesome relics (life-size masks of criminals whose heads were cast in wax immediately after beheading). The show produced an immense uneasiness. Both the works of art and the martyred faces relate unbearable experiences. Yet in the case of the death masks, these experiences are blunt, brutal. In the case of the paintings, the same experiences reach us through the prism of an organizing consciousness. In one case, the spectator is looking death in the face. In the other case, an elaboration takes place. Mere violence has been transformed into culture.

[33]   Initially told by Herodot, the story of the pharaoh has been commented on many times by, among others, Montaigne and Benjamin. What I offer here is yet another interpretation.

[34]   Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved (1986), trans. Raymond Rosenthal, introduction by Paul Bailey (New York: Summit Books, 1988).

[35]   The choice by analysts of the seventies of an extremely reserved attitude, an attitude meant to avoid the traps of suggestion has been vastly criticized (for instance by Andre Green) and especially in regard to borderline and traumatic cases. Sarah Kofman herself was an early and vocal critic of the strategy of "silence." Contrasting with this attitude, the following vignette shows how a negative therapeutic reaction was creatively overcome by the transgressive wisdom of an analyst. This vignette illustrates the possibility of a poros, a positive outcome. The example at hand is that of Sidney Stewart's treatment of a patient he calls "Dr. Esther." An established Jewish scientist consults Sidney Stewart (Mémoires de l'Inhumain. Du trauma à la créativité [Paris: Campagne première, 2004]) for memory problems. In order not to forget, she lives with a notebook attached to her wrist. Noticing the number tattooed on her arm, he learns that "Esther," her mother, and her sister were taken to the death camps when she was ten. Nazis had burst into her family's apartment on the fifth floor and thrown her father out of a window. Dr. Esther who is now forty-five is ambivalent. She chooses Sidney Stewart because he has been an inmate of a concentration camp, but she wants him not to be Jewish. She wishes him to be close but seeks a linguistic distance, using English to relate her traumatic experiences, while remaining relatively protected from their affective dimension. Rather rapidly the analysis comes to a standstill. Dr. Esther is in bad shape. She experiences angry fits, keeps losing weight. Wondering whether he is on the wrong track, Stewart has a dream. It is the heart of winter in a concentration camp in Manchuria. A man is about to die and holds a rice bowl in his hand. His best friend crawls to where he lies and tries to steal the bowl of rice, forcing open the dying man's fingers. The dying man gazes at the thief. A witness to this scene, Stewart feels shame. After much hesitation, feeling he is about to do something unusual, Stewart tells Dr. Esther his dream. The result is an explosion of Dr. Esther's silenced memories. In earlier interviews, Dr. Esther had merely told about her father being thrown out of a window by the Nazis. She now goes on to tell an even worse story. Young Esther walks toward the gas chambers with her mother and her younger sister. During a moment of inattention, she slips out of the line. She will never see her mother or sister again. When she tells the story, Dr. Esther starts sobbing. This marks a turning point in the cure. Sidney Stewart can now move to the analysis of Esther's early childhood, address her feelings of envy when her mother became pregnant and her sister was born. (Clearly, these archaic guilt feelings became imbricated with those of the survivor.) Meanwhile, many of Dr. Esther's symptoms disappear. The scientist discovers that her memory functions normally. This case seems to end quite well. Many factors can be held responsible for the happy ending. Some involve choices made by the patient (the use of a foreign language as a way of distancing affect); some involve choices of the analyst himself and first of all that of breaking rules by "lending" the patient his own Manchurian dream, one in which he appears, if not in the guise of a thief, at least in the role of a silent witness to an appalling action; of an accomplice. How do we explain such a success? By adopting the position of psychoanalyst as doppelgänger, Sidney Stewart shoulders part of Esther's shame, makes it lighter, contains it. The analyst's shame enables Dr. Esther to remember and relate to her own. "It is by revealing his own feelings of anxiety and guilt," Ferenczi writes in The Clinical Journal (1932), "that the psychoanalyst allows the patient to reveal feelings of a like nature."

[36]   Anny Dayan-Rosenman, Les Alphabets de la Shoah (Paris: CNRS, 2007).

[37]   Régine Waintrater, Sortir du génocide (Paris: Payot, 2003).

[38]   Rachel Rosenblum, "Trauma and Psychoanalysis," IPA Newsletter 2010.

[39]   My thanks go to my first translator Saskia Brown and to my first reader Daniel Dayan. My thanks also go to Claudia Welz and Thomas Brudholm for inviting me to a memorable conference, and to Annalise Acorn and the anonymous reviewers who helped me improve this text.