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The Longest Shadow: In the Aftermath of the Holocaust by G. Hartman (2002-09-21)

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  • By [email protected] on December 3, 1997

    The Longest Shadow: In the Aftermath of the Holocaust, Geoffrey H. Hartman (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996), 179 pp., $29.95 With The Longest Shadow: In the Aftermath of the Holocaust, it is Geoffrey H. Hartman's intention to explore the diverse private and public responses to an event which continues to haunt contemporary consciousness. The Holocaust, it is said, erects a ring of fire around itself. It is other-worldly, impenetrable and thus beyond the imaginations of those who were not there. How to write the language of death informs much contemporary critical writing about the Holocaust and Hartman does not deviate from this path. Is there a language to narrate fragmentation, corrosion and corporeality? The question is not so much about how to represent the Holocaust, but rather one of limitations in the composition of this language. Through an exploration of film, art, monuments, historical writing and public memory, Hartman's arguments belong to a wider context where the desire for a critical syntax, a disaster notation and a legitimate representational index encapsulatory of the intent, experience and aftershock of the Holocaust remains of paramount concern. As implied in the title, Hartman is concerned with the shadows and ghosts of the past, those which invade and envelop aspects of personal and collective identities. Each chapter in the book deals with a particular mode of narration or representational practice. Prefacing his investigation of these modes is a reflection on his origins in 'The Longest Shadow'. As a child on the Children's Transports he was brought to England and lived there until sixteen and then went to America. It is here in America that the reader gets a sense of his awakening as a diaspora Jew amid commentary on the increasing public visibility of survivors in the United States in the late 1970's. His involvement as a cofounder of the Video Testimony Project at Yale and thoughts and experiences derived from this are a recurring theme in subsequent chapters. The videotestimony genre is introduced as beyond the domain of historians, intended for education and general public consumption about the Holocaust. The properties of the video testimony are liberating for Hartman, serving to alter the 'victim' status of the survivor and affording an authentic representation unavailable to other modes. While 'The Weight of What Happened' is a brief plea for a reconciliation between Jewish history and Jewish memory, 'Darkness Visible' is a more considered meditation on the dilemmas of remembering the disabling 'black sun' of destruction. Hartman contends that the role of filmmakers and artists-while central to the narration-has to be guarded by historians and regulated with a certain vigilance so as to preclude the repetition of the mocking, self-referential and post-historical relativising tendencies identified, for example, in the films of Syberberg. Insisting on the necessity of representation itself demands that limits be imposed. But is not this a problem of latent censorship? Surely, 'postmodern' interpretations of Hitler far outweigh the similar interpretations of the victims of the Holocaust. In fact pastiche, parody and mythologising tendencies have not yet dramatically influenced the cinematic representations of Jewish experiences in the Holocaust. I think Hartman exaggerates the problem slightly, misapplying a somewhat eclectic cinematic paradigm to mainstream interpretations of Jewish suffering. His rumination on 'Bitburg' is while important, in need of elaboration and a wider perspective inclusive of subsequent events imposing on German national consciousness. Much has happened in Germany since 1985 in terms of public expressions of grief, mourning and commemoration. The fiftieth anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Jenninger affair, and reunification and its effects have deposited on the German consciousness a memorial imperative that cannot escape the past, however much desired. His chapter on 'Vichy' in contrast, avoids the staleness of 'Bitburg' to offer an introduction to the silences of French collective memory, broken by the pioneering documentation of Michael R. Marrus and Robert O. Paxton, and made even more topical in the current trial of the bureaucrat of Bordeaux, Maurice Papon. Hartman departs from the public resonances of 'Bitburg' and 'Vichy' to offer a critique of Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List in 'The Cinema Animal'. It seems almost necessary now, if not transparently fashionable, for any established commentator on the Holocaust to have used Schindler's List as the example with which to compare and contrast Claude Lanzmann's Shoah. Especially problematic is the trend to situate this film in a dichotomous paradigm of high art/low art practice. Hartman's insistence on the limits of representation is most animated in this chapter. He asserts that the quest for limits is a moral imperative that should avoid reduction to a theological and messianic drama. It is hard to discern if Hartman likes the film. It is apparently transgressive, for it stylistically conveys the magnitude of Nazi evil, and constructs scenarios which reduce the Holocaust experience to discernible stereotyped dualities of good and evil. Hartman's critique of Schindler's List is not especially illuminating. It does not elaborate beyond criminalising the technological gaze which has also facilitated his videotestimony project, and when not deviating into proclaiming the merits of other narrative modes such as literature, rehearses similar criticisms found in initial reviews to the film. Hartman's relegation of Schindler's List on the hierarchy of representational practice contradicts his intentions to avoid a single and dogmatic mode of 'authentic' representation, evidenced through his insertion and elevation, wherever possible, of the advantages of videotestimony. 'Public Memory and its Discontents' illustrates the problems of unnecessary deviation. He examines the relationship between public memory and trauma, giving him a forum to 'speak' on how the media cultivates an insensitivity and alienation that can only be redeemed through an alliance between epistemology and morality. The preachiness of this essay is mitigated by its successor, 'The Book of the Destruction', which Saul Friedländer has called a 'quasi-mystical form of rendition in the vein of a latter-day parable'. Favouring the limits of conceptualisation over the limits of representation, Hartman argues that technology has outstripped the possibility of thinking in terms of a Holocaust morality or representational etiquette. He suggests that it is the critic's role to monitor and separate kitsch from an authentic imagination of evil, a necessary vigilance against the disease of images which apparently afflicts and sanitises perception of the Holocaust. Is truth, Hartman asks, better served by removing limits to representation? The parallel journeys that frame the narrative are partially successful in conveying the trauma that informs private and public responses in contemporary culture. His argument concerning the necessity of erecting and imposing limits on the Holocaust's representation is indeed the more conventional and ethically astute position to adopt. Similarly so is the insistence on the singularity of the event, and a profound sense that the Holocaust cannot be explained, despite the multifarious examples which aspire to enter that epicentre of suffering and illustrate otherwise. I agree that we are only starting to understand the horrendous events from 1933 to 1945, so is it not paradoxical and premature to call for limitations to a post-Holocaust aesthetic when the event itself is just becoming demystified? The collection's narrative cohesion is undermined by the disparate lecture-style format, rendering sections repetitive, while the term 'aftermath' is too ambitious to absorb the excursions into unnecessary terrain. His thought on the limits to representation and conceptualisation rehearses the debates played out in Europe, Israel and North America over past decades while intervening with more personal ill


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