Friday, May 27, 2011

Show Me Your Face

I taught Ehud Havazelet's Bearing the Body this week in my Holocaust Film and Literature course. And, like last time I taught the novel, I'm compelled to write about it. When I put this course together I knew that I would have to address the perspective of what we call the Second Generation survivor--the child of a Holocaust survivor, exposed to the terrible trauma by proxy, everything secondhand. A life spent filling in the gaps in an attempt to know the elusive parent, the formidable and perpetually unknowable. Havazelet is not a child of survivors, but he has written an incredible novel that speaks to this experience.

I have to admit that over the last few years I have been turned off by the Second Generation racket--people forging their identities and making their careers based on their status as children of survivors. As the last generation of living Holocaust survivors shrinks smaller, many of their children rise in stature, conceiving of themselves as the only repositories of the authentic story of the Holocaust. They forget that not even their parents can claim that status--that that story died with the drowned, as Primo Levi and Giorgio Agamben will both attest.

Those children of survivors who write novels--their work is so often comprised of one long metaphorical scream. They make compelling cases for their entitlement, urge us to deify them with the passing of their parents. The story is ours, and ours alone, Melvin Jules Bukiet, a child of survivors, has said.

But it is not. He's wrong. It belongs to no one, perhaps. And, anyway, since when did it become fashionable to preside over narratives, claim ownership over them? It certainly isn't a Jewish impulse--to own narratives. Yes, Jews love stories. But the existence of Midrash--stories that provide commentary on biblical narratives, showing us the inadequacies of the original stories, deepening them, filling them out, and extending them in a way that ensures their relevance to a contemporary era--illuminates the Jewish capacity to own narratives while simultaneously relinquishing our right to them. We would rather see them grow, take shape, become relevant in the context of now.

And yet I don't quite despise the tendency of some of the more artistically and intellectually visible Second Generation Survivors to act out, imagining themselves in cattle cars they never saw, pretending the flesh of their arms is tattooed. Let me know what you know; show me your face. This is what they are essentially saying to their parents. Let me know what you know so that you can love me, and I can love you. Let me see your face.

The face on which was written "Thou shalt not kill." The face unread. The face that remains, painfully and necessarily, hidden.

I, in part, understand this impulse. The experience of feeling known by someone, inside and out, is exhilarating. I have often been loved, but rarely known.

My father was in the Vietnam War. In fact, he was part of some of the most gruesome battles of that war. He was wounded and nearly killed. His body bears incredible scars, but these scars break away from the body under the weight of the emotional burden. This quarter, as I taught about the transmission of trauma, I couldn't help but think of the similarities between children of Holocaust survivors and children of people traumatized by other events. No, it's not the same thing, but there's something...

I will never know my father. As much as I love and adore him, and as much as he loves, protects, and adores me, I will never know him. He lives within the trauma, though his body exists outside of its chronological grasp. The inside continuous with the outside. My father, the Mobius: no lines to distinguish beginnings from endings.

These histories that don't belong to us--they haunt us in the beginning, but become ash in our mouths before the day is done. He is caught. And it is not for me to save him or try to identify with him. I only bear witness, carry traces. I, daily, bear and bury the remnants of his strife, the relics of his trauma. And I realize, today, that if I am sad, if I embrace the sadness of life, it is because I want to share in his sorrow. I want to know.

And so it is with the issue of children of survivors. It is not for me to decide whether their position is right or wrong, ethical or unethical. It's not for me to levy judgments against their shortcomings, their flailing about in a desperate attempt to know. All I can do is bear witness.


Casey said...

I know that in the past I've reacted to some of your insistence that the holocaust is a special case of injustice by saying, "But we should focus on the principle, not the specifics/history." But now that you're taking the side of the transcendentalist, I can see another angle...

In fact I think some of the flap over Jesus was born of this same kind of "owning" of a narrative. It's one thing to say, in principle, "Roman justice is a perversion of true justice," or even "Judaism had betrayed its own texts while Roman justice was perverted." But it's an altogether different thing to say, "This one guy, a carpenter, named Yeshua, got crucified just for teaching that YHWH is within us."

The singular-ness of that story -- the specificity -- is also the reason the story is still being told. I can see (now) the same angle on the Holocaust: its singleness. So now I guess I'm speaking what you've spoken in the past: this event is too particular to use it in the service of discussing more universal/transcendent/philosophical issues.

word verification: locat

Wishydig said...

i typically use primo levi to move in the very opposite direction, casey. not to disagree, but to start the embrace of wisdom, reaching in two directions:

parents and pain. you focus nicely monica, on the attempt of children to know the pain of their parents. or perhaps to take and carry the pain. to bear the pain thru witnessing it.

and yet so many parents are devoted to stopping that from happening. the great fear being that pain unneeded is re-experienced.

but the importance, not just of telling, but preserving the evil of outcomes, fights that. levi's instruction of carving, and remembering, and passing on to the children, and his "curse", that children may turn their faces from their parents if they don't teach the chemical formula, is so fundamental to him.

is it possible to show the limits of remaining human, while keeping the core of our vulnerability hidden? while countable knowledge, and the instantly terminated senses of experience will always leave a gap between us and our parents' pain, the importance isn't so much singularity, but cause. the results of universal laws.

teaching that, is not to deny singularity, or the randomness evil, but to find a very philosophical, very predictable analysis.

i once argued with my mother about the protection of children. i made some comment about the superstition of "disturbing" experiences. "if the kid wants to see something, let them see it. let them create their distance from it" i said.

she got very upset, and what followed, in her disagreement, i came to realize sprang from her own memory of having seen something she wished she never had. "there's nothing good about that knowledge" she said.

in that moment i remember struggling between learning something from my mother, and believing here, and pitying her, which i felt had to come from understanding more about the situation than she did.

i still don't know if i learned anything from her then. i feel actually that i knew her a little less, even tho i knew more about her. but i did resolve to watch for something that i wouldn't have before: the pain and danger for another that i don't fear or feel myself.