Witness : on the transmission and reception of French literary and audiovisual Holocaust testimony / Michelle Leslie Erickson.
This study addresses the question of imparting difficult, often overwhelming knowledge to future generations and the public-at-large. Have recent technological innovations, especially video, solved the question of “unspeakable” memory? Or has the public's media hunger denatured the attempt? The role of the survivor and the medium by which he or she chooses to bear witness are central to these questions, as the witness is the guarantor of truth in the public's search for authority and authenticity, and the importance of the testimonial medium grows tenfold with the arrival of the contemporary media age. An examination of these shifts in the transmission and reception of Holocaust testimony foretells a possible future about the social uses of history and memory as they turn around iconic events and their representations.I begin with an examination of postwar literary testimonies by Robert Antelme (L'Espèce humaine, 1947) and Elie Wiesel ( La Nuit, 1958), as examples of the two dominant categories of déporté: Antelme, political; Wiesel, “racial.” The public and intellectual engagement each received (Marguerite Duras, Dionys Mascolo, François Mauriac) demonstrates on a textual level the socio-political phenomena that would later be catalyzed on a larger scale by Alain Resnais's Nuit et brouillard (1956). This short documentary on the concentration camps and the political debates it engendered, examined in Chapter Two, are representational of a larger vision of French national memory in the postwar period. Chapter Three demonstrates similar socio-political influences on more recent initiatives, including a first account of the four major initiatives to videotape Holocaust testimony in France. Finally, with an emphasis on the public roles of Elie Wiesel and Jorge Semprun, in addition to Jo Wajsblat's Le témoin imprévu (2001), Chapter Four examines the public embrace of a relation between vision, truth, and traumatic experience, as demonstrated in contemporary televised news programming. The result, I argue, is a shift in public attention away from historical experience to focus on the potential trauma to the secondary witness.Though audiovisual testimony offers extraordinary potential for public diffusion, I conclude with a defense of literature. Close readings of Wiesel's La Nuit and Jorge Semprun's Le Grand voyage (1963) demonstrate a complicated space between life and death inhabited by the testifying witness—previously considered the unique domain of the audiovisual—a space that was already subtly outlined in the literary narrative, but whose significance has been overlooked.
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