The boundaries of Holocaust literature : the emergence of a canon / Naomi Diamant
Bibliography: p. -403
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This dissertation discusses the emergence of a discourse and a field of study, that of Holocaust literature. Because of the magnitude of the events in question, scholars and readers appear to agree that the literature which emerged from the Holocaust must be considered sui generis, an almost sacred literature devoted to the testimony of victims and survivor-writers, marked by a constant struggle between the inadequacy of language to communicate the Holocaust experience and the obligation to testify to it. Thus the most basic premise of this literature seems to be that the events of the Holocaust are so terrible that they cannot be expressed. Despite the vast body of Holocaust literary material in existence, these events are paradoxically considered both unspeakable and beyond comparison. Holocaust literature therefore exists in a hermetic canon, completely removed from comparison and literary interaction with other non-Holocaust literary texts. I examine the figure of Elie Wiesel, who has come to represent the Holocaust survivor, and describe the way that Wiesel as a writer and public figure has become the foundation of a set of mostly tacit assumptions about what constitutes Holocaust literature. I challenge the notion of the hermetic canon, and examine conditions of speakability by describing how French writers like Jorge Semprun, David Rousset and Robert Antelme (all former political deportees to the Nazi camps) find literary strategies of various kinds (intertextual reference, genre, and language itself) that can successfully communicate their own concentration camp experiences. I use this literary context to show that Elie Wiesel adopts similar literary strategies in his own writing about the Holocaust, thereby implicitly fragmenting the boundaries of the canon and its discourse. The hermetic canon constitutes an attempt to ensure that the Holocaust is never forgotten. But the memory of the events and works arising from it cannot be assured by enclosing them in a hermetic canon. Only by bringing Holocaust literature into active dialogue with other literary canons and cultural contexts can collective historical memory retain its significance.
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