Fantasies of witnessing : experiencing the Holocaust in American intellectual culture / by Gary Weissman.
This dissertation focuses on the difficulty involved in feeling the horror of the Holocaust. The prevailing conception of the Holocaust holds that the event threatens to overwhelm us so completely that we would rather deny than confront its horror. I argue, by contrast, that the Holocaust's horror is something nonsurvivors want to feel and experience for themselves. Far from threatening to overwhelm those of us who have an abiding interest in the Holocaust but no immediate connection to the event, the horror threatens to remain inaccessible, to elude our every effort to represent, feel, and know it. Things seem most real to us when we can see or experience them for ourselves, and with the Holocaust this proves most difficult. I explore this difficulty through a consideration of some exemplary attempts made by nonsurvivors to overcome what separates them from the Holocaust. These attempts inevitably involve locating the Holocaust in privileged sites or texts where it may be vicariously experienced. Each chapter in this dissertation concentrates on a different attempt to locate the Holocaust: the first in the person of Elie Wiesel, the most renowned survivor of the Holocaust, and in his classic memoir Night; the second in videotaped Holocaust survivor testimonies; and the third in the film Schindler's List. The first two chapters concentrate on specific nonsurvivors—cultural critic Alfred Kazin and Holocaust scholar Lawrence L. Langer—while the third engages in a wider consideration of the critical discourse surrounding Spielberg's film. Taken together, these chapters trace a movement away from the view popularized by Wiesel, that those who did not live through the Holocaust will never be able to imagine, much less represent, its horror. There are now a growing number of representations that seek to re-create the Holocaust as an “experience” we too might have. By acknowledging and exploring the desires that give shape to such representations, this dissertation arrives at a more honest assessment of our current relationship to the Holocaust.
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