Trauma: An Essay on Jewish Guilt


You can’t escape the question of identity. In 1995 various authors contributed essays to a book called The Jew in the Text, Modernity and the Construction of Identity. Prefacing the collection, the editors explain:

It had struck us, and not surprisingly many others at around the same time, that the category of the ‘Jew’, not the history of Jews, Judaism or Jewish culture, but the way in which the ‘Jew’ had been perceived in modern culture, was relatively unexplored. While issues surrounding race, identity, colonialism, and Eurocentrism have become the focus of endless debate and scrutiny, the ‘Jew’ had largely been left out. It is as if the issue of the ‘Jew’ is just as much an embarrassment to contemporary cultural theorists as it was to their European ancestors.¹

These may seem puzzling remarks, coming as they do just two years after the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington officially opened its doors in April, 1993. As Karyn Ball has observed, for many people ‘the Museum was a sign that Jewish identity politics had succeeded in securing the privilege of Jewish interests in obtaining a national recognition of the Holocaust as a singular trauma and of the Jews as the “world’s greatest” historical victims’². Yet still these editors considered the ‘category of the “Jew”’ to have been oddly excluded from the fashionable era of identity politics, as if ‘an embarrassment to contemporary cultural theorists’.Their use of the word ‘embarrassment’ is striking. Is this embarrassment exclusive to cultural theorists or might it also pertain to Jews (or Jewish cultural theorists) themselves? For the Jew within the academy has been a prolific figure, even if not an explicit one, as if Jews themselves did not quite know how to represent themselves, but would rather hide behind the mask of anonymity. What seems on the surface to have been an immense cultural achievement for this particular minority may even, paradoxically, have led to a greater obscurity. For the polemical language of other groups (talk, for example, of black or gay pride or woman’s empowerment) would likely provoke Jewish embarrassment. It is, after all, precisely from these kinds of allegations (of ‘pride’ or of ‘power’) that Jews have usually preferred to keep their distance.
To determine how the ‘“Jew” has been perceived in modern culture’ it’s worth beginning with Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1946 work, Réflexions sur la Question Juive, pugnaciously written with the aim of addressing an embarrassing subject that no one else dared mention. In the immediate aftermath of the war, when Jewish survivors were returning to their homes in France, Sartre reflected on the French newspapers’ omission of any reference to the Jewish war experience:

Does anyone think that the Jews […] don’t understand the reasons for this silence? Some of them approve, and say: ‘The less we are noticed, the better.’ Can a Frenchman, sure of himself, of his religion, of his race, possibly understand the state of mind that dictates such a statement?³

Sartre’s book offers a psychological and sociological analysis of two related social phenomena: the anti-Semite and the Jew (Anti-Semite and Jew is the title of the book’s English translation). In the first case, Sartre sets about critiquing and laying bare the prevailing climate of specifically French anti-Semitism with recourse to two distinct personality-types, ‘the anti-Semite’ and ‘the democrat,’ each of whom, Sartre argues, for different reasons, would rather the Jew disappeared. In the second case, and more controversially, Sartre’s book undertakes to explain what he calls the Jewish ‘state of mind,’ by distinguishing, in this sphere, between ‘inauthentic’ and ‘authentic Jews’. Concentrating primarily on the former, Sartre reveals how the inauthentic Jew proves to be indispensable to his (both the anti-Semite and Jew are typically male for Sartre) own disappearance by colluding with the wishes of his persecutors — ‘the less we are noticed, the better’.
At a time of overwhelming vulnerability a great many Jews were thrilled to have such a popular and influential defender as Sartre. Claude Lanzmann later recalled the profound effect the book’s publication first had on him: ‘I remember, I walked the streets differently, I could breathe again, because the simple fact that the war was over had not changed the way one felt inside’4. And Alain Finkielkraut recalls how, ‘[w]ith unimpeachable rigour he told me that I was an authentic Jew, that I assumed my condition and that courage, even heroism were required for me to claim so loudly and so strongly my ties to a people in disgrace’5. Sartre’s position was that only the Jew who publicly claims to be a Jew can be deemed authentic. Authenticity was also a key term of his existential philosophy:

Authenticity […] consists in having a true and lucid consciousness of [one’s] situation, in assuming the responsibilities and risks that it involves. [90]

Yet, despite some initial enthusiasm, it is, for the most part, Sartre’s Jewish readers who have since had the more troubled relationship to his text. For one thing, Sartre’s Jew has an entirely negative determination. The Jew, according to Sartre, is a man ‘whom other men consider a Jew’ [69]. It is ‘the anti-Semite who makes the Jew’ by projecting him as a figure of hate in order to shore up his own positive identity (his nation, his religion, his race, &c). Sartre does not consider Jewish religion, ethics, culture or tradition to have anything more than a superficial role to play in the modern Jew’s identity. Jewish history, for Sartre, ‘is the least historical of all, for it keeps a memory of nothing but a long martyrdom, that is, of a long passivity’ [67]. Nor, therefore, do the Jews have a future, and any future liberation of mankind would not include the Jew, as a positive feature, within it. As such, the Jew’s presence is entirely spectral:

We must now ask ourselves the question: does the Jew exist? And if he exists, what is he? Is he first a Jew or first a man? Is the solution of the problem to be found in the extermination of all the Israelites or in their total assimilation? Or is it possible to find some other way of stating the problem and of resolving it? [58]

A Jewish readership might well be vexed by this re-statement of the Jewish question from the lips of a purported defender. For Sartre’s criticism of both the anti-Semites (who see only the Jew and not the man) and the democrats (who see only the man and not the Jew) is aimed, precisely, at their failure to resolve the Jewish problem. Both are at fault, says Sartre, because by seeking to obliterate the Jew they bring him back into existence. Sartre’s defence of the Jew therefore amounts to little more than an apology: if the Jew exists then he is not to blame for it. Although the inauthentic Jew is partly culpable, for he,

has allowed himself to be persuaded by the anti-Semites […] He admits with them that, if there is a Jew, he must have the characteristics with which popular malevolence endows him, and his effort is to constitute himself a martyr, in the proper sense of the term, that is, to prove in his person that there are no Jews. [94-5]

Sartre, meanwhile, has his own solution to the Jewish problem:

[W]e must accept him. And if that acceptance is total and sincere, the result will be, first, to make easier the Jew’s choice of authenticity, and then, bit by bit, to make possible, without violence and by the very course of history, that assimilation to which some would like to drive him by force. [147]

For it stands to reason that if Jews are only Jews by virtue of being hidden then their public appearance — on which Sartre insists — must also be a disappearing act. Only by appearing can Jews disappear. Appearing is the role of the ‘authentic Jew’ who, says Sartre, ‘accepts the obligation to live in a situation that is defined precisely by the fact that it is unlivable; he derives his pride from his humiliation’ [137].
While Alain Finkielkraut had jumped, as a young man, to assume the mantle of existential authenticity that Sartre had so generously laid down for him, he later doubted whether authenticity was ever an option. As he accounts in The Imaginary Jew, his own situation as the son of Holocaust survivors had meant inheriting ‘a suffering to which I had not been subjected, for without having to endure oppression, the identity of the victim was mine’[7]. ‘Others had suffered’, he writes,

and I, because I was their descendant, harvested all the moral advantage. The allotment was inescapable: for them, utter abandonment and anonymous death, and for their spokesperson, sympathy and honour. [11]

Finkielkraut’s acute sense of inauthenticity makes Sartre’s mandate to the post-war Jew begin to look symptomatic of its author’s own failure to gauge a ‘true and lucid consciousness’ of the new reality. That the Holocaust had changed the meaning of the name Jew was clear to Finkielkraut by 1980, when he sensed that to address oneself as a Jew in France was to play the part of the victim (even if one was not a victim), leading him to an uncomfortable conclusion: perhaps he has no right to speak as a Jew; perhaps he has no right to speak for the Jews, as their ‘spokesperson’. Ever since the Holocaust, he writes,the word Jew has been unable to take its place in ordinary language, whether neutral or profane. Jew is a holy term: holy as in transcendent, inaccessible, in a realm beyond our grasp. This unapproachable name resists representation, remains apart from those who give it weight. The Jew may be our civilization’s Other, but it is an otherness none can possess. To put it still more bluntly: the Holocaust has no heirs. [34]

Outside ordinary language, the name Jew seems to mark a return to another kind of language: the sacred. As such, those who bear this name could find themselves silenced by it, for one cannot, says Finkielkraut, in a direct way, ‘inherit’ the Holocaust:

Even the affirmation ‘I am a Jew’ quickly produces a painful sense that I’m appropriating the Holocaust as my own, draping myself with the torture that others underwent. [32]

Finkielkraut’s discomfort in assuming an identity that should — by rights, by custom and inheritance — have been his own, has less to do with the shame or mauvais foi with which Sartre had marked out the inauthentic Jew than with a nagging sense of guilt that might even be characterised as religious. For what the Jew, in this context, who calls himself ‘Jew’ effectively risks is not existential humiliation so much as sacrilege.
Guilt, for Sartre, is a marker of inauthenticity. The Jew can be guilty only insofar as, like the man who stands before the law in Kafka’s Trial, ‘he does not know what he is charged with, yet he knows that he is considered guilty’ [87]. It is, says Sartre, the ‘perpetual obligation to prove that he is French that puts the Jew in [this inauthentic] situation of guilt.’ Finkielkraut’s post-war Jew, on the other hand, stands before a law whose commandment has, finally, been revealed: he is obliged to prove that he is a Jew. His ‘situation of guilt’ nonetheless remains because what has been commanded can only be fulfilled by enacting its desecration. This is the situation of guilt to which Finkielkraut attests as regards the impossibility of either inheriting the history of the Holocaust on the one hand, or consigning it to the past on the other. Yet, while the confessional quality of Finkielkraut’s remarks seems to represent the dilemmas of descendants or succeeding generations, his sense of aporia recalls and resembles the guilt more often associated with ‘survivors’ themselves. One thinks, for example, of Primo Levi’s sense of his own illegitimacy as a witness, notwithstanding his first hand experiences of the concentration camps, because, for Levi, the true witnesses, and thus the only ones with a right to tell the history of the Holocaust, are the dead and murdered who cannot speak for themselves.
Writing about his work with concentration camp victims in 1961, the American psychoanalyst William G. Niederland noted that ‘feelings of guilt accompanied by shame, self-condemnatory tendencies and self-accusations [are] experienced by the victims of the persecution, and apparently much less (if at all) by the perpetrators of it’6. Drawing on Freud’s discussion of how the aggressive instincts against one’s parents can become transformed into guilt reflexes, Nierderland understood ‘survivor’s guilt’ in analogous terms as an affective response to what Anna Freud had termed the victim’s ‘identification with the aggressor.’ As Ruth Leys explains,
The idea was that under conditions of violent threat and powerlessness the inmates’ only psychic solution was not to resist but to give in to the threatening situation — by identifying with or fantasmatically incorporating the oppressor. [33]

In the writings of later psychologists and scholars, however, this explanation of ‘survivor’s guilt’ has been rather discredited. As Leys notes in her study, From Guilt to Shame, Auschwitz and After, recent researchers have more often linked the phenomenon of survivor’s guilt to a different site of identification: “if survivors feel guilty, they do so because of their identification with the dead victims, not because of their psychic collusion with violence” [53]. Leys believes this re-ascription of survivor identification (from an identification with the aggressor to an identification with the victim) to form part of a more general trend whose aim it has been to clear the survivor of any trace of guilt so that, in Terrence Des Pres’s words, ‘Survivors do not bear witness to guilt, neither theirs nor ours, but to objective conditions of evil’ [68]. Guilt (with its fantasmatic associations) thus gives way to a more ‘objective’ witnessing while its phenomenal ‘affect’ is reinterpreted with recourse to a replacement term: shame. What differentiates guilt from shame, says Leys, quoting Eve Kosovsky Sedgwick, is that ‘shame attaches to and sharpens the sense of what one is, whereas guilt attaches to what one does’ [130]. Unlike guilt, therefore, shame leads back to fundamental questions about the nature of identity.
During the same period in which Leys has tracked a shift of emphasis from guilt to shame she has also observed a concomitant raising of the status of the figure of the ‘survivor.’ Beginning around the 1970s, when this figure began to gain prominence in medical and legal settings following the return of Vietnam war veterans who sought compensation for the psychological effects suffered on account of PTSD, the identity was then retrospectively projected back on to the Holocaust survivor, who belatedly became its paradigm case. This construction of the survivor as an identifiable figure (recognisable in a court of law) has, if Leys is correct, been achieved by relegating the concern with ‘what one does’ to a greater emphasis on ‘what one is.’ Consequently, the ‘survivor’ is ‘viewed less as an individual whose mode of life needs to be understood and interpreted than as a new kind of material object, identity, or type of person’ [68]. This transition can be linked to the developing literature surrounding the theory of emotions. As Leys remarks,

whereas guilt was conceptualised within an intentionalist framework in that the guilty subject was imagined as having fantasmatic identificatory intentions toward the aggressor, the new shame theory proposes an antiintentionalist account of the affects and an emphasis on the built-in responses of the body. [184]

By recasting guilt as shame and by relocating affective responses in the body rather than the psyche, the ‘survivor’ becomes a passive receptacle for the purely external forces of History/Reality.
Seen in this light, Finkielkraut’s attestation, as a non-survivor, to the intractability of his position (which he expresses in terms not dissimilar to Primo Levi’s disavowal of his powers as a witness) calls for further consideration. After all, what Finkielkraut feels unable to ‘represent’ is not the Holocaust so much as his own (Jewish) identity: just as Levi feels himself an illegitimate spokesperson for the former, so Finkielkraut feels himself an illegitimate spokesperson for the latter. The burden of guilt thus commutes from the survivors to their nominal descendants. But how and why does this happen? If ‘feelings’ are grounded in the material reality of the body, how does one explain the transmission of ‘trauma’ from one generation to the next?
Within the study of the humanities the theoretical discipline that addresses the Jewish experience most directly is Trauma Studies. Cathy Caruth (probably the best known and most influential theorist in the field) adapts Freud’s theory of a ‘latency’ period with regard to the emergence of the traumatic neuroses in order to consider trauma as an experience that can only be known by means of its symptoms and after-effects: ‘the event is not assimilated or experienced fully at the time, but only belatedly, in its repeated possession of the one who experiences it’7. The traumatised subject thus carries ‘an impossible history within them, or they become themselves the symptom of a history that they cannot entirely possess’ [5]. It’s hardly surprising, therefore, to discover the post-war Jew, whose ‘otherness none can possess,’ appearing in conjunction with trauma theory. For, if trauma can partly be characterised by its own silencing, then Finkielkraut’s repudiation of the role of ‘Jewish spokesperson’ might reasonably be interpreted as an actual symptom or resurfacing of the trauma from which he feels himself excluded. Finkielkraut, one could say, encounters the impossibility of his own situation by means of a constitutive confusion that could, paradoxically, entail his turning out to be what he feels he definitively isn’t, i.e. a legitimate descendant of the Holocaust. A kind of Solomonic principle thus obtains: whoever forsakes his or her claim to the Holocaust must be its true witness, spokesperson or heir.
It is along similar lines that Caruth has argued that language can only bear witness to trauma by means of its failure of representation. As Ruth Leys remarks in Trauma: A Genealogy, Caruth’s ‘work epitomises the contemporary literary-critical fascination with the allegedly unrepresentable and unspeakable nature of trauma, especially the trauma of the Holocaust, which in effect stands in for trauma generally’.8 (although Leys objects to Caruth’s appropriation of only the temporal dimension of Freud’s theory of latency, thereby excluding his conception of the role played in trauma by unconscious repression)9. Caruth also describes how traumatic experiences can infect others (or later generations) who have been, as Leys puts it, ‘in touch not with a representation of the horror but the literal repetition of it’ [252]. That which cannot represent itself (in words or images) appears through this re-enactment or performance; trauma ‘cannot be cured but simply transmitted – passed on’ [252].
Caruth’s insistence on the ‘literal’ impact of trauma rests, for Leys, on some shaky ‘scientific-epistemological origins.’ But why would Caruth wish to lay claim to a literal encounter with trauma? Is Caruth’s ‘literal’ perhaps another term for Sartre’s ‘authenticity’? For Sartre, we recall, the authentic Jew recognises himself as a projection of the anti-Semite’s imagination. As such, Jewish authenticity entails a true and lucid consciousness of an essentially negative situation, which, for Sartre, is not a situation of agency but one of passivity. Indeed, it’s precisely insofar as the Jew occupies a position of passivity (or martyrdom) that he, by priding himself in his humiliation, may be counted an object-ive witness. Such constitutive passivity, however, inevitably requires the intervention of others, such as Sartre, to testify on the Jew’s behalf, in much the same way as ‘trauma’ depends on the intervention of trauma theorists to recognise and thus realise its own existence.
Ruth Leys’s genealogy of trauma as a concept is joined by John Mowitt’s genealogy of trauma studies as a discipline.10 Genealogies might be said to investigate who those who speak in the name of trauma are really speaking for. Unlike Leys, however, whose Genealogy aims to rescue psychoanalysis from its misappropriation by trauma theory, Mowitt renders his genealogy applicable to both. According to Mowitt, the mutual reinforcement of Trauma Studies and Psychoanalysis occurs because both are self-generating discourses with no objective referent other than that which appears through the exercise of their own frameworks. Indeed, Mowitt charges that psychoanalysis’ conceptualisation of loss or fantasmatic injury through the positing of theories such as castration anxiety and penis envy has led to a situation whereby loss or injury (and not just the fear of them) have in themselves become sources of fantasy and fetishisation. Identifying a similar envy of the fantasy-wound in psychoanalytic appropriations of trauma, he notes, for example, how in the work of recent psychoanalytic thinkers in the post-Lacanian tradition (he cites the example of Slavoj Žižek), the concept of trauma ceases to function in the register of specific narratives or histories and finds itself universalised.
In the post-Lacanian context, the ‘lost object’ of traumatic experience is made analogous to the event of becoming-subject (subjectivity). Everyone who can refer to themselves as a subject, as ‘I’, has, by very definition, experienced traumatic alienation from the grounds of their own being (Lacan’s ‘Real’). The ‘Real’ designates that which we, as socialised subjects, have become permanently alienated from: the Real is lost to us; we cannot know it, if, by knowledge, one refers to that which can be symbolised or represented. The moment we learn to speak as ourselves, for ourselves, we forfeit the Real. Nonetheless, within this picture, a glimpse of the Real remains accessible through the experience of trauma, which, however, as the rupturing of the everyday, symbolic order, cannot itself be symbolised.
What Mowitt wants to address by locating the exemplary status of trauma in Žižek’s ontology is how vital Žižek renders the ability to lay claim to a submerged relationship to traumatic experience as the foundation of any further claims (in Žižek’s case this includes philosophical speculations about the nature of truth or reality). Žižek thus universalises trauma as an experience in order to draw a certain kind of inspiration from it: trauma, in this view, has something of an erotic fascination; it is lost to us in the psychoanalytic narrative just as Eden or paradise is lost to us in the Biblical narrative. Suspicion of trauma as a concept is surely awakened, however, when everyone wants to be included within the elite circle of the traumatised. What strange sort of privilege is trauma? Is it a privilege because, as in Žižek’s philosophy, trauma opens a window on to the Real? Or is it, rather, because of the ‘moral advantages’ conferred upon the victim, as described by Finkielkraut? Indeed, what does it to mean to be in possession of a specifically ‘moral’ advantage?
The advantage of morality, as Mowitt understands it, rests in the way the moral spokesperson stands apparently beyond the reproaches of the partisan or merely political. Thus the moral advantage of trauma is that, by virtue of its universal claims, it can silence all opposition or dissent: trauma claims to speak from beyond private or particular ‘interests’ in a supra-political way. Trauma Studies, Mowitt therefore argues, is really trauma envy. It is a discipline envious of the specifically moral advantages imaginatively extended to anyone who can lay claim to a significant wound; it is an envy of the wound as possessing the power to silence the demands or resentments of all others.
Mowitt’s method of genealogical critique, however, lays itself open to very similar charges. For if Trauma Studies is envious of ‘trauma’ as its disciplinary object, then, by equivalent reasoning, Mowitt’s genealogy might be suspected of envying Trauma Studies. Mowitt even expresses his resentment of trauma as a concept whose disciplinisation has, he believes, led to an unfortunate post-war phenomenon: the displacement of politics by ethics. Taking Holocaust Studies as his example, Mowitt writes,

if the rich and conflicted scholarship on the Holocaust of the last half century has taught us anything, it is that what remains most difficult and urgent to discern about this catastrophe is not its moral significance or character, but how the conditions for it arose within a world that remains ours. […] [T]he Holocaust is the event that, in cleaving the moral universe from top to bottom, is regarded as providing humanity’s moral compass with its poles. [293-4]

Indeed, this may not be all that surprising because, while Mowitt identifies Žižek as a typical expositor of the trauma theory he criticises, Žižek in fact has exactly the same analysis as Mowitt regarding the supplanting of politics by morality. These are Žižek’s words:

[T]he reference to the Holocaust as the ultimate, unthinkable, apolitical crime, as the Evil so radical that it cannot be politicised (accounted for by a political dynamic), serves as the operator which allows us to depoliticise the social sphere, to warn against the presumption of politicization. The Holocaust is the name for the unthinkable excess of politics itself: it compels us to subordinate politics to some more fundamental ethics.11

The explicit precedent for Mowitt’s genealogy of trauma is Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, in which Nietzsche unmasks Judeo-Christian morality as ressentiment in much the same way as Mowitt unmasks Trauma Studies as envy. In both these genealogies moralising discourse is unveiled as the resentment of a particular group, and in both cases the Jews, whether as Hebrew slaves or as victims of the Holocaust, represent their private or group interests as universal ones. For Nietzsche, moral discourse originates as a pragmatic strategy of the weak to induce ‘guilt’ in those more powerful than they. But what happens when the weak gain power themselves? Genealogical analyses could certainly lend support to the argument that Holocaust memory has been co-opted in the political interests of Zionist ideology, the security of the Jewish State, as well as in certain neo-conservative strands in the US and beyond. On the other hand, one can similarly observe the Holocaust’s appearance in countervailing (anti-Zionist) discourses, where the memory of the Second World War has often been invoked as the critical context for those wishing to remark the ‘irony’ of the victim turning into the perpetrator. The Holocaust-referent thus finds itself mobilised to ground the universal (moral) claims of opposing sides of the same (political) issues.
By presenting events in moral rather than political terms, those who choose to speak in the name of the Holocaust may be suspected of failing to represent their true interests or intentions. Such suspicious hermeneutics, however, could find themselves subjected to the same form of critical scrutiny. For if what appears as ‘power’ here is the power to silence other voices, and if Holocaust history has been deliberately instrumentalised in order to silence criticism (e.g. of Israel’s occupation of Palestine), then the critic drawing out such inferences might risk repeating the offence by returning the Holocaust from its fallen state of ‘industry’ back into its original state of muteness. Consider, for example, Karyn Ball’s perception of

a growing climate of resentment against those of us who [work] on the Holocaust ‘at the expense of’ more recent genocides and contemporary forms of violent persecution. It is a resentment that is intimately and acritically bound up with anti-Zionist sentiment and the leftists position on Israel. There were already grumblings in the early 1990s among those scholars who are rightly critical of the Zionist expropriation of the Palestinians, but who insensitively deny their Jewish colleagues the right to pursue Holocaust scholarship because it is an ostensible symptom of pro-Jewish and, by implication, pro-Zionist sentiment. Among these academics in particular, the study of the Holocaust has come to be increasingly disparaged and stigmatised as a politically misguided, self-indulgent, and narcissistic pursuit. [13-4]

What system of values is in play when the Holocaust appears a self-indulgent, narcissistic pursuit?
To better gauge how this situation may have come about it’s worth revisiting Sartre’s anticipation of the post-war politics of identity. In his discussion of the post-war Jew the philosopher had called attention to the limitations of the post-Enlightenment ideal of universal ‘man’ qua ‘universal subject of the rights of man and the rights of the citizen’ [57]. Sartre’s conception of the ‘authentic Jew’ is based on this same insight that ‘the man does not exist; there are Jews, Protestants, Catholics; there are Frenchmen, Englishmen, Germans; there are whites, blacks, yellows.’ As such, the ‘authentic Jew abandons the myth of the universal man; he knows himself and wills himself into history’ [136]. He can do this in one of two ways, by either aligning himself with the Zionist project for national self-determination (insofar as history’s actors, for Sartre, are always bound to the logic of nations), or by deriving pride from humiliation. The choice between national identity and victim identity is not a far cry from the alternative politics of the anti-Semite and the democrat. Their shared formulation of the Jewish question (‘[i]s he first a Jew or first a man?’), which Sartre had mightily criticised, is nonetheless answered, by Sartre, in symmetrical terms: as an Israeli the authentic Jew can speak for the Jews, as a victim he must speak for mankind. For the Jew who speaks in the name of the Holocaust can only do so by turning Jewish history into universal history and turning the Jew into a symbol of all humanity. This, in fact, accords with Sartre’s own image of the Jew, ‘whose only reason for existing,’ as he put it, ‘is to serve as scapegoat […] this species bears witness for essential humanity better than any other because it was born of secondary reactions within the body of humanity’ [136] (my italics).
Like those he reprimands, Sartre may be suspected of inventing the Jew as an object (a ‘body’) upon which to ground his own claims to universality. His injunction to the (non-Israeli) Jew to derive pride from humiliation runs parallel to Ruth Leys’ observation regarding trauma theory’s transposition of guilt into shame: both make of the Jew (or the survivor) not an agent of history, but a receptacle. Partly, this stems from an understandable wish not to blame the victim for her own suffering. Paradoxically, however, insofar as guilt, unlike shame, pertains to what one does (or would like to do) rather than what one is, the notion of ‘survivor’s guilt’ could yet return to the survivor a power of agency such as must be absolutely necessary if she is to have a future.

1 Linda Nochlin and Tamar Garb (eds.), The Jew In The Text, Modernity and the Construction of Identity, (London: Thames and Hudson Ltd, 1995), p. 6.
2 Karyn Ball, ‘Trauma and Its Institutional Destinies,’ pp. 1-44, Cultural Critique 46 (2000), p. 13.
3 Jean-Paul Sartre, Anti-Semite and Jew, (New York: Schocken Books, 1995), p. 71.
4 Jew In The Text, p. 201.
5 Alain Finkielkraut, The Imaginary Jew, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994), p. 9.
6 Ruth Leys, From Guilt to Shame: Auschwitz and After, (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2007), p. 30.
7 Cathy Caruth, introduction to Trauma: Explorations in Memory, (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), p. 4.
8 Ruth Leys, Trauma: A Genealogy, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), p. 16.
9 In trauma theory, says Leys, there is no longer an unconscious in the Freudian sense. When the traumatised subject dreams, for example, ‘the traumatic response is defined in terms not of repressed motives, disguised representations, and unconscious symbolic meanings but the literal, unmediated impact of the event.’[273] 10 John Mowitt, ‘Trauma Envy,’ Cultural Critique 46 (2000), pp. 272-297.
11 Slavoj Žižek, afterword to Jacques Rancière’s The Politics of Aesthetics, (London: Continuum, 2004), p. 73.

Devorah Baum is a Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Southampton. She is also affiliated to Southampton’s Parkes Institute, a unique centre for the study of Jewish/non-Jewish relations across the ages.

The above is an edited version of a longer essay: Trauma: An Essay on Jewish Guilt from English Studies in Africa, 52:1 (2009), pp. 15-27

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