M. Butovsky, emeritus, Concordia University
Aharon Appelfeld's Fiction: Acknowledging the Holocaustby Emily Miller Budick, Alvin H Rosenfeld (Editor)
How can a fictional text adequately or meaningfully represent the events of the Holocaust? Drawing on philosopher Stanley Cavell’s ideas about "acknowledgment" as a respectful attentiveness to the world, Emily Miller Budick develops a penetrating philosophical analysis of major works by internationally prominent Israeli writer Aharon Appelfeld. Through
How can a fictional text adequately or meaningfully represent the events of the Holocaust? Drawing on philosopher Stanley Cavell’s ideas about "acknowledgment" as a respectful attentiveness to the world, Emily Miller Budick develops a penetrating philosophical analysis of major works by internationally prominent Israeli writer Aharon Appelfeld. Through sensitive discussions of the novels Badenheim 1939, The Iron Tracks, The Age of Wonders, and Tzili, and the autobiographical work The Story of My Life, Budick reveals the compelling art with which Appelfeld renders the sights, sensations, and experiences of European Jewish life preceding, during, and after the Second World War. She argues that it is through acknowledging the incompleteness of our knowledge and understanding of the catastrophe that Appelfeld’s fiction produces not only its stunning aesthetic power but its affirmation and faith in both the human and the divine. This beautifully written book provides a moving introduction to the work of an important and powerful writer and an enlightening meditation on how fictional texts deepen our understanding of historical events.
Jewish Literature and CultureAlvin H. Rosenfeld, editor
"Appelfeld's literary career has been marked by two distinctive features: his unswerving attention to the conditions of the Holocaust (without exception, all of his many novels give it voice) and a narrative method characterized by personal removal and indirection (his versions of the Holocaust seem to some evasive and mystifying). Appelfeld's fictional world is at a chronological remove from the actual killing fields of the Holocaust, and his witnesses draw on memory to recall historical events; the result is a narrative that foreshadows the impending violence rather than enacts it. Whereas previous studies have conceived Appelfeld's fiction as a source of historical factual knowledge, Budick (Hebrew Univ., Jerusalem) shifts her critical examination from literary testament to philosophic meditation. Leaning on the precepts of contemporary philosophers, primarily Stanley Cavell, the author relies on the term acknowledgment. This key word serves as the basis of her sensitive reading of the ironic interplay between knowledge and acknowledgement, between the absolute of knowing and the more subtle and intellectually honest acknowledgment that describes a reader's response when confronted with new demands that impinge themselves from the outside world. This is a rich and compelling book. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Graduate and research collection" —M. Butovsky, emeritus, Concordia University, Choice, October 2005
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Aharon Appelfeld's Fiction
Acknowledging the Holocaust
By Emily Miller Budick
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2005 Emily Miller Budick
All rights reserved.
Acknowledgment and the Human Condition: Historical, Psychoanalytic, and Philosophical Approaches to Writing on the Holocaust
The following chapters constitute a meditation on the fiction of Aharon Appelfeld. In particular I am interested in the philosophical, psychological, and religious dimensions of Appelfeld's writing as they come to bear upon the subject of the Holocaust and as they enable us to glimpse an attitude or relationship to Holocaust representation, what we might think of as a poetics of Holocaust representation. I choose the word poetics carefully, with full consciousness of the potential problems inherent in such a word, and even the offense it might seem to offer to those who suffered the consequences of the catastrophe. Yet, as most scholars who have dealt with Holocaust literature have also pointed out, and as theorists such as Theodor Adorno himself, despite his declarations to the opposite, was fully aware, language and literature might constitute particularly apt vehicles of both apprehending and responding to the catastrophe. Both language and literature were themselves victims and instruments of the Holocaust. Both also offer legitimate, perhaps even inevitable means of our subsequent coping with it.
"Holocaust literature," writes Lawrence Langer in one of the earliest studies of this canon of texts, is not the "transfiguration of empirical reality ... but its disfiguration, the conscious and deliberate alienation of the reader's sensibilities from the world of the usual and familiar, with an accompanying infiltration into the work of the grotesque, the senseless, and the unimaginable, to such a degree that the possibility of aesthetic pleasure ... is intrinsically eliminated." In Alvin Rosenfeld's words, such fiction affords more than "topical" interest, however significant the historical events in and of themselves. Rather, it is "an attempt to express a new order of consciousness, a recognizable shift in being." Specifically, it is an attempt to wrestle back language from the abyss to which Nazism delivered it and, by so doing, to reclaim the idea of the human. The Holocaust, Rosenfeld suggests, constituted a "double dying" wherein what died, as Rosenfeld quotes Elie Wiesel as saying, was not only "man, but the idea of man."
Holocaust fiction, in other words, is anything but a limited and delimiting literary enterprise. It does nothing less than produce a whole-scale shift in our modes of perception and representation and in our definition of the human. For this reason, even though, as I have already noted, Appelfeld himself has objected strenuously to the label Holocaust writer, I pursue my somewhat circumscribed venture into Appelfeld's Holocaust fictions, making no attempt to cover the range of his achievement. Appelfeld is probably the best living chronicler we have of European Jewish life, preceding, during, and even following the catastrophe. As Gershon Shaked puts it so beautifully in his study of Appelfeld, it is as if the angel who, upon our being born into the world, seals our memories of the past reversed the process with Appelfeld, such that he virtually embodies the entire memory of the Jewish people. Insofar as Jews are first and foremost human beings like all others, this is to say as well that Appelfeld is one of our great writers of the human condition.
Yet, as I have already suggested, the Holocaust does weigh heavily on all of his fiction, even where it is not the primary subject. Therefore, what I say concerning a select few of his works will, I hope, illuminate aspects of his larger undertaking as well. By focusing on this single, albeit major theme of his work, I hope to bring into view something of the essence of Appelfeld's craft. This essence has to do with an investment in language as the instrument, not only of the rational and informational communication among human beings, but of their feelings and, ultimately, though obliquely, of their faith as well. Though such faith has everything to do with religion in the ordinary sense of the word, it is for Appelfeld, as we shall discover, also something vaster and more comprehensive than religious faith per se.
Through contemplating Appelfeld's Holocaust fiction, then, I intend to say something about Appelfeld's writing generally, which is to say something about the human condition itself as reflected in his writing. But I also aim at more than the explication of the writings of a single individual, however compelling those writings might be. The Holocaust is not just any subject, most especially for Jewish authors and readers, and even more especially for the Jewish survivors (whether authors or readers) of the catastrophe. Appelfeld is such a survivor, who, additionally, writes the text of his experience in what may well seem to some the language of Jewish national revival. This is the revival that the Holocaust, in convoluted and extraordinarily painful ways (as we shall see), contributed to bringing about. By focusing this study of Appelfeld through the lens of the Holocaust I hope also to recast our thinking about Holocaust narrative in general. I wish to re-examine the questions Holocaust fiction raises and how narrative form and literary language are inseparably a part of the ethical, historical, and philosophical processes whereby we construct, and reconstruct, our understanding of and relationship to the past.
To accomplish my larger purpose of identifying something like a poetics of Holocaust representation, but also to make a point about the intertextuality of culture as the place where both historical and individual experiences occur, I try to read not only the thematic dimensions of Appelfeld's novels, including their psychological, historical, and theological terrain, but also the linguistic texture of his writing. Even though I am writing this study of Appelfeld in English primarily for English-speaking readers, and therefore most frequently quote the English translations of his texts, I have done most of my thinking in relation to Appelfeld through the Hebrew originals (some of the texts I discuss have not yet been translated). Where possible, therefore, I have brought those original texts into the discussion, as a way of amplifying ideas that are to some degree not completely accessible in translation. Translation always involves interpretation. It delivers the text into a new language trail productive of meanings of its own. I have tried where possible to provide the English-speaking audience with something of the original experience and meaning of his work.
This is especially important in the case of a writer like Appelfeld who is not, in any event, writing in his native language. Indeed, language is itself a major, albeit somewhat hidden, theme in many of Appelfeld's writings, the stories he tells necessarily taking place in languages other than the Hebrew in which the text is written (often many different languages in a single text, sometimes even being spoken by a single character). Translation is, then, itself a major subtext of Appelfeld's fiction as of Jewish history — as will emerge more clearly in particular in my readings of Badenheim 1939 [badenheim, cir nofesh] and The Age of Wonders [tor hapela'ot]. So is the obliteration of native languages, for Appelfeld himself and for many other Jews, also a part of the story he tells.
Quite surprisingly, then, even though Appelfeld came to the Hebrew language late, and through a cacophony of other languages — some of them his own, some the enemy's, some both — the work his fiction performs is performed largely by the words themselves and not simply by the ideas or insights or dramas (real or imaginary) toward which his language points, as I will be stressing in my next chapter. The language of the text is never in Appelfeld merely a referential, denotative medium by which we are led to some more meaningful realm beyond language, as if words could transparently translate reality into text. As of late, literary criticism has seemed to evade a primary fact of fiction: that in the fictional world created by the text, words are all the world there is. And each one of them, as both Mikhail Bakhtin and Freud remind us, each in his different way, contains within itself other worlds of words and their resonances, which the text thus also calls into play.
To put this differently, despite the apparent simplicity of Appelfeld's language, his wary avoidance of verbosity in general and scholarly or intellectual jargon in particular, there is a surprising, even dazzling, density to his prose. This density might seem, at first, nothing more than a reflection of the suffocating world the text is attempting to figure forth. And to be sure, a sense of rising horror emerges within and through these texts, as the very lifeblood of its characters comes to be choked off. This is a textual feature that I, for one, do not want to dismiss. Yet there is a lyricism to Appelfeld's writing, a musicality, as well as a powerful intertextual allusiveness, that produces out of the thickness of his writing something that one might call tranquility — a feeling of strange and inexplicable beauty and quiet. Since this tranquility in no way reverses or compensates for the tragedy that the texts record, one has to ask what kind of stillness it is, and what purposes it may accomplish within the fiction itself.
The power of Appelfeld's art, I suggest, does not derive from some unbounded faith he possesses either in language or in the world that language would figure forth. In Appelfeld's fiction, faith is always hard won, whether it is the faith represented within the story the fiction tells or the faith that the fiction itself, as art, affirms. Indeed, in Appelfeld's fiction faith emanates from within the very limitations of language (and thought and consciousness), a phenomenon that might be imagined as rendering faith impossible. For Appelfeld, language is never in any way capable of substituting for the world itself, or adequately explaining or representing it. Yet faith there is, in and of Appelfeld's world. And while there is no way for human beings to co-opt supernatural being into the service of a human world, so there is also no realizing the humanness of that world without accepting the existence of a something beyond or outside it, something not bound by human logic and language. For Appelfeld language, which means literature as well, does not register the limitless creative power of the human. Instead, it records its capacity to submit and subordinate itself to a natural and supernatural order that it cannot completely fathom. The modesty of Appelfeld's style produces its worshipfulness, not merely in relation to the other words of other writers, which the text also respects and engages, but to those words that other writers have also tried in vain either to transcend or to transcribe: the words of transcendent being itself.
In my readings of Badenheim 1939 and Tzili: The Story of a Life [hakutonet vehapassim], I will specify more precisely what such an idea of transcendent being might mean in Appelfeld's fiction. I will also confront in those readings what, if anything, the Holocaust has to teach us, and how. The lesson of the Holocaust turns out to be, in Appelfeld's fiction, intimately entwined with what emerges as religious tradition or faith — somewhat mystically, kabbalistically conceived. For the moment, let me leave Appelfeld's idea of faith inadequately represented in the form of what Appelfeld's fiction resists: namely, the belief in the totality of rational–humanistic knowledge, the assumption of the completeness of our understanding of the world and other people on the basis of what we can know, factually and evidentially, of that world. As I have already suggested, Holocaust studies are rife with discussions of the representability or non-representability of the events of the Holocaust, and of the decorousness or inappropriateness, even danger, of such attempts at representation. My own focus is on the philosophical, even theological, dimension of the problem of fictional representation. I want to explore how a work of literature might apprehend and express the world in such a way as to acknowledge the incompleteness of human knowledge and understanding, and, through that means, to produce what we might just want to call affirmation or faith or, to pick up the key term in my title: acknowledgment.
Philosophical Skepticism, Ordinary Language, and the Representation of the Holocaust
What is most distinctive about Appelfeld's writing as a form of Holocaust fiction, entrusted with the task of not only making present a long-vanished past but with bringing to bear upon the reader the full impact of the tragic dimensions of that past, is, as I have been arguing, that it eschews the conventions of realism, and not only in relation to its depiction of the Holocaust itself. It is as if the non-representability of the Holocaust has cast its annihilating shadow backwards, over the entirety of Jewish history as well. And yet, Appelfeld's fiction hardly evades historicity or empirical reality. The events it conjures are no phantasms of the mind, either private or collective. They are no mere metaphors figuring forth some terrain other than that of the quotidian world out of which they emerged. Appelfeld's is decidedly a fiction that insists on the epistemologically verifiable eventfulness of the world that it depicts, insisting, further, that we hear and see both the suffering of human beings and the cultural and political, which is to say human, forces that produced that suffering.
As a prelude to trying to understand Appelfeld's evasion of realist conventions in his representations of what is always a carefully informed and deeply specified epistemological verification of a real world, I want to set the question of Holocaust representation within a series of different questions. These are questions that Holocaust fiction, more than almost any other kind of fiction, might seem explicitly to foreclose our asking. Nonetheless, they seem to me exactly prompted by the surrealistic, quasi-allegorical mode of Appelfeld's writing. These are the skepticist questions that anti-mimetic modes of representation in general seem to compel, such as whether and how we ever know the world and other people in it; how, indeed, we know other human beings to be human beings, and not creatures of some other sort. My argument concerning the Holocaust fictions of Aharon Appelfeld is that they constitute more than negative representations of the Holocaust (that is, representations that proceed inversely, through the withdrawal from representation) or even abstracted discussions of it. I am also not concerned primarily with what Rosenfeld calls the text's "irreality" (29) or with what Langer describes as their "disfiguration" (3) — both of which are important features of his work but which are also, when all is said and done, still mimetic means of representing a grotesque, disfigured but nonetheless epistemologically verifiable real world. Rather, I am interested in the anti-mimetic swerve in Appelfeld's fiction away from realist representation, which calls into question the existence of reality itself — not to deny the existence of the world but to keep alive the question concerning its existence. My subject is the way in which, through this means, the fiction acknowledges rather than represents the Holocaust. What does it mean to acknowledge rather than to know and/or to represent reality?
I use the word acknowledgment in the sense in which Stanley Cavell develops it, as responding to a claim made upon us by someone else's utterance. Acknowledgment is for Cavell what addresses the doubt of skepticism, which argues that we cannot know the world and other people in it. Rather than dismiss the skeptic's worry as either perverse or as not fully intended (a linguistic game that we can easily dismiss), Cavell proceeds by granting the skeptic's insight that there is a kind of knowledge to which we cannot attain: knowledge as certainty. Granting what we cannot know produces for Cavell the pressure on us to understand what we mean when we say that we do know and to accept responsibility for this kind of knowledge. For, according to Cavell, when we say, for example, that we know another person's pain, we exactly do not mean that we know it as a certainty, as a provable or verifiable form of knowledge. Instead, we mean that we understand and respond to a claim made upon us by that individual's expression of that pain. To deny knowledge of this kind, Cavell argues, would be to refuse to acknowledge that pain, and that is not the legitimate expression of one's skepticism, but what Cavell calls "disowning" knowledge.
Excerpted from Aharon Appelfeld's Fiction by Emily Miller Budick. Copyright © 2005 Emily Miller Budick. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Meet the Author
Emily Miller Budick holds the Ann and Joseph Adelman Chair in American Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is author of Fiction and Historical Consciousness: The American Romance Tradition and editor of Modern Hebrew Fiction by Gershon Shaked (IUP, 2000) and Ideology and Jewish Identity in Israeli and American Literature.
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