The Subject of Holocaust Fiction

The Subject of Holocaust Fiction

by Emily Miller Budick


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Fictional representations of horrific events run the risk of undercutting efforts to verify historical knowledge and may heighten our ability to respond intellectually and ethically to human experiences of devastation. In this captivating study of the epistemological, psychological, and ethical issues underlying Holocaust fiction, Emily Miller Budick examines the subjective experiences of fantasy, projection, and repression manifested in Holocaust fiction and in the reader’s encounter with it. Considering works by Cynthia Ozick, Art Spiegelman, Aharon Appelfeld, Michael Chabon, and others, Budick investigates how the reading subject makes sense of these fictionalized presentations of memory and trauma, victims and victimizers.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253016300
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 05/20/2015
Series: Jewish Literature and Culture
Pages: 264
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Emily Miller Budick holds the Ann and Joseph Edelman Chair in American Studies at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where she is also chair of the Department of English and Director of the Center for Literary Studies. Her major publications include Fiction and Historical Consciousness, Engendering Romance, Blacks and Jews in Literary Conversation, and Aharon Appelfeld's Fiction (IUP, 2004).

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The Subject of Holocaust Fiction

By Emily Miller Budick

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2015 Emily Miller Budick
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-01632-4


Voyeurism, Complicated Mourning, and the Fetish

Cynthia Ozick's The Shawl

By the time we meet Rosa Lublin in the second part of Cynthia Ozick's novella The Shawl (1990), she is "a madwoman and a scavenger." She has given up her store in New York ("she smashed it up herself") and moved to Miami (113). A Holocaust survivor and a refugee in America, Rosa destroys her store because, as she puts it, "whoever came, they were like deaf people. Whatever you explained to them, they didn't understand" (27). This is the assumption she also makes about the man to whom she is now explaining these things. "Whatever I would say," she says to Simon Persky, "you would be deaf" (27). The "you" reaches disturbingly out of the text and speaks to us, the readers, as well. How we might not remain deaf to Rosa's story is part of the challenge the story issues to its readers. Yet to hear Rosa's story in all of its complexity and detail, we must listen in a special sort of way. In order to hear the story, not only as Rosa gives it to us in factual detail but also in its psychological undercurrents, we must listen in a way that even those of us who do listen to Holocaust narratives quite regularly, or at least believe ourselves to be listening, may need to learn. This may mean we might also have to unlearn certain aspects of our regular listening or, to bring this back to the realm of literary, reading practices. It might also mean hearing a story that Rosa herself does not fully intend to tell us.

The Dysfunctional Narrator

Ozick's Shawl proceeds in two parts. The first part, the short story titled "The Shawl," is a lyrical, almost poetic account of a forced march, which delivers the major protagonist, Rosa Lublin; her baby daughter, Magda; and her niece, Stella, to a labor camp, where Magda ultimately dies. The second part "Rosa" is a longer, more realistic narrative. It concerns the very bitter and dysfunctional Rosa after the war and after she has relocated to Florida and become a recluse. Rosa's only meaningful relationship is with her dead child, whom she treats as if she were alive, until she meets Simon Persky and begins to enter into a relationship with him. The novella in its entirety has something important to tell us not only about the degradation suffered by survivors like Rosa both during and after the war but also about the world's reluctance to hear such survivor stories—or to hear them fully. For, ironically, and more importantly, however much the book has something to say about the world's unwillingness to hear the story of the Holocaust, it also has something to offer about the opposite phenomenon: our often too avid interest in the events of the Holocaust and the ways we hear those events according to preconceived notions about what happened and to whom.

What is clear from the beginning of The Shawl is that unlike the protagonists in other Holocaust narratives (for example, Vladek in Maus or Hannalore in The Far Euphrates), Rosa does want someone to hear her story of devastation and loss, or at least to hear the part of the story she wants to tell. But no one will listen. Or, more precisely, no one will listen in a way Rosa considers as listening. There is someone in the story, aside from Simon Persky later on, who is willing, even eager, to hear Rosa's story. That someone is Dr. Tree, a Holocaust scholar of sorts, who is actively soliciting Rosa's participation in his scientific study of survivors. As someone who is so interested in hearing stories of the Holocaust that he seeks them out, Dr. Tree is discomfortingly like us, the readers of Ozick's text, since anyone who picks up Ozick's book to read it is, by definition, not representative of that part of the population who refuses to hear Rosa's story. Dr. Tree, we are told, has "lately begun to amass survivor data." It is for this reason that he would like to conduct "an in-depth interview" with Rosa. "Though I am not myself a physician," Tree explains, "I am presently working on a study ... designed to research the theory ... known generally as Repressed Animation. Without at this stage going into detail, it may be of some preliminary use to you to know that investigations so far reveal an astonishing generalized minimalization during any extended period of stress resulting from incarceration, exposure, and malnutrition" (1990, 36). The consequence of this minimalization, according to Dr. Tree, is a state of "non-attachment," of "consummated indifference": "they gave up craving and began to function in terms of non-functioning" (36-38). Dr. Tree gives us a definition that recalls the Mussulman, the camp inmate on the verge of death, who has given up the will to live and whose zombie-like qualities are picked up in many a Holocaust novel and critical essay.

Since by most conventional standards (including her own) Rosa is "mad," Tree's diagnosis cannot be dismissed out of hand. This is not in the least to diminish the force of Rosa's objection to participating in Tree's study: "Disease, disease! ... An excitement over other people's suffering. They let their mouths water up. Stories about children running blood in America from sores, what muck" (36). There is something moderately distasteful in the public interest in the Holocaust, especially in relation to the shame, humiliation, and, finally, psychological distress of the "survivors." "Whatever stains in the crotch are nobody's business," Rosa quite rightly admonishes not only the characters in the text but us, too, for we would miss the thrust of Rosa's ire were we to exclude ourselves from her accusation (34).

There are survivors, like Rosa, who need to be heard in very personal, affective, and nonhistorical ways, precisely as we might hear someone in a psychoanalytic situation. In other words, some people, like Rosa, need to be heard from within the sheer madness of their storytelling by listeners (like Persky or like us) who are willing to entertain madness as a legitimate mode of narrative expression, even if, or especially because, it does nothing less than drag us into its madness. To be sure, this madness (the storyteller's and finally our own) threatens to dissolve the story's relationship to historical fact and documentation. It threatens to virtually disqualify the narrative as testimony altogether. And this is the bind: a Holocaust narrative that causes us to question its historical bases is anathema, no less to the teller than to us. Yet for us to hear Holocaust narratives as if they were strictly historical accounts flattens and distorts them in equally problematic ways. Some survivors do suffer from what Tree is calling "Repressed Animation," "generalized minimalization," "non-attachment," and "consummate indifference." These may be crude, reductive, and perhaps even non-illuminating ways of defining what ails Rosa. Yet some survivors (Rosa among them) do suffer from neurotic and psychotic symptoms. We need to be able to hear their stories not in spite of their pathologies, but through them and through our own (hopefully less severe) psychopathologies as well.

Rosa's rather unsympathetic niece, Stella, who "took psychology courses at the New School at night," has other, more familiar-sounding, perhaps less off-putting names than Tree's for Rosa's condition: "fetish" and "trauma" (31). But "psychoanalysis" (29) is clearly under scrutiny, if not outright attack, in Ozick's text along with Holocaust studies in general. Nonetheless, just as we would be overreacting were we to chuck the enterprise of Holocaust studies because it can become too subjective and even prurient, so too psychoanalysis may have something to contribute to our understanding of Holocaust narratives. Even more important, perhaps, psychoanalysis might provide a vocabulary and a technology for our effectively listening to and responding to survivor stories like Rosa's. As everyone, including Rosa, is agreed, Rosa is "crazy." How else can we explain her attachment to her dead daughter's shawl (which is basically a fetish [31]), or her narrowing down the range of her relationships to letters and phone calls with that daughter and her niece, Stella (whom she despises; is this not something we might label generalized minimalization or nonattachment?), or how she animates the dead child's spirit, making her come alive again? The psychoanalytic name for this, to add to an already overlong list, is "complicated mourning."

"Complicated mourning," as described by Vamik D. Volkan in Linking Objects and Linking Phenomena (1981), involves the internalization (introjection) of the lost loved object. Incapable of mourning so as to get through the mourning process and back to life again, the mourner attempts through various means to keep the dead person alive. Therefore, the deceased person remains a living entity within the mourner. Such a diagnosis of Rosa's situation will no more surprise or disturb readers of the novella who are interested in such psychoanalytic terms of description than the previously mentioned terms like "trauma," "fetish," or the "transitional object" (as discussed by Andrew Gordon [1994]), which in terms of complicated mourning might be called a "linking object." Indeed "linking objects," "fetishism," and "complicated mourning" collectively name parts of a single psychological condition. Yet the question remains of what value these psychoanalytic terms might be for us in reading—which is to say in listening to—Rosa's (and Ozick's) story. These psychoanalytic categories are not only vital to our interpreting Rosa's story; they are also pertinent to how we understand our own relation to the text.

We have come a long way in psychoanalytic literary criticism from the old Freudianism, in which texts were read as allegories of pathological conditions pertaining to either the characters or the author. Psychoanalytic categories are no longer assumed to be the objective facts of which literary texts are merely the fictional illustrations. Yet psychoanalysis does offer certain assistance in interpreting the literary text. Of course, Rosa is a fictional character, and whatever she says or thinks or does is being constructed by Ozick, whose mind is not Rosa's. We might just want to dismiss the complexities of Rosa's ambiguities and ambivalences for the depths of clarity of Ozick's literary purposes. Even if writers may be assumed to create fiction out of the unconscious as well as conscious components of their own minds, those conscious components are there in abundance. Writers cognitively, intellectually determine much about the final product we call the story, and without a doubt The Shawl is a highly crafted work of fiction. It deploys several literary strategies for making ethical and even ideological points about the Holocaust and about Jewish identity before, after, and during the events, although we also need to see that ideology bears with it its own deeply unconscious motivations.

Ozick is not Rosa. Yet if a writer is a great writer—and I think Ozick is such a writer—then, as Freud claimed long ago in "Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming" (1978a; originally published 1908), she articulates archaic fantasies, which inhabit all of us. The "essential ars poetica," of the creative writer, says Freud, "lies in the technique of overcoming the feeling of repulsion in us which is undoubtedly connected with the barriers that rise between each single ego and the others.... The writer softens the character of his egoistic day-dreams by altering and disguising it, and he bribes us by the purely formal—that is, aesthetic—yield of pleasure which he offers us in the presentation of his phantasies" (153; italics in original). Located in Rosa—whose name is a translation into English of Ozick's Hebrew name, Shoshanah—there clearly is a part of Ozick's own psyche functioning as if Ozick had had the horrific experiences of this woman, whom she so devotedly produces for us on the page: her own world of paper and pen, in its small stillness, so like Rosa's, as Rosa writes letter after letter to her dead daughter. Ozick's gift as a writer is her ability to put herself into this other consciousness in the condition of as if. It is her talent to let this consciousness speak to us of its pain and torment and even of its less savory fantasies, unfettered by the processes of intellect that generally defend us against such unguarded expressions of self. There is a depth to Rosa's madness that demands to be read, precisely because Ozick's great talent has constructed it for us to explore.

It is in terms of plumbing the depths of Rosa's story that the psychoanalytic model has something special to offer. We may be able to understand The Shawl without access to terms like "fetish," "transitional [linking] object," "trauma," or "complicated mourning," but these words are at least no worse than others we might use to try to describe Rosa's situation. Insofar as understanding Rosa or people like her has something to do with being able to comprehend what they are suffering, the terms have value. But the psychoanalytic model has something more to offer. This is its insistence that listening is an ongoing process that is never exhausted. Even more crucially, such listening never exhausts the narrative that it is hearing. Or, more precisely, it never exhausts the narrative it is overhearing, because, as I have already noted, psychoanalytic thinking also attends to the way a story told to another person might nonetheless be primarily a story told to the self. Of this story we are merely eavesdroppers. We as much listen in on these stories as we listen to them. This also means that these stories are not asking us to respond to and act upon them, at least not in any direct way. That Rosa's ideal listener is her dead daughter, Magda, who is not (unless we believe in ghosts) a separate entity but a part of Rosa herself, provides clear evidence that Rosa's addressee is herself, not us.

That there is always more story to be heard will turn out to be a very important psychoanalytic insistence in reading Ozick's novella, since most critics have concluded too quickly how the two parts of the narrative fit together. Readers of The Shawl have tended to assume that part 1 of the narrative, dealing with the forced march to the labor camp, contains the factual bases of Rosa's experience, which account for Rosa's behavior in part 2 of the novella. These bases seem to be as follows: after a forced march, Rosa, Stella, and Magda (who has been hidden by Rosa in her shawl and has thus gone undetected) arrive together at the camp; Stella at some point steals the shawl; and the child, searching for her shawl, wanders into the camp arena, where the camp guard throws her against the electric fence surrounding the camp and the child dies. As Rosa herself summarizes the story in part 2 of The Shawl: "The lost babe. Murdered. Thrown against the fence, barbed, thorned, electrified, grid and griddle" (31). Yet to hear fully what Rosa is saying in Miami we must hear what the short story, which is also focalized through Rosa, is not telling us or, more precisely, also telling us but in occluded and fantastic ways. Most of us, I think, have stopped short of hearing that other story. As a result we have also not encountered the troubling issue of authenticity in Ozick's fiction: of whether Rosa's narrative is factually accurate (and, if so, accurate of what exactly?) and if and how it matters whether a particular survivor narrative is "truthful" in the factual, epistemological, historical sense. Stopping short of hearing the full narrative also prohibits our understanding of Rosa's psychological prehistory and how this, as much as any of the horrific events that befall her during the Holocaust itself, has determined who she is. Additionally, it blocks our self-interrogation as readers of Rosa's and, finally, of Ozick's story.

The Narrative of Shame

"Consider also the special word they used," Rosa rails at us in the second story, "Rosa": "survivor.... As long as they didn't have to say human being" (Ozick 1990, 36). In order for us to acknowledge that the "survivor" is a "human being" in every sense of the word, we have to hear in their stories the life that preceded the devastation, even or especially where this life is not an ideal one. And to do this we must, even at the risk of disliking or finding fault with the survivor, grant the same psychological complexity to the human beings who suffered the catastrophe as to those who did not. Rosa's repeated conjuring of the dead child, Magda, like her attachment to Magda's shawl, does contain a story that Rosa wishes and needs to tell, albeit not to Dr. Tree or Stella, who just might give names to her condition and, even more painfully, judge her for what her story reveals about her. We the readers might not want to hear this story. Yet to refuse to hear Rosa's story in its entirety is to refuse to hear her at all. And that makes us no different from the customers in her shop.


Excerpted from The Subject of Holocaust Fiction by Emily Miller Budick. Copyright © 2015 Emily Miller Budick. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents

Prologue: Ghostwriting the Holocaust: The Ghost Writer, The Diary, The Kindly Ones, and Me
Section One: Psychoanalytic Listening and Fictions of the Holocaust
1. Voyeurism, Complicated Mourning, and the Fetish: Cynthia Ozick’s The Shawl
2. Forced Confessions: Subject Position, Framing, and the "Art" of Spiegelman’s Maus
3. Aryeh Lev Stollman's Far Euphrates: Re-picturing the Pre-Memory Moment
Section Two: Golems, Ghosts, Idols, and Messiahs: Complicated Mourning and the Inter-textual Construction of a Jewish Symptom
4. Bruno Schulz, the Messiah, and Ghost/writing the Past
5. A Jewish History of Blocked Mourning and Love
6. See Under: Mourning
Section Three: Mourning Becomes the Nations: Styron, Schlink, Sebald
7. Blacks, Jews, and Southerners in William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice
8. (Re)Reading the Holocaust from a German Point of View: Berhard Schlink's The Reader
9. Mourning and Melancholia in W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz
Epilogue: Holocaust, Apartheid, and the Slaughter of Animals: J. M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello and Cora Diamond's "Difficulty of Reality"

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University of Michigan - Anita Norich

This volume presents ethical, moral criticism at its best: beautifully written, entirely accessible, profound in its explications of well-known texts that are here given new readings, and comprehensive in its attention to other critics.

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