According to Dominick LaCapra, our post-World War II world has in significant ways been fundamentally shaped by trauma and its aftermath. In Writing History, Writing Trauma, LaCapra examines this idea in depth, analyzing how traumatic historical events can influence scholarly interpretation of history and thus shape our collective understanding of those events.
In the book’s lead essay, “Writing History, Writing Trauma,” LaCapra details the unique factors that play a part in written accounts of traumatic events, particularly Holocaust testimonies. Authors and historians, he points out, have to “transform” chaotic events into a meaningful story, while also balancing historical fact with aesthetic ambitions and avoiding the use of one exclusive viewpoint or theory. He argues, however, that this objectivity depends on facts and traumatic experiences that survivors are often reluctant to part with or confront. These challenges are further complicated by “displaced sacralization,” the modern phenomenon in which the traumatic experience is elevated to the level of the extraordinary. These dynamics, he notes, are especially powerful in Holocaust writings due to the near incomprehensibility of the event itself. In the end, because narratives about experienced trauma are highly subjective, LaCapra concludes that their final interpretation depends on both the author’s and the reader’s personal circumstances, elements that often bring empathy into the equation -- a powerful force with potentially significant interpretive consequences.
In later chapters, LaCapra explores the theory behind these issues in practical terms. In “Trauma, Absence, Loss,” he discusses the psychological ramifications of trauma, loss, and regeneration in various cultures by looking at different approaches to traumatic events by renowned writers, philosophers, and psychoanalysts. He revisits the debate and concern among Holocaust scholars about Daniel Goldhagen’s controversial but popular book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, in the chapter, “Perpetrators and Victims.” There he examines Goldhagen’s liberal use of literary techniques for emotional effect, such as speculations about feelings, rhetorical questions, and imagined descriptions, as well as Goldhagen’s “manipulative focusing on certain victims” such as children. An additional chapter examines the role of testimonies in historical understanding, and the re-print of his 1998 interview at Yad Vashem touches upon these and many other ideas in LaCapra’s writings. His concluding chapter explores the hermeneutic role of Holocaust fiction and interpretation, and examines the “hybridized” and subjective nature of some well-known works such as Claude Lanzmann’s seminal Holocaust documentary, Shoah, Tadeusz Borowski’s This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, and the controversial memoir, Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood by Binjamin Wilkomirski, whose identity has been questioned.
A detailed and scholarly work, Writing History, Writing Trauma combines psychoanalytical, ethical, and hermeneutic viewpoints in an effort to come to terms with trauma as a significant factor in historical inquiry and understanding. It includes extensive footnotes and an index.
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|TABLE OF CONTENTS|
|1 Writing History, Writing Trauma||1|
|2 Trauma, Absence, Loss||43|
|3 Holocaust Testimonies: Attending to the Victim's Voice||86|
|4 Perpetrators and Victims: The Goldhagen Debate and Beyond||114|
|5 Interview for Yad Vashem (June 9, 1998)||141|
|6 Conclusion: Writing (about) Trauma||181|