The Belat­ed Wit­ness: Lit­er­a­ture, Tes­ti­mo­ny, and the Ques­tion of Holo­caust Survival

Michael G. Levine
  • Review
By – December 19, 2011

Is it pos­si­ble to belat­ed­ly wit­ness the Holo­caust six­ty-five years after the fact? For Michael G. Levine, author of The Belat­ed Wit­ness, the idea is not only pos­si­ble; it is more than like­ly. Through close read­ings of Maus I and II (Spiegel­man), Pat­terns of Child­hood (Wolf), The Shawl (Ozick), and the poet­ry of Paul Celan, Levine exam­ines three lit­er­ary gen­res to draw a con­nec­tion between nar­ra­tion (telling) and sur­vival (liv­ing). In effect, Levine insists on co-respon­si­bil­i­ty”; the telling must be shared with the receiv­er for it to take and give life. To sur­vive, he claims, is to tell; to tell is to survive. 

Untold sto­ries of the Holo­caust car­ry with them psy­cho­log­i­cal wounds, emo­tion­al anguish, and the pain that over­flows into the space of the next gen­er­a­tions. Yet, the silence thus cre­at­ed forms a gap, an inter­stice that demands expla­na­tion and one that can only be closed by mutu­al wit­ness­ing— albeit belat­ed. To make his the­o­ry clear, Levine argues that there can be no wit­ness with­out a wit­ness to the wit­ness.” This state­ment, while seem­ing­ly con­vo­lut­ed, clear­ly explains Levine’s inten­tion: to deter­mine what hap­pens in the act of tes­ti­mo­ny between the wit­ness and the wit­ness to the wit­ness,” between the teller and the receiver. 

Levine cred­its Freud’s exam­i­na­tion of deferred action,” as well as the trau­ma the­o­ry espoused by Dori Laub, for inform­ing him, but it is clear that he more sig­nif­i­cant­ly relies on the Ger­man poet Paul Celan to illus­trate his ideas. It is Celan, after all, who defines poet­ry as akin to a mes­sage in a bot­tle— unread until the bot­tle is opened and shared with the receiv­er. Such is the case with Levine’s the­o­ry as well. 

Malv­ina D. Engel­berg, an inde­pen­dent schol­ar, has taught com­po­si­tion and lit­er­a­ture at the uni­ver­si­ty lev­el for the past fif­teen years. She is a Ph.D. can­di­date at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Miami.

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