Using and Abus­ing the Holocaust

Lawrence L. Langer
  • Review
By – December 19, 2011

When sur­vivors of the Holo­caust are will­ing to dis­cuss their unimag­in­able expe­ri­ences, they fre­quent­ly com­ment that their exis­tence is tan­ta­mount to a liv­ing death. In Using and Abus­ing the Holo­caust, Lawrence Langer inverts that state­ment in order to dis­cuss the Holo­caust in terms of death­life. Sur­vivors, he insists, move away from death after sur­viv­ing the camps, but upon return­ing to life, move clos­er to it; thus, there is a need to acknowl­edge and exam­ine what Langer refers to as necrot­ic con­scious­ness.” Langer begins by crit­i­ciz­ing attempts to bridge the abyss between lived expe­ri­ence and the lan­guage to describe it” and ends by demand­ing that we yield” to it. 

Yield­ing to it for Langer involves an exam­i­na­tion of the rela­tion­ship between mem­o­ry, nar­ra­tive, and con­scious­ness of cat­a­stro­phe. In In Pur­suit of Death in Holo­caust Nar­ra­tive,” for instance, Langer calls for a new def­i­n­i­tion of sur­vival in view of the con­cepts of death­life and the coffined self, and in Wound­ed Fam­i­lies in Holo­caust Dis­course,” he con­sid­ers the liv­ing death of hid­den chil­dren and its effects on mem­o­ry and iden­ti­ty. In the main, Langer priv­i­leges the nar­ra­tive, but is quick to remind his audi­ence that con­scious­ness, mem­o­ry, nar­ra­tive, and cat­a­stro­phe are synergetic. 

Con­sid­er­a­tions of death­life notwith­stand­ing, Langer’s con­cerns with the effects and rep­re­sen­ta­tions of cat­a­stro­phe are many and var­ied. From chastis­ing writ­ers of mis­lead­ing titles, to derail­ing the public’s pen­chant for imag­ined real­i­ty, to dis­cus­sions of glob­al slaugh­ter and a pos­si­ble con­nec­tion between mem­o­ry, jus­tice, and cat­a­stroph­ic events, in Using and Abus­ing the Holo­caust, Langer is true to his mis­sion: to exam­ine the poten­tial moral and aes­thet­ic con­flict between art and atrocity.” 

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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