The victim's voice and melodramatic aesthetics in history

Amos Goldberg*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

43 Scopus citations

Abstract

Saul Friedländer's recent Nazi Germany and the Jews: The Years of Extermination offers a brilliant new literary mode for historical representation of extreme events such as the Holocaust. He has produced an authoritative historical narrative of the Holocaust, within which he integrates the victims' authentic voices, as recorded (mostly) in their contemporary writings. This article offers a comparative assessment of Friedländer's achievement with regard to the integration of Jewish sources into the historical account. It begins with a contextualization of Friedländer's book within a framework that compares the ways in which Jewish sources are addressed by different historiographical approaches. In the second part it seeks to contextualize analytically and critically Friedländer's concept of "disbelief" - a concept by which he defines the role of the "victims' voices" in his narrative. I claim that in our current "era of the witness," set within a culture addicted to the "excessive," the voices of the victims and the witnesses appear to have lost their radical political and ethical force. They seem no longer to bear the excess of history, and can thus hardly claim to be the guardians of disbelief. Excess and disbelief have thus become the most commonplace cultural topos. In our current culture, I contend, the excessive voices of the victims have, to some extent, exchanged their epistemological, ontological, and ethical revolutionary function for an aesthetic one. They operate according to the pleasure principle in order to bring us, the consumers of Holocaust images, the most expected image of the "unimaginable," which therefore generates a melancholic pleasure and involves the narrative in melodramatic aesthetics. The article concludes by briefly suggesting some guidelines for an alternative approach to the study of contemporary Jewish Holocaust sources.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)220-237
Number of pages18
JournalHistory and Theory
Volume48
Issue number3
DOIs
StatePublished - Oct 2009

Keywords

  • Cultural history
  • Holocaust historiography
  • Jewish historiography
  • Melodrama
  • Saul Friedländer
  • Victim's voice
  • Witness

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