Life in the Wake of Trauma
By Josh Phillips
Memory is a funny thing. Memory is something that’s irrecoverably passed, but at the same time, it’s something that we inhabit, and something that shapes us. Noemi Jaffe’s new book, What are the Blind Men Dreaming?—part Holocaust memoir, part essay collection—is an elegant meditation on just this. Its subject is the curiously twisted shadows that the memories of trauma cast, not just on those who have suffered intensely, but also on the generations born in the wake of such trauma. Jaffe’s book is composed of three separate testimonies: the diary of Lili Stern, a survivor of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen; a series of essays, some densely theoretical, some poetically aphoristic, by Noemi Jaffe; and a further consideration on life in the wake of past traumas, and on the process of assembling this book, by Jaffe’s daughter, Leda Cartum.
MetaMaus, Art Spiegelman’s reflection on his own attempt to tell his father’s story, contains an instructive image of the conundrum at the heart of Jaffe’s own project: “And maybe I could even get my damned mask off! I can’t breathe in this thing,” Spiegelman says, struggling with one of the mouse masks that characterize his graphic novel. In the next panel, he manages to rip off the mask, revealing not his own face, but the skull beneath it. The mask has become—or perhaps it always was—his face, the identity that he sees in the mirror every morning. The mask, of course, is the identity of the child of survivors—it seems as though it ought to be something that can be shrugged off, like an ill-fitting coat, but it is woven into the fabric of its wearer’s very skin.
Life in the wake of trauma, Blind Men confirms, is a very particular mode of being. Cartum sums it up best, perhaps, in writing that her grandmother’s suffering exists for her in “an abstract time which nonetheless carries with it a concrete burden.” Although her grandmother’s time in the camps is for Cartum a “shadow with no real weight,” it is nonetheless one “under which [her] back nonetheless still bows.” Marianne Hirsch, herself a daughter of refugees from Czernowitz, calls this peculiar mode of existence, one characterised by trauma that happened to someone else, “post-memory,” something that is not quite memory because of the generation gap, but not quite history because of its intensely personal nature. The state of the subject trapped in post-memory is one of a sleeper unable to awaken from a nightmare: they are trapped in a reality that is not wholly theirs, but the weight of which they must bear the burden nonetheless.
Stern’s testimony is a curious one, written as a diary in the present tense. To keep a diary in the death camps would have been an utter impossibility, and so the diary was written after liberation, in Sweden, where the inmates were taken to recover. The question asks itself: Why write a diary? Stern’s answer: “So you could read it!” Well, why else? Testimony is an act of witnessing, and of telling. It’s in the word’s roots. It’s the sworn statement of a witness; it’s an account; it’s evidence. But that it was written after the fact, in the form of a diary, complicates this. Stern writes in the present tense, but not fluently, mixing what happens, what is happening and what has happened—writing that, unwittingly, calls attention to its own status as writing.
Some of what Stern writes strains at the boundaries of the credible. Jaffe notes a vignette in which, having been showered and disinfected after arriving at Auschwitz, the inmates are directed to a vast pile of clothes, where Stern immediately picks out her own dress—a blue, flared number. Jaffe notes that “the flared skirt features in this story because of its dreamlike quality, because of the fabulistic nature of a story in which a mother finds her own dress.” For Stern, this vignette is an impossibility, but a comforting one nevertheless. She takes it as a part of her mother’s innate sense of fate, that there was some power at play during her time in the camps—potentially a terrifying idea, but not as terrifying as the idea that Auschwitz was the product of a series of horrific, but accidental, circumstances. “When everything is already written,” Jaffe writes, “it becomes easier to conceive of forgetting, or even surviving.” The story of Stern’s blue dress might be a story, but a comforting one nonetheless.
Writing like Stern’s is underscored by a fear of oblivion, a fear which stems from a need to remember, from a scramble to put things down in a form that isn’t susceptible to the vagaries of the ageing brain. Testimonial documents, such as Stern’s diary, or the interviews that Spiegelman’s father gives and which forms the backbone of Maus, are a way of mourning a past that cannot be repeated or redeemed, and an attempt to bring this past into the present: The purpose of memory, and of giving testimony, becomes remembering. The past cannot be repeated—but in telling our stories, we can redeem it, bringing it into the present.
And yet, Jaffe notes, “What has been forgotten cannot be remembered with impunity.” The nature of Stern’s diary, one written so far after the fact—and after a fact so thoroughly impossible to comprehend—leaves her account full of gaps. “What is forgotten,” Jaffe continues, “can be a fully solid mass, filled with images and words that do not speak. You ask them and they stay silent, refusing to open their eyes or to be seen.” To chase after these forgotten moments, to try to fill the gaps, is a fool’s errand—“Memory is a tyrant and the memory of those who remember is the worst of them all.” What are the Blind Men Dreaming? is a book that fights against oblivion every step of the way—in Stern, writing her story for it to be read by the generations to come, and in Jaffe and Cartum, who meditate on what it means to remember, and to live in the wake of memory. The Holocaust is something that is totalizing in its horror. It resists being thought about or written about. Just think of Adorno’s dictum about art after the Holocaust. Jaffe and Cartum show just how hard it is to think about the trauma that millions in their parents’ and grandparents’ generation went through, but they also show the necessity of it—of working through an immense trauma whose footfall echoes down the generations.