Time, history and the Holocaust

I’ve just been reading Lawrence Langer’s essay Memory’s Time: Chronology and Duration in Holocaust Testimonies  in which he makes a distinction between chronological and durational time.1  Chronological time presumes a ‘before, during and after’, whereas in durational time there is only now, and therefore there can be no sense of ‘what next?’ or an ‘afterwards’.

Langer’s argument is that for Holocaust survivors, time was (and still is) durational rather than chronological; this is the case even when they are giving their testimonies years or decades later.  Langer also cites Lyotard’s comment that Holocaust time is ‘lost time’, which has no place in the psychical apparatus, and points out that Holocaust time is a constantly re-experienced time.  This means that it makes no real sense to talk about ‘Holocaust memory’, because nothing is remembered; rather it is repeated.

Another important point that Langer highlights is the importance for many Holocaust survivors – and the broader culture within which they are situated – of giving a meaning to their experiences.  This applies particularly to the deaths of the victims, and, to use Langer’s terminology, has given rise to the idea of the ‘Auschwitz death’ as ‘sacrifice’ or ‘martyrdom’.  The reality, however, as Langer points out, was very different:

The idea of a “beautiful death” invoked by words like “sacrifice” and “martyrdom” awakens the consolations of chronological time, but the price one pays is fidelity to the durational moment: that is, the last gasp of life, followed by the literal annihilation of the remains, until no trace is left, in memory or fact, of what was once a human being. The language of chronology seeks to rescue the victim from that mute fate.2

In other words, invoking the concept ‘beautiful death’, is to invoke the idea of a meaningful death, which brings us back, paradoxically perhaps, into the land of the living: the world of ‘normal’, chronological time, of ‘history’ as most people understand it.

Langer also briefly touches upon another aspect of ‘Holocaust time’: he refers to the Auschwitz experience as a splitting rather than a continuity of time.  However, we need to think of splitting in terms of a foreclosure of time, of memory, rather than Freud’s concept of a splitting of the ego, although Langer does make reference to this as well.

Finally, there is Langer’s reference to Nazis and Jews inhabiting different ‘universes of discourse’:

….it took the victims a long time to admit this; when they realized it, for most of them it was too late….3

Perhaps more disconcertingly, Langer also points out that our ‘universe of discourse’ is totally different from that of the Holocaust survivors.  We simply have no comprehension of such a universe; the ‘best’ (or worst?) we can do is to try and redefine the Holocaust experience in terms of our own discursive universe and give it a ‘history’ and a ‘narrative’.

However, I think Langer is also hinting, perhaps unknowingly, at something else: something that might be best described as the ‘ideological kernel’ that lies at the heart of both these ‘universes of discourse’.   This ‘kernel’ is itself traumatic; a Real around which the discursive formations of both Judaism and Nazism circulate.  And perhaps this is another reason why it’s so hard for anyone who was not directly touched by the Holocaust to even begin to get to grips with it: the worldview that made it possible in the first place is simply incomprehensible to most people.  In a sense you could say that the worldview that led to Auschwitz was itself totally traumatised.

But going back to Langer’s basic argument regarding time, one of the things that struck me when reading his essay was how much his notion of ‘Holocaust time’, what he calls ‘durational time’ chimes with the idea of trauma in general.  Isn’t ‘Holocaust time’ a particular instance of trauma time?  In other words, isn’t the whole point about traumatic experiences that they are somehow ‘outside’ of ‘normal’, chronological time?  And isn’t one of the problem for those who have experience trauma that it just won’t go away, that it just keeps repeating itself?  As I touched upon earlier, it doesn’t seem quite right to talk of ‘traumatic memories’, because this sounds like a contradiction in terms; nothing is remembered but rather, it is repeated.  If it could be remembered, in the sense of being symbolically processed and transcribed then it would no longer be traumatic.

I think this also raises a more delicate question regarding the Holocaust: is the Holocaust experience, from the point of view of the survivor, any different from any other traumatic experience?   After all, many Holocaust survivors – both first and second generation4 – have exhibited symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety and other psychological problems.   These are the types of symptoms commonly found in anyone who has experienced great trauma.

However, I think at this point we need to differentiate between how the Holocaust affected those who lived through it and survived, and trying to situate the Holocaust as a world historical event.  This then leads to the question: to what extent is the Holocaust a violation or traumatising of history itself -which would include the notion ‘world historical event’ itself?  In other words, if by ‘history’ we mean some form of chronological narrative, then to what extent is this narrative ruptured, shredded, foreclosed.  To put it another way: can there be history after Auschwitz?

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  1. Langer, Lawrence L. ‘Memory’s Time: Chronology and Duration in Holocaust Testimonies’. In Admitting the Holocaust: Collected Essays, 13-24. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. []
  2. ibid p. 19 []
  3. ibid p. 20 []
  4. Second generation survivors is the term used to refer to the children of those who directly experienced the Holocaust.  For more information on this see my posting http://www.therapeia.org.uk/wp/blog/2015/02/02/memories-of-the-holocaust/ []