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1 - Trauma and Ethics: Telling the Other's Story

from Section A - Ethics, Trauma and Interpretation

Colin Davis
Affiliation:
Royal Holloway, University of London
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Summary

The two chapters in this section explore ethical and hermeneutic issues which arise from trauma studies, partly in a theoretical frame, and partly with reference to material concerning the Second World War. The question discussed in this chapter goes to the core of trauma studies and its difficult ethical negotiations: Who should speak for those who do not speak for themselves – the dead, the mute, the traumatized, those who cannot or will not tell their own stories, or those who have no story to tell? In his ‘Plaidoyer pour les morts’, Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel is adamant that no one has the right to speak in the place of the victims of atrocity: ‘Vouloir parler au nom des disparus […] c'est précisément les humilier. […] Laissez-les donc tranquilles’ (Le Chant des morts, p. 197). We cannot speak on their behalf, nor should we even try to understand them:

Vous voulez comprendre? Il n'y a plus rien à comprendre. Vous voulez savoir? Il n'y a plus rien à savoir. Ce n'est pas en jouant avec les mots et avec les morts que vous allez comprendre et savoir. Au contraire. Les Anciens disaient: ‘Ceux qui savent ne parlent pas; ceux qui parlent ne savent pas’. (Le Chant des morts, p. 219)

We should not have the arrogance to assume that we can share some part of what happened to the victims. And yet not to speak for those who have been silenced, not to recall, not to study what happened to them in the hope of learning something from their stories, would be an act of barbarity in itself, hideously complicit with the forces which sought to eliminate them. As Wiesel puts it elsewhere, ‘Oublier les morts, serait les trahir. Oublier les victimes serait se mettre du côté de leurs bourreaux’ (Discours d'Oslo, p. 27).

Talking of the other's trauma is an ethical minefield. The duty to preserve the memory of pain has been asserted so often that it has become difficult to contest. This chapter focuses rather on the less evident but insidious dangers inherent in secondary witnessing and vicarious trauma.

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Traces of War
Interpreting Ethics and Trauma in Twentieth-Century French Writing
, pp. 11 - 28
Publisher: Liverpool University Press
Print publication year: 2017

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