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Updated Up To 18/01/2017
Volume 7, Number 2 (June 2009) : 319--42
The Illiterate Reader
Aphasia after Auschwitz
Sarah Liu
Rubric A: Eyewitness Narratives


On the bases of discussions of Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, as well as of Charlotte Delbo’s, Jean Améry’s, and Primo Levi’s memoirs, Fred Wander’s The Seventh Well, John Felstiner’s translation of Celan’s Todesfuge, and Bernhard Schlink’s novel The Reader, this paper presents a model for reading the Holocaust structured around the ideas of “illiteracy” and “aphasia,” the opportunity to transform linguistic disability into a means of access to what seems “beyond the word.” Rather than precluding insight, verbal insufficiency serves as a form of “negative capability,” the potential to dwell in a space with no complete answers, no security, respecting the terms upon which victims of the event had to read their own experience. Using specifically language-related terms emphasizes the difference between knowing about an event through representation and knowledge from direct personal exposure, not to detract from the limits of understanding outlined by trauma theory but to decouple the experience of trauma itself from reading about it. Our belatedness, reading “after Auschwitz,” carries the ethical obligation to recognize the distinction between then and now, between illiteracy as inability to derive meaning from an event without context and a willful blindness that chooses to deny, between aphasia from immediate injury and aphasia from posthumous grief. The Nazi genocide of the Jews leaves a legacy of semantic abuse, yet the voice of the witness also persists, allowing us to turn linguistic breakdown into insight. To read with insightful illiteracy, to recognize our aphasic limitations, is not merely a strategy for coming to terms with the Holocaust but an ethical necessity.

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