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Stories and the Ethics of Testimony

In the introduction, I referred to James Dawes’s concern about the paradox involved in speaking for others: it is “both a way of rescuing and usurping the other’s voice.”10 The paradox can be approached more fruitfully by imagining the alternative: not speaking for the voiceless. Speech is an imperfect act, while silence is perfect in its negativity. Speech is imperfect in the sense that there will always be the unsaid, the unexpressed that demands more speech to bring it to life. Speech initiates a discourse. Empathy, when expressed in a form that does not seek to patronize people, bridges the gap between silence and speaking for the voiceless. Storytelling is by its very nature an imperfect act. It does not claim to capture the totality of the subjects. To the contrary, it situates its subjects at the center of discourse.

In Chapter 3, I discussed Paul Ricoeur’s understanding of the function of poetry, one that goes to the core of the relation of narrative and ethics. Poetry enables the imagination to piece together, in ways acceptable to human flourishing, bits of human conduct, the elements of our happiness and misfortune. In line with Ricoeur, Richard Kearney states that “what is peculiar to the ethical quality of narrative understanding, especially in literary works, is that it gives priority to the perception of particular people and situations over abstract rules.”11 The situations described in the narrative force us to engage the individual not in abstract or universalistic terms, but in our own terms or in terms that our pain or humiliation has dictated, and this requires prudence. I also discussed Martha Nussbaum’s understanding of empathy. To be sure, people do not always empathize with others who are in pain. Empathy can be blocked, for example, by the kinds of conditioning that Germans were subjected to during the Nazi regime. However, it is also true that to be human is to reach out in gestures of empathy to others. People can even derive pleasure in feeling the pain of others, as Susan L. Feagin argues. For her, pleasure from tragedy is a meta-response, and it is gratifying to know that there is “a unity of feeling among members of humanity, that we are not alone, and that these feelings are at the heart of morality itself.”12

In Aristotle’s understanding, the writer who imitates people’s actions in tragedy bears witness to humanity’s experience of pain. In provoking pity and fear in us when we witness the pain of others in narratives, the writer indirectly seeks to put a stop to the source of that pain. This, in my understanding, is where Aristotle, Levi, and Jabbeh Wesley’s understandings of narrative merge. When Jabbeh Wesley states that she writes as a way to keep her people’s suffering alive or that writing provides a way for her to grieve, she touches at the heart of Aristotle’s idea of tragedy as illuminating ethics by initiating some form of purification in people. She crafts her poems as testimonies in pursuit of life in its fullness. Testimony is also at the core of Levi’s poems and memoirs of survival in the German concentration camps.

The Jewish Holocaust is, no doubt, the most fully documented horror of the twentieth century, excepting, of course, the two world wars themselves. Geoffrey Hartman argues that “no other man-made catastrophe has been so voluminously recorded and publicized as the Shoah.”13 Accounts of Holocaust survival are also veritable templates for survival of all large- scale ethnic or racial traumas. Simon Wiesenthal, Eli Wiesel, Viktor Frankl, and Levi provide some of the best examples of testimonies about the evils of the Holocaust and the healing power and moral obligations of such testimonies. In the concluding chapter of his memoir, The Drowned and the Saved, Levi offers a rationale for speaking about his experience in the concentration camp:

We see it as a duty and, at the same time, as a risk: the risk of appearing anachronistic, of not being listened to. We must be listened to: above and beyond our personal experiences, we have collectively witnessed a fundamental, unexpected event, fundamental precisely because unexpected, not foreseen by anyone. It took place in the teeth of all forecasts; it happened in Europe.14

Levi’s assertion that “we must be listened to” underscores his belief in the fundamental insight of Aristotle’s understanding of tragedy. Levi believes that the survivors of the Shoah have stories that are capable of provoking “pity and fear,” stories that ultimately lead to a more ethically conscious life. There is, therefore, a moral urgency to inform the living of what happened to the dead. He issues an urgent warning: “It happened, therefore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say.”15 The moral obligation of all survivors of horror is to prevent it from happening again, and this, of course, presupposes that all have been moved to pity and fear by the narrative of what happened. In Survival in Auschwitz, Levi makes his most robust ethical case for revealing the horrors of the camps. He notes that the book was written to satisfy certain needs, primarily that of “an interior liberation.”16 He confronts his audience with an ethical responsibility. He does this in a short, epigraphic poem, “If This Is a Man,” in which the speaker addresses the reader directly, thus situating him in the center of Levi’s moral imagination:

You who live safe In your warm houses,

You who find on returning in the evening,

Hot food and friendly faces

Now that readers feel directly addressed, Levi reveals, in the second stanza, the core moral issues to be faced when he paints the pictures of inmates of the camps: a man who “works in the mud” and who “fights for a scrap of bread”; a “woman without hair... her eyes empty.” The concrete details of the man and woman who have been humiliated by their fellow humans should trouble every person who lives safely in their warm house. Levi however urges these readers further to:

Meditate that this came about:

I commend these words to you,

Carve them in your hearts At home, in the streets,

Going to bed, rising;

Repeat them to your children.17

As Nicholas Patruno argues, this epigraphic poem, written in January 1946, is a “loosely paraphrased interpretation of one of the most often invoked Hebrew prayers, the Shema.”18 The imperative not to forget is a well-known component of Jewish history and culture. Remembrance is the holy grail of survival. Conversely, to forget is to subject oneself to extinction. For Patruno, the title of the poem is intended to raise a “rhetorical question of conscience whose impact is so powerful that any reply would be superfluous.”19 Jonathan Druker contends that the ethical import of Levi’s memoir is highlighted by the poem, which “commands the ‘safe’ reader, surrounded by ‘friendly faces,’ to reflect on whether the dehumanized victim, unable to assert his or her own subjectivity, is yet a human being for whom the reader is responsible.”20 Druker, alluding to Emmanuel Levinas, further points out that “the human face is the focal point of the poem’s gaze as the ‘friendly faces’ (visi amici) of the first stanza give way to the dehumanized victim’s blank stare ‘her eyes empty’; (vuotigli occhi).”21

By inviting the reader to look closely at the faces of the camp inmates, Levi asks the reader indirectly: Would you keep silent if you knew this was happening in your own time and place? Do you still feel comfortable among your friendly faces? Do you not recognize the humanity of that other human who has been forced to waste away? Would you still keep silent? Levi knows the destructive force of silence, for, as he notes, the silence of the majority ofthe German population, their failure to let the secrets about the concentration camps be known, is a moral failure. This failure, Levi argues in The Drowned and the Saved: “represents one of the major collective crimes of the German people and the most obvious demonstration of the cowardice to which Hitlerian terror had reduced them.”22

To keep silent when one should have spoken out is to refuse to acknowledge the humanity of others, of those in pain. Perhaps the many genocides that took place after the horrors of Auschwitz bear him out. The 1994 genocide in Rwanda, and those in Bosnia and Herzegovina between 1992 and 1995, and the horrors of the Liberian civil wars come readily to mind.

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