Stifled Words (Paroles Suffoquées)

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STIFLED WORDS (Paroles suffoquées)

Memoir by Sarah Kofman, 1987

Sarah Kofman's Stifled Words, published in French in 1987 as Paroles suffoquées and in English translation in 1998, takes its title from Robert Anteleme's account of his experience in the Holocaust death camps, The Human Race. It is not a memoir in the conventional sense—as is Kofman's Rue Orderner, Rue Labat, for example—but rather an extended meditation on the Holocaust and responses to it. There are three figures that lie behind and inspire the work.

The first figure is her father, Berek Kofman, a Parisian rabbi deported and murdered by the Nazis in Auschwitz. She gives the facts—"taken to Drancy on July 16th, 1942 … convoy no. 12, dated July 29, 1942"—in a "neutral" way, echoing the Serge Klarsfeld Memorial, which she incorporates into the text. This neutral voice, she writes, "leaves you without a voice, makes you doubt your common sense and all sense, makes you suffocate in silence." Yet the absence of her father is present throughout the text—and perhaps all of her writing—as a constant, haunting presence.

The second figure is Maurice Blanchot. Kofman writes that it "behoves me, as a Jewish woman intellectual who has survived the Holocaust, to pay homage to Blanchot." This is a very strong statement of support for the French writer, critic, and philosopher. Before the war, and despite his close friendship with the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, Blanchot published articles in right-wing and anti-Semitic periodicals. During the war, however, he helped Jews hide from the Nazis in occupied Paris, and his reflections after 1945 on the Holocaust, principally in The Writing of the Disaster but also throughout his work, have been extremely influential on two generations of French thought. In this work his influence is most clearly seen in the understanding of otherness and in the idea of the community of those with nothing in common, an idea developed further by Jean-Luc Nancy in The Inoperative Community.

The third influence on Kofman is Robert Antelme. His book The Human Race, an account of his experiences in Auschwitz, was extremely influential in the French understanding of the Holocaust. Most of Kofman's book is a discussion of Antelme's memoir. She asks how it is possible to speak when the task—"to convey the experience just as it was, to explain everything to the other"—is impossible. To speak is to choke; words are stifled. Antelme's book and many other testimonies are examples of this "choking speech." For Kofman, Antelme's central argument is that the extreme situations in the death camps were simply a magnification of what happens in the "normal" world, that "we the detainees are not animals; and you the SS are not gods. We are nothing more or less than men and there is nothing inhuman or superhuman in man." She shows that, for Antelme, even the most basic vital functions show that a man is still a man. Antelme maintains that because the SS "sought to call the unity of the Human race into question … they will eventually be crushed."

In a four-page coda, influenced by Blanchot and Friedrich Nietzsche and implicitly by Martin Heidegger, Kofman re-flects on Antelme's argument. She suggests that, because he does not posit an essence that the SS and the victims share, Antelme does not simply affirm an old-fashioned humanism. Yet they do share a community "without community … the relation without relation." It is a relationship based not on similarities of nationality, say, or of religion or of being reasonable but on an awareness of difference and of the unassimilable nature of human difference: "the abject dispossession of the deportees signifies the indestructibility of alterity, its absolute character." This sort of thinking—hard to summarize—has many affinities with the work of Levinas and the later Jacques Derrida, not least because of the shared influence of Blanchot. It seeks to ask about the conditions of the possibility of the idea of humanity and ethics after the Holocaust.

—Robert Eaglestone