Langer, Lawrence L.
LANGER, LAWRENCE L.
LANGER, LAWRENCE L. (1929– ), U.S. scholar of Holocaust literature. Professor of English Emeritus at Simmons College in Boston, Langer is the foremost scholar of the Holocaust in the field of literature and testimony. The Holocaust and the Literary Imagination (1975), his first work on the Holocaust, was followed by The Age of Atrocity: Death in Modern Literature (1978); Versions of Survival: The Holocaust and the Human Spirit (1982); Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory (1991); Admitting the Holocaust: Collected Essays (1995); and Preempting the Holocaust. He is also editor of Art from the Ashes: A Holocaust Anthology (1995). Langer's contributions to the field are many. In Versions of Survival, he coined the term "choiceless choices" to describe the unprecedented situations of conflict that Jews found themselves in during the Holocaust. Holocaust Testimonies, based on his study of survivors' oral histories in the *Fortunoff Video Archives, won a National Book Critics Circle Award and was named one of the "Ten Best Books of 1991" by the New York Times Book Review. It was one of the first scholarly works to examine survivors' testimonies as a basis for understanding the Holocaust. A hallmark of Langer's analyses is the rejection of reading a redemptive message into study of the Holocaust, an understanding that he pursues with rigor against all attempts to soften our understanding.
Initially, especially in his widely respected work The Holocaust and the Literary Imagination, Langer's preoccupation was with literature, but gradually and perceptively his focus shifted. He became consumed by the task of understanding the Holocaust. Literature became his tool; in the hands of a master, the tool soon became a club for undermining some of the simple conventions of Western society. More and more, Langer's work concentrated on memoirs and memory, telling of the assault against the individual that was at the core of the Shoah. More than any other student of literature, Langer insisted that the Holocaust was about atrocity. No simple meanings could be found, no reassuring sense of triumphant values, no invocation of Viktor Frankl's "will to meaning" or Terrence Des Pres' "life spirit." For Langer, there was no escape from darkness, no way to sidestep the radical challenge posed by the Holocaust.
His understanding of Holocaust testimonies was another exploration of the narrative of survival. Unlike literary memoirs or diaries, the testimonies are the products of ordinary people, often without great literary or intellectual sophistication, who have lived through extraordinary events. Video testimonies are spontaneous and unrehearsed, they do not have the worked-through quality of literary creations. Often, the witnesses surprise themselves by what is recalled. Langer may have heard more of these oral histories than anyone alive, and he brings to this study decades of sensitivity toward the event and the literature. Yet, throughout the work he retains a keen ability to hear and resists the temptation to organize and categorize the material. Instead, the reader is treated to an extended essay on memory, deep memory, anguished memory, humiliated memory, tainted memory, unheroic memory (as the titles of his chapters go). What emerges is a refined understanding of the Holocaust as experienced by those who lived it, an uncovering of all levels of memory that falsify the event, that protect the individual from the full impact of this most painful experience. Like a great psychoanalyst, Langer strips away layer after layer of falsehood until the reader is forced to face the core experience – directly, faithfully, faithlessly.
Having opted for early retirement, he left Simmons in 1992 after more than three decades of teaching and retired to write. He has written works on the art of Samuel *Bak that combine a keen analysis of his art with an even more profound understanding of the subject matter of the art, whether it be Genesis or the shattered world in which post-Holocaust humanity dwells.
[Beth Cohen (2nd ed.)]