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'Sublime Anamnesis: Hysteria and Temporality in Thomas's "The White Hotel"' / Steven, Vine
Twentieth-Century Literature, Volume: 56, Issue: 2, Pages: 196 - 220
Swansea University Author: Steven, Vine
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Among the ‘names of history’ of Western modernity that Lyotard invokes in 'The Differend', ‘Auschwitz’ is included as a ‘sign’ of the abeyance of the modern project of universal emancipation. Controversially, this means that Lyotard harnesses Auschwitz to the sublime, a strategy fo...
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Among the ‘names of history’ of Western modernity that Lyotard invokes in 'The Differend', ‘Auschwitz’ is included as a ‘sign’ of the abeyance of the modern project of universal emancipation. Controversially, this means that Lyotard harnesses Auschwitz to the sublime, a strategy for which he has been rebuked by Dominick LaCapra. The essay proposes that D. M. Thomas’s 'The White Hotel' exemplifies the logic by which the Shoah elicits the sublime – not in the sense of the hyberbolic, but in the sense of the melancholic and commemorative. Speaking of the ‘bloody impasses’ of twentieth-century history, Lyotard says in 'The Differend' that ‘Kant following Burke recognizes sublime feelings other than enthusiasm’ – and that ‘sorrow ... counts among the “vigorous emotions,” if it is grounded in moral Ideas.’ This means ‘Auschwitz’ can function as a ‘sign’ of the ‘heterogeneity between ideas and realities’ – of the gulf between the ‘Idea’ of humanity on the one hand, and the reality of violence on the other. What this prompts is not ‘enthusiasm’ (as in Kant’s account of the French Revolution) but ‘sorrow’ - and the response of a ‘vigorously melancholic humanity’ to the catastrophes of the twentieth century. Thomas’s 'The White Hotel' situates the Shoah in the context of Freudianism and the fictional case history of a Russian Jew, Lisa Erdman – and the article uses the novel’s account of psychoanalytic ‘working-through’ or ‘anamnesis’ to suggest that it is through this means that the text approaches the unpresentability of the Shoah, and the sublime. At the same time, 'The White Hotel' preserves what Lyotard calls the ‘sign that is [the] silence’ of the victims’ suffering by acknowledging the unspeakability of the stories of the dead.
D. M. Thomas, Freud, the sublime, hysteria
College of Arts and Humanities