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Monday, January 08, 2018

Smothered Words by Sarah Kofman

Sarah Kofman wrote nearly thirty books between 1970 and her suicide in 1994. The majority have not been translated into English and those that have are expensive, but with titles on Kant, Nietzsche and Freud, you can appreciate their range and seriousness. Derrida and Levinas admired her work so much they joined a campaign to get her the academic recognition she had been denied. However, I want to draw attention to one short book from late in her career.  


Parole Suffoquées was published in 1987 and translated by Madeleine Dobie as Smothered Words, an edition of less than 70 pages comprising commentaries on a short story by Maurice Blanchot and Robert Antelme's The Human Race, an account of his deportation to a Nazi work camp. But that description is not enough if it suggests another scholarly monograph, as the title alludes to the great tragedy of her life. She was a small child when her father, the rabbi Berek Kofman, was arrested by the Nazis and deported to Auschwitz, where he was beaten and buried alive for refusing to work on the Sabbath, a fact that until the opening pages of Smothered Words had remained unspoken throughout her life as a writer: "How can it not be said? And how can it be said? How can one speak of that before which all possibility of speech ceases?"

If the fact is now in the open, the trauma is spoken in response to other texts, interpersing commentary with quotation to such a degree that a single voice becomes a chorus. The other writers enable speech. Smothered Words begins by stating that if one is to adopt Adorno's injunction "to arrange one's thoughts and actions so that Auschwitz will not repeat itself, so that nothing similar will happen" then:
it behooves me, as a Jewish woman intellectual who has survived the holocaust, to pay homage to Blanchot for the fragments on Auschwitz scattered throughout his texts: writing of the ashes, writing of the disaster which avoids the trap of complicity with speculative knowledge, with that in it which is tied to power, and thereby complicit with the torturers of Auschwitz.
(A passage that ought to be noted by those who accuse Blanchot of anti-semitism.) Given her record of publications, one would expect a more formal, scholarly approach, keeping any personal stake out of the study, but Kofman recognises such speech is compromised and it is Blanchot's example that enabled her to speak of "this event, my absolute", and so mitigate any mastery:
To speak: it is necessary without (the) power [sans pouvoir]: without allowing language, too powerful, sovereign, to master the most aporetic situation, absolute powerlessness and very distress, to enclose it in the clarity and happiness of daylight.
Kofman uses Blanchot's 's 1935 story The Idyll as an example of how writing exercises such mastery. It is the story of a stranger entering 'the Home', a community in which differences between individuals are smoothed out or erased, and in which processes occur that prefigure the camps: welcoming the newcomer by sending him to communal showers, giving him a new name (if not a number) and directing him to a shed where other men live. Kofman discusses the story alongside quotations from Blanchot's postwar reflections on the story to emphasise the idyllic nature of fiction even as it describes terrible things. Storytelling basks in "the 'glory' of the narrative voice 'that speaks clearly, without ever being obscured by the opacity or the enigma or the terrible horror of what it communicates' – not even by death". This is why Blanchot removed the label 'story' from his postwar narratives, famously ending The Madness of the Day with "A story? No. No stories, never again".


Robert Antelme's account of his time in the Gandersheim work camp had to confront this issue. After being rescued by his friend François Mitterand, he experienced what other survivors experienced: "No sooner would we begin to tell our story than we would be choking over it." And so Kofman asks "How can testimony escape the idyllic law of the story?" Her answer goes directly to her father's act of prayer, which was:
the revelation of the word as the place in which men maintain a relation to that which excludes all relation: the infinitely Distant, the absolutely Foreign. A relation with the infinite, which no form of power, including that of the executioners of the camps, has been able to master, other than by denying it, burying it in a pit with a shovel, without ever having encountered it.
A prayer reestablishes "in this situation of extreme powerlessness and violence, a relation beyond all power", offering resistance to the ethic of productivity at the heart of western culture, which Blanchot claimed had reached its apogee in the production of death in the camps. We have only to read something as routine as Tim Lott's recent demand that novelists tell stories to recognise how deeply this ethic is still embedded in our culture. If Antelme's book is not quite a prayer, it is an extremely patient and remarkably self-effacing description of a system of power that worked and starved campmates to death but could never destroy their membership of the human race, that which unified them with their oppressors. Kofman says it is because no community was possible with the SS that there was also the strongest community, the community (of those) without community:
It is not founded on any specific difference or on a shared essence – reason – but on a shared power to choose, to make incompatible though correlative choices, the power to kill and the power to respect and safeguard the incommensurable distance, the relation without relation.
The Nazis justified their attempt to create an idyllic community by, among other things, appealing to Nietzsche's necessarily ambiguous aphorism "Man is the yet undetermined animal". Kofman says Antelme's response would emphasise that ambiguity with a yes and no: "No, if we must take this to mean that a transformation of the species is possible; yes, if this aphorism signifies that in man there is a multiplicity of powers, none of which is ever sure to triumph." She ends the book by emphasising that this is a new humanism, one based on "the infinitely Distant, the absolutely Foreign".

Writing Smothered Words did apparently determine something in Sarah Kofman. As Madeleine Dobie explains in her superb introduction to her translation, after it was completed "she was no long able to write in the language of mastery". Later, as this website reports, she "became unable to do the things she loved most dearly—reading, writing, listening to music, watching films and looking at works of art". Unfortunately, as far as I know, only one of her remaining books has been translated into English, so I cannot say what form they take. The one book, Rue Ordener, Rue Labat is a "plain and unadorned" memoir of her childhood and teenage years, moving from the house in one street from where her father was arrested and to another where she became torn between her mother and a Christian woman who had taken them in. The first page suggests that all reflection and analysis, if not writing, had come to an end, and why.


I have often wanted to write something about Smothered Words, not because of its subject matter – which at best I feared had attracted me because of the common assumption that extreme experience is a guarantee of value or, at worst, as some kind of Schadenfreude – but because of how the subject matter affected its writing. I wanted to write about the book because it is written in the voice of a person subject to her own experience. As one embedded in academic methods, this was especially intriguing. While the seamless inclusion of quotations has been mentioned, Dobie notes that "a significant number" of these in the French text are erroneous, suggesting it had been written with some urgency, as if the Scotch tape patching up her pen was starting to disintegrate. A notable example is on the very last page where the quotation "after Auschwitz there is no word tinged from on high...that has any right unless it has undergone a transformation" is attributed to Antelme rather than Adorno. I half-wish the errors had been repeated in the translation, as this is as would maintain and perhaps further the movement away from mastery, and may even reveal more. Blanchot is known for quoting from memory and not caring to amend where it is mistaken.

Kofman's mastery of scholarly writing and its transformation in Smothered Words is a profound example of what I sense is necessary on our own very mundane level. I have always been aware that my writings on this blog were written under the light of one subject or experience filtered through the prism of books, becoming present to me only in the colours emerging in this way. The epigraph to the very first essay I posted online makes this clear with its qualification that the revelation is also its own eclipse. Much of my disappointment and frustration with reviewing and critical writing has come from when I stray from this light in favour of engagement with a literary culture that is preoccupied with consumer evaluations and magisterial labelling rather than more fundamental questions about the presence of writing in our lives. So I present this post as a recommendation, both of Sarah Kofman's work and the direction it offers to those seeking to eclipse their own light.

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