Michael F. Bernard-Donals. Forgetful Memory: Representation and Remembrance in the Wake of the Holocaust. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2009. x + 201 pp. $60.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7914-7671-0.
Reviewed by Jennifer Marston William (Purdue)
Published on H-German (August, 2010)
Commissioned by Benita Blessing
Forgetting is Not Failure in Holocaust Representation
The premise of Michael Bernard-Donals's book is, at first glance, nothing new to Holocaust scholarship or memory studies in general. As the author states, "[n]otions of memory that take as their task a full or even partial recuperation of events in the name of knowledge will always fail in that task" (p. 5). Yet rather than lapsing into despair at our obvious inability to represent past events accurately and completely, Bernard-Donals urges us to see this kind of forgetfulness in a more positive light, as an integral part of the "writing" of memory. Thus, what is unwritten becomes as valuable as what is written. Forgetting becomes less the opposite of remembering, serving more as its complement instead. An inability to remember everything about a past event does not constitute the failure of memory, but is an intrinsic part of it.
Throughout this volume, Bernard-Donals makes a point of differentiating the complementary concepts of "mneme," a narrated memory, and "anamnesis," the process of recollection. The latter implies forgetting--or at least absence--and the disruption of the seemingly neat memory narrative of the former. This distinction is important for the book's arguments. Even more illuminating are the various novel, and at times even poetic, ways in which Bernard-Donals describes the faculty of memory: as a "midpoint" or "crux" between presence and absence (p. 15); as a "kind of writing" (p. 15); as "echo" rather than representation (p. 29); as both "mimesis," or mneme, and as "index," or anamnesis (pp. 101-102).
In developing the nuanced concept of his book's title, that of forgetful memory, the author demonstrates that memory and forgetting necessarily go hand-in-hand in the complexities of Holocaust studies. Forgetful memory "makes itself apparent as a disruption or a gap in the narratives of memory we construct of events" (p. 59). This gap in narratives of memory is not equivalent to "absent memory," and the author also distinguishes forgetful memory from the concept of postmemory. That is, forgetful memory is not equivalent to second- and third-generation memory, which includes both survivors and those who did not experience the Holocaust firsthand. At the same time, in terms of visual representation, forgetful memory and postmemory both result in images with "a traumatic effect upon the viewer that disrupts rather than conforms to collective memory or knowledge of the object depicted" (p. 60). This trauma caused by absence signifies, nonetheless, a trace of the event that is vital for remembrance and understanding.
Bernard-Donals explores the notion of forgetful memory through an impressively broad array of focal points. Included in his examination are the areas of literature, photography, ethics, Holocaust denial, eyewitness and other types of testimony, and even current politics surrounding the Middle East. Bernard-Donals takes on a significant challenge as one scholar by examining so many complex topics within a mere two hundred pages. But one of the strengths of Bernard-Donals's scholarship is his versatility in applying the notion of forgetful memory to a variety of perspectives on the Holocaust. His theoretical and philosophical underpinnings help in this respect, as he turns to thinkers such as Aristotle, Maurice Blanchot, Immanuel Kant, David Roskies, Yosef Yerushalmi, and above all to Emmanuel Levinas to broaden prior deliberations on memory and recollection.
In chapter 1, "On the Verge of History and Memory," Bernard-Donals details the assertion that memory, like writing, cannot truly represent an object of knowledge. Memory should thus be seen as "an intersection of remembrance and oblivion" and as "a kind of writing, in that events may be indicated rather than recollected" (p. 15). Chapter 2, "Ethics, the Immemorial, and Writing," connects Levinasian ethics to memory studies. Arguing for an implicit theory of forgetful memory in Levinas's writing, Bernard-Donals intriguingly analyzes, among other texts, the dedications in the philosopher's 1981 Otherwise than Being as an example of how language provides not a representation of an event, but rather a trace of that event that "haunts" both author and reader (p. 35). In a different mode, the third chapter, "'If I forget thee, O Jerusalem,'" looks at Palestinian writer Mahmoud Darwish and Israeli writer Yehuda Amichai, who, despite their disparate backgrounds, both employ the poetic language of forgetful memory in addressing their respective exilic experiences.
Chapter 4, "Memory and the Image in Visual Representations of the Holocaust," is one of the book's strongest, providing the most clear and concrete examples of forgetful memory. Here Bernard-Donals examines collections of Holocaust photographs that, in their capturing of a past moment, also indicate "what has been lost, forgotten, and yet which troubles the memory conjured by them" (p. 62). He posits that photography should not be seen as a key to knowledge about the past, but rather as a reminder of the limitations of memory and what lingers at its margins. Chapter 5, "'Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness,'" addresses the controversy surrounding the Fragments of Binjamin Wilkomirski, Bruno Doessekker's nom de plume. Wilkomirski wrote a fabricated Holocaust memoir that, despite its deviation from reality, still has the ability to "produce an effect upon readers that induces them to witness" (p. 83). Bernard-Donals does emphasize the extremely problematic aspects of false testimonies that can provide fodder for Holocaust deniers. Nonetheless, he argues that testimonial narratives disclose not history, but rather "the effect of events upon witnesses" (p. 89). He thus concludes that all witness testimonies, regardless of their authenticity, mark moments of forgetting that may have similar effects on a reader.
Chapter 6, "Denials of Memory," then specifically tackles the issue of Holocaust denial. Here the author temporarily ceases developing the notion of forgetful memory further, as he focuses on the details of the 1996 case of revisionist historian David Irving versus historian Deborah Lipstadt, as well as Stanley Fish's response to it. Eventually Bernard-Donals returns to the object of his study, arguing that a nuanced understanding of history, and of the forgetful memory of witnesses in particular, reminds us to concentrate on the evidence. To some degree, any documentary or archival evidence can be manipulated and misconstrued by deniers; such attempts to alter historical truths can and must, however, be countered by the material, undeniable evidence of the gas chambers. In chapter 7, "Conflations of Memory," the author describes his study of written comments left by visitors to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The visitors' remarks demonstrate that they often invoke forgetful memory in problematic ways. Visitors often write not about their impressions of the permanent exhibit, but rather about more recent instances of violence, destruction, and oppression.
Chapter 8, "'Difficult Freedom,'" returns to Levinas's thoughts on language and ethics as considered in light of the situation in contemporary Israel. Bernard-Donals sees this instance as "a testing ground for a contemporary politics based in forgetful memory" (p. 146). In the following pages, though, Bernard-Donals diverges again somewhat from the topic of memory. Although he provides some thought-provoking considerations, he neglects to integrate the material into the framework of the book's overall arguments. The book's conclusion, chapter 9, revisits the idea that forgetful memory is something productive in that it "compels writing" (p. 169). Through language, literature produces forgetful memory, presenting "the trace of the 'real' that is unrepresentable otherwise" (p. 177).
Forgetful Memory could have benefited from the publisher's further proofreading. The typographical errors, including the transposition of letters and the repetition or omission of words, are numerous and distract from the author's argument. For example, there are five errors on the first two pages of the conclusion alone. However, these problems should not be the last word on this work. Bernard-Donals has produced an insightful and broadly reaching work that demonstrates that not everything has already been said on the role of memory and its component of forgetting in Holocaust studies.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-german.
Jennifer Marston William. Review of Bernard-Donals, Michael F., Forgetful Memory: Representation and Remembrance in the Wake of the Holocaust.
H-German, H-Net Reviews.
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