Monday, February 2, 2009

narratives of trauma

For three years, I taught a class on narratives of genocide that explored genocide as a historical phenomenon and delved into the various ways human beings, both survivors and perpetrators, make sense of their experiences. In order to teach the class, I read many accounts of genocides in all parts of the world, from Lord Jeffrey Amherst and his smallpox-infested blankets to the Armenian genocide to Darfur.
This means that I've encountered more stories of trauma than your average person-- personal first-hand accounts, historical analyses, fictionalized versions, poems, films, etc. The aggadot of the past week or so, these horrible-- and horrifying-- narratives of the slaughter and starvation of a people, remind me of all of those other tales of slaughter and starvation I've read.
In my experience, genocide narratives tend to make sense of trauma in a few different ways:
1. They spend a great deal of time comparing life before and life after, in order to create some frame of reference and to establish that the victims had normal lives before the events
2. They valorize survival and survivors, describing in detail the exploits of those who lived, even though, as Art Spiegelman reminds us in Maus, it's not that those who survived were necessarily any smarter, better, or more moral than anyone else.
3. They also exalt the victims and position them as martyrs to assert that they died "for something" instead of in vain
4. They detail the horrors, rehearsing and retelling the trauma, so as to exorcise it and so as to share it with the reader and implicate the him/her in the experience
5. They emphasize strange coincidences and "fated" events in order to make sense of an experience that cannot actually be made sense of

All of these elements appear in the aggadot of the past week. The addition of the dynamic that the destruction of the Temple is seen as God's will, God's punishment of the people, is a different sort of wrinkle. I must confess that I experienced these aggadot from a very critical distance (perhaps because the destruction of the Temple is such a common trope in our liturgy and texts) until I began to see them as similar to all of those narratives about genocide that I have read. They became frighteningly real when I related to them the same way I would relate to a text by a Tutsi Rwandan genocide survivor or a Cambodian victim of Pol Pot.

I'll share with you one of my favorite texts in this vein. It describes the use of a technique called a Shibboleth, which comes from Judges 12:5-6 (a genocide perpetrated by the Israelites, I might add).
Parsley by Rita Dove

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