n Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe - en (deel II) : slagofferskap in (Edgar Hilsenrath) en De joodse messias (Arnon Grunberg) : navorsings- en oorsigartikels

Volume 56 Number 3
  • ISSN : 0041-4751



The first, theoretical part of this two-part study encompassed a short analysis of subjective identity and the dynamics of identity formation from a psychoanalytical point of view. Whereas the concept of "interpellation" was used to describe the signifier denoting the subject, the performative relation of the subject to its signifier (and the symbolic investiture it represents) was identified as that which posits the state of subjectivity. The focus was on two kinds of performative relations: hysteria, which describes the subject that challenges its interpellation; and perversion, which refers to the subject that completely submits to its pre-fixed meaning in the Symbolic Order. Victimhood, as identity marker, was used as a case in point to demonstrate hysterical and perverse subjectivity. With reference to LaCapra's work on structural and historical trauma, the subject's conflation of the two trauma registers was identified as being perverse, whereas the distinction between trauma as ontological structure and trauma as historic event was read as being hysterical. In terms of victimhood the evolution of the Holocaust discourse seems to have shown a tendential development from hysteria to perversion, i.e. the universalisation of trauma discourse seems to have facilitated the easier appropriation of victimhood.
In the second part of this study two novels are used to demonstrate the hysterical challenge directed at victimhood as identity marker, and the perverted appropriation of the same, respectively. Both by Edgar Hilsenrath and by Arnon Grunberg have identity formation as one of their main themes. The former novel tells the story of Max Schulz, a German SS-officer who survives the Second World War and decides to change his identity to that of a Jew. The novel relates his efforts to achieve this goal, which include his circumcision and his illegal emigration to Palestine, where he fights for the establishment of the state of Israel. But Max fails in his attempts in that he is unable to appropriate the one identity marker he considers to be the most important: Jewish victimhood. Because of his actions during the war as perpetrator he is unable to partake in what he sees as a Jewish tradition of suffering. Various motifs in the novel suggest that he is aware of the ontological trauma on which his identity is based, but again any efforts to map this onto the historical trauma of the Jews, specifically the Holocaust, are unsuccessful. His story, narrated from his point of view and relating all of his anxious attempts, demonstrates his hysterical relation to Jewish victimhood: appropriating all the identity markers he can identify, but realising that it is not enough.
Xavier Radek, protagonist of , is at the beginning of Grunberg's novel a teenager in die city of Basel. Like Max Schulz his grandfather was a SS-officer responsible for the death of many Jews. Xavier's fascination with his grandfather extends to his interest in Jewish suffering, resulting in his decision to set himself up as the great comforter who will rid the Jews of their suffering. In order for him to do that he decides, like Max Schulz, to take on the Jewish identity. He is ultimately successful, partly because of a botched circumcision, which for him establishes a link to Jewish suffering. From his perspective his partaking in Jewish victimhood makes his change of identity complete. This clearly represents a perverse appropriation of the identity marker of Jewish victimhood, a fact that explains his role in the anticipated nuclear destruction of the world at the end of the novel: because of what is in Xavier's case the conflation of structural and historical trauma, the only way to completely get rid of suffering, seen both as an ontological state and as historical event, is to destroy all of life.
My hypothesis is that the respective hysterical and perverse reactions to the interpellation of victimhood as established in the two novels represent a shift in both the Holocaust discourse specifically and trauma discourses in general. The passing of time allows for historically specified traumas to become universalised in their mediated representation - this, along with the current culture of trauma (which often conflates structural and historical trauma) facilitates the perverse appropriation of victimhood. This trajectory from hysteria to perversion poses questions as to the ethics of victimhood: is not a hysterical coming to terms with historical trauma more acceptable than its perverse counterpart? This issue should be raised since the latter either results in potentially destructive fundamentalism or a trivialisation of historical victimhood.

In deel II van hierdie studie word twee romans gebruik om die histeriese bevraagtekening van slagofferskap as identiteitsmerker met die perverse appropriasie daarvan te kontrasteer. Waar identiteit in deur Edgar Hilsenrath na 'n histeriese omgaan met Joodse identiteit herlei kan word, is dit in die geval van deur Arnon Grunberg eerder pervers van aard. In beide romans poog die hoofkarakter (Max Schulz in eersgenoemde en Xavier Radek in laasgenoemde) om die Joodse identiteit hulle eie te maak. Beide sien slagofferskap as hoekpilaar van die Joodse identiteit, maar hulle vermoë om dit toe te eien verskil: Max faal in sy pogings terwyl Xavier suksesvol is. Max se mislukking word performatief en histeries in sy vertelling uitgespeel, terwyl Xavier as perverse subjek suksesvol is, maar tog die wêreld in die proses vernietig. Die hipotese van hierdie artikel is dat die twee reaksies bakens op die trajek van die Holocaust-narratief verteenwoordig, deurdat historiese universalisering van trauma (en dus slagofferskap) en die Holocaust perverse slagofferskap fasiliteer.

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