There’s tears in things

The historian Jerzy Topolski stated in an interview that thanks to Le Roy Ladurie and Carlo Ginzburg, human individuals from the past were now “closer to us. Because of them we see those people in their direct actions and with their everyday worries” (Domanska, Encounters: Philosophy of History after Postmodernism 1998, p. 130). The statements in the records of the Inquisition, on which their seminal works on microhistory, Montaillou (1975) and Cheese and the Worm (1976) respectively are based, are from a different time of persecution from the large deposits of witness statements made in more recent times on the Shoah.

Recently, listening to a lecture on YouTube by Saul Friedländer with a panel discussion from May 2012, I heard a panelist mention how it was impossible to listen to a witness who cried throughout the statement, whereas it was relatively easier to listen when a witness only cried a little. Emotions and the affective being popular areas of study among historians, an email to one elicited names of two historians whose works I might usefully look at: Dominick La Capra and Amos Goldberg. (La Capra will be considered in a future blog post on Camus).

Goldberg offers us insight into history writing on the Shoah, with a thought-provoking outline in his 2009 review in History and Theory where, among others, he names the danger of the melodramatic, by concentrating too much on the individual voice.

Although, he may have a valid point, my visceral reaction was a desire to protest. When a suffering human being makes a supreme effort and allows open the floodgates of memory, does this not deserve our respect? If we lose our ability to feel pity and sorrow for the human beings who suffered in the Shoah, and indeed in any tragic event of historic persecution, what are we?  Even if the presentation does not appeal to our aesthetic sense?

While concentrating on an individual or single family may bring with it the danger of melodrama, it does enable the writer and the reader to explore what happens to a single human being in a sea of events, to see how the person acted. To see what a human being is capable of, in an extreme situation, maintaining the self’s identity in the face of another’s denial. In huge narratives, one can drown in numbers, and be numbed or frozen by the sheer magnitude of the horror and despair, to the point of getting lost.

Indeed, The Lost, A Search for Six of Six Million (2006) by Daniel Mendelsohn, in its very simple human story enables us to feel the depth of the suffering, without the melodrama. The quote from the Aeneid, “there are tears in things”, used in the book at a critical point of the tale allow us to sympathize and feel compassion. Is this a bad thing?

Now, historians write, not to elicit sympathy, but to shed light on events of the past.  By giving a voice to victims of persecution, historians can help bring them justice, and contribute to the work of mourning. As Ricoeur points out, it is not merely to “the victims, if they still exist, but to their descendants, kin, and allies, whose pain merits being honoured” (The Just, 2000, p. 138).

As Ricoeur reiterates in Memory, History, Forgetting (inspired among others by Carlo Ginzburg), ultimately the citizen has to choose between the historian and the judge, to weigh the evidence presented by both and make up one’s own mind. Hearing the words of suffering human beings, whether in the early 1300s, the 1500s or the 1900s, of those considered by some to be “others”, does bring us closer to our fellow human beings and our shared history.


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