This dissertation reading is so interesting because it’s throwing up so many questions that I can’t seem to find an acceptable answer to with regards to the ethics of writing trauma. Like, isn’t it kind of grotesque for anyone who hasn’t lived through the trauma to write about it and fictionalise it and use it as a setting for your own story?
Are books or films or TV shows that use the holocaust as their setting appalling, or is it okay as long as it’s respectful? But what is “respectful”? What constitutes an acceptable portrayal of a trauma that you didn’t experience?
Shalamov wrote that he didn’t really feel that it was acceptable for him to write about his experiences in the gulag (Russian work/death camps which killed an approx 20 million people, but we’ll never know for sure) once he’d left because his hand as a writer/survivor was not the same hand as his zek (convict) hand. If he barely feels that he can write his own experiences, then what right has someone like Martin Amis got to write about the gulag, when he did not experience it any form? If you break it down then it feels to me like an appropriation of trauma and the act of witnessing this trauma that you are using to further your creative endeavors. You are literally co-opting someone else’s trauma. Even doing this “lest we forget” is bullshit, because giving a trauma narrative any wider social responsibility is, in some ways, terrible.
But then, if we say this about the holocaust or the gulag, then does this extend to other trauma’s? 9/11, Hiroshima, the trenches? Do we go further back still? The Slave Trade? The Spanish Inquisition? The Crusades? If no-one can write about any other trauma than their own, then we wouldn’t have literature.
I totally get Adorno’s stuff about “after Auschwitz no poetry”, because how can a writer confront these horrors, but equally how can a writer write without confronting them? Literature is a terrible medium for this act of witnessing trauma, but it is also the best we have.
Even within a testimonial or memoir or novel written by a gulag survivor is open to so much criticism in terms of form and responsibility. Solzhenitsyn writes The Gulag Archipelago for those who haven’t survived and cannot tell their story, but Shalamov feels that he barely has the write to author his own story. Which is right? Which act of understanding is the appropriate one? Are metaphors and similes and imagery appropriate or does this create a banality of the evil the story contains? Should anybody be able to criticise these texts? Should we treat trauma narratives the same as any other literary text, or are they separate? Do they have any artistic, cultural or historical responsibility or are they so separate? Can they be separate?
And what about the role of the reader in these texts - should we be catered for? The language that the author must use in order to be understood is not always the language or form of witnessing. Does the common language betray the original experience? Shalamov called the gulags “that which should not be told”, and maybe it should not be told at all. Should a reader be implicated in the act of witnessing or left entirely outside the text? Should we only witness the witnessing, as in Shalamov’s work or should we be made to understand, like in Solzhenitsyn?
This is even worse when the text is not written by a survivor, because how can an author who should only ever have been a witness to the act of witnessing trauma possibly decide how to write reader into the text.
Oh god this is so crazy interesting and complicated and it’s also psuedo-repulsive that I’m writing about this in the first place. What right have I even got to be making decisions on these questions? None.
If any of you have any response to any tiny part of these questions/ramblings then please reply! I’m dying to hear other people’s views on this.