Cathy Caruth’s studies on trauma and literature, especially her seminal 1996 work, Unclaimed Experience, laid much of the groundwork of literary trauma theory. Caruth labelled trauma ‘the unexperienced event’. Direct knowledge of the traumatic experience, according to Caruth, is impossible; the ‘threat of death’ is never truly confronted by the victim at the time, and can only be approached subsequently and in an imperfect manner.
The question of psychic trauma in literature is of particular relevance when it comes to memoirs and other writings by those who survived the concentration camps, the scene of what have become in the collective memory the archetypal traumatic events of the 20th century. Yet to date, the considerable body of writings produced by concentration camp prisoners during their internment has been largely overlooked in debates on trauma in literature. By looking at writings from the camps by French prisoners and others, including the contemporary Sonderkommando testimonies, I will show that far from manifesting the victims’ incapacity to come to terms with what they are experiencing, these texts are evidence of the authors’ genuine engagement with the harrowing realities of internment and with the proximity of death. Traditional literary strategies, including lyricism, aesthetic imagery, and metaphor, are used to confront and interpret the traumatic events experienced. Reading these texts compels us to come up with a more nuanced model of how profound psychic trauma might find voice in literary texts at the very moments in which the traumatic events are experienced.
Dr Belle Joseph is a Sessional Lecturer in the French program in SLLL. She was awarded her PhD in French in 2017 for a thesis investigating the poetry written by French prisoners in concentration camps during the Second World War. She has a research article forthcoming in the Australian Journal of French Studies