Ellen McWhorter: On "(To Be a Jew in the Twentieth Century)"

In Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History (1992), by Shoshana Felman and psychoanalyst Dori Laub, Felman writes:

The contemporary writer often dramatizes the predicament (whether chosen or imposed, whether conscious or unconscious) of a voluntary or of an unwitting, inadvertent, and sometimes involuntary witness: witness to a trauma, to a crime or to an outrage; witness to a horror or an illness whose effects explode any capacity for explanation or rationalization.

In some cases, she goes on to explain, a witness will be one of only a handful of survivors who have in their lives experienced firsthand a human tragedy of the degree of WWII's concentration camps and lived to talk about it, and for that reason must bear a marked solitude ("isolation" in Rukeyser's poem) alongside a marked responsibility. "To bear witness," Felman writes, "is to bear the solitude of a responsibility, and to bear the responsibility, precisely of that solitude." Oftentimes, this means to bear the responsibility of telling their tale of survival, and by extension, the responsibility to speak for those who no longer can. To put this another way, in order to speak, witnesses mark themselves as exceptions. While the witness herself is defined as such by her status of solitude (that is, by her status as a sole survivor), the act of testifying can bring about a broad range of important repercussions for those whom she addresses. Felman offers: "By virtue of the fact that the testimony is addressed to others, the witness, from within the solitude of his own stance, is the vehicle of an occurrence, a reality, a stance or a dimension beyond himself."

With this model of testimony in mind, we can find at the heart of Muriel Rukeyser's "(To be a Jew in the Twentieth Century)" (1944) a debate over--and between--the solitude and responsibility of a survivor. Rukeyser's poem does not announce itself to be situated within a particular national context, but we can imagine that the testimony of a person practicing Judaism in mid-twentieth century Germany resounds differently than the testimony of a young American practicing Judaism in the latter half of the twentieth century. In the first case, the testimony comes from a survivor who witnessed Hitler's campaign to exterminate everyone of the Jewish faith (or race, depending on which theorist you read), and who successfully avoided this extermination him/herself. In the second case, the testimony perhaps carries more weight as proof that Hitler failed and Jewish lineages still propagated after the war. In any case, despite the explicit qualification in the first line of the poem that what comes next takes as it foundation the fact that the subject being discussed IS Jewish, Rukeyser's speaker muses over taking the "gift" of Jewishness and rejecting the "gift" of Jewishness. It seems to me that these musings may be read as questions of testimony.

Throughout the poem, Rukeyser keeps the meaning of "gift" eclipsed by the many internal states brought about by its acceptance or rejection by a Jewish subject. The origin of refusal, she makes clear, is the desire "to be invisible" (ln 3). Here we might remember Felman's argument that to act as a witness means, one the one hand, to mark oneself out as an exception, that is, to draw attention to a subject position that is somehow painfully "different," even if ultimately reparative. We can surmise that the threat of this positioning is exactly what would cause the subject being discussed in "(To be a Jew)" to wish for invisibility in the first place. Yet, refusal of the gift carries negative consequences: "death of the spirit, the stone insanity" (ln 4). In terms of Jewish testimony, a silent witness corresponds, in a sense, to Hitler's partially successful extermination of Jewishness. One cannot assert success against him, nor can one speak from a witnessing subject position from a point of invisibility. And when one neglects to "bear the responsibility" of witness--by my reading, to refuse the gift--one ensures the more wholesale internal isolation and solitude imaged in the poem as "death of the spirit" and "stone insanity."

Acceptance of the gift causes its own special set of torments. According to Felman's theoretical model, testimony entails remembering and attempting to put into words horrors of an impossible scale. Rukeyser writes that acceptance of the gift is acceptance of "evening[s] deep in labyrinthine blood/ Of those who resist, fail, and resist" (lns 6-7). These are no doubt insufferably painful memories, intentionally conjured as a result of the gift, whether put into words and told to a non-witness or not. Moreover, acceptance of the gift may result in its own form of "isolation" (discussed above in the context of Felman's work) or--further--"torture of the flesh" (ln 10). As we well know, to be a Jew (and especially to make Jewishness known in the public sphere) in 1944 was to risk violent, residual WWII racism, no matter the country one inhabited. Nevertheless, according to the speaker of Rukeyser's poem, the totality of the negative consequences of accepting the gift do not outweigh the hope and spiritual wholeness engendered by acceptance. If I can invoke Felman's argument one last time, it might be possible to complement Rukeyser's cryptic final word on the matter of being a Jew in twentieth century ("impossibility") with Felman's discussion of the redemptive quality of testimony. Felman writes of testimony as "the vehicle of an occurrence, a reality, a stance or a dimension beyond [the witness]," and infuses this definition with the spirit of a counter-force to internal suffering in/and isolation. It is a "whole and fertile spirit" writes Rukeyser, who "[dares] to live for the impossible." Only the act of testimony offers to a witness the possibility of moving through the isolation and solitude of witnessing, Felman offers. Perhaps then testimony is a "guarantee/ For every human freedom" (lns 12-13)contingent, of course, on acceptance of Rukeyser's mysterious "gift," which I have suggested, of course, can itself be read as the acceptance or refusal to testify.


Title Ellen McWhorter: On "(To Be a Jew in the Twentieth Century)" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Ellen McWhorter Criticism Target Muriel Rukeyser
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 02 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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