Limit Experiences

A Study of Twentieth-Century Forms of Representation

by Jacek Leociak (Author)
©2019 Monographs 368 Pages
Open Access


In his work Limit Experiences, Jacek Leociak addresses questions that are fundamental to the twentieth-century experience: How can we represent such traumatic events as the Holocaust? Was Lyotard correct when he claimed that reality had succumbed to the gas chambers? How can we describe the «indescribable»? Moving seamlessly through such topics as the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto, the carpet bombing of Dresden, and Jews left for dead in the Nazi execution pits who miraculously «exited the grave» alive, Professor Leociak succeeds in offering readers a profound representation of twentieth-century limit experiences by embedding them in a broad array of sources and building around them a rich historical context.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Experience as an Organizing Category
  • Inspiration
  • Subject and Structure
  • Sources and Research Method
  • Part I
  • 1 Topography and Existence
  • Romantic Heroization
  • Ironic Criticism
  • Divided City
  • Metaphors of the Ghetto
  • Taking an Aryan Tram through the Warsaw Ghetto
  • 2 Bombardment
  • Bombardment and the “Morale of the Civilian Population”
  • The Target: Civilian Morale
  • Bombardment in the Second World War
  • Preliminary Stage
  • First Stage: From May 1940 to November 1941
  • Second Stage: From February 1942 to the Middle of 1944
  • Third Stage: From the Summer of 1944 to War’s End
  • Bombing and Morality
  • The Experience of Bombardment
  • Total War
  • The Speed and Completeness of Destruction
  • The Moment of (Macabre) Transformation
  • Ambivalence
  • The (Re-)Construction of Memory
  • Accounts by Victims
  • Perpetrators’ Accounts
  • Observers
  • German Attitudes
  • Victor Klemperer – Józef Mackiewicz – Kurt Vonnegut
  • Timothy Garton Ash and Kevin Alfred Strom
  • Winfried Georg Sebald – Jörg Friedrich – Frederick Taylor
  • Part II
  • 3 Looks
  • Faces in Extremis
  • Before Marching off to the Front
  • Damaged Photographs of (from) the Holocaust
  • Let Us Pause for a Moment on the Matter of Damage
  • Types of Damaged Photographs
  • Kinds of Damage
  • The Private Photograph
  • Clandestine Photographs
  • Interpretive Tropes
  • Damage as a Stigma of the Holocaust
  • Damage as a Vestige of the Holocaust
  • Damage as a Metonym for the Holocaust
  • Children of the Holocaust: Obverse and Reverse
  • The Boy from the Warsaw Ghetto
  • A Boy from the Łódź Ghetto
  • Farewell
  • 4 Encounters with a Corpse
  • The Postmortem Dissection
  • Between the Grotesque and the Sublime
  • In the Arms of Eudoxie’s Corpse
  • The Earth Discloses Its Corpses
  • Contemporary Antigone
  • Ancient Tradition
  • The Inhumanity of the Twentieth Century
  • “A City Engulfed by Plague”
  • The Cemetery That Is Not a Cemetery
  • Rescuing Funeral Rituals
  • Rachel-Antigone
  • Exiting the Grave
  • Epilogue
  • Bibliography
  • Index


Pain wrenches us from our everyday routine and allows us to experience the limits of our corporeal existence. It takes us to the brink, beyond which there is only the threat of death and the horror of corpses. The word turns into a cry, babble, howl. And in the end – into silence. And yet, the encounter with pain, with suffering and danger, brings recognition. Death confirms that life has meaning. Like a powerful beam of light, limit experiences provide an outline to our human shape, they draw it out from the shadows.

This book is about breaking the kind of stereotypical thinking by which the macabre is merely something horrible and repulsive; the paralyzing fear of death is simply overpowering; and what is terrible and injurious is only destruction. The pathologist does an autopsy in order the reveal the secrets of the functioning of the human organism. The anatomy of a dead body provides truth about the living body.

It is the goal of this book to show that limit experiences do not leave only a vacuum in their wake; that it is possible to represent them; that, through the examination of their various forms, we can reach the essence of human existence and man’s entanglement in the world. I will keep the layers of philosophy and theoretical reflection to a minimum. I intend to remain on the level of research practice, and to concentrate on what I would call “exercises from reading.”

I question the validity of the post-modern argument that limit experiences are ineffable, that their description is impossible. Talking about our inability to talk about the Holocaust (after all, the extermination of the Jews is the main subject of this discourse) seems to have become increasingly barren, because it has become increasingly predictable. The founders of this discourse left behind a full array of philosophical-poetic formulas that sound like mysterious incantations. Maurice Blanchot called the Holocaust a phenomenon in which “meaning was swallowed up,” one that gave no “place to anything that can be affirmed, that can be denied,” in which all thought yields to destruction and all that is left is “the mortal intensity, the fleeing silence of the countless cry.”1 So how is it possible to “write about disaster”? In a passage from Blanchot’s esoteric work, we read: “To keep still, preserving silence: that is what, all unknowing, we all want to do, writing.”2 Over this speculative notion of paralyzing language, of the power ←9 | 10→of the Holocaust to overwhelm speech and to void any meaning, a shadow is cast by Blanchot’s involvement in the 1930s in the activities of the right-wing Action Française.3

According to Jean-François Lyotard, not only had “reality” succumbed to the gas chambers of the Holocaust, but so too had the means hitherto used to talk about that reality. Great metanarratives, by which the entire world had been conceived as a meaningful whole, lay in ruins; their place was taken by micronarratives: fragmentary, temporary, provisional, unfinished. No longer was there a persistent point of support; rules of recognition were destroyed, were thrown into the middle of a conflict between various “phrase regimens,” none of which can enjoy final or conclusive sanction. Lyotard called this unending struggle différend, and he made it the nucleus of his concept, which he formulated with frequent references to the Holocaust. For this French philosopher, Auschwitz was a synonym for the destruction of standard ways of naming, of making judgments, of understanding. Auschwitz also led to the destruction of the very experience of Auschwitz, since it was something so radically new in history that it canceled even the possibility to bear witness; it left us only with “the negative presentation of the indeterminate.” In his work Lyotard applied the metaphor of a great earthquake that destroys all seismographic instruments and thus renders any measurement impossible.4

It is characteristic that Lyotard would refer to the names of great philosophers and theirs works from Plato and Aristotle, through Kant and Hegel, to Levinas, but he cited not a single word from such great eye-witnesses to Auschwitz as Elie Wiesel, Charlotte Delbo, Primo Levi, or Tadeusz Borowski. He made his argument somehow over their heads, as if he left in a black hole everything one could extract from there, including not just testimonies written post factum by those ←10 | 11→who had survived, but also hand-written texts buried in the ashes at the crematoria in Birkenau, documents hidden there by members of the Sonderkommando in the hope that someone would discover and read them.5

I try to avoid the trap that is the aestheticization and sublimation of the limit experience. I prefer to distance myself from the tendency to create a fetish, through the use of abstract philosophical discourse, out of the “indescribable” and the “ineffable.” Such a discourse carries the matter of the limit experience into the sphere of speculation; it performs a kind of deontologization and dematerialization, it separates the limit experience from empiricism.

The goal of this book is to embed experiences in the sources, to describe them in concrete historical situations, in concrete circumstances, in their “biographical” and “material” determinants. I try to resist the temptation to textualize experiences in such a way as to deprive them of their reference to factual reality. That having been said, it is important to remember that what I am examining here are representations of experiences, and not the experiences themselves.

I put forward the hypothesis that – in light of scholarly research into representations (in various forms) of limit experiences – the argument that, for example (and in particular), the Holocaust experience is ineffable can be convincingly made neither on empirical, nor on analytical grounds. There is a large body of testimony that originated from the very depth of the catastrophe, written in ghettos, in hiding, on scraps of paper in the camps. The obligation to give testimony is not just a commonly and explicitly-formulated message conveyed by those who wrote, and have written such testimony6; it also constitutes a new set of circumstances for the subject. The compelling need to bear witness that emerged in the wake of the Holocaust gave rise to a need to reflect on the notion of subjectivity and its application in the context of eye-witness accounts.7 Analysis of these accounts allows us to approach that which has been masked or obscured, to approach the meaning that the limit experience hides within itself. A meaning that, in various ways, has been disinherited and subjected to deconstruction, but a meaning that also demands that it be saved. One can attempt to ←11 | 12→capture this meaning only through a description of a “motion of thought” that confronts, despite barriers, the difficulty of understanding.8

Experience as an Organizing Category

It is risky to turn the word “experience” into a key conceptual category and to place it up front in the title of a book. Experience is a word that has been domesticated into our everyday language, just as it has been a conceptual category at work in European thought since Greek times and down through the present day; it has played an important role in practically every philosophical system. The popularity of this word, along with the many ways it is understood in contemporary humanities, makes it impossible – it would seem – to establish a comprehensive and coherent definition of experience. The concept of experience remains “hopelessly confused”9 and “is loaded down […] with such chronic ambiguity that no single monograph, no matter how thick, can subdue” it.10 As Hans-Georg Gadamer wrote, “the concept of experience seems to me one of the most obscure we have.”11 Without wading too deep into the complicated material on experience, I will introduce a few threads of thought that provide the philosophical and anthropological context for the subject of this book.12

←12 | 13→

In the field occupied by the word doświadczenie (experience), as it has taken shape in the Polish language, we come across four semantic components. First, poddać próbie (to put somebody/something to the test), in the sense of exposing to a risk, to be threatening, dangerous, both emotionally and physically. Second, zaznać, doznać, in the sense of feeling (pain, joy). Third, dowieść, in the sense of proving something with the use of experience, i.e. not through the expression of an opinion about a state of affairs, but through its (so to speak) sanctioning with the subjective strength of participation in that whose existence is proven. And fourth, oświadczyć, zaświadczyć, in the sense of providing testimony about (or bearing witness to) something.13

The first two semantic components of “doświadczenie/experience” play an essential role in the arguments made in this book, because they point – on the one hand – to the threat posed by that which becomes the object of experience, and – on the other hand – to the sensorial aspect of experience. In other words: I am not interested here in any kind of mystical experience, but rather in experience whose foundation is material, corporeal. The next two components – dowieść and oświadczyć – are also important for my arguments, since they imply the category of evidence, testimony. Barbara Skarga has emphasized that “the word doświadczenie contains within itself testimony. Doświadczenie is thus to testify about something, and one who experiences is, quite simply, a witness.”14 I treat the entire range of source material analyzed in this book as testimony.15

Of the two terms used by Wilhelm Dilthey to define experience – Erfahrung (from the German verb fahren: to go, to travel) and Erlebnis (from the German noun Leben: life), the most important to me is Erlebnis (in Polish, ←13 | 14→przeżycie: experience, something survived), the basis of cognition and a prerequisite for understanding. Life is manifested in Erlebnis, a word that contains within itself a special semanti intensity. As Hans-Georg Gadamer wrote:

An experience is as much distinguished from other experiences - in which other things are experienced - as it is from the rest of life in which “nothing” is experienced. An experience is no longer just something that flows past quickly in the stream of conscious life; it is meant as a unity and thus attains a new mode of being one.16

For the person who is the subject of Erlebnis, that experience has a strength and persistence of its own, it constitutes the form by which that person is recognized. Gadamer suggested that the word Erlebnis “ultimately stems from its use in autobiography.”17 For me this is a key assertion because the source material used in my analysis here is taken broadly from autobiographical records. For the studies referred to in this book, two specific features of Erlebnis appear to be important: first, a special directness (“everything that is experienced is experienced by oneself”).18 And second, the occurrence of a state in which one “goes beyond oneself” into a sphere that cannot be comprehended through reason.

For cultural anthropology, the problem remains: can one know the experiences of another person, and if so, in what way? From the perspective of philosophy, we can formulate the matter with the question: does experience give itself up to representation, and if so, in what way? Edward M. Bruner conceived the relationship between experience and its representation as a triangle: (1) objective reality; (2) experience in which that reality presents itself; and (3) expressions of that reality. There thus exists a fundamental difference between life experienced/survived (reality), life experienced (experience), and life that is voiced (expression).19 Frank Ankersmit came out in favor of a three-level model of relations between historical reality and the texts on which it is based: (1) the past in and of itself (ontology); (2) the level of description (epistemology); and (3) the level of presentation/representation (aesthetics).20 In light of these distinctions, the texts ←14 | 15→I analyze in this work are instances of “life that is voiced”; they are a record that demands an interpretation, placed on the level of presentation, which opens the path to experience.

I want to state emphatically that, as I write about limit experiences, what I have in mind are the various forms of their representation; what interests me is the record, the portrayal, the image, and not reality itself. In a word, what is important to me is not direct experience, but rather the mediated experience, “mimetic mediation,” which, “because it makes use of […] stylistic-compositional-representational models,” produces a “scheme for the organization of experience.”21

At this point we must introduce a distinction between presentation and representation. Based on historiographic theory, Frank Ankersmit applies the idea of “historical representation”; he writes about:

[…] the so-called substitution theory of representation. According to this theory - and in agreement with the etymology of the word ‘representation’ – a representation essentially is a substitute or replacement of something else that is absent. Obviously, precisely because of the latter’s absence, we may be in need of the substitute’s ‘re-representing’ it.”22

Thus, to “represent” is to return something to the present, and the “represented” is that which is “not present.”23 Michał Paweł Markowski points to the ambiguity of the concept of representation, which in the Polish language is manifested in the words reprezentacja and przedstawienie, which in practice are treated as synonyms, but which on the basis of philosophy cannot be treated as synonyms. Reprezentacja (representation) and przedstawienie (presentation) complement one another, but they are not the same. Reprezentacja is, on the one hand, a substitute (it appears instead of a thing) and:

[…] on the other hand every reprezentacja embodies [uobecnia] in some way that which it represents […]. Which means that every representation is divided in half, it is a “substitute and indication simultaneously,” a non-depiction of that which is presented and a repeated depiction, through mediation and presentation. […] Because reprezentacja is re-presentatio, the repeated depiction of a thing through the use of signs and symbols. In turn, as Heidegger taught us, przed-stawienie is przed-się -stawienie (Vor-stellung), the establishment of an object by the subject through mental representation – that is, the idea that is often translated as imagination.24

←15 | 16→

We often have the feeling that we are not able to convey to others our deepest experiences (doznanie, that which we have “gone through”), because they are so individual and inimitable that they must remain in the sphere of the unspoken. Similarly, the word “experience” has often been used to define that which is experienced (survived) but which cannot be expressed, because it is inexpressible.25 Modernity contributed to the decreased authority of experience; it turned out that experience was extremely subjective, and thus incommunicable and intransmissible. Modern experience forms and shapes reality, more than it reproduces or presents reality. Another significant feature of modern experience is its stratification: “Between that which is presented in the depiction and the object itself, inhuman reality, a gap opens up that is difficult for the intellect to bridge.”26 This fundamental shift (or break), which represents a constitutive feature of the relationship between experience (doświadczenie) and presentation (przedstawienie), is revealed with particular clarity in reflections on the Holocaust and its representations. These reflections are situated in the space marked out, on the one hand, by mild theory about the crisis of representation and, on the other hand, by radical sounding formulas like “negative presentation,”27 “forbidden representation,”28 and the “impossibility of representation,”29 and by the promotion of concepts as the aporia of meaning, a desert, silence.30 Matters involving the representation of limit experiences and the conditions ←16 | 17→under which it is possible to present them, along with the question of what is expressible and what is not, will be one of the fundamental themes of this book.


The concept of the limit experience is laden with ambiguity. But I cannot find another term to define the basic subject of this book. In order to render it operational as much as possible, I will attempt to call upon those scholarly traditions that constitute the source of inspiration for my thinking about the limit experience. While some of them are close to me, I distance myself more or less from others. Below, I will sketch out the inspiration I have drawn from the ideas of Karl Jaspers, Bruno Bettelheim, Dominick LaCapra and Frank Ankersmit. They shine light on the understanding of the limit experience as proposed in this book.

Karl Jaspers drew a distinction between factual existence (Dasein) and “selfhood” (Selbstsein). Factual existence is everything that is realized in a human; it is the totality of factors contributing to human existence: biological, social, historical, cultural. “Selfhood,” on the other hand, is not something given, prepared or ready-made. It is a means of existence that can be, in a sense, peeled, thanks to reflective efforts, thanks to an individual’s activity as a values creating subject.31 Every person stands in the face of limit situations, which do not “happen” like a natural catastrophe or an automobile accident. They are not an affliction or ailment of existence; rather, they are its essence. “Being in a situation” is one of the most prominent dimensions of human existence.

Jaspers described limit situations as those situations that do not change, but rather are a constant companion of our presence in the world. They are: (1) entanglement in a situation of some kind; (2) battle; (3) culpability; (4) suffering; (5) death.32

The situations mentioned here take on a limit character when a people assume an existential stance when facing them – that is, when they illuminate their existence by virtue of their experience of freedom, and in the process becomes themselves (Selbstsein). “We become ourselves,” as Jaspers wrote, “in that we enter limit situations with open eyes. They are perceptible as something real only through existence […]. To experience a limit situation and to exist are one and the same thing.”33

←17 | 18→

Death confronts us with the pain that comes with irretrievable loss; it unveils fear about the strangeness of the world and the inevitable destruction of what exists. But it also brings awareness of a more enduring reality, one that crosses beyond the transience of life. “That which maintains value in the face of death belongs to existence; that which is destroyed belongs only to the sphere of factuality.”34 Death as a limit situation appears in the form of a question about this distinction. One can overcome fear of the end of life only through an “unconditional affirmation of existence, in which we do good for the sake of good, even if we know of no larger whole to which that good might belong – an order of salvation, reason, or history.”35 The experience of death as a limit experience opens up the possibility of authentic existence, the expression of which is a “heroic stance, overcoming fear and death on the path to a voluntary engagement with the world, taking responsibility for the fact that we give testimony to humanity in this place and in these circumstances.”36

Bruno Bettelheim drew a clear distinction between the disasters that had previously been the causes of mass death (natural catastrophes, the plague, traditional wars) and twentieth-century cataclysms, which were prepared with premeditation by humans and brought in their wake suffering, destruction and death on what had been an unimaginable scale. The First World War had destroyed faith that civilizational progress could offer meaning to our life, solve the problems that stood in our path, and calm fears about death. Despite great scientific, technological and intellectual progress, humans became the victim of irrational forces of violence and destruction. The Second World War showed to what terrible degree humans were capable of destroying and killing. Auschwitz was the realization of a perfected system for organized cruelty. Hiroshima became the symbol of the destructive power of science. All of these experiences caused disintegration in the forms of collective human existence, and they had a devastating influence on the life of an individual, both emotionally and physically.

Human beings were, as it were, tossed into an “extreme situation,” which represented for them an extreme threat, one over which they had no influence at all. What’s more, they were in no position to defend themselves against it or to tame it, because old models of adaptation, strategies for survival, and defense mechanisms, were no longer applicable. They were simply inadequate. “Extreme experiences” are the key experiences of our life. They expose the destructive ←18 | 19→power of progress and lead to a disintegration of personality; to the destruction of faith in the meaning of life; to paralysis in the elaborate ways people had been able to calm fears about death; and – in the end – to questioning the extent to which humans were embedded in culture and in the world of values.37

As early as 1943, in an article entitled “Individual and Mass Behavior in Extreme Situations,” Bruno Bettelheim wrote about the concept of the “extreme situation.” It was a psychological study of the behavior of prisoners in concentration camps, written on the basis of his own experiences. After Germany’s Anschluss with Austria, Bettelheim had been deported to Dachau, along with other Austrian Jews, and then to Buchenwald. In April 1939, he was freed and he emigrated to the United States. This article, published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology 38 (October 1943) has been reprinted many times and brought Bettelheim fame as a keen analyst of the human condition under the extreme oppression of the concentration camp.38

Dominick LaCapra has stated that scholars who examine the twentieth century – the century of the two totalitarianisms, of two world wars, of incessant local and regional conflicts, of the Holocaust – must place at the center of their investigations the concept of trauma. In this context, he writes about the Holocaust as a “limit event,” a “limit situation,” and a “limit experience.” This “limit” phenomenon manifests itself in such events as those listed above and, more generally, in practices that contain within themselves the potential for powerful, overwhelming and unprecedented aggression and violence, which – in effect – means aradical disruption of what had been the foundations of civilized order, the destruction of the values on which the human community depended.39 LaCapra applies the mechanisms of mourning and melancholy (drawn from Freud) to traumatic limit experiences. Sinking into melancholy represents the unending process of “working through” trauma in the present, the inability to cut oneself off from that trauma and to avoid its destructive powers. Mourning is ←19 | 20→based on the “acting out” of trauma, leaving it in the past, and returning to life, which becomes richer through a kind of new self-knowledge.40

LaCapra’s comments on the forms by which limit experiences are represented is essential for my work; they point to the irreducible tension between the expressible and the inexpressible. The claim – which one can find, for example, in Lyotard’s works – that traumatic limit experiences are not susceptible to representation that they carry within themselves a kind of excess that eludes any kind of representation, gives rise to two kinds of danger. First, a kind of fixation on the backdrop of non-representation can divert attention away from what actually can be represented and reconstructed and should be expressed as accurately and precisely as possible. Second, it can lead to excessive aestheticization of limit experiences, to their being positioned in the realm of the sublime, whether that be secular or (sacralized) religious.41 The sublimation or sanctification of limit experiences can be a trap; they can lead to limit experiences being obscured by abstract speculation or by the stylistics of pathos. In Representing the Holocaust, LaCapra wrote about the radical de-sublimation that came with the Holocaust, which eliminated the possibility that some kind of higher meaning could survive, because there emerges from the Holocaust no new project for metaphysical, aesthetic or theological order. The Holocaust left space only for “a negative sublime in the form of unheard-of, traumatizing transgression that is presumed to be unrepresentable and to be met only with silence.”42 But LaCapra debates with Lyotard by claiming, among other things, that his concept of the sublime as a manifestation of non-representation prevents a nuanced study of various modalities and possibilities of representation. Lyotard’s radical theoretical posture has also raised doubts in LaCapra’s mind. Insufficient reflection on the relationship between history and theory leads to Lyotard “sacrificing” history to philosophical discourse.43

←20 | 21→

Frank Ankersmit has turned the categories of trauma and the sublime into one of the foundations of his concept for historical experience. The gap between the past and the present is best described by the Freudian term “uncanny.” Ankersmit explained: “What most upsets us about the ‘uncanny’ is that which was once very close and highly familiar to us, but which is simultaneously strange and foreign. Precisely for this reason, the dead are ‘uncanny’.”44 Historical experience expresses our relationship to the past and is located in a space marked both by an awareness that the past has been lost and by a desire to retrieve that past. Two opposing vectors intersect with one another, creating a tension that comes from the collision of suffering (the loss of the past) and pleasure (a desire to retrieve the past). This tension between suffering and pleasure is the source of the sublime.45 Referring to Edmund Burke’s treatise A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), Ankersmit argues that “the sublime calls forth in us both pain and pleasure, joy and terror, and along with that an entire range of conflicting feelings.”46 For Ankersmit, the paradigm of historical experience is the experience of trauma and the experience of the sublime. “The sublimity of historical experience originates from this paradoxical union of the feelings of loss and love, that is, of the combination of pain and pleasure in how we relate to the past.”47

Traumatic experiences open us up to research into the limits of representation. Ankersmit wrote:

An exploration of these limits thus urges us to consider “testimony” and what we ordinarily associate with that word; for does not testimony give us a representation of a person’s deepest and most significant experiences? And should we not agree that to the extent that the experience of the Holocaust can be represented in language, that language must take the form of testimony?48

←21 | 22→

Georges Bataille is not exactly my intellectual patron, though I treat certain aspects of his writings as inspiring interpretational tropes. Bataille posed questions that are beyond the horizon of my reflections here, above all questions about experiences without an object. His questioning of the existence of a coherent experiential object led him to oppose the identification of experience with Erlebnis, which he recognized as problematic given its emphasis on experiential immediacy and the present moment.49 Erlebnis as understood and used by Dilthey and Gadamer is decidedly closer to my way of thinking. In any case, the concept of the “inner experience” alone does not work in harmony with the many studies featured in this book; at the beginning of his work, Bataille wrote: “By inner experience, I understand what one usually calls mystical experience: states of ecstasy, of ravishment, at least of mediated emotion.”50

But as the author of L’Erotisme, Bataille assists me in my thoughts on the death experience; on the fundamental ambivalence between fear and desire, attraction and repulsion; on the dialectics of limits and transgression. As one commentator on Bataille’s thinking put it:

Acknowledging the finitude of others is a quintessential community-inducing limit-experience in several senses. […] Experiencing the death of the alter, even from the “outside,” compels us to experience the alterity within ourselves.51

In another place, that same commentator wrote: “Bataille knew full well that the limit of experience was met only in a death that was both impossible to incorporate into life and also its most intense, ecstatic and profound moment.”52

It seems that the simplest and yet most capacious (and thus most useful for me) formula is the one put together by Jan Strzelecki. Describing limit experiences, he wrote that they mark “existence in the sphere of a human fate’s final experiences, as if on the border of experiences that fall to people as members of a species.”53 Following Strzelecki’s thinking, one could say that we witness a limit experience at that point when a person is capable of enduring no more, but they must endure more – and they do.

←22 | 23→

By way of summary, one can thus say that, in this book, I consider limit experiences to be, above all, those experiences that contain within themselves trauma, and that are connected with the macabre and horror. They accompany the great catastrophes of the twentieth century that were the Second World War and the Holocaust. When speaking of the macabre, what I have in mind are such definitions as we find in contemporary dictionaries of the Polish language:54coś strasznego, przerażającego, wzbudzającego grozę; okropność, koszmar” (something terrible, frightening; something that causes terror; horror, a nightmare). But for me it is above all about representations of death and corpses. The point of reference for the macabre, understood in this narrow sense, is of course the tradition of the danse macabre and the image of the decaying corpse – the transi.55 Death and the corpse are thus the nucleus of the macabre, which I regard as one expression of the limit experience.

I situate limit experiences both in the sphere of individual experiences (in the sense of “doznanie,” e.g. macabre deformations of the faces of soldiers from the First World War caused by injuries sustained on the front, and their influence on the destruction of subjectivity) and in the sphere of collective, social experiences (e.g. the bombing of cities and their influence on inhabitants’ perception of urban space). I would like to point out some common features that characterize the different types of border experiences considered in this book, including feelings of ambivalence toward the source of an experience (e.g. an encounter with a corpse: attraction and repulsion; bombardment: fascination and horror). Ambivalence toward the limit experience lends it a structural resemblance to an experience of the sacred, which Rudolf Otto called numinosum and Gerard van der Leeuw called power.56 Holiness thus conceived is experienced as menacing and fascinating at the same time.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2019 (March)
Topography and Existence Bombardment Looks Encounters with a Corpse
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2019. 366 pp.

Biographical notes

Jacek Leociak (Author)

Jacek Leociak is a literary historian and professor of the humanities at the Institute of Literary Research of the Polish Academy of Sciences and at Warsaw’s Polish Center for Holocaust Research. Other works by Leociak include (with Barbara Engelking) The Warsaw Ghetto: A Guide to the Perished City (Yale University Press, 2009). His most recent work is «Biografie ulic. O żydowskich ulicach Warszawy: od narodzin po Zagładę» (Street Biographies: The Jewish Streets of Warsaw from their Birth to the Holocaust, 2018).


Title: Limit Experiences
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369 pages