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Other People’s Pain

Narratives of Trauma and the Question of Ethics

Series:

Martin Modlinger and Philipp Sonntag

How do we approach other people’s pain? This question is of crucial importance to the humanities, particularly literary and cultural studies, whenever they address narratives of terror and genocide, injustice and oppression, violence and trauma. Talking about other people’s pain inevitably draws attention to the ethical dimension involved in acknowledging stories and histories of violence while avoiding an appropriation – by the reading public, literary critics or cultural historians alike – of the traumatic experiences themselves. The question of how to do justice to the other’s pain calls for an academic response that reflects as much on its own status as ethical agent as on literary expression and philosophical accounts or theoretical descriptions. This volume therefore explores the theoretical framework of trauma studies and its place within academic discourse and society, and examines from a multidisciplinary perspective the possibilities and limitations of trauma as an analytical category. A variety of case studies on individual and collective traumatic experiences as portrayed in literature and art highlight the ethical implications involved in the production, reception and analysis of other people’s pain.

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Colin Davis - Trauma and Ethics: Telling the Other’s Story -19

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Colin Davis Trauma and Ethics: Telling the Other’s Story Who should speak for those who do not speak for themselves, the dead, the mute, the traumatized, those who cannot or will not tell their own stories, or those who have no story to tell? In his ‘Plea for the Dead’, Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel is adamant that no one has the right to speak in the place of the victims of atrocity: ‘To want to speak in the name of those who died […] is precisely to humiliate them. […] Leave them in peace.’1 We cannot speak on their behalf, nor should we even try to understand them: ‘You want to understand? There is nothing more to understand. You want to know? There is nothing more to know. It is not by playing with words and with the dead that you will understand and know. On the contrary. The Ancients used to say: “Those who know do not speak; those who speak do not know”.’2 We should not have the arrogance to assume that we can share some part of what happened to the victims. And yet not to speak for those who have been silenced, not to recall or to study what happened to them in the hope of learning something from their stories, would be an act of barbarity in itself, hideously complicit with the forces which sought to eliminate them. As Wiesel puts it elsewhere, ‘To forget the dead would be to betray them. To forget the victims...

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