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Limit Experiences

A Study of Twentieth-Century Forms of Representation


Jacek Leociak

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.

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I am aware that, having conducted research into limit experiences for so long, I have grown used to visions of horror and the macabre. But this does not mean that I have become indifferent and insensitive to them. I remain constantly in search of a language with which I can talk about this subject: without pathos, but also without analytical coldness; without an excess of emotion, but also without cynicism, perversity, or unhealthy fascination. I try not to succumb to such fascination, even though we know how attractive and alluring evil can be. I try not to succumb to the temptation to aestheticize evil, horror, and the macabre. Such, at least, have been my intentions. It is for the reader to decide the extent to which I have succeeded in resisting these temptations. I realize that I move between the poles of appropriateness and inappropriateness, but this is a risk I have taken upon myself consciously.

Writing this book has been a risky venture. Research into limit experiences, for the scholar himself, is a kind of limit experience. It runs up not only against cognitive boundaries, but also against barriers of expression and articulation. It also encounters a great ethical challenge.

Trauma is not the past; rather, it continuously “happens” here and now. It plays itself out again and again, which is why it does not entirely submit to the rigor of academic discourse. To some extent, the same holds true for the act of writing about trauma. It penetrates the scholar’s world, and he must defend himself against it. For me, writing this book has been an extremely important cognitive experience. It has served as a path to the acquisition of self-knowledge, just as it has been – simply put – a challenge: to take the risk of understanding human limit experiences, and the risk of understanding oneself.

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