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A Study of the Politics of Remembrance in the Holocaust Narratives of Saul Bellow and Philip Roth

Author WenSheng
Tutor JinLi
School Beijing Foreign Studies University
Course English Language and Literature
Keywords Saul Bellow Philip Roth the Holocaust memory of potentiality radicalevil
CLC I712.074
Type PhD thesis
Year 2013
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From a combined perspective of cultural study and literary criticism, this dissertation argues that the two American Holocaust novels—Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1997) and Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (2004)—employ a politics of remembrance to memorialize the Nazi catastrophe that the two writers, like the majority of their fellow Americans, did not experience themselves. This politics of remembrance, memory of potentiality, largely defines American Holocaust writing as a memorial narrative, which is not aimed to represent the historical facts of the Holocaust during WWII, but to track down the essence of Nazi radical evil through the constellation between the memories of the Holocaust and American histories.Committing to the facticity of the Holocaust history, European Holocaust literature tries to testify the Nazi atrocity through providing sufficient factual evidence from eyewitnesses, so as to convict Nazis with what they have done. However, scholars have already realized that the Holocaust is too colossal to be contained in factual representation of historiography, for the Holocaust has overstepped the boundaries of being a historical event and become a highly invested symbol directly destroying the symbolic system of modern society. Just as Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben concluds that radical evil is not this or that bad deed but the potential for darkness. That is to say that the core of Nazism does not reside in piles of dead bodies or vastness of city ruins but in the un-realized potentiality of evil. When the "disengaged" Jewish-American writers like Bellow and Roth, who have always been accused of lacking personal Holocaust experience, come to the Holocaust issue, they never attempt to deal with what the Nazis have done but what Nazism is capable of. And the two novels in discussion are actually about the sojourn of Nazi potential in the non-fascist American democracy. In order to reveal how the politics of remembrance tracks down the essence of Nazi evil, this dissertation unfolds along two interactive theoretical trajectories throughout the main chapters. The first is to unearth how the Nazi potential for darkness survives in non-fascist American history through American cultural memories of the Holocaust; the second is to prove how the politics of remembrance—memory of potentiality—tracks down the transmissible Nazi essence, so as to ultimately resist Nazi evil. Along the development of the dissertation’s argumentation, first and foremost, Walter Benjamin’s philosophical concept of "back to the idea of history" and Giorgio Agamben’s theory of potentiality help to build a theoretical base for the central concept of the whole dissertation—"memory of potentiality." Next, Pierre Nora’s theory of "the site of memory"(Les Liux de Memoire) serves as the methodology of the examination of the Nazi mechanisms’ survival in non-fascist America. Finally, Primo Levi’s theory of "grey zone" and Agamben’s theory of "Muselmann" will provide significant historical archetypes for the genealogical study of Nazi mechanisms’ evolution from German Nazi regime to American democracy.There are two main reasons why this dissertation chooses Mr. Sammler’s Planet and The Plot Against America as the representative works to prove the unique American memorialization of the Holocaust. First, the two novels symmetrically reveal the survival of Nazi mechanisms in American society from both diachronic and synchronic perspectives. Mr. Sammler’s Planet reveals how the Nazi mechanism—"privileged victimhood " survived the extinction of Nazism in1945and was appropriated in1960s’ America. The Plot Against America displays the survival of the Nazi mechanism—"the remnant" across the Nazi-and-non-Nazi geographic borders into America during WWII, and how this Nazi mechanism functioned all the way through WWII to the post-911era. Additionally, these two novels, also respectively expose the constitution of two mainstream Jewish political identities—Jewish Neo-conservatism and Jewish liberalism, which have been molded to implement the American appropriation of Nazi mechanisms.It is through this politics of remembrance that Bellow and Roth, among other American writers, strive to turn to the essence rather than the phenomena of the Holocaust, to the meaning of history instead of the fragmented facts. What these writers want is a more thorough resistance against the devastating negation that the Holocaust has brought to human civilization. These "disengaged" American Jews’ resolution to extinguish Nazism is no less than that of their European counterparts, for the American Holocaust writings have warned that neither the actualized Holocaust history nor the non-fascist era, the anti-fascist democracies, and even the Jewish victims themselves can be spared of interrogation about potential Nazi mechanisms.

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