Fiction and silence as testimony: The rhetoric of Holocaust in Dan Pagis

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In both real-life and fictional testimony, the problems of reliability-judgment multiply when witnesses report events that count as extraordinary. Historians and other judges then suspect the teller of misrepresentation. On such testimonies there accordingly converge the issues of reliability and rhetoric, truth and persuasion, norm and narrative discourse. To illustrate them, my essay juxtaposes the testimonial viewpoints and practices of two survivors of the Nazi camps: Primo Levi and Dan Pagis. The two may seem poles apart: while Levi is considered the quintessential witness, Pagis chose silence, just as his poems of fantasy stand opposed to Levi's documentary prose. Yet the comparison remains illuminating because even the divides prove thematic, central, and even dynamic, in that the writers undergo a symmetrical change. While the early Levi is relatively optimistic about the success of his project, his last book, The Drowned and the Saved, expresses a great disillusionment about his life's work as a witness to the Holocaust. The change can be traced, first, to his growing doubts about the reliability of witnesses, and second, to the reactions of readers, which made him question the very human capacity to understand whatever lies beyond one's own horizon of experience. Over the years, either party to the dialogue has turned out, or become, unequal to its demanding role.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)210-255
Number of pages46
JournalPoetics Today
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2005


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