This paper is a revised version of the second History and Theory Lecture, presented on April 12, 2010, at Columbia University in New York. The History and Theory Lecture is given annually, and is jointly sponsored by History and Theory and the Consortium for Intellectual and Cultural History centered at Columbia University (http://www.columbia.edu/cu/cich/ [accessed November 16, 2010]).
The Second AnnualHistory and Theory Lecture1
HISTORICAL AND LITERARY APPROACHES TO THE “FINAL SOLUTION”: SAUL FRIEDLÄNDER AND JONATHAN LITTELL
Article first published online: 19 JAN 2011
© 2011 Wesleyan University
History and Theory
Volume 50, Issue 1, pages 71–97, February 2011
How to Cite
LACAPRA, D. (2011), HISTORICAL AND LITERARY APPROACHES TO THE “FINAL SOLUTION”: SAUL FRIEDLÄNDER AND JONATHAN LITTELL. History and Theory, 50: 71–97. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2303.2011.00568.x
- Issue published online: 19 JAN 2011
- Article first published online: 19 JAN 2011
- “final solution”;
This article discusses together two recent prize-winning works of epic proportions that have received much attention: Saul Friedländer's two-volume historical study Nazi Germany and the Jews and Jonathan Littell's novel Les Bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones), the former of which focuses on victims and the latter on perpetrators of the “Final Solution.” I provide a critical analysis of Littell's novel, especially with respect to its seemingly fatalistic mingling of erotic and genocidal motifs and its disavowal or underestimation of the difficulty and necessity of understanding victims of the Nazi genocide. My analysis raises the question of the extent to which the notoriety of the novel may be due to the way it instantiates influential approaches to both literature and the Holocaust in terms of an aesthetic of the sublime, excess, radical ambiguity (resolvable at best into irony and paradox), and fatalistic entry into an incomprehensible “heart of darkness.” Crucial here is the notion that an object (paradigmatically, the Holocaust) both demands representation or explanation and ultimately is beyond comprehension, narrative, or even words. I also reevaluate the bases for the justified praise accorded Friedländer's masterwork and question certain claims made on its behalf by commentators, especially with respect to literary and historiographical innovation. In so doing, I explore and defend the role of critical theory in relation to historical narrative.