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'Der wahre Historiker': Ingeborg Bachmann and the Problem of Witnessing History.

Der wahre Historiker': Ingeborg Bachmann and the Problem of Witnessing History. By CAITRIONA LEAHY. (Epistemata: Reihe Literaturwissenschaft, 547) Wurzburg: Konigshausen & Neumann. 2007. 236pp. 39.80 [euro]. ISBN978-3-8260-3106-9.

This is a tremendous book. Its title is slightly misleading: between the opening and concluding chapters that are specifically concerned with Bachmann, there are 130 pages devoted to the ideas of other authors. That is no criticism of the book, which is an ambitious engagement with thinkers who have addressed the problem of modernity and questions of representation, particularly of the Holocaust. It is alongside these thinkers, suggests Caitriona Leahy, that Bachmann's key concern can best be understood: how she 'grounds herself and her search for an ethical engagement with her historical inheritance in the philosophical and literary tradition of thinking that which is "groundless"' (p. 11). The tradition that so radically undermines any notion of historical or temporal fixity is that of the modern, the tradition which insists on self-invention and which has at its core a paradox: 'the attempt to inhabit one's own Mundigkeit by inventing an authoritative self' (p. 28). The problem at the beginning of Malina articulates the modern problem of how to exist within the Heute of language when language destroys the very present that it represents, when the subject constructed in the present of language cannot exist when language stops. And if the narrating self can exist only in the ever-repeating present, then not only is the question of destinations raised, but also, crucially, that of how the past can be represented or witnessed, for the 'possibility of such witnessing depends on the text surviving its own beginning and arriving at a witnessing instance' (p. 21). Furthermore, if narrative is implicated in loss ('language is always in the process of losing what it is trying to gain' (p. 41)), how can the trauma of historical loss be 'properly' represented?

Having formulated the central three problems of the modern, of time, subjectivity, and the referent, Leahy sets out on an impressive and stimulating philosophical exploration of their treatment by different thinkers. She discusses Benjamin's 'Der Erzahler' and Derrida's 'Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences' in relation to the problem of beginnings which neither modern nor post-modern thought has been able to 'solve': modernity is unable to 'project itself into a space from which it might move time on' and Derrida admits the 'impossibility of thinking the beginning' (p. 82). Leahy draws on Paul Virilio and Jean Baudrillard to consider the significance of what 'disappears' from narrative, and discusses Kafka, Ovid, and Christoph Ransmayr to understood the relationship of metamorphosis to disappearance. These writers, she argues, indicate that 'only fiction can imagine itself into and fill in the gaps of a doubly disappeared history--disappeared once in the deaths, and again in the loss of a language which might capture and retain it' (p. 136). Slavoj Zizek is central to her consideration of why such emphasis is placed on an unrepresentable core in contemporary culture, and whether this points towards an enjoyment of trauma rather than an ethical concern with what 'falls' from narrative. The answer to this question is in understanding, via Blanchot, Derrida, Adorno, Lyotard, and Agamben, what writing bears witness to. The act of witnessing is doubly compromised: it involves a process of splitting that mirrors the split between the linguistic and the non-linguistic, for the subject who witnesses is divided between the silent part and the part that speaks, which is itself then dependent on aesthetic devices, particularly metaphor, for the process of transmission. Finally, Leahy spirals her way back to Bachmann to argue that Malina shows the absence at the centre of representation: 'Grund is what is withheld in every representation' (emphasis in original). She concludes that 'the state of brnng suspended in shock is not an interruption in transmission and temporality [...] but rather, the very norm of modern life' (p. 224).

This summary does no justice to the scope of Leahy's book and the degree of her intellectual ambition, for running through the text is also an ongoing attempt to think about the relationship of the modern to the postmodern. This book is worth the hard work, for it is stimulating whether or not the reader agrees with Leahy's readings, but I was glad to have Leahy's own summary of her argument in the preface, for frequently it became unclear (to me) in the main chapters.

I have certain reservations. The book is too theory-heavy in relation to the varied concerns explored by Bachmann in her literary prose and to the narrative variation within it. I would have appreciated greater exploration of certain topics: for example, Leahy raises the question of narcissistic pleasure and enjoyment of trauma, but her intensely philosophical focus prevents her from relating this question to the fact that we enjoy reading Bachmann (Malina was a best-seller) and that Bachmann clearly knows the importance of pleasure to storytelling. I am also not convinced by Leahy's separation of 'superficial' or 'improper' (p. 224) readings of Bachmann's work that concern themselves with her social and historical concerns, and those that 'listen to' the modern (which states: 'I am the impossibility of me' (ibid.)) by considering her aesthetic concerns. Bachmann's commitment to fictional rather than philosophical forms of writing seems to me to resist the privileging of aesthetic considerations over the banality of the social. Nevertheless, this is a fascinating and thoughtful book.


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Author:Bird, Stephanie
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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