Sexual politics and confessional testimony in Sophie's Choice.
This scene is disturbing, not simply as an event in Sophie's life but because of the way the text seems to indict Sophie even while it pities her. Why hadn't she stayed silent? The question ties Sophie's voice to her victimization. Her voice is credited with the agency that betrays her, the agency that brands her with guilt. If Sophie is her own betrayer, to what extent is she held paradoxically responsible for her own victimization?
Styron quite intentionally sets out to complicate Sophie's status as a Holocaust victim. In a 1980 interview, he explains that
in order to make Sophie really complicated and give her other dimensions, I couldn't make her just a victim. [...] If she was
just a pathetic victim she wouldn't be very interesting; but to put her in juxtaposition with the commandant [...] as a person who in desperation is acting in an unconventional way vis-a-vis the Nazis, trying to masquerade as a collaborator--this would give her a larger dimension. (Mills 237)
Within the novel, Stingo, the novel's narrator, articulates this valuing of Sophie as more than "just a victim":
If Sophie had been just a victim--helpless as a blown leaf, a human speck, volitionless, like so many multitudes of her fellow damned--she would have seemed merely pathetic, another wretched waif of the storm cast up in Brooklyn with no secrets which had to be unlocked. But the fact of the matter is that at Auschwitz (and this she came gradually to confess to me that summer) she had been a victim, yes, but both victim and accomplice, accessory--however haphazard and ambiguous and uncalculating her design--to the mass slaughter whose sickening vaporous residue spiraled skyward from the chimneys of Birkenau. [...] (266)
Thematically, Sophie's complex status seems aimed at evoking the reader s sympathy and compassion. As we will learn, Sophie is a decent person put into an impossible, tragic situation. She is an innocent sent to Auschwitz; she must decide which of her children will live and which will die; she survives within the camp when others do not, in part because she receives the favored labor status of serving the commandant. The guilt she carries with her after the war, along with the contempt she received from her father, is depicted as making her vulnerable to her Jewish American lover Nathan Landau's possessive, violent love. Over time she reluctantly tells the story of her past to Stingo, but she is never able to forgive herself and finally chooses to die beside Nathan in a suicide pact. Certainly there is much in Styron's novel that accuses the systems that have tortured Sophie and recognizes the injustice of Sophie's sufferings.
Still, Sophie's being both victim and accomplice is a paradox with a troubling social history, especially for women victims, for the two statuses have contrary implications that have frequently been used against women. The passage quoted above takes the position that a victim is helpless and volitionless, whereas an accomplice performs acts that presumably could be helped and which involve volition. To the degree, then, that a victim shows any volition (for good or ill), she slides away from victim toward agent, a position that resists claims to the innocence of victimization. We still see this opposition between agent and victim used against female victims in actual rape trials--a rape victim would not choose clothes that might allure; a sexual harassment victim would not initiate a phone call to her harasser. The paradox that gives Sophie "more dimension" also prepares ground for a struggle around the evaluation of whatever Sophie or the novel offers in defense of her choices.
Sophie's status as a victim is further complicated by the multiple ways in which she is abused. Not only must she choose between her children, but also Sophie is berated by a cruel father, married off to a cruel husband, widowed, left to fend in desperation for her children during the Nazi regime, and sent to Auschwitz for stealing meat to save her mother. Besides suffering the desperate physical and mental conditions of every concentration camp prisoner, she is separated from her remaining child and later intimidated into allowing a German woman prisoner to perform cunnilingus on her. In New York she is digitally raped on a subway train and both verbally and physically brutalized by Nathan. Finally, even the sympathetic narrator Stingo, explicitly using Sophie's story to work through his own guilty affiliation with the American South's history of slavery, patronizes her and appropriates her story for his therapy and for his art, and does so in a comedic patter that itself troubles the status of his role as her sympathetic interlocutor.
This very mixing of traumas and dramatic devices has been the chief criticism made against Sophie's Choice. As James Berger notes, complaints have frequently been lodged against literature said to "blur the historical and ethical significance of the Shoah and combine accounts of the Shoah with autobiographical, aesthetic, comic, and erotic intentions that are distracting and misleading" (76). Sophie's Choice could be accused of all of those problems, and then some. It evokes a parallel between relationships to the Holocaust and relationships to American slavery; it gives equal if not primary attention to the story of the narrator's maturation in relation to his own past; to the extent that it focuses on the Holocaust, it positions a non-Jewish survivor at the center of the story; it gives great attention to that survivor's possible status as accomplice as well as victim; it unfolds frequently in a comic mode; it deals extensively and explicitly in sexual terms, particularly evoking a comparison between the p sychology of genocidal violence and the psychology of sexual violence against women.
These complaints could be said to revolve around proprieties of testimony If, after all, this novel is about the Holocaust, it is more particularly about the task of recounting and assimilating the Holocaust. (2) In depicting Sophie first as someone unable to confront her experiences of the Holocaust and later as someone who, in recounting the experience bit by bit, is unable to live with the narrative she reconstructs, Styron's representation of Sophie's narrative accords with Shoshana Felman's description of testimony as "composed of bits and pieces of a memory that has been overwhelmed by occurrences that have not settled into understanding or remembrance, acts that cannot be constructed as knowledge nor assimilated into full cognition, events in excess of our frames of reference" (5). Sophie's experience exceeds her frame for accommodating it. In a sense, Felman's description also accounts for Stingo's response to his very different relationship to a heritage of Southern slavery. He can neither find hims elf in nor sever his identity from that white slaveholding heritage. Sophie's Choice is thus also Stingo's testimony to the unassimilable knowledge of his own violent and violating heritage. The novel further stands as Stingo's testimony to his experiences with Sophie: he is with her, he listens to her; yet, as we especially discover near the end, he fails to hear her properly, fails to understand what the reconstruction of her story does to and for her. In his naivete, he testifies unwittingly to his failure to hear Sophie's testimony-or, more precisely, the mature, framing narrator testifies, through ironic representations of Stingo's ignorance, to the young Stingo's failure as a listener. Finally, the novel is Styron's own testimony to an encounter with a Holocaust survivor, as well as to his position as a late-twentieth-century American who would come to terms with a world-breaking historical trauma that he did not personally experience.
In his handling of these imbricated testimonies, Styron seems to anticipate and acknowledge a number of the concerns that critics bring to bear on testimonial literature. By putting his younger alter ego Stingo in charge of the narrative and making him both merely the heir of slavery and the inexperienced (gentile) ear for Sophie's stories, Styron thematizes the problem of experiencing historical trauma only second hand. By further subordinating the authority of Stingo to an older, wiser author/narrator who tells Stingo's story with the authority of one who has come to understand and perhaps judge his own youthful ignorance, Styron underscores the point that Stingo will necessarily fail in his quest to hear and assimilate Sophie's experience, as well as fail in his effort to assimilate his own obscured relationship to the slave-holding American South. By making Stingo himself one of Sophie's sexual admirers, albeit one who tries to translate his lust into a chivalric desire to rescue Sophie from her abusive lives and transport her to a rehabilitated South, Styron perhaps shakes a finger at the ways in which a desire to help can be mixed up with other desires, whether for love, for forgiveness, or for the power to know and master the experience of others. In giving his naive narrator his own youthful nickname of "Stingo," Styron all but admits the precariousness of his own position as an author who may never be equal to the task of assessing and representing these horrific histories.
Yet, even given this structural attention to the complexity of testimonial relations, Styron's novel leaves one with the nagging impression that something has gone terribly wrong. If this novel aims to address the complexities of mediated relationships to the violence of the Holocaust, why does it focus so much of its attention on Stingo's sexual fantasies and escapades and on Sophie's sadomasochistic relationship with Nathan? The fact that examinations of the book's sexual politics have sometimes preoccupied critical assessments reflects the degree to which the story unfolds in sexual terms. (3) If Sophie's victimization in the Holocaust is the novel's nominal center, her sexual and emotional subjugation by male characters commands more constant attention. As Styron himself comments in an interview, "Sophie is almost an archetypal figure of the female who is beset upon by every male she meets" (Sirlin 111). Nominal explanations for this focus are easy enough to construct: Sophie's victimization before and du ring the Holocaust is delivered in part as sexual violence against her; Sophie's masochistic sexual life with Nathan would seem at least in part to represent her inability to emerge from that traumatic past and the sense of her own guilty complicity with it. Sexual obsessiveness and sexual violence also serve as the links between the story of Stingo the narrator and the stories of Sophie: Stingo's back-story is especially the story of his frustrated attempts to "score" with women, and his supportive relation to Sophie and her testimony is increasingly shadowed by his sexual fantasies about her; Stingo's inability to see her or hear her outside the filter of his own sexual ego could be taken as a sign of his resistance to confronting his own racial guilt in relation to both the Holocaust and slavery, as well as a sign of Sophie's essential isolation as a survivor of what is often represented in Holocaust testimony as an unspeakable, unassimilable experience. Furthermore, the novel's persistent representation o f patriarchal-sexual oppression of women and Sophie's masochistic participation in it has been read by some as testimony to the way all institutional systems of oppression compel their victims to participate in their own degradation.
The above impressions finally come into conflict, however, with the haunting but insistent implication that Sophie does not merelyfeel guilty; she is guilty. Why hadn't she stayed silent? Her guilt is not tied to her conduct so much as to her ethos and to the consequently qualified status of her testimony. Sophie is implied to be an unreliable witness, to speak lies, to betray herself rather than to be betrayed, to excuse herself rather than seek the truth, and so ultimately to be an agent of deceit rather than an agent for justice. In short, I will argue, Sophie does not testify, she confesses. As I will show, whereas testimony involves the taking on of a wrongfully lost agency, an agency that then serves truth and justice beyond the self-interest of the witness, confession connotes an emptying of agency, either through the transfer of it from the speaker to the listener, in compelled confessions, or, in the case of volunteered confessions, in the devaluing of agency by refraining it as deceitful, mad, or se lf-serving. In Sophie's Choice, testimony reduces to confession precisely in the sexualizing of Sophie's testimony Consequently, the representation of sexuality and sexual violence against women is central to an understanding of this novel precisely because it is through sexualized discourses that Sophie is represented as seeking an absolution that she does not fully deserve. To witness the dynamic between discourses of testimony and discourses of confession in this novel is to witness how fragile a difference divides them, how much is at stake in that division, and how sexual politics can play a tremendous role in determining who may testify and who may merely confess.
Testimony turns confession:
Sophie's dirty secrets
Sophie's Choice explicitly evokes both testimony and confession as frames for reading Sophie's narrative. On the one hand, Stingo compares Sophie's admissions to testimony in a court of law In her first meeting with Stingo, Sophie wants Stingo to understand that she is not the wanton woman that Nathan has just accused her of being. Stingo reports, "Her eyes implored me with the despairing plea of an innocent prisoner protesting her virtue before the bar. I'm no whore, your honor, she seemed to be trying to say" (58). On the other hand, Stingo describes Sophie's dual role of victim and accomplice as something Sophie had come "gradually to confess" to him (266). In order to relieve burdens of "devastating guilt" and "suffocating knowledge" (266), says Stingo, Sophie "quite unbeknownst to herself was questing for someone to serve in place of those religious confessors she had coldly renounced. I, Stingo, handily filled the bill" (177). Whether through testimony or through confession, Sophie seeks relief from gui lt and from a burden of untold history.
If Styron uses testimony and confession seemingly interchangeably, differences in the terms' meanings and values are nonetheless familiar to readers and ultimately crucial to a reader's assessment of Sophie. Testimony and confession presume different relations to guilt and imply different motives on the part of the speaker. The term testimony is usually reserved for the report of a witness, victim, or survivor, and carries with it a connotation, if not of precise factual accuracy, then of moral innocence and a drive to serve the truth. If the testifying witness feels guilt, it is a guilt removed from the ordinary arena of shame. Lawrence Langer rejects altogether the term guilt as a way to describe Holocaust survivors' experience of their "deeds done or undone" (143). He argues that, while there is loss of innocence, "guilt, both as label and concept, is totally inadequate and indeed misleading as a description of the internal discomfort of surviving victims" (144). The term guilt presumes an integrated expe rience of war and postwar self that does not pertain. Hence, even when a sense of shame accompanies it, testimony points away from the witness to a historical wrong or to the perpetrator of wrong. (4)
Confession, in contrast, usually connotes the admission of criminal or moral transgression--in short, of deserved guilt. Whether coerced or volunteered, confession has the ring not of a bold confrontation with horror in a brave quest for truth but of a plea to be understood or even forgiven. J. M. Coetzee finds transgression an inessential component in confession but finds "Absolution [...] the indispensable goal of all confession, sacramental or secular" (252). Thus confessions are not really made in the interest of truth at all but in the interest of self, whether to gain forgiveness, recognition, attention, or a particular sense of identity For instance, Coetzee suggests that Dostoevsky's confessing protagonists illustrate "a confession made via a process of relentless self-unmasking which might yet be not the truth but a self-serving fiction, because the unexamined, unexaminable principle behind it may be not a desire for the truth but a desire to be a particular way" (280)--which is to say, to fulfill t he protagonist's sense of his own ethos. Such a literary confession parallels what Peter Brooks points to as the all-too-common real-life scenario in which someone confesses to a crime that he has not committed, either in a drive to justify an unrelated psychic sense of shame or for other equally subconscious or unconscious reasons (23). Shoshana Felman finds confession not only unreliable but also an inherently irresponsible mode of discourse insofar as, in claiming to explain acts of horror, it explains them away, "pretend[ing] to reduce historical scandals to mere sense and to eliminate the unassimilable shock of history" (151). According to these descriptions, the confessional quality of these narratives reflects not the truth value of their manifest content but a certain self-aggrandizing gesture in the disclosure, whether it be an emotional focus on the self or an inflation of the speaker's intellectual mastery.
As the above examples suggest, whether or not the confession is motivated by a conscious intention to deceive and whether or not the confessed material corresponds precisely to fact, the self-disclosing gesture that marks confessional speech also necessarily taints it. According to these assessments, there could be no such thing as an honest confession, since even a sincere confession of culpability is a guilty confession, affirming the self who confesses rather than attesting to the event. The only fully honest confession is, by dint of its virtuous, disinterested character, no longer confession at all, but rather testimony.
Accordingly, Felman speaks of testimony as allowing truth to come through despite a speaker's will rather than in the service of it. For her, testimony describes the truth that emerges from the narrative in its very unfolding, regardless of the speaker's intentions and regardless of the possibly misleading explicit claims made in the manifest content of the narrative. "As opposed to a confession," she explains, "the meaning of the testimony is not completely known, even by its author, before and after its production, outside of the very process of its articulation" (163). Following Freud, she thus recognizes all speech as "unwittingly testimonial; [...] the speaking subject constantly bears witness to a truth that nonetheless continues to escape him, a truth that is, essentially, not available to its own speaker" (15). Ironically, Felman's definition of testimony as that aspect of speech that achieves truth regardless of the speaker's intent or self-knowledge also renders moor the generic distinction between confession and testimony, since all discourse can be examined for unconscious, accidental, and incidental truths, including the kind of truths about the self that she identifies as the very crime of confession. Such a definition of testimony removes us from the question of how the one who unwittingly testifies will be judged by his listeners, since this emphasis on the larger truths that escape conscious attention could have either innocent or guilty implications for the speaker.
Yet Felman's description of unwitting testimony can also help us restore a distinction between confession and testimony useful for appreciating how testimonials and confessions are heard in real contexts of cultural judgment. Implicit in Felman's respect for the reader-analyst's role in uncovering unwitting testimony is that the distinction between testimony and confession is necessarily made by the audience rather than the speaker; it relies on the audience's guarded attention to cues in the speech that signify beyond the letter. Hence, an audience that detects unwitting testimony that preserves the speaker's aura of disinterested innocence hears the speaker's overall presentation as testimonial, consequently recognizing the speaker as fundamentally innocent; an audience that detects unwitting testimony that betrays the speaker's credibility or virtue hears the speaker's overall presentation as confessional, thereby recognizing the speaker as guilty. In short, not only is testimony by definition an innocent genre and confession an inherently guilty one, but the generic distinction is ultimately made by the jury of readers who sit in judgment of the narrative in question. Readers do not make such judgments in a vacuum but rather recognize and interpret rhetorical cues that bespeak cultural innocence or guilt. Readers judge the overall credibility of both the story and the speaker, assessing the quality of the material disclosed, the quality of the speaker's agency in relation both to the acts of violation reported and to the narrativizing of the experience, and the quality of the speaker's character. Along all of these paths, Sophie's Choice promotes confession to the dominant frame by which to read and judge Sophie and her story.
First, Sophie's narrative is framed as confession rather than testimony because her secrets are represented as guilty, dirty secrets. It is striking the degree to which Sophie's secrets, as well as most of the disclosures made about her, relate to her sexual encounters. Michel Foucault has argued that modern individuals are compelled "to articulate their sexual peculiarity" (61), with the implication that our sexual secrets are understood to be the secret truth of the essential self, and the secret truth of the self is necessarily sexual. Modern confession is thus structured as a guilty erotics of the secret, imposing the guilt that it would absolve as it demands the hidden presence of secrets, defines all secrets as guilty secrets, then demands that they surface: "one confesses one's crimes, one's sins, one's thoughts and desires, one's illnesses and troubles; one goes about telling, with the greatest precision, whatever is most difficult to tell" (Foucault 59). The relentless focus on Sophie's sexual life thus in itself evokes an association with confession.
Moreover, through a rhetorical collapsing of metaphors that would nominally separate Sophie's sexual confessions from her Holocaust testimony, this novel also places her disclosures of Holocaust experiences within that same guilty structure. Earlier, I cited Styron's allusions both to legal testimony and to religious confession as frames for reading Sophie's narrative. Significantly, the novel inverts the expected correlation of sexual disclosures with confession, and Holocaust recounting with testimony, when it has Sophie testify as if "before the bar" to her sexual innocence but seek someone in place of a "religious confessor" for confiding the "suffocating knowledge" about her Holocaust experience. And if the sexual content of her "testimony" were not indicting enough, Sophie's defense of her sexual innocence is later exposed to be an outright lie. Hence, where we expect truth in the courtroom, we get self-conscious lies; where we expect an unburdening of guilt in the confessional, we get from Sophie Holo caust testimony compromised by that metaphorical association with sin. In both cases, confession displaces testimony as the ruling narrative frame for evaluating Sophie's secrets.
A second way in which Sophie's narrative is framed as confession involves the quality of the witness's agency during the violence of the event and the dynamics of agency characterizing the relationship between speaker and listener at the time of the recounting. According to Holocaust survivor and psychoanalyst Dori Laub, the experience of the Holocaust in particular is one that could not be witnessed at the time of its unfolding because of the lack of any commensurable frame of reference through which to witness it. Witnessing thus takes place for the first time only through testimony, such that testimony is "the process by which the narrator (the survivor) reclaims his position as a witness" (Felman and Laub 85). Hence, in Laub's representation of the testimonial relation, the one testifying takes on a previously lost agency, using the listener as a mirror figure through which to reconstitute and validate an internal "witness" who can retroactively affirm the speaker's position as witness to his own experie nce (85).The acknowledgment of lost agency during the events in question protects the speaker's ethos from accusations of complicity with his own victimization, while the emphasis on regaining agency through testimony positions the witness himself as the authority over his own testimony.
By contrast, in Michel Foucault's representation of the confessional relation, the listener appropriates the agency, supplanting the teller's narrative authority with the listener's powers of legitimation and absolution. At a structural rather than intentional level, every confession is imperative: "One confesses--or is forced to confess. When it is not spontaneous or dictated by some internal imperative, the confession is wrung from a person by violence or threat; it is driven from its hiding place in the soul, or extracted from the body" (Foucault 59). The compelled confession is then situated within a dynamic in which the one listening rather than the one telling has the authority to interpret and judge the content of the confession. As Foucault has it, confession
unfolds within a power relationship, for one does not confess without the presence (or virtual presence) of a partner who is not simply the interlocutor but the authority who requires the confession, prescribes and appreciates it, and intervenes in order to judge, punish, forgive, console, and reconcile. [...] [T]he agency of domination does not reside in the one who speaks [...], but in the one who listens and says nothing. (61-62)
For Foucault, confession, as a power exchange between teller and listener, affirms the agency and authority of the listener over the teller and carries an implication of the teller's guilt. The idea that the listener takes over the speaker's agency thus leaves the speaker open to an accusation of having possessed agency during the events in question, with the possibility of having improperly acted or of improperly having failed to act. A witness's vulnerability to this negatively charged agency is evidenced by the juridical tendency to assign responsibility to the victims rather than the perpetrators of rapes, if the victims are perceived as maintaining agency in the midst of the violation. (5) The subsequent transfer of authority over speech from the speaker to the listener thus makes both speech and speaker subject to external validation and, ultimately, to a judgment already weighted against the speaker.
Just so, this novel represents Sophie in this compromising position of one who confesses, insofar as she speaks not to "an empathetic listener" "unobtrusively present" to her testimony, as Don Laub characterizes the listener in a testimonial relationship (Felman and Laub 68, 71), but to an interlocutor to whom is ascribed the real authority over her narrative. Stingo describes Sophie as "secretive to the point of obsession" (177), characterizing her as hiding rather than not being able to confront her past. At the same time, Stingo sees Sophie as compelled to confess, and Sophie accedes that she "must tell someone at last" of her wartime experiences (567). The tone of this compulsion to "tell," especially following her obsessive efforts to conceal, removes her narrative from the reluctant testimony of the traumatized survivor and taints her disclosures with the aura of the guilty confession. Stingo's response to her confessions of Holocaust complicity only compounds this aura of the confessional: "'Hush, Sop hie!' I commanded. 'You know you weren't a collaborator. [...]You know you were just a victim."' (554). Rather than clearing her name, Stingo's commanding offer to absolve her only reinforces the structure in which he is the priest to Sophie's sinner.
Of course, Styron may well intend his readers to recognize how the confessional structure amplifies Sophie's position of powerlessness. Styron dramatizes right from their first encounter how Stingo, despite his sympathy for Sophie, finds comforting and even sexually alluring all the features that mark Sophie as dependent on his patronizing care. At their first meeting, Stingo notes Sophie's emaciated and sickly appearance but then adds that these signs of ill health in no way "diminished a kind of wonderfully negligent sexuality having to do at that moment, at least, with the casual but forthright way her pelvis moved and with her truly sumptuous rear end" (61). Stingo's desire to protect Sophie seems to be one and the same with his desire to possess her, and possessing her includes controlling her self-representation. He reports with pleasure "the delicious inaccuracies of Sophie's English" (60). When near the end of the novel Sophie expresses interest in studying English so that she can write about her exp eriences, Stingo dismisses her idea by remarking that the only language schools are "pretty far away" from where they would be living (553). In the words of the narrator in his maturity, as he looks back to tell this tale of himself as a younger, aspiring writer, "how true it is that most writers become sooner or later the exploiters of the tragedies of others" (132). With that commentary, the narrator would seem to indict the very form of this novel as representative of how the confessional structure, in which one person's experience must be processed through another person's retelling or recontextualizing, robs the one confessing of authority over her self-representation. Indeed, by suggesting several ways in which Stingo parallels Sophie as a man with a past for which he is neither fully innocent nor guilty, the novel similarly displays Stingo as dominated by the imperative to confess. Nonetheless, Styron's recognition of this dynamic loses the full power of critique when placed within the larger scope of a novel that, I will argue, fails to ironize the judgment against Sophie's confessions.
While the above devices cue readers to recognize the form of confession rather than testimony as the frame for Sophie's story and thus to expect guilty disclosures, the novel most undermines Sophie's testimonial character by giving her an ethos incompatible with the moral authority of a reliable witness. Significantly, her false testimony is represented as arising from the presumed natural duplicity of the female sex. In fact, her testimonial credibility fails in inverse relation to the degree that she succeeds in fulfilling a certain male fantasy of the ideal woman.
Female testimony as false testimony
The framing of Sophie's revelations as a series of confessions carries a self-indicting force, not only because confession carries guilty connotations--or even imposes the guilt that it would absolve by defining all secrets as guilty secrets and compelling their delivery, as discussed above--but especially because Sophie is characterized as an inherently incredible witness. Indeed, in her very first attempt to gain Stingo's sympathy, she lies. In defense against Nathan's accusation that she was a whore, Sophie claimed that Nathan was "'the only man I had ever made love to except my husband. And my husband is dead!'" (58); Stingo later learns that Sophie had in fact had a lover in between her husband and Nathan (116), and had had sexual relations with a woman as well (580). Throughout her mediated narrative, she alters the story of her past to disguise details that show that she was less purely a victim than would otherwise be supposed. She claims that her father was a liberal pacifist who risked his life to h ide Jews from a pogrom, when in fact he was a virulent anti-Semite who wrote a hateful pamphlet against Jews (288-89); she lies that she and her late husband were happy together, when in fact he was contemptuous of her (298); she especially lies through omission, not wanting to share the fact that she herself had pretended to be anti-Semitic when she thought that it could help her at Auschwitz (266), and not revealing until quite late in her confessions that she had had children and that she had chosen her son and not her daughter to be spared from the gas chamber.
Even if, as Foucault implies, the truth produced through confession is a particular cultural construction, the perception is no less that the one who confesses reveals herself in her true colors. The confessed material is granted a privileged relation to the truth. Stingo does offer rationales for Sophie's lies, explaining that "It is now clear to me that a hideous sense of guilt always chiefly governed the reassessments she was forced to make of her past" (177). The novel makes a sympathetic case for how Sophie's lies mask no real crimes but only defend against the victim's unearned sense of self-loathing. At the same time, in sometimes subtle ways that finally do not reconcile with full exoneration of Sophie, this narrative does what so many legal trials involving the sexual violation of women seem to do: it displaces the secret of crimes against the victim with the secret that the so-called victim is a false witness. Styron's presentation disturbingly compromises Sophie's credibility even as it nominally excuses her deceit.
The secret demands to surface: neither Sophie's claims nor her character can be trusted because, in this case, both reflect an unstable mind. Stingo explains Sophie's lies this way:
As will be seen in due course (and the fact is important to this narrative), Sophie told me a number of lies that summer. Perhaps I should say she indulged in certain evasions which at the time were necessary in order for her to retain her composure. Or maybe her sanity. I certainly don't accuse her, for from the point of view of hindsight her untruths seem fathomable beyond need of apology. (116)
Sophie's lies are represented as rationales, rational substitutes for a hidden truth that is opposed to her sanity. The material of Sophie's confessions is read by the narrator as the matter of an immanent madness--"it doubtless would have been unbearable to the point of imperiling her mind had she kept certain things bottled up" (177; emphasis added). Rationales are a kind of madness that protects her from truth, but the truth that she hides within herself is itself a kind of madness.
When Sophie's representation as a bearer of truth is compared to that of key male characters, a stark difference emerges. Whereas Sophie's speech is necessarily deceitful or hysterical, Nathan's and Stingo's speech, no matter how outwardly labeled as deceiving, is characterized paradoxically as truthful or rational. Nathan is declared certifiably mad, but his madness is presented in strikingly rational terms. Perhaps the greatest sign of his madness is in wrongfully accusing Sophie of loose sexuality and complicitous behavior during the war. Yet, considering that Sophie's confessions reveal that she indeed had been more sexually active than she had claimed, and furthermore had sacrificed both moral and sexual integrity when she believed that it could protect her in the camp, Nathan's paranoid accusations align a little too closely with the text's rational discourse. In fact, Nathan has a rather uncanny ability to intuit the truth about Stingo's and Sophie's own paranoias, which is what enables him to strike always where he can do the most damage. Nathan's behavior is rational enough that it can be taken at face value, and is received that way by Stingo throughout much of the novel.
At the end of the novel, Stingo himself seems to descend into madness, but, as with Nathan's uncannily revealing rantings, Stingo's experience is rehabilitated into an uncanny testimony to actual facts. Having fallen asleep on the beach, Stingo dreams apparently hysterical dreams in which he feels as if he is "being immured in stone and, most fearsomely, buried alive" (625). He feels "the sensation of helplessness, speechlessness, an inability to move or cry out against the inexorable weight of earth as it was flung in thud-thud-thuding rhythm against [his] rigidly paralyzed, supine body" (626). But Stingo wakes up to discover that children have literally buried him in sand. His apparent hysteria is just that--apparent, not actual. Where female experience disguises hysteria, male hysteria disguises fact. (6)
It is not that Sophie never behaves rationally. Rather, her rational behavior is suspiciously tainted. She is rational when reasonable people would not be, so that her rational behavior is translated back into a kind of madness--or worse, into cunning merely disguised as confusion. When Wilhelmine, the prisoner-housekeeper of the commandant's Auschwitz home, sexually assaults Sophie, Sophie's response is described as follows:
"Having made her decision moments before, Sophie was not about to resist or protest--in a kind of headlong auto-hypnosis she had placed herself beyond revulsion, realizing in any case that she was as helpless as a crippled moth" (321). She is reported as seeing herself as "helpless," yet she is simultaneously presented as having made a disturbingly calculated decision to behave helplessly. On the one hand, the novel contextualizes Sophie's behavior as legitimate responses to trauma. On the other hand, her responses to trauma are virtually indistinguishable from the indifference that has long characterized stereotypes of loose women--such as in T.S. Eliot's portrayal of an indifferent typist whose lover's lewd caresses go, disturbingly, "unreproved, if undesired" (line 238). The stereotype feeds into the accusation that the rational-seeming female victim of male violence is not just passively helpless but is actively helpless and actively perverse. In place of a "masculine" will-to-truth, the woman is provide d with a will-to-deceive and a will-to-succumb. (7)
But beyond the compromising affiliation of Sophie's behavior with stereotypes of incredible women, Sophie's nonresistance to Wilhelmine's "Sapphic" assault is also damning because of the novel's immediate contextualizing of that nonresistance. The putative reasons that Sophie does not resist are that she is, first, surprised by the assault, and second, unwilling to do anything that might either draw an attention that could bring even greater harm or get into the bad graces of a woman who, she had been warned, could bring her trouble. But immediately after the attack Sophie reflects that "the assault was not what left her unstrung--it was nothing new, she had been nearly raped by a woman guard months before" (322). If so, how can she credibly be so naive about Wilhelmine's bald advances moments before? Then, while undergoing the assault, she "was as helpless as a crippled moth" (321), yet "moments later" she reflects that "this compromising situation had in an obscure way given her an advantage over the house keeper" (322)--an idea she quickly overturns, but not before having demonstrated to readers a disturbing ability to slide too easily from paralyzed, compliant victim to calculating amortizer of the "compromising situation." The final assault on her credibility comes in our learning some 250 pages later that before the war, before any Holocaust experiences, Sophie had "slept together once or twice" with her lesbian friend Wanda, despite the fact that "it didn't mean much to either of them" . So it is not brute intimidation or even lesbian desire that compels Sophie to tolerate women's sexual advances; it would seem rather to be a general indifference to sexual boundaries. Even if we were to grant that a childhood under a harsh father left her sexually vulnerable, that idea still undermines the implied claim that Sophie's sexual promiscuity is somehow the consequence of her Holocaust experiences--a claim that her overall appeal to innocence is made to depend on.
Both the repetition of references to lesbian encounters in this novel and the strikingly stereotypical portrayal of lesbians as implicitly more like men than like women in their cleverness, bravery, and political commitment (Wanda) and in the violence of their lust and sexual styles (Wilhelmine and the woman guard) demand some comment. Despite Sophie's participation in these two lesbian encounters, her character is made to emphasize her total lack of sexual desire for women. The sex with Wanda "didn't mean much" to her; during the scene of cunnilingus with Wilhelmine, Sophie is actually made to realize "with some dull distant satisfaction" her "obdurate [vaginal] dryness" , as if in the very shock of the assault her greatest comfort comes from realizing that lesbian lovemaking does not sexually excite her. Lest we accept too readily that this peculiar musing is intended as a sign of her muddled state, we must remember that later, when Nathan forces fellatio on her, she does become sexually aroused, as I will discuss below. Aside from the fascination-repulsion that the idea of lesbian desire seems to hold for the author, this explicit evocation and denial of Sophie's lesbianism highlights all the more the fact that Sophie very particularly represents a heterosexual woman. Her sexuality in relation to men is her single most significant feature, such that her overall ethos will necessarily turn on it and ultimately be overturned by it. We see in Stingo's rhetoric--and in certain of Styron's choices--the gendered ideology that translates female victims into incredible witnesses: men are seekers of truth, finding it sometimes even despite madness; women are ruled by their vulnerable bodies, which lead them into both temptation and deceit.  As it does for Stingo, here for Styron an unconscious cultural narrative operates beneath the writer's conscious plan.
As the example of her encounter with Wilhelmine illustrates, Sophie's apparent guilt is compounded through the more direct representations of her sexual life. By representing Sophie as a woman who not only tolerates but also seeks out and derives sustenance from sexual abuse, the narrative undermines Sophie's status as an innocent victim by portraying her as an agent in her own betrayal. Moreover, when Sophie's attitudes and behavior are examined alongside Stingo's stories of his own adolescent sexual encounters, her sexual peculiarities look more and more like "normal" female behavior, where being 'lust like a woman" emerges as sound grounds for the rejection of her testimony. In other words, these representations of female sexuality betray an inconsistency in the rhetoric that would absolve Sophie of guilt. At key points, the narrative critique of violence against Sophie undercuts itself.
Sophie's self-betrayal is dramatically carried from a verbal to a physical level in a violent, sexual episode between Sophie and Nathan on a Connecticut hillside. The episode involves a progressively abusive exchange in which Nathan accuses Sophie of Nazi complicity, violently engages her in fellatio, viciously kicks her in the side, and then tries to urinate into her mouth. The episode bears the traces of the kind of scene of torture and confession discussed by Elaine Scarry in her book - The Body in Pain.
As Scarry sees it, the process of physical abuse in the relationship of torturer to tortured is aimed not at gaining control of the body for its own sake but in breaking down the body to gain the victim's voice and power. Nathan purportedly wants Sophie to confess her Nazi sins, yet in fact he has nothing to gain by getting information from her. Indeed, Nathan already has his answers, and supplies them to Sophie. Calling her "Irma Griese' after an SS woman guard notorious for the erotic response she showed in her sadistic treatment of female prisoners, Nathan prods, "'Why don't you admit it, Irma? You played footsie with the SS, didn't you? Isn't that how you got out of Auschwitz? [...] Admit it, you Fascist cunt'!" (408).
Nathan focuses less on getting information out of Sophie than on more generally controlling her speech. On the drive to Connecticut, Nathan cuts Sophie off in midsentence, ordering her to shut up. Later, she dutifully refrains from screaming while he kicks her in the ribs and vilifies her speech: "' Und die ... SS Madchen...spracht dot vill teach you ... dirty Judenschwein!'" (415). Sophie's crime is nor what she speaks but that she speaks--that she would have the audacity to command the function of her own mouth. To correct this impropriety, Sophie cooperates in Nathan's taking command of her mouth for fellatio. In cooperating, she is framed as an agent in her own betrayal.
This betrayal is carried out by a process in which Sophie's body, and particularly her mouth, is made to participate in her own victimization. As Scarry explains the process, "This unseen sense of self-betrayal in pain, objectified in forced confession, is also objectified in forced exercises that make the prisoner's body an active agent, an actual cause of his pain" (47). The body is turned into a weapon against itself, and recognized by the victim as an enemy. Just so, Sophie's own mouth is depicted as her betrayer through its silence, its mistaken verbalizations, and, in this episode, its sexual service. Hence, even if falsely, she is ultimately implicated as "the cause of [her] loss of self and world" (Scarry 35).
While Styron's portrayal of this scene of sexual violence could be said to expose rather than condone this enforcing of the victim's self-degradation, the portrayal betrays its own logic of critique at the point that it provides Sophie with internal responses incongruent with a condemnation of this episode as sexual violation. When Nathan forces Sophie to perform fellatio, her complicity brings her pleasure rather than pain:
Even with his crazy whispered rhyme repeated again and again--"Don't be a teaser, Irma Griese"--even with his hand remorselessly twisting her hair as if from its roots, even with his other hand at her shoulder clamped down with sickening pain and force [...]--even with the feverish fright engulfing her she cannot help but feel the old delectable pleasure as she sucks him. And sucks and sucks and sucks. And endlessly loving sucks. (413)
It may well be that Styron is trying to demonstrate the extent to which Sophie has learned to take a masochistic pleasure in her self-abasement. Yet, the narrative describes Sophie as taking pleasure despite the abuse, not because of it--as if the fellatio is in itself so satisfying she can barely register the violence against her body. Indeed, the mere recounting of this scene for Stingo reminds her not of how much abuse she has taken from Nathan but of how fortunate she is that Nathan introduced her to the pleasures of fellatio. As Molly Hite comments about a Norman Mailer novel, "it seems that what women are continually demanding is serendipitously what men want to give them" (126).
The following passage exemplifies the fine line that obtains between a representation that demonstrates how sexual violence against a woman can lead her to accept abuse and a representation that itself betrays the victim:
And she thinks even now in her discomfort, in her fear: Yes, yes, he even gave me that, laughing, he took away that guilt anyway when he said how absurd it was for me to feel shame about longing so madly to suck a cock, it wasn't my fault that my husband was frigid and didn't want me to and my lover in Warsaw wouldn't suggest it and I couldn't begin the thing. [...] Suck me, he always said, enjoy, enjoy! So even now with the cloud of fear around her, while he taunts her and abuses her--even now her pleasure is not mere mild enjoyment but the perennially recreated bliss, and chill waves shiver down her back as she sucks and sucks and sucks. She is not even surprised that the more he goads her with the detested "Irma," the more gluttonous becomes her lust to swallow up his prick, and when she ceases, just for an instant, and panting raises her head and gasps "Oh God, I love sucking you," the words are uttered with the same uncomplicated and spontaneous ardor as before. (413--14)
The idea that "the more he goads her, [...] the more gluttonous becomes her lust to swallow up his prick" seems designed to expose Sophie's pleasure as masochistic: her lust increases with his tauntings. Styron even has Sophie verbalize this theme: "I know, as he [Nathan] said sometime today, that I was a masochistic cunt and he was only giving me what I wanted" (412). Perhaps we are to understand that Sophie's unconscious desire would be literally to "swallow up his prick" and dispose of it. Yet, given the extended context of this passage, that reading seems too generous; at least, the critique itself gets swallowed up in a froth of ecstatic language that finally renders too convincing Sophie's claim that she is grateful, at least, for Nathan's having liberated her sexual energies. Sophie's Choice as critique of how sexism demeans and destroys women bleeds into Sophie's Choice as example of how sexist ideology can underlie and finally undermine even well-intentioned attempts to represent female victims of se xual violation. Styron would have fellatio represent both the symbol and means of Sophie's oppression and the symbol and means of her authentic liberation. The two intentions are mutually exclusive, and the second aligns far too handily with the very mythology that supports the wrenching courtroom accusation that rape victims implicitly consent to sex.
The theme that fellatio not only liberates women but also that women need men to sexually liberate them punctuates Stingo's entire narrative. Fellatio is certainly the privileged sexual act in the novel--or at least the privileged male fantasy. In Stingo's fantasy about his schoolgirl crush, Maria, he imagines her "prepared to take between those lips unkissed by my own the bone-rigid stalk of my passion" (53). Likewise, when fantasizing before his date with Leslie Lapidus, he finds his mind "reshaping each crevice of her moist and succulent lips [...] that mouth would be--no, I could not let myself think about that slippery-sweet mouth and its impending employments" (194). On a beach outing in which both Stingo and Sophie shed their clothes, Sophie reaches over and begins to masturbate Stingo. He reports that "there flashed through my mind the scenes of insatiable oral love with Nathan she had so frankly described" (439). And later, reporting in his diary of his experiences with Mary Alice, he writes that wi th "a very gentle downward urging of her head with my hand" he hinted unsuccessfully that she "might wish to commit upon me what the Italians call the act of fellatio" (529).
Stingo patronizingly accounts for women who fail to perform fellatio (Leslie and Mary Alice) with the explanation that they are perversely stifled by the twisted mores of their repressive era. He blames not Mary Alice but "these 1940s and the psychopathology which permits her to torment me in the way she has been doing" (531). This is the sentiment of the young Stingo, though. The older, wiser narrator lets readers understand that the priapic but virginal Stingo, "the prey of an ever-unfulfilled randiness" (424), is preoccupied to the point of being blind to his own participation in the kind of sexist patriarchal objectification of women that destroys Sophie. Nevertheless, this implied critique of Stingo's obsessive lust rests uneasily next to the representation of Sophie's having found an authentic liberation and fulfillment in fellatio. Which is it to be? Is Stingo's assessment that the women who refuse him fellatio are repressed to be taken as an expression of his objectification of women? Or are women wh o refuse fellatio in fact repressed and in need of liberation?
Styron's later statements on this question are inconsistent. In an interview with Rhoda Sirlin (RS), Styron (WS) first affirms that Stingo represents a sexist perspective:
RS: The novel has [...] been called sexist. Some critics indict Stingo's limited male perspective which doesn't allow Sophie to speak for herself. Would it not be more accurate to say that the novel explores sexism without itself being sexist?
WS: Yes. I don't understand any charge against the book on sexist lines. [...]
Yet Styron also insists that, indeed, Sophie represents a sexually liberated woman whose desire for fellatio is a sign of that liberation:
RS: Besides being Sophie's final torturer, can't we say that it is Nathan who brings out Sophie's innate sexuality and sensuality? While there is a good deal of sexual lunacy between the two of them, is there not a model presented of "good, wholesome heterosexual screwing" [a line from the novel] as contrasted with Stingo's encounters with American women?
WS: Sure. Because she lived this Polish life of buried eroticism. It didn't exist in her.
RS: She only fantasized about this [oral sex] in Poland.
WS: That's right. Then all of a sudden she could do it with Nathan. (109-114)
With such an interview in mind, it becomes difficult to take ironically Sophie's report to Stingo that she "was merely, he [Nathan] said, the victim of two thousand years of anti-sucking Judeo-Christian conditioning" (413).
In the same way, if Sophie's unbounded desire for fellatio is accepted as a sign of what unrepressed women naturally feel, it becomes difficult to read Stingo's repeated analyses of female repression as merely ironic commentaries on his own poor sexual prowess. Perhaps most disturbing is the unironized implication that women indeed do need a forceful man to liberate their unrecognized, repressed passions. The young Stingo in his diary reports just that opinion. Failing to satisfy Stingo's sexual aims, Mary Alice has explained that her resistance is a matter of principles, not inexperience. She confides that her fiance, Walter, taught her to make love. Stingo rages,
Walter didn't teach you to make love, you lying creepy little idiot! [...] All Walter taught you was how to jerk off the poor slobs who want to get into your pants! You need something to make that beautiful ass of yours gyrate with joy, a big stiff prick rammed into that cunt you've got locked up, oh shit--. (532)
While clearly Styron intends readers to laugh at rather than to applaud Stingo's violent sentiment, Stingo's ironized frustration with Mary Alice's lack of a sexually passionate response to him shares a fundamental premise with Styron's sincere attitude toward Sophie's sexuality: Stingo implies that Mary Alice, like Sophie until she met Nathan, "lived this [...] life of buried eroticism." Sophie was liberated by Nathan's open-handed lust; whether or not Stingo is the man to do it, the novel still implies that repressed American women like Mary Alice are in need of such liberating.
Sophie's credibility as a witness further erodes: she cannot testify to having been violated at the same time she confesses to having been saved.
The victim as victimizer
If the idea that women need a man to liberate their repressed sexuality is not fully ironized in the novel, neither is Stingo's attitude that the women who reject him are in a subtle way withholding from him what by rights they should give freely. Just as Nathan sought to divert Sophie's mouth from verbal expression to sexual service, for Stingo a female mouth not sexually serving him is a mouth serving against him. In short, female speech is depicted as actively thwarting male pleasure. Leslie Lapidus uses stark and ribald sexual language but will not do more than kiss Stingo. Stingo reports, "Leslie is--literally and figuratively--totally lingual. Her sex life is wholly centered in her tongue" (214). Mary Alice likewise makes her body unavailable, with the exception of one hand with which she would perfunctorily "whack him off" (528). She uses language as a defense against sexual intimacy In response to Stingo's disappointment, Mary Alice recounts her past experience of having been "burnt" in the past by se x. Stingo writes in his diary that Mary Alice spoke "in circumlocutory language to which Mrs. Grundy would not have taken exception" (531).
Stingo's continual equating of sexual teasing with torture further supports this for-or-against categorizing. With his first crush, Maria, Stingo says he "carried self-abnegation to its mad limits" (51) by restraining himself from making sexual advances, as if his restraint is a torturous sacrificial act. In conversation with Stingo, Nathan tells him facetiously that Sophie "'keeps her sweet treasure all locked up,'" to which Stingo replies, jokingly, "'It's a form of sadism"' (76). This torture by way of denied access is repeated in the accounts of Leslie and Mary Alice. In each case Stingo's stories are presented as humorous tales of male adolescent sexual angst, and Stingo consistently offers some rationale by which the women might be exonerated from total blame; yet behind the rationales remains that insidious imperative: if the world were in order, these women would be sexually accessible. Stingo, exasperated, shouts at Mary Alice, "You cock teasers have turned millions of brave young men, many of whom died for your precious asses on the battlefields of the world, into a generation of sexual basket cases!" (533). Although Stingo is not one of those brave soldiers who has earned the "right" of sexual satisfaction (nor, apparently, is he implicated as one for whom soldiers died), he would claim that as part of the gender class of soldier-saviors, he too should get some of the "precious asses" for which men fight and die.
Stingo's complaints suggest that he is the one who deserves sympathy. There is a sense in which the presentation of Stingo's distress at this sexual teasing is subject to the same analysis that Stingo cites on behalf of Nazi inhumanity. He quotes Hannah Arendt's findings that SS officers escape what would have been incapacitating guilt or empathy for their victims by redirecting their pity toward themselves as witnesses:
"'What horrible things I had to watch!"' (185). Similarly, what miseries Stingo had to undergo in experiencing the sexual perversities that disabled these women! Stingo's complaints pale next to Sophie's experiences, and readers are made to recognize the shallowness of Stingo's self-indulgent self-pity; yet Stingo's complaints are rendered only less critical than Sophie's, not unjustified altogether. Men in the novel really do suffer from female teasing.
Just so, the sympathy nominally evoked on behalf of suffering women in certain ways gets redirected to their male violators. In the abusive scene between Nathan and Sophie described earlier, Nathan's final abuse is to try to urinate in Sophie's mouth: "'Open your mouth wide,' he orders her. She waits, watches, mouth agape, receptive, lips quavering. But he fails" (416). The fact that Nathan fails evokes an eerie sympathy for Nathan, a sympathy that threatens to overshadow concern for Sophie, especially when Sophie awaits Nathan's stream with "lips quivering," a pointedly eroticized rendering. Nathan may be crazy, but his need to conquer new sexual territory is only a more extreme case of a normalized male activity in this novel. Indeed, his failure also places this event into the pattern of sexual failures that Stingo recounts throughout the novel--failures that render Stingo a little crass, perhaps, but nonetheless deserving of our sympathy. Yet more disturbing is the description of Sophie, engaged forcibly in fellatio, looking up at Nathan: she "opens her eyes, glimpses his tortured face, resumes blindly [...]" (414; my emphasis). Even in this most extreme scene of victimization, the victimizer has the tortured face.
In Sophie's Choice, the female victim is a split figure, helpless yet actively inviting and propagating violation. The language of victimization threatens to exonerate or distance the victimizers and blame or disregard the victim. Sophie's sense that she deserves to be violated gains disquieting validation. One of the factors in the novel that supports this disavowal of the victim's innocence is the reinforcing of a cultural representational system that blurs any distinction among victims: the term victim is applied equally to those who are abused and to those who are inconvenienced. The underlying equation presumes, for instance, that a man who victimizes is just as much a "victim of the system" as the woman he victimizes. As Rhoda Sirlin puts it, "Styron shows how women are often the victims of men who are themselves victims of false values" (39). Sophie's friend Wanda expresses this same sentiment in relation to the violation of Jews, asserting that "In this war [...] Everyone's a victim. The Jews are also the victims of victims, that's the main difference" (577). Yet this logic would allow us to say that the Nazi doctor who makes Sophie choose between her children is merely the victim of false values. It mocks the difference between the ones who inflict the injustice and the ones who receive it. If the doctor under Nazism, and Stingo and Nathan under patriarchy, also suffer, that is an unfortunate byproduct; Sophie is hurt in the name of the system. The perpetrators' "victimization" indicates that the system is malfunctioning; Sophie's victimization indicates that the system is working.
Most insidious in this undermining of Sophie's credibility is the impression that Styron has striven precisely to make Sophie sympathetic, but that the characteristics of sympathetic women within a patriarchal logic of heterosexual desire are incompatible with those of moral credibility. Sophie's sexual desirability depends both on her physical and moral vulnerability and on her sexual insatiability, but these very features play against her testimonial credibility. The fact that so much of the rhetoric used to describe Sophie's lack of credibility involves speech, misspeaking, silence, and symbolic body language only enhances the impression that her testimonial voice is at stake. It is through this dual testimony to Sophie's desirability and to her lack of credibility that the masculinized narrative perspective ultimately testifies against Sophie, while Sophie is structurally made to confess.
The politics of testimony in an age of confession
As fiction is in part a mode of witnessing history, criticism is a mode of witnessing fiction. I would not want to be blind to the many ways in which Styron's novel remains a powerful testimony to a particular American relation to post-Holocaust history. Styron has never run from controversy, and he took great risks to explore this material. In taking such risks, he throws into the open discomforting, internal contradictions in our thinking that could otherwise pass unchallenged. As it happens, some of those contradictions mark his own narrative strategies. Even as this novel foregrounds and thus critiques Stingo's failure to be "unobtrusively present" to Sophie's testimony, it simultaneously fails to hear the unwitting testimony that it makes against Sophie: it "bears witness to a truth that nonetheless continues to escape" it (Felman and Laub 15), the truth that Sophie is, through her gender and sexuality, made incompatible with the position of a legitimate witness.
The relative lack of attention to women's Holocaust testimony in general raises the possibility that here, too, women's testimony has carried less credibility. Carol Rittner and John Roth point out that "most of the best-known accounts of the Holocaust tend to be by men," even though "neither before, during, nor after the Shoah have women been silent about experiences that left them forever marked, if not destroyed, by the 'Final Solution"' (3). Is this gendered neglect a coincidence, a product of a general tendency to validate male writers over female, or more particularly an indication of the presumed non-testimonial authority of women?
In a broader context, even as the collapse of Sophie's testimony into confession is accomplished in very particular ways in Styron's novel, the fact that distinguishing between them depends entirely on context and reception raises the question of whether testimony can ever stand uncompromised by the vicissitudes of confession. It has been said that the post-Holocaust era is an "age of testimony." (9) If so, it is no less an age of confession. We have become a culture that hears (and writes) disclosures as self-disclosures, as confessions of internal conflict, error, guilt, deviance. The cultural politics that would make all speech a self-disclosure would threaten to reduce all testimony to confession.
At the same time, this novel does seem to preserve some testimony from the taint of confession, although in doing so it unmoors it from certain basic tenets that testimony would customarily claim. Sophie's "testimony" is continually supplemented and finally supplanted by the mature narrator's historical research, "bear[ing] witness to the continuing impact of Holocaust testimony in the form that it now exists, in text" (Berger 78). The ironic impact, however, is that both Stingo and his mature alter ego validate the truth of the Holocaust while invalidating Sophie's testimony and demoting direct testimony altogether as the means to arriving at truth. It seems as if confession only returns as testimony when corroborated--a paradoxical turn, if testimony by its nature makes the claim that "you must believe me because you must believe me--this is the difference, essential to testimony, between belief and proof" (Derrida 40).
In this respect Styron's novel may reflect a more encompassing contemporary tendency to hear testimony as confession until and unless it is materially corroborated. Corroboration can come by way of material evidence, but it can also come by way of witnesses for the witness-- character witnesses and the archive as witness. Sophie's Choice at least corroborates the Holocaust as an event, even as it fails to corroborate Sophie's testimony. It does so by witnessing other witnesses, in the sense that it offers a narrative testimony of faith to the Holocaust research incorporated into Sophie's back-story. This form of testimony subordinates the witness to the archive, which challenges the very nature of testimony just as proof challenges belief. If conventional testimony is singular and present, the archive is collective and repeatable. Because it is repeatable, it is material; because it is material, it can mime the function of a collective witnessing even as it displaces the ontological authority of the witness, the authority of having "been there." (10)
If this turn to material witnesses in this more literal sense seems to undermine the authority of live witnesses, the necessity of recognizing this turn seems at least to be increasingly acknowledged. Speakers who are not corroborated through a culturally authorized race or sex are even more dependent on other forms of corroboration. Annette El-Hayek, in a review of major Holocaust texts, notes that all of the authors she cites are Jewish, then adds that "when there are no survivors left to quell the doubts of those who would believe the revisionist historians' versions, the works of non-Jewish authors, more apt to be believed as unbiased observers, would be a welcome addition" (17). Her comment recognizes both the disturbing fact that Jewish testimony may be discounted for its Jewishness and the fact that in the future the material works rather than the authors of them will carry the power to validate prior testimony.
An exhibit like the continuously playing film of thirty-plus individual Holocaust testimonies at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum responds to an implicit need to amass individual testimonies into communal testimony that, because it is stored, can restore the power of testimony. These efforts construct testimony into a materialized communal memory less vulnerable to being heard as confession. We who hear these records validate their truths. Where there is no material evidence to secure speech as testimony, there must be witnesses to the witnesses; when there are no more witnesses, there must be witnesses to the material evidence of there having been witnesses.
I thank Gabriele Schwab and Megan Becker-Leckrone for providing valuable feedback at an early stage of this argument. I also gratefully acknowledge James Berger, whose generous suggestions and comments in his capacity as reader for Twentieth-Century Literature made a significant positive impact on the final form of this essay.
(1.) Unless otherwise noted, all emphases are in the original. Sophie's last name is never attached to her in the course of the narrative, but it is mentioned as the last name of her daughter Eva (464).
(2.) James Berger argues that the entire wave of Holocaust literature written in light of the "growing impossibility of direct testimony" testifies primarily not to an encounter with the events themselves but with "our contemporary relation to those events" (77).
(3.) Debates about the sexism of the text has generated at least as much attention as its more direct considerations of the Holocaust, a fact that itself generates controversy among critics. See Lupack, Sirlin, and Durham for reviews of charges of sexism against Sophie's Choice and for their defenses of the book against those charges--Durham's, for instance, that Styron's novels are "not oppressive but about oppression, not racist but about racism, not sexist although, in the instance of Sophie's Choice,...persistently about sexism" (449). Durham makes an especially persuasive case, yet I believe that she, like the other critics, finally rescues certain recalcitrant aspects of Styron's presentation by declaring details ironic that are not consistently rendered so.
Joan Ringelheim and Myrna Goldenberg have found it necessary to defend not just a privileging of gender issues in Holocaust novels but the very raising of gender issues in relation to the Holocaust (Ringelheim 144), a move that has been condemned by some critics for effectively dismissing the centrality of Jewishness. I must agree with Goldenberg, however, that "gender studies, and a variety of other studies rooted in the specific, enhance our knowledge and illuminate our understanding of the Final Solution" (152).
(4.) In Lawrence Langer's study of videotaped Holocaust testimonies, Langer reserves the term testimony for the reports by survivors; Nazi perpetrators issue "confessions." Langer does not represent the witnesses as "confessing" except to express their despondency over their sense of ongoing loss or frustration in their struggle to connect with the past. By "confession" here is really meant testimony to the reverberations of the crimes against them.
(5.) Recent studies of rape law reform in the United States conclude that, despite efforts to direct jurors away from the victim's character and toward the aggressor's actions, "men still endorse myths regarding rape, believing that a woman is responsible for the assault because of how she was dressed or behaved [sic], where she worked, or because she was already sexually experienced or really wanted sex" (Kurpius and White 989). Indeed," the assignment of responsibility to victims of rape has been found to be so common that researchers have shifted their focus not on whether it occurs, but on which factors influence such attributions" (Allison 1961).
(6.) As Gabriele Schwab pointed out to me, a similar assumption of male rationality and female hysteria ruled the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas debacle: the male interrogators accepted Thomas's emotional accusations at face value, as literal, rational--that he had been gravely wronged, that Anita Hill had delusions of romance; but Hill's extremely rational discourse was translated into "appropriate" female hysteria--she was "secretly" in love with Thomas, she was believing her own fantasies about his advances.
(7.) Susan David Bernstein suggests how this same gender split in which men are attributed a positive agency and women a negative one emerges in Freud's analysis of hysteria. She compares Freud's analysis of a case of male with female hysteria, each brought about by threats of sexual violence, and finds that Freud's rhetoric implies that "a girl both provokes and sexually enjoys 'more or less brutal' aggressions" (23).The boy is accorded agency as one who confesses to liberate himself, the girl instead is "investigated" by Freud and then implicitly accorded agency in drawing an attack upon herself by being "'particularly good-looking"' (23). Isn't this precisely a way of regarding the report of a male victim as testimony and of a female as confession?
(8.) Susan Sage Heinzelman has commented on a similar pattern of assigning rationality to men and irrationality to women in rape trials:
A radical dubiety impugns the authenticity of the woman as speaking subject under the law, a dubiety that also subverts the evidence she offers on her own or someone else's behalf. . . . the value of truth-claiming assertions is unremittingly a value ascribed to the kinds of things that only men can say, and the kinds of things only men can talk about. Precisely in speaking of themselves as women, precisely in claiming a discourse which would grant subjectivity, and would grant that subjectivity equal status with the truth assigned to the representations of male subjectivity, women transgress against the privileges of the law, against the privileges of language, reserved for men. (90).
(9.) Shoshana Felman cites this generalization and particularly recognizes Elie Wiesel's statement that testimony is his generation's contribution to literature (5).
(10.) James Berger describes five related types of authority attributed to the survivor and his or her testimony: epistemological, ethical, political or spiritual, aesthetic, and ontological (48).
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Lisa Carstens, assistant professor of English at Virginia Wesleyan College, has previously published on Virginia Woolf. The essay published here is part of a larger project in development on confession and twentieth-century fiction.
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|Publication:||Twentieth Century Literature|
|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2001|
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