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Turning to debris: ethics of violence in Wilkomirski's Fragments and Beigbeder's Windows on the World.

Whenever a text published as a memoir has been found to be spurious, it has elicited public outrage. Thirty-six years ago, at the center of a heated debate of this nature was Jerzy Kosinski's The Painted Bird (1976), but, more recently, similar controversies sparked Binjamin Wilkomirski's Fragments (1995), Misha Defonseca/Monique de Wad's Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years (1997), and Herman Rosenblat's Angel at the Fence (scheduled for publication in 2009, but canceled in December 2008). Along with many others, they became instances of a trend that established the faux memoir as a distinct genre. These infamous texts in particular, however, troubled the public not only because their authors assumed a false identity, but also because the texts laid claim on atrocities of massive proportions-primarily on the Holocaust- and, thus, on the personal and collective history of readers. They were charged with violating the public, causing readers to feel betrayed to the point of associating the hoax "with the ultimate affront to truth telling, Holocaust denial" (71), as Wendy Steiner points out. (1) But in subverting ready-made reader responses and dominant narratives, faux memoirs also rekindled anxieties pertaining to the constructedness of truth and reality and fueled a long-standing polemic regarding the nature of fiction and fact.

Notably, by literally embodying the "fact or fiction" question, both false memoirs and a kindred genre, historical fiction, bespeak a pervasive cultural phenomenon. "Fact or fiction?" reverberates in various forms across contemporary western cultures (particularly as TV shows) and, arguably, corresponds to the gradual rise of public interest in documentaries, in memoirs, and in autobiographies from the last decade of the twentieth century until today. Perhaps this growing interest is due to a need for reassurance that the external reality of the past, solid and immutable, is still "out there," in spite of or maybe because of its terrifyingly brutality; or, on the contrary, this interest is incited by a desire to question the need for such a reality, and is symptomatic of a contemporary confusion about what is real and what is not. Historical fictions in particular--identified by various names and in different media (mockumentary, psychotic realism, autofiction and its offshoots roman faux and autofabulation, reality TV, and actualism or quantum fiction (2))--craft and tangle definitions of reality, questioning the very premises that undergird notions of existence, facticity, and the self. They engage in performance rather than mimesis, seek out new techniques of relating to reality and to themselves, and violate by rendering violence visible (particularly aspects commonly deemed elusive or impossible to express). This kind of creative work with extremity enables historical fictions that pertain to massive atrocities to reveal that the visually violent or extreme is not unspeakable, or sacred, or the essence of a catastrophe.

Several theorists have identified a correspondence between the current historical moment and the allure of "the extreme" as a pervasive international phenomenon. While Dave Boothroyd points to "a widespread fascination bordering on obsession" with everything extreme, noting that "the extreme" functions not only as a rhetorical technique but also as a kind of philosophical figure, fascinating due to its elusiveness (2006, 277), Naomi Mandel and Alain-Philippe Durand offer a similar observation with regard to the pervasiveness of the phenomenon in terms of literature. In their collection Novels of the Contemporary Extreme, Mandel and Durand articulate "the contemporary extreme" (2006, 1) as a distinct textual element of violence and transgression, which erases the distinctions between reality and fiction. Conceptualized thus, the violence of "the extreme" bears particular significance for false memoirs and historical fictions. It responds to Michael Bernard-Donals's concern that "we can never confront the abyss of the event because it is filled with a knowledge--with what we already know" (2001, 1313) in that, while "the extreme" reveals the constructedness of the boundary between known and unknown, its violence seeks to sabotage a circuit system of perception and knowledge already in place. This article examines precisely this operation and argues that the "violent charge" of faux memoirs and historical fictions has a productive potentiality and force. My contention is that the ostensible need of texts thus categorized to turn (in)to disasters activates the tension between fact and fiction and collapses their dichotomous relation. Moreover, while, immanently seditious, these texts revolt against platitudes and cultural assumptions about momentous historical events and their authors; their deployment of the violence of "the extreme" functions as an ethical commitment. I bring together the faux memoir of Binjamin Wilkomirski, Fragments (1995), and the historical fiction of Frederic Beigbeder, Windows on the World (2004), to foreground not only their enactment of violent confrontations that enable a productive disruption of the distance from which catastrophe is usually regarded but also their resistance to recognizing disaster as a unified and isolated event or a piece of information. Through violence, both texts inhabit catastrophe as diffuse and formative, living debris.

Fragments and Windows on the World hail from different national origins (one allegedly Swiss and the other French) and were published not only almost ten years apart but also as different genres (as a memoir and as fiction). Moreover, they pertain to different historical events (the Holocaust and September 11th respectively), announce distinct intentions, and employ discrete narrative techniques, including different perspectives. Both, however, make it difficult to speak about their narrators without speaking about their writers. Their confluence reveals "the extreme" as a violent undercurrent that animates the endeavors of both texts to inhabit the pervasive diffusion of disasters in a restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center and a death camp through the perception of a child. Importantly, each speaks not only to living through catastrophe but to living with it, both struggling to establish uncompromising relations with the debris of catastrophe of which they are a part--pieces of transferred personal artifacts; fragments of writing, faded and barely legible; elementary particles of dust in the air; words that reverberate the sounds of disaster in the disturbing, impossible phrases that they form in both Fragments and Windows on the World. In Wilkomirski's text, memories disperse and fracture like debris; in Beigbeder's, debris assembles statistics and composes the World Trade Center site itself thousands of miles away. Each text thinks of debris not as an immobile aftermath, a dead mass, but as a violent mobility, subversive to temporal and spatial parameters and constitutive of new ways of thinking the unthinkable.

Syntax of Violence

Bruchstucke (the original title of Fragments) was first published in Germany in 1995 as the memoir of a Holocaust survivor, and became an immediate object of interest to survivors, historians, and the general audience alike. Written from the perspective of a child, it recounts Wilkomirski's struggle to survive through the incomprehensible terror and brutality of several concentration camps. Spatially and temporally, the narrative is split between camps during the war and the Swiss orphanage, where the narrator resides after the war. It was Swiss writer Daniel Ganzfried's factual research, followed by two substantial articles (one by Elena Lappin in Granta and another by Philip Gourevitch in the New Yorker), that challenged the author's claims on Wilkomirski's identity, reporting that his legal name is Bruno Grosjean, by birth, and Dossekker, by adoption, and that his birth certificate asserts he is neither Jewish nor old enough to have been in a concentration camp during the time that his narrative indicates. A final study by historian Stefan Machler confirmed that Binjamin Wilkomirski did not exist on any record, causing the book to be pulled from bookstores. But the controversy continued, fomented by the author's very response: he showed no remorse, rejected the allegations, and denied the findings. Thus, he laid an unyielding claim both on the name of Wilkomirski and, significantly, on the text as an autobiographical artifact, as an identity, a self. Responding to the outrage (3) regarding Wilkomirski's "deluded memoir" (as she dubbed Fragments), Susan Suleiman had asked whether the text could be rescued from oblivion on grounds of its being "a compelling piece of writing that 'unveils' truths about the effects of the Holocaust on the contemporary imagination" (2000, 554), as well as about ownership of Holocaust memory and signification. (4) But, perhaps there is another reason for finding the text relevant and productive, namely its disruptive, unauthorized violence--in its lie and "betrayal," in its imagery--capable of provoking not passive reception but active thought. (5)

In the Afterword to Fragments, Wilkomirski writes that "Legally accredited truth is one thing--the truth of a life another" (1996, 154), and, thus, divides truth into legal and personal. While undermining the primacy of juridical facticity, of the records of law, he upholds the truth of a singular narrative. In a similar movement, while he sets up life as other to law, he addresses the "children without identity" (154), who, like himself, he considers the other inhabitants of survivor memories, as truthful as the "legal" ones with an identity to prove it. In this sense, the Afterword subverts the question of the ownership of Holocaust memory, transforming it from "who owns memory?" to "how does one inhabit memory?" This is precisely the question with which Beigbeder vies, by problematizing the relation between fact and fiction. In an interview with Bernard Genies, he suggests that while others have written about September 11th by starting with the question "why?", his focus in Windows on the World had been to think "how?" (2003, 39). It is a critical decision, because it enables the text to inhabit the invisible, the unknowable in the violence of its extremity-a violation of the distinction between fact and fiction, but also a violence of the text against itself. As Beigbeder writes: "this isn't a thriller; it is simply an attempt--doomed, perhaps--to describe the indescribable" (2004, 55). Overtly, the text announces its participation in the inscription of the event in history, in memory, in the senses. At the same time, it resists the inscription, "For me to be able to describe what took place on the far side of the Atlantic, a plane would have to crash into this black tower beneath my feet" (8). To describe the indescribable cannot take the form of a linear movement, and Windows on the World must both draw together the debris of the event and paradoxically disperse itself into it in order to resist an immobilizing linearity. By probing "how," the text moves against the film of the referent (both as the film of the two towers being hit, played over and over, and the layer that rapidly coagulates into formalized and institutionalized modes of perception and response).

Bearing minutes as titles and referencing the time from a few minutes before being hit to the collapse of the North Tower of the WTC (from 8:30 a.m. to 10:29 a.m.), in an alternating sequence, each chapter of Windows on the World presents both Beigbeder's reflections on the catastrophe and on writing his book about it, and the perspectives of his three fictional characters, Carthew Yorston and his two young sons, David and Jerry. All three are trapped in the restaurant Windows on the World, located on the 107th floor of the North Tower, on September 11th. While Carthew's voice provides a direct view of the 102-minute terror of the people trapped inside, the other narrator, referring to himself as Frederic Beigbeder, attempts to articulate the terror of someone on the outside, even a year after the event. This strategy of blending reality and fiction, Durand suggests, is how autofiction operates. But, Beigbeder's autofictional text also challenges the sense of "auto-" from a variety of angles: it subverts the automatic responses of readers to fiction, to September 11th, to the violating operation of words and images; it confronts the writing sell transforming it from first person to third person singular, but it also, crucially, invents a self for the text that neither subscribes fully to fact nor is automatically opposed to it.

Both Windows on the World and Fragments perform the violent entrapments that they envision- one of the concentration camp and the orphanage, and the other of the two restaurants--spaces of confinement that demand writing. Their structures break with the linearity of conventional narrative and construct, thus, zones of extremity that necessitate a movement between fact and fiction in a space where the two blur into indetermination. In Windows on the World, Durand indicates, the form of the narrative oscillates among "traditional paragraphs, dialogues, fragments, incomplete sentences, simple words put on the page in a telegraphic style, or verses" while "Beigbeder seems to have a hard time choosing the appropriate sentence structure in order to describe these unbearable details" (2006, 111). The details that Durand references implicate, in fact, a violent network of visibility, pile-ups of adjectives and nouns that defy their own proximity--"Iidless eyes" (81), "carved-up faces" (146)--phrases in the process of mirroring mutation, of themselves mutating and defying synthesis. (6) In these phrases, the linear movement of the sentence, of the gaze, collapses, inverts, and crashes against itself in an instinctive recoil, as suggested by "9:15," a poem-like composition of (sentence) fragments in the middle of Windows on the World. This chapter enacts most clearly the impossibility of a linear narrative or even of a grammatically correct sentence that thinks September 11th, as if to think the event in writing can only happen in the debris of particular words and senses that must be assembled anew every time. One line in chapter "9:15" speaks "Blazing fuel," another line "Hands in tatters," yet another "Silence pierced by alarms," and "We roast," "We are metal shrieking" (2004,145-146). The motion of the phrases, of the eye among the phrases, reverses analogical thought, negating reason. Beigbeder writes, "from here, we can penetrate the unspeakable, the inexpressible. Please excuse our misuse of ellipsis" (272). In order to activate this "here," he must first create it, and then create another "here" as soon as the preceding one becomes stagnant, insufficient. This perpetual effort and mobility constitutes the violence of "the extreme," but also the writing's ethical commitment. The ellipsis, however, is impossible to remove completely, which is precisely what makes thinking "here" possible. This is why Beigbeder writes: "even if I go deep, deep into the horror, my book will always remain 1,350 feet below the truth" (119). Nevertheless, the refractions of the text, the discontinuities in the structure, give the fragments, the debris of which it composes its self a texture. The refractions shift the system of visibility, as September 11t" becomes a question of debris as singular access-point detail and not of a loop, the film of a plane hitting the WTC. By articulating debris in its singular detail, a fragment, the text breaks the impenetrable, unthinking surface of the loop.

Similarly to Beigbeder's, Wilkomirski's narrative invents fractures in order to mobilize "the extreme" and forge new ways of inhabiting catastrophe. It vacillates between the concentration camps, where the narrator spent his childhood, and the Swiss orphanage, where he is placed after the end of the war, performing not only a disorienting mobility but also the very transposition of analogy. One particular incident points to this disorienting breakdown in the structure of meaning-making: "I stare in horror at the picture, at this man called Tell, who's obviously a hero, and he's holding a strange weapon and aiming it, and he's aiming it at a child, and the child's just standing there, not knowing what's coming" (1996, 129). As if drawing multiple degrees of separation, commas discontinue and clauses subvert the function of the coordinating conjunction "and." Segments both add up and refuse to amount to reason. Questioning the notion of "hero" with regard to a depiction of William Tell, Wilkomirski exposes, at the same time, what it means to think analogically after the Holocaust: "anyway--SS men don't shoot apples--that's just stupid. It's just another piece of cruelty: the child's hungry, and he's not allowed to eat the apple. A child who's about to die doesn't need an apple. Tell will eat it once he's killed him" (132). Made visible is precisely the reversibility of logic, [ana]logos, the Greek preface itself revealing a destructive undercurrent sense of "against word, logic, meaning," an illogic that has become indistinguishable from logic. Thus, disorientation is the result not of an absence of logic, but rather of the very affirmation of logic against logic. Like Beigbeder, Wilkomirski, too, refuses to turn away from a violating visibility: the image of a heap of dead women "giving birth" to rats (86-87), or of babies without faces (104). Through the images and the text's elliptical slippages and stammers-"If you fell behind, you were driven on with blows; if you didn't catch up, you ..." (54)--this visibility becomes symptomatic of a resistance to being consumed. Paradoxically, the punctuation both discontinues and incites the mobility of the text and its intensity, a gathering of fragments and confrontations that invoke "the extreme," "I remember only too well" (54). The movement of the text is performed by its refusal to occlude violence, to "spare" the audience. It enacts simultaneously the irreversible complicity of the reader and the activation of extreme movement, which makes the imagined circumscribe the unimaginable and confounds reality and fiction to a point of indistinguishability.

Beigbeder's paradoxical statements in Windows on the World also draw on the "fact or fiction" dichotomy, which is frequently reduced to "eyewitness or not," (7) a dichotomy that equates authority with having seen or experienced an event. (8) The implication of the dichotomy is that only seeing or experiencing something first hand results in having something to say, which gives rise to the need to say it and infuses a text with urgency. Quite the opposite, Beigbeder's point is precisely that no one saw what happened inside Windows on the World, which creates the need to inhabit, compose, revise (in the sense of both revisit and re-envision). (9) The point is significant because it opens "need" and "urgency" to inquiry, specifically in the absence of a verifiable sight, which, in turn, makes the question of violent visibility in both Windows on the World and Fragments all the more critical.

When Andrew Gross and Michael Hoffman contend that conflating "authority with affect and the Holocaust with the unknowable ... turns powerful fictions into testimonies, and all testimonies into narratives of the Holocaust" (2004, 42), they argue against writing bearing autobiography in itself and against the inextricability of contemporary literature from the terror of the Holocaust. (10) Indirectly, the narrative voice in Windows on the World responds by discussing the impasse at which contemporary writers find themselves in terms of September 11th, an impasse to thinking and to writing because "it is impossible to write about this subject, and yet impossible to write about anything else. Nothing else touches us" (8). Thus, the speaker equates the impossibility to write September 11th with the unrelenting need to write it. Author Chris Cleave articulates the same intensity of compulsion (which resulted in his novel Incendiary), a consuming urge to think and to imagine the catastrophe, to inhabit it not as an event but in a particular detail, in a particular life. (11) Singular and irresistible, the impulsion to inhabit is then not through an engagement with an external and immutable reality, but through a violent and violating invention. As Beigbeder himself states in the "Author's Note," although the pages of novels do not contain truth, novels "are a means of understanding history" (2004, 307). The statement seems to be another paradoxical move on the writer's part, since to understand is to establish at least some form of truth. However, coupled with a claim he makes during his interview with Genies, "The novel is truly the highest realm of freedom" (2003, 40), another sense emerges. Perhaps fiction, in exhuming the assumptions under which history operates, serves as a practice of freedom, a continuous and violent process of understanding the debris--history, catastrophe, textuality--that constitutes the self.

Mobile Debris

To conceive of the debris, this always singular noun, used to reference uncountable masses of objects and substances, as the textuality of the two texts necessitates a look at its operation. In its amorphous but also protean totality, debris usually stands in antithesis to order and, as Patricia Yaeger points out, to work and production. In her essay "Rubble as Archive, or 9/11 as Dust, Debris, and Bodily Vanishing," she interrogates the function of the WTC debris and the narratives to which it gives rise, one of them being "a sense of detritus as a space that gathers corporeality, of rubble as a site where bodily trauma passes through" (Yaeger 2003, 190). Paradoxical and elusive, debris can swathe all and yet mobilize and transform it, while bringing unforeseen fusions and breakages to the fore. As in the cases of the white powder in New York on September 11th and of the ash from the incinerators of the Nazi concentration camps, debris saturates everything, fusing it together into an unstable but resilient mass and, at the same time, maintaining imperceptible but unbridgeable ruptures within the totality. In Wilkomirski's text, the debris that surrounds an incinerator is alive and violent: "All over the plain around the mountain, hordes of biting insects suddenly came crawling out of the ground. Everything was covered with them thicker and thicker, as far as the eye could see, until the plain looked like a sea of evil creatures" (1996, 39). The only escape from this debris is into the incinerator itself, a space as unknowable as Windows on the World. Fragmen ts commits to inhabiting this space violently but also as a kind of ethical engagement.

The duality of debris, its being that which is broken but also becoming that which breaks--debriser, to break down, crush--is what allows debris to infiltrate everything to invisibility (air, consciousness, words, perceptions) and what creates the urge to make it visible. In view of the debris of the WTC, Beigbeder writes, "Despite the immensity of the towers, there was something organic about them. This something, which was more powerful than us, was us all the same" (2004, 242). Thus, most disturbing and insoluble about debris becomes its solubility, a diffuseness that permeates imperceptibly, but a violation that the text turns (in)to in an effort to find out what is to be done with debris that does not speak for anyone, but perhaps only, and significantly, to itself. Beigbeder's text pieces debris together, stitching back into shape a chronology that has fallen through itself, simultaneously excavating debris and resisting its pollution. Paradoxically, he commemorates without memory, collecting data about September 11th meticulously: death toll, statistics about the WTC, about Windows on the World, about New York and New Yorkers on that day, the days before and the days that followed, the year that followed. The systematicity with which he gathers this information (as if to compose his own personal narrative) resembles Wilkomirski's assemblage of Holocaust memories: "Years of research, many journeys back to the places where I remember things happened, and countless conversations with specialists and historians have helped me to clarify many previous inexplicable shreds of memory, to identify places and people, to find them again and to make a possible, more or less logical chronology out of it" (1996, 155). Yet, Fragments, in its literal fragmentation, defies its own chronology. The debris of moments, historical facts, words of which it is composed undermine the linearity of a chronology, as the pieces of memories emerge simultaneously, merging instants and spaces. In the same sense, the stability of time (each chapter announcing a specific minute) in Windows on the World is undermined by one chapter arriving from the future of another, both inhabiting a continuous present, until the narrators--Carthew and Beigbeder-begin to speak to one another. The numbers, thus, only reference the collapse of chronology. It is a move indispensable to both texts because it invokes "the extreme," a mobility that violently breaks with the presumption of stable locations and times.

Similarly, the collapse complicates the position of the narrative voice, the place from which it speaks, and splits the voice into multiple voices compounding, colliding, overlapping, and appearing to emerge from multiple directions at once. Fragments brings together the voices of the very small child in the concentration camps, of the older child in the Swiss orphanage, of Wilkomirski seeking his voice both from the past and from the future, "I wanted my voice" (154). Similarly, Windows on the World fractures the narrative voices of Beigbeder the narrator, Carthew, and, for a segment, Carthew's son David, compounding each other in France, New York, in a restaurant, and in another space into which the restaurant is transforming, and, ultimately, in a space beyond the conventional parameters of physical life. The fragmented voices enact the impossibility of death, exposing its life in the violent mobility of debris. Precisely this paradox of death-its simultaneous transparency and invisibility-moves at the heart of Windows on the World. As Carthew continues to speak from within his death, "The wind still blows, between zero and the infinite. We are within it, we are the wind ... Only death can make us immortal. We are not dead" (Beigbeder 2004, 293), he speaks a death that has become indistinguishable from life; he speaks as debris. In a sense, this is an unfinishing of death, a confluence of multiplicitous debris, caused by the conflicting currents of visibility and invisibility, a reach to grasp and a recoiling from it, a disaster in its very impossibility. The confluence ruptures a paradigm of reality, designed in opposition to fiction; that which escapes is as real as it is fictional, as violent as it is vitally mobilizing to thought.

Ethos: Fact, Faux, Fiction

Contrary to exposing the writer's self as an organic and organized whole writing literally activates the ungovernable debris that comprises the self. As Beigbeder the narrator points out, it demonstrates that something does escape, "writing an autobiographical novel not to reveal oneself, but to melt away" (236), that is, to enact the dissipation of oneself into a multiplicity of voices, their reverberations, occlusions, silences, and extremities, bespoken by the violence of images. Also, as with Wilkomirski, the self must dissipate into debris before it can be invented and mobilize the space of writing. Wilkomirski composes this space out of the "gibberish" of his childhood (1996, 3) and with the loss of his voice. He draws together all spoken and unsaid pieces, the waste that his memories are considered to be, "Children have no memories, children forget quickly, you must forget it all, it was just a bad dream" (153), and the vestiges of the Holocaust in language that must be subverted.

In an exceptionally interesting way, Beigbeder answers several questions that critics have raised in their discussions of Fragments: the problems of the pervasiveness of a massive catastrophe, of autobiography, and of the function of literature in relation to reality. An impetus of "being there," seeing all, an ethos of disengaging the consumer and the removed observer and of becoming an ethical inhabitant (though not an eyewitness) by being unethical according to conventional standards, since the "ethical code" of refusing to look is nothing other than censorship (Beigbeder 2004, 262), permeates Windows on the World. Although the consumer is removed from the event because of her distance from the site, more significantly, she is subjected to a removal both by the media coverage of the event and by her own refusal to think the violence in its diffuse particularity and not as a totality, to seek out the debris in its singular elementary particle--the indivisible fragments saturating the air, language, perception. As Beigbeder the narrator and Beigbeder the writer purport, "Nowadays, books must go where television does not. Show the invisible, speak the unspeakable. It may be impossible, but that is its raison d'etre. Literature is a Mission: Impossible" (295). This directness and directing not only of the gaze but of thought itself, a turn to revolting ash and chaos as the violence of "the extreme," constitutes the ethical commitment of the literary text.

In the chapters he writes as himself, Beigbeder describes his everyday trips to Le Ciel de Paris, the French "version" of Windows on the World, a restaurant on the 56th floor of the Montparnasse Tower in Paris. He brings his daughter along, and there, in that space that is simultaneously irreproducibly singular and inseparable from Windows on the World, he fragments but also composes his self, as American, French, trivial, tragic, sarcastic--a convalescing amalgam. He takes a trip to New York and speaks to New Yorkers, inhales the air, visits the WTC site and memorabilia exhibits. In the Concorde, on his way back, he lies on the floor, imagining that he is not in the belly of a machine but is instead speeding through the sky. All the while, Beigbeder's efforts seem concentrated on despatializing and detemporalizing, as his narrators shift between the past and the present, New York and Paris, ruminating that "our future has vanished. Our future is the past tense" (280). This sentiment exposes both the employment of the paradigm of catastrophe and the need to employ it in order to rethink the disaster. The implication is that the past as a disaster is impassable, but that only thinking it anew bears the capacity to open the future. Wilkomirski enacts not only the same movement between pasts and presents but a similar thought in particular: "They're trying to trick me. That's why they want me to forget what I know. The camp's still here. Everything's still here" (1996, 125). To both Wilkomirski and Beigbeder, forgetting simply could not work as a way of living when one has been marked by catastrophe, even indirectly, and both seek to create and inhabit spaces that foster a re-thinking. To create a future, the text must perform a violent feat: it must be absorbed by the disaster in order to transform the way in which the disaster produces itself. In other words, to open the future, the text inhabits the past. For Windows on the World it becomes a question of visibility and of "the extreme" as a space of violent confrontation.

Windows on the World apprehends the fear of losing the tangible, of losing history, memory, and trauma. At the same time, it exposes the futility of the visible and the uncertainty of materiality, of the past, of a history that can be understood and, more importantly, seen. The text questions the search for a sense of solidity to the movement of time, for the existence of something that remains, that lives on. In the Afterword to Fragments, Wilkomirski himself writes about the need for stability, "I wanted my own certainty back ... so I began to write" (154). This demand for a stable self brings to the fore the relationship of the text to the disaster and, thus, of the text to itself. And while both texts seem to reach for this stability, neither, in fact, provides it. Beigbeder uses the extremity of images to evoke the same critical thought that the WTC offers, namely "that the immovable is movable. What we thought was fixed is shifting. What we thought solid is liquid" (2004, 8). And might one not include here the movable, shifting fluidity of genres, facts, and reality?

Beigbeder writes: "It is invisible, and therefore it does not exist, since we live in a world that worships what is visible, demonstrable, material" (29). His simultaneous critique of the complicity in thinking that which cannot be seen non-existent and of revering only the visible is an inextricable part of the paradoxical moves that Windows on the World undertakes. Yet, these moves enable the text to extracts the violence of the images, operating under erasure, under the awareness that even though it has disrupted the convenient or comforting distance from the event, it is has not come any closer to rendering it transparent. The paradoxical confrontations that Windows on the World performs--of Beigbeder (writer) and Beigbeder (narrator) and Carthew Yorston and "you and you and you and you ..."(294)--create out of the rubble under which "the Earth slumps" (272) a different form of engagement with catastrophe. It is an engagement that draws in the formalized, the institutional response in order to turn it against itself by making it difficult, if not impossible, to say whether the text begins from fact or from fiction, from the visible or from the invisible, from debris or from some unspeakable essence that escapes. The text violates these binaries in order to mobilize "the extreme" as uncertainty of start, end, or limit: "I've just worked it out: America has just discovered doubt ... Cars doubt. Supermarkets doubt ... Traffic jams are no longer convinced of their certainty" (268). As Wilkomirski also suggests in the Afterword, and as his text in its entirety proposes: to rely on fact is insufficient.

In this sense, the two texts push against the limits of understanding and conventional knowledge, engage the violent charge of "the extreme," and harness its potential for subverting frameworks that stagnate. On the other hand, their dialogue provides an occasion not only to read one through the other but to rethink the relation between fact and fiction through the operative framework of "the extreme" and, specifically, through its subversive movement. Both texts make debris visible, and mobilize it, by writing it not as a commemoration or yet another affirmation of the destruction to which it attests. Beigbeder and Wilkomirski write it as a self, in the sense that, as Laura Frost points out specifically in terms of 9/11, "the impact of that day persists in ways we cannot yet determine" (2010), and in ways, I add, that we are in a process of determining perpetually. Thus, they write it in order to continue to ask, as Wilkomirski does, "Was it all about nothing?" (1996, 116), or to continue composing new ways of thinking and inhabiting disaster as one's sell as Beigbeder does, "What did I come here to find? Me. Will I find myself?" (2004,166). Their violence urges the transformation of events, places, times, debris, and selves from spaces or things of fear, death, the unthinkable or unspeakable, to occasions for critical inquiry and ethical commitment.


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(1) See also Vice (2000).

(2) For comprehensive discussions of these genres, see Perniola (2002), Jones (2009), Boule (2001), and Blanckeman (2002).

(3) See Francken (2004), Reese (2005), Harold (2003), and Horspool (2004).

(4) See Suleiman (2000) on the fluidity of fact.

(5) Novick (2000) offers further discussion regarding the treatment of historical evens as sources of universal moral lessons and productive encounter with their complexities.

(6) See Versluys (2009).

(7) For an exchange on the point of "false memory," see La New-Yorkaise (2009).

(8) On the contrast between memory and imagination and the urgency to speak about September 11th, see Horspool (2004).

(9) See Agamben's assertion that the true witness to the Holocaust, the Muselmann, is dead. Lyotard (1989) offers further discussion.

(10) The writers argue against both Cathy Caruth's contention that trauma is transmissible, and Shoshana Felman's and Dori Laub's argument that to hear or see Holocaust testimony not only produces symptoms of trauma approximate to those of the survivors, but that, in a sense, the listener bears witness to the traumatic event before the speaker does. For critical work with secondhand witnessing, see Susan Gubar ("proxy-witnessing"), Dora Apel ("second witnessing"), and Irene Kacandes ("co-witnessing").

(11) During an interview, Cleave shared that September 11th had become such a substantial part of his everyday thoughts that he "had to write it" (Cleave 2008).


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Date:Jan 1, 2012
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