Faulkner und Vergangenheitsbewältigung

June 17, 2010

Faulkner is channeled repeatedly in the discussion of political memory and in particular the Nazi past.  We hear the same phrase repeated by a Brandenburg politician a German professor of North American studies, Hannah Arendt, and others… A Google search for “Faulkner and Vergangenheitsbewältigung” turns up dozens of results in both German and English: newspaper articles, literature and film reviews, ethnic nationalism studies, and of course a Myspace page for a 23 year old female in Rapid City.

The past is never dead, it’s not even past

Faulkner’s words bear the weight of truth. There is no doubt that the past continuously shapes the present.  The death knell of the Final Solution is heard still today. That the German national psyche has not overcome the detrimental impacts of the Nazi quest for world empire is apparent in the uproar and resulting resignation of Khöler over the place of German troops in international missions. 

Dealing with the past – memorializing it, chronicling it, erecting giant museums to it – has taken an inordinate amount of time, money and planning in Germany… Contrast the numbers and prominence of memorials, plaques, monuments and museums for the Holocaust to those for slavery or Native American genocide in the United States, for instance.  This evidences a great desire to come to terms with this past.


 Still, the greater the trauma of the past, the greater the difficulty in exorcising its ghosts.  Hence the impossibility of adequately dealing with the Holocaust.  The sheer incomprehensibility of the anguish caused by the immiseration and ultimate destruction of millions defies attempts at reckoning with it.  And so the past will not die.

But why has it occurred that Faulkner’s phrase has come to speak on its own for the difficulties of dealing with past trauma?

Surely Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Elie Wiesel, or Dante have equally profound insights into the unrivaled capacity of man to inflict suffering upon fellow man; upon the horror of war and the remembrance of terrible things.

Why Faulkner? 

Although Faulkner was first translated into German in the 30’s and somehow escaped blacklisting to become apparently highly popular during the Nazi period, during more recent decades many of Faulkner’s works in German have fallen out of print. Requiem for a Nun, from which the quote is drawn, has never had a large readership even in its English translation.

Nevertheless, Faulkner’s literary reputation and winning of the Nobel Peace Prize make him a man to be quoted… (Even if we haven’t read his works.)

But in addition, and more importantly I think, are the connections to Faulkner’s subject and his attitude toward remembrance.  The parallel between a common Faulkner theme of the detrimental impacts to American society of slavery and the lack of attempt to deal with it resonates in a sense with Germans’ own attempts to deal with the sins of their fathers.  

In terms of remembrance, Faulkner’s pessimism over the capability of man to adequately ever realize a fulfillment of responsibility and attrition for the obscenity of the crimes of slavery and genocide is well-documented.  And deservedly so.  Yet perhaps more important than our failure to cope with the hugeness of history, is that we attempt to do so.

A Holocaust survivor wrote an ode to his murdered family:

That mortal enemy… wanted / To wipe out children’s laughter among my people / To burn it so that only ash remained. // But the thread will not be severed. Oh no, / I am leaving a deep imprint on this earth. / / … My children will have grandchildren / … And my grandchildren will become grandmothers and grandfathers / … So that the horror is never repeated – / I sing this my song of resurrection

One can never bury the past.  As we live and breathe, so too our history.  Our responsibility to the past is not to allow it to die, but to keep it as a remembrance owed so that we might ensure a more decent future.  Faulkner also said:

I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail


One comment

  1. Thanks for these beautiful pictures and making us want to read more of Faulkner’s work.

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