Postmemory as Trauma? Some Theoretical Problems and Their Consequences for Contemporary Literary Criticism

(Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC) – Spanish National Research Council)

Marianne Hirsch’s concept of postmemory has become so thoroughly part of the lexicon of trauma studies that the words trauma and postmemory are now sometimes used interchangeably1. Scholars of artistic works concerning the bloody episodes of twentieth-century history occasionally draw on postmemory simply as an adjunct among the panoply of theories wielded in defense of their object of study. If the pain felt by later generations is, although admittedly not of the same nature, at least equally legitimate as the suffering of the parents who experienced historical atrocities firsthand, the continued artistic elaboration of those atrocities has a powerful raison d’être. If the trauma inflicted by the Holocaust, the Second World War, and the Spanish Civil War is still felt today, three-quarters of a century on, then works of art that concern themselves with these historical moments can be justified as socially and psychologically beneficial.  

This article critiques the ways in which the concept of postmemory has been used to defend the psychological and social significance of historical fiction. In the 1990s trauma theory gained traction in Holocaust studies as a means of legitimizing the testimony of survivors. Trauma theory urged a disregard for the criteria of reliability and accuracy, treating testimony not as a typical historical source but as an alternative, tortured system of knowledge about the past. Hirsch’s work contains a theoretical ambiguity that allows the artistic recreation of the past to be invested with a comparable psychological justification. Postmemory expands the authority of the witness to encompass those with no direct experience of the historical atrocities they narrate. This article questions the rationale for this transference of testimonial authority from ancestors to their descendants.

The article begins by showing how postmemory has been used in studies of historical novels on the Spanish Civil War and offers two examples of questionable uses of the theory in analyses of novels by Antonio Muñoz Molina and Javier Marías. The article then moves on in the second section to an analysis of Hirsch’s work with the aim of illustrating the problems that have arisen in literary studies because of an overly literal and ultimately misguided interpretation of her work. The phenomenon of postmemory as Hirsch describes it is to a certain extent incompatible with the concept of trauma. We will see that postmemory as an artistic process must be understood in terms of activism and not as the result of a psychological wound whose aftereffects are still felt by later generations. The third part of the article outlines the consequences of the flawed equivalence of postmemory and trauma for literary criticism. Using works of contemporary literature on the Spanish Civil War as examples, this final section illustrates how the interpretation of postmemory as a kind of trauma leads to fallacious assumptions regarding the impact of historical novels. Conflating postmemory with trauma can induce critics to approach the genre of historical fiction with a certain reverence. A revised understanding of postmemory as activism can help us to analyze literary uses of the past in a more critical vein. Instead of lavishing our approval indiscriminately on historical novels as though they were an unquestionable boon for society, we can begin to gauge the effects of these fictions against the intention of their authors and likewise distinguish between more and less productive attitudes toward the past.

Mathieu Ducournau, jeune femme, 118 x 143 cm, 2017.

Mathieu Ducournau, jeune femme, 118 x 143 cm, 2017.

Historical Novels and the Spanish Civil War: Javier Marías and Antonio Muñoz Molina under the Lens of Postmemory

In a study of the contemporary historical novel in Spain, Ofelia Ferrán explores a series of fictional works with the aim of demonstrating how literature can resolve the trauma of the civil war and Franco’s dictatorship whose effects, she argues, continue to afflict Spanish society today2. She uses the concept of postmemory to illustrate how the trauma of distant historical events lingers on in new generations who have no direct experience of those events. As examples of the workings of postmemory she adduces Manuel and Nadia, characters in El jinete polaco (1991) by Antonio Muñoz Molina3. Manuel and Nadia are hounded by the wartime experiences of their parents. Manuel spends his life fleeing from the same ghosts that torment his parents. His encounter with Nadia is an opportunity, in Ferrán’s words, “to share and piece together his own postmemory with hers4”. With a collection of photographs Nadia and he are able to “assume the voices of their past, the voices of the postmemories that have haunted each of them5”. Ferrán uses the word postmemory to refer to an inherited traumatic memory. But to interpret El jinete polaco as a portrayal of how the trauma of the civil war is transmitted to subsequent generations of the same family imposes some conceptual problems6. To begin with, it is difficult to envisage how Manuel and Nadia might have inherited a trauma. It is conceivable that their having lived with traumatized parents could have inculcated them with psychopathological traits learned from a young age, but Ferrán does not seem to be referring to the literal presence of symptoms of post-traumatic stress. It is clear that this scholar has in mind a rather more generalized idea of trauma as something that affects not just Manuel and Nadia but rather the entirety of the society they inhabit:

The effort presented in this novel [El jinete polaco] by the two protagonists can be seen as emblematic of the long journey that post-Franco Spanish society has undertaken. New generations of Spaniards have had to come to terms with such experiences of postmemory, of inheriting a devastating memory of a civil war, postwar repression, and long dictatorship that they have not necessarily lived, but that haunt their lives in the voices and echoes, in the fears and recollections of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations7

At certain points in Ferrán’s study we find ourselves faced with inferences in which the analysis of a literary text subtly assumes the quality of sociological commentary. Here, two fictional characters are held as representative of a society. Ferrán thinks that literary works like El jinete polaco do not simply testify to a social trauma but that they are in fact a remedy for that trauma8. She does not explain exactly how these historical novels can help to alleviate the presumed trauma of their readers. It is as if the act of following the therapeutic process undergone by fictional constructs like Manuel and Nadia were enough to bring about the reader’s own psychological healing. When postmemory is mobilized in support of a hypothetical social trauma that is passed down through the generations, the concept is in danger of resembling a overly simplistic formula for understanding literature and its relationship with the past: events long ago have left us traumatized, our parents and us in their wake, but if we read these novels we can be healed and settle our debt with the past. Ferrán underscores how at the end of El jinete polaco, Manuel and Nadia, after their long journey back to the past that caused them such grief before, now feel “gratitud y deseo.” Ferrán writes: “Memory has been transformed into gratitude, and gratitude and desire come together in a true ‘alegoría moral’ [...] that makes a sense of responsibility and appreciation of the past a necessary condition for any possibility of a better future9”. In the second part of this article we will see that Hirsch advocates postmemory precisely as a form of resistance against the self-satisfied presumption that the past can ever be laid to rest. Postmemory does not aspire to neat and gratifying conclusions but rather aims to leave audiences with the unease of discovering that history – above all the history of events of extreme violence and suffering – leaves loose ends and gaps that no account is able to tie neatly together and fill. The problem that arises when Ferrán uses the word postmemory as synonymous with trauma is that her analysis overlooks a central aspect of Hirsch’s theory. Hirsch pays close attention to the impact of artistic works on spectators and readers. More than the idea that these works communicate historical facts, Hirsch is interested in the ways in which they do so. Postmemory is not inherent in artistic works. It is not simply a traumatic event that is disseminated through the medium of art; it encapsulates an ideal of ethical commitment to the past. It is true that postmemory is concerned with how subsequent generations relate to the trauma of their ancestors, but what distinguishes the concept from trauma and from the psychoanalytical notion of “working through” that preoccupies Ferrán in the greater part of her study is that postmemory describes the commemoration and reconfiguration of historical experience for later generations; it represents the act of conserving precisely that part of history that should not be “worked through10.

A second example will suffice in this précis of the issues at stake in conflating the social mechanism of postmemory with the psychological injury of trauma, a misguided endeavor that is certainly more widespread than these examples might suggest11. Carmen Moreno-Nuño, another scholar of contemporary literature, also proposes that the origin of the historical novel can be found in the trauma of the civil war and Francoism that radiates through time. She christens Muñoz Molina and his coevals “la segunda generación del trauma”, and like Ofelia Ferrán, she regards the novelist and his characters as inheritors of a generalized social trauma12. However, Moreno-Nuño also gives a more specific example of how trauma can be passed on in the family context, based on the work of Javier Marías. In his novels, Marías returns time and again to an episode from the life of his father, Julián Marías, who was denounced by his colleagues following the civil war. Julián Marías spent some time in prison but thanks to the intercession of well-connected friends managed to escape relatively unscathed. His promising academic career in Spain was ruined but he came out of the calamity alive. The frequent meditations on this event in novels by Julián Marías’s son constitute, according to Moreno-Nuño, the “retorno recurrente y obsesivo” characteristic of trauma sufferers13. Yet the compulsive behavior exhibited by survivors of catastrophic experiences, on one hand, and Javier Marías’s narrative style, on the other, are of a fundamentally dissimilar nature. The repetition compulsion diagnosed by psychoanalysis is a product of the unconscious. In Freud’s theory, such a compulsion consists of repeated attempts to gain mastery over an event that at the time of its occurrence could not be registered by the psyche. It seems unlikely that Marías’s knowledge of his father’s tribulations before his birth might trigger a psychological alteration of the kind described in trauma theory. In his autobiography Julián Marías writes openly about the episode of his denunciation, which evidently lacks a sufficiently traumatic quality to impede its detailed narration. Otherwise we might at the very least expect the fluidity of the narrative to yield to the traumatic inflections of the episode’s recollection14. Moreno-Nuño does not explain why the episode could be expected to leave on the son the traces of a trauma that are seemingly absent from the father. But in her analysis she uses this event to justify her interpretation of Marías’s work through the prism of trauma: “la memoria que Javier Marías ha heredado sobre la Guerra Civil es una memoria familiar herida, o lo que es lo mismo, una memoria familiar traumática15”. Although it is true that the father’s story makes frequent appearances in Javier Marías’s fiction, the episode is usually integrated within a depersonalized aesthetic context that lacks any particular affective charge. El siglo (1983) is a study of the amoral upbringing that might induce a man to become an informer16. Tu rostro mañana (2002–07) is a parable that warns of the disastrous consequences of telling tall tales about others17.What happened to his father evidently fascinates Marías, but the themes of denunciation and betrayal are worked into autonomous narratives that bear little resemblance to Julián Marías’s life beyond the thematic resonances. Neither is it the case that these dissociative techniques imply that Marías is unable to face what happened to his father and that his narratives constitute a kind of circumlocution that scratches around a painful memory without ever touching it directly. Marías tells the story openly in some works of fiction and non-fiction and is forthright when it comes to naming his father’s wrongdoers. Marías’s works are not, then, the acting out of a repressed family drama. They obey an ethical imperative of a distinctive nature. If Marías is interested in what happened to his father as literary material it is because it represents a point of departure for writing about little known aspects of Spanish history and for reflecting in general on the heinous acts of which we are all capable. The concept of inherited trauma, instead of shedding light on the hidden motives underlying the decision to write about the past, can lead to mistaken conclusions that contradict other, more compelling textual evidence regarding authorial intention.

Postmemory between Trauma and Social Activism

Ferrán’s and Moreno-Nuño’s analyses are representative of a critical tendency that treats the concepts of postmemory and inherited trauma as if they were interchangeable. However, in her more recent work on postmemory published in 2012, Hirsch is careful not to lend too much credence to the idea that trauma can travel from one generation to the next18. Although she does not explicitly reject the notion, her definition of postmemory emphasizes the indirect nature of children’s contact with their parents’ experience: 

“Postmemory” describes the relationship that the “generation after” bears to the personal, collective, and cultural trauma of those who came before – to the experiences they “remember” only by means of the stories, images, and behaviors among which they grew up. But these experiences were transmitted to them so deeply and affectively as to seem to constitute memories in their own right. Postmemory’s connection to the past is thus actually mediated not by recall but by imaginative investment, projection and creation. To grow up with overwhelming inherited memories, to be dominated by narratives that preceded one’s birth or one’s consciousness, is to risk having one’s own life stories displaced, even evacuated by our ancestors. It is to be shaped, however indirectly, by traumatic fragments of events that still defy narrative reconstruction and exceed comprehension19.

Hirsch writes of trauma, of burdensome inherited memories, of the tyranny of narratives that precede one’s birth and that eclipse one’s own life stories. Yet even as Hirsch insists on the proximity of this onerous past, she underscores the distance that separates the new generation from it. She uses scare quotes with the word remember and italics for seem. Her definition does not lose sight of the fact that postmemory describes a connection with the past that is indirect, mediated by the imagination and desire, no matter how oppressive and close it may feel. Far from being a synonym for inherited trauma, which is how the term is often used in literary studies, postmemory describes a yearning to reconnect with the past. Unlike trauma, the process Hirsch depicts is not a drive to avoid or an incapacity to face a debilitating experience but rather the urge to embrace it.

Still, it is easy to see why some scholars of contemporary literature have found support in Hirsch’s work for the notion that trauma is a determining factor in the creation of historical novels. According to Hirsch, postmemory is a “structure of inter- and transgenerational return of traumatic knowledge” and a “consequence of traumatic recall20. Her theorization of the concept includes the supposition that postmemory manifests itself in a series of psychological and even physical symptoms exhibited by the children of survivors of catastrophic experiences. Although she recognizes the problems this hypothetical symptomatology entails, for example the risk that children usurp the victimhood of their parents, Hirsch presupposes the existence of a social group that in some way shares the painful experiences of their parents21. The title of her study alludes to this social entity: a new generation that relates to the disturbing past of their forerunners as intensely as if this past were their own. But the title of Hirsch’s study points to another way in which we are encouraged to understand postmemory: more than a simple label for a generation, postmemory is the action undertaken by that social group, that is, the act of generating, of creating postmemory. Postmemory describes, then, the psychological impact of certain events on people who did not witness them and, at the same time, postmemory constitutes what Hirsch calls a “structure” of remembrance. According to this second meaning, postmemory characterizes how the past is communicated to the descendants of survivors and to the rest of society. It is this second sense conveyed by the term that provides a more coherent basis for a less reverential and more effective critical practice that can be applied to the literary representation of the past.

In an account of the personal motivations for her work in memory studies Hirsch grants a privileged status to her zeal as an activist more than to any trauma that she might have suffered as the daughter of Jews who survived persecution in Romania during the Second World War and escaped deportation. Hirsch admits that her parents’ stories pervaded her childhood, but explains that she embarked on memory studies because they offered:

a means to uncover and to restore experiences and life stories that might otherwise remain absent from the historical archive. As a form of counter-history, “memory” offered a means to account for the power structures animating forgetting, oblivion, and erasure and thus to engage in acts of repair and redress. It promised to propose forms of justice outside of the hegemonic structures of the strictly juridical23.

Hirsch is motivated predominantly by ethical concerns. She aspires to defend the interests of the weak and oppressed. She conceives of her intellectual work as a form of social activism and upholds her commitment to righting injustices. This social commitment, which goes beyond narrow conceptions of legal justice, consists of bringing about acts of “repair and redress,” forms of justice for which Hirsch takes responsibility through her academic work in the field of memory. If there is any trauma underlying Hirsch’s decision to dedicate herself to memory activism, it is certainly not comparable to the psychological abnormalities shown by the survivors of profoundly disturbing events. Furthermore, the overriding impression of postmemory that comes across in Hirsch’s work is its potential as a source of social good. There is a curious alchemy at work here whereby postmemory, through the creative works in which it is channeled, is able to transform a painful and destructive past into something socially beneficial. Seen in this light, postmemory seems to have little in common with the notion of inherited trauma.

Mathieu Ducournau, Oiseau#3, 100 x 145 cm, 2017.

Mathieu Ducournau, Oiseau#3, 100 x 145 cm, 2017.

Postmemory is, then, not simply something that people possess; it is a process enacted by works of art. It is brought about by “mediated structures24”.These structures are generally aesthetic: they are imaginative written or visual works. Sometimes they are institutional, for example a museum, or technological, like a website25.Hirsch envisages these structures as means of repairing the links with a past that have been broken by discontinuities in the passage of individual to collective memory. In Hirsch’s words, postmemory consists of “forms of remembrance that reconnect and re-embody an intergenerational memorial fabric that is severed by catastrophe26”. Thus it seems contradictory to interpret postmemory as a kind of trauma because the phenomenon represents, in a sense, the overcoming of an unwholesome relationship with someone else’s pain. Postmemory signals the path toward a constructive and healthy historical commitment in the wake of a difficult past: “When [...] [traumatic] experiences are communicated through stories and images that can be narrativized, integrated – however uneasily – into a historically different present, they open up the possibility of a form of second-generation remembrance that is based on a more consciously and necessarily mediated form of identification27”.

At its core, postmemory constitutes a defense of the relevance and social impact of certain artistic activities. It is Hirsch’s contribution to the perennial debates regarding the crisis of the humanities. Postmemory stretches the temporal boundaries of historical events, investing them with a contemporary relevance that moves beyond the transcendence they had for the historical actors who were originally implicated. Although the desire to identify with victims arises with intensity often in the family context, the practice of postmemory reaps benefits for the entirety of society, by opening up the position of victims’ relatives as a space in which members of a wider social context can project themselves. That is, postmemory, according to Hirsch, allows those who were not present during the Holocaust to know what it is like to be the child of someone who was. By generating this experiential knowledge through works of art, postmemory enables the memory of the experience to live on:

Postmemorial work [...] strives to reactivate and re-embody more distant political and cultural memorial structures by reinvesting them with resonant individual and familial forms of mediation and aesthetic expression. In these ways, less directly affected participants can become engaged in the generation of postmemory that can persist even after all participants and even their familial descendants are gone27.

Postmemory is the process by which the experience of traumatized individuals can be communicated to a wider audience. The aesthetic structures on which this process depends do not aspire to transmit the original trauma, which would be difficult to conceive in any literal sense, but simply to disseminate historical awareness among spectators and readers.

This interpretation of postmemory as a medium for generating a heightened consciousness of the past not only helps to avoid the fallacy of insisting that the trauma of our ancestors is able to interpellate us in the present, but also serves to open a space for critical reflection on how historical knowledge is transmitted to subsequent generations. We have seen how Hirsch’s terminology can lend itself to the act of congratulating contemporary artists for their interest in the past. Contemporary criticism is overly comfortable with commonplaces such as the rescue of a certain experience from oblivion, the recovery of a given group’s memory, the overcoming of a historical trauma that endangers peaceful coexistence in the present. It is as though the simple act of recreating a historical episode were enough to garner praise for a novelist. But not all recreations of the past are valuable. Literature can serve undisclosed interests, alleviate a sense of responsibility and guilt, promote self-satisfaction and complacency. There is a risk that postmemory could absolve literary critics of their duty to question how and why artists use the past. If postmemory is understood as an enduring social trauma and writing as an alleviating and expiatory act in service of the community, then works of art are imbued with an unquestionable social value. Instead of the subject of analysis, such artworks are liable to become the object of idolatry. However, if we focus on the secondary interpretation of postmemory as the set of aesthetic structures that serve as intermediaries between the past and contemporary readers, the possibility of critiquing the ways in which historical knowledge is propagated is suddenly made available. If our access to the past depends on imaginative works, the creators of these works have a social responsibility that must be overseen by those who study them. If art is no longer simply an act of catharsis for those who consider themselves affected by atrocities perpetrated long ago but is rather charged with the generation of historical consciousness, the duty of cultural scholars must be to question the function of this access to the past, to evaluate how it is achieved, and to determine its impact on readers. Whereas the equation of postmemory with trauma steers us in the direction of simply assuming the social relevance of works of art concerning the past, an interpretation of postmemory as the generation of historical consciousness compels us to consider social relevance as a quality that must be argued for based on the analysis of the aesthetic and ethical properties of individual works.

Postmemory as the Generation of Historical Consciousness: The Consequences for Criticism on Spanish Civil War Fiction

Hirsch’s approval of works of art concerning disturbing historical events is seldom unqualified and never indiscriminate. Even when these works originate seemingly in the psychological anxieties of the victims’ children, Hirsch brings an unswerving critical gaze to bear on artistic uses of the past. In her analysis of visual art on the Holocaust, Hirsch denounces the tendency to infantilize and feminize victims and warns of the concomitant danger of depicting perpetrators with hypermasculine and depersonalized features29. She illustrates how these visual tropes of infantilization and depersonalization influence contemporary audiences when they view images of Holocaust atrocities taken by the perpetrators themselves. She gives the example of the photograph of a boy in the Warsaw ghetto, an image that has gained an iconic status in Holocaust studies and that originated in the Stroop report, which was drawn up by the Nazi authorities to document the destruction of the ghetto. Hirsch observes how the editing and cropping of such images can have attenuating effects. Some reproductions of the photograph are centered solely on the boy and isolate him from his surroundings, hiding the Nazi soldiers that can be seen in the original image. By focusing on the boy these cropped images divorce the victim from his historical context. He is transformed into a symbol, an abstract representation of victimhood. The specificity of the historical moment is eclipsed by the universal; the Jewish boy becomes an innocent everyman in the face of nameless evil. As the original photograph is turned into a scene of what Hirsch calls a “mythic encounter” between good and evil, the spectator is freed from the need to grapple over the problematic authorship of the image and the ethical complexity of assuming the perpetrator’s perspective30. According to Hirsch, editing the image in this way generates a soothing but ultimately dishonest sense of familiarity: “the false sense of intimacy fostered by the close-up [reduces] the viewer to an identificatory look that disables critical faculties31”.

The technique of cropping is not unique to the reproduction of visual images. Some of the most celebrated historical novels of the last couple of decades in Spain use similar methods in their portrayal of the victims of the civil war. We can see these methods at work in some of the novels of the so-called historical memory boom. Novels associated with this movement are advertised as recovering the memory of Republican victims of the war. In some of these works, often the most commercially successful, the infantilization and feminization of Republican victims is a sine qua non that conditions readers’ reception of the historical events. In such cases readers are not encouraged to approach history with an inquisitive frame of mind; there is little concern with expanding their knowledge or stimulating their interest in unknown events. The past simply constitutes a showcase of cruelty, a distant world with little apparent connection to our own. Any ambiguity is lost: we rarely find complex characters struggling to make sense of a chaotic world turned upside down and forced to decide their path at a crossroad of clashing ideologies and incompatible world views. Instead there are just the goodies versus the baddies, the former imploring our sympathy and the latter our revulsion. The same historical decontextualization identified by Hirsch in certain uses of the image from the Stroop report can be found in Los girasoles ciegos (2004) by Alberto Méndez32. In this prizewinning novel that reached an even wider popular audience through its film adaptation, the civil war is reduced to a backdrop against which a series of tearjerking tragedies unfold. The political, social, and economic factors at stake in the conflict are drowned out in a collection of heartrending fictional vignettes. Méndez prefaces each of the four stories that compose the book with the word “derrota” to set the elegiac tone that pervades the collection. In Los girasoles ciegos the war is fought off-stage; readers witness its devastating effects on a number of innocent individuals. The war is a vector of tragedy, an otherworldly and anonymous force whose price is paid by the weak and suffering. In its sentimental treatment of the conflict Los girasoles ciegos depoliticizes the victims. The protagonists of Méndez’s work have no agency over their destiny: they are passive subjects; martyrs without a cause; collateral damage in the whirlwind of history. Méndez’s victims conform to the postmemorial trend diagnosed by Hirsch: they are either emasculated males – like the father hiding in a closet, the effeminate and idealistic poet, the pacifist defector –or they are defenseless women and children. The military actors are removed from our line of sight, and a war waged between two sides is recast as an orgy of violence unleashed on helpless innocents. Hirsch warns that sentimentality serves as a defense mechanism allowing readers to attenuate their reception of difficult themes related to historical violence and to absolve themselves of the responsibility to reflect on what motivates the perpetrators of atrocities33. It is gratifying to assume that evil is perpetrated by monsters instead of human beings who are similar to us. A novel that reinforces our innate tendency to underestimate the evil of which we are all capable is a flawed ethical guide.

Historical novels on the civil war tend to privilege the victim’s perspective, which corroborates Hirsch’s intuition that postmemorial art predisposes its audience to adopt the victim’s position because it is the only point of view made available34. According to Hirsch, the tendency to occupy the victim’s place is particularly pronounced when we see images of children. She argues that this type of image, which abounds in Holocaust visual art, entices spectators to feel far too identified with those who are suffering. According to Hirsch, this process of “over-identification” leads to the appropriation and internalization of victims’ experiences. The boundaries between the self and other become blurred, and spectators, imagining themselves in the victim’s place, end up assuming the position of a surrogate victim: “the ‘it could have been me’ created specifically by the present political climate [...] constructs the child as an unexamined emblem of vulnerability and innocence35”. For Hirsch, images of children facilitate our capacity for self-projection; such images encourage the comforting sensation of understanding a historical experience that is, in reality, incomprehensible:

Images of children readily lend themselves to universalization. Less individualized, less marked by the particularities of identity, children invite multiple projections and identifications. Their photographic images, especially when cropped and decontextualized, elicit an affiliative as well as a protective spectatorial look marked by these investments, a look that promotes forgetting, even denial. If a more triangulated and less appropriative encounter with images of children is to be achieved, these images would need to preserve some of their visual layers and their historical specificity35.

The use of a child’s perspective is a common strategy in Spanish Civil War fiction. The postwar period saw a proliferation of narratives that adopted the naïve and detached perspective of young protagonists whose incapacity to comprehend the reality of the war around them subtly conveys a criticism of the conflict and its absurdity. The novelists of the generación del medio siglo – a soubriquet encompassing writers such as Ana María Matute, Juan Goytisolo, and Carmen Laforet – inaugurated a narrative style that channeled their personal experience as children living through the war. Their works embodied a trend that reinforced the socially sanctioned interpretation of the civil war at that time as the tragic result of collective madness37. The interpretation of the war as an eruption of fratricidal lunacy, although still in vogue in some sections of society, disregards the socioeconomic factors at the origin of the conflict. The child’s perspective is a compelling artistic conceit but it can obscure the historical context of the conflict and the real reasons for which it was fought. Such a perspective encourages us to view the war as something incomprehensible, like an unforeseeable natural catastrophe, an act of God in which those who lost most were the faultless children who were forced to live with its consequences. When our attention is drawn to children as an entire demographic constituent that suffered, regardless of individual circumstances, there is a tendency to overlook the more meaningful social injustices unleashed by the Spanish Civil War, whose epithets of victors and defeated endured for decades. The alignment of a reader’s perspective with that of a child in this kind of narrative breeds a sentimentality that impoverishes the critical faculties. The consequent infantilization of victims demotes the historical context, consigning it to the background, and encourages a mode of reading in which the higher cognitive functions of analysis and reason are relegated in favor of affective appraisals and emotional responses.

The infantilization of victims tends to be accompanied, furthermore, by the depersonalization of perpetrators. Hirsch observes that in Holocaust art the predominance of feminized and infantilized victim positions obliges spectators to participate in “the hyper-masculinization and ultimately depersonalization of perpetrators that allows for the erasure of the agency of perpetration38”. Historical novels on the Spanish Civil War more often than not neglect the psychology of the perpetrators of reprehensible acts; the characterization of evildoers often gravitates toward caricature. More akin to symbols than fully formed protagonists, perpetrator-characters rarely have a psychological depth that might allow readers to reflect on their motives. Antonio Muñoz Molina’s Sefarad (2001), for example, pursues an intense preoccupation with victimhood that leaves little space for the cause of the characters’ suffering to make an appearance39. Evil does not seem to exercise the same fascination for Muñoz Molina with the result that the villains in this victim-centered novel are simply silhouettes whose intimacy and raison d’être are frozen out. The lack of nuance in the portrayal of those responsible for violence and injustice reinforces a simplistic paradigm of good versus evil. The attachment to stereotypes absolves readers of the need to undertake a more psychologically and ethically complex process of identification, which, according to Hirsch, could help us to understand better human beings who committed abominable acts40.

The enticement to identify with victims is intellectually dishonest when these victims are decontextualized, detached from their political and social background, devoid of agency, and employed as symbols of more general injustices: “Identification in itself need not necessarily be a form of decontextualization, but, in [certain] cases, the discourse of identification simplifies and distorts, becoming so over-arching as to foreclose a more oblique, critical, or resistant retrospective look41”. Hirsch believes a critical gaze that resists the facile impulse to identify with victims is a more ethical approach to consuming art concerned with historical atrocities. The sentimental treatment of the Spanish Civil War in many contemporary works has fostered a critical discourse that regards identification as the ultimate purpose of reading these works. Empathy is undoubtedly an important activity in the reception of stories about historical violence, but sometimes the intensity of empathic processes impedes the preservation of a critical stance that can help to contextualize historical experiences. The emotions aroused by our identification with victim-characters do not necessarily help us to understand historical events or even the experience of victimhood itself. Hirsch warns that identification entails the risk of usurping victims’ experiences. Although it is difficult to understand in a literal sense how a victim’s identity might be appropriated through the creation or consumption of a work of art, it is clear that readers’ emotional responses to an artistic stimulus are not necessarily directed toward the object that evoked the emotions in the first instance. A visceral reaction to the horror endured by another being can trigger action tendencies motivated by self-interest, behaviors resulting from a desire to alleviate our own discomfort rather than from a specific concern with the other person’s suffering42. In the act of reading, this psychological predisposition might correspond to the Aristotelian phenomenon of catharsis. We witness the tragedy of another and feel liberated from our own anxiety. The act of contemplating pain is part of a reading experience that as a whole produces satisfaction. We enjoy reading works that depict the misery of others; if this were not so, we would not read them. Hirsch’s caution against usurping victims’ experiences can also be understood another way. Frequently readers assume the protagonist’s perspective. We recreate the events of the narrative in our imagination as if we were living them. We fantasize about how we would react and feel about any given occurrence. In fact, we are explicitly urged to transfer our own being to the center of the narrative when a historical novel is described as a memory novel. Autobiographical memories are personal and untransferable. We cannot remember what happened to another person, and if we did not experience a given event, it is not, strictly speaking, memory but rather history. But when we picture ourselves in the center of a work of art we might begin to suppose that we comprehend what the victims felt. Seeing as we have recreated the experience in our imagination, we might say we have seen it for ourselves, even that we have, to a certain extent, lived it. A presumption of this kind would obviously be fallacious. Perhaps it is what Hirsch has in mind when she refers to the urge to usurp another’s past by becoming what she calls a “surrogate victim”43. The sensation of having experienced something in one’s own skin effectively uproots the experience from its historical context. The aesthetic recreation of the past produces the illusion of empirical knowledge, the fantasy of appropriation.

Mathieu Ducournau, Ondes sensibles#3, 2016 - 80 cm diam.

Mathieu Ducournau, Ondes sensibles#3, 2016 - 80 cm de diamètre.

Literary criticism has the obligation to question certain reading tendencies. The dissection of a historical novel by critical analysis focuses our attention on the role of the artist who acts as an intermediary in our reception of historical events. As a counterpoint to the rhetoric of art, criticism should wrest us from the illusion of intimacy with victims, capitalizing on its independence of the aesthetic discourse and critiquing how the artist shapes our perception of the past. Heightened awareness of the aesthetic medium can help readers to resist simplistic interpretations of historical novels: sentimentality and self-pity when faced with victims’ suffering; the incapacity or unwillingness to reflect on perpetrators’ psychology. To prevent the paralysis of readers’ critical faculties and to arrest the urge to simplify complex historical events, literary criticism must scrutinize the author’s role in constructing the spectatorial conditions under which the past is viewed. Hirsch’s censure of visual artists who domesticate the Holocaust using cliché, sentimentalism, and pornography contains lessons for literary criticism of historical novels on the Spanish Civil War. It is rare for critics to question the use of artistic devices designed to comfort readers with a Manichean dichotomy of good Republicans versus evil Nationalists. Sentimentality perhaps sells more than the ambiguous and disquieting text that forces us to reflect on our complacent and self-satisfied attitude toward the past. A dystopian image of history allows us to congratulate ourselves on the present and safely place our trust in the future. However, critics have the responsibility to explore how and why the past is used and abused. Armed with the critical posture Hirsch brings to bear on Holocaust art, we can stop automatically applauding historical novelists for exercising an activity whose social benefits are too often presupposed and we can cease to assume that literary works of “memory” constitute an organic wellspring of justice for victims.

In conclusion, Hirsch shows how criticism can be used to give the consumers of postmemorial art the uncomfortable sensation that the questions set in motion by disturbing historical events are not yet resolved. This historical sensitivity, modeled by critics and put into practice by readers and spectators, counteracts self-interested uses of the past. As a necessary balance against the satisfaction inherent in aesthetic consumption, this sense of unsettlement is a fundamental part of the social activism that Hirsch sees as the ultimate aim of postmemory. We have seen how some critics use the concept of postmemory to legitimize the artistic elaboration of the past as an activity motivated by trauma. This interpretation of the historical novel of the Spanish Civil War grants a privileged status to art as a curative practice that enacts belated justice for victims and emotional closure for contemporary society. Although Hirsch’s work does indeed support an interpretation of postmemory as a manifestation of trauma, we have seen that this interpretation runs contrary to the social aims of postmemorial art. By inculcating readers with the satisfaction of participating in a supposedly therapeutic act, an understanding of postmemory as the transmission of trauma encourages complacency, a sense of superiority with regard to the past, an impression of leaving it settled and overcoming its lessons. Trauma effectively shields literary works from reproach: a story that fulfills its author’s psychological imperatives requires no further justification. But a historical novel, although it may cloak itself in the paraphernalia of trauma, is not necessarily a helpful medium for approaching the past nor does reading it necessarily make you a better citizen or improve your psychological health. If we focus on the secondary interpretation of postmemory as something that is generated in society we can see that Hirsch in reality does not advocate a reverential attitude toward such works of art. She models a critical responsibility to question how history is used and thereby encourages readers and spectators to adopt an inquisitive attitude that is not placated by simplistic historical interpretations. Hirsch’s theoretical framework urges resistance against excessively sentimental treatment of the past and provides valuable lessons for critics of the contemporary historical novel, lessons that we will be better placed to assimilate if we abandon the terminology of trauma.

Unfold notes and references
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The research for this article was funded by a Study Abroad Studentship awarded by the Leverhulme Trust.

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Ofelia Ferrán, Working through Memory: Writing and Remembrance in Contemporary Spanish Narrative, Lewisburg, Bucknell University Press, 2007, p. 14.

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Antonio Muñoz Molina, El jinete polaco, Barcelona, Planeta, 1991.

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Ofelia Ferrán, Working through Memory: Writing and Remembrance in Contemporary Spanish Narrative, Lewisburg, Bucknell University Press, 2007, p. 230.

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Ofelia Ferrán, Working through Memory: Writing and Remembrance in Contemporary Spanish Narrative, Lewisburg, Bucknell University Press, 2007, p. 230.

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Ofelia Ferrán, Working through Memory: Writing and Remembrance in Contemporary Spanish Narrative, Lewisburg, Bucknell University Press, 2007, p. 229.

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Ofelia Ferrán, Working through Memory: Writing and Remembrance in Contemporary Spanish Narrative, Lewisburg, Bucknell University Press, 2007, p. 231.

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Ofelia Ferrán, Working through Memory: Writing and Remembrance in Contemporary Spanish Narrative, Lewisburg, Bucknell University Press, 2007, p. 15, 51.

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Ofelia Ferrán, Working through Memory: Writing and Remembrance in Contemporary Spanish Narrative, Lewisburg, Bucknell University Press, 2007, p. 266.

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Ofelia Ferrán, Working through Memory: Writing and Remembrance in Contemporary Spanish Narrative, Lewisburg, Bucknell University Press, 2007, p. 15.

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Carmen Moreno-Nuño and Ofelia Ferrán were early proponents of the applicability of the concept of postmemory as a paradigm for understanding the relationship of contemporary generations of Spaniards to atrocities perpetrated during the civil war and Franco’s dictatorship. As contributions to scholarship on the burgeoning body of literary works concerning the Spanish Civil War and Franco’s dictatorship, these studies by Moreno-Nuño and Ferrán were significant particularly because of their defense of the artistic perspective of the new generations of novelists who were born after the war and desperate postwar period and yet who decided to make these events central to their literary output. Postmemory was certainly an alluring theory with which to legitimize these young novelists’ interest in their parents’ past. Another early proponent of postmemory in the field of Spanish literary studies is Elina Liikanen. See Liikanen, “Novelar para recordar: La posmemoria de la guerra civil y el franquismo en la novela española de la democracia,” paper presented at the Congreso Internacional de la Guerra Civil Española, Universidad de Santiago de Compostela, 3 June 2006. Postmemorial readings of contemporary Spanish literature now abound.

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Carmen Moreno-Nuño, Las huellas de la guerra civil: mito y trauma en la narrativa de la España democrática, Madrid, Libertarias, 2006, p. 300.

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Carmen Moreno-Nuño, Las huellas de la guerra civil: mito y trauma en la narrativa de la España democrática, Madrid, Libertarias, 2006, p. 119.

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Julián Marías, Una vida presente: Memorias, vol. I, Madrid, Alianza, 1988.

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Carmen Moreno-Nuño, Las huellas de la guerra civil: mito y trauma en la narrativa de la España democrática, Madrid, Libertarias, 2006, p. 142.

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Javier Marías, El siglo, Madrid, Alfaguara, 1983.

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Javier Marías, Tu rostro mañana, 3 vols, Madrid, Santillana, 2002–07.

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Hirsch’s use of the term postmemory has undergone two principal changes over the decades since the concept emerged in her work. The first is a relatively inconsequential expansion of its area of application from the predominantly visual media that form the basis of Hirsch’s earlier works to narrative art more generally in her more recent analyses. The second change, which is more germane to my argument here, relates to the definition of the term itself. The concept first appeared in an article published by Marianne Hirsch in 1992, “Family Pictures: Maus, Mourning, and Post-Memory,” Discourse, 15:2, 1992–93, p. 3-29. Hirsch’s concern in this earlier article is with Holocaust photography and with the ways in which photographs of victims instantiate both the death of their protagonist and the survival of the image. Drawing on theoretical works in visual studies by Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes, Hirsch argues that the ambiguous relationship of Holocaust photography to both life and death makes the medium a potent symbol for the desire to mourn Holocaust victims and the simultaneous failure of the process of mourning. Postmemory is analogous to the desired and yet frustrated connection with the past encapsulated by photography. In her analysis of Art Spiegelman’s use of family photographs in his graphic novel Maus, Hirsch shows how the children of Holocaust survivors use photographs to negotiate the gulf separating them from their parents’ past. Thus the term postmemory was originally used to characterize specifically the “child of the survivor whose life is dominated by memories of what preceded his/her birth” (Hirsch, “Family Pictures,” p. 8), and it is only more recently that Hirsch has applied the term to Holocaust remembrance in society more generally and to the remembrance of other historical atrocities. Other significant landmarks in Hirsch’s development of the concept include Family Frames: Photography, Narrative, and Postmemory, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997 and two articles that elucidate the autobiographical context for which Hirsch coined the term: “Past Lives: Postmemories in Exile,” Poetics Today, 17:4, 1996, p. 659–86 and “‘We Would Not Have Come Without You’: Generations of Nostalgia” (co-authored with Leo Spitzer), American Imago, 59:3, 2002, p. 253–76.

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Marianne Hirsch, The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture after the Holocaust, New York: Columbia University Press, 2012, p. 5; italics in original.

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Marianne Hirsch, The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture after the Holocaust, New York: Columbia University Press, 2012, p. 6; italics in original.

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Marianne Hirsch, The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture after the Holocaust, New York: Columbia University Press, 2012, p. 34.

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Marianne Hirsch, The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture after the Holocaust, New York: Columbia University Press, 2012, p. 4, p. 15–16.

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Marianne Hirsch, The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture after the Holocaust, New York: Columbia University Press, 2012, p. 23.

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Marianne Hirsch, The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture after the Holocaust, New York: Columbia University Press, 2012, p. 6.

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Marianne Hirsch, The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture after the Holocaust, New York: Columbia University Press, 2012, p. 32.

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Marianne Hirsch, The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture after the Holocaust, New York: Columbia University Press, 2012, p. 85.

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Marianne Hirsch, The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture after the Holocaust, New York: Columbia University Press, 2012, p. 33.

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Marianne Hirsch, The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture after the Holocaust, New York: Columbia University Press, 2012, p. 133.

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Marianne Hirsch, The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture after the Holocaust, New York: Columbia University Press, 2012, p. 140.

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Marianne Hirsch, The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture after the Holocaust, New York: Columbia University Press, 2012, p. 140.

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Alberto Méndez, Los girasoles ciegos, Barcelona, Anagrama, 2004.

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Marianne Hirsch, The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture after the Holocaust, New York: Columbia University Press, 2012, p. 148–49.

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Marianne Hirsch, The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture after the Holocaust, New York: Columbia University Press, 2012, p. 144.

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Marianne Hirsch, The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture after the Holocaust, New York: Columbia University Press, 2012, p. 166–67. 

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Marianne Hirsch, The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture after the Holocaust, New York: Columbia University Press, 2012, p. 142.

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For an analysis of the different phases in the sociopolitical interpretation of the civil war, see Michael Richards, “From War Culture to Civil Society: Francoism, Social Change and Memories of the Spanish Civil War,” History & Memory, 14, 1-2, 2002, p. 93-120.

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Marianne Hirsch, The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture after the Holocaust, New York: Columbia University Press, 2012, p. 144.

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Antonio Muñoz Molina, Sefarad, Madrid, Alfaguara, 2001.

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Marianne Hirsch, The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture after the Holocaust, New York: Columbia University Press, 2012, p. 148–49.

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Marianne Hirsch, The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture after the Holocaust, New York: Columbia University Press, 2012, p. 142.

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Amy Coplan, “Understanding Empathy: Its Features and Effects”, in A. Coplan, P. Goldie (eds.), Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2011, p. 3-18 (p. 15-17).  

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Marianne Hirsch, The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture after the Holocaust, New York: Columbia University Press, 2012, p. 167.