Testimony, témoignage, martyrion 1: Trauma


“Torture is senseless violence, born in fear. The purpose of it is to force from one tongue … the secret of everything.” Jean-Paul Sartre, “Victory, a Preface” in Henri Alleg. The Question. Translated by John Calder. 2006 ed. Lincoln, Nebraska and London: Universiy of Nebraska Press, 1958.

La Question is Henri Alleg’s account of his experiences under torture during the Algerian War. Published in 1958, it offers a detailed witness to the principles of interrogation and torture employed by the French army during the war. The book was easily available for five weeks before it was banned and was particularly important because many other accounts of the use of torture in Algeria were published in left-leaning periodicals that would not have been read by the greater portion of the French public. The use of torture was a central issue in critiques of the Algerian war and is something that I’ll return to later. Since the war, Alleg’s book has been reprinted often and has played a key role (alongside the testimony of Louisette Ighilahriz) in shaping France’s memory of the conflict in the twenty-first century.

Alleg is a journalist. He consciously deployed his training to structure and narrate his account. This steady observation of half-remembered emotional states  and physical injury contrasts with France’s own recall of the place of torture in the war, an eruption of confession and testimony in the early 2000s which Pierre Vidal-Naquet observed was explainable as “a return of the repressed.”

Historians are now very conscious of the ways in which narration structures what is knowable about the past. In drawing on the language of psychoanlysis Vidal-Naquet presented France’s encounter with the past as a moment of traumatic recall that disrupted the ordered unfolding of events. Both history and psychoanalysis are interested in the relationship between knowing and not knowing about the past, and particularly, about how the past is represented in language. Each grapples with the abundance of what cannot be known; the secret of everything.

As Dominick LaCapra and Cathy Caruth argued, a focus on the fragmentary and repetitive nature of traumatic recall allows a new kind of historical writing to emerge. This history is not a referential account of the past but is the implication of us in each others’ trauma. History is imagined first as an ethical imperative to listen rather than to narrate. To put it another way, the writing of history is not a resolution or healing process. Instead it becomes the working-through of the limits of what can be represented about the past, a way of sitting with the senselessness of it.

The question of a historian’s duty is frequently raised in essays contemporary with the Algerian War. As the 1950s progressed, historians firmly rejected positivism in favour of a more representational model of historical practice and, as a consequence, questions about the relationship between the historian, her writing and the past became more pressing. Answering these questions pushed historians into more urgent, ethically-charged terrain: how ought one to treat the testimony of another? How do memories of the past press themselves into the present? Is historical writing a form of coercion, forcing the past to witness?

Faustus dixit image credit: Augustine, Saint, Bishop of Hippo. Contra Faustum: manuscript, [ca. 1175-1200]. MS Richardson 14. Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. f. 2v. (seq. 8). Accessed 11 May 2016. Stable URL.


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