Muscle Memory: Rethinking the Scatological in French Visions of Deportation

Natoli, Alexandra, French - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Blatt, Ari, Department of French Language and Literatures, University of Virginia

"Muscle Memory: Rethinking the Scatological in French Visions of Deportation" examines the Second World War, and how this traumatic event’s dark legacy continues to map itself over modern France and Europe. It focuses on a core of scatological texts offering both testimonial and fictional depictions of the Nazi camps and their aftermath. Read together, these complex narratives which foreground bodily functions unearth one of the most painful, repressed aspects of deportation while confronting readers with a series of deleterious taboos hindering contemporary efforts to grapple with the war’s memory. Through its discussion of scatological testimony, this dissertation interrogates individuals’ changing relationships to their own bodies in an atmosphere of acute suffering. In concentration and extermination camps, the Nazis deliberately harnessed bodily functions as a weapon to be used against the interned. These excremental environments were deliberately engineered to inflict as much pain and suffering as possible: the Nazis hoped that this immersion in filth would destroy all sense of pride and self-worth in deportees and crush their will to live. Although it was impossible for deportees to remain fully immune to this deep scatological shame, French depictions of deportation complicate the conceptualization of the human body advanced by the Nazis during the war. In Robert Antelme’s memoir of Buchenwald, "L’Espèce humaine", the author offers an innovative mobilization of bodily functions as tokens of autonomy in an environment of rigid totalitarianism. Similarly, Marguerite Duras’s "La Douleur", a first-person account of Antelme’s return, offers a richly nuanced vision of the excremental which provides a meaningful glimpse into Antelme’s jointly spiritual and physical healing after deportation. Lastly, the genre-bending corpus of Auschwitz survivor Charlotte Delbo probes her convoy’s strongly ingrained secular martyr identity through the prism of the body and its odors: although bodily waste and the olfactory function as sources of particular shame and degradation for this convoy of female resistantes, they also activate affirming moments of self-sacrifice and solidarity in Auschwitz, and similarly constitute a crucial part of these female survivors’ readjustments to life after Liberation.

While fiction may not be able to contribute firsthand knowledge to our understanding of deportation, works of fiction harness the scatological to foster a potent inversion of our gaze, spurring reflection on our constantly evolving collective construction of the war’s memory. In brushstrokes of ruthless sarcasm, Michel Vinaver's "Par-dessus bord" brings to light 1970s France’s extreme constipation as it grapples with its past, charting its deleterious effects over the mind and memory of one hopelessly pessimistic young survivor whose suffering is callously cast aside in a greedy, repressed postwar society. Jonathan Littell’s "Les Bienveillantes" similarly interrogates the status quo of memory by presenting the ‘scabrous’ recollections of a fictitious Nazi: while Max Aue’s reactions to the scatological betray an unease at his complicity in the genocide of European Jews, "Les Bienveillantes"’ larger questions spill off its pages through a careful equation of excremental disgust with the revulsion of inhabiting a perpetrator’s perspective. Although their aims may diverge, these works of testimony and fiction unite through an intricate, dichotomized conceptualization of bodily waste central to a rich tradition of French scatological writing. In providing a detailed analysis of these scatological texts, this dissertation urgently redirects our gaze to one of the most fundamental – yet most commonly sidestepped—aspects of the camp experience. Through their rehabilitation of the body’s most denigrated region as a token of intellectual and emotional lucidity, these unique French works drastically reshape collective understandings of deportation, its aftermath, and the excreting body itself.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
World War II, scatology, deportation, Holocaust, France, Poland, Robert Antelme, Marguerite Duras, Charlotte Delbo, Michel Vinaver, Jonathan Littell, collective memory
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