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Stanford scholar asks: What does the traumatic past mean for our future?

Through an exploration of German, Hebrew and Anglo-American literature, Amir Eshel discovers how literature can help us move beyond historical traumas and look to the future.

Video by Kurt Hickman

Amir Eshel looks at how literature can help us move beyond a traumatic past to a hopeful future.

Images of a post-apocalyptic world are rife in contemporary literature. Written in 2006, The Road by American author Cormac McCarthy depicts a nearly decimated planet Earth. The probable end of mankind is described in great detail in P. D. James' 1992 dystopian novel The Children of Men.

These and numerous other fictional representations published after 1989 and the breakup of the Soviet Union often portray a bleak future with little hope for mankind.

But Amir Eshel, a professor of German studies and of comparative literature, suggests there's more to these novels than meets the eye. These literary works challenge readers to think critically about past and present traumas. They provide a powerful impetus for people to think about how "to practically and productively change their lives in meaningful ways," he argues.

In Eshel's most recent publication, Futurity: Contemporary Literature and the Quest for the Past, he argues that German, Israeli and Anglo-American writers evoke historical and fictional traumas as a way to think and talk about significant national questions that have serious implications for the future.

Eshel argues that from a literary point of view The Road and The Children of Men might be the most striking examples "because people read these novels as so utterly bleak and desolate." Eshel, however, does not. He explains that these novels speak to him because "the only way to live this life as a worthy experience is … to embrace it."

According to Eshel, regardless of whether or not they come across as hopeful, these works challenge readers to think about how their own actions have a practical purpose.

In The Road, acclaimed novelist McCarthy describes a post-apocalyptic world in which a father and son make their way through a barren wasteland, completely devoid of redemption. However, Eshel explains, the character of the son manages to bring to the fore "the absurd idea that even in these utterly desolate circumstances, there may indeed be some prospective viewpoint, some room for meaningful human action, and thus some hope."

James explores a similar dystopian future in The Children of Men, where humans appear to have lost the ability to procreate. However, Eshel points out, like in McCarthy's The Road, both authors are interested in "the human capacity to alter circumstances through distinctively ethical and political actions."

By grappling with both historical and fictional calamities of modernity, this literature presents a future-oriented depiction of the past and encourages the reader to think of political, social and ethical possibilities. Eshel calls this "Futurity."

Eshel tends to think about literature and contemporary sociopolitical debates in relation to one another. Both present narratives that encourage people to think about their own powers to change the current state of things.

"The 2008 elections, the Occupy movement, the Arab Spring, a lot of discussion around social meaning, etc. has to do with an understanding and absorption of the recognition that we have agency," Eshel says, adding that in contemporary times "we can affect our political circumstances if we decide to engage."

Eshel warns that "the future is not a promise that is there for us regardless of what we do. We will have a future only if we engage politically and ethically, and if we don't, we have no future."

Why the past matters

Eshel, an affiliate of the Europe Center, has been thinking about why the past matters for several decades now.

Initially, he wanted to know, "Why do the awful things that people do to each other in the modern period haunt us the way they do?" He traveled to Germany in the 1980s, to study how German writers, such as Günter Grass, Alexander Kluge and Anne Duden, addressed the crimes the nation had committed under Hitler.

"Kluge and Duden," Eshel says, "invoked the crimes of the Nazi regime and their aftermath while exposing the lingering suffering of the survivors and the effects of growing up in the Täter culture [the culture of the perpetrator] of postwar Germany.

"As characters exchange stories and objects, Germany's Nazi past emerges in these works as an offering or gift that demands engagement and even action."

After several years of looking at postwar German literature, Eshel recalls that he began to think about how his home country of Israel and its authors are dealing with a significant and controversial historical chapter of their own, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

He wanted to know, "How do different writers productively and prospectively deal with the question of 1948 and the flight and expulsion of the Palestinians?"

Through examinations of Israeli literature, Eshel found that post-1948 writers such S. Yizhar and A. B. Yehoshua, "mostly agree that for Israel to maintain its ethical standing in the world, it needs to address crimes that were committed against Palestinians and what to do with Palestinians in Israel today."

S. Yizhar's Hebrew novella Khirbet Khizeh stands out to Eshel because "it's an attempt to recount a very difficult chapter of Middle Eastern history." Yizhar recounts the story of conflicted individuals, mainly soldiers, who "struggle to find a way to cope with some of the more questionable aspects of Israel's War of Independence."

Eshel argues that these stories speak in many ways to the present and the future. Eshel explains, "Yizhar argues, if Israelis won't do something about the fate of exiled Palestinians, the future of both people will bring about only more bloodshed."

Taking conversations about the future to the classroom

Eshel is deeply concerned about how to address the issues he raises in his books in ways that will be meaningful for his students and for public humanities more generally.

One way of doing so is to change how literature is read, compared to other media, and how humanities courses are taught by using digital platforms that expose students to a vast array of sources and kinds of engagement. Eshel is co-designing and teaching a new course alongside Stanford graduate student Brian Johnsrud and academic technology specialist Michael Widner.

The course, titled Futurity: Why the Past Matters? will employ a web-based platform called "Lacuna Stories" that challenges academics, students and the general public to think about complex historical events like 9/11.

The Lacuna Stories Project is funded by the Vice Provost for Online Learning and is composed of a team of more than 12 researchers and developers at Stanford and with collaborators at MIT and UCLA.

To encourage a similar conjuring of the past, present and future in traumatic events, the online platform links primary source documents, scholarship, web projects, film, media and, of course, literature, all of which can be annotated, linked and discussed by users.

Ashley Walters is a doctoral student in Jewish history at Stanford. For more news about the humanities at Stanford, visit the Human Experience.

Media Contact

Corrie Goldman, Director of Humanities Communication: (650) 724-8156, corrieg@stanford.edu

Dan Stober, Stanford News Service: (650) 721-6965, dstober@stanford.edu