The appearance of shame in Holocaust witness

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Alan L. Berger


Elie Wiesel, Primo Levi, Holocaust, Shame, Witness

Subject Categories



The dissertation maintains the need for a more extended consideration of shame in Western "self" understandings and models of subjectivity. It joins its voice with other critics challenging the totalized individuality, the certainty and unambiguous righteousness of the Western moral self of modernity, along with its attendant conception of personal moral responsibility.

The argument is made that testimonial literature provides a compelling point of view from which to consider models of the Western self. Testimony provides a perspective which brings to light what is lacking in contemporary theories of the self. What is missing is a sense of shame, and "shame" appears in testimony as admitting a risky habit of self-deflating attentions through exposures to the "other." The value of such texts for consideration of ethical concerns is in large part their ability to promote self-inquiry and "other" regard.

Attention to shame, therefore, offers the possibility of a more complex, nuanced regard for self as it alters the sense of proportion between self and other. Shame's cogency lies in the validity and elevation of the "other" perspective. This "other" point of view of shame is advanced as an essential corrective to the potential hybris and narcissism occasioned by some theories of moral agency, and supports a criterion of self-restraint in the face of the other.

The dissertation offers for consideration of its thesis the specific Holocaust testimonies of Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi. Attention to shame dominates in the texts of both authors as in the experience of radical diminishment of self at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators, on the one hand, and on the other, the agony which surrounds personal memories of refusal to help the weaker, needier prisoners. Adherence to the mandatory rule of the camps, to take care of oneself first and foremost, lingers as self-accusing torment, as unpardonable and ineradicable offense to the human. The show of self in witness serves to pierce the veil of invulnerable hearing/seeing; knowledge implicates and involves; witness gives voice to a summons to become answerable, to become responsible.

The dissertation turns, in conclusion, to the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas and his radical notion of moral obligation. The demand for response which is inherent to witness is what Levinas describes as the occurrence of ethics. Witness may then be offered as exemplary of the ethical in Levinasian terms.


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