Modern Languages and Literatures, Department of


Date of this Version


Document Type



doi: 10.32873/unl.dc.ffsc.08

20th & 21st Century French and Francophone Studies International Colloquium, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, March 26-28, 2020.


Copyright © 2020 Arwa Reda


Whether humanities humanize or not has always been a question that gathered both its proponents and opponents. Between those who confirm the statement and those who adamantly repudiate it, history has provided instances that simultaneously bear out both positions. Rather than attempting to prove or to deny the humanizing aspect of language and literature, this article looks at the matter from a different angle. Instead of the either-or argument, I propose the how as a bedrock of understanding the way humanities can humanize. Many camp survivors extolled what could be qualified as a redemptive force of language and literature. A force that helped resuscitate their sense of self and vivify anew their human dignity. Understanding the potential of this force is what this article attempts to do. How can language and literature become a redemptive force? Howcan the two construct a channel through which one could elevate oneself

from the petty survival-based, self-centered concerns to intersubjective relations with others? To examine these questions closely, I will do a close reading of an episode in Robert Antelme’s L’Éspèce humaine, where he recounts the effects of literature on camp inmates. In my close reading, I am drawing on Emmanuel Levinas’s ethical disquisition on intersubjective relations, in particular the concept of suffering in relation to the self and the manner with which speech dynamics factor into the forging of these relations through sharing a “common world” to reprise Hannah Arendt’s concept. I am suggesting that it is only through sharing that language and literature could become a medium through which one’s sense of humaneness and selfhood is regained, which, in turn, helps condition the circumstances to reconnect with the other.

During the second World War, Antelme worked with the French resistance, was arrested and deported to the Nazi working camps of Buchenwald, Gandersheim, and then Dachau. In the camps, Antelme observed the fruition of a hierarchical, Machiavellian system that sought to dehumanize prisoners and instrumentalized the possible ways to pit inmates against each other in their daily struggle to survive. Many a time, these methods succeeded in tearing down what was left of inmates’ dignity, propelling them to withdraw each into himself. In the process, they forgot about others’ suffering in the same crucible, all of which led to an egotistical attitude which in turn created a profound gulf between inmates. In their attempts to fend for their own survival, many in the camps ended with a dreadful sense of alienation both from themselves and others. Their suffering reduced them to sheer wreckage: famished, scared, and haunted by basic and pressing survival needs, they found themselves isolated in their daily struggle to survive.