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Dialogising life: Etty Hillesum, carnival and the holocaust

Cartner, John (2016) Dialogising life: Etty Hillesum, carnival and the holocaust. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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To read the diaries and letters of Etty Hillesum is to encounter an individual imbued with the spirit of carnival as put forward by Mikhail Bakhtin in his ground-breaking work, Rabelais and His World. The correspondences between Bakhtin’s rendition of the spirit of carnival in the late Middle Ages, a period when fear was utilised as the dominant tool of control by both church and state, and Jewish existence under the Third Reich were not by any means similar. Clearly Hillesum, the subject of this thesis, confronted a reign of darkness that far outweighed the worst excesses of the Middle Ages. Yet, and this is the impetus of the thesis, it was amidst the Shoah that Hillesum fought her own battle against all that the Nazis stood for by adopting both a discourse and spirit of accommodation and generosity that led to a Weltanschauung of embrace, the centre of which was the Other.

How that spirit of accommodation evolved against perhaps humankind’s worst instance of inhumanity defined by the ‘illogic’ of a monologic reductivism finds one of its most powerful articulations in the letters and diaries of Etty Hillesum, herself a victim of Nazi genocide. It is the intention of this dissertation to explore a spirit of defiance that took the form of an expression of love for humanity even as the Other denied the possibility of such an expression. Hillesum’s dialogic discourse brought the Nazi Other within the Jewish frame of reference even as the latter were denied any sense of self-presence in terms of the Other. This extraordinary act – at once a register of accommodation and of helplessness – found its greatest strength in the idea of compassion and love.

Publication Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation: School of Arts
Supervisor: Mishra, Vijay
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