In a class I'm taking this semester about Human Rights literature, we read texts that bear witness to atrocity. We grapple with large, almost unanswerable questions about how to put loss into language, how to say the unsayable. We acknowledge that sometimes silence is the only response. There are experiences that words cannot touch. Still, the victims of Hiroshima, the Holocaust, Rwanda, militaristic regimes in Guatemala and Chile, and other atrocities, continue to write and create art. They cannot stop searching for a form that will convey the horror they experienced.
Bearing witness is always about memory, about confronting the past and not allowing it to be forgotten. Never forget, we say, as if one can turn the past off like a spigot, as if it does not perpetually flow into the present. How can mourning ever stop when we are immersed in memory? To live is to remember. To live is really to re-live, on a constant basis, the traumas of our past. I wonder if we bear witness in the futile hope that releasing the memories will purge them from our minds and bodies. Maybe that works for some people. But what if it's not enough to say what happened? How do we accept the impossibility of closure and healing? What if we find a form for the pain, even a language, but we are still devastated, still grief-stricken?