How do histories of survival begin? The incipit as a strategic place of the inexpressible

  • Licia Taverna Department of French Studies, University of Tartu, Ülikooli 17, 50090 Tartu


I analyse here some histories of people who lived in concentration camps and told their experiences: De Gaulle Anthonioz (La Traversée de la nuit), Geoffroy (Au temps des crématoires…), Semprun (L’Écriture ou la vie). These histories represent the lives of survivors, but they are also a form of literary expression with a narrative structure that codifies a genre. More particularly, I focus the attention on the incipit, a strategic place in which some of the specific features of the global meaning and structural organization of the whole text can be seized. My hypothesis is that in histories of survival, already in the incipit, the authors strive to convey the emblematic value of their history: an extreme and traumatic experience which is difficult to express. The analysis of these incipit shows that experiences related to concentration camps, to be expressed, need an elaborated message and that an artistic aim can contribute to the representation of these experiences. From the structural viewpoint, histories of survival amplify a dichotomy existing in several literary genres and currents: ‘external reference’ and ‘internal organization’, mimetic ‘truth’ and narrative ‘structure’, ‘reality’ and ‘convention’, ‘experience’ and ‘narration’. In my opinion, histories of survival solve these oppositions by reconciling some contraries through the use of oxymora. Even narratives structures or key figures such as the author, the narrator, the observer, the witness and so on, tend to become oxymora. The study of these features (and combination) is pertinent for anthropology (by seizing facts thanks to elaborated ‘ways of uttering’ authors often redefine forms of humanity) and for semiotics (any form of expression, even if original, has to be collectively shared and based on a system of signs). In my opinion, a joint semiotic and anthropological approach can help analysing histories of survival as a ‘literary genre’ and as a ‘historical tragic phenomenon’.


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How to Cite
Taverna, L. (2006). How do histories of survival begin? The incipit as a strategic place of the inexpressible. Sign Systems Studies, 34(2), 417-440.