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Cultural Exclusion and Frontier Zones

Re-actualizing a cultural exclusion zone

Human experimentation and intellectual witness in Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s Suspicion and Marcel Beyer’s The Flying Foxes
Alexander Chertenko
p. 97-116


The rise of modernity in the 19th century can, among other things, be vividly illustrated by the phenomenal advance of medical profession and, in particular, surgery as its most radical form. In the 20th century, the doctor has already been steadily associated with the phenomenon of power. Medical experiments on human subjects are generally recognized as one of the most extreme manifestations of this discursive nexus. Despite considerable amount of historical research, predominantly dealing with the experiences of Nazi medicine and its patients in concentration camps and some other disciplinary institutions, as well as somewhat gloomy attraction providing for unabated fascination on the part of trivial literature, such experiments have not yet become an established literary topos. The elusive nature of this phenomenon which belongs to the kern of post-war anxiety, but is rarely addressed to, allows me to attest to the fact that human experiments, especially those conducted in Nazi concentration camps, have become a cultural «exclusion zone». Nonetheless, there is a whole range of texts in which attempts has been made to overcome the cultural taboo and to give voice to the victims of human vivisection. Two of them – Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s Suspicion and Marcel Beyers The Flying Foxes – are analyzed in this paper against the backdrop of the so called «intellectual witness» – a concept proposed by Geoffrey Hartman and meaning a distanced witnessing, mostly on behalf of younger generations or, as in case with Dürrenmatt, of those who stayed aside of the World War II. In both novels, the narrative structures of intellectual witnessing serve to surmount the metaphorizing tendency which turns the reality of human experiments into tropes corroborating the author’s idea or concept. Combining documentary elements with the elements of trivial fiction, Dürrenmatt and Beyer make significant strides in deconstructing the naïve «over-identifying» with the victims, as well as their overt fictionalization. As a result, they manage to open the possibility of witness beyond the perspective of eyewitnesses, and at the same time subjugate this rearticulation of the past to the demands of the present situation that facilitates it. This perilous duality reveals the ethical double bind which seems to be inherent to the most reactualizations of utterly traumatic historical experiences, such as human experimentation, transformed into «exclusion zones» and then voiced through intellectual witness and other forms of «secondary witness». In order to become an object of witnessing, those traumatic experiences must correspond to the anxieties of the present originating from them. While triggering the reactualization process, such anxieties, however, also subject the experience of concrete victims to the desiderata of a traumatized «(intellectual) witness» and, in such a way, misuse the tragedy as a means of the witness’s coming to terms with his or her own trauma.

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1. Doctors and modernity: how medical experiments turned to metaphors

  • 1 Foucault (1989: 131).
  • 2 Anz (1989: 6).
  • 3 The social Darwinian discourse of a «collective body» which could only become «healthy» if all «unh (...)
  • 4 Huerkamp (1985: 133-136).
  • 5 Engelhardt (1991: 207).
  • 6 Käser (1998: 17).
  • 7 Engelhardt (1991: 7).
  • 8 Käser (1998: 272, 279).
  • 9 Ivi: 275.
  • 10 Ivi: 274, 276.

1Among the developments brought about by modernity in the second half othe 19th and at the beginning of the 20th century, the cardinal change of role, powers and ambitions of medicine and medical profession is probably one of the most conspicuous. This change could be best described in terms of transition from «observing gaze [that] refrains from intervening»1 typical of the Enlightenment paradigm to the «accelerated convergence of medicine and exact natural sciences» in the 19th century with its annulation of «the interconnection of medical and ethical [discourses]» which made up the «specific feature» of the 18th century.2 One of the consequences of such a convergence was the preeminence of a normalizing intervention into the «ill» body of the patient – no matter whether this latter was interpreted as an individual or as a collective entity.3 As the moving up of the surgery to the top of the medical hierarchy list demonstrates,4 at least since the end of the 19th century the imperative of an «observing gaze» yields to the imperative of an active normalization of «pathological». Although such a radical extension of medical powers was instrumental in granting the patients an increased access to the curative services, for medical practitioners it also entailed the development of a not in the least humanistic and, occasionally, utterly antihumanist fixation with fantasies of unlimited power which constituted the dark side of the «conquest of three major body cavities… for the benefit of man»5 stated by Dietrich von Engelhardt. This fixation was rapidly incorporated into professional identity and, after becoming an indispensable attribute of the latter, provoked many writers among health consumers, as Rudolf Käser rightly argues, to discursive protective reactions, most notably in form of numerous dying scenes «medico praesente» or even «chiasmi of dying», that is, of simultaneous deaths of both fictional patients and fictional doctors6 which i.a. stress the traumatic effect the «hegemony [of medicine] over the humanities, arts and, finally, over living conditions»7 had on literature and its consumers. The writing doctors, by constrast, not infrequently work off the meteoric rise of their own profession by producing mostly ambivalent – at once critical and fascinated – depictions of «affectively amputated» doctors marked by «striving to be on equal terms with God»8 which, in its turn, is «a symbolic compensation of the experience of inferiority».9 The most common features of such doctor characters are, according to Käser, «boundless egoism» and their capacity to be «butcher[s] and murderer[s] of living beings»10 passed off as a deplorable, yet inevasible reality of medical profession.

  • 11 Scarry (1985: 7).
  • 12 Bauman (2001).
  • 13 Cf. e.g. Bogdanov w/y. A detailed account on the relations between these practices and the «vampire (...)
  • 14 Bauman (1989: 66).
  • 15 Ivi: 70.

2A doctor who reaches after the «benefit of man», but prefers to believe in «a patient’s X-rayable cancer» and to disbelieve «the accompanying pain»,11 is certainly a variation of a striver for the ideal world. The institutionalization and, what is more, the normativization of this character type in 1920s and 1930s, as well as its rapprochement with medical practice, was one of the concomitant features of «solid modernity» (Zygmunt Bauman).12 Quite naturally, this tendency was particularly salient in two states initially constructed as projections of «ideal world», that is, in the Ussr and in Nazi Germany. Despite this common ground, the symbiotic relations between medicine and ideological beliefs in both countries were quite divergent. In Marxist-based Soviet Union, such a symbiosis was hardly compatible with fundamental categories underpinning its statal structure and, therefore, have brought forward only marginal and sporadic conflations of social and biological discourses of the kind of Alexander Bogdanov’s attempts to achieve «physiological collectivism» through blood transfusions.13 In Nazi Germany where medicine and the effervescent optimization of society met each other in the notion of «race», this discursive confluence appeared to be far more profound and long-lasting. Since, from the very beginning, the Nazi state has drawn upon the catogeories of «heredity or blood – substances which at that time at least embodied the other side of culture, the territory that culture could not dream of cultivating, a wilderness that would be never turned into the object of gardening», it was only logical, as Zygmunt Bauman justly remarks, that Nazi ideologists combined «strategies of architecture and gardening with that of medicine».14 This, in exchange, turned the imperatives of «normality, health, or sanitation» constitutive both of the former and of the latter into «the archemtaphors for human tasks and strategies in the management of human affairs».15

  • 16 Pollak (1990: 47).
  • 17 Bergmann (2004: 31-144).

3Medical experimentation on living patients is generally reckoned to be one of the most dubious, but also one of the most remarkable forms of practic al activity that evolved from this discursive nexus. As Michael Pollack observes, although the respective legislation had been adopted already at the onset of the Nazi regime, it was not until 1939 that human experimentation became wide-spread, primarily because its extreme brutality «would have been out-of-tolerance for mainstream moral in times of peace».16 As such, experiments on living patients mark the extreme point of the doctor’s moral revaluation: having entered the 20th century (and the «solid modernity») as an uncompromising savior of human beings and the «corrector» of the human kind, he all too readily assumes the role of an equally uncompromising torturer or even a bearer of slow and extremely painful death, thereby re-activating apprehensions and anxieties that have been associated with medical profession since Renaissance times.17

  • 18 For detailed review of relevant research concerning this issue cf. Jütte et. al. (2011: 11-23; 124- (...)
  • 19 More on literary thematizations of tortures conducted in Nazi concentration camps with the focus on (...)
  • 20 Pethes (2005). For the history of this character type see Benedict (2004).
  • 21 The term was coined by Troitsky et. al. See Troitskiy et. al. (2014: 79-94).
  • 22 Sabisch (2009: 297, 299).

4Notwithstanding significant public attention aroused by the so-called Doctors’ trial in Nuremberg which in no small measure concerned those who conducted human experimentation, as well as, beginning with 1960s, extensive scientific research of respective historical facts and ethical perpectives,18 the inversion delineated above, unlike the cruel routine of Nazi concentration camps or the system of tortures applied in them,19 as far as I can judge, has not become a wide-spread literary topos, neither in texts by Holocaust witnesses and/or victims nor in other «serious» fiction or works of art, although its obvious isomorphism with the fundamental patterns of modernity could have made it a thriving part of the literary modernity-criticism after 1945. (Mass literature and culture, on the contrary, provides us with many kitschy depictions of human experimentation mostly performed by «mad scientists».20) In this sense, historically concrete human experiments carried out in Nazi camps can be defined as a cultural «exclusion zone» which was artificially «deactualized» after the war and hasn’t yet been «re-actualized» in spite of a large body of scientific literature produced since that time.21 Besides objective reasons, such as a much higher death rate among those who were subjected to experimentation, or unwillingness of general public to give credence to such egregious cruelty, it is apparent that the transformation of Nazi medical experiments into an «exclusion zone», most evident when compared with the unstoppable proliferation of other medical themes in literary and artistic production after 1945, was also determined by some ethical and aesthetical arguments, above all by the ineffability of medical tortures absorbed by the machinery of government-controlled repression. On the one hand, their straightforward literary reappraisal, as i.a. the movie «Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS» (1975) demonstrates, is often fraught with luxuriating in the atrocities which levels the specificity of medical experiments and nullifies their utterly complex historical and ethical background. At this level, the cultural catastrophe is not uncommonly portrayed as a sort of universalized and aestheticized sadistic orgy acted out in horror settings. On the other hand, as Katja Sabisch clearly shows, the philosophical and literary conceptualizations of medical experiments in concentration camps, much the same as the most thematizations of Holocaust and genocides, are way too often placed on the Procrustean bed of «metaphorization of processes that took place at sick bays». In this case, real experiments turn into «pure periphrases» which enthrall the authors with «the abstraction of the concrete» and thus corroborate their respective theories22.

2. Narrating an intellectual witness’ testimony

5This second aspect, or, rather, the question whether and if yes, to what extent it could be overridden in fictional literary texts, is central to my further analysis. In an attempt to answer it, I will turn to two German-language texts that, in defiance of any well-established literary and artistic tradition, touch upon the issue of ethical inversion of medicine, thus articulating the zone of cultural exclusion, and, concurrently, try to avoid the perils of metaphorization or kitschy simplifications (although, as we will see later, they do not eschew relevant insights of trivial literature, either). Those texts in consideration are Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s «Suspicion» («Der Verdacht», 1951; in one of English translations «The Quarry») and Marcel Beyer’s «The Flying Foxes» («Flughunde», 1995; English translation «The Karnau Tapes»). Although written during different historical periods and belonging to different aesthetic paradigms, both of them focus on surgery as, admittedly, the most emphatic and the most radical (in utter cases also the most brutal) form of medical practice; both of them problematize the medicine’s turnaway from assistance to patients to the instrumentalization of those patients as «human material»; both of them expectedly embed such a problematization into the context of Nazi medicine (and, specifically, human experimentation in Nazi camps) which, in the point of fact, is indeed the most explicit historical manifestation of medicine struggling (or: used as a tool in struggling) for an extra-medical «better world» which does not depend on the well-being of an individual patient; and both of them sharpen the situation and the moral dilemmas resulting from it by depicting – or alluding to – the most ferocious of those human experiments, that is, to surgeries without anesthesia. In order to fully comprehend the reasons why Dürrenmatt and Beyer make use of such a specific material in a comparable way, the semantic effects they thereby produce and the contexts they build their respective thematizations in, we must, in the first instance, reconstruct the historical, cultural and narrative framework which makes the re-actualization of this cultural exclusion zone necessary and, in no small measure, fictionalizable.

  • 23 Schöll (2000: 144). One should bear in mind that Schöll’s intepretation of “media” also encompasses (...)
  • 24 «I do not know who was the first to introduce the term “body memory”, but I do know that in reality (...)
  • 25 Hartman (1998: 38).
  • 26 For further details cf. des Pres (1976); Langer (1991).
  • 27 Hartman (1998: 42).

6First of all, both «Suspicion» and «The Flying Foxes» are narrated from the perspective of a detached observer who, being, as far as one can guess, of similar background and of similar age with the respective author, was not directly involved into the occurences he describes: in case of the former as one of those «speared by war» (Max Frisch) because of Swiss neutrality; in case of the latter as a member of the so-called “grandchildren’s generation” (Beyer was born in 1965) for whom, with the gradual passing away of eyewitnesses, the past becomes increasingly inaccessible and who, for that matter, find themselves in a «situation… when passing on of memories on national socialism is possible only through media»23. This detachment, however, works as a kind of ethical ferment that makes both authors reflect on their position in the format of «as if» and, in doing so, cast their mind back to the most severe facts of the seemingly «unfamiliar» (or, rather, «defamiliarized») past. Being seen from spatial (Dürrenmatt) or temporal (Beyer) distance, those facts can be molded into the model of a certain – previous and/or current – sociocultural situation without, however, losing their reference to the «accompanying pain» – either because of the author’s empathy with the victims due a loosely interpreted «contemporaneity» (Dürrenmatt), or because of an almost insuperable influence of «body memory» which infiltrates some apparently long-gone experiences of other people into present time: the more serious the trauma, the more influence they wield on an individual (Beyer).24 In fact, both writers, each one from his own frame of reference, create a literary equivalent of the mode of narration that Geoffrey Hartman called «intellectual witness». As Hartman argues, in contrast to eyewitness testimonies, intellectual witness is «a concept without generational limit» which «includes all who could be called witnesses because they are still in touch with the first generation or who look at the Shoah not as something enclosed in the past but as a contemporary issue requiring an intensity of representation close to eyewitness report».25 Intellectual witness, as Hartman understands it, should also be distinguished from «secondary witness»,26 since, unlike the latter, it effectively resists the temptation of «over-identifying with victims or a victimized generation» and does not seek «a mystical correspondence with the dead». Instead, it prefers «a greater, more fully imagined solidarity» and identifies with the victims «[no] more than the teller of a story with its characters».27

  • 28 Ivi: 48.
  • 29 Dürrenmatt (1985: 224).
  • 30 For further details cf. Beßlich (2006: 44-48).

7The imperative of «intellectual witnessing» which ensues from the witness’ recognition of «past betrayals» and his/her own strife «between the distancing and the discovery of the value of time»28 also determines the bimodality of narration. Both in Suspicion and in The Flying Foxes, the reader becomes aware of what is happening through the consciousness of the protagonist, the latter functioning either as a focalizer (Dürrenmatt) or as a homodiegetic narrator (Beyer). Moreover, both Dürrenmatt’s focalizer (police inspector Hans Bärlach) and Beyer’s narrator (acoustician and amateur surgeon Hermann Karnau) pertain directly to medical tortures. In Dürrenmatt’s novel, the police inspector tries to investigate the surgeries without anesthesia that were first performed in the concentration camp Stutthof and then repeated after the war at one of Zurich’s clinics. What is more, towards the end of the story, he nearly undergoes human experimentation himself. In Beyer’s novel, it is the experimenter who gives account on the surgical procedures undertaken under his supervision first in an unnamed concentration camp and then at the underground floor of the German Hygiene Museum in Dresden. The effect of closing the gap between narration and its object (that is, surgical abuse) does not, however, produce the illusion of eyewitnessing. The opposite is true: both Dürrenmatt and Beyer consequently relativate – or place limits – on all informations conveyed by eyewitnesses or those who wish to be perceived as such and thus prevent «over-identifying» either with victims or with their perpetrators. In Suspicion, this is achieved in three ways. Firstly, the text is organized as a heterodiegetic narration which grants the narrator only a limited (although quite broad) access to the consciousness of the protagonist, and the protagonist himself can only guess what the human guinea pigs might have felt during the operations. Secondly, the only survivor and eyewitness of the experiments in Stutthof, a giant named Gulliver, is consciously portrayed as a kind of fairy-tail figure, a man of few words that remains enigmatic and marginal. Thirdly, Dürrenmatt almost totally brackets out the surgeon perpetrator Dr. Nehle (during the war), or Emmenberger (after the war), a villain that «gives people what they crave the most: pain, and nothing but pain»,29 but until the final interlocution with inspector Bärlach remains invisible both for the reader and for the narrator. In «The Flying Foxes», similar result is achieved due to the protagonist’s emphatically objectified manner of narration. The farther Karnau proceeds on his way from acoustics to surgery, the more his objectified narration resembles a kind of post mortem report. Not only such medicalization (or: scientification) of narration allows to scale down the patients to speechless objects of surgical intervention. It also helps exclude elaborated self-legitimations in which the narrator has indulged himself before taking on medical identity, effectively obfuscates the scope of experiments and indirectly mutilates the facts rendered by the other two narrators – Helga Goebbels, the daughter of German propaganda minister, and an anonymous member of the investigating committee. Numerous blind spots produced in such a way, as well as the deliberate replication of contradictory versions of events give grounds for interpreting Karnau as an «unreliable narrator» (Wayne C. Booth) who, being one of the few eyewitnesses of certain events, does his best to cover up the traces of his crimes.30

  • 31 Beßlich (2006: 37, 36).
  • 32 Ivi: 37.

8The complex balance of known and unknown, concealed and disclosed determines the choice of certain narrative strands and elements of the plot in both texts. One of them is the investigation model typical of crime novels which serves to close factual gaps in the picture of the accident. In «Suspicion», Dürrenmatt adopts, although with significant corrections, a classic «whodunit» scheme typical of crime stories. In The Flying Foxes, Beyer compels the reader of his «unreliable narration» to assume the role of a «detective that always questions the information he gets and always checks its apparent authenticity» in order to be able to reconstruct «the second version of the narrated story»31. In other words, in Beyer’s novel, we deal with the receptive model whose chemically pure implementation is generally found in Agatha Christie’s novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926): here and there, the first-person narrator by and by gets lost in details and thus hands over the clues against himself to the reader.32 On top of that, both Dürrenmatt and Beyer solve the narrative conflict by introducing a sort of «deus ex machina». In Suspicion, this part is played by Gulliver who executes the evil surgeon and rescues inspector Bärlach from an extremely painful death. In The Flying Foxes, the investigating committee introduces the conclusive plot twist as it finds out that, 47 years after the World War II and 3 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Karnau and his henchmen still conduct human experimentation and, by virtue of this discovery, forces them to flee. The interference of both «dei ex machina» also has a double function. For one part, it marks the end of flagitous experiments and thus externalizes the empathy for the victims (or, speaking with Geoffrey Hartman, «over-identifying» with them). For the other part, it localizes this alleged happy ending within the context of literary fiction and, thereby, underscores the urgency of sociocultural problems inherent to human experimentation, as well as the necessity of their «intellectual» apprehension.

3. Building blocks of intellectual witness: document vs. fiction

  • 33 Whitton (1990: 35).
  • 34 For more details, see the chapter on the activities of the Ahnenerbe Society in Klee (2012: 349-391 (...)
  • 35 Simon (2000: 134).
  • 36 The parallels between Suspicion and Wallace’s suspence are briefly analyzed in Riedlinger (2000: 16 (...)
  • 37 Beyer (1995: 139).
  • 38 Cf. Friedlaender (1999: 59-68). Kittler’s analysis of this text (Kittler 1999: 68-78) as well as hi (...)
  • 39 For more details see Arnold (1982: 190).

9Apart from the narrative perspective and the structure of the plot, the ambivalence of «intellectual witness» imperative also comes to light on the level of genesis of both texts. As such, it results in a specific combination of historical and literary pretexts – and, consequently, in the specific proportion of documentary and fictional. The factual foundation of Suspicion is constituted mostly by realia that Dürrenmatt reproduced from media and arts (here, one should name at least Alain Resnais’ documentary Night and Fog33) – so to say as a «contemporary». The most noticeable traces of Dürrenmatt’s documentary research are, presumably, more than evident parallels between the fictive doctor Nehle / Emmenberger and the real Nazi doctor Josef Mengele who, serving as a physician in Auschwitz concentration camp, also performed operations without alleviation of pain. (It is obviously no coincidence that the names of both surgeons also sound alike: Nehle-Mengele.) An exceptionally well-researched documentary basis of The Flying Foxes, on the contrary, encompasses a wide range of archive materials, diaries and published documents. It is telling that most of Karnau’s colleagues in Beyer’s novel originate from historical accounts: Stumpfecker’s prototype was a German surgeon Ludwig Stumpfegger who served in Ravensbrück; Eduard Sievers has in fact two prototypes – Wolfram Sievers, one of the bosses of «Ahnenerbe»,34 and Eduard Sievers, an acoustician who was not associated with Nazis, but produced some research relevant for Karnau’s manipulations with vocal apparatus, etc. Besides, documentary sources clearly influence the way Beyer describes the scheme and the concrete procedures of the experiments. Although Karnau’s attempts at improvement of the human voice are historically unprecedented, they are, as Ulrich Simon rightly observes, «plausible», since «all those who know what kind of perverse and needless experiments were performed in concentration camps and, eventually, led to disability, if not to death of the prisoners would not consider them bogus stories».35 It is also important that both writers more or less consistently combine real facts with plot elements and character types found in trivial literature and/or speculative fiction of the 1890s-1930s which, to a greater or to a lesser extent, deals with medicine and surgery. For example, Dürrenmatt draws on the motif of doctors exchanging roles which he finds in the novel A Doctor of Passion (Der Arzt aus Leidenschaft, 1935) by Karl Unselt, and borrows the character of an experiment-crazy surgeon escorted by a «dwarf» together with the situation when the protagonist anxiously awaits a sadistic and, most likely, lethal operation without anesthesia from Edgar Wallace’s The Door with the Seven Locks (1926).36 Beyer constructs his protagonist from the halves of a fictional physiologist producing half-animal, half-human chimeras he comes upon in Herbert Welles’ The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) and a real SS-man Hermann Karnau, and then equips the resulting hybrid with a compulsive urge to «modify the speech apparatus»37 which he extracts from Salomo Friedländer’s (Mynona) ironical short story Goethe speaks into the phonograph (1916) recounted in Friedrich Kittler’s famous book Gramophone, Film, Typewriter.38 In doing so, both authors either contextualize «plausible» facts in the collective unconscious of the respective period (as in case with the novels by Wallace and Welles), or parody respective pretexts so as to prevail over their ideological and emotional restraints (e.g. in case of Unselt’s novel where the «good» doctor, much unlike the surgeon from Suspicion, does not leave his home country, but stays in it in order to push the boundaries of the known, even if it would cost him his life).39 Most often, though, they use both tactics at once.

4. Inverted medicine between torment and torture

10Premising their novels on such narration strategies, both Dürrenmatt and Beyer, as was pointed out above, portray the «inverted» medicine of the Nazi era (and the «inversion» of medicine per se – that is, its complete separation from a certain «ideal») in very much similar ways. In Suspicion as well as in The Flying Foxes, medical practitioners constantly torment their patients and don’t bother «eliminating the seeds of disease» for the purpose of «reducing pain».40 Instead of applying therapeutic procedures and alleviating suffering they turn their patients into test objects and then reduce the latter to «nothing more than a physical body, a piece of quivering flesh»,41 that is, to a kind of animal which can be subjected to vivisection without any moral inhibitions. (It stands to mention that animal metaphors associated with patients play crucial role in the semantic structure of both novels.) Instead of recovering the wholeness of the body, they cover it with scars that function as «autographs» of those who caused injuries. Instead of letting pain, «this most radically private of experiences», enter «the realm of public discourse»,42 they reduce the articulated speech to meaningless murmuring or agonized shrieks and thus make any witness impossible. Instead of spreading light and enlightenment, the «inverted» doctors immerse everything into darkness of the operating room where only surgical instruments and the operation site are visible. Instead of sustaining life, they transform the surgical table into «bloodstained coffin»43 and, sooner or later, destroy their human subjects – either physically, as in case with the majority of patients operated by Emmenberger/Nehle and with all victims of Karnau’s «sacrifice studies», or symbolically, as in case with Emmenberger’s assistant Edith Marlock or with his liliputian errand boy whose lifes become warped by the experimenter. To put it bluntly, instead of medicine as «the science and art dealing with the maintenance of health and the prevention, alleviation, or cure of disease»,44 in both novels we deal with the medicine that does exactly the opposite and in doing so stages itself as a kind of norm.45 It is significant that, in both novels, an almost complete separation of this kind of medical practice from the principles of humanism which were firmly associated with it during the period of «the interconnection of medical and ethical discourses» (i.e., during the 18th and the first half of the 19th century) is decribed as a conversion of medicine into an instrument of torture, that is, of «the infliction of intense pain (as from burning, crushing, or wounding) to punish, coerce, or afford sadistic pleasure».46 The fact that both Dürrenmatt and Beyer consistently compare the ethical inversion of medicine with its conversion to torture exhibits the tendency of their criticism. As Sven Kramer puts it, the ultimate goal of torture is «exercising control that… is experienced as total» and, therefore, «diminishing of the imaginary space of resistance»;47 and it were the same claims of «total control» over the human body which, as we remember, accompanied the medicine’s way up the ranks in the 19th and at the beginning of the 20th century as a phenomenon of modernity. This, in its turn, means that both in «Suspicion» and in The Flying Foxes the moral decline of medicine is equated with the power ambitions of the medical practitioner. In this vein, both writers present him as a sort of self-proclaimed «God» who misuses his powers to punish or simply instrumentalize his own people. In Suspicion, the totality of «control» (or: power) manifests itself in unfailing love of Emmenberger’s patients for their torturer in whom they believe «as some believe in God»48. In The Flying Foxes, it becomes materialized in Karnau’s inexpugnable desire to be «the one who holds the scribing tool».49 Such a desire gradually escalates eventually turning the «scribing tool» into lancet and the production of gramophone records into shaping of all things on earth through «skillful fingerwork»50 – quite the same way as Yahweh shaped the human body.

11Although both authors accuse the «inverted» medicine of the same abuse of power, they, however, espouse different views on the scope, the sources and the intended purpose of this abuse. This difference becomes apparent if we consider the divergence in quantity and quality of witnesses that could have possibly put the world wise to the horrors of human experiments and, by this means, constrain the surgeon’s arbitrariness and/or exclude the possibility of their repetition in future. Such a divergence can be identified on the level of medical colleagues of the doctor protagonists, as well as on the level of their victims.

  • 51 Dürrenmatt (1985: 134, 203).

12On the first level, Dürrenmatt juxtaposes the medical perpetrators (Emmenberger/Nehle, Marlock) with inspector Bärlach’s friend Hungertobel. Being a physician who «never ever gave his patients the cold shoulder» and whose «noble» face stands in clear contrast with «masklike» face of his opponents51, Hungertobel not only legitimates the excommunication and, if needed, physical neutralization of medical experimenters. Apart from that, he himself triggers such neutralization – e.g. by pointing at the first non-anesthetic operation conducted by Nehle in 1930s. In The Flying Foxes, on the contrary, medicine is represented exclusively by Karnau and Karnau-like quack doctors like Dr. Stumpfecker famous for his experimental transplantations of bone fragments and muscles made on female inmates of Ravensbrück concentration camp, poorly educated adherers of eugenic biology like Dr. Sievers and alleged humanists of the sort of Dr. Hellbrandt (the latter sent his deaf-and-dumb patients to the front pretending he saved them from death). Here, the complete absence of positive alternatives emphasizes the impossibility of collegial witnessing.

  • 52 Beyer (1995: 291).
  • 53 This difficulty is thoroughly analyzed in Jean-François Lyotard’s opus magnum, cf. Lyotard 1988.

13The same difference can be traced on the level of victims. Dürrenmatt whose challenge is to show the persistence of certain sociocultural models needs at least one witness that could bridge German past and Swiss present. That is why, even though almost all of Nehle’s experimental subjects in concentration camps and all of Emmenberger’s patients after the war perish, one of them – the giant Gulliver – manages to survive, albeit he is officially declared dead, and, what is more important, to preserve a unique snapshot of Nehle he made while laying on the operation table (sic!). Beyer whose endeavor is to problematize the act of eyewitnessing in different ways attests death of each and all victims of surgical experimentation, during both the Nazi era and the Gdr time. Karnau’s maxim «Every witness is a liar»52 which finds performative endorsement during the course of the novel actually articulates – from the perspective of the perpetrator – the objective difficulty of bearing witness to the Shoah53 which is sometimes metaphorically referred to as «the silence of Auschwitz». Considering the total absence of «alternative» collegial voices and the complete privatization of the victims’ recorded voices by Karnau, his followers and patrons, this «silence» draws the reader’s attention to the impunity and, arguably, the nonpunishability of (the most) surgical perpetrators.

  • 54 Sofsky (1997: 227).
  • 55 Dürrenmatt (1985: 252).
  • 56 Sofsky (1997: 227).
  • 57 Beyer (1995: 139).

14The principal difference in the ability of the witnesses to restrain or even to abolish the absolute power of the doctor at least ex post facto results from different understanding of the concrete purpose of human experiments by both medical researchers. For a skilled medical practitioner Emmenberger/Nehle the medical abuse is «an end in itself», or, as Wolfgang Sofsky calls it, a «torment» (Tortur) designed to «try out how much victims could stand».54 Only «tormenting» enables him to experience a sensation of absolute freedom which, in its turn, becomes possible only when faced with the absolute unfreedom of a patient attached to the operation table, with «screams and… agony engraved in their wide-open mouths and glassy-eyed glances… [their] jerking and aidless white flesh under my lancet…»55 Karnau, on the contrary, is a professional researcher, but not a skilled physician and therefore regards human experimentation as a «torture» (Folter), that is, «solely a means to an end».56 For the protagonist of The Flying Foxes, reaching this end means taking possession of «viscera», or «essence» of the patient (das Innere greifen57), while the sufferings of the experimental subjects are dismissed as a seemingly irrevocable side-effect of human vivisection. That is why, after his experiments prove to be unsuccessful, Beyer’s soundman, without any hint of hesitation, exterminates all of his human guinea pigs thus becomng the only source of information about them.

5. Is there any re-actualization without repression? Witness and trauma

  • 58 As Katja Sabisch argues, of all things concentration camps were the places in which «antisemitic, a (...)
  • 59 Dürrenmatt (1985: 224).
  • 60 Beyer (1995: 223).
  • 61 Dürrenmatt (1985: 163).
  • 62 Ivi: 203.
  • 63 Bauman (1989: 84). In his article Sociology after the Holocaust, Bauman interprets this formula whi (...)
  • 64 Bauman (1989: 85).

15The discrimination between «torment» and «torture» which is of capital importance for our understanding of both protagonists’ claim to power is also pivotal if we want to grasp the logic of that claim’s re-actualization resulting from «intellectual witness», as well as the correlation between bearing «intellectual witness» to medicine as a practice of the absolutized power over patients and the respective cultural situation that facilitates such witnessing. It is true that both Emmenberger/Nehle and Karnau reproduce their war-time experience beyond concentration camps without any significant changes.58 The first of them, being «in the heart of Switzerland, in the heart of Zurich», simply re-enacts the same things he did «in Stutthof… this grey and boundless barrack city».59 The second one takes refuge in the underground vaults of German Hygiene Museum in Dresden to be able to continue his experiments on «changing the speech apparatus».60 Nonetheless, each of the authors embeds this bad infinity of suffering into different historical and cultural contexts. When Dürrenmatt portrays his protagonist as a philosophically versed maniac that endlessly torments his patients, he consciously equates the medical excesses committed by him with each and every excess of power, and brackets the sadistic doctor with «other tormentors».61 From this perspective, the medicine of the Nazi era actualized in the now is interpreted in Suspicion as a somewhat exaggerated model of power relations in every «normal» human community and hence as a Damocles’ sword that has fallen on Germany in the 1930s and 1940s, but could just as well have fallen on Switzerland so proud of its innocence: «The things that happened in Germany can happen in every country when there are the same pre-conditions».62 Beyer, for his part, revives his Karnau as a «torturer» who tends to perceive his medical powers as an upbeat for incomparably more far-reaching (and less philosophical) plans of world transformation and subjugation – and thus places medical excesses within the context of modernity’s rationalism which also comprises science represented by Karnau as acoustician. From this point of view, the re-actualized medicine of the Nazi era in The Flying Foxes becomes an argument to Zygmunt Bauman’s assumption of «the possibility of the Holocaust»63 within the «liquid modernity» that hasn’t yet coped with the historical heritage of the «solid» modernity; or, to speak in terms Bauman used in the 1990s, of the «unimaginable» that, as we already know, «ought to be imagined».64

  • 65 Cf. footnote 53.
  • 66 Beyer (1995: 215).
  • 67 Weiss (1969: 81-84, 126, 127-146, 167-173).

16Different as they are, both re-actualizations, however, prove to be the major obstacle on the way to «intellectual witness» about medicine and its victimes. This happens, as far as I can judge, because of the crucial role of historical phobias which are inextricably interwoven with the desire to excavate the developments of the past in order to reconstruct them according to the modern standard. In «Suspicion», it is primarily the fear of normality of the national socialism and its reproduction after the demise of Nazi Germany; in The Flying Foxes, the anxiety of the dark side of modernity with its excesses of violence. These phobias not only determine the necessity of «intellectual witnessing», but also – just as Lyotard has predicted65 – prefigure the specific narrativization of medicine on the whole and Nazi medicine in particular, whereas the latter becomes more of a remedy for respective «witnesses» than a real complex of healing and killing practices the victims have experienced firsthand at sick bays in concentration camps. This logic brings a hardly adumbrated «intellectual witness» back to the discursive zone of cultural exclusion. As a result, both in Suspicion and in The Flying Foxes, despite all efforts to break with the metaphorical approach to medicine and medical experimentation, textualized medical practices, in the end, become signifiers whose signified is not the Nazi medicine and its destructive aftermath for the victims but the phobias and concerns associated with it. In other words, literary descriptions of medical violence again turn to metaphors which, on a new level, allude to «more important», «paradigmatic», «transpersonal» meanings and have nothing or little to do with the real victims whose voices were to be heard through «intellectual witness». One of the most telling evidences of this «secondary» metaphorization which, in both novels, comes along with dehistorization and depersonalization tendencies is, to my mind, an irrefutable re-appreciation of surgeons as the most pronounced representatives of Nazi medicine, although in reality the role of surgeons and surgery in concentration camps was largely marginal. This, in turn, leads to a paradoxical re-play of the depersonalizing approach of the «inverted» medicine on the metalevel of the texts both authors produce. In Suspicion, Dürrenmatt’s focusing on the figure of a sadistic surgeon, his philosophy and deeds effectively marginalizes this surgeon’s unfortunate patients, and the equation of patients acting upon their own will in Zurich with the unwitting human guinea pigs in concentration camps just as effectively shifts at least part of the blame to the victims’ shoulders. In The Flying Foxes, Beyer’s inclination to treat medical excesses (primarily) as a backlash of modernity and, more precisely, of «medicine-as-power» typical of it, makes Zeitgeist one of the principal players on the field of «Nazy guilt». In so doing, he not only unfetters the victims of medical tortures from the rhetoric of narrative dictated by the perpetrator, but also reinforces the hypocritical attitude of Karnau who, on the last days of war, decided to paint himself as a victim of the dictatorial regime66 – and thus overtly discredits the real victims. Viewed in this way, the equation of ethically «inverted» medicine with «torture» (or «torment») which inevitably bestows narrative privilege on the figure and the perspective of the devilish (or: God-like) «torturer» can also be read as the deprivileging of the victims who, as Peter Weiss’ play The Investigation (Die Ermittlung, 1965) shows, deal with discrete actions and cannot identify whether the pain inflicted on them is torture, torment, medical experiment or some other teleological entity (although they can very well identify those who maim them or their fellow inmates)67. Such an implicit return to the explicitly criticized state of affairs reveals the ethical double bind which seems to be characteristic of the most attempts at re-actualization of utterly traumatic historical experiences (here the medical excesses such as experimentation on living patients) transformed into «exclusion zones» and then voiced through «intellectual witness» and other forms of «secondary witness». To become an object of witnessing and, effectively, to be re-actualized, those traumatic experiences of the past must correspond to the desiderata and anxieties of the present which originate from them. While triggering the re-actualization process, such desiderata and anxieties, however, also adjust the experience of concrete victims to the demands of a traumatized «(intellectual) witness» and, in such a way, misuse the tragedy as a means of the witness’s coming to terms with his or her own trauma.

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1 Foucault (1989: 131).

2 Anz (1989: 6).

3 The social Darwinian discourse of a «collective body» which could only become «healthy» if all «unhealthy» elements, that is, all terminal or racially inferior patients (in Nazi jargon, «lebensunwertes Leben» – «life unworthy of life») would be eliminated, was one of the major legitimations of ruthless medical experimentation and euthanasia programs of the Nazi period. For more details, see Jäckle (1993).

4 Huerkamp (1985: 133-136).

5 Engelhardt (1991: 207).

6 Käser (1998: 17).

7 Engelhardt (1991: 7).

8 Käser (1998: 272, 279).

9 Ivi: 275.

10 Ivi: 274, 276.

11 Scarry (1985: 7).

12 Bauman (2001).

13 Cf. e.g. Bogdanov w/y. A detailed account on the relations between these practices and the «vampire myth» crucial for Bogdanov’s works of fiction cf. Odesskiy (2011: 367-377). Interesting facts on the Soviet projects of medical «improvement» of human beings, mostly those related to the «optimization» of cerebration, can be found in Spivak (2010).

14 Bauman (1989: 66).

15 Ivi: 70.

16 Pollak (1990: 47).

17 Bergmann (2004: 31-144).

18 For detailed review of relevant research concerning this issue cf. Jütte et. al. (2011: 11-23; 124-266).

19 More on literary thematizations of tortures conducted in Nazi concentration camps with the focus on Jean Amery’s text Tortures cf. Kramer (2004: 437-489).

20 Pethes (2005). For the history of this character type see Benedict (2004).

21 The term was coined by Troitsky et. al. See Troitskiy et. al. (2014: 79-94).

22 Sabisch (2009: 297, 299).

23 Schöll (2000: 144). One should bear in mind that Schöll’s intepretation of “media” also encompasses historical artifacts such as documents from archives, as well as testimonies of eyewitnesses recorded on physical media and distributed in printed or audiovisual form.

24 «I do not know who was the first to introduce the term “body memory”, but I do know that in reality its meaning doesn’t coincide with my individual apprehension of it», writes Beyer in his essay «Spit» («Spucke») dealing with the oeuvre of Georges Perec. «[…] Nonetheless, I do not regret my misinterpretation: body memory as a kind of memory which belongs not to my consciousness, but to my whole body […] a memory that possibly can be passed on over many generations and of which its “owners” have not the foggiest notion» (Beyer 2003: 80). In his essay on Uwe Johnson, Beyer brings out fine shades of this idea when speaking about the need to «eavesdrop» the historical past: «Although this [national-socialist] history was not the part of his personal recollections, it penetrated all of his memories, became perpetuated in all of his perceptions, actions, words» (Beyer 2003: 268).

25 Hartman (1998: 38).

26 For further details cf. des Pres (1976); Langer (1991).

27 Hartman (1998: 42).

28 Ivi: 48.

29 Dürrenmatt (1985: 224).

30 For further details cf. Beßlich (2006: 44-48).

31 Beßlich (2006: 37, 36).

32 Ivi: 37.

33 Whitton (1990: 35).

34 For more details, see the chapter on the activities of the Ahnenerbe Society in Klee (2012: 349-391).

35 Simon (2000: 134).

36 The parallels between Suspicion and Wallace’s suspence are briefly analyzed in Riedlinger (2000: 167-168).

37 Beyer (1995: 139).

38 Cf. Friedlaender (1999: 59-68). Kittler’s analysis of this text (Kittler 1999: 68-78) as well as his whole book are reckoned to be among the most important pretexts of Beyer’s novel.

39 For more details see Arnold (1982: 190).

40 Tyradellis (2007: 37).

41 Sofsky (1997: 227).

42 Scarry (1985: 6).

43 Dürrenmatt (1985: 161).

44 Definition proposed by the Mirriam-Webster dictionary: [accessed date 4.5.2017].

45 In her informative study (Bergmann 2004), Anna Bergmann argues that what I tend to call «inversion» or «self-staging» is in fact the essence of medical actions since the emergence of European medicine, although I doubt it to be so. For some astute criticism of such point of view which rightly differentiates between «proto-experiments», or, «literary human experiments», of a purely textual nature and the real medical experiments on human beings conducted under the banner of eugenic improvement, see Pethes (2007: 10-15).

46 [accessed date 4.5.2017].

47 Kramer (2004: 25).

48 Dürrenmatt (1985: 129).

49 Beyer (1995: 94).

50 Ivi: 148.

51 Dürrenmatt (1985: 134, 203).

52 Beyer (1995: 291).

53 This difficulty is thoroughly analyzed in Jean-François Lyotard’s opus magnum, cf. Lyotard 1988.

54 Sofsky (1997: 227).

55 Dürrenmatt (1985: 252).

56 Sofsky (1997: 227).

57 Beyer (1995: 139).

58 As Katja Sabisch argues, of all things concentration camps were the places in which «antisemitic, antiziganist and racist logic» was ideally combined with intricate «logistics» producing the event of experimental mass murder: «The biopolitical logic together with medical and political logistics fulfilled themselves in places in which the state of emergency became a ruling principle. All this happened in the camps, those inventions of the 20th century, where the “human material” was used in “ultimate experiments”» (Sabisch 2008: 646).

59 Dürrenmatt (1985: 224).

60 Beyer (1995: 223).

61 Dürrenmatt (1985: 163).

62 Ivi: 203.

63 Bauman (1989: 84). In his article Sociology after the Holocaust, Bauman interprets this formula which he later would call “the ambivalence of modernity” as follows: «The unspoken terror permeating our collective memory of the Holocaust… is the gnawing suspicion that the Holocaust could be more than an aberration, more than a deviation from otherwise straight path of progress, more than a cancerous growth on the otherwise healthy body of the civilized society; that, in short, the Holocaust was not an antithesis of modern civilization and everything (or so we like to think) it stands for. We suspect (even if we refuse to admit it) that the Holocaust could have merely uncovered another face of the same modern society whose other, more familiar, face we so admire. And that the two faces are perfectly comfortably attached to the same body» (Bauman 1988: 475).

64 Bauman (1989: 85).

65 Cf. footnote 53.

66 Beyer (1995: 215).

67 Weiss (1969: 81-84, 126, 127-146, 167-173).

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Alexander Chertenko, «Re-actualizing a cultural exclusion zone»Rivista di estetica, 67 | 2018, 97-116.

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Alexander Chertenko, «Re-actualizing a cultural exclusion zone»Rivista di estetica [Online], 67 | 2018, online dal 01 avril 2018, consultato il 12 juin 2024. URL:; DOI:

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Alexander Chertenko

Research Center for Cultural Exclusion and Frontier Zones, Sociological Institute of FCTAS RAS, 25/14 7-ya Krasnoarmeyskaya str., 190005, St. Petersburg, Russia

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