"Here I am": The Ethics of Witnessing in Etty Hillesum's An Interrupted Life
The concept of witnessing has both juridical and religious connotations: juridical eye-witnesses testify to that which can be seen, known, and told, while religious witnesses testify to “that which cannot be seen,” the mystery an Infinite Other who exceeds my knowledge, representation, and being (Oliver 16; Levinas 146). From a religious perspective, testifying to Infinity means, in effect, to bear witness to the height (beyond knowing) and the exteriority (wholly other to oneself) of God (Ricoeur 108). For continental philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, the testimony par excellence is “here I am,” a complete openness and generosity of being for the Other. He argues that this sacred testimony functions as a paradigm by which to encounter other people responsibly in everyday relationships (150). How might testifying to Infinity function in practical, relational, and narrative terms? I argue that Etty Hillesum – a Jewish woman living in Nazi Holland – embodies a Levinasian sense of witnessing in her journal, AN INTERRUPTED LIFE. In a life of unconventional spirituality, Hillesum orients herself towards Infinity in prayer to God. From this position, she signifies herself and responds to the lives of others in radically transformative and practical ways. First, she witnesses Infinity as part of her identity and thus sees herself beyond ontological identity markers (Jewish, woman, victim). Constituting her life beyond these categories, she testifies to an alternative story of beauty and meaning in the midst of suffering. Second, she witnesses Infinity as a trace of God in other people. As a result, she is able to respond to both her fellow Jews and her Nazi oppressors in generosity of mind and action, encountering each person as another human being. Hillesum’s remarkable story functions as a contemporary challenge to live out peaceful and ethical interactions with others in both political crisis and ordinary interpersonal relationships.
Bettina Stumm is a doctoral candidate at the University of British Columbia. Her research examines the relational intersections and negotiations between writer and subject in collaborative autobiography, and the ethical responsibilities involved in such processes. In her work, she develops an ethical framework for guiding the relational practices of witnessing others more generally, exploring the possibilities and complications in collaborative narratives that emerge from sites of human suffering, loss, and grief. She has recently assisted in writing the Holocaust memoir, A LONG LABOUR with Mrs. Rhodea Shandler (Ronsdale 2007), and is currently the reviews editor for LIFE WRITING.