After the Camps: Semantic Shift and the Experience of Pain

In: Knowledge and Pain

The Shoah as an historical event transformed the interrogation of the meaning of existence, raising radical questions about pain, death and individual finitude. If hermeneutics aims to define the space of expression, i.e., the semantic field which enables things to exist according to a determinate meaning, it must also open up to possibilities of semantic changes under the influence of new types of experience. In order to trace the changes in the structure of separate members in a semantic field and to map the progression of such changes one must have a critical mass, a number of meaningful events and of recurrences of the word in its new usage. If a word appears in a specific meaning only once, as a kind of hapax legomenon, it does not suffice for such a linguistic development. The Being as being towards death in the camps has led to paramount semantic shifts. Such semantic shifts are at the centre of this study and their object is pain. Death is lived through the presence of pain which becomes locus for its articulation. This pain is the multiple experience of an actual physical wound, of the disruption of the harmony of being and of the being’s unfitness for the world. It is also a metaphysical anguish that leads one to anticipate one’s own death. It is not a philosophical pain of death, nor a cosmic pain in regards to the mortality of the being but the ineffable essence of camp experience. In this experience, the sense of life as being in the world, the Heideggerian Dasein, is ‘being towards death’ in both the figurative and the literal sense. Movement towards death is the shared experience of people in the camps, their shared identity.


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