Dignity in Image and Word: Franz Fühmann’s “What Kind of Island in What Kind of Sea,” Translated from German by Elizabeth C. Hamilton

Reviewed by Michele Ricci Bell

During his July 2022 visit to the former site of the Ermineskin Indian Residential School in Maskwacis, Alberta, Pope Francis expressed shame and begged pardon for the Church’s part in the oppression of Canada’s Indigenous Peoples. In this gruesome chapter of Canadian history, both the federal government, which funded the schools, and the Catholic Church, which ran most of them, stood as the two main institutions responsible for the physical and sexual abuse and neglect of thousands of Indigenous children, along with the measures to “strip [them] of their traditions, language and culture” (Cordoso 3). The Pope’s “penitential pilgrimage,” prompted by the growing outcries of survivors about abuses committed in these residential schools – schools which operated from the 1880s to 1990s –  aimed to initiate a belated dialog about the ways that Church and State had done the Indigenous People wrong, and how they both might do better.

I trust and pray that Christians and civil society in this land may grow in the ability to accept and respect the identity and the experience of the Indigenous Peoples. It is my hope that concrete ways can be found to make those peoples better known and esteemed, so that all may learn to walk together. (“Read the” 8)

Without wishing to delve into the politics of the papal visit, I do want to emphasize the function of certain terms in Pope Francis’s address, as they might speak more broadly to forms of institutionalized and societal oppression. Notably, the creation of community in his formulation rests in the conferral of acceptance, respect, understanding and esteem to the Indigenous Peoples.  In her work on a concepts of dignity, Suzy Killmister favors understanding dignity as conferred (versus intrinsic), particular because doing so “avoids the pernicious conclusion implied by many intrinsic worth conceptions, namely that some human beings lack the necessary capacities and hence do not have dignity” (10). Although Pope Francis’s speech does not invoke the word dignity per se, the aforementioned attributes to be conferred share common ground with conceptions of dignity, especially as applied in the arena of human rights. Whether speaking of respect, acceptance, understanding or dignity itself, the failure for an individual to confer those attributes upon another both violates the ethics of reciprocity, and become the basis of harm. It is all the more egregious, then, that in the case of the Canadian residential homes, the failure to confer respect and acceptance upon the Indigenous People was committed by those working in the name of those very Christian values.

Lever Press’s 2021 publication of Elizabeth Hamilton’s translation and reintroduction of contemporary English-language readers to Franz Fühmann’s singular book project, What Kind of Island in What kind of Sea, offers a timely, provocative counterpoint to the discourse of Ermineskin. Originally published in 1986 by Insel Verlag, during what would be the last years of the GDR’s existence, the book combines image and word to create portraits of the residents of the Samaritans’ Institution, a Protestant Church-run home for cognitively disabled children and adults. The images, a collection of uncaptioned photographs by Dietmar Riemann, are contextualized and reflected upon in Fühmann’s powerful essay that opens the volume. Fühmann, in contrast to the up-and-comer Riemann, was by now well-established as a literary author, and brought to the project not only his fame but also his lucid, unadorned yet pregnant prose.

“[Riemann’s] pictures are portraits, or are so in their conception; they take the cognitively disabled as a human being, not only as an object but also as a person, seeing him, thus in an aura of dignity, and what guided the camera is veneration and awe” (41). In arguing the merits and methods of capturing in photos the disabled residents, Fühmann describes Riemann’s approach in terms of a conferral of dignity. That is, the dignity of the cognitively disabled, as with the Canadian Indigenous, rests in the hands of the other – be it the white, the able, the colonist, the socialist realist, or the institutional authority. In effect, these photographs may be regarded as both bestowing and modeling the art of bestowing dignity upon disabled individuals, as they are and in whatever task they are engaged. “I find it worthy of his topic that this volume shows a scene of toileting: humanity is right here” (42).

Drawing out and celebrating the ethics underlying Riemann’s aesthetic approach, Fühmann does so with an eye to the potentially fraught relationship between consuming images and gaining a greater understanding of their subject. “ [The photographs] all harbor the contradiction that everyone experiences on his first visit to institutions like this: the road to understanding leads only through experience, through sensual perception, which  is also capable of blocking the very path that only it is capable of opening” (38). Claude Lanzmann, whose epic documentary Shoah premiered just one year earlier, in 1985, likewise characterized the challenge of appropriately aligning seeing with understanding. While refusing to use archival photos of the Holocaust in his work, Lanzmann recognized the essential interplay between the visual and cognitive.

One must know and see, and one must see in order to know. These two aspects cannot be separated. If you go to Auschwitz without knowing anything about Auschwitz and the history of the camp, you will see nothing, you will understand nothing. In the same way, if you know without having been there, you will also not understand anything. (Chevrie 38)

Lanzmann’s desire to preserve the Shoah’s memory as a distinctly non-redemptive one stands in contrast to the cautiously affirmative message of Fühmann: “These pictures say yes, yes to the disabled and their caregivers” (52). Nonetheless, both work against the grain, offering correctives to contemporary approaches to understanding these difficult subjects. Like Fühmann, Lanzmann seeks a corrective to the “idealist images that permit all kinds of reassuring identifications” (Chevrie 39). To the idealized images of an idyllic world, Fühmann additionally seeks to correct its opposite, namely the arousal of “disgust, fear, revulsion, [and] horror […]” (39) – a danger, to be sure, in portrayals of the Holocaust as well. Between the poles of redemptive triumph, on the one hand, and horrified withdrawal, on the other, lies a place to which the viewer must be guided, where seeing and understanding work in concert, and where a kind of conferral might begin to be imagined.

Granting English-language speakers access to this little-known though exceptional text, Elizabeth Hamilton’s translation faithfully preserves Fühmann’s unique style. For one, at the level of sentence structure, Hamilton retains his simple, almost conversational form, as in:

It is a portrait of Monika.

I’m learning from her to go on my knees too. (53)

At the same time, she renders the author’s complex use of punctuation, revealing, for example, the self-referential discourse that accompanies Fühmann’s descriptions, reminding us again of his cautious engagement with sight and understanding:

Once again, her squeal, by now just a part of everyday life, then she lowers her hand and closes her mouth and abruptly picks up her work again, as though she wanted to show me what she can do. – I write that in the subjunctive; I guard against drawing conclusions too quickly. (32)

In addition to her skilled translation work, Hamilton’s edition offers an introductory essay, invaluable for its insights about the history of the original text and its relevance for contemporary scholarship. In particular, Hamilton’s essay sheds light on the aesthetic, political and societal factors at play in the contemporary GDR, while tracing the individual and shared paths of the original work’s co-creators. At the same time, Hamilton brings the Fühmann/Riemann project into conversation with current directions in Disabilities Studies, revealing that Fühmann already had begun to question body-centered definitions of disability, and to reject binary approaches to its understanding (17). In both her translation and her essay, Hamilton taps a particularly deep vein, worthy of continued pursuit for those interested in disability scholarship.

In an unusually beautiful way, Hamilton’s edition returns the reader in its final pages to the notion of dignity. In a brief essay following the photographic portion of the book, she reflects upon her own visits to the Samaritans’ Institution in 2015, and in 2017. Describing the insights gained by these visits, she characterizes also how they inspired her to reframe her own role vis-à-vis the book. “My translation, my essay here, and my curating of the images and insights shared with me are efforts to tend a vine. […] The Insel book connected disparate individuals in the shared purpose of bearing witness to human dignity. My goal in research became to expand its readership and sustain its good purpose” (194). In so doing, Hamilton implicitly reminds us that the act of translation it itself always one of conferral – of meaning, of purpose and – if desired – of dignity.

Fühmann, Franz. What Kind of Island in What Kind of SeaTranslated by Elizabeth C. Hamilton. Lever Press, 2021.

Michele Ricci Bell is Associate Professor of German Studies at Union College (NY). Among her scholarly interests are both GDR Studies and Disability Studies, and she has published and presented in both fields.

Works Cited

Chevrie, Marc and Hervé Le Roux. “Site and Speech: An Interview with Claude Lanzmann about Shoah.” Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah: key essays. Ed. Stuart Liebman, Oxford, Oxford UP, 2007. pp. 37-49.

Cordoso, Tom. “How the Catholic Church was freed from obligation to residential school survivors.” The Globe and Mail. October 4, 2021, www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-how-the-church-was-freed-from-obligation-to-school-survivors. Accessed 29 July 2022.

Killmister, Suzy. The Contours of Dignity. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2020.

“Read the full text of Pope Francis’ apology to residential school survivors.” National Post. July 25, 2022, www.nationalpost.com/news/canada/deplorable-evil-full-text-of-the-popes-residential-school-apology. Accessed 29 July 2022.

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