The War Guilt Dislocation: The Court of Self-Condemnation

  • Paola Di Gennaro Università degli Studi di Napoli "L'Orientale"
Keywords: Guilt, Lowry, Koeppen


The purpose of this article has been the analysis of a few novels written right after the Second World War and during the following decade; novels that bring the stain of the short-circuit between what is legally judged and what the indomitable conscience imputes to itself. In these works, rather than objective guilt – as Freud and many others intended it – we can find subjective guilt. This guilt is almost ancestral, inalienable to the human being, and, in those historical contingencies, increased by much more. In fact, the war and postwar literature had to reckon with a new historical situation: the collective psychosis of the Bomb fear, but also, more deeply, of the war guilt, felt both individually and collectively. Survivor guilt and postwar guilt are variants of the same feeling that became universal under the push of what had been existential in the previous century.

In particular, attention has been paid to an English novel of the ’40, Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano (1947), and to a German one, Der Tod in Rom (Death in Rome, 1954) by Wolfgang Koeppen, a novel written in one of the nations that had probably been the most touched by the postwar guilt.

One of the most interesting aspects emerging in this research is the paradox that this short-circuit creates in the texts: those who feels ‘guilty’ are frequently without any retraceable fault, and, on the contrary, those who are guilty before the eyes of the collective tribunal do not bring any sense of guilt. Through a ‘middle-distance reading’ of the works, it has been tried to demonstrate how international law, in certain moments more than in others, does not have any authority on the dramatic power of the narrative judgement. Here literature is to deconstruct the judiciary power, in disproving it, criticising it, and deriding it explicitly or implicitly, playing with the roles of judge and criminal – who is, in most cases, self-condemned.


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Author Biography

Paola Di Gennaro, Università degli Studi di Napoli "L'Orientale"

Paola Di Gennaro is a specialist in twentieth-century European and Japanese literature, and is at present a short-term lecturer at the University of Napoli “L’Orientale”. She achieved a BA in Comparative Studies at the same institution, an MA in Comparative Literature at the School of Oriental and African Studies – University of London, and a PhD at the University of Salerno. She spent a year in Japan where she studied at Sophia University and taught Italian. Her publications include essays and translations in the field of Angloamerican, European and Japanese Studies. She also writes poetry, in both Italian and English, and her works have been published in international magazines and collections.


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How to Cite
Di Gennaro, P. (2012). The War Guilt Dislocation: The Court of Self-Condemnation. Between, 2(3).
Literature and Human Rights