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The Conflagration of Community

Fiction before and after Auschwitz

“After Auschwitz to write even a single poem is barbaric.” The Conflagration of Community challenges Theodor Adorno’s famous statement about aesthetic production after the Holocaust, arguing for the possibility of literature to bear witness to extreme collective and personal experiences. J. Hillis Miller masterfully considers how novels about the Holocaust relate to fictions written before and after it, and uses theories of community from Jean-Luc Nancy and Derrida to explore the dissolution of community bonds in its wake.

Miller juxtaposes readings of books about the Holocaust—Keneally’s Schindler’s List, McEwan’s Black Dogs, Spiegelman’s Maus, and Kertész’s Fatelessness—with Kafka’s novels and Morrison’s Beloved, asking what it means to think of texts as acts of testimony. Throughout, Miller questions the resonance between the difficulty of imagining, understanding, or remembering Auschwitz—a difficulty so often a theme in records of the Holocaust—and the exasperating resistance to clear, conclusive interpretation of these novels. The Conflagration of Community is an eloquent study of literature’s value to fathoming the unfathomable.

336 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2011

Jewish Studies

Literature and Literary Criticism: General Criticism and Critical Theory


“As much a literary memoir as a project in critical theory, The Conflagration of Community is masterly from beginning to end. Through Kafka, Miller conjures an Auschwitz of the Imaginary with global, nondenominational dimensions. His chapters are rich literary and cultural explorations, and they bespeak the combination of fluidity and deep concerted meditation of critical commentary at its best. A magnificent achievement.”

Henry Sussman, SUNY at Buffalo | Henry Sussman, University of Buffalo

“With The Conflagration of Community, J. Hillis Miller demonstrates why criticism matters, and why there is no substitute for good reading, reading which takes time, which is open and responds to the other, and which takes responsibility for its ethical acts. This profoundly moving and politically urgent, eloquent study offers both an invitation to attend to our most pressing concerns with all seriousness, while issuing on every page an injunction that we take literature seriously. Far from being barbaric or impossible to write poetry after Auschwitz, as Adorno claimed, Miller lets his community of readers know why, now more than ever, such writing is necessary, and its reading an implacable necessity that befalls us all.”

Julian Wolfreys, Loughborough University

“This book, published 53 years after his first, is extremely powerful, and perhaps his most powerful. It is powerful in its subject matter, in the acuteness of its analysis and in the anguish that burns on every page. . . . There is no ‘cool and amused insouciance’ here, but an angry and tenacious demand to pay the closest attention to literature, and to the reading of literature, because of its importance in showing us, in detail, the political storms in which we are living.”

Times Higher Education

“This is an unsettling book. It is also strangely reassuring. It is the latter because, in a climate in which the significance of the humanities is in danger of being reduced to the measurable social and economic impact they can claim to have beyond the academic pale, it makes a strong case for the general relevance of literature, of reading, and of our efforts at comprehending, at interpreting literary texts—in short, of criticism.”

Modern Language Review

 “In successfully completing the Benjaminian constellation he tells us is his intention to construct in the preface, Miller creates something that is both profound and that persists beyond the page.”

New Books Network

Table of Contents



Part One: Theories of Community

1 Nancy contra Stevens

Part Two: Franz Kafka: Premonitions of Auschwitz

2 Foreshadowings of Auschwitz in Kafka’s Writings

3 The Breakdown of Community and the Disabling of Speech Acts in Kafka’s The Trial

4 The Castle: No Mitsein, No Verifiable Interpretation

Part Three: Holocaust Novels

Prologue: Community in Fiction after Auschwitz

5 Three Novels about the Shoah

6 Imre Kertész’s Fatelessness: Fiction as Testimony

Part Four: Fiction after Auschwitz

7 Morrison’s Beloved




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