The Work of the Witness: Leonard Woolf, Imperialism, and Totalitarianism
Peer reviewed, Journal article
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Starting from an interest in witnessing as a set of conceptual and narrative operations that also involve comparison as a fundamental cognitive practice, this essay examines the work of the witness at two historically entangled moments. In the “multi-directional memory” (Rothberg) of the British Jewish writer and political activist Leonard Woolf early 20th-century colonial trauma connects with the rise in racial persecution and absolute power in Europe of the 1930s. Woolf’s experience as a colonial administrator in Ceylon is given fictional form in his 1913 novel The Village in the Jungle; an analysis of the condition of colonialism that is enabled by his complex and contingent position as a witness. Strikingly, the novel’s comparative operations and conceptual tropes reappear in his historiography of “the origins of totalitarianism” in Barbarians at the Gate (1939). For Woolf, the extreme events of the 1930s spur an almost compulsive historicism that leads back to the history of European imperialism and to his own colonial encounter, bringing together different temporal and spatial coordinates in a manner that is at once prescient and familiar. Not only is this an anticipation of Hannah Arendt’s famous “boomerang thesis” in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951); more generally Woolf’s narrative offers a historical perspective on recent transnational and global approaches to comparison where network- or other horizontal and lateral models dominate and where connections among coordinates can only appear tentative and fractured. Like Arendt’s, Woolf’s grand narrative was composed with the urgency of the witness to extreme events, illuminating the potential, as well as the risks, of cross-temporal comparison.