LITERARY THEORY IS NOT TRAUMA THEORY
By C. Fred Alford
The Montréal Review, November 2023
Winter Landscape (1970) by Anselm Kiefer at The Met Fifth Avenue
It may come as a surprise to some, but trauma theory has become a leading analytic framework through which to analyze literary texts. Of course, literary theorists can and should use any framework they find useful. The problem is the confusion that has developed between literary trauma and psychic trauma. Theories of psychic trauma derived from literature have been applied to real trauma in an attempt to make sense of the suffering of actual people. The result is confusion and misunderstanding about how real trauma might be healed. Trauma is healed through care and love, values that have no place in literary trauma theory.
Cathy Caruth, a major player, is a literary critic who, drawing on the work of the litterateur Paul de Man, has influenced many who have sought to understand trauma in real life. Dori Laub (1992) is a leading example. Often overlooked is that Caruth’s claims are not just literary, but empirical. They can be tested against real trauma. I conclude with an example drawn from the testimony of Holocaust survivors in 1946. Testimony given shortly after the liberation of the concentration camps was as narratively competent as that given a quarter-century later. This is not what Caruth would predict. Knowing this makes a difference in how we use literary theory to understand psychic trauma.
What Caruth claims
Caruth argues that traumatic events are unavailable to the conscious memory of the traumatized in the normal form in which memory operates, as narratives about events. Instead, trauma is experienced in terms of flashbacks, overwhelming feelings of anxiety, nightmares, physical tension, and physical illness. Trauma is experienced in symptoms rather than stories. These symptoms repeat themselves, as though the original trauma can never be put into the past.
Trauma is experienced as symptoms because it is too intense, and generally too sudden, to be understood as though it were an ordinary experience. Absent understanding, it can only be experienced and re-experienced, time after time. In this regard, trauma is like language, which according to poststructuralists, as they are called, claim that the signifier (the word) is always unable to properly designate the signified, that is the world.
Words can't capture an overwhelming experience that lies beyond or beneath words. The words that come closest are the tropes of literary fiction, representing absence, indirection, and repetition. In both traumatized memory and narrative, lacunae serve as markers of traumatic experience (Kurtz, p. 101).
More recent criticism of Caruth et al.
What if literary critics spent less time on modernist and postmodern texts, such as Caruth’s writing on Resnais and Dorfman, or Shoshana Felman's on Celan? Consider instead, says Stef Craps, Aminatta Forna’s Memory of Love, a realist trauma narrative.*
Instead of serving as a symptom of trauma, silence is a coping mechanism. Silence refers not to the inability to remember or integrate loss, but a way to memorialize loss (Craps, p. 55). Set toward the end of the decade-long civil war in Sierra Leone, the spirit of Forna’s novel is seen in the narrator’s comment about Kai, the doctor who treats victims of terrible physical injuries, amputations, and so forth.
Forna’s novel, Craps writes, is a fine example of literary realism, which does not transform unspeakable suffering into broken, traumatized speech, but describes the terrible experiences its characters confront along the way. What enables Kai’s confrontation with horror is human connection, the memory of love.
Caruth makes an empirical claim; so does David Boder
Surprisingly, Caruth’s argument that traumatic experience is unavailable to narrative memory is seldom treated as the empirical claim that it is. This is the result of confusing literary trauma with real trauma.
Consider David Boder’s 1946 interviews of Holocaust survivors, who recalled the terror of their experience shortly after their liberation. On his own, weighed down by sixty pounds of recording equipment, the 62-year-old professor on summer vacation showed up at almost two dozen DP (displaced persons) camps with a huge red Webcore wire recorder, a relatively new invention. He had no funding, only the money loaned to him by his sister and the proceeds of the sale of his life insurance. Asking for volunteers, he would have them state their name and tattoo number (if they had one), and let them start talking.
It’s a little complicated to situate these survivors’ testimony in time. Alan Rosen refers to it as “belated,” coming from what Henry Greenspan has called the “middle ground.” The war had been over for a year by the time Boder arrived, and most of the witnesses were living in DP camps. For many in these camps, time had stopped. Soon they would have to get on with the business of building a new life, but at just that moment Boder encountered them they were suspended between past and future. In some ways, it was a perfect place from which to reflect on the recent past. They had moved out of the KZ (concentration camps) but not beyond. That would take years.
Does this mean that survivors’ testimony was especially reliable then, before it was subject to the reworking of subsequent experience? Not necessarily. What one can say is that their testimony was narratively competent, stories with a beginning (before the war), a middle (life in the KZ), and a pause imposed by residence in a DP camp. Little of the horror was elided. Missing, of course, was context, but its absence was more characteristic of Boder than his informants.
The term “Holocaust” was not yet in use, and Boder had no real idea of the scope of the disaster. Nor did many of his informants. One, Nelly Bundy, described herself as a “French political prisoner,” before going on to recount the horrors of Auschwitz and Ravensbruck. It was Boder, not Bundy, who was confused, imagining that the Germans only murdered their victims after a military trial. Bundy’s coherence was matched by almost all the other 130 interviewees. If some survivors broke into tears or fell into silence, it was not the silence of elision, but a silence by which narrators gathered themselves together to go on with their stories. In this regard, theirs resembled the silence to which Craps refers.**
Greenspan (p. 33) writes of the ritualization of testimony which occurred in the years following 1970, when oral histories of survivors began to be collected. True enough, and ritualization brings narrative order. But there is no striking difference in narrative order between the survivors interviewed by Boder and more recent testimonies.*** Many victims of terrible trauma can give a coherent narrative account of their experience in the recent aftermath of their ordeal.
The difference between literary trauma and real trauma: love lost and regained
Literary trauma theory is an artifact of the studied way in which texts are read, words that are never able to capture what they signify. The narrative is broken before it begins. In real trauma, it is human attachments that are broken after they have been established. Lindemann defines trauma as “the sudden, uncontrollable disruption of affiliative bonds.” By this, he means the abrupt realization that everyone and everything that one values can be annihilated in a moment. The experience is a moment of madness, the sudden loss of attachment to everyone and everything that makes life worth living.
There is a similarity between this loss and the absence to which literary trauma theory refers. The difference is that the solution to real trauma is love, by which I mean care and ongoing concern. Love restores the world from which meaning has been emptied. It can be the love of a partner, but the ongoing care and concern of a therapist may be the first step before this more intense and personal love can be risked. More needs to be said about this topic, but not here. Suffice it to say there is a difference between texts, absence, and love that is worth remembering.